The Keep (1983)

Director: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

A convoy of armoured vehicles transports a unit of German Wehrmacht soldiers through the rugged twists and passes and gloomy, fog-shrouded forests of a Carpathian mountain road, late in 1941. In command is Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leading his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the narrow Dinu Pass. One of his soldiers complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to taking Moscow, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. But Woermann, a tempered fighter who cares for his men, is an antifascist who wanted to fight for the Republicans in Spain but never got around to it. Since then, he’s been fighting for his country, and now he’s to take command of an ancient keep of unknown origin that guards the pass. As he notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with silvery, crosslike markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched.

On the unit’s first night stationed in the Keep, however, two avaricious soldiers are fascinated when one of the crosses begins to glow. Thinking it’s silver, they gouge out the block it’s attached to, hoping more treasure might be hidden within. In one of the greatest shots in the history of fantastic cinema, one of them crawls down the revealed shaft behind and almost plunges into a colossal cavern beyond, as director Michael Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, which conceals mysterious, ancient ruins. A ball of light shoots out of the dark toward the solider, and when his comrade drags him out, he finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep with a shapeless evil that begins killing Woermann’s men. Woermann requests a transfer, but instead attracts a unit of SS thugs under the command of Major Kaempfler (Gabriel Byrne), ready to shoot hostage villagers to drive out the partisans he believes are responsible.

When a dead soldier is discovered under a wall sporting ancient, untranslatable writing burnt into the masonry, the local priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky), suggests to Kaempfler that the only person who might be able to read it is the frail, prematurely aged Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a Jewish historian who grew up in the village and who made a study of the Keep: he and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are awaiting deportation along with assorted fellow Jews, Gypsies, and the rest of the suddenly verboten victims of Romania’s alliance with Germany. Kaempfler has Cuza and Eva brought to the Keep, and tells Cuza to find a way to be of use. When Eva is sexually assaulted by two of Kaempfler’s men in the Keep’s corridors, she is saved by the unnatural entity, which is rapidly taking on a human form and delivers her back to Cuza. The entity speaks in outrage of what’s being done to “My people!”, promises to annihilate the Nazis, and accuses Cuza of collaboration, an accusation Cuza vehemently denies: he agrees to aid the entity by fetching for him a talisman of his power that’s buried within the cavern and that is keeping him locked within the Keep.

Mann had emerged with a terrific debut, 1981’s Thief, and this, his second film, was a high-budget adaptation of a popular novel by F. Paul Wilson. The result was a flop that almost killed Mann’s career before it got going, and at first glance The Keep does seem an intriguing, bewildering miss. Repeat viewings, however, confirm it as a unique emissary from a time when horror cinema was declining into a parade of sloppy slasher flicks and the few genuinely creative, grown-up works being essayed in the genre, like Kubrick’s The Shining (1981) and Neil Jordan’s equally dreamlike The Company of Wolves (1984), largely failed to connect with audiences. Mann had set out with The Keep to pay tribute to Expressionist cinema, stripping down the plot of Wilson’s novel with its back story of a mythological age to construct a fable of pure menace and mood.

In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mindset. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject. Here, the creature poses as a Golem-like saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught; the thought that the entity can defeat them overcomes the misgivings that Eva has, especially once the creature cures the disease that’s killing Cuza and allows him to rise from his wheelchair. Nor is it coincidental that the story is set simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance.

In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly the icicle-hearted Kaempfler, played with unnerving conviction by Byrne, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself is a mere stand-in for their disgusting fantasies. The film’s visual schemes, full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronological and physical context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Fritz Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945). In another fashion, too, it plays like an extended cross-genre riff on the supernatural motif that capped off the revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

There is however nothing old-fashioned about Mann’s stylisation, which both evokes the imagery of cinema past whilst being utterly (1983) modern in its crisp, fluent photography (by the great Alex Thomson, who had imbued John Boorman’s Excalibur with a very different mythic sheen) and love of backlighting and slow-motion effects. The cryptic visuals offer brief, alarming impressions of bodies fused to walls, heads exploding, and most deliriously, the monster, currently a glowing pair of eyes and skinless musculature wrapped in a wreath of steam, carrying the unconscious Eva, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden. Infusing the texture of the entire film is a brilliant score by Tangerine Dream, a high point for the use of intelligent electronic music in movies.

Mann’s career-long obsession with doppelganger protagonists who share similar souls yet clash violently, and others of disparate creeds who find surprising kinship, is readily apparent, most literally in the conflict between Woermann and Kaempfler, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different life philosophies, and atheist Jew Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe. The shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative—only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama at stake avoids the kind of literalising that makes a story comfortable to an audience, instead stripping it back to an elemental conflict of good and evil incarnate, with the humans in between enacting its gradations.

In opposition to the entity, whose name is eventually revealed to be Radu Malasar (Michael Carter), comes heroism in the form of solitary, intense, otherworldly warrior Glaeken (Scott Glenn), seemingly left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Malasar once and for all. In an act that has the flavour of ritual, Glaeken quickly seduces Eva upon encountering her in the village, but his preparations to take on the Malasar are forestalled by Cuza, who’s still swallowing Malasar’s story, by alerting Kaempfler to his presence. When the SS soldiers fetch Glaeken for interrogation, Eva chases them, and Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned and then plunging into the ravine.

“You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. The film’s centrepiece arrives as Kaempfler turns on Woermann and tells him he’s the kind of well-meaning but gutless liberal he despises. Woermann answers him that yes, he is weak, but Kaempfler’s version of strength has become literal in the Keep, and it’s a force of evil that is beyond imagining, the complete manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. Kaempfler shoots Woermann in the back but returns to find all his men killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor. Kaempfler is confronted by the Malasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing a crucifix he took from Woermann. The Malasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which, with its top broken resembles the talisman, so Kaempfler is able to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “What am I?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempfler, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempfler murdered.

Like Ridley Scott, Terence Malick, and a few other visually oriented directors of the time, Mann experimented with dispensing with the traditional brackets of narrative and tried to realise story through a kind of running montage. The Keep builds to one of Mann’s most hypnotic climaxes, cutting between Cuza bringing a gleaming talisman out of the cavern, and Glaeken climbing out of the ravine to save the day. The human and elemental dramas dovetail at last when Eva tries to prevent her father from removing the talisman from the Keep, prompting Malasar to demand of Cuza that he kill her and move on. As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the beast and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Malasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. Infuriated, Malasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka to scrub Malasar out, even at the cost of his own life on earth.

The Keep’s narrative gaps sometimes feel less the result of careful deliberation than of a director still learning his craft (and some significant post-production tampering by the studio), but it’s still easily apparent that Mann was trying something new and rare in mainstream cinema, creating a sublimely weird and atmospheric movie. Mann has never returned to the horror genre, and I for one am sorry for that, though his next film, the 1987 thriller Manhunter, returned to some of the motifs and images explored here. l

  • J.D. spoke:
    5th/03/2010 to 9:15 am

    What a thoughtful, well-analyze piece on what is easily Mann’s most criticized and maligned film. It really is a mess of a film in some respects, as a result of his inexperience and rampant production problems. He re-wrote the script constantly during filming and pushed his crew to the limits, many quitting or were fired. But you can see what Mann is trying to say with this film, it’s just not as good as it could have been but still an ambitious failure I would say.

    Because of the film’s troubled post-production I would love to see Mann revisit this film on DVD some time.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/03/2010 to 9:29 am

    Indeed Mann still has a reputation for volatility on the set – the Miami Vice shoot reportedly suffered from similar circumstances.

    Perhaps it isn’t as good as it could have been but…dammit, it’s still one of the most authentically original and intriguing fantastic films of its era. I appreciate its near-abstraction and rhythmic structure and I’ll take it a thousand times over rather than sit through so many other ’80s Horror movies even once.

  • J.D. spoke:
    5th/03/2010 to 3:35 pm

    Indeed, Mann also ran into several problems during principal photography for LAST OF THE MOHICANS as well. He fired the cinematographer (replaced him with Dante Spinotti), many crew members were fired and the extras staged a strike because their living conditions were crap. Russell Means had to mediate! Crazy stuff…

    I certainly agree with you about the originality of THE KEEP. It is definitely unlike anything else out at the time and for awhile there we had big-time filmmakers like Ridley Scott doing genre films. What a great decade the 1980s were for sci-fi/fantasy/horror.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/03/2010 to 6:34 pm

    Indeed the ’80s were great that way – I recently partook of Scott’s Legend too and found it a mixed experience but it has many beauties of its own.

  • J.D. spoke:
    8th/03/2010 to 10:53 am

    Ah, LEGEND! Love that film. yeah, it has its flaws (Tom Cruise) but it is such a visual feast for the eyes. It’s a shame that it turned out to be a commercial flop as it scared Ridley Scott off from doing more horror/sci-fi/fantasy-related material.

  • Rod spoke:
    8th/03/2010 to 8:55 pm

    I wouldn’t place Cruise in the column of Legend‘s assets or debits, frankly – he’s just a fresh-faced ingénue there. The film’s problems are easy to define: a weakly developed narrative, and it suffers particularly from the Little People Syndrome that particularly afflicts fantasy filmmakers, where they automatically assumed for many decades that casting midgets and getting them to act goofily was a ticket to delight and enchantment, and it just wasn’t. It wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that a director escaped the problem by casting grown-ups as the hobbits and having them simply behave like normal people. But I digress: Legend would have been a very powerful masterpiece if it had focused more on the gothy anti-romance of the Darkness and the Princess and less on that stuff. But it’s still a visually creative and appropriately mystic-feeling work, and one I also hope to write up soon.

  • Space-Elephant spoke:
    20th/06/2011 to 8:21 pm

    Your comments on the narrative are incorrect. This film was re-edited by Paramount. They shortened existing scenes of dialog, and cut many scenes out altogether. I suspect that some dialog has also been dubbed. There is at least an hour of footage missing from the theatrical version of the film. Paramount were not happy with Manns original cut. That is why scenes jump around wildly. It is not anything to do with experimentation on Manns part.

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/06/2011 to 10:00 pm

    Yes I noted the editing, if briefly. In any event a film can be highly edited but still be experimental, indicated by the film’s similarity in such respects to other Mann films.

  • Nick spoke:
    19th/03/2014 to 2:04 am

    Definitely an interesting watch. While not a flawless film, it’s worth watching for the performances of Prochnow, McKellan and Byrne alone.

    So many things shouldn’t work, like the Tangerine Dream soundtrack in a WWII horror film, yet they do. I would love to see a restored version of Mann’s entire cut.

    Editing is the main failure of the film. It really serves to undercut Prochnow’s Woermann, who is introduced in a major way and then becomes more and more forgotten as the film approaches it’s climax. He ended up being favorite character, so I was disappointed when he was more and more ignored as the film progressed.

    Still, a fascinating watch, even at 96 minutes.

  • Roderick spoke:
    19th/03/2014 to 5:36 am

    Nice comments, Nick. I know what you mean about the cruel editing and the progressive marginalisation of Woermann, although it is also part of the narrative’s point, that such a humanistic voice is quickly overwhelmed in a sea of evil.

    I’d still rather watch this than 99% of recent horror films.

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