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Director: Janek Glomb
2009 Polish Film Festival in America
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There’s a subgenre of war film that likes to emphasize the absurdity of war by showing how people who have no quarrel with each other and exist in the backwaters of battle react, not like dehumanized enemies, but rather as quirky individuals who dare to think for themselves. Mediterraneo, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and even MASH turn soldiers into hapless sensualists easily coopted by the life-loving populace of the invariably small towns onto whose proverbial shores they land. Operation Danube slots itself firmly in this template to chronicle the 1968 crackdown of Warsaw Pact forces on the liberalized Czechoslovakia of reform-minded president Alexander Dubček.
The film starts on a Polish army base near the Czech border. The commander is cuckolding her lower-ranking husband with an enlisted man, Romek (Przemsław Bluszcz). In retaliation, when the call comes to “liberate” their noble Czech brothers from the dreaded Hun, the captain assigns Romek to an outmoded “mascot” tank. He and three comrades fall far behind the tank convoy once they cross the border, lose their way because Czech partisans have removed the road signs, and end up crashing their tank through the front of a tavern in which a retirement party for Kulka (Rudolf Hrusínský), the local postmaster, is underway.
There’s nothing that happens from here on out that would be a surprise to anyone. Petra (Martha Ossivá), a Czech patriot, alienates her sophisticated boyfriend from Prague who can’t get their Radio Free Czechoslovakia station off the ground and falls for a more technically adept adversary from the tank crew. Romek finds love with a Czech beauty who is aroused by a tattoo on his arm. And the Czechs help the Poles get their tank moving to evade a Russian tank crew that is coming to their “rescue”. Predictably, a face-off between the two tanks results in the death of an innocent, just to remind us that war is hell. Except in movies like this.
None of the actors are asked to transcend their stereotypes, and they are engaging only so far as their characters are. I liked Jiří Menzel, director of I Served the King of England as the philosophical stationmaster Oskar and Rudolf Hrusínský as Kulka, who locks himself in a closet and then pretends to be dead when he is forgotten by the others, eliciting a New Orleans-style funeral procession to compensate for the slight. The film can be fun for people who have little experience with the Czech sense of the absurd and the Polish sense of suicidal honor. For the rest of us, this film is a yawn. l
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Director: Edward Zwick
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I have a complicated relationship/reaction to films about the Jewish experience during World War II. The vast majority of the stories deal with the Holocaust. It has even become something of a sick joke that making a good Holocaust film—fiction or documentary—is a fast track to an Oscar nomination. Certainly, an event so singular and dramatic has its own powerful magnetism to storytellers and viewers alike, and several of the best films of the past few years—Black Book, The Pianist—have added considerably to the depth and breadth of our understanding about this horrible time. Too often, however, filmmakers fail to understand that the Holocaust is not a fit topic for every type of film. Life Is Beautiful is a film that plays too fancy-free with the event. Schindler’s List milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.
My personal problem with these films is that as a Jew I feel unwillingly chained to the Holocaust. Is there any way mainstream filmmaking can catch up to contemporary Jewish issues? A Price Above Rubies was a rare film about the problems of Hasidic Jewish women in America; I loved it and wondered why I couldn’t find anything else like it among English-language films. Why must we be buried year after year under the mantle of Supreme Victimhood? Why must our story be used to distance audiences from the holocausts of the present?
Last year, Hollywood offered us yet another Holocaust-related story called Defiance. The film is based on historian Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belorussia who, in 1941, led a group of Jews from surrounding towns into hiding in the vast Naliboki Forest, where they lived, armed, and defended themselves—their numbers growing to 1,200—until the end of the war. A quote from a commenter on Amazon.com gives some hint about what is different about this film:
If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by mainstream history, it would be compliance. If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by Nechama Tec it would be, and is, Defiance. Her title is an apt one indeed.
The word “defiance” as applied to Jews is a difficult one to pin down. What does the film make of it? I’m not sure that defiance, as in the usual use of the word to describe Jews as stiffnecked about retaining their religion and customs, is right, nor is the implicit defiance of murder at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about the defiance of the stereotype of Jews not being willing to fight, of being delicate intellectuals and compliant women, and you’re getting closer. Ultimately, however, I’d say the Jews of this film defied the odds by surviving the harsh forest conditions for years.
Our heroes are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both strapping farmers, they discover that the local police, under orders from the Nazis, have been to their farm as part of their round-up of local Jews and have killed their father and mother. A young brother, Aron (George MacKay), hid successfully from the murderers. The Bielskis, later joined by brother Aseal (Jamie Bell), seek refuge in the woods. Soon, they stumble upon others like themselves. Tuvia goes to the home of a sympathetic Gentile to get food and weapons for the group. When the police show up looking for more Jews—and the bounty they will receive for them—Tuvia runs to the barn. There in the rafters are more Jews. Tuvia learns that the police chief (Sigitas Rackys) is responsible for his parents’ deaths. He takes the handgun and four bullets the farmer has given him and visits the police chief’s house. Pleading for his life, he says he always looked the other way when the Bielskis went about smuggling for extra cash. “Ask your father.” “Ask him yourself,” says Tuvia, as he shoots the chief and his two sons.
The Bielskis ask for supplies from sympathetic locals, and failing that, steal what they need. They rob a milkman, who brings Soviet partisans to attack them. Zus and Tuvia have a major rift—Zus thinking they should have killed the milkman to prevent his betrayal when they had the chance, and Tuvia choosing a path he thinks will keep them human in a situation that could turn them all to animals in short order. Eventually, the brothers make a deal with the Red Army partisans to help them in exchange for protection. Zus and some of the other action-oriented men of the community leave to fight with the Soviets, while the Jews clean and repair their clothing and perform other support tasks back at the forest camp.
As the camp grows, romance sparks. Tuvia and Zus have lost their wives and children to the Nazis. They begin romances with new arrivals Lilkas (Alexa Davalos) and Bella (Iben Hjejle), respectively. Aseal falls for Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), and the pair gets married in a traditional Jewish ceremony presided over by schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner). The forest environs must have made the community feel very safe indeed for them to dance and party to the sounds of the musicians of the group playing their violins and clarinets. Of course, more threats to their safety arise, most seriously in a bombing raid, with Nazi troops hot on their heels. The disheartened Tuvia must be roused by Aseal to lead the community through a swamp, hoping that the troops and tanks will not be able to track and follow them.
I must admit that there was an element of Swiss Family Robinson in the building of the log huts in which the community of Jews dwelled. But there was also a sense of the kibbutzim to follow in Israel, where I’m sure some of the survivors emigrated after the war. The stereotypical bad apples, inept sentry Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill), and intellectuals Shamon and Yitzchak (Iddo Goldberg) arguing over a game of chess played with pieces hewn from the surrounding trees suck some of the reality from the situation. It is reinfused, however, when the Jews fight over food after having gone without for days, and with the lovely, deadly flakes of the first snowfall of winter. Zus’ disillusionment with the Soviets after repeated anti-Semitic comments and attacks was inevitable, and sealed when the Red Army retreats with no consideration for the Jewish partisans. I loved that the cast actually learned Russian for scenes played between the Jews and Gentiles. (Among themselves, they spoke English.)
The acting is uneven. I didn’t like Craig, who never really emerges from the pose he adopts for Tuvia as a strong, but silent type, perhaps with a small messiah complex. He was, for me, the least interesting of the main characters. The women never emerged from their stock characters, and the intellectuals seemed there primarily to populate the film with Jewish types. However, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell really knock their performances out of the park. Schreiber is a believable strongman with an observant and knowing streak—though his Russian comrades respect his fighting ability and fearlessness, he always behaves slightly uncomfortable around them, knowing that their hatred of Jews is never far from the surface. Bell goes from young and sweet to impassioned and adult, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly. He is fiery and inspirational—everything Craig could and should have been had the script been less dedicated to making him a reluctant hero.
As with all new films, this one is too damn long, though I have to say that it isn’t bloated with filler. The true story unspooled over three years, so there was plenty of material to work with, though clearly, many scenes are fictitious or embellished for dramatic effect. Interestingly, this film has been more or less savaged by film critics and has been the object of attack by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers on the Internet who prefer to paint the Bielskis as nothing but common thugs who brutalized the surrounding Gentile communities to get what they needed and wanted. The latters’ motives are clear, but I’m not so sure what the critics are so upset about. It’s not a great film, but it is an engrossing one that tells its unfamiliar story using the conventions of cinema to pretty good effect. I would have liked the characters to emerge more as individuals and the battles to be a little more sloppy and believable, as it was hard to really feel deeply for the Bielski partisans. Most of all, Craig kind of did this picture in with his flat performance.
Zwick was smart to shoot as near to location as possible, in Lithuania. With a script that doesn’t deviate too much from a standard action film with stock characterizations, what stands out as formidably real are the unforgiving winters, lack of access to a ready supply of food and medical care, and dangers from wolves, snakes, and other natural elements. Nature supplies the glue that bonds with the better aspects of this film. We might have had just another exploitative Holocaust film without this dispassionate “observer” of the Bielski partisans in action. Nonetheless, I think I’d be pretty happy not to view another of its genre ever again.
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Director: Stephen Daldry
By Roderick Heath
In the film version of Ira Levin’s pulp fantasy-revenge novel The Boys from Brazil (1978), Laurence Olivier plays a fictionalised version of Simon Weisenthal dubbed Ezra Leiberman. In trying to discover the machinations of fugitive war criminal Josef Mengele, he visits a jailed female SS guard he caught, Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen). Their interview proceeds uneasily until Leiberman gets to the point of his visit, at which point Frieda loses her temper and unleashes undimmed, venomous hatred at Leiberman. He barks back—the first time his voice has lifted above a pleasant whisper—“You are not a guard now Madame! You are a prisoner! I may walk through that door, but you are not going anywhere!”
It’s a moment that kept creeping into my head watching Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, and not just because it’s more fun. It’s an exchange that keeps our after-the-fact moral assumptions of the situation intact and satisfying: righteous survivor faces down the evil Nazi bitch-queen. Toy with this balance and, as some of the reactions to this film show, you’re soon in deep water. In the last Oscar season, Daldry’s film became something of the appointed sacrificial lamb for our contemporary culture’s heightened distaste for eating its greens. The Reader, however, pushes into rich and darkly confronting territory about the nature of responsibility and circumstance.
I might be giving the wrong impression here, about what I thought of Bernhard Schlink’s novel and the film made from: neither is particularly good. But I have empathy for what both are getting at. I’ve always been decidedly in the camp that feels artistic explorations of the Holocaust are necessary and desirable, even if not pleasant, and the more the better. I feel about this as I do because art is often the only way to stab at the truth left out of history texts. Schlink does, too. As he puts it in an interesting if gracelessly essayistic passage:
When I think about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reassured until the 1980s, and in intervening years they were out of print. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one. Our imagination knows its way around it, and since the television series Holocaust and movies like Sophie’s Choice and especially Schindler’s List, actually moves it, not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations.
Self-evidently, the trouble this opens up is that one has to be very careful about how one is embellishing. If one creates a work of art to explore a nadir of human existence as a work of moral searching, then one must be very clear about how one approaches that sanctum. Despite the sex scenes, Schlink’s novel is the perfect book for high school teachers to give to teenagers to study (it is a set text in German high schools). It’s short, the writing is simple to the point of tedium, the narration is opaquely self-analytical, and the ambling meditations such as that quoted above are laid out in such a way that’s easy to quote in essays.
The basic narrative is that old wheezy The Devil and the Flesh business of the sexually awakening boy who has an affair with an older woman with a dark secret, married to a Holocaust guilt theme. Here, the boy is Michael Berg (David Kross), the son of an elderly, disengaged philosophy professor, and the older woman is Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor living out of a cramped, seamy, but impeccably neat flat in Neustadt in 1959. Schlink’s psychological insight is shallow: he never convincingly paints a portrait either of a normal woman who found herself in an intolerable situation and lived with the consequences or of the man who is tied to her to the point where it infects all his future relationships. Schlink genuinely strains to define some obscured truths that inevitably have the most resonance for modern Germans: the limitations of the righteous fury his generation adopted in confronting an evil committed by people they loved. The climactic scene of both novel and film comes when Berg goes to visit a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin), whose brittle, pleasant refusal to countenance the intricacies of Hannah’s story is bound to hit hardest for a people who feel guilty and yet live with contradictions.
The foreground elements in Daldry’s film of Schlink’s novel, especially Kate Winslet’s bravura performance as antiheroine Hannah and Ralph Fiennes’ haunted turn as the older Michael, make the film worthwhile. Daldry, a wishy-washy director who painted The Hours (2002) in shades of diuretic pastel as a kind of symphony of constipated suffering, mostly does his job by keeping his scenes framed and free of dangling boom mikes. He serves up the dreary obviousness of summery sunlight for days of carefree youth and drizzling dourness in wearied middle age. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare exacerbate faults of Schlink’s novel and invent their own. It’s one of those stories about ambiguity where the ambiguity is artfully contrived. Rather than offer new substance, the film is happy to transcribe almost verbatim. In filming The Reader, it becomes more apparent that it’s largely a standard-issue love story with a darker than usual gimmick for separating and torturing the lovers.
The tale’s crucial Macguffin is the fact that Hannah is a functioning illiterate, a fact that pushed her into situations— from leaving a job at Siemens and joining the SS, through to her final punitive conviction at a war crimes trial. It’s not terribly convincing that she’d be so ashamed of her illiteracy and so unaware of the pain it’s caused her that she’d let it go so far. But leaving that aside, that she learns to read in prison and thus finds a measure of self-respect has been handily dismissed by some critics as a specious celebration of “reading is good” that betrays the gravity of the subject matter—which is itself a pretty stupid assumption. Schlink’s point is about power: the command inherent in education, the possibilities offered by communicative skill, and the lack of liberty imposed by inequality. “Knowledge is power,” we say, without paying much attention to those without power. It’s not the most deeply pursued point in the novel or film. Plenty of educated, entirely self-motivated people got themselves into the thick of the Holocaust, too. But it’s legitimate, nonetheless, that The Reader takes aim at the tendency of societies to use its disadvantaged, malleable members to do their dirty work.
That Hannah can’t read cuts her off from both history and culture—the whole Western canon that Michael reads to her is a new world—and also from clear lines of empathy. The world is full of incoherent signs and gaps in understanding for her. It’s clear in Schlink’s novel that she uses her new talent to read texts like Primo Levi’s autobiography and other Holocaust survivor tales to understand what she herself, despite participating, only had an outside perspective on: reading is implicitly an act of outreach and understanding. This is an aspect the film fails very badly in realising, to the point of obfuscating Schlink’s core character point. Hannah hangs herself on the eve of being released as an act of guilt: because she is a moral being caught in a situation without clear moral choice, and is no psychopath, she judges herself in a final, moral way. In the book, this is clear. In the film, it seems to be because Michael wasn’t demonstrative enough at their reunion.
Then again, in both book and film, just what Hannah represents seems ill-conceived. Schlink tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by presenting Hannah as both an avatar of guilt and a suffering martyr. In the film and rather more cheaply in the book, Hannah is pushed forward at her trial both by her own honesty and by the other ex-female guards with whom she’s tried as the mastermind behind the death of 300 Jews who were burned in a church. Schlink describes the other guards as fat, ugly, and immoral. Compared to Hannah’s desperate composure and comely features, it’s the cheapest of effects to render her a victim. In the film, this comparison is softened slightly—the other defendants look like women who disappeared into the middle class—but the point is just as obnoxious. Whatever the idea is about the fraught relationship of elders and youth in post-War Germany, it is repeatedly softened and rendered moot by the incompetent melding of the sentimental genre it’s inspired by and the very unsentimental exigencies of the problem at hand.
Hannah’s brusque sensuality both hypnotises and appalls Michael, and one of the crueler twists comes when he discovers that her habit of making him read to her placed him in the same position as the favourites Hannah would adopt in the concentration camp; likewise a strange analogy is made between Hannah’s complicity in mass murder and her willful use of a teenage boy. That this sits uneasily and unresolvedly with the manipulation to perceive her as tragic victim is something neither Schlink nor Hare and Daldry attempt to resolve. Still, Schlink was well aware of the kink value inherent in the idea of an affair with a Nazi woman, preempting in his novel the many Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS quips fired at the film, when Michael confesses to fantasies of a “hard, imperious, cruel” Hannah and realising the gulf between fantasy and fact. The film has no such wit; indeed, no feel at all for the swirl of culture beyond its own immediate shoals. There are some scenes in a hippie-era university dorm (we know it’s the ’60s because the girls have long straight hair and guitar music wails), and one of Michael’s fellow students gets hot under the collar and speechy about the trial’s lack of moral expedience. But the social resonance is of the academically reduced variety. Only in the inevitably affecting moments when Michael visits Auschwitz and confronts a cold, rough-hewn reality does the film pack real punch.
The Reader is also about sexual intimacy. The film sports copious nudity in the first third, but it’s that curiously aseptic, pseudo-art-film sex where the erotic fumbling is as carefully poised as the camera to keep the dick shots to the permissible minimum. Where The Reader desperately needs some sense of the kind of passion and pain that upends lives, it has only studious, tasteful distance. The film finally feels exactly like the kind of muted, bourgeois, meandering effort of empathy that it’s supposed to be decrying. Kross, with his puffy cheeks and lack of any suggestion of emotional and intellectual depth, is the film’s weakest element, but he represents its lack of chutzpah well. The filmmakers recast the tale under the new generic format of Brokeback Mountain—an aging man forging a relationship with a rejected daughter by revealing a hidden, forbidden love.
The other actors keep the film buoyant, from Winslet, who gives her ill-defined character as much of her body and spirit as she can, and Fiennes, who plays repressed feeling like a master conductor, even on so small a stage, through to smaller contributions from Olin, and Bruno Ganz, as Berg’s intellectually forceful law professor. Ganz played the same role, more or less, in The Boys from Brazil—the knowing professor who leads the hero into understanding the Nazi plan. This is where I came in. l
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Director: Fred Zinnemann
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In voiceover, Jane Fonda as American playwright Lillian Hellman, approaches a person, a story from her past as a painting that, through fading, shows lines of the artist’s original ideas revised and reshaped to form the final image, or even an entirely different picture. This is, of course, the definition of the word “pentimento,” which is the title of Hellman’s 1973 memoir in which she recounts the story of Julia. It has since been reported that while “Julia” was real, Hellman never knew her. According to Collin Kelley in his review of the 2006 DVD release of Julia:
Muriel Gardener, a psychologist who shared an attorney with Hellman, claimed to be the real Julia and that the playwright lifted her story for Pentimento. The similarities between Gardener’s tale and Julia are striking: both studied pre-med at Oxford, went on to Vienna to study with Freud, became active in anti-fascist groups and helped smuggle money and people in and out of Nazi-occupied territories. Rather than $50,000, Muriel had a close friend smuggle fake American passports into Germany in a stylish hat. Gardener, who wrote her story in Code Name Mary and told it in the documentary The Real Julia, said she believed the lawyer they shared gave Hellman details about her World War II adventures (who) then appropriated them for Julia. Gardener and Hellman never met.
However you approach this lie, which is more serious when presented in a memoir than it would be in, say, the self-referential spoofs of Guy Maddin, there’s no question that Hellman had a eye for a great story and the dramatic flair that made her such a sensational playwright. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent took this story and spun a taut, absorbing screenplay that garnered him an Oscar. Add the Oscar-nominated work of director Fred Zinnemann, who takes his affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights, and the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, which evokes nostalgia and melancholy without ever entirely succumbing to them, and Julia becomes more than a story about two women. Julia stands as a monument to courage and compassion by helping viewers understand what it might feel like to risk everything for a cause.
When we enter Hellman’s life, she is living with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) in a beachfront idyll and struggling to write her first play. Hammett, singularly unhelpful in the writing area, suggests that she get a change of scene. “Why don’t you go visit your friend Julia?” Memories of her girlhood basking in the world of privilege, but, more importantly, in the gently strong company of Julia come flooding back. A scene of the young Julia (Lisa Pelikan) and Lillian (Susan Jones) dining at a massively long table in the mansion of Julia’s grandparents telegraphs a world of stiff formality distanced from the problems of everyday life. Julia is a creative, lively girl with whom Lillian enjoys playing word games and fashioning narratives. Rather surprisingly, Julia says she hates her grandparents. On a trip to Cairo, they told her to ignore the poverty and suffering around her. Her deep humanity not only was offended, but also mobilized into action. Eventually, she goes to medical school at Oxford.
When Hellman takes Dash’s advice, she remarks that the year she visited Julia in England was, for Julia, what I always call the dewy moment in a woman’s life—the one in which the purest essence of a woman’s inner beauty corresponds with her outer form. Slocombe shoots the adult Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) walking directly into the camera, a rather goofy grin on her face. Sorry, she didn’t look dewy in that shot, and it is only through Redgrave’s great charisma that Hellman’s words approximate the image we see. The pair have a wonderful time together, playing the same word games they did as children and talking about relationships. Julia tells Lillian of her plans to go to Vienna to study with Sigmund Freud.
Lillian returns to America and continues her writing odyssey. Julia sends her disturbing letters from Europe about the rise of fascism. In a horrifying scene, young men in oddly festive hats storm Julia’s medical school and begin attacking the largely Jewish faculty and student body. Swarming like red ants, they rip one young man from the hold he has on a faucet and toss him over a railing. The sound cuts off as we watch his body fall out of the frame. Julia and several others march into the middle of the mob, swinging boards and furniture. Lillian receives a call asking her to come to Paris; Julia is in the hospital. Lillian visits the very badly injured Julia in Vienna and is told she will have to have surgery. The next day, the hospital denies that Julia was ever a patient.
Lillian returns to the States, completes her play, The Children’s Hour, and becomes the toast of Broadway. She is invited to a theatre festival in Moscow and accepts. Stopping in Paris, she is contacted by a Mr. Johann (Maximillian Schell), an emissary from Julia, who asks if she will help them smuggled $50,000 into Berlin to bribe officials to release some prisoners. The mission is especially dangerous because Lillian is a Jew, but the underground is willing to take the risk if she is. After an afternoon of soul searching, Lillian agrees. The rest of the film concerns the smuggling operation and its aftermath.
Jane Fonda is not my favorite actress, but she brings a lot of shading to this role. Her friendship with Julia really feels close and heartfelt, and a scene in which a frustrated Hellman throws her typewriter out a window is so true that it has stuck with me ever since I first saw the film in 1977. I like her scenes with Robards, which, with their minimalism, show an easy, underplayed bond between the two writers. When she waits nervously for Hammett’s assessment of her second draft, you can feel the expansion and relaxation of her moods.
Most spectacularly, Fonda handles Lillian as amateur courier with just the right blend of fear, frustration over not knowing exactly what she is expected to do, and curiosity. Lillian has been given a hat and a box of candy: “Wear the hat. Leave the candy on the seat.” Her instinct is to take all her belongings into the dining car with her, but two women (beautifully played by Dora Doll and Elisabeth Mortensen) who are sent to watch over her correct her mistakes. Lillian, her nerves frayed to breaking, leaves the dining car and goes to the toilet. There, she removes her hat and feels the lining. Perfect. She’ll never really know what’s going on—and that is for her own safety—but she wants to assert some control.
Vanessa Redgrave projects her usual air of authority and commitment, a perfect fit for the character she is playing. She switches gears from strong to vulnerable in the reunion scene in a Berlin café in which Lillian delivers the hat to her. She seems depleted physically and emotionally. The warmth that characterized the characters’ earlier scenes is muted and only emerges—very effectively—when Julia reveals that she has a baby daughter whom she has named Lilly.
I mentioned Zinnemann’s affinity for trains, for using them to create and build emotion. We all saw it in High Noon, when the train carrying Gary Cooper’s nemesis began as a dot on the horizon and grew in size, billowing black smoke as it pulled close to the station. In this film, Hellman travels by train from Paris to Berlin to Moscow. Through judicious cuts that quicken the breath, Zinnemann uses the train’s movements to up the ante for us. By the time Lillian alights in Berlin, we feel the menace. The crowd through which she moves is a potential mob, the café she enters, a mousetrap.
Julia was a controversial undertaking at the time, pairing as it did two politically outspoken actresses, particularly Redgrave, a vocal critic of Israel’s Palestinian policies. It is possible that the personal convictions of these two women helped infuse their performances with urgency and power. Whatever the reason, this highly honored film works on all levels. l
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Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Robert Anderson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Robert Anderson, the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s fictionalized account of her lover Mary Louise Habets’ experiences as a nun, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Anderson, who always considered himself a playwright (movies were what he did for money), produced serious-minded works that respected the intelligence and maturity of audiences to deal with such hot-button topics as homosexuality, aging, and the loss of faith. Called “a gentleman in an age of assassins,” Anderson produced such sensitive and powerful works as Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father. The Nun’s Story is a rich and rewarding look at religious life that eschews pious platitudes to explore both its mysteries and its cold, hard facts.
Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), the eldest daughter of a renowned Belgian surgeon (Dean Jagger), is about to embark on a long journey that she hopes will take her into a close relationship with God and enable her to do His work as a nurse in the Congo. The film opens as she fingers her engagement ring, then resolutely removes it and places it on the desk in her bedroom along with some other items atop a note that says, “Return to Jean.” She hears her father plinking out some Mozart on the piano in the drawing room. She quietly descends the stairs, comes up behind him, and joins him at the keyboard. When he turns to face her, he says “Your hat is on crooked.” “I’ve been trying to practice putting things on without…” The words “a mirror” are left unsaid. The pair goes into town and views the convent across the square. “I can see you poor. I can see you chaste. But I can’t see you obeying their Rule,” Dr. van der Mal says. “You don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to.” Gabrielle merely looks down, deflecting his implied question with a demure but determined gesture. They walk to the door and enter a room filled with parents and daughters. After some tearful farewells, the would-be nuns pass behind the door of the inner sanctum and into a world where they will be taught to create internal silence to better devote themselves to prayer and learn obedience to the Holy Rule.
The film takes us on the journey from Gabrielle to Sister Luke at a deliberate pace, missing few fascinating details that form the strict lives of discipline and striving for perfection that make a girl into a nun and a nun into a representative of Christ on Earth. At first, the postulants learn mere behaviors, such as hiding their hands when they are not being used for prayer or work, standing near the walls as they move through the halls as an act of humility, writing their transgressions in a small notebook, publicly accusing themselves of everything from being late to prayer, to feeling proud about doing a task properly and talking during the Grand Silence. Observing how they live, for example, sleeping in a common room with each bed surrounded by curtains, and their behavior, from using the sign language that allows them to communicate, to bowing and kneeling before higher-ranking nuns, to donning their habit for the first time in a rote and ritualized way, compares favorably with the experience I had viewing the lives of real Carthusian monks in Into Great Silence.
In short order, Simone (Patricia Bosworth), Gabrielle’s closest companion in the convent, gives up her vocation, while assuring Gabrielle that she is strong enough to complete the journey. “I’m the weakest of us all!” Gabrielle protests, saying she is constantly in error. Nonetheless, Simone’s prediction comes true as we watch the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring investiture of Sister Luke and her fellow novices as brides of Christ, again, with the close, unhurried observation of a way of life that has been centuries in the making.
Sister Luke is sent for training to an institute for tropical medicine to prepare her for working in the Congo. She’s an outstanding student, but put upon by Sister Pauline (Margaret Phillips), a veteran of the Congo and an average student who fears Sister Luke will take her place. Sister Luke takes her problem to Mother Marcella (Ruth White), who tells Sister Luke she has been given a golden opportunity to prove her humility; Mother Marcella then asks her to fail her final exam. The scene in front of her examiners is one of high drama, as Hepburn so evokes Sister Luke’s inner struggle that she actually breaks a sweat. That the charge from Mother Marcella was a particularly cruel Gordian Knot makes no difference; for passing her exam (in fact, placing fourth in a class of 80), Sister Luke is denied a posting to the Congo and is sent instead to work in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. The waste of her talent seems stupid, considering the great need of the Congolese and their overworked medical staff.
After a somewhat harrowing stint at the sanatorium, including being attacked by a dangerous patient called the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst) for disobediently tending to her without help, Sister Luke finally gets posted to the Congo. Her happiness while moving among the natives in the black hospital and holding the babies of Congolese mothers breaks her nun’s proper reserve. Yet still she is to be tested. When she learns she is to work at the white hospital under Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), she is devastated. The scenes in the Congo are a bit too picture-perfect, but this idealization is tempered by filming real lepers in a downriver leper colony Sister Luke visits.
Sister Luke buries her disappointment in work to such an extent that she weakens her entire system and develops early-stage tuberculosis. Hepburn’s darkly circled eyes, drawn face, taut and nervous frame, and constant edge of fatigue work brutally to reflect Sister Luke’s worry that should her disease be uncovered, she will be sent back to Belgium for good. Fortunati, initially jaundiced about working with yet another nun, then surprised at her competence and increasingly reliant on her great skill, manages to keep her in country and cure her TB. Unfortunately, when an important benefactor who has fallen ill must be sent back to Belgium, Sister Luke is the only logical choice to accompany him. With World War II brewing, she fears she will never be able to return to the Congo. And indeed, Rev. Mother Emmanuel (Dame Edith Evans), the highest-ranking nun in the order, refuses to send her back. Her struggles in Belgium, her painful war losses, and her acknowledgment that she has never found the internal silence to become a great nun finally force her, with all the determination she had when entering the convent, to give up her vocation and return to the world.
This 2.5 hour film has the time and the ambition to take us all the way into Sister Luke’s world and experience with her the joys, disappointments, and, most of all, the pain of trying to bend her will to that of God and the sisters. Dr. Fortunati tells her that he’s worked with nuns as long as he can remember and found there are two kinds: the obedient ones without a stitch of imagination and the worldly ones. Sister Luke, he says, is the latter and not cut out to be a nun. When Rev. Mother Emmanuel refuses to allow Sister Luke to work at the local hospital when she returns from the Congo, her reason is that Sister Luke must attend to her vocation—she joined the order to become a nun, not a nurse, and her spiritual life must always come first.
Herein lies the conflict Anderson and Zinnemann have highlighted in obvious and subtle ways—Gabrielle wanted to become a nun, but she wanted to practice medicine in the Congo even more. In the strict and arbitrary world of the convent, God is the only master. Like army training, all convent exercises, teachings, and assignments are designed to root out individuality and create vessels to carry out God’s wishes. There was nothing half-hearted about Gabrielle’s attempts to become Sister Luke—all or nothing, she says, was her Rule before she entered the convent—and we can see through Audrey Hepburn’s remarkable performance the deep sincerity in Sister Luke’s dedication to being a nun, the automatic behaviors she has adopted over the two decades of her vocation and her anguish at all her faults.
The supporting performances are wonderful, particularly all of the ranking sisters whose guidance rules the lives of Sister Luke and her fellow sisters. Mildred Dunnock is here a placid and patient mistress of the postulants. Dame Peggy Ashcroft is a compassionate, but obedient head of the mission in Aftica. And Dame Edith Evans is old-school Catholicism at its best, firmly guiding her nuns in a clear-eyed manner than can look, but is not meant to be, cruel.
Peter Finch is young and dashing—a prototype of the rude doctors we see on TV all the time. Other viewers of this film detect some sexual tension between Hepburn and Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, but I didn’t see it. Hepburn’s Sister Luke truly seems modest, even asexual, to me. When a native man asks her why a young woman like her doesn’t have a husband, rather than try to explain the difficult concepts of Catholicism, she says quite believably, “I do have a husband. But, He’s in heaven.”
Zinnemann’s direction is very full-bodied, more so than many of his films. There’s hardly a stock type in the film, and he strives to bring as much realism as Hollywood would allow to his African scenes. I was incredibly impressed with the cinematography of Franz Planer, who is a master of shadow and color, creating beauty in every scene while still somehow making everything look real. There’s very little of the crescendo-music-soaring-looks-heavenward that many religious films are made of. His work with Hepburn’s radiant face brings out so many looks that have nothing to do with glamor and everything to do with the truth of her character.
Finally, of course, is The Word. Read this remarkable exchange between Sister Luke and Rev. Mother Emmanuel:
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Have you struggled long enough to say surely that you’ve come to the end?
Sister Luke: I think I’ve been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother. In the beginning each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat, and I saw they all had the same core: obedience. Without question, without inner murmuring. Perfect obedience as Christ practiced it. As I no longer can.
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Yes?
Sister Luke: There are times when my conscience asks which has priority. It or the Holy Rule? When the bell calls me to chapel, I often have to sacrifice what might be the decisive moment in a spiritual talk with a patient. I’m late every day for chapel or refectory or both. When I have night duty I break the Grand Silence because I can no longer cut short a talk with a patient who seems to need me. Mother, why must God’s helpers be struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when men in trouble want to talk about their souls?
Anderson truly made this film more than the sum of its many magnificent parts.
The Nun’s Story was nominated for eight Oscars the same year that the moribund Ben-Hur cleaned up. It won not a one—yet more evidence that even back in 1959, the Oscars were a joke. On Oscar night this year, skip the broadcast and watch this movie; it’s long, but not as long as the Oscars, and infinitely more deserving of your attention and admiration.
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Directors: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In Greek mythology, the supreme god Zeus fell in love with Europa, a beautiful Greek woman, and decided to seduce (rape) her. He turned himself into a bull and carried her on his back to the island of Crete, where he revealed his true nature to her and made her queen of the island. This myth has been interpreted many times through the centuries by unknown fresco, mosaic, and decorative artists, as well as such known masters as Rembrandt van Rijn, Maarten de Vos, Francois Boucher, and Henri Matisse. The film The Rape of Europa, based on the nonfiction book, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas, discusses a similar covetousness by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring for Europe’s great art and antiquities and their systematic plans to acquire thousands of pieces for themselves and a planned museum in Linz designed to be the grandest museum of art in the world. In this case, the contemporary use of the word “rape” applies.
I have been fascinated with the art obsession of the Third Reich ever since I saw the traveling exhibit, “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1991. This exhibit reassembled many of the works by abstract and Jewish artists that Hitler labeled “degenerate” and toured through Germany to enforce Hitler’s preference for and ideology of a representational, romantic aesthetic. The exhibit reproduced as nearly as possible the original show as presented to Germans, including slanderous slogans painted on the walls and the arrangement of objects in the show.
A painting by aspiring artist Adolf Hitler
I suppose Hitler’s thwarted plans to become a professional artist fed into his desire to impose his artistic vision on the world, but Hitler also understood the power of images. He sought to control them every bit as much as he attempted to dominate the world. Most world leaders are very aware of the power of art to move and transform; in present-day America, the suppression of “obscene” art by Robert Mapplethorpe and the financial strangling of the National Endowment for the Arts show a similar impulse to control artistic expressions and the emotions they evoke.
The Rape of Europa begins by contrasting the astronomical selling prices of master works of art in today’s market with the “fire sale” prices these same kinds of works fetched during the Third Reich to help fund the war. So great were the number of precious paintings, sketches, sculptures, and objets d’arte looted and confiscated by the Nazis from all over Europe—Göring alone amassed more than 1,000 works of art—that whatever Hitler, Göring, and buyers at auction did not want was destroyed. Indeed, as part of their invasion campaigns, the Nazis drew up detailed plans that catalogued and listed where desired artworks could be found.
The film methodically describes the various targets for looting and destruction that occurred during the war—in Poland, the leveling of the perceived inferior Slavic city of Warsaw and the preservation of the Germanic Krakow, whose art museum was thoroughly looted of such objects as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.” In the Soviet Union, curators of the great Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) evacuated more than 1 million pieces of art, but still had many more to protect. Museum staff hid in the cold basement for more than two years during the Siege of Leningrad to keep watch over the remaining works of art. After the siege ended, dozens of these workers were dead of starvation and exposure, along with an estimated 1.2 million citizens of the city.
The Louvre in Paris was another gigantic art museum that mobilized an art evacuation of epic proportions. The film tells of the delicate, nerve-wracking task of moving “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” a large solid-looking statue that is actually an assembly of more than 1,000 pieces, down the long, central staircase of the museum. Paris was not bombed back to the Stone Age, as the French feared it would be, but the actions of the museum staff and especially a nondescript heroine of the art rescue named Rose Valland saved most of France’s treasures from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Mainly works in private collections and art galleries were confiscated.
Perhaps the most intriguing story, one that bookends the film, is that of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” which was confiscated along with the rest of the exquisite collection of the Jewish Bloch-Bauers after the Germans entered Austria. The painting ended up in the Austrian National Gallery because of a will Adele Bloch-Bauer left that said she wanted the painting to go there after her husband’s death (she died in 1925). However, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer had fled Austria and died in exile without ever reclaiming his property. Maria Altmann, niece to the Bloch-Bauers, disputed the museum’s claim of ownership, and the tangled details of the ongoing struggle—one mirrored by families all over the world—to reclaim her family’s property creates a certain amount of suspense (spoiler at the end of the article).
Camposanto frescoes before fire shattered them. Restoration continues.
More stories abound, such as the dedication of a German to returning religious objects to their families and various Jewish communities and the advance U.S. soldiers called “the monument men,” who were sent into villages to try to save buildings and other works of art. In Italy, bombers received city plans drawn up by a team of art curators in Washington, DC, that led to the successful bombing of the central railway yard in Florence without destroying priceless buildings and art. Elsewhere in Italy, bombers eventually destroyed the monastery of Montecassino and the magnificent frescoes of the Camposanto cemetery in Pisa.
The Rape of Europa breaks no new ground in documentary style, weaving archival footage with talking heads in a style reminiscent of History Channel offerings. What it lacks in style, however, it makes up for in comprehensiveness, in a longish, but interesting unspooling of its many stories. The film reminded me of The Longest Day in the way it covers virtually every aspect of the struggle for the artistic heritage of Europe. It also manages to move. Watching two returned scroll caps being placed on a Torah in New York sent my heart to my throat. Seeing that Deane Keller, an artist and monument man who worked tirelessly in Italy, received a grave at the Camposanto was a tribute of appreciation I’ll never forget. Trying to reconcile the anger of soldiers at losing their friends to dug-in German and Italian forces while Allied forces decided whether to bomb Montecassino was troubling. Hearing how entire Jewish households were not only stripped of their occupants, but also of every mattress and teacup in order to erase the Jewish presence in Europe was a sober, bleak reminder of what has been lost. Indeed, many artworks also have disappeared, such as Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.” Perhaps one day, these artworks will resurface and help restore the spirits of people damaged to the core by the savagery of World War II and every war thereafter. l
“The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was finally returned to Adele’s niece. In 2006, it was auctioned to Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, for $135 million. It will reside in his Neue Galerie, a tiny museum in New York dedicated to displaying German and Austrian fine and decorative arts.
There are no monument men in Iraq.
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A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool
My Dinner with… Fred Waller
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I know in this “look at me” world in which we’re living, the lot of those who largely remain in the shadows may not seem to be a very happy one. Certainly some resentment at being overlooked can’t be avoided, but as a person who is very attracted to the world behind the scenes, I can say that, in general, standing a bit below eye level is a wonderful place to be. As part of the Lazy Eye Theatre Meme: My Dinner With…, I’ve chosen to break bread with one of the most fascinating movie persons you’ve never heard of: Fred Waller.
Waller cut his teeth in the film business as cinematographer for five silents by the estimable director Frank Tuttle. He also did visual effects for D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan. He turned his hand to directing in the ’30s. He specialized in making short music films featuring America’s great jazz musicians, beginning with Duke Ellington in A Bundle of Blues in 1933. The man had great musical taste, the foresight to see that these great performers needed to be captured on film for future generations, and an uncommon notion that filming African Americans being themselves was nothing out of the ordinary.
But what really sets Waller apart for me—in the immortal words of Henry Graham, “Every science has its fans.”—is that he was an engineering wizard. You’ll see the link for the American Widescreen Museum site on my blogroll, alphabetically first but also one of my very favorite websites, period. Fred Waller is responsible for that site’s very existence because he invented widescreen movie formats. He debuted the first widescreen process, called Vitarama, at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it made a huge sensation. He later extended and refined that process by inventing the most famous widescreen technology of them all—Cinerama. Listen to Waller describe the process.
That’s Clara Bow on the left hawking Waller’s AKWA SKEES.
Waller’s mind was too active to give it just to Hollywood. For example, if you had a relative who was a WWII pilot who returned safely from the war, you both probably can thank Fred Waller for helping to make that safe return possible. He invented the first virtual-reality technology, based on the Vitarama process, and applied it to flight simulation, allowing pilots to gain valuable flight time. Oh, and if you’ve ever water skied, yes, thank Fred Waller for perfecting and patenting the first water skis. In all, Fred Waller held about 1,000 patents. He’s as close to a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci as they get.
I’m a pretty good cook with a brand-new kitchen and a love of entertaining, so naturally, I’d invite Mr. Waller to my home. I’d set out all the good crystal on the formal dining table and set up lots of jazz from the ’30s and ’40s for the CD player. I imagine Mr. Waller would like fine American food, so I’d serve cider-onion soup, homemade rustic bread, herbed lamb chops over orzo, and candied yams—all served with a medium-aged Beaujolais. For dessert—cherries jubilee and cognac.
I’m not one for a list of questions normally—I like to see where the conversation leads—but Piper asked me to, so I’d ask:
1. Mr. Waller, tell me why you decided to film jazz musicians and what the musicians you worked with were like? Any good stories to tell about them?
2. What were the challenges of transitioning to sound, and particularly, recording musicians? Did you invent anything to improve sound recording quality and reliability to help you and others?
3. What do you see as the purpose of movies?
4. As someone who spent a lifetime trying to improve movie images, are you a believer in the primacy of the picture in motion pictures? Why or why not?
5. Tell me more about your favorite inventions, what they do, how they work, and how long it took you to invent them? What drew you to want to solve these particular problems?
And wait for all the answers—for as long as it takes!
The six bloggers I have invited to participate in the meme are:
Joe Valdez of This Distracted Globe
Pat at Doodad Kind of Town
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Ed Howard at Only the Cinema
Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren
Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats
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Director: Jirí Menzel
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I guess I should be ashamed of never having heard of Bohumil Hrabal, the novelist who wrote I Served the King of England (1971), considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Czech literature. Having never heard of Hrabal, it follows that I never read the book either. It seems that those who have were disappointed with this adaptation by Jirí Menzel, a film interpreter of five other works by Hrabal, including Closely Watched Trains, which won the Best Foreign-Language Picture Oscar in 1966. According to Kate Connelly, a film critic for the UK’s Guardian Unlimited, “The film has been attracting large audiences across the Czech Republic, but even there critics have admitted to its long-winded and sugary nature.”
I think I know what those flocks of audience members know—this film is a visual and emotional pleasure of the first order. If it does not live up to the lofty ambitions of the culture mavens who report on it or capture something edgier in the book (which I suspect it doesn’t), it certainly does create a sensuous, sumptuous world all its own. And after all, how often have all of us heard, “It’s not as good as the book.” Putting it in its true context—film—it is as good as the best films I’ve seen at this year’s festival, and that’s saying a lot.
I Served the King of England traverses the fascinating and full life of Jan Dítě (Oldřich Kaiser). The tale begins at the gate of a prison where a voiceover by Dítě tells that this is the day of his release. He was sentenced to 15 years, but due to a general amnesty, only served 14 years and 9 months. We watch as Dítě walks through the prison gate. The gate slams shut behind him, catching the strap of Dítě’s bag. We leave this scene with Dítě banging on the metal door to open up again. The smile this scene put on my face never left until the more serious parts of the film kicked in at about the halfway mark.
Dítě has been given the keys to a property near the border between Czechoslovakia and East Germany. When he arrives, an abandoned, ramshackle pub stands before him. The door is broken. Dítě holds up the keys and tosses them away. He steadily cleans the place up and makes it habitable, intending eventually to reopen it as a pub and guesthouse. He crushes rocks himself to build a road. While he is wheeling the rocks, he encounters Marcela (Zuzana Fialová), a young woman who has accompanied a small group to the woods surrounding the pub to look for music in trees, that is, timber to build musical instruments. Marcela is attractive and flirtatious, and Dítě is pleased that she has managed to arouse passion in him after all those years in confinement. He returns to memories of his youth and his one desire in life—to become a millionaire.
Most of the film from this point on is told in flashback with Ivan Barnev playing the young Dítě. He’s a very short, very blonde, odd-looking fellow who begins to build his fortune in the 1920s by failing to make change for a hundred for a train passenger who buys a hot dog from his makeshift stand. The train pulls away while Dítě pursues the passenger with the bills in his outstretched hand. He also inadvertently drops some coins on the ground. Several people scramble to pick them up. Fascinated by the willingness of perfectly respectable people to get down on their hands and knees for the sake of a few coins, Dítě starts tossing handfuls of them around town just to see the reaction.
He eventually lands a job in a guesthouse where he serves businessmen who have the money he covets. One day, a beautiful woman seeks shelter from the rain in his pub. Her name is Jaruska (Petra Hrebícková), a hooker at Paradise, the local brothel. All eyes are on her wet and shapely form. After giving the men an eyeful, she skips back out. Dítě determines to make her his. A virgin, Dítě says after his first time that “it’s nothing like doing it myself.” He visits her as frequently as possible, delighting her one day by covering her body artfully with flowers from a nearby vase. This type of decoration will become his playful art of love with all of the women he beds.
One day, a familiar face confronts Dítě from one of the booths in the pub. It is the man whose change he didn’t make, a certain Mr. Walden (Marián Labuda) who will turn out to be his benefactor throughout his career. Walden orders everything on the menu except the lungs and tells Dítě to bring four bottles of mineral water and a pound of salami up to his room later. Dítě thinks he’s off the hook about the change he failed to make, but Walden has not forgotten the incident. He tells Dítě that he’s seen him throwing coins. “You have to learn where to throw them so they’ll come back to you in bills.” When Dítě goes to his room to deliver the water and salami, he (and we) are greeted by a magical sight—Walden placing paper money in long rows to cover his entire floor. In a scene of comic grace, Walden, having run out of one stack of bills, stretches out and log rolls to a suitcase, where he removes another stack and rolls back to resume his pastime. Dítě, enchanted, decides to take up the pastime of laying his bills on the floor and leaves the guesthouse to make his fortune.
He lands a job at the Hotel Tichota on Walden’s recommendation and serves the needs of the very rich and hedonistic, all under the watchful eye of Tichota (Rudolf Hrusínský), a small and pleasant fellow who wheels gracefully through the hotel in a motorized wheelchair. Tichota makes available a bevy of gorgeous prostitutes who pair off with the moguls, dancing, playing, teasing, and making love with them with delightful abandon. The General (Pavel Nový) brings his girl up to his room, sees another coming down the hall, turns her around to examine front and back, and pushes her into his room as well. In the morning, thoroughly “satisfied,” he pays for about 4,000 crowns worth of damage and, when left with a large stack of unspent bills, hands them to Dítě. “I knew it would be time to go,” Dítě observes ruefully.
He lands an even better job in the Hotel Pariz in Prague and meets the man who will be his great inspiration, Skrivánek (Martin Huba), the maitre d’. The man can predict what every patron will order and can apparently speak every language known to man. Dítě wonders how he became such a Hercules of the hospitality industry. “I served the King of England.”
Sadly, hard times are soon to come. When the first Nazis show up in the dining room of the Hotel Pariz, Skrivánek refuses to serve them. Germans in the street are hassled, their uniform knee-high white stockings torn from their legs. Dítě goes to the aid of a young German woman whose stockings are in jeopardy, Líza (Julia Jentsch). They start a romance, with Líza trying to instruct poor Dítě on racial purity and Hitler’s master plan. Once Czechoslovakia capitulates to Hitler, property confiscations and deportations begin to occur. Dítě searches for evidence that he might have German blood so that he can marry Líza. Although tormented by the fate of his countrymen, he wants Líza, who’s the only woman short enough that he can look her in the eye.
The film grows more grim as Dítě sees old friends deported, the hotel Tichota confiscated and turned into a breeding laboratory for the Master Race, and Líza taking all the fun out of sex with her determination to provide a perfect Aryan to Herr Hitler. A scene where she and Dítě try to conceive is hilarious, as Líza moves Dítě’s head out of the way so that she can gaze on a heroic portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall. Dítě’s fortunes rise and fall during and after the war, but Communism puts him right back to square one.
This film is literally a visual feast. If you go to see it hungry, you’ll be chewing your arm witnessing all the lavish meals served at all the fine establishments where Dítě works. There are some transcendent moments of visual trickery, such as when Dítě the elder empties a box of stamps and they float lifelike on the breeze. The Czechs do sexual playfulness extremely well, and each act of physical love is a rather complete and innocent delight, even between Dítě and Líza.
Physical comedy abounds, such as when the Ethiopian ambassador, shorter even than Dítě, tries to place medals around Skrivánek’s neck in thanks for an exotic and sumptuous banquet and ends up awarding them to Dítě, who slowly bends his knees to clue Skrivánek to move to meet the ambassador’s eye level. Dítě and Head Waiter Karel (Jaromír Dulava) dip, spin, and weave in quick motion with their trays full of food as they serve their patrons in the Hotel Pariz. When Dítě trips Karel, and Karel loses one plate from his tray, he proceeds to smash plates and upend tables on his way to the exit. He grabs a small bud vase, ready to smash it, then looks tenderly at it, replaces it on the table, and leaves. “He had no choice,” says Dítě in voiceover, “it was a matter of honor.”
Líza’s character was, for me, the most horrifying in the film. Her reflexive racism, her rabid devotion to German purity, and her utter callousness in robbing from “deported” Jews all made me cringe every time she opened her mouth. Dítě is ambitious, but he is also playful and clearly revolted by the Nazis and their occupation of his country. Why he jumped through so many hoops for his Nazi lover, why he wanted to marry her in the first place, remain complete mysteries to me. The critics who called this film “sugary” may have been referring to this inconsistency. The rich men who made women their playthings and indulged their every whim also were more lovable than decadent. As seen through narrator Dítě’s eyes, however, these men were his heroes and role models, so this characterization is not inconsistent.
This densely packed film moves with the grace, speed, and charm of Dítě twirling his tray of delectables. I highly recommend I Served the King of England.
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Director: Paul Verhoeven
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I like Paul Verhoeven’s style. I like his exuberance, his technical mastery and eye for beauty, his clear-eyed, rather pessimistic view of human nature, and his subtle, but insistent, political viewpoint. The fact that his films are like a lightning rod, provoking extreme hatred or backhanded compliments, shows just how challenging Verhoeven’s point of view can be. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will say I see things in, say, Showgirls, that just aren’t there. They are entitled to their opinion. I say there are things in Verhoeven’s films that they fail to see or refuse to accept. I say that approaching Verhoeven with an open mind—which the vast majority of the moviegoing population seems to be able to do—can yield great rewards.
Black Book, one of the most exciting, entertaining, and politically rounded films of the past year, achieved a respectable 75% approval rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. But many of those critics still saw fit to jab him again as though reliving their reaction to Showgirls and Basic Instinct. For example,
“Black Book does not aspire to historical accuracy. Instead, Black Book is pure entertainment, of the hollow variety. Verhoeven gives you your money’s worth of titillation.”
In fact, events in the films, including the murder of Jews and the theft of their property, Nazi collaborators and their humiliation following Germany’s defeat, anti-Semitism, and rationing are entirely factual. Whether the specific story of a Jew who kept herself alive and helped the Dutch underground fight the Nazis during World War II is entirely accurate in every respect, there is no doubt that the spirit of the day and details surrounding this tale are true. On the other hand, I find Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Schindler’s List much less accurate in terms of the clean death victims in his film received, and a last-minute reprieve of Jewish women in a shower room that spews water instead of gas.
“Stout-hearted celebration of the Dutch Resistance or total smut? Try both.”
Try neither. In this film, the Dutch Resistance is shown to be fairly ineffectual and rotten from within, and smut is in the eye of the beholder. I was expecting very graphic sex based on comments about the film; it has nothing of the sort—just nudity that works in context to illustrate moral decay, degradation, and a survival mechanism.
So just what have we got in Black Book? A memory film in which Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), an émigré to Israel who is helping to build the infant nation comes face to face with her past when Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a woman she knew during the Nazi occupation of Holland, visits the kibbutz where Rachel lives. Rachel is taken back to the time when as a Dutch Jew from a rich family, she lived in hiding with a Dutch farmer who made her recite a verse from the New Testament from memory before he would feed her. He considered that Jews brought their current fate on themselves by not listening to Jesus in the first place.
Shortly after the story opens, we see Rachel spending some precious time outside, sunning herself near a lake and listening to American popular music on her portable victrola. Rob (Michiel Huisman), sailing on the lake, comes alongside her and chats her up. This lighthearted moment is shattered when a bomber flies above and drops a bomb on Rachel’s hiding place. This event sends her looking for a safe haven and in the process, becoming caught up in the Dutch Resistance.
I don’t want to give away too many details of how Rachel becomes Ellis de Vries and goes undercover, but suffice to say that greed for Jewish wealth lies behind it and most of the other events of this film. Once Rachel/Ellis does become involved in the Resistance at the behest of her employer Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), she dyes her hair blonde and parlays a chance encounter with Gestapo officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) into a job at SS headquarters in Rotterdam.
Once inside, she befriends Ronnie, who is carrying on an affair with the odious Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), and becomes Müntze’s mistress. Müntze and Franken are at loggerheads over how to treat prisoners, with Müntze favoring a more humane negotiation with the “terrorists” to prevent mutual reprisals. He carries on these talks with notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who was entrusted with the Stein family fortune; Smaal, however, is a trusted member of the underground who gives Rachel/Ellis a bug to plant in Franken’s office. When a rescue of some of the resistance fighters, including Kuipers’ son, is planned, the bug is used to ensure success. Rachel/Ellis provides access to the building.
It is about this time that a series of crosses and double-crosses start making themselves apparent. We may have guessed some of them; others are more shrouded. Rachel/Ellis eventually doesn’t know whom to trust. What she needs is evidence of a conspiracy to prove that she is not a traitor, and this search leads to the denouement and a return to Rachel’s present life in Israel.
Black Book is a melodrama. As with all melodramas, our emotions are heightened through circumstance rather than character development. Rachel/Ellis—plucky, smart, and fatalistic—joins the Resistance because she has nothing to lose. She and the handsome and sympathetic Müntze fall in love because Müntze has lost his taste for war and victory. Both characters act on the horrible circumstances they have endured rather than truly make us feel them. The supporting characters play their parts like pawns on a chessboard, too. And perhaps this is part of Verhoeven’s plan. In war, individuals become “the enemy” or “friends” without necessarily earning either of those labels.
Melodrama is often maligned as somehow more manipulative than a more psychological drama, but I think this is extremely unfair. No films are “true,” and with this story in particular, the aspects of memory fused with the truly harrowing times through which Rachel lived create the heightened emotions that are best served by the conventions of melodrama. To go much deeper could invite a pornographic voyeurism regarding feelings most of us will never understand; Schindler’s List, unforgivably for me, allowed us to do just this. Better choice, in my opinion, to let us see some naked bodies than to subject these unfortunates to an emotional striptease.
There is perhaps a subversive commentary on current times as well. Black Book carries on in the tradition of Hollywood’s heroic war films. Yet the use of the word “terrorist” has a definite contemporary ring, and one that sounds hollow to the ears of Americans who think of terrorists as the bad guys. In this film, only Nazis use the word, applying it to the Resistance fighters. In addition, the Dutch all await the “Tommies” to liberate them, not the Yanks. When the occupying forces of the victorious Allies do set up shop in Holland, they are Canadian, not American or British. This “Hollywood” film in structure and gorgeous production values has cut America completely out of the picture.
Black Book is melodrama of the highest order, and one whose lack of prudishness is as un-American as its cast. Paul Verhoeven has done himself proud and told a story, in his native land, that is much more grown up than the films it seems to mimic. I hope one day that Verhoeven’s critics learn to look a little deeper, too.
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Director: Chris Kraus
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Opening night of the European Union Film Festival brought us a lot of dignitaries from EU consulates, a lot of speechifying, and chastening comments about how much work goes into a festival like this. I have learned over the years that unlike most of the actors whose films they show, festival programmers always want people to see them sweat. At last, the lights dimmed, the black curtains parted, and the first film of the festival began with a shock opening.
A lot of barbed wire. It looks as though the Berlin Wall still stands, and this is the dividing point. Faces glimpsed in small, confining windows. Not the Wall. It’s a prison. Then bare feet suspended in air behind something. Yes, a bunk bed. The camera pans up to a young woman asleep on the top bunk. What of the feet? Is someone holding onto a bar or window ledge? No, we clearly make out from limp arms and a dropped head half cut out of the frame that a woman is hanged behind the bed. The sleeper awakes, glances at the body, and then grabs the dead woman’s cigarettes from her pocket and lights one up. Yes, Mr. Kraus, you have our attention.
Cut to some driving rock music. Is it the soundtrack signaling a mood change? No. Two large, tattooed men are in the cab of a truck, listening to a cranked radio. A withered old woman sits hugging the passenger door. She reaches over and changes the station to classical. The two men shrug and keep driving.
In these two scenes, we are introduced to the protagonists of the film—Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), an incarcerated murderer, and Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu), a piano teacher and the organist for the church at Jenny’s prison. Their characters are shorthanded to us quickly and effectively. Both women are hard, no-nonsense, accustomed to rough, not smooth. This is going to be a barbed movie.
The two men—ex-cons who are not allowed on the prison grounds by the by-the-book guard Kowalski (Richy Müller)—are delivering a new piano for Frau Krüger. The prison warden, Meyerbeer, (Stefan Kurt), however, is threatening to cut the piano program. Krüger has only four students. Krüger says five. No, one of them has hanged herself. Krüger says her first warden was skeptical about the program, too. Who was that, asks Meyerbeer. “SS,” is the reply, and we are treated to one of many flashbacks that will piece together a story of Traude’s first love and loss in the final days of World War II.
One day, when Frau Krüger is playing organ in church, she spies in a broken piece of mirror she uses to watch the service Jenny, fingering the notes of the piece on the back of a pew. When it’s time for the piano lessons to recommence, Jenny is waiting outside the practice room—a cell on her block where she is taunted by another inmate who was upset that Jenny did nothing to stop her cellmate from hanging herself. “I was sleeping,” said Jenny.
After several disappointing lessons, Frau Krüger sees Jenny ushered into the room by Mütze (Sven Pippig), a guard with whom Krüger has a somewhat friendly relationship. In fact, Krüger is a brittle, prickly woman with no intimates. She has kept company with her loss for 50 years. Even so, she betrays an interest in Jenny. Although she refuses to teach Jenny that day because Jenny has picked the skin on her hands apart, Krüger has had a glimpse of Jenny’s extraordinary musical talent. Jenny protests that she wants her lesson. When Mütze grabs her to remove her from the practice room, Jenny loses control and beats him near to death. Krüger stands by, frozen like a statue, and moves wordlessly out as guards come rushing by. Krüger visits Jenny on her straitjacket bench and begins the delicate negotiation that will bring the two women into an alliance of music, culminating in a four-minute per- formance in the finals of a com- petition at the Berlin Opera House.
Kraus orchestrates this film like a fugue, cutting through time and space. He builds suspense about Jenny and the very real possibility that she might kill Traude or be killed herself by the revenge-minded Mütze and other prisoners. Unfortunately, his film’s technical originality and an extraordinary performance by Bleibtreu can’t quite overcome the incredibly clichéd story. A clash of a teacher insisting on discipline and forbidding anything but classical music, and her rebellious student who finds expression in modern music, is as old as the hills. Making the teacher and student such extreme characters dulls the cliché but still doesn’t rescue this story. In addition, there are many moments that happen strictly to cobble the story together and create moments that ring false from their opening chord.
Further, giving us Krüger’s entire backstory is really not necessary. We see a photo of Wilhelm Furtwängler on her wall. This extraordinary conductor was supposed to have been Traude’s teacher and mentor. He chose to continue his career in Germany during Hitler’s reign of terror and paid a heavy price for it. Most likely, it is his influence that has made Traude so dedicated to Jenny’s gift, overlooking her terrible crime and extremely dangerous temperment. The remarkable film Taking Sides (2001), with one of Harvey Keitel’s most compelling and original roles and performances, truly engages this ethical dilemma in a way that Four Minutes might have liked to, but didn’t. Instead, we are weighed down by the current vogue of lesbians on film and nonlinear story lines. We lose the greater significance of the ages-old debate of whether an artistic gift forgives all personal failings.
Despite these shortcomings, however, the final, redemptive composition Jenny performs is a truly exciting piece of music, and Herzsprung gives the performance her all. If you choose to see Jenny as a representative of the new generation of Germans—and this wouldn’t be the worst way to interpret this film—she does it very well. She shows their desire to be free of the crimes and culture of the past. If they are going to be criminals, let it be in the cause of fighting the rigidity of the German state and the oppression of patriarchy. So it seems that Kraus was bogged down by the past, but trying to break free. I’ll be interested to see what this young director comes up with next. l
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Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The Conformist is a film that has attained legendary status. A beautiful and surprisingly assured work by preeminent director Bernardo Bertolucci and equally respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro when they were just in their 20s, The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after its rave reception at several film festivals. It only got a very, very limited run in the United States after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. The film also was scarce in its native country because of its depiction of the popularity of fascism in 1930s Italy.
At long last, Paramount has released a DVD of The Conformist, including a three-part special on the making of the film that includes interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. This DVD, the most anticipated foreign-film release of the year, does justice to the film (which I saw on the big screen early in 2006) and sheds light on its sometimes frustratingly oblique approach.
The title character is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). We first meet him in a hotel room fitted out with ornate, antique furniture, surrounding his nervous movements and ’30s private-eye appearance with traditional elegance. Already there seems to be some sort of disconnect between Marcello and his surroundings. Marcello soon is shown riding in a car with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), an affably viperish operative for the Italian fascists. From here on, most of the film is shown in flashback as we watch Marcello move from privileged childhood to fledgling spy for the Italian government.
Marcello is friends with a blind fascist named Italo (José Quaglio). This not-very-subtle symbol for Italy under Mussolini broadcasts fascist propaganda on the radio and introduces an eager Marcello to the Colonel (Fosco Giachetti), who can help Marcello realize his ambitions. Marcello enters a monumental building, his tiny figure like an ant moving across a vast marble expanse. He enters the wrong room for a brief moment and catches a glimpse of a ranking fascist seducing a woman in mourning attire who is laying across his desk. Marcello’s and the woman’s eyes meet for an instant. Excusing himself quietly, Marcello goes on to the Colonel’s office.
Marcello offers to try to infiltrate the antifascist movement through his former philosophy professor, a middle-aged man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is a self-exile in Paris. The Colonel knows Marcello is not a true believer, nor is he being bribed to work for the fascists. The Colonel cannot guess Marcello’s motive for signing on to the cause, but he willingly accepts. When the Colonel learns Marcello is soon to be married, he considers a honeymoon in Paris as the ideal cover.
A happy Marcello goes to dine with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and her mother (Yvonne Sanson). Giulia is a simple-minded bourgeois whom Marcello chose because of her sheer ordinariness, her good looks, and her sexually eager nature. He teases her about their honeymoon destination, and she teases him with an invitation to love right on the carpet of the sitting room. (This invitation must have been the inspiration for a similar offer from Angelica Huston to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.) Giulia’s black-and-white striped dress and the shadows created by the light coming through the blinds suggest a noirish atmosphere, but moreso a rigid geometry surrounding Marcello. His desire, like all fascists, is for strict order.
The Clericis’ train makes a stop before they proceed to Paris. Marcello moves quickly along a dock, moving behind a painting at an outdoor market of a boat on a dockside, and emerging from behind the painting into the exact scene it depicted. Marcello meets Manganiello in a boathouse where the older fascist is being entertained by a red-haired whore. Manganiello sends her over to greet his friend. He takes one look at her and hugs her close. Marcello is given a handgun, and in a move that frightens Manganiello, points it straight at the him. Marcello then assumes a couple more attitudes with the gun, practicing not only how to hold and aim it, but also to look like a man who holds, aims, and fires guns. Instead of infiltrating the Quadri antifascist cell, he is ordered to kill the man.
Once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room (the room we saw in the opening scene), Marcello phones Quadri to suggest a meeting for old times’ sake. Quadri invites the Clericis over for tea. They are greeted at the door by a large dog and Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). Marcello seems thunderstruck by her, and we get the distinct impression that they know each other. In fact, Sanda played the woman in black and the whore. She is clearly the woman of Marcello’s dreams, and he spends the rest of his trip to Paris pursuing her.
For her part, Anna distrusts Marcello and has her eye on Giulia. The two women go out shopping for gowns they can wear dancing, and while they prepare for the evening out, Anna has sexual contact with an initially angry and then willing Giulia. Immediately after this encounter, Anna goes to Marcello and falls into his arms. Her interest in Marcello, however, is to plead with him to spare her life and that of her husband.
Manganiello has tried to contact Marcello, but having lost his taste for his task because it puts Anna in danger, Marcello dodges him. Finally, there can be no more delay. We return to the present, as the two men follow the Quadris up a snow-covered mountain road as they make their way to their vacation home outside of Paris. The Quadris’ way is blocked by a car that has skidded in front of them, the driver apparently stricken. Manganiello blocks their way from behind. Against Anna’s cautions, her husband leaves the car to check on the other driver. At that moment, a number of trench-coated fascists – Marcello’s and Manganiello’s coconspirators – emerge from the surrounding woods and set upon Quadri with knifes in a scene reminiscent of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Anna flees her car and spies Marcello in the backseat of the rear car. She bangs on his window, wailing like an animal for his help. He might have helped her or mercifully shot her to end her misery, but he sits by and does nothing. She runs off and is stalked and shot dead in a scene of utter brutality.
The film fast-forwards to the end of the war. Marcello plays with his young daughter as the household listens to the radio in their house in Rome as news of Mussolini’s arrest and demonstrations throughout the city rings out. Giulia reminisces regretfully about the Quadris, but forgives Marcello for his fascist loyalty. “It was good for your career,” she says in unreflexive, bourgeois justification. Italo calls Marcello for help, and Marcello grabs his coat, though it is dangerous for known fascists to be in the streets. Giulia tries to stop him, but he says he must go, that he wants to see what it looks like when a dictatorship falls. On the street, he has an encounter that upsets everything he ever believed about himself and turns him into a raging lunatic. His fascist control is gone from inside him as well as from the city that swallows him up in the night.
So what is it that drives Marcello? What is it that he believes about himself that leads him to pursue social conformity in spite of the irrational urges that spill forth when he is confronted with Anna and her lookalikes? We are led to believe that a homosexual encounter Marcello had when he was 14 that resulted in him shooting his seducer has made him feel different. Bertolucci and Storaro state in the DVD interviews that it is the shooting that set him apart as a killer in his own mind, but I think there is much more going on than that. The man who seduced him was his chauffeur, and this man rescued the young Marcello from the tauntings of his schoolmates, who had attempted to remove his pants. So, we see right away that he doesn’t fit in, perhaps because of his family’s wealth, perhaps because he has betrayed some hint of homosexual longing.
Before Marcello marries Giulia, he goes with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly) to see his father (Giuseppe Addobbati), who has been institutionalized in an insane asylum (in fact, a massive building constructed at Mussolini’s orders). It would certainly not surprise me if Marcello was a little touched himself, or at the very least, fearful of being overtaken by the madness that felled his father and drove his mother’s addiction. Those who seek to fence out the irrational will naturally gravitate to the safe, narrow tracks of society’s rules, and certainly to fascism. (It’s easy to see how the neoconservatism of modern times that bears a strong resemblance to fascism might have arisen from the sexually and politically open 1960s and ’70s.)
Marcello’s attitude toward women is at least as repressed as his other urges. When the Quadris and Clericis go out for Chinese food and dancing, Anna asks Giulia to dance. The two do a seductive tango that disturbs the conventional couples on the dance floor and scandalizes Marcello. Quadri is content with their behavior: “They both look so pretty.” He has accepted the bisexual Anna as she is, whereas Marcello holds his wife in contempt and thinks nothing of abandoning her on their honeymoon for Anna. While he may feel an irresistible regard for Anna, it is, perhaps, more threatening to think that his conventional wife is more sexually liberated that he could have imagined. As the ultimate irrational in a man’s psyche, women must be as predictable as possible for the man Marcello desperately wants to become.
The central metaphor of this film is Plato’s cave. When Marcello and his old professor meet, Marcello reminds Quadri of the lesson about the prisoners chained to face the back of a cave, seeing only the shadows of the objects moving behind them. As in Plato’s cave, Marcello himself seems to be a shadow. This is emphasized when Marcello’s shadow on the wall of Quadri’s study vanishes when the professor opens the window blinds.
Like all of Bertolucci’s films, The Conformist is deeply sensual. Storaro provides sumptuous visual effects that make the film appear to be a dream inside a dream. Bertolucci says in the DVD interview that he always thought it was a shame that films had to be edited from the daily rushes. For him, the rushes represent the unfiltered creativity of the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Storaro and film editor Franco Arcalli manage to keep an impressionistic, almost surrealist feel even as they create a mood and narrative drive that build from illusion to horror. Lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is just a little too cryptic for my tastes. He doesn’t suggest depths under still waters, and I think that would have helped this film in its first half. Marcello is a part made for Matt Damon. As heretical is this may seem, Alberto Moravia’s novel on which this film is based may be due for a reinterpretation. Of course, no one should, or will, ever remake The Conformist. l
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Director: Jan Troell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This morning, as I got online to check my e-mail, my ISP’s infotainment service, Comcast News, flashed a headline that caught my attention: “Chicken Dies, Wife Shoots Husband.” Clicking through, I was greeting with the following opening paragraph:
Chesire, Ore. – A woman shot her husband in the back after he killed her pet chicken, the Lane County sheriff’s deputies said. Deputies said they were sure that Mary Gray, 58, intended to shoot her husband, Stephen Gray, 43. They weren’t certain if the husband meant to fire at the chicken.
I immediately thought of Hamsun.
Like the opening of that “news” story, Hamsun begins with an old man sitting at a desk and becoming increasingly annoyed with the cluckings of a chicken in the yard outside his window. He spritely races after the beast and beats it to death with the handle of his cane. His wife runs out to examine the remains of her pet and cries bitterly that everything, even her chicken, has to be sacrificed to his genius. The old man turns and walks unrepentantly back to his room, packs his bags, and moves to a hotel for some peace and quiet to work on his new novel.
The man is Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), chronicler of the soul of Norway and the country’s pride and joy as the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature. The woman is Marie (Ghita Nørby), 22 years his junior, a former actress who constantly complains about giving up her promising career to marry Hamsun. She is a lonely woman who finds herself married more to an icon than a man and green with envy over his fame. The time is the late 1930s, and the specter of war in Europe has Norwegians worried about maintaining their neutrality and guarding their own safety.
Into this climate comes a man whose name is now synonymous with “traitor,” Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal). He is in the rural village near the Hamsuns’ farm to speak about the principles of national socialism. The turnout for his talk is quite small, but one important person is in the audience–Marie. She is quite taken with the Nazi emphasis on the importance of women in nation building; she doesn’t seem to take in that this role is primarily to maintain the purity of the national bloodline. Quisling actively courts Marie as a way to get to the great man himself and attempt to secure his endorsement. When Hamsun learns that Germany is against England, a country he hates for causing starvation in Norway during World War I, he signs on to the Nazi cause as well. Marie, who is fluent in German, takes frequent trips to Germany to hobnob with the Nazi elite. She thoroughly enjoys shining under her own spotlight.
The Nazi takeover of Norway is complete by mid 1940, with Quisling at the helm and Hamsun a visible supporter in the flesh and in his editorials and letters to the editor of the nation’s most prominent newspapers. It is not long, of course, until the Nazis start their systematic oppression of the Norwegians. The outcry of a sell-out among the Norwegians puts Hamsun on the defensive. He is hounded by the press, his books are thrown into the streets by his neighbors, and worst of all, his own concerns about Hitler’s broken promises for Norwegian sovereignty alongside Germany worry him greatly.
He decides to visit the Fuhrer and meets the infamous leader in his mountain retreat, Berghof, where he is kept waiting by a scornful Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) and his minions. Hitler attempts to flatter and admire Hamsun into making the visit little more than a courtesy call, but Hamsun presses his cause for Norwegian sovereignty, reminding Hitler of his promises to Norway in exchange for its support. Hitler bristles and abruptly ends the visit, nearly throwing Hamsun out on his ear. Hamsun, thoroughly disillusioned, returns to Norway, Marie, and their troubled marriage.
From this brief description, it would be easy to think that Hamsun is more a political history than anything else. In fact, however, the film is chiefly occupied with the dysfunctional marriage between Knut and Marie and the dysfunctional family it spawned. It is easy to imagine that Hamsun was attracted to Marie’s vivacity as a contrast to his own reclusiveness, as well as her purported physical attractiveness, handsomely realized even in middle age by Ghita Nørby. But the marriage is a classic oil-and-water affair. A writer’s life is often a solitary and selfish one into which a live wire like Marie rarely can fit. In the case of a symbol like Hamsun, the private persona can be all but obliterated. When the Hamsun children show up to try to patch their parents’ marriage back together, childhood resentments against the father who was always absent, even when he was in the room, bubble up and over. Anette Hoff, as Knut’s favorite child Ellinor, gives a sympathetic reading on the old man in contrast to her siblings’ bitterness, but nothing seems to resolve. Eventually, Knut and Marie reunite to continue their inevitable dance until death.
Swedish director Jan Troell is best known, if he is known at all in places outside of Scandinavia, for his 1971 television miniseries The Emigrants. He has a real feel for Scandinavian history and manages to work an alchemy on his cast that is truly surprising, considering his two leads, von Sydow and Nørby, spoke their native Swedish and Danish, respectively, throughout filming. Jacobi as Hitler is one of the most effective screen Fuhrers I’ve seen, bringing his malevolence and egomania to life quickly and ferociously. Hamsun’s reputation was nearly ruined in Norway because of his wartime alliance, and the film suggests that it was his naivete, ultranationalism, and insularity that may have been to blame for his choice. Nonetheless, though Hamsun seems thoroughly reviled throughout much of this picture, von Sydow takes pains to show the vulnerable and often bewildered old man beneath the prim, three-piece suit. I found Hamsun to be a singular and convincing portrait of an artist who paved his own road to hell. This husband definitely meant to kill the chicken. l
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Director: Jon Amiel
Writer: Dennis Potter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir. —Detective Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective
In 1986, the 6-part miniseries The Singing Detective exploded onto British TV screens like a bomb during the Blitz—a bold, inventive exploration into the heart of darkness and the rise to redemption of one man, Philip E. Marlow, a writer of detective novels who suffers from a horrifying case of psoriatic arthropathy. Reactions were equally strong, and mixed. Some viewers decried the play (as writer Dennis Potter and his colleagues always called them) as obscene and an unpleasant way to relax at home. Others were moved by the raw emotional journey of a deeply troubled man. When the series came to U.S. television the following year, the raves were unanimous. Dennis Potter had conquered America.
Dennis Potter was the son of a miner who grew up in the Forest of Dean, on the English side of the border with Wales in Glochestershire. A rural, isolated place with a unique, archaic dialect, the Forest was Potter’s refuge and creative source after he had left it for an education at Oxford and a successful career as a writer of television plays during the golden age of television drama at the BBC. While all of Potter’s plays deal with his obsessions, particularly sex, The Singing Detective is his most autobiographical work.
Potter suffered from chronic psoriatic arthropathy, a disfiguring illness characterized by inflamed, flaking skin and pain and stiffness in the joints. Potter had to wear pajamas under his clothes with their pantlegs tucked into his socks to prevent a trail of dead skin from following him wherever he went. He spent considerable time in hospital, and that is where his stand-in, Marlow (Michael Gambon), spends the duration of this series, lost in a sea of memories, fever-induced delirium, and battles with patients, doctors, nurses, and his wife Nicola (Janet Suzman).
When we first encounter Marlow, it is on his admittance to the mockingly named Sherpa Tensay ward of a London hospital inhabited primarily by cardiac patients. Most have been confined to their beds there for a long time, and their peculiarities are on full display. Mr. Hall (David Ryall) is a fussy, lonely complainer who is irritated routinely with Reginald (Gerard Horan), whose bed is next to Hall’s but who constantly has his nose in a detective novel. (Later, Reggie and Hall will be surprised that the author of the book Reggie is reading, The Singing Detective, has been sharing their ward with them.) We get an immediate sense of the boredom and rhythms of the ward as Hall squabbles to a half-listening Reggie and mumbles across the room at the loathsome Nurse White (Imelda Staunton), who has yet again started the beverage trolley rounds on the other side of the room.
Marlow arrives bellowing in pain and yelling at the orderly to draw the curtains around his bed as he changes into his pajama top. When we see the horrible flaking on his back, we understand the humiliation Marlow must be feeling. It is compounded when the pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) rubs grease on his thighs, causing him to have an erection and climax on her. He tries to explain, but only succeeds in embarrassing her and himself more. Marlow is emotionally and sexually repressed, and it is tempting to consider his outward appearance a reflection of an inner filth.
Soon thereafter, a team of doctors comes to visit him. The senior physician asks questions of Marlow, only to be answered by the attending doctors who flank him. In a fit of pique, Marlow interjects, “Why is it when you lose your health the entire medical profession takes it as axiomatic you’ve also lost your mind?” and then begins a tearful, impassioned plea for understanding. The doctors, bone dry of the milk of human kindness, immediately discuss a mental health consult and start naming medications to improve his attitude. At this point, Marlow hallucinates an incredible production number to the song “Dry Bones” and featuring lip-synching and dancing doctors, nurses in white showgirl costumes, and gaudy lighting.
The musical numbers are a large part of this work, all songs from the 30s, and all lip-synched as Marlow’s father used to do at a local Forest pub. Potter was a man who believed in the ideals expressed in these songs, that life really was full of love and purest longing. The contrasting of such tunes as “After You’ve Gone,” “The Teddy Bear Picnic,” and “We’ll Meet Again,” with the harsh realities of the ward, Marlow’s condition, and the crucible traumas Marlow suffered as a boy both reflect and deflect real events.
Marlow also writes a new Singing Detective novel in his head to pass the time, a tale of espionage that involves a client named Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) who comes to the character of Detective Marlow after a Russian whore he met the night before in the Skinskapes nighclub and slept with ends up dead in the Thames. The imaginative scenes use the language of a Raymond Chandler novel, not the sort of thing Marlow had set out to write. When asked by Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the psychotherapist he finally agrees to see, what sort of writer he really would have wanted to be, Marlow gives the somewhat surprising answer that he would have wanted to write praises to a loving and merciful god. Yet he heaps contempt upon some evangelical Christians led by one of the doctors who invade the ward for a revival meeting. When the doctor loses his temper and says, “those who are not with us are against us,” we realize that Marlow may not be as jaded as he seems and can smell a phony a mile away.
Or can he? He is also filled with paranoia, particularly toward his wife, whom he believes is trying to steal a screenplay from him for her lover, Finney (Malahide), to pass off as his own to a Hollywood producer. This paranoid fantasy intercuts with memories Dr. Gibbon stirs of his childhood in the Forest, his parents’ unhappy marriage, and an injustice he committed against a schoolmate that has haunted him all his life. The series intercuts each thread–the present, the hallucinations, the past, and the novel–as a kind of detective story of its own. We try to piece together the “truth” along with Marlow, and are fed clues—fragments of scenes that grow longer and more revealing as the series moves along and we watch Marlow progress physically and emotionally. It boggles the mind how Potter sustained and expanded upon all these threads over the course of nearly seven hours. The writing is literate and absolutely brilliant, and the cinematography and direction give us parallel movements (a raised hand reminds Marlow of his father [Jim Carter] waving good-bye at a train station) and line readings that can be interpreted in more than one way. He even leaves us with one “truth” about Philip’s mother of which we may never be sure.
The cast is first-rate. I found Lyndon Davies, the young actor who plays Philip at age 10, particularly spellbinding. His earnest, open feelings and sad face while he prays to God from the top of a tree give the poignancy needed to feel sympathy for the adult Marlow at his most venomous. Michael Gambon’s tour de force performance ranks among the finest you will ever see on stage, screen, or television.
A work of this magnitude has many, many surprises and rewards I will leave for the viewer to discover, not the least of which is the exquisite evocation of the Forest of Dean and its people. What is most important about The Singing Detective is the profoundly unsparing humanity it offers its audience. No, this is not a show of escapism. This is meat and sinew, bone and blood. This is nourishment for the mind and the soul, both of which were deeply precious to Potter. Thank goodness there was a time when television writers talked up, not down, to their audience. Let’s hope such a time comes again. l
Dennis Potter contributed the screenplay for the 2003 film The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey, Jr. This is a highly truncated, but still interesting work that I enjoyed. DVD recordings of The Singing Detective miniseries are available. The BBC Video version has a nice extras disc with reactions to the show from the time, an interview with Potter, and a short documentary about Potter, among other features. Finally, a viewing of Dennis Potter: The Last Interview is a must.
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Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is my considered opinion that the collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was the greatest of its kind in the history of entertainment. How many directors could claim such genuine masterpieces as I Know Where I’m Going!, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and of course, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—Pressburger’s favorite film—and serve as writers and producers for many of their films? I could have chosen any of these films, which I view regularly, to write about, but Colonel Blimp is so decidedly British that I think of it as an ideal introduction to this decidedly British team. (Never mind that Pressburger was Hungarian. He was a fervent Anglophile most of his life.)
Colonel Blimp is an early entry in the Powell/Pressburger canon, but it already has a consistent point of view that would be a hallmark of the team. It also includes a number of their informal stock company—Roger Livesey, previously seen in I Know Where I’m Going!; Anton Walbrook, cast later in The Red Shoes; Deborah Kerr, later the star of Black Narcissus; John Laurie, also from I Know Where I’m Going!; and second-unit cameraman Jack Cardiff, whose distinguished career as a cinematographer would include several Powell/Pressburger films, most notably Black Narcissus.
A Powell/Pressburger film always seems wistful, watching its characters balance between tradition, honor, and simplicity and a magnetic modern world. Interestingly, Powell/Pressburger women generally are very strong-minded and ambitious, a focal point for the tension between modernity and tradition in most of the team’s films. Colonel Blimp, therefore, is a bit of an anomaly by placing General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) at the center of the vortex, a career soldier whose fair-fight ethos slams up against the ruthlessness of 20th century warfare. Nonetheless, the three women in Wynne-Candy’s life during the 40-year span of the film—all played by Deborah Kerr—become the embodiment for him of the ideal, the never-changing aspects of his world view.
The film begins in the present, with a messenger speeding on a motorbike to deliver a message to a young British officer awaiting orders about a military exercise, the very picture of the revved-up modern world. “War starts at midnight. Make it real,” the message says. The officer decides to make it very real by launching a sneak attack before midnight. He surprises Wynne-Candy, the head of the Home Guard, in his club’s Turkish bath and declares him and every other sweating body in view prisoners of war. Wynne-Candy protests that the war doesn’t start until midnight, to which the brash officer replies that by launching a surprise attack, he was making it “real.” He adds insult to injury by declaring that he will never become as complacent as the fat, moustachioed Wynne-Candy. This remark enrages the general, and he dunks the officer in the bath while upbraiding him that he has no idea how Wynne-Candy came to have his belly and his moustache. Since we in the audience don’t know either, Powell and Pressburger oblige us with the rest of the movie, a flashback begining in the Turkish bath wherein lingers a young Clive Candy just back from the Boer War, humming an opera tune, “Je suis Titania,” from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon that will create an incident later in the film.
Candy has written about his experiences in South Africa for a London newspaper, and a letter from an English tutor in Germany, Edith Hunter (Kerr), finds its way to him. The letter urges him to come to Berlin and stop horrible rumors of torture and other atrocities being spread about the British forces in South Africa. Against his CO’s directive, Candy travels to Berlin, where he meets Miss Hunter. She takes him to a cafe frequented by the rumor monger Kaunitz (David Ward) where Candy can confront him. Kaunitz’s crowd and Candy alternately bribe the cafe band to play their respective songs (“Je suis Titania” in Candy’s case), and Kaunitz at last becomes enraged by Candy’s interference. The two men trade insults until Kaunitz spits in Candy’s face, and Candy punches him. The incident results in a formal challenge to a duel.
The rituals attendant to the duel are laid out very carefully and in great detail. The courtesies observed for this barbaric feud-settler give the viewer a very clear idea of how seriously the phrase “officer and gentleman” was taken when Candy cut his teeth. Because Candy’s insult was to the entire German army, any of its officers can duel with him. The task falls to a reluctant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy has never met.
The audience is treated to only the opening parries of the duel as the camera dollies up and out a high window of the gymnasium where it is taking place. The directors let a nurse relate the results. Candy has nearly had his upper lip cut off. This injury is the reason behind Candy’s moustache. Edith attends him and Theo, who is recuperating from a slashed forehead at the same nursing home. Candy and Theo become fast friends who share the same sense of duty while recognizing that they never had a real quarrel. When at last Candy and Edith are able to return to England, Theo sheepishly confesses that he and Edith have fallen in love. Candy enthusiastically congratulates Theo, but when Edith gives him a kiss good-bye, Candy realizes that he has fallen in love with her.
The second act takes us to World War I, and Candy is on the move in France. Unable to reach his destination, he finds food and shelter at a French convent, where he spies a nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr), who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. He ascertains some particulars about her which he will use to track her down at home. Soon, he receives the news that the Armistice has been negotiated, and Candy is delighted that victory was won without resort to dirty pool.
His sportsmanlike regard for the Germans seems naive and even moreso when he meets up with Theo in a POW camp some months later, after he has wooed and won Barbara. Theo snubs him, but later phones before he is shipped back to Germany to apologize. Wynne-Candy invites him over to dine with some distinguished gentlemen. All express supreme confidence that England will bail Germany out of its difficulties. Theo sneers at this assembly when he is with his fellow officers on the train, calling them children. Theo recognizes that the rules of the game are changed, and were changing as early as Theo and Clive’s first meeting when vicious slurs were being used in Germany to discredit the English.
Act III is, of course, set during World War II. The home Clive and Barbara inherited from Clive’s beloved Aunt Margaret (Muriel Aked) is bombed. No longer able to fight in combat, Wynne-Candy becomes head of the Home Guards. He encounters Theo yet again as he is trying to enter England as a refugee. Edith has died and their two sons have become Nazis. He says he grew “homesick” for England, pure and simple, the home of his beloved wife. Clive pulls some strings to see that he is granted asylum but fails to grasp the evil and lawlessness of Nazism that Theo begs him to see. Clive still believes that a war fought fairly is a winning strategy and the only honorable conduct for military men. When their evening together has passed, Wynne-Candy asks his driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon (Kerr) to take Theo to his hotel. Theo is struck by Johnny’s resemblance to Edith and realizes that what Clive told him is true—Clive never got over his love for Edith. The closing scene has Clive standing near the site of his bombed house, which is now a water reservoir. He is reminded of a promise he made Barbara on the steps of that house, and announces his compliance: “I still haven’t changed.”
I realize I may have tried your patience with this lengthy synopsis, but I didn’t convey even the half of it. This is a rich and intricate look at 40 years in the life of a career soldier from England’s upper class, but curiously titled. During the period in which Clive Wynne-Candy lived, a cartoon character named Colonel Blimp was created by David Low. Blimp was a snobbish, reactionary buffoon whose preposterous statements were barbs aimed directly at the anti-democratic policies of the British government. It’s hard to reconcile the cartoon Colonel Blimp with the honorable and lovable Wynne-Candy. They live as one in one respect—a blindness to change and a stubborn belief in the rightness of their own convictions. I surmise, therefore, that the title refers to the life and death of an ideal as the ritualistic honor of the career soldier gave way to a people’s army and the brutality of modern warfare. In this respect, Colonel Blimp is a much more realistic and unblinking look at the passing of a modern age of chivalry than the similarly themed Grand Illusion.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Indeed, Kerr was never better, creating three distinct women that Clive never really sees for what they are. The look of this film is lush on the homefront and gritty on the field of battle. A fine example of the film’s exquisite economy of storytelling is the sequence in which we see Aunt Margaret’s blank study walls fill up, scattershot, with the heads of wild animals Candy bagged during peacetime to keep himself occupied. This sequence, shot by Jack Cardiff, sealed his fate alongside Powell and Pressburger making several movie masterpieces. An extra on the DVD of the film mentions that Winston Churchill tried to suppress the movie for its sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a German and because Churchill wanted to dispel the notion that Colonel Blimps still had a place in the modern British army. Actor/director Stephen Fry, who was filmed for this extra, mused that, in fact, Churchill himself was Blimp. Whatever you may think of that assessment, there can be no doubt that the “Blimp” of this extraordinary film is anything but a blustering windbag. He does the British Army and his creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, proud. l
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Director: Stuart Cooper
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Over the Memorial Day weekend, I tucked into a few war movies, including my first-ever viewing of the ripping epic The Longest Day (1962). This film covers D-Day from every possible angle—English, American, German, French—and took three directors to craft. Its all-star cast of action heroes (a leaden John Wayne, a diffident Robert Mitchum, a very young and exuberant Sean Connery, and many more) ranged over the wide theatre of the war with panache, while the expert script team (including From Here to Eternity author James Jones) supplied a pretty accurate accounting for them to portray.
I feel fortunate to have seen The Longest Day so soon before seeing Overlord, with its decidedly different angle on Operation Overlord, a.k.a. D-Day. The Longest Day goes out of its way to explain the strategy and events on all fronts, even including a German war strategist who does nothing all day but dream up different battle scenarios, one of which involves an “unlikely” assault at Normandy. Overlord is a unique mix of imagination and actual World War II footage that provides precious little in the way of explanation, relying instead on evocative sounds and images to provide character motivation and mood. Knowing more about the lay of the land, so to speak, from The Longest Day, helped deepen my appreciation for this moody, mournful film.
The movie opens with a completely dark screen. All we hear is persistent crunching, metallic scrapes, and engines cranking. Eventually the screen comes up on platoons of German soldiers moving along with their panzers and cannons along rural roads. They look as mechanized as the sounds we were forced to concentrate on by director Cooper. We see aerial footage of Paris, its streets empty, its Arch of Triumph the only place where human life can be seen—tiny figures that are undoubtedly German moving along its summit. Finally, we see Hitler looking out an airplane window, surveying his new conquest. This documentary bit of scene setting, done without comment, is grim—a real look at what all the fighting was about.
The scene switches to a young man named Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner), who is pedaling his bike up a country road to a neat English home. His father asks him where he has been. “The farm,” Tom answers, to get some reading material. “David Copperfield.” Tom’s father says he won’t have much time for reading if basic training is the same for Tom as it was for him. Both men enter the house. Tom pets his Irish setter. His parents give him brave smiles and small words of advice and send him off to war.
This is a scene as ordinary as can be—and likely exactly what happened all over a world at war. Its very homeliness is what makes it so touching. We instantly feel how vulnerable Tom and others like him were and are. We begin what will be a long, sad journey of dread as Tom is introduced to the rules and rigors of soldiering.
Tom arrives late to camp after missing his train. He gets the typical runaround by his drill sergeant, who makes him leave the barracks, knock, and ask permission to enter. Tom seems bemused, as most civilians do upon encountering the seeming illogic of the military mind. But systematically he is stripped of his civilian clothes, hair, and manners as he learns to march in formation, stamp his feet with loud authority, and fear getting out of line. The one time he breaks a rule is to stop with his mate for a smoke while out on a march. His friend talks sadly about the girl he lost, and Tom talks sadly about Tina. His dog. When Tom tries to cross a deep ravine to catch up to his fellow trainees, who have left them far behind, he knocks himself out falling down its steep sides and ends up thrown in the brig.
Tom is so clearly not a soldier. He’s not really even a man. He turns 21 while at camp. He runs from a chippy who tries to give him a little action at the movie theatre. He meets a girl at a dance who might be the only girl he’s ever liked. Tom understands that his temperment is so at odds with the task at hand that he is certain he will be killed in battle. His mates joke about a request he put to one of the officers. Tom asked if anyone could be granted compassionate leave from training camp. The officer says, yes, under certain circumstances such as a death in the family. Tom says that nobody has died yet, but that there is about to be a death in the family and he therefore requests leave to go home and comfort his parents!
As invasion day draws nearer, we view more archival footage of the war preparations. One particularly mesmerizing scene shows the launching of a giant spool, spun across the water by something that looked like flares on its spokes and sending sheets of water flying in all directions as some kind of camoflage. Of course, more traditional amphibious equipment shares the stage with the nervous soldiers waiting to get into the war.
We also grow sadder as Tom’s dreams more clearly foreshadow his death. Just before his unit is deployed, he writes to his parents that he expects to die. “I can feel it, like a cold coming on.” He reasons that the news would be better coming from him than from an official telegram, but in the end, he burns the letter in the bonfire on which all the soldiers are discarding any items the enemy could use if they were confiscated. “I have nothing now,” Tom muses in voiceover. He’s already begun to give up the ghost.
This film focuses on the destruction and waste that is war with expert cutting between the filmed screenplay and archival footage that comprises a good third of the film. I felt extremely sad, not vengeful or convinced of the necessity of eliminating the fascist threat, in spite of graphic images of the Blitz and massive bombings. I can’t really explain that reaction either, though the elegaic score by Paul Glass may have had a lot to do with it. There is something about showing violence stripped of any narrative or context that exposes it for what it is—madness. Adding the ordinary Tom, who sees his death as an inevitability and almost makes it happen in an ecstatic fantasy, contributes a Christlike sacrifice to the mix.
I’ve read criticisms of this film that mark it as cliche-ridden, an interesting failure. I vehemently disagree. Its very famliar story, told through an economy of words, a genius selection of images by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer John Alcott and editor Jonathan Gili, and a very affecting performance by Brian Stirner make Overlord a fine, archetypal film of war. l
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Director: Robert Bresson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A Man Escaped, one of my all-time favorite films, is a singular experience. How does a film whose title tells you how it ends still manage to be one of the most suspenseful films ever made? It’s not easy to articulate, but I’ll try.
The source material certainly has built-in drama. The film is based on a book by André Devigny, a WWII French Resistance fighter, who escaped from Fort Montluc prison in Lyon, France, where the Gestapo held political prisoners awaiting trial and execution. Indeed, a more accurate translation of Bresson’s title is “A Condemned Man Escaped.” Bresson’s adaptation clings very closely to the details of Devigny’s account and was filmed in Montluc itself, thereby creating an almost unbearable suspense by nearly recreating the experience.
Then, of course, there is Bresson’s artistry in using small, closely observed moments built up meticulously to place viewers in the position of a prisoner of the Gestapo. Consider the opening, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire film. Fontaine (François Leterrier), the condemned man of the title, is riding in the back seat of a car, his wrists handcuffed together. His eyes shift warily above his angular face framed with loose, dark hair. The camera shifts several times from his face to his hands, which move tentatively on and off the door handle. The car slows and Fontaine seizes his chance. We watch him suddenly push the handle all the way down and fly out the door. Yells and scuffling (was there a shot?) follow. Moments later, we are inside the car again and watch as Fontaine is shoved back in. This time, his guard handcuffs himself to Fontaine. When Fontaine reaches the prison, his escape attempt is conveyed to the commandant. When next we see Fontaine, he is being carried into a cell. Bloodied and unconscious, he is dumped unceremoniously inside the cell. We hear a key turn heavily in the lock. At this point, voiceover narration from inside Fontaine’s mind is added to the sparse dialogue that propels the story.
Fontaine’s further experiences are built up with equal care. He learns the tapping method prisoners use to communicate with each other through their cell walls. By examining the walls of his cell, he finds a means to look out his high cell window. He observes three prisoners walking up and down the exercise quad and stage-whispers to them about the possibility of getting a message out to his comrades. The risks of trusting anyone in this regimented setting where nearly every movement is observed are made glaringly clear. People appear and disappear, their fates known only by a quick sentence from one prisoner to another—or not at all. Notes pass surreptitiously between prisoners as they conduct their toilet. The furtiveness of each movement, the uncertainty of what each day will bring, the ever-present blood stains on Fontaine’s only shirt, put there by his initial beating—all these reminders of danger and death persist in our view.
Certain of execution, Fontaine hatches an escape plan. He notices a weakness in the boards of his wooden cell door. Saving a spoon off his meal tray, he hones its handle on the rough stones of his cell floor into a chisel to remove the boards. His neighbor, despairing and normally uncommunicative, tells him as they talk at their cell windows that Fontaine will get them all killed with his scratching. Fontaine tells his comrade to have courage. In this subtle way, Bresson introduces a theme that he will revisit from many angles in many of his later films—irrepressible fate resisted through faith and persistence. Indeed, Bresson adds a secondary title to his adaptation, Le vent souffle où il veut. Dona nobis pacem. Translated, it means The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth. Give Us Peace.
At last, Fontaine, having methodically tested his escape plan and assembled his homemade tools, must make his move. At that very moment, a young man (Charles Le Clainche) wearing a jacket from a German uniform is placed in his cell. Fontaine either must take Jost along or kill him. The tension of this moment, the gravity of his dilemma, are almost too much to bear. The actual escape juxtaposes silence with potentially lethal noise—a slipping tile on the roof, an unidentified squeaking in the yard separating the inner and outer walls of the prison. Bresson is famous for his use of sound. His mastery was never more apparent than in this film, where sound often must substitute for sight for prisoners cut off from ordinary life.
This film, like most Bresson films, rewards close attention. In fact, it would be hard to watch without fixing all one’s senses to it. In this distracted age, Bresson is not an easy director to warm up to. He is, however, one of the greatest directors who ever lived, and one who grapples with difficult, but important subjects of the human spirit. I hope you will seek out his works and come to love them as I do.
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Director: Samuel Fuller
Reconstruction: Richard Schickel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The ultimate movie is the war movie. It can legitimately include every major and minor event a human being can undergo and give imaginative audiences who have never had to serve in the military or endure the trauma of war on their own soil a raw-boned, multidimensional experience. Some film makers focus on the tragedy of war; others, on its comic misadventures; still others, on pure action. Then there is Sam Fuller, who does all this and more. Even his most straightforward scenes capture all the drama and absurdity of war with a somewhat distanced, even bemused tone.
In The Big Red One, Sam Fuller’s magnus opus and the film he most wanted to make, there is very little room for sentimentality. Our everyman soldiers are too busy moving from mission to mission with little more thought to what they are doing than to stay alive and kill Germans. Each of our main characters—The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and the Four Horsemen of the 1st Squad (“The Big Red One”), Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward)—is an archetype who barely emerges as an individual from the screen. That’s the point, of course. They’re cannon fodder to the men pulling the strings, and they know it. So are their enemies.
Griff, the most individual of the “dogfaces” (as Fuller liked to call the regular grunts of war) because he hasn’t lost his conscience, hesitates to shoot a German on the squad’s first combat engagement. He thinks it is murder. The Sergeant corrects him: “We don’t murder. We kill.” Simple. Hunters and hunted, exchanging places on the battlefield. Nothing personal.
The story of this film is relevant to a reading of the director and the reconstructed version. The original film was more than 3 hours long and was hacked to 113 minutes by Lorimar. Rather than denounce and disown the film, Fuller did full publicity for it and said nothing about what some people would call the emasculation of the film. Interesting enough, one of the scenes cut from the film was of an emasculation. The unfortunate soldier who got in the way of the trip-wire explosive yells joyously when he realizes that he only lost one of his balls and still has his penis. Fuller seems to have presciently wrote and shot what would happen to his greatest accomplishment. He had his battle scars, both from war and from an industry that saw him as a director of B films, and knew what The Sergeant knew. Nothing personal.
Some of the scathing reviews of the film I read on the Internet Movie Database seem to fault Fuller for his nearly dispassionate view of war. He saw it, in part, as his stand-in character, Pvt. Vinci, saw it—material for a book. But there’s more going on than that. A very subtle morality tale is taking place, one that holds ideology in contempt. The Sergeant has only a couple of rules that guide his command: 1) it is ok to kill anyone during a war if they pose a physical threat (“cowards”) or are “the enemy” but not before or after, and 2) children should be treated honestly. His counterpart on the German side, Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), makes the error of believing in his cause. The truncated version of the film, I understand, reduces Schroeder’s role considerably. The reconstruction puts him back in the center of things, where he is needed to make the point that if you believe in anything during a war, you’ll fail. This is Fuller’s indictment of war, and it’s a scathing one of particular relevance in this new age of holy war-making.
Other complaints leveled at the film were “low” production values, a criticism that leaves me scratching my head. If they weren’t filming in North Africa and Sicily, I surely never would have known. Another reinstated scene shows a thrilling battle on horseback in an ancient coliseum in North Africa, a visually splendid and inventive set piece. It is also an ironic setting, showing a battle raging in a place designed for sports and entertainment. We can’t help but notice that we are entertained by this death match as well, and that puts us in touch with our complicity in the bloodsport that is war.
A third complaint was that the use of a knife was a WWI method unsuited to a movie about WWII. This ignores completely that the film starts with Marvin playing a dogface in France during WWI. He’s the only one in the WWII sequences who uses a knife regularly, and uses it tactically to prevent the enemy from hearing shots being fired. By the Second World War, death was already being delivered in a more mechanistic, impersonal way. Marvin reminds us of what we’re really doing when we set out to destroy an enemy, and he does it without sentiment or, it seems, fear. The liberation of a concentration camp is the only part of the film where emotion really takes the foreground. Remember Pvt. Griff, the one with the conscience? He is allowed to express his feelings in full in this sequence, and The Sergeant has a poignant scene with a small boy without the strength to speak. This film saves its sympathy for innocent civilians caught in the middle of a mess, and brings an antiwar message home in the end.
I consider this film nothing less than a masterpiece, and as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said at the screening I attended, we all owe Richard Schickel an enormous debt of gratitude for restoring 49 crucial minutes, including 15 new scenes, to this, one of the finest of all war films. l
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Director: Volker Schlöndorff
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sixty years after the end of World War II, filmmakers are still wrestling with the legacy of Nazism and the horrors of the concentration camp. Documentaries such as Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity take up the big picture with such brilliance and moral heat that later documentaries have been boxed into smaller corners of history, examining perceptions of Hitler by his secretary, for example, or the Kindertransport. Feature films, of course, do not face this possible handicap. Their nature is to focus on the particular to illuminate the universal; the moral agency of the main character normally puts the viewer in the seat of righteousness or pity, as with Schindler’s List and Au Revoir Les Enfants. See enough of these films and you’ll get to feeling very virtuous (I’m told that not even Downfall entirely escapes a certain level of pity for its main character, Adolf Hitler). The Ninth Day does not depart significantly from the feel of other films about Nazism, but it does something quite unique for films made these days—its narrative spine is firmly planted in philosophical debate.
The film’s protagonist is Rev. Henri Kremer, an influential priest from Luxembourg who has been sent to the priest block at Dachau for his activities opposing the Nazis. The beginning of the film sets out in relatively economical fashion to orient Kremer and the audience to his new environment—one filled with regimentation and horrifying cruelty resisted mainly by prayer. Kremer shows himself to have a bit more backbone when he runs to the aid of a Polish priest who is being beaten with a metal poker for being unable to sing a song in German. Ulrich Matthes, whose much-commented-upon hollow cheeks and black eyes make him seem born to play a witness/victim of atrocity, fills Kremer with a certitude of purpose that comes from being a member of a very influential family and a highly placed member of the Roman Catholic Church. It is for these reasons, apparently, that he is allowed the highly unusual privilege of being released from Dachau.
Kremer is intercepted by an SS officer named Gebhardt (August Diehl) as he disembarks the train in his hometown and is told to report to SS headquarters the next day. When Kremer returns home, his sister informs him that their mother is dead. When Kremer reports to Gebhardt the following day, he is told his release is only for 9 days, supposedly a bereavement leave. Naturally, there is another reason for Kremer’s release—he is to convince the bishop of Luxembourg to endorse national socialism to legitimize the actions of Germany in the Catholic countries of Europe.
The film counts down each day of Kremer’s leave, adding a sense of doom to the grim, gray look of the film and putting a limit on the amount of moral debate Kremer can engage in with himself, his family, his fellow clergymen, and Gebhardt. Flashbacks to Dachau reveal a secret guilt Kremer has been harboring regarding the death of a fellow cleric whom he felt he might have been able to save if he had been less selfish. Is this sin the chink in the armor Gebhardt will be able to chip away at to secure what he is after? The men engage in a short and savage debate on the true meaning of the life and acts of Judas.
It is in this and other exchanges with Gebhardt that the audience is invited into areas I can’t remember visiting in this way since the release of A Man for All Seasons in 1966. It is one only philosophers and ethicists frequent with any regularity—the philosophical underpinning of social interactions, including moral utilitarianism and relativism. In trying to convince Kremer to capitulate, the bishop’s secretary says that resistance to the Nazis sent 20,000 Dutch non-Aryan Christians to their deaths. Wouldn’t it have been better to save those lives at little cost to the Church? We wonder along with Kremer what the true cost of capitulation would have been. Does an absolute moral good of condemning the Nazis demand blood sacrifice in the name of all humanity? In posing these questions within a true life-and-death situation for Kremer, the audience is forced to think in more than just a kneejerk way. This is the great strength of The Ninth Day.
Ultimately, Kremer utters a line that will linger with me for many years to come. In considering how he should decide, he poses a question to Gebhardt: “What does a killer want most from his victim after the victim is dead?” The answer may have little to do with Nazism, but it is a question individual Nazis may have asked themselves and one we all should to ask ourselves in considering how we conduct our lives.
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