El Alamein – The Line of Fire aka El Alamein – La linea del fuoco (2002) An Italian War Movie

El Alamein

Italian movies on WWII are rare, so when I saw El Alamein – The Line of Fire aka  El Alamein La linea del fuoco in a DVD shop I had to buy it right away. Thankfully it was well worth buying as I will certainly watch it again. Sure, the year is still young but I think it’s safe to say that this one will be on my Best of 2013 List. I liked it a great deal.

El Alamein is told from the point of view of philosophy student Serra. Serra has volunteered in 1942 after hearing that the Italian troops were in urgent need of reinforcements. Following the point of view of a young, naive and inexperienced private is common in war movies but in this case it works particularly well as Serra is the philosophical, introspective type. Seeing through his eyes gives the movie a lyrical feel that is underlined through a beautiful score.

Serra expects to see action right away but the Pavia Division, located on the southern line in Egypt, is more like an outpost. Boredom, inertia, heat, hunger, thirst and endless days of waiting for an enemy they cannot see but who bombards them frequently is the daily fare. This allows the men, to get to know each other, to experience the desert fully; its harsh beauty and the dangers it brings.

When they go on reconnaissance they have to fear for their lives as the terrain around the outpost is covered in mines and walking about is dangerous.

The situation is also very absurd. What are they doing there? What are they guarding? Nothing much is happening. I felt reminded of Dino Buzzati’s excellent novel The Tartar Steppe (Il deserto dei tartari).

When the British finally attack, the Italians do not stand a chance. There are twice as many British troops, they are better equipped, better fed, their morale is much higher. The Italians are demoralized for many reasons. The Germans don’t take their ally seriously, they let them do the dirty work. As it was so often the case, the high command of the Italain’s proves to be clueless. In one scene it is shown that while there is no food or water, truckloads of shoe creme are sent through the desert for a parade.

After the attack during which almost the whole of the Pavia and other Divisions died, the troops flee in confusion, not knowing where to go and what will happen next. Serra, Sgt Rizzo and Lt Fiori end up on their own and try to get through the desert with hardly any food or water.

While the first half of this movie is very quiet and takes a lot of time to give us a feel for the situation the Italians faced and to introduce the characters, the second half is action driven.

The funny thing is that while watching this, you soon forget that the Italians were fighting on the wrong side. The characters are so likable and they seem such helpless victims of their government that you can only feel pity.

I liked the many intimate moments, the discussions between the soldiers, the mood, the atmosphere. At times the movie felt like a combination of All Quite on the Western Front and Ice Cold in Alex.

I highly recommend this wonderful movie to anyone interested in war movies and WWII.

I couldn’t find a trailer, let alone with English subtitles, but here’s the full movie – in Italian.

They Were Not Divided (1950)

THEY WERE NOT DIVIDED

I’m usually quite lucky in my choices of older British movies. Some I’ve watched in the past make my extended best of list. However, They Were Not Divided will not be on that list. It’s not a bad movie but it felt at times as if the director had intended to make a war movie – based on true events (!) – which is suitable for the whole family. The result is a bit too cute for my taste.

At the core of the movie is the friendship between a British, an American and an Irish soldier. Especially the Englishman Philip Hamilton and the American David Morgan are very close. After having undergone intense training which we are shown in a long boot camp sequence, which reminded me a bit of Full Metal Jacket, the three men are promoted and assigned to serve in the tank company of the Welsh Guards.  Two thirds of the film are taken up by the boot camp and further tank training episodes, occasionally interrupted by leaves which they spend at Philip’s home. During one of those leaves, David meets an English girl and falls in love with her.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationships in the movie. The marriage between Philip and his wife is explored as well as the relationship between David and his future fiancée.

The last part of the film, could finally be called the real war movie part. The three main characters land at Normandy weeks after D-Day as part of the Welsh Guard’s Armoured Division. They quickly see combat and have to cope with fighting a war in another country, far from their wives and girl friends. The film then picks up speed and we see many of the crucial moments of WWII: Operation Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge. We see how the Welsh Guards join American paratroopers at the Grave bridge before moving to Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden. The film ends with the Ardennes Offensive and the Guards’ unknown operations around the east side of the river Meuse. I suppose it isn’t spoiling the movie too much if I mention that not everyone survives.

I think They Were Not Divided isn’t exactly a must see but I’ve seen far worse. It’s an ok movie, it just doesn’t really have anything that stands out with the exception of some quite humorous scenes during the boot camp sequence. It’s safe to say that even the very squeamish can watch this. If you’re looking for a WWII film to watch with the whole family, this could be your choice.

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Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

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I wanted to finish the year in style and a review of the black and white movie Twelve O’Clock High seemed fitting. This is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies and while I wouldn’t exactly give it a five-star rating, like so many critics did, I still think it’s a very important movie and the acting is superb.

Most air combat movies I have seen so far, with very few exceptions, showed the point of view of the British or the Germans. This is one of the rare depicting the American side.

In 1942 the US Air Force conducted daylight bombing raids. They thought that the precision of daylight bombing would speed up things and end the war earlier. However this put the pilots under a lot of additional pressure. 918th Bombardment Group was one that took much higher casualties than others. Their morale was pretty low, their squadron leader on the brink of a breakdown. Their explanation for their losses was “bad luck”.

Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) doesn’t want to hear any of this. He believes that leadership or rather the lack thereof is the main reason. The squadron leader is too attached to his men, identifies with them which clouds his judgement.

When Savage takes over the command he faces open resistance. The men don’t want such a hard and seemingly unfeeling leader and want to be transferred. Savage won’t let go. He works on their morale, assigns new leaders, regroups the men, even has the change their sleeping quarters. While they are hostile in the beginning, the first raids show, what he teaches makes sense as there are fewer casualties. On top of that he flies every mission with them.

Outstanding leadership, unflinching command, show results and soon the morale is high again and the men start to admire and even like Savage. Unfortunately the intensity of his assignment comes at a high cost.

While the beginning of the movie is extremely wordy, the second half is perfect. A lot of original footage heightens the authenticity and Savage’s character is one of the most interesting in any war movie. As said before, I wouldn’t exactly give this 5 stars (I found the beginning too slow) but it’s certainly a very good movie and Gregory Peck’s acting is outstanding.

Don’t let the poster fool you, by the way, Twelve O’Clock High is a black and white movie.

Reach For The Sky (1956) Biopic of a Famous RAF Bomber Pilot

Reach for the Sky

If Reach for the Sky wasn’t a true story it would be one of those movies which you’d just shrug off as way over the top but since it is based on a true story it leaves you astonished.

Reach for The Sky is the story of one man’s love for flying which was so intense that it made him  overcome one of the worst things that can happen to a man and later turned him into a legend.

Douglas Bader is a passionate and reckless young RAF pilot when in 1931, while showing off his talents in front of other pilots, he has a terrible accident which costs him both legs.

Determined and optimistic as he is, he makes the impossible possible and soon learns to walk on tin legs, without help or a crutch. Shortly after leaving the hospital, still on crutches during that time, he meets his future wife and love of his life Thelma.

The only bitter moment comes for him when they don’t accept him as a pilot anymore and he has to do desk duty.

If it wasn’t for WWII he may never have flown again but when war breaks out he undergoes tests and is judged fit for service.

The story which is already quite remarkable until that point, gets truly astonishing now. Not only does he fly one mission after the other, survives the Battle of Britain but he becomes one of the best-loved wing commanders until he is shot down in 1941.

He survives and is captured by the Germans. As a POW he shows the same determination as earlier in his life and escapes several times from different camps until he’s finally sent to Colditz castle where he remains until the end of the war.

Douglas Bader’s story is truly amazing. It would have been so easy to just fall into a deep depression and withdraw from life but Bader was a fighter and nothing, absolutely nothing, could put that man down or stop him. And he was a passionate pilot. As much as he loved his wife, we get the impression that he loved flying even more.

A story like this is quite inspiring but that wouldn’t make this a great movie. What makes it great is the way it is told. While the first half focusses on Bader, his accident and how he learned to walk again, the second half focusses on WWII, the Battle of Britain, the dog fights… It’s quite suspenseful and interesting. It’s not easy for Bader to be accepted at first. The young pilots are a bit taken aback when they find out their wing commander has no legs.

I wasn’t familiar with the main actors Kenneth Moore and the lovely Muriel Pavlow but they were both really good.

It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII, the Battle of Britain and true stories about resilience and overcoming a tragedy.

The Haunted Airman (2006) BBC TV Drama

The Haunted Airman, starring Julian Sands, Robert Pattison and Rachel Stirling is a 70 minutes BBC TV production based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Haunting of Toby Jugg). I thought it was a great choice for this time of the year as it is quite eerie; a mix between psychological drama and horror story.

A young RAF bomber pilot is shot down. His wounds are considerable and he becomes a paraplegic in a wheel chair. His aunt Julia, a widow, decides to bring him to an asylum where the mysterious Dr. Hal Burns treats soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. The asylum is located in one of those huge English country houses.

Toby suffers from different symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Nightmares, hallucinations, visions, phobias. He sees burning cities and dead civilians, relives the night in which he is shot down, imagines being attacked by giant spiders.

Julia is his aunt by marriage. She is gentle and beautiful and Toby is clearly very much in love with her and dreams of marrying her. He writes to her frequently but she never replies. One day he finds out that the sinister doctor has kept back all the letters.

From then on tragic and dramatic things happen. The end is a bit weird and mysterious.

I didn’t mind watching this, it had a gothic, haunted house feel, the images were quite beautiful and Pattison and Sands act quite well. Still, I didn’t really know what to make of it all and didn’t get the end. I went to IMDb and saw that the reviews were extremely mixed. Either 8-10 or 1-2 stars.

I’d say it’s a movie you either love or hate. Being a Robert Pattison fan would certainly influence the reaction.

I don’t like rating movies this much, but in this case, I’ll try to. I’d give it 4 stars for the actors and the cinematography and 1.5 stars for the story. Whether it is OK to turn PTSD into entertainment…

I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

Klemperer – Ein Leben in Deutschland – A Life in Germany (1999) German TV Mini-Series

When Klemperer was first aired on German TV, I watched the first episodes but because I was moving I had to stop after the fourth. I always meant to re-watch the beginning and finally finish the whole series which consists of 12 episodes.

I had really liked the beginning at the time and now that I have finally re-watched those first four episodes I’m glad I still like it, maybe even more and I’m keen on watching the rest. However it’s very depressing. I didn’t remember it to be this upsetting but maybe it’s just me and I’m in a funny mood.

The series is based on Viktor Klemperer’s war diaries, 8 volumes of several thousand pages (here in English Viktor Klemperer’s diaries and in German here). The diaries are a fascinating document. I’ve read the first and it’s breathtaking. Klemperer was a professor of French literature, highly intelligent and with an amazing knowledge which all goes into the diary. He was also Jewish. The amazing thing in the series and the diary is the fact that it shows a man who is incapable of seeing what is going on and that we witness an amazingly intelligent person’s blindness. I find it must have taken a lot of guts to publish this diary because while it is very human it is still such an incredible flaw to be this blind.

To watch the series is eerie. It starts in 1933, just after Hitler was elected. At first there are just a few warning signals. Klemperer isn’t allowed to test non-Jewish students anymore, later he will not be able to publish anymore, they will remove him from certain classes and finally he will be fired. While many of his friends leave Germany very early, he doesn’t want to leave, he always thinks that maybe he will be exempt from the next measures only to find out that he wasn’t. His wife is not Jewish and since he himself isn’t religious, he always thinks they will make an exception for him. They even start to build a house.

Klemperer’s wife is an amazing character as well as she is so flawed and naive. She still moans about not being able to go on holidays when he has already been fired because he is Jewish.

As I already mentioned, the series is quite long. There are 12 parts of 45 minutes each, which means they have taken a lot of time to show the whole story and include a lot of details. I already know that the Klemperers will end up being sent to a camp but survive. Because it spans such a long time, 1933 – 1945, it really feels at times like having been there, having experienced some of it.  It is one of the best TV series I’ve ever seen. It has been very carefully executed and with Matthias Habich and Dagmar Wenzel, they have chosen two of the best German actors. Habich is one of my favourites, and one of the rare I like almost as much as Bruno Ganz.

A far as I know, there is no version with English subtitles available which is a pity. At least the diary is available in English too.

Mephisto (1981)

I wonder what took me so long to watch Mephisto for the first time. István Szabó‘s movie is an absolutely riveting and chilling tale of one man’s betrayal of everything he once believed in and all the many self-deceiving lies he tells himself.  I have always been fond of Klaus Maria Brandauer but this must be one of his very best roles. He is simply astounding.

Mephisto is loosely based on Klaus Mann’s eponymous novel. The story is quickly summarized. Henrik Hoefgen is a famous actor in Hamburg in the early 30s. Hamburg is provincial compared to Berlin and Hoefgen has dreams and hopes and sees himself already as Germany’s most famous actor in the future. While he is most certainly very talented he is equally narcissistic. On the other hand he is full of idealism and flirts with communism. When he plays Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust, he is discovered and receives an invitation to Berlin. Finally his dreams come true. He will be an actor at Germany’s leading theater. In Berlin, as well, it is the role of Mephisto which brings him a lot of admirers, some of which are prominent Nazis. It doesn’t take long and the Nazis try to instrumentalize him. In love with himself and his success he doesn’t see this at first. Soon he becomes the governments pet actor, speaks in its name at openings and supports the government.

While he may be oblivious of the consequences at first, when he starts to realize he has sold out, he begins to lie to himself and pretends it isn’t the artist’s duty to be political. He even goes so far as to pretend that an artist lives outside of everything.

Mephisto is a riveting character portrait and an in-depth analysis of what can become of someone whose conformity and lust for success make him forget that he has a responsibility. The movie looks especially into the responsibility of the artists. While many chose to leave the country as soon as possible, those who stayed often pretended it was their duty not to abandon the country in its hour of need and that those who left were cowards. It’s obvious that the famous actor Gustaf Gründgens, who also worked with Klaus Mann, has served as a model for Hoefgen.

Mephisto is certainly one of the best movies I have seen this year; it’s intelligent and entertaining and the acting is amazing.  So far this is my favourite of István Szabó’s movies. I haven’t seen Colonel Redl yet, – equally starring Klaus Maria Brandauer – but I’m very keen now.

Die Flucht – March of Millions (2007) German TV production about the Flight from East Prussia

This is one of those stories that needed telling. East Prussia, this vast and beautiful region in Germany, was quite peaceful during the war until the Eastern Front collapsed and the Russians started invading Prussia and moved towards Berlin. The people living there had but two choices. Stay and face the Russians who were not exactly going to handle them with care. Or  to flee and leave all their possessions behind. East Prussia was the home of many aristocratic families who lived at ease on huge estates. Theirs was a life of wealth and tradition. Leaving was extremely hard on them and for many it took a long time until they made up their minds. Too long in some cases. For those who had less, it wasn’t any easier. Not only did they have to leave everything behind, they didn’t know where they were going or if they were not going to be outrun by the Russians.

You see, a lot of potential for a great story and all of the above is shown in Die Flucht – March of Millions. Unfortunately even historical events like this need good storytelling and that’s where I’m not happy with this two-part German TV production. While it’s not bad, I would have preferred if they hadn’t decided to turn the second half into a love story.

Lena, countess von Mahlenberg (Maria Furtwängler), leaves Berlin and returns to her family’s estate in East Prussia. Things still look pretty much the same as they did before the war with the exception of French POWs – led by cranky François (Jean-Yves Berteloot) – working on the estate. And there is also a  panicky feeling underneath the surface. Things do not look good for Germany. That they will win the war is not very likely anymore and what this could mean for them, this close to the Eastern front, starts to dawn on a few people.

The von Mahlenberg’s are friends with another aristocratic family, the von Gernstorffs. Lena is going to get married to their older son although she doesn’t really love him. The younger son who is in love with her as well, is one of the only ones to clearly say that Germany will lose the war. He is fighting on the Russian front and scared of dying. When he deserts, the family breaks apart.

Meanwhile Lena wants to flee together with the POWs who have been working for her and with all of the people who live on the estate.

The first part of the movie is dedicated to the time before they flee, the second focusses entirely on that long march.

Many of the elements are interesting and dramatic. The tensions among the Germans, the justified fear of the Russians, the tragedy to lose your home and to be unwelcome wherever you go, is shown quite well.

What I liked too were the pictures. I have never been in East Prussia but those vast landscapes seem very beautiful and they were beautifully filmed. What did not work is the love story. I think this movie could have been dramatic without a love story but on top of that it didn’t seem very realistic.

In any case, a watchable movie but not as good as I had hoped for. I think however this would be successful in the US or the UK as, like Dresden or Anonyma, it shows aspects of German history and suffering we sometimes tend to forget. Of the three movies I liked Anonyma best but I’m fond of Dresden as well, although it has corny elements.

I’m not sure Die Flucht is available in English. I attached the German trailer and for those interested in the history of East Prussia during WWII, a documentary in English which looks quite good.

Habermann (2010)

The German/Czech/Austrian co production Habermann tells a chapter of German history which is easily forgotten. The movie is based on a true story and tries to exemplify the destiny of the Germans living in Sudetenland. This is one of those movies which touch on a historical fact which is so painfully absurd in its arbitrariness one can hardly believe it.

Habermann is a rich mill owner in Sudetenland. The tragedy of the Sudetenland was that it belonged to Czechoslovakia before the war but almost 90% of the people living there were Germans. When Germany decided to annex the Sudetenland in 1938 this posed a huge problem to people like Habermann who lived peacefully with the Czechs. Habermann’s best friend is a Czech (Karel Roden), many of his mill workers, his accountant and other people in important positions are Czechs. Being so friendly with the Czechs makes him look suspicious to the German authorities who take up residence in the small village in which he lives. When the despotic and sadistic Sturmbannführer Karl Koslowski (Ben Becker) arrives in the village, things go from bad to worse. He wants Habermann to get rid of the Czech workers, spies on him and the Czechs, bullies and controls him.

But the worst isn’t even known to Habermann and his wife yet. Although she grew up as an orphan and was  brought up by Catholic nuns, her father was a Jew. When Koslowski finds out, the tragedy cannot be averted.

Another dramatic story line circles around Habermann’s young brother you joins the Nazi’s.

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie and the story of the Sudeten Germans is a story which needed telling. The real tragedy for most only started after Germany lost the war and the Czechs turned against them. This drama is shown well but what I didn’t find too good is that there is too much emphasis on the character of Koslowski. Ben Becker is one of my favourite actors and I watch every movie he’s in. I think he is simply brilliant but he is also the type of character who just crushes everyone around him. He is often chosen to play a nasty Nazi villain and does that well, only giving him this role, putting so much emphasis on this characters, almost makes you think that the whole tragedy was linked to this one man while this was a collective tragedy and not just related to one sadistic character.

Still overall I think Habermann is well done, not one of the best but a very watchable movie and the actors, Ben Becker, Karl Roden, Mark Waschke as Habermann, Hannah Herzsprung as his wife, are really good.