The Desert Fox (1951) Biopic on Field Marshal Rommel’s Final Years

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel, is based on the biography of Rommel by Desmond Young. The movie opens with British commandos trying to assassinate Rommel in 1941 and then forwards to 1943 showing Rommel at El Alamein.  Rommel, who is of poor health, is just back on the front line and faces a pretty desperate situation. The German troops are far outnumbered and any reasonable commander would give the order to withdraw. Not so Hitler whose consultants all encourage him to give orders to either win or die. For the first time, the movie tells us, Rommel starts to doubt the Führer’s sanity. It will not be the last time. On the very contrary. The movie tries to show a Rommel who goes from doubt to open criticism and even knows the group around von Stauffenberg will attempt to assassinate Hitler. While not tied to the assassination he’s still found guilty of treason and given a chance to either get a fake trial or to commit suicide in order to assure the future of his wife and son.

I must admit I expected this movie to be far better than it was. The story is interesting, of course, but the way this was filmed was not much better than a B-movie. Mason is good, I wouldn’t say he’s great but he’s good. There is just one problem. He doesn’t look like Rommel. What didn’t work is that most of the movie is either composed of real footage or scenes filmed in the studio which makes the whole movie look like a theater play broken up by documentary material.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know Rommel. Given that the title of the movie is The Desert Fox and not “Rommel’s Downfall” or some such thing, I expected that we will learn why Rommel was considered to be such a great general. Although he was their enemy, the Allies admired and feared him. The movie only shows us a Rommel who is very realistic, who knows when a battle can’t be won, who makes great suggestions, but isn’t heard. The movie also fals in showing Rommels’ humanity. It seems he was never accused of war crimes. He refused to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and prisoners.

The best part is that the movie shows how Rommel first doubts the people who consult Hitler before he doubts the man himself. Once he’s understood that his Führer is nothing but a maniac, he speaks his mind openly and confronts him.

I watched the movie Patton two years ago and thought it was outstanding. If anyone knows of a biopic of Rommel which is equally good, please let me know.

I didn’t mind watching The Desert Fox, but it’s certainly not the ultimate movie on Rommel.

Rommel’s son Manfred died last month. It’s interesting to know that he formed a friendship with Patton’s and Montgomer’y sons.

Here’s one of the best scenes in which Rommel confronts Hitler

Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

Ballad of a Soldier

Grigory Chukhray‘s movie Ballad of a Soldier  aka Ballada o Soldate is an iconic Russian war movie, which is often mentioned together with another famous Russian movie of the same time, The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli. Both films are excellent and combine heartfelt stories with luminous black and white cinematography.

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a scene showing a woman looking into the distance. The road we see is the only one leading to and from the village in which the woman lives. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. Her son has died during the war and nobody will ever know what would have become of him. The movie then rewinds to a famous scene on the Russian frontline and we see her son, nineteen year-old Alyosha, a young signalman, blowing up two German tanks on his own. This heroic act would bring him a  medal but he’d rather be granted a leave to visit his widowed mother and fix her roof. The general in charge, one of a few kind officers, allows him to take a five-day leave.

Russia is a huge country and travelling by train would always take a long time, but during a war it’s almost impossible. Alyosha’s trip quickly turns into an Odyssey. Because he’s kind and helpful, he misses his train more than once. At first he helps a soldier who has lost his leg, then he assists a young girl and the two young people fall in love. Later he helps people after the train is hit by a bomb. When he finally arrives at home, he has only time to hug his mother, exchange a few words and has to leave again immediately. Since we know that he will die during the war, this scene is all the more poignant.

The movie shows how everyone is affected by war, even those who don’t fight. In focussing on someone as kind as Alyosha, someone who genuinely cares for other people the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. Much more than his heroic act of the beginning, his humanity and kindness make us sad and we deplore that he will never return to his mother, nor get a chance to find the girl he fell in love with.

Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.

Like in The Cranes Are Flying, many shots focus on the faces of the actors who are very expressive. While the first film sticks more to the point of view of a woman, this is told mostly from the point of view of a young man, which makes them great companion pieces. The scenes between mother and son are short but still I’d say it’s one of the most touching portraits of a mother/son relationship. After all, it’s his love for his mother, that makes Alyosha persevere on his journey.

I’d like to recommend this movie. It stands out and makes a powerful statement.

If you’d like to watch other Russia war movies – here is a list: 12 Russian war movies you must see

Hilde (2009)

Hilde

I owe thanks to Howard who made me aware in a comment that the biopic Hilde, which is based on the life of  the German actress and singer Hildegard Knef, was a valid choice for this blog. Since I like Heike Makatsch who plays Hilde I wanted to watch it anyway. Now that I’ve seen it, I agree, WWII is quite prominent in the movie. What surprised me even more than this fact was to find Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame star as Hilde’s second husband David Cameron.

Hildegard Knef was often compared to Marlene Dietrich because they both were from Berlin, both had some success in the US, and they both had very deep, sonorous voices which they used successfully as singers or rather performers, which means they were talking, rather than singing. But that’s about all there is in terms of similarities and that’s one of the aspects that the movie looks into. While Dietrich was born in 1901 and left Germany in the 30s, the far younger Knef, born 1925, not only stayed in Germany but had an affair with an Nazi officer, whom she followed towards the end of the war into battle. She was part of the battle of Berlin, or, to be more precise, took part in the defence of Schmargendorf. She was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp.

Germany wasn’t too keen on her as an actress after the war. During the war she starred in a propaganda movie, which was never finished, and the fact that she had an affair with a Nazi officer didn’t help either. She finally left for the US. She was under contract in Hollywood but never got to film and in the end, returned to Germany where she starred in the  notorious  movie Die Sünderin – The Sinner. She played the role of a prostitute and appeared naked, which caused quite a scandal. The movie Hilde shows nicely how much this scandal disgusted her as it was rooted in German double standards. She couldn’t understand how her country that had exterminated so many Jews, could react so hysterically because of her naked breasts.

The later part of the movie focusses on how she discovered that the true Hildegard Knef wasn’t only an actress but a singer/songwriter. Until her death in 2002 she was always equally admired and despised.

While I love Marlene Dietrich as an actress and a singer. I have never seen any of Knef’s movies and her songs, although witty, are not my cup of tea at all. But her life was interesting. The movie focusses only on the early years, until she meets David Cameron, her second husband. I would have liked to see more.

I think the movie is interesting because it doesn’t try to make her any better than she was. She never even questioned the fact that she had an affair with an Nazi officer. She fell in love with a man, and that was that. She also never tried to hide that she wasn’t political and that she, like so many others, just watched passively. It’s not admirable. Far from it. But it’s what it is.

Heike Makatsch does a pretty amazing job in playing her Knef and Dan Stevens was convincing as her second husband. In any case, it’s a movie well worth catching.

For those interested in watching Hilde, Howard told me that there is a Hong Kong version with English subtitles available.

I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles, so I’ll leave you with the German one.

Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book aka Zwartboek when it came out in 2006 and absolutely loved it. That was four years before I started this blog. If I wanted to review it, I had to rewatch it. It does happen that a movie we liked a lot doesn’t hold up as well when we watch it again. Unfortunately this was the case here. It’s not a bad movie, it’s very entertaining, but I think a resistance movie must be a bit gritty. Black Book most certainly isn’t gritty, it’s so flashy and glossy, it could be an US production. Sure, you’re going to argue, that it’s logical, after all Verhoeven’s not only the director of Soldier of Orange but also of Starship Troopers and Total Recall. Although his first European movie in 20 years, Black Book has written “Hollywood” all over it (apart from the nudity, that wouldn’t go down so well in a US production).

The movie starts in Israel in 1956 and then rewinds to 1944. The main story is set in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is in hiding when a bomb falls on the house of the people who hide her. A policeman who works for the Dutch resistance helps her, her family and a lot of other Jews to escape. The boat on which they should be brought to Belgium is attacked by Nazis, and everyone, except Rachel who manages to escape, is killed and all the money and jewellery is stolen. Rachel watches all this and sees the men responsible for this attack from her hideout.

There isn’t much she can do and so she eventually joins the resistance. During one of her missions she meets Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, she seduces him, becomes his mistress and starts to work at the Nazi headquarters. It’s easy for her to seduce Muntze because she is very pretty and used to be a well-known singer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough not to see through her disguise.

Unfortunately her disguise is also discovered by others and she’s lured into a trap and henceforth suspected by the Resistance to be a double-agent. Things get even more dramatic when Muntze is arrested as she has developed feelings for him. When the Netherlands are finally liberated, Ellis/Rachel gets a chance to uncover who betrayed her.

Black Book is visually appealing, it’s well structured and well-paced and a really entertaining watch, but overall I didn’t find the anti-war message all that pertinent. It seems Verhoeven wanted to show that there were good and bad people on both sides and that the Dutch, like many other European people had ambiguous feelings.

Black Book is entertaining and worth watching but I think Soldier of Orange is far better and when it comes to other Resistance movies I can think of many better ones. These are just a few, which I have all reviewed here as well:

Army of Shadows,

Roma, Città Aperta-Rome Open City,

The Army of Crime,

Flame and Citron,

Max Manus,

Lucy Aubrac

I’m particularly fond of resistance movies, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d be very glad.

Generation War – Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (2013) German TV Mini-Series

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter

I finally got a chance to watch the German TV production Generation War – Unsere Mütter – Unsere Väter. It’s a Mini-Series in three parts, each 1.5hrs long.

Berlin 1941. Five friends are having a goodbye party. Two of them, the brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm, are going to the Eastern Front. Wilhelm, the older of the two, has been there before while Friedhelm is just joining up. Charlotte, called Charlie, will follow the troops to the East as a nurse. Greta and Viktor will stay in Berlin. Greta is an aspiring singer, Viktor, her boyfriend, is a Jew. The party is broken up by German soldiers. Somoen reported that the friends were listening to Jazz music, which is strictly forbidden, and they are said to have a Jew among the. They manage to get rid of the solidres but Greta, whose place it is, will be interrogated in the next days.

From that evening on the five friends split but will meet again several times over the next four years. This split allows the movie to tell the story of WWII from different points of view. First we have the scenes set on the Russian front. We see how the brothers change rapidly, becoming colder and more alienated, the longer the fighting goes on. Charlotte covers the point of view of the nurses on the Eastern Front. Greta will become the mistress of an SS officer, hoping to help Viktor get out of Germany. The officer will also help her to become a star. The officer however has no intention to help Viktor. He has him  arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Viktor manges to flee with a Polish girl. Together they escape and join the Polish resistance.

After the war, those of the friends who have survived, meet again in Berlin and drink a toast to those who died.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this series, I liked it but there were elements I found weird, and so I went and looked at a few reviews and was surprised how different the reactions were. The German viewers were cautious, some loved it, some hated it. The rest of the world seems divided. Polish viewers are offended and outraged, viewers from most other countries (Netherlands, New Zealand, UK, US . . . ) love it. The critics are divided as well. What happened?

I personally really liked the scenes set on the Eastern Front. They are the best and I found the portrayal of the two brothers and the situations they encountered believable. These scenes are almost as good as Stalingrad or Enemy at the Gates. The scenes with the nurse Charlie complement this part but are problematic. There is something that Charlie does, which has repercussions, that I didn’t find believable.

The stories of Greta and Viktor didn’t work. Greta’s story is quite clichéd. The young starlet who is promoted to stardom by an SS officer  . . .  The story of Viktor who survives the war joining the Polish resistance is the most problematic part and the one that really offended people. The Polish Resistance is shown as brutal savages who do not care about the fate of the Jews and who would kill Viktor if they knew that he is Jewish. I don’t know enough about the Polish Resistance but I agree, it’s a very negative depiction.

What the movie wanted to achieve is to show how normal German people got dragged into the war. Friedhelm, the younger of the two brothers, is by far the most interesting character. He hates the war, he is no Nazi, but he is changed profoundly.

So, these are the problems. Now, did  I like it? Considering that it’s a 4.5hrs production and that I watched it almost in one go, without noticing the time go by, I’d say, yes, despite of my reservations, I did  like it a lot because it’s extremely well done. The battle scenes look realistic, the actors are above average and the story is suspenseful and interesting.

I’d say it’s highly watchable and for those interested in the Russian front it is even a must-see, just bear in mind that it has problematic elements. It’s a good thing in any case that it led to intense discussions in Germany.

Here’s what I found on Wikipedia

Generation_War

Some German critics praised the series. [11] [3] The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University explained the series tried to show how Germans were lured into Hitler’s war and judged it would “not filter the Nazi atrocities”. [12] The Daily Telegraphwrote Generation War explored “the seductive aspect of Nazism”. [13] The Irish Times stated the series was suitable to make its spectators more sensitive for the complexity of Germany’s darkest era. [14] The Hollywood Reporter compared the series to Band of Brothers.[15] In Poland many people got upset and accused the screenwriters of slandering the Polish anti-Nazi underground army of Armia Krajowa.[16] [3] [17] Polish ambassador Jerzy Marganski sent a letter of complaint to German broadcaster ZDF.[18] The broadcaster quickly provided amendments.[1][19] [3] Polish ambassador to the USA Ryszard Schnepf sent a written complaint to Music Box, who bought the rights to the series.[20] When aired in Poland it scored record ratings. A Polish internet project Your Mothers your Fathers criticizing the series has been started [21]. It was also broadcast inSweden where Generation War was one of the most-watched non-English-language international TV programs of all time.[22] Sue Deeks, the BBC’s head of programme acquisition, recognised the “a truly epic sweep and emotionally compelling narrative” of this series.[23][24]