Enemy at the Gates Movie Posters or The Oddities of Film Marketing

Very obviously every country chooses to advertise movies in a different way. Same thing with books. I thought it might be interesting to pick a movie, Enemy at the Gates in this case, and just look what I come up with. It’s interesting, dont’ you think? I can’t quite figure out which is which, apart from the last one, of course, that is the French poster. Now in France they even chose another title. Stalingrad.

Which is the one that you prefer? Which one captures the story best? I think I would prefer the third one if it had been Ed Harris’ instead of  Joseph Fiennes’ face, although… I am not sure.

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The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996) or Nazism, Symbolism and the Erlking

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre aka Der Unhold (France/Germany/UK) is based on Michel Tournier’s novel Le Roi des Aulnes aka The Ogre. The Ogre is a highly symbolical, original and complex  movie that attempts nothing less than to explore Nazi symbolism and ideology, German culture and mythology by telling the incredible story of Abel Tiffauges, a man who loves children and animals and who makes himself believe he is more than just human. The movie is filmed in English, French and German.

Plot

Abel Tiffauge’s story has five very distinct parts. Part I. Childhood. The French boy Abel grows up in a Catholic private school for boys. He is the outsider, the odd one, the one others pick on, the one the priests punish whenever someone has done something. Especially a very fat boy exploits Abel whenever possible. But he is also his only friend. When Abel is wronged again he wishes a catastrophe upon everybody. And it happens. From now on he believes he is invincible and powerful. Part II. Grown-up. Abel is still odd and a loner but he is also an auto mechanic with a flourishing business. Abel is also an amateur photographer and likes to take pictures of kids. There is nothing he loves more than kids. This very innocent fondness is mistaken for child molesting. Instead of being sent to prison, the falsely accused is sent to war. Part III. POW. Abel is captured together with his officers and sent to a German camp, somewhere near the Polish (?) border. During the day when everybody works he sneaks off to an abandoned hut and befriends a moose. One day he meets Goering’s forester. Part IV. Goering. If Goering was anything like the Goering portrayed in this part, then he was one of the most revolting beings to have ever walked this Earth. Abel is to help on his hunting lodge and gets a close look at the way the Nazis and their friends spend their leisure time. Drinking, eating, hunting. Very vulgar. Part V. The Erlking. Abel is sent to Kaltenborn Castle an elite training camp for German boys. He is happy like never before and loves to be able to take care of these boys but he also takes an active part in their training. Soon he starts to collect the boys from the neighbourhood and the people who are afraid of him call him the ogre. He doesn’t realize that he is doing wrong. When the Russians approach and people from concentrations camps are liberated, he starts to understand what he has been part of. He tries to help a Jewish boy and almost gets killed.

Meaning

So much for the content of The Ogre. But that is only one part. The movie shows us in stunning pictures what it must have been like to face Nazi ideology. The power of the imagines they created by using potent symbols is amazing. The visualization of this ideology is fantastic. Just take a look at the trailer and you see some of it. The boys standing in the form of a giant Swastika holding burning torches in the night. But then there is also the undercurrent of German culture, of everything that was good about Germany and was perverted by the Nazis. The love of the forest, love of animals, children, poetry.  Goethe’s famous ballad The Erlking is quoted and put into pictures in a very spooky way. Without knowing this poem a great part of the movie’s meaning stays hidden.

Who’s riding so late through th’ endless wild?
The father ‘t is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy ‘s well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking ‘s coming apace,
The Erlking ‘s here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down. –

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou ‘It find near by where
I live, pretty dress my mother will give.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th’ Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking’s daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one ‘s in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
“Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

The Cast

John Malkovich as Abel Tiffauges is astonishing. I think it is one of his best roles. He is such a weird-looking actor and that is perfect for this role. I particularly like the three German actors Heino Ferch, Armin Müller-Stahl and Gottfried John. But everybody else, especially those many little boys and girls, are very convincing.

The Director

Volker Schlöndorff can look back on a career with many an important movie. He is not just any director but one of the very great. He has done the war movies The Tin Drum and The Ninth Day and the movies Swann in Love, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ulzhan.

The Score

Michael Nyman is one of my favourite composers. He is foremost famous for the scores he wrote for Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion. This one here is OK but not as outstanding as his other work like Draughtman’s contract, Gattaca and The Piano to name but a few.

For me this is a 5/5 star movie. It has incredible pictures, is dense and complex and invites you to rethink Nazi ideology and symbolism like not many others. It is better than the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that is for sure. But not as good as Pan’s Labyrinth.

Other war movies with children as main characters can be found on my list  Children in War Movies.

6 Highest Ranking War Movies on all Lists of Overlapping Genres

The filmsite has undertaken to analyze as many lists as possible and came up with a total of  6 war movies that had equally high ranks on all the lists, including other genres than war movies.

Since we all love lists, here goes:

Battleship Potemkin (1925) (see my enthusiastic post)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (see my posts on Remakes and Daniel Radcliffe)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

While I do agree with some choices I really disagree with others. I suffered through Battleship Potemkin which doesn’t mean it is bad but I don’t think Apocalypse Now and Schindler’s List deserve to be among the 6 most appreciated war movies. What’s funny though is the fact that these two movies are such opposites in the way they treat their subject. While one is easily understood and a very simple, true story – one man’s fight for justice and humanity , so to speak – the other one is a conflicting, ambiguous movie. There are a few war movies that are multilayered, Apocalypse Now is certainly one of them. Not easily accessible for everyone like Schindler’s List. Yeah, well, people are fickle, why shouldn’t this be reflected in lists?

Cross of Iron aka Steiner – Das eiserne Kreuz (1977) or Showdown on the Eastern Front

…Peckinpah successfully stripped the combat of the patriotic heroism and glory that usually accrue to it in war films (Stephen Prince quoted in Under Fire p. 52)

Sam Peckinpah´s only war movie, Cross of Iron, is a UK/German co-production and probably one of the best war movies you can possibly see. It is based loosely on the battle of Krymskaya that took place during the German retreat in 1943. The original source is Willi Heinrich´s Das geduldige Fleisch aka The Willing Flesh. Heinrich fought himself on the Eastern Front. It contains quite a lot of  graphic infantry combat scenes. Steiner is one of my top favourite characters, right after Sgt. Elias, however much more cynical but a good man at heart. I have read reviews of this movie that were not favourable and I admit, it could be misunderstood. If you do not pay very close attention and take into account the opening and final credits, you might simply not see the profundity of the anti-war statement.

Cross of Iron opens on a cheerful children´s tune Hänschen Klein ging allein, in die weite Welt hinein, Stock und Hut, stehn ihm gut… While we hear this tune we see black and white footage of grim content interspersed with pictures and stills of Hitler Youth to show us the slow ideological infiltration of the German youth.

The movie tells us a story from the point of view of a German platoon on the Eastern Front in 1943. At the heart of the story is the antagonism between Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn) a much admired veteran who has already earned two Crosses of Iron and Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) an arrogant, conceited Prussian officer whose only goal is to be awarded such a cross. When tensions intensify Stransky does not inform Steiner and his platoon of their retreat and the men are left stranded behind enemy lines. They barely make it back and Stransky let´s his men open fire on them. We get to see a scene that resembles many a Western showdown.

The final credits are quite different from the opening ones. The statement  clearly is: war is pure madness. We hear a hysterically laughing Steiner, the annoying children´s song of the beginning and see black and white photos. Those photos are interesting, the first shows the execution of young Soviet partisans (see more info in B Hellqvists comment below) followed by the pictures of children in different wars, Vietnam, somewhere in Africa…

This movie wouldn’t be the controversial movie it is if there were not other extremely important elements that have not so much to do with the core story. Steiner has an affair with a nurse (Senta Berger) after being wounded. This scene, that has been criticized, is meant to emphasize his cynicism and, I believe, should be seen paired with the other female roles in this movie, namely the female Russian soldiers Steiner´s troop encounters on the retreat. It is rare that you see female soldiers in war movies unless they are Russian. Running out of men and considering women – due to their assumed patience – to be better snipers Russia recruited a lot of women towards the end of the war. There are a few Russian movies dedicated solely to female soldiers (I will review them in due time). But let’s get back to Cross of Iron. The encounter of those female soldiers and Steiner´s men gives us one of the most graphic scenes I have ever seen in a war movie. Not for the fainthearted.

All in all, apart from the central story of hatred between two men from different social classes, the movie is complex and composite. It certainly gains by being watched twice. The actors are all very good. James Coburn is fantastic.  Maximilian Schell is very good and so are James Mason, David Warner and Senta Berger.

What I liked a lot is how daring Cross of Iron is. It does not shy away from touching topics that are normally left out, it goes beyond what we are used to see and stays in your mind long after you watched it.

I must admit that personally and for reasons that elude me, I was always extremely fascinated by the tales of the Eastern front. This dates back to my childhood when I found a book in my grandmother´s library called “Letters home from Stalingrad” (it is as good as Letters home from Vietnam and not less tragic). Thinking that without the British and the Americans the outcome of the war between these two countries would have determined all of Europe´s fate gives me the creeps…

“What will we do when we have lost the war?”

“Prepare for the next one.” (Cross of Iron)

Cross of Iron is among my Top 20, that is for sure.

Winter in Wartime aka Oorlogswinter (2008) Resistance in Occupied Holland

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch-Belgian co-production filmed in three languages, German, Dutch and English. The same producers who did the outstanding movie Zwart Boek aka Black Book did also this one. There are some resemblances picture wise but apart from that the two movies are very different. Winter in Wartime is to be classified among the long list of Children in War Movies (please see my post Children in War Movies).

Michiel, a young boy of 14 years, gets drawn into the Dutch Resistance after one of his older friends, an active member of the Resistance, gets shot. Michiel takes it upon himself to help a young RAF pilot who has been shot down in the woods near his village. As young as he is Michiel has a strong sense of right and wrong and despises his father whom he accuses of collaborating with the Germans. He idealizes his uncle Ben who thinks his brother is a coward.

Occupied Holland is swarming with Germans. It is extremely dangerous for Michiel to help the young injured British soldier and he has to let his sister who is a nurse in on his secret. After a German soldier is found shot in the woods the Germans arrest Michiel’s father. Although his uncle says he can help him, the father is shot.

Michiel’s only mission from then on is to save his the young pilot. The ywill attempt to flee several times. Michiel will learn a few important lessons and come out wizened of this experience.

The movie is very beautiful as we see long takes on the snow-covered Dutch countryside. Snow flakes fall softly in many a scene, the whiteness of the woods builds a stark contrast to the dark uniforms of the Germans. Michiel is a wonderful character. Such a young boy with such an incredible idealism and courage. The young actor, Martijn Lakemeier, did a great job. So did  Jamie Campbell Bower as the pilot Jack. I also liked the relationship between the boy and his father or rather how the opinion the boy is change through the events. Apart from that I’m not too sure about this movie. You could watch it with very young people or children to teach them something about the war and values but I think it is too much of a purely invented story and does lack realism. If you watch it you will understand what I mean. There are a few things that just seem extremely farfetched.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable. Just not great. If you have never seen a movie on Dutch Resistance, go for Black Book. If you’d like to watch something on Nordic Resistance, try Max Manus or Flame & Citron. All three are great. This one is probably a 3.5-4.

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

I was thinking today, why shouldn´t  I write a post on the war movie characters I hate most? Obviously I am not talking bad acting here. On the very contrary, it is maybe more difficult to play a truly unlikable and obnoxious character. A true bully or a monster like Hitler. Bruno Ganz who stars as Hitler in The Downfall aka Der Untergang apparently refused the role at first whereas I believe I remember having read, Anthony Hopkins found his role in The Bunker to be particularly challenging and he did enjoy such a challenge.

But apart from  extreme  evil historical people like Hitler, there are numerous mean characters populating war movies. The list I made are those that came to my mind easily, those I will never forget, no matter how many years have passed since I last saw the movie. Often those really evil people are paired with good ones like in Platoon, Casualties of War and Cross of Iron.

Here´s my list of war movie impersonations of meanness or just plain unlikable geeks.

Gny. Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. THE Boot Camp Devil.

Herbert M. Sobel (David Schwimmer) in Band of Brothers. Mean and dumb.

Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon. How evil and sadistic can you possibly be?

Lt. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) in The Blue Max. Over ambitious with and inferiority complex. An annoyingly obnoxious arriviste.

Cpt Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell) in Cross of Iron. A conceited, arrogant upper-class Prussian officer.

Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War. An abusive rapist.

Lance Cpl Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush) in Generation Kill. Total lack of feeling, an empty shell.

I am not sure which one I consider to be the worst. I guess either Sgt. Barnes or Hauptmann Stransky.

I am sure the world of war movies contains many more bad people than those I just mentioned. Who is your most hated character?

Company K (2004): Most Probably one of the Worst War Movies Ever

I have watched the reaction of many men to pain, hunger and death, but all I have learned is that no two men react alike, and that no one man comes through the experience unchanged. (William March)

The above quote is taken from William March´s novel Company K on which this movie is based. The book is largely autobiographical and apparently one of the most convincing anti-war statements that has ever been written. That sounds like a great premise and, boy, was I looking forward to watch this. But unfortunately great intentions don´t guarantee a good movie. If they did this would not have turned out to be one of my very worst war movie experiences. Company K is horribly bad.

As I am a sucker for great score the music was one of the first things I noticed while watching Company K. Awful music. Maybe great in a horror movie or to illustrate what it sounds like to go to the dentist. Honestly, this score drove me up every single wall of my apartment.

It is a pity as the intentions behind this sorry effort are good, and the first few minutes when we see Joseph Delaney, aka William March, the main character how he  tries to tell his story, are promising but from then on it gets worse and worse. The acting is as bad as can be and the idea to just let us catch glimpses of the men Delaney served with is exasperating.

Delaney volunteered with the Marine Corps in WWI. Soon after arriving his company is attacked near Verdun. Trench scenes, battle scenes, mustard gas attacks, all quite eloquent if it wasn´t for the acting and this mad jumping from one character to the next.

Company K is one of those movies who gets either 1 or 5 stars. Odd, right? I hated it but if anyone who liked it reads this, tell me why.

For anybody who would like to read more about it here is  Company K´s Homepage.

If you watch it and are bored out of your mind and annoyed by the pesky music… Don´t come here complaining, I warned you!

1 star.