La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward (2001) France, WWI and the Nightmare of Facial Mutilation

La chambre des officiers

The French movie La chambre des officiers aka The Officers’ Ward may very well be one of the most moving and shocking war movies I have ever seen. I felt sick twice, I cringed endlessly and it made me really sad. It is  a masterpiece. An absolutely brilliant anti-war movie. If you thought Born on the 4th of July was horrible then you haven’t seen this one.

The movie is based on Marc Dugain’s novel La chambre des officiers aka The officers’ ward and tells the story of the young lieutenant Adrien. At the beginning of WWI Adrien is a very handsome young officer. A piece of shrapnel rips half his jaw off. He will spend the rest of the war, a full five years, at the Val-de-Grâce Hospital in Paris. At this hospital they only cure men with facial wounds, burns etc. It is like a freak show only these are human beings.

During the beginning of the movie we never see Adrien. We only see the reaction of those around him. The doctors’, nurses’ and patients’. The profound pity in these faces says more than actually seeing him. Since he cannot talk anymore, we hear his thoughts. The moment when he realises that his face is a gaping hole is so awful…

During the five years at the hospital he fights great pain, despair, horror, suicidal thoughts. Together with the other mutilated officers they try to stay alive and become human beings again.

The music is very intense (Arvo Pärt and Wagner, admittedly the second is a bit strange) and underlines the atmosphere of this saddest of war movies. Funny enough there is also beauty. The beauty in the relationships between the wounded. And the beauty between Adrien and a very gentle and loving nurse. There is also a brothel scene towards the end that is not only lighter in tone but even in a melancholic way funny.

This is a very thought-provoking, must-see, 5/5 star movie.

I only found the French trailer, I’m sorry.

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Why Saving Private Ryan (1998) is not in my Top 10 of Favourite War Movies but in my Top 5 of most Influential War Movies

I have seen Saving Private Ryan for the first time in cinema when in came out. At the time it was like a fist in the gut. The Omaha Beach landing was nothing I had ever seen before and this was very probably the beginning of my fascination with war movies. Since then I have seen many more but when I ended up doing my Top 10 it wasn’t in it. I watched it again, like it a lot but didn’t want to add it to the list. Still it is important to say in advance, no matter what my personal reasons are,  the genre has been marked by Saving Private Ryan to a very large extent. There really is a time before and a time after Saving Private Ryan. Especially when it comes to WWII movies. The depiction of war has fundamentally changed with and through Saving Private Ryan. Never before did those who watched get the feeling they were in the battle like in Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, if I should make a Top 10 of most influential War Films, Saving Private Ryan would even be among the top 5.

I guess the second viewing was a distracted so I felt I had to re-watch it. I am sorry to say but this third viewing has made it clear to me. Saving Private Ryan is never going to be among my top ten unless I would have to choose movie scenes. It has some of the very best scenes that you can find in any war movie but unfortunately it has way too many really corny moments. As a matter of fact I hadn’t even remembered such a lot of corny moments. Maybe that is why I love Band of Brothers which is certainly the closest you can get to Saving Private Ryan. To me this is like a purified version of it. But still, it is excellent.

For those who have never watched it I’ll summarize the story. An old man stands at the grave of someone and looks back on his life. Rewind some 50 years. D-Day. We are in the middle of the Omaha Beach landing. Horrible scenes are shown. All filmed with a shaky hand-held camera to heighten the authentic feel. People’s guts spilling out. Bodies ripped apart. Heads blown off. Arms ripped out. Men crying, screaming and praying until the worst is over, the noise dies down and the only thing that stays is a beach full of dead bodies and body parts. After this horror Capt. Miller gets a new assignment. We will follow him and his group well into France and behind enemy lines. He has to look for one James Francis Ryan. All three of his brothers were killed in action so people in Washington decided to get him out and back to the States. The group around Capt. Miller are reluctant to go on such a seemingly futile mission. They don’t understand why they have to endanger their lives for the sake of one soldier. This is a very tight-knit group of soldiers and that is part of the appeal of this movie. The sense of camaraderie and friendship has rarely been depicted this touchingly. There are very moving moments especially between Miller and Horvath. There is one in which they talk to each other in an empty church at night. Their closeness is palpable. Strangely it almost makes you want to be there. There are much more tragic moments however. One after the other of the men gets killed until they find James Ryan. When finally discovering him they face the biggest problem. He doesn’t want to leave. He feels he owes it to his comrades to stay. His highly decimated group must defend a bridge against a majority of Germans. This is one of the many famous bridge scenes that we encounter in war movies. Bridges being strategically as relevant as hills, it is a frequent theme. As I don’t know if every reader knows the story I will stop here.

Saving Private Ryan has some of the most memorable war movie characters. I like Capt. Miller as much as Sgt. Horvath, the Privates Reiben, Jackson, Caparzo and Mellish and of course the Medic Wade. As we follow the little group for a long time we get to know them very well. It has also one of the most annoying war movie characters in it. Upham is a revolting person. And there is of course a very mean German. In any case, kudos to the actors. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan is infantry combat at its best. A lot of intense fighting. Incredible settings. Unfortunately it has moments that are way too sentimental for my taste. I will always prefer Band of Brothers.

Now it’s your turn to rank it. 1. In your Top Favourite List 2. In a Best of List and  3. Most Influential ones.

Another of my posts on Saving Private Ryan: Mean Old Private Ryan

The Violinist Itzhak Perlman on Schindler’s List and performing John Williams’ Theme

Itzhak Perlman is maybe the most renowned violinist of our time. It was certainly particularly lucky that he accepted to perform the violin for the score of Schindler’s List. The score contributed  to a very large extent to the success of this movie. .

Sharpe’s Rifles (1993) First of a Series of 14 British TV Movies on the Napoleonic Wars

If America only knew how good this was, it would be the highest rated Made-For-TV movie series of all time (hard to believe there are more people out there that would rather watch “The Columbo Mysteries” than Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe Chronicles- that just goes to show the power of major network name-brand advertising. (Comment from a US IMBD reviewer)

The British TV movie Sharpe´s Rifles is the first of 14 installments focussing on the fictional character Lt.Sharpe. Bernard Cornwell’s novels are the source for this series. There are certain parallels to the Hornblower series (see Hornblower post) with the difference that Sharpe shows the Napoleonic wars on land. Unlike the Hornblower sequences these are full-length movies, each 110 minutes long.

I started to watch it on the last weekend and am really quite taken by it. This enthusiasm is certainly also due to Sean Bean´s starring as Sharpe. He is an excellent choice for this rough but likable maverick and daredevil.

In the first movie we get to know Sharpe and the motley crew of Chosen Men (snipers riflemen) that is very unwillingly under his command. Sharpe who is a sergeant is promoted to lieutenant because he saves General Wellesley´s life. Promoting someone from the ranks who is, like Sharpe, not a gentleman, proves to be somewhat problematic. The other officers don´t accept him because he is not one of them, the soldiers do not accept him because he is one of them. He really has a hard time proving himself and on top of that they are at war.

Sharpe´s Rifles takes place in 1809 in Portugal. Spain and Britain are supposedly allies against France but it seems as if Spain is not 100% decided on which side they want to fight.

Sharpe and his men, together with a company of officers and soldiers, are sent on a secret mission to find a banker that has disappeared and are attacked by a group of French soldiers. Apart from Sharpe and his men everybody gets killed.

In this movie Sharpe also meets Teresa or “El comandante Teresa” for the first time. Having survived rape and the butchering of her family by the French she holds  a bit of a grudge against the French and men in general. Even so, love at first sight strikes them both. The whole love story part did actually remind me a lot of the one in The Last of the Mohicans. Teresa is a strong woman, the leader of her men and a very capable fighter herself.

After they have met, the main story line follows Sharpe, his men and Teresa on their way to a little Spanish town where they must raise the Spanish flag. Ok, this is not a gripping idea but it is excusalbele as this was the first movie in a long series and its main goal is to introduce us to the characters.

From the reviews I read I can deduce that there are much better installments still to come. As a first part this was very, very promising and I am looking forward to watch more of it.

No worries, I am not going to review them all. I´ll probabaly do some sort of final assessment once if have seen the others. For the time being I just wanted to share my discovery.

Below you find the beginning of part I. I think this should help you decide if you want to go for it.

10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

In the last years Germany has made quite a few very good war movies but there are also some older ones that have stood the test of time. I am sure I have forgotten some and left out many that are co-productions with the exception of Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas because it is one of my Top 10. I will very probably mention it again when I will make a post on 10 French war movies you must see before you die.

Let´s stick to Germany for the time being.

Die Brücke aka The Bridge (1959): WWII, Germany. One of the best anti-war films ever. Shows how senseless some orders are. Young people fight for a bridge although the war can´t be won anymore. It is one of the movies on my list Children in War Movies.

Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben aka Dogs, do you want to live forever – Stalingrad (1959): WWII, Russia. A German classic. A grim look at the battle in Stalingrad.

Das Boot (1981): THE U-Boot movie. Conveys brilliantly what it is like to be helpless under water. Claustrophobic feel. Superb acting. Marvellous cast. Especially noteworthy the singer Herbert Grönemeyer.

Stalingrad (1993): WWII, grim infantry combat. German POV. One of the best war movies  ever, one of my Top 10 as well. The setting, the character portraits, the acting, the combat, the snow, the cold, the despair. A fabulous movie that gives an insight in one of the worst chapters of WWII. Another marvellous cast. Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Resident Evil, The Downfall, The Young Victoria) is in it. He is one of those German actors that are known far beyond Germany and Europe. (see my post on Stalingrad)

NaPolA aka Before the Fall (2004): WWII, Germany. Interesting look at the Hitler Youth. How they recruited their elite, how they brainwashed them. Poisonous Pedagogy. See my review for more details. This movie is also on the Children in War Movies list.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004): WWII, Berlin. The final days of Hitler. Astonishing acting from the very great Bruno Ganz. A fascinating portrait. Eerie. Creepy.  An outstanding movie and a must see even for those who don’t watch war movies. (see my post on The Downfall)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI, France. Especially noteworthy as it is about WWI. The movie depicts the so-called “Little peace”. It is Christmas and something strange is happening. The war stands still. The enemy soldiers prefer football over fighting and get to know and like each other. Based on a true story. You get a good feel for the differences of the trenches and the characteristics of the parties involved.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage aka Sophie Scholl (2005): WWII, Germany. German Resistance. One of the leaders of The White Rose, Sophie Scholl´s final days. I have hardly ever seen a movie like this. After watching it I did solemnly swear to become a better person (I am not too successful yet. It is an ongoing process. A work in progress). No, honestly, this woman or girl´s guts… So much selfless idealism and courage. I was awed.

Anonyma – Eine Frau n Berlin aka Anonyma – The Downfall of Berlin (2008) : WWII, Berlin. One of the movies I reviewed recently. I included it as it tackles a lesser known and very painful subject. The mass rape of German women by the Red Army. See my post of Anonyma.

Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron (2008): WWI, Germany. The romanticized story of Baron von Richthofen the famous German fighter pilot. Beautifully filmed, good-looking cast, very intense air combat. See my post of the Red Baron.

Any movies you would add?

As I think Sophie Scholl is not known enough I added the trailer for you.

La vita è bella aka Life is Beautiful (1997) A Thought-Provoking Italian Holocaust Movie

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La vita è bella is a very unusual movie that you will hardly ever forget should you watch it. It is touching, at times funny, tragic and sentimental. It shows one man’s attempt to protect his child from the horrors of the concentration camp and how he fails in the end. It is one of the movies on my Children in War Movies List.

Roberto Benigni, the Italian main actor, writer  and director of La vita è bella is mainly known as a comedian. People were quite surprised when they heard he had done a movie on the Holocaust. I remember that I had mixed feelings but was really surprised how well this combination works. Other critics however felt offended as they stated it was in poor taste to attempt to combine a comedy with the topic of the Holocaust. But the comedy pretty much stops when the war begins. The movie has really two parts that are strikingly different which was obviously wanted. The beautiful before and the horrible after.

The Jewish man Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is not a good-looking guy. He is not even very intelligent. He is clumsy and silly but also very funny and charming and has an eye for poetical and beautiful things. This is how he wins the heart of the attractive Dora even though she is already engaged to a future fascist leader.

The second part starts a few years after their marriage. They have a little boy named Guisoué. Anti-Jewish laws have been implemented in Italy and Guido tries to hide their meaning from his son by turning them into a game. When they know they will be deported, Dora, even though she is not Jewish, accompanies them to the concentration camp. Once arrived Guido pretends that this is all a game, some sort of summer camp for children and grown-ups alike. He makes his son believe that they have to follow all the orders strictly if they want to win.

I must admit that I did not totally approve of Benigni’s approach, but it is not a movie that is easily forgotten. And it is thought-provoking and will give ample material for discussion of various questions. Are we allowed to tell the Holocaust through comedy? Should a movie about the Holocaust be this sentimental? Wouldn’t it be better to tell it in a more sober manner? La vita è bella is also problematic when it comes to the historical facts. Children were not kept alive in the camps. Still the first part is a touching and funny story of an impossible courtship while the second is the story of a fathers attempt at keeping the horror at bay.

Did you see it? Did it work for you? And if you haven’t, would you want to watch it? Do you mind a Holocaust comedy?


We Dive at Dawn (1943) A Very Decent British Submarine Movie

I think Das Boot made every, but absolutely every submarine/U-Boot movie redundant. What’s there to say after a final statement? What is there to add to perfection? Das Boot is one of the best war movies and one of the best movies in general and THE best U-Boot movie there is. Why watch and review any others? Because there was a time before Das Boot. And submarines are not U-Boots, guess you get my drift.

We Dive at Dawn came out during the war so it is not surprising that it is propagandist.

The movie starts aboard the British submarine HMS Sea Tiger just before the crew swarms out on a seven-day leave that is aborted after just a few hours. They are sent on a secret mission after the German battleship Brandenburg heading for the Baltic sea. When finally encountering the battleship they are heavily attacked by the destroyers who flank the Brandenburg. We have the familiar elements like crash diving, torpedoing and being depth-charged. They seem to lose the fight and only a very shrewd trick helps them to escape. However they have no clue if their mission is accomplished and when diving up again realise that they have run out of fuel. What to do next? One of the crew suggests to land in Denmark and try to refuel there. Of course that is occupied territory and we get to see some fighting on land.

Submarine movies are interesting for many reasons. The hardware used as an arm is also the living space of the crew. There is an interesting difference in US and UK movies regarding the crew. Let me quote from Under Fire (p.181)

Whereas the American war film will often feature an ethnic and regional smorgasbord of characters, the british version involves Cockneys, Scots and Yorkshiremen like Eric Portman’s hydrophone operator, Hobson, whose marital difficulties are making him a surly chap.

John Mills who is in an incredible number of British war movies of the time stars as the captain of the Sea Tiger (e.g.Ice Cold in Alex, The Colditz Story (so far one of my favourite POWs), Above us the Waves, Dunkirk). He is a good actor. No doubt about that.

All in all this is a decent movie. Interesting characters and side stories, gripping combat (not that land bit, that is so so). We Dive at Dawn is a black and white movie which enhances the atmosphere.

I haven’t seen all that many submarine movies. Once I have had a chance to watch and review a few more I will be able to give a decent evaluation. For the time being, should you only watch one sub movie in your lifetime, then stick to Das Boot but if you like the genre, don’t miss We Dive at Dawn.

I couldn’t find a trailer but added an excerpt instead.