Beneath Hill 60 (2010) Australian Miners Fighting in The Tunnels of WWI

I am really glad to be able to dedicate this year’s last review to a movie that came out in 2010. I am also glad that the Australian movie Beneath Hill 60 was one of the biggest surprises of this year. After having watched a few more recent war movies like Everyman’s War and Passchendaele my hopes were not too high. I was wrong. This is a thoroughly good movie in which everything is right. The main story, the accuracy, the flashbacks, the actors, the score, the pictures, all together make a great combination. Last but not least the movie is based on a true story that is maybe not universally known but truly amazing. In 1916 Australian miners were digging tunnels beneath the trenches. The worst of those tunnel systems was located beneath Hill 60, in Belgium. The aim was to blow up the whole hill and the trenches around it. The outcome was the biggest explosion ever. It could be heard as far as London and Dublin.

At the beginning of the movie the men around Captain Oliver Woodward are digging in the tunnels beneath the trenches in France. Woodward is a newbie and as  such has to prove himself first. Unfortunately he makes a mistake when he doesn’t realize that the sound one of the miners hears isn’t his own heart but digging sounds of the Germans. The movie is full of suspenseful moments when the digging miners have to stop and listen, if there are Germans close by. Whoever gets a chance will blow up parts of the tunnel system and the fight will rage underground. As claustrophobic as it is inside of the earth, it is still more secure than above. Every time the men get out of the tunnels, they see the madness of the war in the trenches, the constant shelling, the mud, the never-ending rain. The young miners can hardly handle to be outside; they are scared to death.

After his initial misjudgment Woodward soon proves to be more than worthy and he and his team achieve one difficult mission after the other, below and above ground. The story in the tunnels is interspersed with flashbacks. We see Woodward in Australia. He is an engineer with a mining company, freshly returned from Papua New Guinea. There is of course a love story but it is far from schmaltzy and just emphasizes Woodward’s character. He is gentle, intelligent, very able and has a great sense of humour. Newer war movies often operate with such flashbacks and mostly they are not successful. The flashbacks disrupt the movie and add a sugar-coating that is hard to swallow. This is not the case here. It’s a great diversion from the rest of the movie that shows mostly very dark scenes in the tunnels. Some of the tunnels are constantly under the threat to be flooded and water is dripping endlessly. A good sound system does come in handy. The sound effects are absolutely brilliant. Honestly, you will check your cupboards, to make sure, they didn’t start leaking.

The camaraderie between these fine men is depicted in a nice way, and every loss is felt by the spectator as well.

As far as setting goes, this is one of the most extreme. The men are in these tunnel systems almost day and night. Anything more claustrophobic is hard to imagine.

I would really urge you to watch this film. It is certainly the best that came out this year, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Australian filmmaking proves once more what it is capable of. The film director knew how to combine a well-told true story with the right amount of emotion. I couldn’t find the tiniest flaw.

I already attached the trailer in my List on Australian War Movies but decided to attach it again.

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La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.

The Counterfeiters aka Die Fälscher (2007) The True Story of the Biggest Counterfeiting Operation of all Times

Die Fälscher aka The Counterfeiters is one of the most highly acclaimed Austrian/German movies of the last years and got many prizes. It’s a good movie, based on an incredible true story, with great actors and some very thought-provoking elements but…. But what? I am at a loss. Did I not like it? Maybe not but there are many war movies I absolutely don’t like but still think they are great or very good. Why not this one? It does belong to the subcategory of Holocaust/concentration camp movies and as such it is not up to others, maybe that is the reason… I found the story fascinating and the dilemma worthwhile, still….

Solomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a Russian Jew, lives the good life in Berlin, just before the war. He is the king of the counterfeiters. He has a lot of money that he spends on champagne, women, parties and gambling. The good life ends when Superintendent Friedrich Herzog arrests him. He is sent to the concentration camp Mathausen. Mathausen is a concentration camp just like Auschwitz. Forced-labour, unspeakable conditions, dirt, no food, abuse, mistreatment…When a guard discovers Sally’s talent as an artist, his life changes. He isn’t treated like the others anymore. In exchange for paintings for the Germans he gets privileges. After some time he is transferred to Sachsenhausen where he and a big group of others will live in luxurious barracks. They have been picked by the very same Herzog who arrested Sally. They have all been chosen for particular skills and are ordered to start to forge first the British Pound and then the American Dollar. Sally has no morals, as long as he can save his life and live comfortably he doesn’t care too much how he achieves this goal. But there are others in the group who do not think that way. To forge the currency of the Allies means to help the Nazis. If it wasn’t for a particularly sadistic guard – who knows – maybe Sally’s conscience wouldn’t have been awakened but in the end it is.

When the war is over, Sally knows once more how to make the most out of the situation, and, like before, in the end, being the gambler he is, he loses all.

The movie does ask some interesting questions. Is it justifiable to want to save your own life? Should you sacrifice a few for many others?

Sorowitsch is a fascinating character and his skills are amazing. It is an interesting movie and if I hadn’t felt, that I have to like it, maybe I would have appreciated it more.

Tomorrow We Live (1943) British Black and White Movie on French Resistance

Do NOT mix this up with the US movie with the same title. They are not exactly in the same league. The US movie is very clearly a B-Movie and has absolutely no war theme in it. Tomorrow We Live aka At Dawn We Die is a British movie on the French Resistance. It is unlike anything I have seen before. Apparently the film makers got the support of General de Gaulle. Be it as it may, this is forties cinema at its best. Atmospheric, black and white, gaslight feeling… It seems as if every scene was shot in the studio (and likely was) which makes it look at times like a theater play. It does look artificial but it also has a very special charm because of this. Many of the scenes reminded me of the feel of an Edith Piaf song.

Jean Baptiste, a member of the French Resistance is a fugitive on his way to England. He lands in a little occupied French town swarming with Nazis. A young woman, the daughter of the mayor,  helps him to hide and find a place where he can spend the night. There are quite a few female characters who all have an interest in Jean Baptiste. Some want romance, others see their son in him, and others just want to help him and use him for their plans. The mayor and his daughter are seen by many as collaborators. In fact this is just a cover for them. Unknown to anyone they are the leaders of the town’s resistance and organize many acts of sabotage. Like in any Resistance movie you have some vile and treacherous characters who really collaborate.It’s frankly quite entertaining but what I liked most is that it is so dated. Movies like this are not done anymore. They were probably not even done anymore in the fifties. I would say it has an appeal  for any cinephile and not necessarily for someone interested in war movies only. Some of the characters are great, reminiscent of Fellini. Many are funny eccentrics. And we got some mean and ridiculous Germans too. The way they are treated is quite amusing. They are so full of themselves, it’s easy to annoy them; loud yawning and singing during a broadcast of Hitler at the cinema will suffice, to infuriate them.

Tomorrow We Live is special and entertaining, the right thing to watch during the festive season. I can see how this was supported by de Gaulle. It bestowed a little light on those dark and bleak days of the Vichy Regime.

Australian War Movies: A List

Australia, like so many other countries, has participated in many wars and  it is actually amazing that, even though it hasn’t done all that many war movies, has done some that are considered to be the best of their kind. I am talking about the three movies of the Australian New Wave, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and The Lighthorsemen. They are very different but all three are outstanding. When just starting this blog I watched and reviewed another, much more recent movie, Kokoda. It is flawed but still a very good movie. I started to wonder if there are any other ones and found a few that I haven’t seen. The latest one on the list is from 2010.

Whoever is familiar with my blog knows that I make lists that I often consider to be a work in progress. It is very possible that this list will change over the months and years.

40’000 Horsemen (1941): WWI

The Rats of Tobruk (1944): WWII; North Africa.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979): Australians in Vietnam.

Breaker Morant (1980): Second Boer War. True story. The court-martial of Breaker Morant. Three officers are accused of a war crime. Outstanding legal drama and a truly tragic story (see my post on Breaker Morant).

ANZACS (1985, TV mini-series): Thanks to Soldier’s Mail I can add this one to my list. WWI, ANZACs are followed from Gallipoli to the battlefields of the Somme, Vimy Ridge etc.

Gallipoli (1981): WWI, ANZACs on the Turkish front. Intense infantry combat. Magnificently displays the senselessness of it all.

The Highest Honor (1982): WWII. True story. British and Australian raid on Japanese occupied Singapore harbour.

Attack Force Z (1982): WWII, Southwest Pacific.

An Indecent Obsession (1985): WWII, Pacific (?)

The Lightorsemen (1987): Australian cavalry. WWI. There aren’t many movies on cavalry combat that are truly outstanding. This is one of them (see my post on The Lighthorsemen).

Blood Oath (1990): WWII, Indonesia. Australian POWs suffers abuse from Japanese captors.

The Last Bullet (1995, TV): WWII, South Pacific

Changi (2001, TV mini-series): WWII, Singapore, Australian POW’s.

My Brother Jack (2001, TV): Outbreak of WWII.

Kokoda (2006): The war in the Pacific. On the Kokoda trail. Pretty gruesome look at an untrained group of volunteers who meet a fierce enemy in the jungle. Focuses on the story of two brothers. Not bad at all (see my post on Kokoda).

Beneath Hill 60 (2010): WWI, Western front. Australian miners fighting in the tunnel systems.

Any important movies that I left out?

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005) Christmas in War Movies III

This is not only the best of the three movies on the theme Christmas in War Movies that I have reviewed but it is one of my Top 10 favourite war movies. And definitely the one, with L’armée du crime aka Army of Crime, that is closest to my heart.

Merry Christmas aka Joyeux Noël is based on a true event, the so-called “Little Peace during the Great War”. It’s a multinational co-prodcution, in three languages, English, French and German, filmed by the French writer and film director Christian Carion. One of the most European movies of all time. It portrays cultural differences of the involved parties in a truly amazing way. It is one of the most outstanding anti-war movies and achieves to make a profound pacifist and humanist statement.

Pretty much like Stalingrad, Joyeux Noël focuses on very few people. At the heart of the movie are the soldiers in the German, French and Scottish trenches. The central figures are the three lieutenants of the respective trenches, and one or two of their soldiers.

After endless days of shelling, Christmas 1914 arrives. The soldiers in the three enemy trenches are having their Christmas meals. A simple meal, accompanied by a lot of whisky, in the Scottish trench, hundreds of Christmas trees and a frugal meal in the German trench and nicely laid tables, candles, wine and a sophisticated meal in the French trenches. Towards the end of the meal, the Scots start to sing and play the bagpipes. The German’s are startled at first and finally join in. Amongst their ranks is a soldier who was a famous opera singer (Benno Fürmann) in his civilian life. He leaves the German trench with a Christmas tree and walks singing into no man’s land until his angered lieutenant follows him. Meanwhile, the Scottish lieutetnant has also left the trench and approaches them. For the sake of the evening and their men, they discuss a ceasefire. All this time the French look at this with wonder and utter puzzlement, until their lieutenant joins in as well and they all agree on the ceasefire. The evening is spent with a mass (Gary Lewis is fantastic as the priest) and the fiancée (the very beautiful Diane Kruger) of the opera singe,r who has been there for this evening, sings for them. They also share food, drinks and get to know each other.

The next day they have a hard time going back to the normal routine of shooting at each other. They first agree on letting each other bury their dead and then start playing football until the shelling starts again. The Germans start first and so all the soldiers are allowed to seek refuge in the German trench.

The commanders of the three armies hear of this and all the involved parties are severely punished. If they hadn’t been so numerous they would have been shot.

What I liked the most about this movie is how emotional it is. Carion says in an interview that he wanted to remind us of this little miracle and to really experience it. He states that he is a pacifist and a humanist, in the sense of believing in human values. The choice of the three lieutenants was extremely important in conveying this. If I ever do a post on the most likable commanding officers in war movies, those three are all going to be on it. My personal favourite is the French lieutenant Audebert, played by Guillaume Canet. The choice of such a sensitive and fragile actor was a stroke of genius. The German Daniel Brühl is very good too, and so is the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, but they do not have the versatility of Canet. Lieutenant Audebert is a very determined but just and utterly emotional commander. He throws up at the beginning of the battle but still manges to give strength to his people, to guide them. Apart from Platoon’s Sgt Elias, Audebert is the most touching soldier I have ever seen. Brühl as Horstmayer is the most complex of the three, the only one who speaks all three languages and changes considerably during the movie. Ferns as Gordon is the one that men would want as their mate.

An absolutely outstanding aspect of the movie is the way it renders the differences of the trenches that do mirror the differences of the mentalities of the parties involved. This might seem clichéd for an outsider but if you are familiar with the cultures of those countries and know something about the life in the trenches you will notice how highly accurate it is.

The British trenches had the reputation of being very shoddy and muddy, whereas the Germans transformed theirs into real homes. The French on their side had the best food and coffee. The trench system is very complicated and the narrow steep walls didn’t allow outside orientation, that’s why they had a system of signs that showed them where which enemy was. We see the sign “Rosbif land” in the French and “Froggy trench” in the Scottish trench which is very accurate and funny.

It is after all also a humorous movie, especially in the French and the Scottish parts. The Germans are shown as more sober. One of the nicest touches of the movie is the story of the trench cat. Each trench believes the ginger tom is theirs. At the end of the movie the cat is caught with a bit of cardboard around the neck. He has become a messenger between the trenches and is duly  arrested for high treason.

If someone wanted to get familiar with war movies or never has seen one,  Merry Christmas is the war movie I would recommend he or she should watch. There is everything in it: tears and laughter, despair and hope, misery and joy, combat and trench life, criticism of the high command, class differences and a love story thrown in for good measure. 5/5

I couldn’t find an English trailer and attached a scene instead.

And the original trailer.

WWII War Movie Quotes Film Quiz 10

It has been a while since I posted the last Movie Quotes Quiz and as far as I remember I haven’t done a WWII one. I did one on Holocaust movies, but not on combat ones.

I will not post the list of movies that are quoted or it might be too easy.

Off we go…

[the troop stops before a memorial]
Would you look at how fast they put the names of all our guys who got killed? ”
That’s a World War One memorial.”
But the name’s are the same.”
“They always are.”

Solution 1

[about his wound]”It hurts… Don’t pick me up anymore.”
“Listen Bob, if I leave you, ain’t nobody gonna find you. You’re gonna die out here.”
“Just sit here for a bit.”
[after a pause]
I AM dying.”
[evasively] We can’t sit here.”

Solution 2

[voice over]” We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?”

Solution 3

“What will we do when we have lost the war?”
Prepare for the next one.”

Solution 4

“Did you hear what Tom did this morning?”
No.”
He went to see old Nickelby, and asked him if they gave out compassionate leave if there’s been a death in the family. So Nickelby said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, depending on the circumstances.” And Tom said, “Well, there hasn’t been a death in my family yet, but there’s going to be one very soon, and I request leave to go home and console my parents.””

Solution 5

“I got a bad feeling about this one.”
When was the last time you felt good about anything?”

Solution 6

“You were an accountant in Montreal?”
Yes, sir. Uh, not really an accountant, sir. That is, I didn’t have my charter.”
Exactly what did you do?”
Well, sir, I just checked columns and columns of figures which three or four people had checked before me, and then there were other people who checked them after I had checked them.”
Sounds a frightful bore.”
Sir, it was a frightful bore.”

Solution 7

“How many hours in Spits?”
Ten and a half, sir.”
Let’s make it *eleven*, before *Jerry* has you for *breakfast!*”
Spring chicken to shitehawk in one easy lesson.”
[at low volume, almost whispering, after xxx and xxx leave the building for their aircraft]
daka!-daka!-daka!-daka!-daka!-daka!-daka!-daka!”

Solution 8

“How the hell do they expect us to keep schedule on a road like this?”
You don’t know the worst. This bit we’re on now?”
Yes?”
It’s the wide part.”

Solution 9