Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010) or The Best War Movie in 20 Years?

People who have seen this movie have called it “The best war movie ever” or “The best European war movie in 20 years” or simply “Superior”, “A masterpiece, “Brilliant”. Needless to say that I couldn’t wait to watch Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost. What did I think? It is an absolutely stunning movie. Beautifully filmed and acted. A really great achievement on more than one level. It’s complex, dense and intense and calls for a second watching as you can hardly absorb it all in a first viewing. Is it the best? It sure is one of them.

The story of Fortress of War reminded me of the Nanjing massacre in which Japanese forces butchered Chinese civilians. In this case German soldiers butcher Russian soldiers and civilians. The Brest Fortress, located near the city of Brest, housed soldiers and their families. The narrator of the movie is a little boy. We hear his voice in the off at first, it’s the voice of an old man who remembers the most horrible days of his life. Life at the Fortress is deceivingly peaceful. It’s 1941 and there are rumours of war but nobody believes them. The superior officers even go as far as punishing those who spread these rumours.

How lucky for the Germans. Their surprise attack is succesful and shatters in a few minutes all the false hopes and pre-conceived ideas of war. After the initial 10-15 minutes of quiet storytelling, the next two hours are combat intense like I haven’t seen it often. The effects and battles are extremely convincing and well-done. There are only very few CGI moments (aviation-related) that aren’t 100% convincing, all the other effects are very authentic looking. The fights and battles are fought on three sides and the story moves between these groups of soldiers and their commanders. The little  boy of the beginning moves between the parties and links the stories. He carries water and messages from one group to the other. While they are fighting off the Germans and try to break out of the fortress, the Germans also attack them by air and drop bombs. The devastation and casualties are huge.

The fights last a few days in which water is scarce and the morale gets lower and lower. A Russian bomber pilot manages to land in the fortress and brings the most demoralizing news. The Germans have not only taken Brest but are marching towards Minsk. There will be no reinforcements who will help them defend the fortress. As the families were also in the fortress there are a number of side stories told. As it becomes more and more obvious that they will not escape this trap, soldiers and officers start to kill themselves and their loved ones. A few send them out of the fortress hoping that they will survive as prisoners of the Germans. They will all have different fates as the movie tells us. Some will be shot, a few survive.

The directors have been accused of propaganda. It is true that the Germans are shown as treacherous and evil. I didn’t mind this. This movie tries to give an insider’s perspective, the view of someone who was there that day. Do you honestly think that anyone present there seeing the mass of dead bodies, humans and horses, the constant shelling and bombing, rape and violence would have for one second thought about the fact that not all Germans are evil? Those who call this movie propaganda should think about the fact, that they are watching it now, 70 years after the massacre took place, sitting either in a comfortable cinema chair or on the couch or sofa at home.

How do you like your war movies? Combat intense? – You will love this one. Not too much CGI? – You will adore this movie. Convincing effects? – You will be very pleased. Historically accurate? – You will be satisfied. With beautiful pictures? You will be thrilled. Complex characters? – Yeah well, that’s  a little flaw but it stems from the fact that there are so many independent groups fighting in parallel.  The characters  are still interesting and endearing. Watch this beautiful and intense movie as soon as you can!

Fortress of War does belong on the Children in War Movies: A List.

The whole movie can be watched on YouTube. This is just a little teaser.

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The Thin Red Line (1998) Part II On Death and Dying

Sergeant Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.

You are going to die. I am going to die. We are all going to die. It is inevitable. The difference lies just in whether we want and allow to be reminded of the fact or not. Whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not and to what degree.

The way death and dying are shown in The Thin Red Line will trigger three different ways of reacting:

  • We see it and allow to be reminded of our own death which will make us feel uneasy and sad to different degrees
  • We see it and look away or feel nothing
  • We see it and make fun of it

These three ways to react to someone’s dying can also be found as reactions in the movie.

I would argue that there is not one war movie out there that thematizes death, dying and killing like it is done in The Thin Red Line. I would also say that I think that this may be one of the reasons some people have a problem with it as the death scenes are very intimate, very intense. We have people who die screaming, people who die swearing, some pray, some mumble, some are quiet. This is quite usual in war movies but we have also an emphasis on those who watch them which is unusual. The importance of looks in The Thin Red Line would be worth a chapter on it’s own but I will only focus on the looks related to death and dying.

We have those who look away when someone is dying, no matter how close they are to the person. And we have those who acknowledge the others dying. Some are moved by it, some are not. Watching someone die is a very intimate act, if you think of it. Being with someone during his final moments is a privilege. Private Witt gives each and every single suffering man his full attention, looks at him unflinchingly but also unobtrusively and with compassion.

There are also the looks directed at the dying enemy. They are very different. They are indecent almost. Some make fun of them, stare, strip them off their dignity. Witt also looks at the enemy with the same intent attention and compassion.

In the movie there is equally a meditation about death’s randomness as expressed in the quote by Sgt Storm at the beginning of this post. Why does one man die while the other who is maybe a far lesser soldier survives unharmed? This is something that has been on my father’s mind a lot. When he was drafted he was heartbroken and hoping to get killed on the battlefield. While his friends and comrades died, he didn’t get one scratch. My father has not one tiny little scar, yet he eagerly awaited death. This is mysterious and the movie shows this exceptionally well.

Death is part of nature (which I will try to analyze in part III) but the dying on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made.

Killing is also a theme. Although it is legally acceptable to kill someone on a battlefield, in a war, soldiers didn’t kill lightly. I use the past tense deliberately because movies – or series in this case – like Generation Kill – and also already some of the Vietnam movies – show that there are more and more soldiers who have no empathy for those they kill. Those who play war games may see a running person at a distance not like a human being but just like another target. And they certainly don’t feel guilty.

The soldiers in The Thin Red Line do not kill lightly. They do feel guilt and the term “enemy” doesn’t mean much anymore once they have shot him down with their own gun.

One of my earliest posts on this blog focused on the topics Death and Dying. You can find it here:  On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach Us a Buddhist Lesson. Nothing has changed in my perception since then. I still think that the way death and dying are treated in our society is very problematic. We have to accept the fact that they are part of life. All war movies deal with death and dying but not all involve the viewer as much as the The Thin Red Line. Like hardly any other movie it manages in a very subtle way to raise the awareness for our own mortality.

The following parts are upcoming:

Part III. Nature and Evil

Part IV. The Actors and the Characters

Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line