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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Enemy at the Gates (2001) or The Duel of Two Snipers

It’s interesting how often people mention Enemy at the Gates as one of their favourite war movies, yet I do not see it included very often in more official Best of Lists. I wonder why and can only guess. Maybe because it is too esthetic? Hardly ever have ruins looked this good. Or is it because of the love story? I must admit, I had a problem with it. I don’t mind a love story, although it is mostly a bit tacky in a war movie, but I would have liked this one to be left out. I thought it spoilt an otherwise perfect movie. And I think another cast would have been better as well, apart from an excellent Ed Harris, I didn’t care for the actors. Despite all these reservations, I think it is an excellent movie. The central story is suspenseful and it is one of the most beautifully filmed war movies ever and certainly one of those I will re-watch. And don’t you just love movies about snipers?

Stalingrad 1942. The city is under siege. The German army hopes to win the war and to secure the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. The Russians are well aware if they lose Stalingrad, it is over. The losses are high, morale is low and a little bit of propaganda might do every one a lot of good. That’s why Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) thinks its high time to fabricate a hero and charges Danilov, an important oficer of the Communist Party, with this mission.

Enemy at the Gates is loosely based on the story of the famous Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law). Vassili has learned to shoot at an early age, and now, in his early twenties he is the best sniper in the Russian army. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to pick him, and turn him into the hero Khrushchev is looking for. Vassili gets newspaper coverage and publicity and soon his fame is known far beyond the Russian borders and especially the Germans are well aware what a dangerous enemy he is.

Amidst the rubble and the ruins we see two parallel stories unfold. The first story line, follows a love triangle. Through Danilov Vassili meets the Jewish woman Tania (Rachel Weisz). Both men are in love with her but as it seems Tania has only eyes for Vassili. This love triangle is frankly annoying and disrupts the movie. It isn’t even very plausible.

The second story line revolves around the competition between Major König (Ed Harris), a famous German sniper, and Vassili. König is sent to Stalingrad to take out Vassili. All the parts of this second story line are quite gripping. We see the men hunt each other, we see how they get to know each other, how they try to find out how the other will react, how and from where he will shoot, how they try to ambush each other.

Snipers are endlessly patient. They don’t just shoot wildly, they aim carefully, take their time, observe and shoot only when they are fairly sure of hitting their target. Enemy at the Gates perfectly captures this cat-like hunter quality of the sniper and that’s what makes this film so watchable despite its flaws.

The director Jean-Jacques Annaud is famous for his cinematography. He has made one of the visually most compelling movies The Bear or L’ours . Enemy at the Gates is equally stunning from a cinematographic perspective.

Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen. It bears testimony to Germany’s outstanding filmmaking capacities. It is also one of the rare that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered something new. That’s why it is difficult to write a decent review and not one that is so long that you jump to the next post without even finishing the introduction.

Stalingrad focuses closely on five characters, four of which have been together since they fought at El Alamein.  We first see them on leave in Italy  from where they board a train to the Eastern Front. They don’t really have a clue where they are going or what for. They know the Führer says it is crucial and they have to trust him on that but first voices can be heard that doubt the decision-making of their command. During their train trip they meet their new Lieutenant, Witzlan (Thomas Kretschmann), for the first time. He isn’t battle hardened like the others are, in fact he has never fought at all and there is immediately a lot of friction.

When they get off the train in Stalingrad they face total chaos. There are heavily wounded soldiers everywhere, fighting is extremely heavy and they are in the midst of it all right away. The German officers in Stalingrad are mostly cruel Nazis, the treatment of Russian prisoners is harrowing. Witzlan is, as the privates discover now, a very humane person. He will not tolerate abuse and cruelty and comes into conflict with superiors on that subject. He may be inexperienced but he has a great character and his decision making isn’t all that bad, as we soon see.  As a matter of fact his subordinates learn to respect him a lot. One of the majors however is one of the most obnoxious characters of war movie history, a real jerk.

Stalingrad consists more or less of seven very distinct parts, the first one is the leave in Italy, followed by a heavy infantry combat one, then a sequence in which they are doing forced labour, next is the so-called “tank episode”, then they escape, meet again later with a part of their original group and finally try again to escape, out of Russia and back to Germany.

Because Stalingrad focuses practically only on five people it is a very intimate and emotional movie You have the feeling to know these people, you care for them, they are really humans with all their strengths and flaws. They are no heroes, they are normal people caught in what was one of the biggest tragedies of WWII, one of the battles that cost the most lives.

And there is the setting and seasonal implications. Russia in winter is one of the coldest places on earth. This really is a winter movie. Snow, ice, freezing and the total hopelessness of the people involved makes it unforgettable. Most of those who survived the battles froze to death later.

I have often wondered, if I had to choose, which climate I would choose. Fighting in the desert, in the jungle or in the icy cold planes of Russia? All three settings bear their own horrors as did the war soaked trenches of France and Belgium. My father fought in the desert, where you fight exhaustion, thirst, Fata Morgana and hallucinations from the heat and have to endure long walks through arid barren country where you can’t hide and are an easy target.

From my own personal point of view, I tink that icy Russia would be the worst. Stalingrad is for me the worst battle that ever took place. The battle and its aftermath are horrible.

I haven’t seen the Finnish movie Talvisota aka The Winter War yet, this might be similar, also a winter movie, but apart from that I think the extreme that is depicted in Stalingrad is unique. No other war movie achieves to convey such a powerful anti-war statement.

It think it safe to say that it is not only one of my Top 10 but it is also generally acknowledged as one of the best ever.  It manages to combine very intimate portraits of five soldiers, intense infantry combat, the depiction of a grueling climate and one of the biggest miscalculations of Hitler. 5/5 is an absolute understatement.

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.