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?


Pork Chop Hill (1959) or The Best Korean War B-Movie?

Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill is based on the eponymous book by military historian S. L. A. Marshall and depicts the fierce Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Towards the end of the Korean War the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division and Chinese and Korean Communist forces fought for this strategically unimportant hill.

The year is 1953, while the Panmunjeom cease-fire negotiations continue, a company of American infantry was to recapture Pork Chop Hill from a larger Communist Chinese army force. Successful but highly decimated, they were ready for the large-scale Chinese counter-attack which they knew would overwhelm and kill them in hand-to-hand fighting.

This movie is bothering me quite a lot for many reasons. I can’t say I did not like watching it as that is not true. (Maybe I am secretly an infantry combat war movie buff. At least no questions about whether this is a war movie or not. That seems settled.)  Unfortunately there are a lot of questionable elements in it. I can still hardly believe that the very same man, Lewis Milestone, who did All Quiet on the Western Front did this thing too.

This was my first US movie on the war in Korea. I read articles and list and it seemed as if there are not so many great ones. Gray Freitas terms Pork Chop Hill the best B-Movie. Aha. Others call this one of the better ones…

I hated the end. This was not the battle that finished the war. I hated that we have no clue what it is all about. And I hated that they had to choose an African-American soldier to play the part of the treacherous coward.

I did appreciate the battle scenes. They way it was shown how battle takes its toll. Those soldiers were so tired… It captured nonsensical high command orders very well. I also like the relationship between Gregory Peck and the Japanese-American officer. And I think Gregory Peck is very good in this movie.

I will post another, more general post on the war movies depicting the Korean war. And I will certainly need to review Tae Gu Ki aka Brotherhood.

I must honestly say, after watching Pork Chop Hill and reading a few things about US movies on this war, I am not extremely keen on watching any other ones. Maybe M.A.S.H.

Feel free to share your opinions and ideas on the topic.

The trailer will tell you that the DVD cover is misleading as Pork Chop Hill is a black-and-white movie.

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.

Michael Cimino speaks about The Deer Hunter (1979)

The Deer Hunter will always be one of the most fascinating Vietnam war movies. It´s not an easy movie and it is one of those you have to watch again to truly understand it. I wanted to write a review of it many times but was never satisfied with what I came up with. While waiting for the ultimate inspiration  I found this video post of an interview with the director of the film, Michael Cimino.  I found it quite interesting, especially since the interview is interwoven with bits of the film. Really well done.

Hope you will like it too.

Oliver Stone: One of the Greatest Film and War Movie Directors

When I watched Savior the other day, knowing it was produced by Oliver Stone, I thought of all the outstanding anti- war movies this man has done. Many film directors have chosen to do war movies but there are just a few that we associate more with the genre than others.

His trilogy of Vietnam war movies is probably known by almost anyone. Platoon is one of my Top Ten favourite ones, but I think Born on the 4th of July is equally powerful. Heaven and Earth, the third one, may be a bit less accomplished but maybe we have to see them all together as three different points of view of one war.

His name stands for many other extremely good movies that often circle around the themes of war and violence. War movie purists would not mention Alexander when speaking about war movies, I think it is debatable. What is not debatable is that  Alexander is highly watchable.

Salvador is without any doubt a further war movie. The Doors has a look at  the Vietnam war, politicians like JFK and Nixon have to be associated with war. You could say that Wall Street is the war of the brokers and Natural Born Killers  a personal war.

And even World Trade Center could be called a war movie (actually the only one I have not seen because of the obnoxious Nicolas Cage).

For me The Doors is Oliver Stone´s only failure. As much as I normally like Val Kilmer, as Jimmy Morrison he was just sacrilegious.

Be it as it may, Oliver Stone is an interesting film director.

I posted two tributes to him, both from Film Festivals, one from Austin and the other one from Zürich.

They are a bit different in as much as the Zürich one also shows some bits of interviews with Oliver Stone whereas the Austin one is purely dedicated to his movies.

Do you have a favourite Oliver Stone movie? I must admit that apart from Platoon I have watched Alexander more than once.