April 9th – 9.April (2015) A Danish WWII Movie

april-9th

April 9th or 9.April is a Danish WWII movie, starring Pilou Asbæk (Game of ThronesBorgenThe Borgias) and Lars Mikkelsen (Borgen, The Killing).

The movie is set during April 8th and April 9th 1940. Lt Sand has just returned to his bicycle infantry company in South Jutland after a holiday. The first scenes introduce us to him and some of his young soldiers. Late on April 8th, the Danes detect movement on the German side of the Danish/German border. The superiors tell their subalterns that they think it’s only showing off. Nothing of any consequence. Nonetheless, Sand is ordered to tell his men to go to bed in their uniforms. During the night, around 4am, on April 9th, the Germans cross the border. Sand and his men are told to hold off the advancement and wait for reinforcements, which never arrives.

As we all know, Denmark didn’t stand a chance. The ill-equipped troops on bicycles were overrun within hours. Sand and his men only kept on fighting a little longer, because they weren’t told that the government had capitulated at 6am.

What a depressing movie. I knew that many countries were overrun and invaded pretty quickly but I wasn’t aware that Denmark capitulated after only two hours. Watching them put up a fight with means that were so inadequate – bicycles, rifles, a few MGs, and hardly any ammunition against tanks and heavily equipped soldiers – was heartbreaking.

I liked the way this was told a great deal. There are no heroes in this movie, only men who fight bravely but to no avail. There’s no mawkish fictional story added, just the facts and how they unfolded.

Although there isn’t a lot of story per se and the movie is 90 minutes long, I was surprised how quickly it was finished. I’m a restless viewer at times but this movie held my interest until the last moment.

If this was a book ,one would say they used showing, no telling. And that’s the reason why it worked so well. Because the movie is tight, unadorned, and to the point, it conveys how humiliating and infuriating this defeat must have felt.

April 9th is a great companion piece to Land of Mine. I’d say, watch this one first and then the other. Some of what is shown in Land of Mine becomes even more meaningful after this film.

Lars Mikkelsen, has only a tiny role, but we see a lot of Pilou Asbæk. He plays this role with great seriousness, which is very fitting. I think he was an excellent choice for the role.

I really admire the decision of the film makers not to embellish this story in any way. It shows that you can stay true to facts and still hold the interest of your viewers.

Highly recommended.

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) A US WWI Air Combat Movie

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I’d never heard of  The Eagle and the Hawk before seeing it included in a war movie collection box that I ordered from the US. I’m happy to say that it was a real surprise. At one hour and eight minutes, it’s rather on the short side but it still packs a punch. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives, A Star is Born) and Cary Grant (North by Northwest, Notorious, To Catch a Thief)  star in this unjustly overlooked black and white WWI anti-war, air combat drama. And there’s even a short scene with the stunning Carole Lombard (To Be or Not to Be, Mr and Mrs Smith)

Jerry Young (Frederic March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) are both pilots but while Young is talented and careful, Crocker is rather foolhardy. That’s why, when they are called to got to France, Young makes sure, Crocker isn’t summoned. One can understand why because not only is he not the best pilot, but he’s also cranky and mean-spirited.

Once in Europe, Young’s quickly covered in medals. While many pilots envy him for that, he’s getting more and more depressed. Not only is he shocked to lose all of his young observers after only a few missions, but he also hates to shoot down enemy planes.

He’s more than a little surprised when he discovers that his newest observer, who has just come over from the US, is no other than Crocker. They didn’t like each other in the US but now this dislike turns into hate. Especially since Crocker treats killing like a sport, while Young’s sinking deeper and deeper into his depression. The true conflict however stems from Crocker’s attitude towards the enemy. Even in war, there are some rules, but he just doesn’t stick to them and does a few atrocious things.

When Young shoots down Alfred Voss, one of the most highly decorated German pilots, he earns everyone’s respect but cannot forgive himself for killing a mere boy.

Seeing a decorated pilot suffer from his own victories, isn’t something I’ve seen often in war movies but it’s not entirely new. What was different though, was Cary Grant’s character’s development. I thought this was genuinely well done and led to a surprising end twist that I’m not going to forget soon.

I’ve seen people comment on the scene with Carole Lombard, calling it superfluous. In my opinion, it gives the movie a bitter-sweet quality and foreshadows tragic events.

It’s a neat, short movie with two interesting character portraits, a very outspoken anti-war message, a few pretty good air combat scenes and a great and surprising ending.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a trailer, which isn’t surprising as it’s a movie from the 30s.

Land of Mine – Under Sandet (2015) An Outstanding Danish/German Post-War Movie

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How many WWII and post-war stories haven’t been told yet? How many atrocities have we not heard of? There must be a huge number. It’s important that we hear about them. Many stories help us see what happened in a new light, add something to the discussion about war and post-war. And some of them are even important for the understanding of contemporary issues. The fantastic Danish-German co-production Land of Mine – Under Sandet is one of those. While it doesn’t tell a true story, it’s inspired by facts. As Martin Zandvliet, film director and writer of this movie, said in an interview, these facts show us how quickly people can become a monster when they fight monsters. Some of what he said and some of what we see in the movie, sounded and looked all too familiar.

At the opening of the movie we see Sgt Carl Rasmussen freak out. He sees a German POW carrying a Danish flag. This infuriates him so much, he beats the guy up. The war is over and there are hundreds of German POWs returning home. The Danish hate them. Rasmussen hates them so much, he almost kills the German soldier.

Maybe this hatred of the enemy makes his superior decide he’s qualified for the job he is going to give him. There are 2,200,000 million land mines buried on the Danish beaches. No other country has this many and it’s obviously vital that they should be dug up and defused. It also seems natural to use German soldiers to do that.

For Rasmussen this is only logical—Germans planted the mines, Germans will have to defuse them. If the one or the other dies – all the better.  What he doesn’t expect however is that the POW’s he is sent are very young soldiers. Almost kids. The oldest is nineteen. But Rasmussen soon overcomes his initial hesitation and the dangerous work begins.

Over the course of the movie, we watch the young people dig up thousands of mines and defuse them. It’s horrible work and watching them had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. I don’t think there’s anything that gets to me as much as watching movies about bomb disposal teams. Be that The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, the UK TV series Danger UXB or this movie, Land of Mines. Every time someone starts to dig up, we know there’s a huge risk. Those scenes are always agonizingly slow. I had to brace myself for whatever would happen. Many lose limbs, many lose their lives.

The movie’s not an action movie. It’s a psychological exploration and a character study. Rasmussen may hate Germans but he doesn’t want to mistreat kids. Nor does he want to see them maimed or dead.

The movie shows subtly, how they begin to understand each other. How there’s some sort of camaraderie between them and how fragile that is.

This is such and excellent, harrowing movie. Such an emotional rollercoaster ride. The actors, many of which had never acted before, are outstanding. There are many small stories, relationships, friendships, that make the losses, the danger all the more poignant. I can’t say too much or it would spoil the film.

I hadn’t heard of these historical facts before, wasn’t aware of the number of land mines or that they used German children to defuse them. Not many survived. It’s a shocking story. It’s shocking to realize how easily people start to hate people and wouldn’t hesitate to take revenge. Even in a case like this, in which so many of the enemy soldiers hadn’t even seen battle and mostly hadn’t volunteered to go to war.

The movie is as much about a forgotten dark side of Denmark’s history as it is about keeping our humanity. No matter what.

I hope that I managed to capture how amazing this movies is. It’s hard to watch, at times almost unbearable, but so rewarding.

 

Riphagen (2016) The True Story of a Dutch Traitor

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A couple of days ago, I watched the excellent Dutch movie Riphagen, based on the true story of the “Al Capone of Amsterdam”, Dries Riphagen. I’m still speechless, I was so caught up in the story. What a vile creature.

It’s often difficult to review a movie based on a true story because one doesn’t know how much one can give away. In the case of a movie based on a famous historical figure, it might be OK to give away the ending but I don’t think Riphagen is universally known. That’s why I’ll only write about the beginning. The fact that I was left speechless at the end, will possibly tell you a few things though.

Dries Riphagen was a criminal from Amsterdam who collaborated with the German occupiers during WWII. He befriended Jewish people, sniffing out those with a vast network, and promised them safety and secure hiding places. Hinting at possible searches, he managed to convince them that they should hand over their belongings, jewelry, precious stones, money, for safekeeping. He then had someone take a picture of himself with the Jews he robbed and stored those away, already thinking ahead. If the war would take a turn and Germany would lose, he’d use the photos with these smiling Jews as proof of his good intentions. As soon as he had received all of the possessions of his “charges” he denounced them to the Gestapo, revealing their hiding places.

Using Jews whose families had been deported, he infiltrated the resistance, promising his Jewish collaborators that their families would be saved.

Needless to say, Riphagen wasn’t keen on seeing WWII end but he was cunning enough to use the general chaos to infiltrate the new government. While many traitors and collaborators were caught, Riphagen managed to use his knowledge and cunning to make even more money after the war.

Riphagen is without morals or conscience and such a master manipulator and liar, that he’s even capable of making the authorities believe that some of his crimes were actually committed by people of the resistance. That puts those in great danger but it also triggers their hatred. For the first time, Riphagen does actually fear for his own life as one resistance member has sworn to hunt him down.

That’s where I’ll end my review. If you are not familiar with the story, you’ll like to discover for yourself how it all ends.

While not as flashy as Black Book, this is another highly watchable Dutch movie. It certainly works well as a companion piece. While Black Book is about the Dutch resistance, Riphagen is about Dutch collaboration. I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors, but they were very convincing. Riphagen tells an extraordinary story and offers a lot to think about. Highly recommended.

I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles but the movie’s available with subtitles on Netflix

Testament of Youth (2014)

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Two years ago, I read and reviewed Vera Brittain’s collection of letters Letters from a Lost Generation. It was one of the saddest, most harrowing books I’ve ever read. After finishing it, I read Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir, which was equally moving. Needless to say, I was interested in watching the movie Testament of Youth.

Vera Brittain’s story is really one of the saddest imaginable. Not only did she loose her fiancé, but also her brother and their two closest friends. After the war, she met the writer Winifred Holtby – we see her very briefly in this movie – and they became very close friends until Holtby died at the age of thirty-seven. Besides being a testament to the friendships between Vera and her friends and brother, the books give great insight into the life of a nurse during WWI. Like the men, she joined up early and stayed a nurse until the end of the war.

The movie takes a long time to show us the idyllic pre-war years. Vera has a close relationship with her brother, Edward, who introduces her to his friends Roland, later Vera’s fiancé, Victor and Geoffrey. It is 1914 and Vera, who at eighteen is the youngest, tells her parents she intends to go to Oxford. The parents are shocked and oppose her. They don’t want her to become a blue-stocking. and minimise her chances to find a husband. Thanks to her brother she’s allowed to go to the exams and is accepted. As happy as she is to be allowed a higher education, when the war breaks out and her brother, fiancé, and friends sing up, she becomes a nurse.

The movie shows a few scenes of her as a nurse but it makes it look like she didn’t really do it for a very long time. Nor that she was moving from England  to different front lines in France and Malta. It rather focusses on the death of her fiancé and her brother. We then get to see her briefly after the war and how she meets Winifred Holtby. It’s a very short scene as well.

The movie tries to capture the mood of the era and manages more or less.

I guess, the tone of my review, tells you that I was disappointed. The movie’s neither fish nor fowl. Not a real love story, nor the story of the friendships or her years as a nurse and not very insightful about the war as such. The director tried to cram to much into a short film. It would have been much better if this had been a mini-series. More moving, more realistic. The way it is, it’s not very successful. It’s not dreadful, it’s beautifully filmed, well acted but not very engaging and stays at the surface. This is possibly also due to the rather large cast. It’s impossible to care for so many people in an average length movie.

You can watch it but you don’t have to. Read the books instead. They are some of the best books on WWI.

Bridge of Spies (2015) Spielberg’s Cold War Epic (Fail)

Bridge of Spies

Before anyone’s going to tell me that I should have known better, I’ll admit it right away—Yes, I should have known better and not even bothered watching Bridge of Spies. It had everything I don’t like about some Spielberg movies: length, sentimentality, hokeyness and Tom Hanks. So, why watch it? You know, it could have been good. Every once in a while Spielberg produces something really decent. And I’ve seen films with Tom Hanks I liked (Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia, Road to Perdition). And since it was based on true events, I thought it would at least be interesting. And it was.  If only they had cut at least half an hour. And abstained from a super-corny ending.

So, what’s it about. Tom Hanks is an American lawyer, Donovan, who is hired to defend a Russian spy. The US want to make sure that they are perceived as just and fair. Donovan is a lawyer who has no experience in criminal law, nonetheless, he’s giving his best, which isn’t wanted. He soon finds out that no matter how good his defence is, he will never get his client free as the verdict’s been agreed upon a long time ago. It’s a bogus trial.

Donovan is one of those typical Spielberg characters who rise above themselves when they see injustice and don’t shy away from putting themselves in danger. While he isn’t able to free the spy, he’s able to avoid the death penalty and he’s clever enough to make the authorities understand that a Russian spy, if left alive, could come in handy. And he’s right. Very soon they will be able to use the spy to free one of their own.

So far, I liked the movie but then comes the second part, in which Donovan is hired by the CIA to arrange the exchange of Rudolf Abel against a captured American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane was shot down during a mission over Russia.

Donovan is sent to East Berlin to arrange the exchange. It’s 1961 and the wall has just been built. During those chaotic days, an American student is captured because he’s suspected to be a spy. Donovan hears of this and during the second part of the movie, we see him negotiate with the Russians and the Eastern Germans to exchange Abel against both Americans.

The second half of the movie suffered from terrible lengths. The filmmakers tried to make it gripping, accentuating how dangerous the territory was, but they didn’t succeed because the discussions between the involved parties were stiff and slow and full of clichés. I was tempted to fast-forward.

The hardest part to watch was the ending. It was just so painfully corny. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie, in which a woman on a train looks scornfully at Donovan because he defends a Russian spy. The very same woman can be seen looking at him with great admiration and gratefulness at the end. These are the kind of corny, sentimental scenes that make me shudder.

As I said before, I’m not that keen on Tom Hanks or Spielberg but they have both done great, or at least entertaining movies. This wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve done some digging and it doesn’t even look as if the movie was historically accurate.

Have you seen it? Did you like it?

 

Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night (2009)

Saviors in the Night

I feel always a bit unkind when I criticise a Holocaust movie based on a true story. Unfortunately though, basing a movie on a true story does not guarantee an interesting result as the German film Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night, illustrates so well. Saviors in the Night is based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Marga Spiegel and while her experience was certainly nerve-wracking, the movie is absolutely tension-free.

The film opens with a bit of back story. We see Menne Spiegel fighting for his country in WWI. Twenty years later, that same country wants to exterminate him and his family because he is Jewish. Menne is a respected horse trader and when the day of his family’s deportation to a concentration camp comes closer, he contacts his former comrades and finds one who is willing to hide his wife and his daughter, while another one will give him shelter. Because Marga Spiegel and the kid are blond and don’t look Jewish, they are hidden in plain sight, while Menne, who’s looking more typical, has to hide in an attic where he goes almost crazy with boredom.

From there the movie meanders from one tension-free scene to another. Whenever the tiniest conflict arrises, it’s immediately resolved. The biggest challenge these former city-dwellers seem to face is adapting to life in the country. Yes, there are a few Nazi’s in the village, but they are too obtuse to notice anything. The daughter of their saviours dates one of them and while she’s at first outraged that her parents are hiding Jews (she believes the Führer who says that the Jews are the downfall of Germany), it only takes one tale about an injustice against Marga and her daughter, to make her change attitude and convictions.

I was surprised to see this film received praise because it’s so dull. Of course, it’s admirable that these farmers decided to risk their lives and hide Marga and her daughter. And, of course, it’s necessary to remind us that there were people who didn’t care about what the Führer told them and simply listened to their own heart and found the courage to help fellow humans. But unfortunately all those good intentions do not make for gripping viewing. Unlike Agnieszka Holland’s fantastic movie In Darkness, which also tells the story of survivors, there are hardly any dramatic elements here.

To be fair, I have to mention that there are a couple of quiet moments, in which Marga and the farmer’s wife engage in a tentative friendship, which are moving.

It’s a movie you can watch, especially when you’re a fan of German actress Veronica Ferres, but you don’t have to.

The trailer makes this movie look intense because it shows all the dramatic scenes, compressed into 1.5 minutes.