Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

I’ve read J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and in his afterword he mentions his childhood in China, which reminded me that I still hadn’t watched Empire of the Sun, which is based on his childhood experiences.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shaghai, in 1941 and tells the story of a young boy. Jim’s (Christian Bale) parents, like so many other of the rich Brits living in Shanghai, didn’t react in time to the aggressions of the Japanese. Many thought that they wouldn’t risk anything as they were not Chinese; they believed they were protected by their status as foreigners and their money. But they were wrong. When the Japanese troops finally invade, it’s too late. Most of them try to flee, leaving behind their houses and all of their possessions.  In the general chaos, Jim loses his parents and has to fend for himself. At first he returns to their beautiful mansion, but the food is soon gone and he starts roaming the streets until he meets Basie (John Malkovitch). Basie is an expat just like Jim’s parents were but he’s a very different kind. A hustler, a thief, someone who lives from hand to mouth. He sees that Jim is from a rich background and decides to look after him. Whether there is some genuine kindness or pure calculation isn’t so clear at first. What is clear is that they get along like a house on fire. Jim is a precocious, extremely intelligent and crafty kid – also terribly annoying – and they complement each other perfectly.

When they are finally arrested by the Japanese and brought to a POW camp, they survive doing what they know best, dealing and stealing, and making money out of everything. The time at the POW camp is one of great liberty for Jim. He’s soon known by everyone and while he’s an obnoxious kid, they also like him and find him very useful.

Despite of the danger and captivity Basie and Jim are doing great for themselves, help each other out, or rather profit from each other. Still, the war leaves traces and when they can finally leave the camp, they are both altered.

I loved the beginning of this film, the cinematography is amazing and the story is fascinating. Basie and Jim are larger-than-life characters, the kind you admire and despise at the same time. At least I did. Christian Bale did an amazing job at portraying Jim. What an annoying kid that was. He talks and talks endlessly and while he’s crafty, he never knows when to stop or give it a rest. Basie is ingenious and maybe, he means well at times, but mostly he’s the type of character who will always be able to make money, preferably even through selling out others and profiting from their misery.

There are a few tense moments, but overall we often get a feeling that this is less a POW camp than a summer camp. I was wondering if that was because Spielberg tried to stay true to the boy’s point of view or whether these camps for civilians were not that bad.

It’s a highly watchable movie and one I will certainly watch again, but unfortunately, the film has a lot of typically cheesy Spielberg moments, which annoyed me. I still think it’s a beautifully filmed movie and a great story. I liked it, but  didn’t love it because I hate it when director’s manipulate us. Spielberg always does that, that’s why I don’t really like Schindler’s List and even think Saving Private Ryan could have been much better than it is.

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Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book aka Zwartboek when it came out in 2006 and absolutely loved it. That was four years before I started this blog. If I wanted to review it, I had to rewatch it. It does happen that a movie we liked a lot doesn’t hold up as well when we watch it again. Unfortunately this was the case here. It’s not a bad movie, it’s very entertaining, but I think a resistance movie must be a bit gritty. Black Book most certainly isn’t gritty, it’s so flashy and glossy, it could be an US production. Sure, you’re going to argue, that it’s logical, after all Verhoeven’s not only the director of Soldier of Orange but also of Starship Troopers and Total Recall. Although his first European movie in 20 years, Black Book has written “Hollywood” all over it (apart from the nudity, that wouldn’t go down so well in a US production).

The movie starts in Israel in 1956 and then rewinds to 1944. The main story is set in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is in hiding when a bomb falls on the house of the people who hide her. A policeman who works for the Dutch resistance helps her, her family and a lot of other Jews to escape. The boat on which they should be brought to Belgium is attacked by Nazis, and everyone, except Rachel who manages to escape, is killed and all the money and jewellery is stolen. Rachel watches all this and sees the men responsible for this attack from her hideout.

There isn’t much she can do and so she eventually joins the resistance. During one of her missions she meets Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, she seduces him, becomes his mistress and starts to work at the Nazi headquarters. It’s easy for her to seduce Muntze because she is very pretty and used to be a well-known singer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough not to see through her disguise.

Unfortunately her disguise is also discovered by others and she’s lured into a trap and henceforth suspected by the Resistance to be a double-agent. Things get even more dramatic when Muntze is arrested as she has developed feelings for him. When the Netherlands are finally liberated, Ellis/Rachel gets a chance to uncover who betrayed her.

Black Book is visually appealing, it’s well structured and well-paced and a really entertaining watch, but overall I didn’t find the anti-war message all that pertinent. It seems Verhoeven wanted to show that there were good and bad people on both sides and that the Dutch, like many other European people had ambiguous feelings.

Black Book is entertaining and worth watching but I think Soldier of Orange is far better and when it comes to other Resistance movies I can think of many better ones. These are just a few, which I have all reviewed here as well:

Army of Shadows,

Roma, Città Aperta-Rome Open City,

The Army of Crime,

Flame and Citron,

Max Manus,

Lucy Aubrac

I’m particularly fond of resistance movies, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d be very glad.

Turtles Can Fly aka Lakposhtha parvaz mikonand (2004) Iraqi – Iranian Movie on Children During Wartime

turtles-can-fly-2004-lakposhtha-parvaz-mikonand

Occasionally I’m tempted to stop watching war movies. After all, it’s hardly ever cheerful. But there is a huge difference between “not cheerful” and “utterly depressing”. And while combat movie’s are rarely cheerful, they are often not utterly depressing. On the other hand movies focussing on the way common people, and especially children, are affected by war, are often extremely depressing. Among all these depressing movies on the fate of the civilians the Iraqi-Iranian movie Turtles Can Fly, might be the saddest I’ve ever seen. While it’s an excellent film, it’s almost unbearably bleak.

The film starts with a small girl committing suicide. She jumps from a cliff. The story then rewinds and we get to know why she did it.

Somewhere near the Turkish border, just before the war in Iraq breaks out, a group of people live in some houses close to a refugee camp. The elders of the village hire a young boy to buy and install a satellite dish. They want to know if war is coming. The boy is funny, entrepreneurial, and clearly relishes being the only one who knows something about technology and a few English words. He’s maybe 12 or 14 years old (sorry I’m bad at judging the age of children) and runs many small businesses. One of them consists in having other children collect mines which he then sells on the local markets. The whole area is a huge minefield and collecting them is vital because as long as they are on the fields, the farmers cannot work.

Many of these children who collect mines are missing limbs from the one or the other unlucky encounter. The film maker used only children with real deformities and missing limbs which adds authenticity and makes watching it even more harrowing.

“Satellite”, as they call the young boy, falls in love with one of the refugee girls. A very pretty girl who is there without parents but with her older brother who has lost both arms and a small child who has a problem with his eyes. She is the girl who will commit suicide and to learn her story was almost too much.

While there are some funny scenes dedicated to “Satellite” and his business, I’ve rarely seen such a bleak movie. The poverty of these people is extreme. They live in the cold and the rain, there are hardly any trees or buildings, just some huts and tents and a lot of mud. Their situation has a lot to do with former wars. They are surrounded by danger and helpless. Without a proper system of information they are at the mercy of everyone. They never know what hits them or why.

I wasn’t enjoying watching Turtles Can Fly but I was glad I did. This movie is bleak, depressing and heartbreaking but at the same time, it’s very good. The young actors are astonishing, the message is eloquently anti-war.

Here’s the trailer

And the full movie

I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

Die Flucht – March of Millions (2007) German TV production about the Flight from East Prussia

This is one of those stories that needed telling. East Prussia, this vast and beautiful region in Germany, was quite peaceful during the war until the Eastern Front collapsed and the Russians started invading Prussia and moved towards Berlin. The people living there had but two choices. Stay and face the Russians who were not exactly going to handle them with care. Or  to flee and leave all their possessions behind. East Prussia was the home of many aristocratic families who lived at ease on huge estates. Theirs was a life of wealth and tradition. Leaving was extremely hard on them and for many it took a long time until they made up their minds. Too long in some cases. For those who had less, it wasn’t any easier. Not only did they have to leave everything behind, they didn’t know where they were going or if they were not going to be outrun by the Russians.

You see, a lot of potential for a great story and all of the above is shown in Die Flucht – March of Millions. Unfortunately even historical events like this need good storytelling and that’s where I’m not happy with this two-part German TV production. While it’s not bad, I would have preferred if they hadn’t decided to turn the second half into a love story.

Lena, countess von Mahlenberg (Maria Furtwängler), leaves Berlin and returns to her family’s estate in East Prussia. Things still look pretty much the same as they did before the war with the exception of French POWs – led by cranky François (Jean-Yves Berteloot) – working on the estate. And there is also a  panicky feeling underneath the surface. Things do not look good for Germany. That they will win the war is not very likely anymore and what this could mean for them, this close to the Eastern front, starts to dawn on a few people.

The von Mahlenberg’s are friends with another aristocratic family, the von Gernstorffs. Lena is going to get married to their older son although she doesn’t really love him. The younger son who is in love with her as well, is one of the only ones to clearly say that Germany will lose the war. He is fighting on the Russian front and scared of dying. When he deserts, the family breaks apart.

Meanwhile Lena wants to flee together with the POWs who have been working for her and with all of the people who live on the estate.

The first part of the movie is dedicated to the time before they flee, the second focusses entirely on that long march.

Many of the elements are interesting and dramatic. The tensions among the Germans, the justified fear of the Russians, the tragedy to lose your home and to be unwelcome wherever you go, is shown quite well.

What I liked too were the pictures. I have never been in East Prussia but those vast landscapes seem very beautiful and they were beautifully filmed. What did not work is the love story. I think this movie could have been dramatic without a love story but on top of that it didn’t seem very realistic.

In any case, a watchable movie but not as good as I had hoped for. I think however this would be successful in the US or the UK as, like Dresden or Anonyma, it shows aspects of German history and suffering we sometimes tend to forget. Of the three movies I liked Anonyma best but I’m fond of Dresden as well, although it has corny elements.

I’m not sure Die Flucht is available in English. I attached the German trailer and for those interested in the history of East Prussia during WWII, a documentary in English which looks quite good.

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.