Eichmann (2007)

I was looking forward to watch the British Hungarian co-production Eichmann starring one of my favourite German actors Thomas Kretschmann. If I tell you it was entertaining this should ring a bell right away. A movie based on Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation should not be entertaining. No, it really shouldn’t. If it is, something went wrong. And that’s what happened. I should have known this wouldn’t be a good movie because most reviews are far from appreciative but I was curious and wanted to find out for myself.

The core question, which isn’t really explored as well as I would have wished, is whether someone who follows an order and gives orders, like Eichmann did, is as guilty as those who executed the orders or those who decided they should be given. It’s the same question that lies at the heart of plays like Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to kill, does that make her less guilty than her husband who did the killing?

Eichmann was one of the highest Nazi functionaries. He had the position of Transportation Administrator of the so-called Final Solution. In this function he was in charge of all the trains that  brought Jews to the death camps in occupied Poland. It is said that he is responsible for the execution of 6.000.000 people. After the war he could escape to Argentina. He was one of a few Nazi criminals not to be sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials because he was in hiding. The State of Israel was established in 1948. Its official intelligence agency, Mossad, was formed one year later. One of Mossad’s principal assigned tasks was to hunt down accused Nazi war criminals. Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He was executed in 1962.

The movie however isn’t very explicit on all of this but focusses purely on the interrogation. Avner Less, a young Israeli police officer whose father had been on one of the trains sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, was the one who interrogated Eichmann. The movie is told from Avner’s point of view. It shows the problems this interrogation brings to his family and to himself, the reaction of the public, how the media hunt him.

The interrogation as such had the aim to make Eichmann confess. Most of the interrogation we see consists of Avner asking and Eichmann denying. Whenever Eichmann lies, the movie shows what really happened in a flashback and that’s where the movie gets entertaining but absurd as we see Eichmann depicted like a gigolo with various lovers. Really weird.

On the other hand, while showing a shallow and silly Eichmann in the flashbacks, the way the people in Israel talk about him in the movie makes it sound as if they thought he was the sole responsible for the murders of so many people. Both are gross exaggerations and make this a really dubious movie.

I don’t understand why this incredible story could not have been done any better. It certainly would have deserved to be told well.

I have bought Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil a while back. I would have done better reading that instead.

One word about the actor. Many reviewers criticized Kretschmann for his wooden acting. I saw documentaries of the trial and think the man Eichmann was very wooden. In any case, it’s not the actor’s fault this isn’t a good movie. I’d say he was actually quite good.

Still, a movie like Eichmann has some value as it may generate an interest in people to find out more about this sinister character and it may trigger conversations about guilt and responsibility. But it’s not a good movie.

John Rabe aka City of War: The Story of John Rabe (2009) The Good German of Nanjing or The Nanjing Massacre

Based on The Good German of Nanking: The Diaries of John Rabe the movie City of War: The Story of John Rabe tells the true story of the German businessman John Rabe who saved the lives of 200’000 Chinese.

Rabe had been in Nanjing for 27 years when in 1937 Siemens told him that he was promoted and to return to Berlin immediately. What he didn’t know was that they had planned to close down the factory and stop building the giant dam that would have brought water to a huge number of Chinese people. Rabe realized that they were doing nothing less than destroying his life’s work.

The replacement they sent from Germany, Fleiss, a Nazi through and through, is an obnoxious and condescending idiot. During the evening before the Rabes are to go back to Berlin, the Japanese fly an air raid over Nanjing and open fire on the factory as well. Rabe opens the doors and lets the people find shelter inside the compound. The giant Nazi flag he was reluctant to put up, is fetched and hung above the inner yard to show the Japanese that they are flying over the territory of their ally.

A French schoolmistress, British diplomats and an American doctor (Steve Buscemi) manage to talk Rabe out of his plans to return to Germany and convince him to stay with them in Nanjing. They want to open a safety zone for the civilians and need him as their head. He accepts the deed and stays with them while his wife returns on her own.

Rabe  (very well-played by Ulrich Tukur) is a courageous man. The movie tells this atrocious story of the rape of Nanking in gruesome details. There is no Japanese act that isn’t horrible, as a matter of fact there is only one Japanese character that was a bit likable. This seems extremely biased. I have never seen a recent movie demonizing a whole people like this. The Nanjing massacre was an atrocity that is barely known today but that doesn’t make a whole nation evil.

I think you already got it, I have huge reservations regarding this movie. Another one stems from the fact that it won best picture. The movie interweaves original footage and movie material quite artfully and the picture is stunning. Glossy and very beautiful but that does a huge disservice to the topic. How can you show scenes of people being beheaded in such eerily beautiful colors, intense, shiny, fresh, esthetic? It’s really odd. Besides I didn’t really like Rabe. The way he treated his people was condescending, obedience was all that counted. He did change eventually but still I found that off-putting. “The Chinese are like small children?” he said at one point.

Rabe’s life ended very tragically. After having helped such a lot of people he went back to Germany in 1938 and, after the war, wasn’t denazified but lived isolated and impoverished until he died.

John Rabe is a German/French/Chinese co-production but there is also a Chinese movie with a similar title (City of Life and Death: Nanjing, Nanjing) about the same events. I think that is the movie I should have watched.

This was too esthetic for the topic and without the original footage it would have had no depth whatsoever. I think it’s unfair to use this type of original footage (really gruesome) to try to give meaning to an otherwise shallow picture.

Battle for Haditha (2007) A Powerful Movie on the War in Iraq

The British movie Battle for Haditha is one of the best war movies on the war in Iraq because it manages to capture the complexity of the situation. It’s an extremely moving film that for once doesn’t glorify anything and achieves to show the ugly truth. It tells the true story of the cruel massacre of 24 civilians amongst which were women and children.

In 2005 a group of US Marines was ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. One of the officers got killed, two others were severely wounded. The remaining ones went on a killing spree that cost the lives of those civilians. For this war crime the commanding office was awarded a bronze medal. The US Army tried to cover up the whole story but four months later eye-witnesses told the truth.

As ugly as this story is Battle for Haditha doesn’t blame anyone but shows in great detail the parties involved in this massacre. Even if the movie doesn’t ultimately blame the US Marines, and in particular Cpl Ramirez whose nerves were on edge, it does point a finger at the US government. And rightly so.

The movie moves back and forth between three different viewpoints and ties three very different stories together. We see those young Marines who often join the Army because they have no chance to do anything else. They are shipped to Iraq but haven’t really got a clue what they are doing there. They face severe hostilities, they frequently come under fire, they are blown up and shot at and stressed out.

While the group around Cpl Ramirez moves toward the city of Haditha, two Iraqi men join the Mujaheddin and are instructed how and where to bury a bomb that they will also detonate with a mobile phone. The street that has been chosen is frequently used by Army convoys or reconnaissance on the way to Haditha. The two men have to hide in an empty building and survey the street until an US Army vehicle shows up and then blow up the bomb.

Close by is a housing complex in which two extended families live who are preparing for a party. One of them sees those men digging and they know what will happen. They are extremely scared. Should they report it, they might be executed by the Mujaheddin, if they don’t they might be arrested by the US Army. It’s a big Iraqi family, many children but also the parents and grandprents live together. They are very close and affectionate.

The two men who bury the bomb are just simple men without any political convictions. They are afraid of the Mujaheddin and they are dirt poor. Helping the Mujaheddin is a way to make some money and they do not foresee the consequences. Besides they are promised glory in heaven.

Broomfiled chose hardly any real actors and especially no stars to give this movie an even more authentic feel. The parts of the movie that show the Iraqi insurgents and the family are spoken in Arabic and subtitled which further enhances authenticity.

As far as anti-war movies go, this is a great movie. I think it also manages to illustrate some of the complex feelings and thoughts of all the parties involved.

The biggest achievement however is that Battle for Haditha manages to show us one or many likable characters in each of the three groups. They are all just humans hoping for a better life. One of the likable characters is the unfortunate Cpl Ramirez who, when he sees that one of his friends was killed, literally loses it. I don’t know what became of him. The worst is that the High Command tried to cover up the whole story and tried to justify the war despite every single incident pointing out its injustice.

Warriors aka Peacekeepers (1999) UNPROFOR Peace Units in Bosnia

Warriors is an almost three hour long TV  production starring Ioan Gruffud (Hornblower, King Arthur), Matthew Macfadyen (Robin Hood, Pride and Prejudice) and Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers). Unlike some other great TV productions it isn’t capable to get rid of the TV feel. At every moment we are aware of it having been made for TV. I don’t know how this was aired, probably on two consecutive evenings, watching it like I did in one go wasn’t the best idea. If there hadn’t been some famous actors I would have thought it is a documentary.

You may have gathered already that I didn’t like it that much but it still is an important movie. Many movies depict the absurd mandate that most UN troops have to follow. Unless directly attacked they are not allowed to fight. They are not allowed to take sides. Mostly, like in this case, they aren’t even allowed to evacuate people unless they are seriously injured. This means they have to watch innocent civilians getting killed.

The movie starts in England where we see the soldiers and officers on leave and get to know the main characters. From there we follow them to Bosnia where they are instructed about their mandate which doesn’t really pose any problems for them at the beginning.

Our three main characters will stay in the region for six months. Starting as mostly joyful men who want to make a difference they undergo some serious changes and at the end none of them is remotely comparable to the man he was before he was sent to the region at war.

It is one thing to be told to not interfere when there are soldiers involved but a totally other matter when you see how civilians are raped, butchered and tortured. All these young UN soldiers ask for, is to be able to evacuate those who might get killed. Their superiors stay firm, there is no helping that couldn’t be misunderstood. Soon enough they get proof of this. In a few instances, when no superior officer is around, the one or the other soldier attempts to help and each and every single time the consequences are fatal.

In one instance Lt. Feeley (Ioan Gruffud) assists an elderly Muslim couple whose dog is shot and whose house is plundered. He intervenes and chases off the aggressors only to find the couple executed, when he returns a few days later. Instances like these are numerous and the movie shows more and more atrocities towards the end.

The final part shows the three main protagonists back in England. None of them can cope. Having helplessly witnesses gratuitous acts of violence against children, women and old people has left them shattered. Two have a severe anger management problem and the third attempts to commit suicide.

If you are interested in the peace work of the UN troops and want to see in great detail how they operate, this is a good movie in this respect. There are others who show this very well too but not in so much detail. If you want to watch really good movies on the war in Bosnia I suggest you rather stick to Welcome to Sarajevo (see my review), Savior (see my review) and No Man’s Land (review upcoming).

I couldn’t find a trailer so I attached part 4 of the film.

The Great Escape (1963) Tells Actually the Story of a War Crime

Maybe 90% of my readers are yawning now. I am very sorry but since I have seen The Great Escape for the first time only recently I had no clue. I thought it was basically the story of an escape, which it is, of course. The scene of Steve McQueen on a bike was very familiar as well (one of those memorable movie scenes), but apart from that: zero. I never heard it mentioned anywhere that it is based on the true story of a war crime. Are there any others out there like me who haven’t seen it yet? Maybe. For their sake I am not going to reveal why it is the story of a war crime. Just telling you, that it is.

Apart from that? Did I like it? Obviously when everybody tells you how great a movie is you start to expect something and if that is not what you get then you are slightly disappointed. So I was slightly disappointed. I didn’t expect such a summer camp like joyousness in the beginning. I rather expected something in the vein of The Colditz Story. Something a tad bleaker and grimmer. The feel of The Great Escape is much more adventure story than war movie. Plus English actors who play Englishmen  who pretend to be Germans and get away with it despite their heavy accents are not the height of realism.

What is my final conclusion? No, you are wrong, I don’t write it off but I will have to watch it again without the weird expectations that are never going to be fulfilled. A proper review will be due by the time I have watched it for the second time. After all its a classic, with a fabulous all-star cast and it’s just bad luck  I never watched it as a kid when it was on TV cause everyone who watched it then has the fondest memories. It’s definitely nice to have fond childhood movie memories. My only childhood war movie memory is A Bridge Too Far. Yeah well, not a bad one either, right?

Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) A Court Room Drama About War Criminals

Music Box is not a war movie in the strict sense of the term, especially not since it takes place some 40 years after the war. But it is about what happened to war criminals after the war. The one or the other is still caught today. Many tried to hide in distant countries. Some live in South America but there are certainly also a lot in the US. Since I want to watch Der Stellvertreter aka Amen by Costa-Gavras, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this one before. I remembered that it moved me quite a bit when I saw it for the first time. I found it totally gripping. As much of the suspense comes from the question whether or not the accused committed the crimes I could concentrate on other elements this time.

Just imagine for one second, someone told you, your mother, or your father was a war criminal. He is said to have left the country shortly after the war and gone to the US where he led an exemplary life as a devoted father, able worker and much liked colleague. Imagine the two of you had a very close relationship. You love the stories your father tells you about his childhood and his youth, the horrors of the war and how he managed to flee to a more welcoming country. Your son adores him, your in-laws respect him. But then, one day, the US government accuses him of being a monster and wants to extradite him to Hungary where he would be judged. That is the story of Music Box. Ann Talbot’s (Jessica Lange) father, Viktor Laszlo, a Hungarian immigrant is accused of having committed war crimes. Ann is a successful lawyer and decides, after some initial reluctance, to defend her father. She doesn’t doubt for one second that he is innocent and soon she is able to prove that there have been wrong accusations before, that the Communist countries often try to get at those who fled from them. She is outraged by the injustice that is done to her father and equally shocked by the crimes, the man who is called Mischka, has committed. Torture, executions and rape. But what is the worst he is accused of is the fact that he showed no mercy, compassion or any other signs of empathy. Mischka enjoyed what he did. Much of it took place on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, near the famous Chain Bridge. One of the last parts of this gripping court-room drama takes place in Budapest. A nice addition to the movie. Budapest is a town I am particularly fond of but when I had seen the movie for the first time, I hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t even remember that part of it was filmed there.

Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Frederic Forrest, the main actors are fantastic. Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of the very great German actors. I have often problems when actors fake an accent but he does it well.

For one reason or the other, I always compare Music Box to Sophie’s Choice. I find them both equally convincing from a psychlogical point of view. Both have outstanding female actresses in main roles. And they both have this typical 80ies feel.

I was wondering how I would rate this movie. It is interesting and gripping, psychlogically accurate but doesn’t deserve 5/5. It is somewhere between 4 and 4.5 because it is a tad too sentimental.

Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

This is an outstanding movie. Truly outstanding from every possible point of view. Narrative style, cinematography, actors, story, technical aspects. Absolutely great.

The Polish movie Katyn is about the massacre of some 22000 Polish officers by the Russian army and the subsequent  disposal of their bodies in the Katyn forest in 1940. Once the mass grave is found in 1943 the so-called Katyn list is established.  After having waited anxiously for the return of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers the families are now informed if or if not their loved ones have been among the victims. However not all the victims are on the list. Many more a still missing and may or may not have been murdered. Many wives still wait for their husbands in 1945.

The movie focuses on two families. One is the family of a Polish General, the other the family of a Polish officer. The story is told in two sequences. The first half tells the story until the massacre, the second tells the story of the lie and ends again with the massacre but this time shown much more explicitly (The way these murders were executed…How can people do this to people?). After the first half we think the story should be over but in reality it only just begins. Seeing it first from the point of view of the victims, we are then guided towards the point of view of the families who wait for them. Their ordeal is a different but very cruel one. Even though everybody knows who killed those officers, officially it is said to have been a massacre committed by the Germans. To say otherwise would be very dangerous. The political climate of the time that made it impossible to even mention a critical view of this incident until 1989 is palpable in all its atrocity.

On my DVD of this movie is an interview with the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He tells the interviewer how difficult it was to make this movie. He didn´t know how to tell the story. Should he tell his father´s story, who had been among those officers, or his mother´s who was one of those who did not give up hope until 1945. He decided eventually to tell both stories, juxtapose them, have one mirror the other. This is very skillfully done. Wajda belongs to the so-called Polish Film School and has made many movies, two of his better known earlier ones also deal with WWII:  A Generation aka Pokolenie (1955) and Kanal (1957) about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This film is truly the work of a master, of someone who does not just deliver a story but who weaves it carefully, adding symbolism and criticism alike. And  still it is highly watchable.