Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011) A WWII True Story

In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s movie In Darkness is a Polish/German/Canandian co-production based on a true story.

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer worker and petty thief, living in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland.  One day he meets a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. After lengthy discussions he agrees to help them hide in the labyrinthine sewers under the city. Many of the Jews do not trust him, knowing well that the Nazis’ pay money for every Jew and that many Poles don’t like Jews either. Socha is rather poor and he and his family are struggling. Helping is not an act of altruism but a great opportunity to make money, as one of the Jews is very rich.

While Socha does a great job at providing them with food and helping them to change hiding places, when one gets too dangerous, he has not feelings or compassion for them at first. But over the months – the small group has to stay in hiding for 14 months – he gets to know them and admires their courage and determination. At the end, although they have run out of money, he still helps them, and risks his life and the lives of his wife and daughter.

In Darkness is a very moving film, based on an amazing story of resilience and courage. Staying in the dark and the stink, surrounded by rats, in close quarters, is very hard to imagine. Not all of those who are in the sewers in the beginning make it until the end. Quite a few, escape, some prefer to be sent to a camp.

When everything goes fine, the situation is bearable but hunger, illness, boredom and one woman’s pregnancy turn it into a nightmare at times.

On my DVD is a documentary called In Light, in which the film director Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger, one of the children who spent 14 months in the sewer, talk together about the film. When  Agnieszka Holland started filming, they had no idea that here still was a survivor although Krystyna Chiger had published her memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater shortly before that. A streak of luck brought them together. It was great to hear Krystyna’s impressions of the film. According to her, the movie manages to show exactly how it was. Everything, down to the smallest detail is correct.

Leopold Socha was one of many Poles who risked everything to hide Jews. It’s important to tell these stories as well.

There were quite a few well-known German actors among the cast – Benno Fürmann, Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup – who were all good, but none of them surpassed Robert Wieckiewicz in the role of  Leopold Socha.

In Darkness is an excellent movie based on a true story that had to be told. Highly recommended.

 

Marine Raiders (1944)

Marine Raiders

Marine Raiders is a black and white US movie from 1944. I’ve got it with a bunch of other “forgotten” war movies.  Unfortunately, after having seen it, I’m pretty sure I know why it was forgotten. It wasn’t dreadful but it was certainly not very good. Fortunately it’s a very short movie (77 minutes).

The two friends Major Steve Lockhart (Pat O’Brien) and Captain Dan Craig (Robert Ryan) are fighting together at Guadalcanal. Dan shows a lot of bravery when he goes on a “let’s-kill-as-many-of-those-beastly-Japs-as-we-can-rampage” after having seen the cruelty inflicted on one of his buddies.

From Guadalcanal the two men are sent to Australia where Dan meets Lt. Ellen Foster (Ruth Hussey) and falls in love with her. During their date there’s a Japanese air raid and Dan is injured. Ellen is sent away for two days and while she’s gone, Dan is sent back home to San Diego where he and Steve will train new recruits.

Before being sent to an island in the South Pacific, they briefly return to Australia. Dan and Ruth get married before Dan’s sent into battle. The last 15 minutes of the film show intense fighting.

That’s the whole story. A romance bracketed by two major battles. The Japanese are depicted as cruel and vicious, but luckily the Marines win every battle. And there is some tired chow-related humour.

Marine Raiders is still interesting as it’s very similar to the outstanding TV Mini series The Pacific. One could call Marine Raiders an uninspired precursor. So, for those interested in film history, it’s still worth watching. Just keep in mind, it’s not only a forgotten movie, but a forgotten B-movie.

Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012)

Hannah Arendt

I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Hannah Arendt. It can’t get much better than Barbara Sukowa starring in a movie by Margarethe von Trotta. Just recently I have watched another movie they’ve made together – Vision, which was amazing – and I was looking forward to watch Hannah Arendt. The movie is, as I expected, very good, but the title is badly chosen. It would have been much better to call it Arendt on Eichmann or some such thing. With her name as the sole title we’re led to believe it’s about her life while it’s only about her controversial book on Adolf Eichmann and the extreme hostility she experienced after writing it.

Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt emigrated to France in 1933 and, after having spent some time at Camp Gurs, emigrated to the US in 1941 where she stayed until her death in 1975. She lived in New York.

The movie takes place in 1961. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by the Israeli Intelligence Agency and brought to Israel to be tried. The New York Times sent Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem to report on the trial. The movie uses a lot of original footage of the trial; we see and hear Eichmann answer questions. And we witness Arendt’s fascination and shock. When she travels to Israel, like so many, she’s prepared to see a “monster”, an extraordinarily evil man, but what she witnesses is, what she later coins “the banality of evil”. What the film shows nicely is how Arendt came to understand that Eichmann was not extraordinary at all. On the very contrary. He was just a man who followed orders without ever thinking or questioning anything. People didn’t react kindly to her interpretation. Surely a mass murderer like Eichmann couldn’t be such a banal creature. But Arendt went one step further saying that without the support of the Jewish leaders the mass extermination would not have been as successful as it was.

Of course I knew her position of Eichmann’s banality but I didn’t know she had blamed the Jewish leaders. The uproar and outrage were incredible and for a long time her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was not translated into Hebrew.

The movie also touches briefly on her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an affair when she was his student. Heidegger is a controversial figure because he was affiliated with Nazism prior to 1934.

According to the film, Arendt was not only blamed for her positions but for being very cold. The victims felt that in saying Eichmann wasn’t a monster, they were blamed as well. I agree that some of the interpretation of her findings must have sounded harsh and brutal to the victims, but I think the movie also manages to show that wasn’t what it was about. In saying Eichmann was banal, Arendt warned us. She meant to show that it didn’t take extraordinary people for a totalitarian systems to work; ordinary people who follow orders and refuse to think are all it needs.

The original footage showing Eichmann is chilling, but without Sukowa’s stellar performance this would only have been half as good.

Not a lot of people stood by her side once her articles were published. But she always had Mary McCarthy (wonderfully played by Janet McTeer) and her husband Heinrich Blücher and some of her friends.

Hannah Arendt is one of the best biopics I’ve seen in recent years. I highly recommend it.

For those who don’t like subtitles: a large part of the movie is spoken in English.

Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor

I decided to watch Lone Survivor after having read a positive review on The War Movie Buff’s blog (here). I did not regret it, although I have some reservations.

Talk about a doomed operation. Lone Survivor is based on a true story – Operation Red Wing – which went horribly wrong. Given how the movie starts and its title, it’s not a spoiler to mention that the operation only had one survivor played by Mark Wahlberg. 

The movie is set in Afghanistan in 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three other Navy Seals are sent on a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. While hiding in the mountains goatherds literally stumble over them. The four men have a heated discussion about what they should do with them. Two want them dead, one wants to tie them and only Luttrell wants to let them go. Unfortunately their communication systems don’t work and they cannot reach their commander (Eric Bana) and ask for advice. Finally they let them go as that is in line with their rules of engagement. It’s clear that while this is the right thing to do, nothing good can come of it. And indeed, one of the herders runs down to the village and alerts the men surrounding Ahmad Shadh. What follows is an intense two hours of flight and fight.

First I’d like to say that the movie is well done. The pacing is good, there is some nice cinematography (stunning sunsets), the music works well, the action scenes are extremely realistic. The characters aren’t fully rounded, but that would be absurd in a movie like this. Last, but not least it’s very suspenseful, although we know there’s only one survivor.

I thought that in choosing this title and beginning of the film, which clearly shows that only Wahlberg’s character survived, the director stayed away from sentimentality and melodrama, which is so often annoying in movies of this type.

I’ve seen this compared to Black Hawk Down but I can’t see any similarity. I was reminded of Bravo Two Zero, in which the failing communication also played a major role. Lone Survivor has elements of both Act of Valor and the French Forces Spécilales, but I would say it’s better.

I’ve seen a lot of very harsh reviews of this movie. I think it’s not as bad as some say, but as is often the case with movies, which also find the approval of the military, there’s a mix up in the reception. One thing is the movie as such, and one can really not find a lot of flaws in that, the other thing is the reason that this movie was made in the first place. It depicts a true story and if you are against the way the US handle their war against terrorism, then you are probably inclined to be against this film. But that’s really mixing up two things. I thought that this movie stayed away from a lot of the glorifying we usually see in movies like this. It depicts  highly trained men on a mission that goes wrong. Sure, the characters want to kill as many Afghanis as they can, and they don’t try to apply a lot of empathy, but I’d like to see what all the liberal thinkers who criticized this film would do in a similar situation. Would they still try to understand and speak in a politically correct way about people who are trying to kill them?

I liked this film and the way it was done. I’m not keen on the US strategies against terrorism, but there is no denying that they exist. And there is no denying that the US military has some admirably well-trained soldiers who would do anything for each other.

Watch it if you like watching an action-driven movie inspired by a true story, leave it out if you expect criticism of the US military.

The Desert Fox (1951) Biopic on Field Marshal Rommel’s Final Years

The Desert Fox

The Desert Fox, starring James Mason as Field Marshal Rommel, is based on the biography of Rommel by Desmond Young. The movie opens with British commandos trying to assassinate Rommel in 1941 and then forwards to 1943 showing Rommel at El Alamein.  Rommel, who is of poor health, is just back on the front line and faces a pretty desperate situation. The German troops are far outnumbered and any reasonable commander would give the order to withdraw. Not so Hitler whose consultants all encourage him to give orders to either win or die. For the first time, the movie tells us, Rommel starts to doubt the Führer’s sanity. It will not be the last time. On the very contrary. The movie tries to show a Rommel who goes from doubt to open criticism and even knows the group around von Stauffenberg will attempt to assassinate Hitler. While not tied to the assassination he’s still found guilty of treason and given a chance to either get a fake trial or to commit suicide in order to assure the future of his wife and son.

I must admit I expected this movie to be far better than it was. The story is interesting, of course, but the way this was filmed was not much better than a B-movie. Mason is good, I wouldn’t say he’s great but he’s good. There is just one problem. He doesn’t look like Rommel. What didn’t work is that most of the movie is either composed of real footage or scenes filmed in the studio which makes the whole movie look like a theater play broken up by documentary material.

The other problem is that we don’t really get to know Rommel. Given that the title of the movie is The Desert Fox and not “Rommel’s Downfall” or some such thing, I expected that we will learn why Rommel was considered to be such a great general. Although he was their enemy, the Allies admired and feared him. The movie only shows us a Rommel who is very realistic, who knows when a battle can’t be won, who makes great suggestions, but isn’t heard. The movie also fals in showing Rommels’ humanity. It seems he was never accused of war crimes. He refused to kill Jewish soldiers, civilians and prisoners.

The best part is that the movie shows how Rommel first doubts the people who consult Hitler before he doubts the man himself. Once he’s understood that his Führer is nothing but a maniac, he speaks his mind openly and confronts him.

I watched the movie Patton two years ago and thought it was outstanding. If anyone knows of a biopic of Rommel which is equally good, please let me know.

I didn’t mind watching The Desert Fox, but it’s certainly not the ultimate movie on Rommel.

Rommel’s son Manfred died last month. It’s interesting to know that he formed a friendship with Patton’s and Montgomer’y sons.

Here’s one of the best scenes in which Rommel confronts Hitler

Peaky Blinders (2013) British Post-WWI Gangster Saga

peaky-blinders-cillian-murphy-600-lg

Sometimes you just have to stretch definitions. I’ve included other movies and TV series which were not exactly “war films” but dealt with the aftermath of war or a post-war era, and that’s why I think it’s fair to include Peaky Blinders. That and because it is fantastic. I really loved it and have to thank my friend Novroz for repeatedly writing about it. Besides it just proves a point. These days a lot of the best visual story telling isn’t shown in cinemas but on TV. And did I mention Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the White Stripes? I’ll come to that later.

Set in Birmingham in 1920, Peaky Blinders tells the story of a family of gangsters. They work pretty much mafia-style. They intimidate people, extort money against protection, fix races, use violence. Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the oldest brother, Thomas (Cillian Murphy) the second, Jimmy is next and little Fin who is barely 5 years old is the youngest. There is also a sister, Ada, who’s in love with the communist Freddie Thorne. We never hear what happened to the mother, and the father, a thieving, whoring bastard, appears much later in the series. The only parent figure who is around constantly is aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). People assume that Arthur being the oldest is in charge but he’s far too dumb for that. The real boss of the Peaky Blinders is Thomas, assisted by aunt Polly. Thomas is the one with the business ideas, ready to strike, cold and calculating, and never shying away from violence. But he’s also loyal and courageous. Polly can be as cold and calculating as Thomas but she’s also diplomatic and keeps the family together on a more emotional level. Whenever there is conflict between the one or the other, she will reconcile them.

The world the Peaky Blinders live in is rough. It’s a world of poverty, delinquency, alcoholism and prostitution. Most of the money of the Shelby’s comes from bookmaking, contraband trade and robberies. The whole tragic story is set in motion when they steal a truckload of guns by mistake at the beginning of the series.

Winston Churchill sends for an Irish inspector who is an expert in the fight against the IRA. Churchill suspects that the guns are either in the hands of the IRA or the Communists. Both would be equally bad. The inspector is a self-righteous man, of those movie characters one really loves to hate – especially since he’s played by Sam Neill.

Thomas is intelligent and troubled. Like most of the men in the series he served in France and the trenches have changed him. He’s a broken man, who uses opium to fight his demons and distances himself from any feeling. Nightmares and visions of France haunt him like they haunt many others.

Music is very important for this series. The sound track is a mix of songs and original score by Nick Cave, the White Stripes and Tom Waits. Some sequences, notably those showing Thomas on his own or the “battle scenes”  are composed like stylish, gritty music video.

A gang like the Peaky Blinders is bound to have enemies and there are a lot of bloody confrontations with other gangs, bookmakers and the police. The power struggle between the inspector and Thomas makes is very suspenseful.

WWI is present all through this series. Many of the loyalties, the friendships and aversions in the series have a source in whether or not characters have served and whether or not they served together. The war left its mark on the society and on the people. The good and the bad in Thomas comes to a large extent from the war. He knows what courage under fire means. He’s been decorated twice. But he also knows that the war bruises and breaks you and leaves scars all over your body and your soul.

I’m not going to say  much more just this – watch it. I really loved Peaky Blinders and will watch it again. Before ending I should say that the series is a bit of a one man show. It wouldn’t have been as outstanding without Cillian Murphy‘s stellar performance, on the other hand it would be unfair not to mention that all the other actors are really good too.

Phantom (2013) Sub Movie with a Russian Point of View

Phantom

I discovered Phantom thanks to a comment on my post on U571 . Since it’s a new movie and it has been quite a while since I last saw a submarine movie and because I’m very fond of Ed Harris, I thought I’d give it a shot. While it’s maybe not among the top of the range, it was decent and had an unusual angle. This is a Cold War movie told entirely from a Russian perspective. It took some getting used to in the beginning that Ed Harris, David Duchovny and William Fichtner all played Russians, but once I realized there wouldn’t be any American counterparts in this film, it was easier to accept. And I was very thankful that for once there were no fake Russian accents to endure.

The movie is set in 1968. The aging Captain of a submarine, Demi (Ed Harris), is assigned a final mission on an old submarine on which he served decades ago. Why he is assigned and what the mission is, isn’t said. He’s surprised to find out that two people he’s not familiar with will come aboard as well, not telling him why they join the mission.

Once on board strange things happen. A dog which isn’t there attacks the Captain, he sees people who die in a fire. We soon get to know that these are hallucinations and that the Captain suffers from epilepsy due to a head trauma. The backstory will be revealed later on.

Because he has an epileptic fit, things escalate quickly and loyalties are tested. Shortly after that the two strangers show their real faces and the movie turns into a thriller.

I can’t say too much or the movie would be spoilt. It’s based on a true event, the disappearance of a submarine in 1968, but that’s as historical as it gets. Nobody has ever found out what happened to said submarine. This movie just tries to imagine one possibility and the diea is quite chilling.

Phantom is a rather slow movie that takes a lot of time to show interior shots, which capture very well how narrow and claustrophobic it is in a submarine. There are hardly any outside shots as the bulk of the action takes place inside. The enemies, so to speak, are among the crew members, and finding out who is on which side is an important element.

Phantom doesn’t make my top submarine movie list, but it’s watchable, especially when you like Harris and Duchovny.