The Captain – Der Hauptmann (2017) A Chilling German WWII Movie

The Captain – Der Hauptmann is a German black and white movie, directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent) and starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel and Frederick Lau. It premiered in the UK, last Friday.

Before I even begin my review, I have to point out that this is based on a true story. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but in this case it does because if one thought this was fiction, one would find it over the top, but since it’s not, it’s really a shocking movie.

The Captain begins with a hunt. A group of soldiers chases a young soldier, Pvt Willi Herold, who was separated from his unit. Obviously, they think he’s a deserter. The scene is more than effective. We can feel Willi’s fear. We can imagine what they would have done with him, if they had caught him, but they don’t. He escapes.

It’s 1945, two weeks before the end of the war and things are chaotic. The Germans still hope to win the war but even the most hardened realize it might not happen. There are many soldiers, like Willi, separated from their units, but also a lot of deserters. When they get caught, they are shot immediately.

Even though he’s escaped, Willi knows he’s still in danger. When he finds the uniform of an Nazi officer, he doesn’t hesitate and puts it on. As soon as he wears the uniform, roaming soldiers begin to follow him and accept him as their commander. At first, Willi is puzzled and a bit unsure but he soon realizes that the uniform has an almost magical power. The trouble begins only when they encounter fellow officers. They are a little less gullible and so, Willi invents a mission that, as he tells the people he meets, comes from Adolf Hitler directly.

Willi and his band of soldiers arrive at a camp for political prisoners. At first, the commanding officers are not so sure about this Captain, but once they notice how determined he is, how willing to sort out their problems, they put him in charge. What follows is truly shocking. Not only is Willi cruel, but downright sadistic. He seems to enjoy executing and slaughtering people and abuses the blind obedience of his soldiers who follow his most cruel orders. No wonder, he was called The Executioner of Emsland.

I have seen a lot of movies about depraved people, notably in war movies, but Willi Herold might be one of the worst. It’s shocking that someone kills and tortures without restraint, as soon as he gets the opportunity. And to think that all these people died at his hands only two weeks before the end of the war.

I highly recommend this film. It’s a shocking story, impeccably told and masterfully shot. I’m still speechless.

Thanks to Signature Entertainment for letting me view this film in exchange for an honest review.

 

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The Last Witness (2018)

The Last Witness is a UK/Polish political thriller directed by Piotr Szkopiak, starring Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike, I am Number Four), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter, Victoria and Abdul), Talulah Riley (Pride and Prejudice, Westworld), Robert Więckiewicz (In Darkness, The Mighty Angel) and Will Thorp (Coronation Street, Casualty).

The movie tells the story of Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer), an ambitious, young journalist. In 1947, the body of a Polish ex-serviceman is found on a beach near Bristol. This isn’t the first time this happened, but like before, the police say it’s a suicide. Underwood doesn’t believe this explanation and wants to investigate the case. Unfortunately his boss isn’t interested in the story, still, Underwood won’t let go. Others try to dissuade him from his investigation; his girlfriend who is married to an influential, gay man and his brother, who is in the army.

The dead men lived at a resettlement camp for Polish ex-service men who didn’t want to return to their Soviet-occupied home country after the war. Underwood contacts Colonel Janusz Pietrowski, a Liaison Officer at the camp, and finds out about a conspiracy. Pietrowsky tells Underwood about a Russian who also lives at the camp and who saw something, back in Poland, during the war, that might offer an explanation for these alleged suicides.

One night, Underwood enters the camp and steals a diary and letters that are in the possession of the Russian man. The letters belonged to a Polish cadet. Underwood has the documents translated. What he finds out fills him with horror. In 1940, 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were killed in a massacre that would later be known as the Katyn massacre. In 1947, it was said that the Nazi’s killed those men. For many reasons the governments of various countries decided to cover up the the real story and go with that interpretation.

The movie dramatizes this aspect, making it information that had to be kept a secret at any cost. Underwood, who is very persistent, finally manages to find out the truth and puts himself in great danger.

While this film is inspired by events that took place during the war, the story as such is purely fictional. I’m not always keen on films who go as far as The Last Witness in fabricating a story to explore an aspect of the war, nonetheless, I found this very watchable. I actually enjoyed it. I liked the cinematography, the music, the mood, and the actors very much. The movie has a dark, brooding atmosphere that goes well with the tragic theme and heightens the suspense. The end was rather surprising.

A lot of people are interested in WWII but shy away from watching war movies.This film explores an atrocity, but it can still be watched by those who don’t necessarily watch war movies. It’s explicit but not graphic. On the other hand, those who watch war movies must think of this as a thriller, inspired by true events.

The movie is inspired by the Katyn massacre that took place 1940, in Poland. Emilia Szkopiak, Piotr Szkopiak’s mother, was deported to Siberia by the Soviets in 1940. Her father, Piotr Szkopiak’s grandfather, Wojciech Stanisław Wójcik, was executed in the Katyn Massacre. In 1942 Emilia left the Soviet Union and eventually settled in England in 1947 where she continues to live to this day.

If you’re interested in the Katyn massacre, here’s a review of Katyn, an excellent movie on the topic.

The movie is out on DVD and digital on August 27th.

Thanks to Signature Entertainment for letting me view this film in exchange for an honest review.

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.

Riphagen (2016) The True Story of a Dutch Traitor

riphagen

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)

testament-of-youth

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.