The Bridge – Die Brücke (1959) A German WWII Classic

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I finally got a chance to watch Bernhard Wicki’s famous anti-war movie The Bridge – Die Brücke, in which a group of sixteen-year-old high school students fights to keep a bridge. Fighting for – or destroying – bridges is one of the great war movie tropes. Unsurprisingly so, because, like hills, they are strategic points of highest importance. There’s quite a large number of movies showing battles for hills or bridges, none of these however show such a futile attempt as the one depicted in The Bridge.

It’s the end of the war and the Americans are approaching from all sides. Germany, in a final, desperate attempt to win the war, is drafting even young boys. While many of the grown-ups do not believe in winning the war anymore, a group of high school students still hopes to get a chance to fight for their country. Many years of indoctrination have left their mark. They don’t listen to any of the grown-ups who want to talk them out of it.

The movie takes a long time, far over an hour, to introduce us to the characters. There’s the boy whose father, a major, died in battle and who is living alone with his mother on a huge estate. There’s the boy whose father is a Nazi and who flees when he feels the end of the war is approaching, which fills his son with shame, determining him to join up. Then there’s the boy who is in love with a girl but seeing all his friends join, he cannot stay behind. There are more characters but unfortunately – and this is the movie’s biggest weakness – they are not very distinct and even look so similar that even at the end I had no idea who was who.

The last half hour of the movie is the best part and quite powerful. Basically we see a series of mishaps and misunderstanding which lead to a great tragedy. Very often the defense of a hill or a bridge is the last straw and commanding officers order it in many a movie because they have no clue what else there’s left to be done. Not so here. The bridge is meant to be destroyed and the boys are only sent there to wait because nobody really knows what else to do with them. Filled with a feeling of importance and left alone by their superior officer, they think they have to fight to the last when the Americans turn up. This senseless battle costs the lives of many of the boys, of civilians, and American troops alike.

Admittedly my expectations were very high, so it’s maybe not surprising they were not met. The biggest problem, as I said before, was that I couldn’t really tell the boys apart and felt they remained clichéd and flat. When a movie takes more than an hour to introduce and characterize the protagonists that’s a major flaw. The last part was powerful but the acting was over the top, so that I found it not as tragic as it should have been. It seems that this story is based on a true story and as such I think it’s a story that was worth telling, only not this way.

Usually I’m not for remakes but in this case, I think it would be worth to do a remake. The story is tragic and symbolic. Better acting and better defined characters would have made this great. And color would certainly improve it. I like black and white but it must be treated differently. The images don’t have a lot of definition and depth, which may be another reasons why I couldn’t tell the guys apart.

 

 

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Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers

 “The right picture can win or lose a war.”

I remember watching Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers shortly after it was in the cinemas and feeling less than enthusiastic about it. I’d been watching my way through the best infantry combat movies at the time, so, obviously, Flags of Our Fathers fell short. After re-watching it yesterday I must say, it’s not bad at all. Quite the contrary. Sure, it has some corny Hollywood moments, but overall it’s a very interesting movie about topics that are still relevant today: the power of images and the making of heroes.

Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the iconic picture that rekindled the American war effort. Looking at the photo below I would say it’s extremely powerful. I’m not surprised it had such an effect.

APTOPIX OBIT ROSENTHAL

The movie starts with two elderly men reminiscing and telling their story to the son of one of them. The son knows his father took part in the battle of Iwo Jima and that he’s on the famous picture but he doesn’t know much more. His father never spoke about the war. From this initial moment the movie is composed mostly of flash back sections, some of which showing what happened on Iwo Jima, some telling about what came after the picture was shot.

Iwo Jima – or Sulfur Island – was a strategic point. Taking the hill meant that the US might after all have a chance to win the war. When the troops land, the island looks bleak, dark, forlorn and empty. It’s quite a creepy moment, which is enhanced through a change in point of view. We first see the troops land and slowly walk towards the hill, scanning the landscape and then we get the point of view of the hidden Japanese who observe the troops from their fox holes. Needless to say that this first wave of US soldiers is quickly heavily decimated. Still, many make it to the top and that’s when they plant the flag. A senior officer later demands this flag and the commanding officer decides to exchange it and to let him have another one. Both flag raisings are photographed but it’s the second, which is the better picture, that makes it into the newspapers.

Three of the men who raise the flag survive. However, inadvertently, one of the first six is named as the sixth of the second group, which will cause a lot of heartbreak.

The three survivors are sent back to the States where they are touring the country and trying to convince people to help the war effort and buy bonds.

The three men who haven’t done anything more heroic than holding a heavy pole, feel uncomfortable about being called heroes. One of them, an American Indian, is especially uncomfortable. He feels like a cheat. Not only because he doesn’t feel heroic but because they were not even part of the initial flag raising. It feels like he’s deceiving people. The mix up of the sixth soldier makes it even worse.

The movie is sleek and visually compelling. The combat scenes on the island are shot in gritty almost black and white pictures, which form a contrast to the colorful home front scenes.

The actors, notably Adam Beach and Ryan Philippe, are very good. The score is discreet and well-chosen. It stays mostly in the background.

I thought Flags of Our Fathers was really watchable. More than that actually. It’s very good. It shouldn’t be seen as a combat movie but more as a movie about the impact of pictures, an exploration of the true nature of heroism and the way society treats heroes when they aren’t needed anymore. It was sobering to see their treatment. At no point were they seen as soldiers and men but merely as a possibility for propaganda. This became even clearer after the war when people lost all interest in them.

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.

Ballad of a Soldier – Ballada o soldate (1959)

Ballad of a Soldier

Grigory Chukhray‘s movie Ballad of a Soldier  aka Ballada o Soldate is an iconic Russian war movie, which is often mentioned together with another famous Russian movie of the same time, The Cranes are Flying aka Letyat zhuravli. Both films are excellent and combine heartfelt stories with luminous black and white cinematography.

Ballad of a Soldier begins with a scene showing a woman looking into the distance. The road we see is the only one leading to and from the village in which the woman lives. She doesn’t expect anyone to come. Her son has died during the war and nobody will ever know what would have become of him. The movie then rewinds to a famous scene on the Russian frontline and we see her son, nineteen year-old Alyosha, a young signalman, blowing up two German tanks on his own. This heroic act would bring him a  medal but he’d rather be granted a leave to visit his widowed mother and fix her roof. The general in charge, one of a few kind officers, allows him to take a five-day leave.

Russia is a huge country and travelling by train would always take a long time, but during a war it’s almost impossible. Alyosha’s trip quickly turns into an Odyssey. Because he’s kind and helpful, he misses his train more than once. At first he helps a soldier who has lost his leg, then he assists a young girl and the two young people fall in love. Later he helps people after the train is hit by a bomb. When he finally arrives at home, he has only time to hug his mother, exchange a few words and has to leave again immediately. Since we know that he will die during the war, this scene is all the more poignant.

The movie shows how everyone is affected by war, even those who don’t fight. In focussing on someone as kind as Alyosha, someone who genuinely cares for other people the movie makes a powerful anti-war statement. Much more than his heroic act of the beginning, his humanity and kindness make us sad and we deplore that he will never return to his mother, nor get a chance to find the girl he fell in love with.

Something that struck me was that all of the Russian officers, and most of the soldiers in this movie are depicted in a positive way.

Like in The Cranes Are Flying, many shots focus on the faces of the actors who are very expressive. While the first film sticks more to the point of view of a woman, this is told mostly from the point of view of a young man, which makes them great companion pieces. The scenes between mother and son are short but still I’d say it’s one of the most touching portraits of a mother/son relationship. After all, it’s his love for his mother, that makes Alyosha persevere on his journey.

I’d like to recommend this movie. It stands out and makes a powerful statement.

If you’d like to watch other Russia war movies – here is a list: 12 Russian war movies you must see

Hilde (2009)

Hilde

I owe thanks to Howard who made me aware in a comment that the biopic Hilde, which is based on the life of  the German actress and singer Hildegard Knef, was a valid choice for this blog. Since I like Heike Makatsch who plays Hilde I wanted to watch it anyway. Now that I’ve seen it, I agree, WWII is quite prominent in the movie. What surprised me even more than this fact was to find Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame star as Hilde’s second husband David Cameron.

Hildegard Knef was often compared to Marlene Dietrich because they both were from Berlin, both had some success in the US, and they both had very deep, sonorous voices which they used successfully as singers or rather performers, which means they were talking, rather than singing. But that’s about all there is in terms of similarities and that’s one of the aspects that the movie looks into. While Dietrich was born in 1901 and left Germany in the 30s, the far younger Knef, born 1925, not only stayed in Germany but had an affair with an Nazi officer, whom she followed towards the end of the war into battle. She was part of the battle of Berlin, or, to be more precise, took part in the defence of Schmargendorf. She was captured by the Russians and sent to a prison camp.

Germany wasn’t too keen on her as an actress after the war. During the war she starred in a propaganda movie, which was never finished, and the fact that she had an affair with a Nazi officer didn’t help either. She finally left for the US. She was under contract in Hollywood but never got to film and in the end, returned to Germany where she starred in the  notorious  movie Die Sünderin – The Sinner. She played the role of a prostitute and appeared naked, which caused quite a scandal. The movie Hilde shows nicely how much this scandal disgusted her as it was rooted in German double standards. She couldn’t understand how her country that had exterminated so many Jews, could react so hysterically because of her naked breasts.

The later part of the movie focusses on how she discovered that the true Hildegard Knef wasn’t only an actress but a singer/songwriter. Until her death in 2002 she was always equally admired and despised.

While I love Marlene Dietrich as an actress and a singer. I have never seen any of Knef’s movies and her songs, although witty, are not my cup of tea at all. But her life was interesting. The movie focusses only on the early years, until she meets David Cameron, her second husband. I would have liked to see more.

I think the movie is interesting because it doesn’t try to make her any better than she was. She never even questioned the fact that she had an affair with an Nazi officer. She fell in love with a man, and that was that. She also never tried to hide that she wasn’t political and that she, like so many others, just watched passively. It’s not admirable. Far from it. But it’s what it is.

Heike Makatsch does a pretty amazing job in playing her Knef and Dan Stevens was convincing as her second husband. In any case, it’s a movie well worth catching.

For those interested in watching Hilde, Howard told me that there is a Hong Kong version with English subtitles available.

I couldn’t find a trailer with English subtitles, so I’ll leave you with the German one.

Colditz (2005) British TV Miniseries

Colditz

Often when you expect nothing you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I’d read a few reviews that were critical of the 2005 miniseries Colditz and I expected it to be quite bad but must honestly say, I enjoyed it. Although, truth be told, for the wrong reasons. While the title may give the impression this is a POW series, that’s not the case, the POW part is only one story line. The other is clearly a romance. While the POW part didn’t work all that well, I liked the romance, or rather the tragedy.

At the beginning of the series we are introduced to the four main characters: Nicholas McGrade (Damian Lewis), Jack (Tom Hardy), his girlfriend Lizzie (Sophia Myles) and his friend Willis (Laurence Fox). Jack, Nicholas and Willis escape from a POW camp together. Willis and Jack are captured but Nicholas can make it to Switzerland. Before they are recaptured, Jack tells Nicholas to go and find Lizzie in London and tell her that he is alive. Jack is obsessed with Lizzie and the only thing he regrets is that he was too shy to ask her to marry him before he went to war.

While Nicholas is sent back to England, Jack and Willis are sent to Colditz castle which is said to be escape proof. Prisoners who frequently escaped from other prisons are brought to Colditz. In Colditz the two men meet the Canadian pilot Rhett Barker (Jason Priestley) who trades with different of the German guards. He will help them to escape, buying the silence of some of the guards.

Meanwhile Nicholas who has arrived in London has found Lizzie who is working as a nurse. He knew from Jack’s descriptions that she was a looker but he didn’t expect to fall for her. But he does.

The movie switches back and forth between the two settings. The prisoners make one attempt at escaping after the other and Nicholas tries to win Lizzie’s heart, only she loves Jack and wants to wait for him.

But then Nicholas has a shrewd plan how to win Lizzie despite her love for Jack. I can’t reveal more or it would be pointless to watch the movie.

I like Damian Lewis a lot and I think that’s to a large extent why I liked this series. But I also thought that Nicholas was a great, tragic character. He did a really bad thing and he paid for it but in a way, I think, most people can understand what he did and why he did it. I found it very touching.

The Colditz parts, as I said before, are much weaker. There are many reasons for that but one is certainly Jason Priestley. He’s just not a good actor. This is too bad because Tom Hardy and Laurence Fox are quite convincing.

Watch it if you’d like to see a tragic war romance, stay away if you want to see a movie focussing on Colditz only. Still, there is plenty of action and drama in the Colditz sequences too and interesting war related bits in the London parts. Overall it’s very watchable. Not everyone may like it as much as I did but I’m sure many will appreciate it. It is quite entertaining.