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.

Lore (2012)

Lore

What a pleasant change, I’ve actually watched a movie and really, really  liked it. I’d say it was certainly the best wartime movie I’ve seen in a long while. Lore is a German/Australian/UK co-production. Spoken in German, with German actors and subtitled in English. It’s based on Ruth Seiffert’s highly acclaimed novel The Dark Room. Or, to be more precise, on one of the three interlinked stories in the book.

Lore is the eldest daughter of a prominent Nazi functionary. Indoctrinated with the ideology, she blindly loves her father and the Führer, follows every order without questioning and takes everything she’s ever been taught to be the absolute truth. The movie begins at the end of the war. Her parents are in distress, something has happened but they won’t tell their children. The family flees to a holiday home in the country where people treat them aggressively. Lore has no clue what is going on. She knows her parents are hiding something. The father leaves them, and shortly afterwards the mother leaves too. She is giving herself up and goes to prison unsolicited. Before she leaves she tells Lore that the Führer is dead. Everything is lost. Lore has to take her four siblings, one of them is just a baby, and walk in direction of Hamburg where her mother lives.

The movie follows the children on their difficult journey towards Hamburg. It shows how difficult and dangerous it is for them. They risk starvation, rape, being killed or captured. They have to cross three different sectors, the US, the Russian and the UK sector. Even though they are only children, they are suspected and interrogated. At one point a young man starts to follow them. He carries papers and pretends being their older  brother. This makes all of their lives easier.

Lore is more than a road movie, it delicately portrays the total disenchantment of a young girl. On their journey they are not only confronted with severe deprivations but they learn the truth about their beloved father and the Führer. Everything Lore believed in was built on a lie.

I’ve never seen a movie, which focussed on the children of high Nazi officers. I never wondered what became of them after the war. The movie shows what a long and painful process it was to learn the truth.

The story as such is quite gripping and the way it was told was masterful. I haven’t seen any  of Cate Shortland‘s other movies but she’s a film director I’ll keep in mind. Lore was beautifully filmed and the score, written by Max Richter, enhanced the gloomy atmosphere of the film. The atmosphere and the mood was probably what I liked best: lyrical, melancholic and gloomy.

I’m not surprised Lore has won so many prizes and been nominated for many awards. I’d say it’s the first 5/5 movie I’ve seen this year. Don’t miss it.

Has anyone seen the film?