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 King’s Choice (2016) A Norwegian Masterpiece

The King’s Choice is a Norwegian movie about King Haakon VII’s difficult decision after the German invasion of Norway. Last year, I watched and reviewed April, 9 which tells of the speedy invasion of Denmark. It’s an amazing movie because it tells a story that is lesser known. The King’s Choice does the same for Norway and also begins on April, 9. If you’re familiar with the role of the Nordic countries during WWII, you’ll know that Norway didn’t surrender within a few hours like Denmark, but that they put up a fight which lasted several months.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how little I knew of the history of these two countries. I had no idea that the king of Denmark was the king of Norway’s brother. Haakon VII was the first, democratic elected king of Norway. He became king in 1905, after the union with Sweden ended. The movie tells us about that at the beginning and shows a lot of amazing original footage.

Like in the UK, the king wasn’t ruling, but the parliament was and, so, when the Germans invaded and occupied the Norwegian ports, it was up to the government to decide what to do.

Hitler needed Norway just as much as he needed Denmark, because of the long coast line, but also, in Norway’s case, because the country was rich in sources of iron ore. Pretending that Norway was threatened by England, who allegedly was going to invade Norway, Hitler offered his protection under one condition — immediate surrender.

The movie explores how difficult it was for the government to make a decision. Many thought that surrendering would be the safest choice. In the end, lacking determination, they relied on the king to make a choice. By the time the king met the German ambassador, Norway had already been under fire. The king and his family were in grave danger. The king eventually made a decision, but he didnn’t want to reveal it because he felt, that the decision should be made democratically. In the end, he just informed them of what he would do, in case of immediate surrender – abdicate.

The choice King Haakon made is admirable for many reasons, but also because he wasn’t well. He was very frail, suffering from terrible back aches. The war put an immense strain on him personally but he never thought of himself when making his decision.

A movie like this could have gone many ways. It could have been dry and boring or too educational. It was nothing of the sort. It was a pure joy to watch. I was so impressed with Jesper Christensen who played Haakon VII. He’s spectacular. Haakon was an old man, suffering from terrible back aches. Watching Christensen play this role, it’s hard to believe he’s younger and healthy. I wasn’t surprised to find out that he’s a stage actor. You can always tell when a movie actor is also a theater actor. The role of the German ambassador was played by the German actor Karl Marcovics, another seasoned actor.

The acting alone makes this movie well-worth seeing, but then there was the mood and the atmosphere which was absolutely wonderful. It’s very mournful and melancholic as befits the topic. (The superlatives are chasing each other in this review). Cinematography, music, and acting went hand in hand to create a beautiful and very moving film. I would go as far and say it’s a work of art. No wonder it was nominated for an Academy Award.

This is certainly the perfect companion piece to April, 9.

Do yourself a favour  and watch it.

 

 

Alone in Berlin (2016) Vincet Perez’ Rehash of an Old Classic

Alone in Berlin is a UK/German/Frenvh co-production based on the novel Everyone Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. The recent English publication of Fallada’s novel was so successful that it’s not surprising it was made into a movie although there are already three German versions.

Everyone Dies Alone (1962 West German film; Jeder stirbt für sich allein)

Jeder stirbt für sich allein (1970 East German miniseries)

Everyone Dies Alone (1976 West German film; Jeder stirbt für sich allein)

Alone in Berlin tells the story of Anna and Otto Quangel (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson) who lost their son in 1940 in France. This loss shakes the couple. They are disgusted with the Nazy government and decide to fight it. They begin to write subversive postcards, leaving them all over Berlin. The postcards are meant to wake up the Germans in the hope that they too will start to resist. Unfortunately, almost all of the postcards are brought to the Gestapo offices.

A police detective, Escherich (Daniel Brühl), has been assigned to hunt them. When the wrong man is arrested and executed, Escherich starts to have his own doubts about the government.

Even though the movie is based on a true story, I’m not going to say more since many readers of this blog might not be familiar with it.

While I haven’t seen any of the older versions, I’m pretty sure, that they are all better than this terrible film. I haven’t read Fallada’s novel but I’ve read other books by him and he’s an amazing writer.  I’m pretty sure, this novel is amazing too, so why was this such an awful movie?

First, there’s my pet peeve – the language. It would have been so easy to cast German actors and film this in German, but no, they had to cast Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson and let them speak English with German accents. Awful, awful, awful. And ludicrous. Why could they not just speak plain English? After about half an hour I had to switch to the dubbed German version. I can tell you – when I prefer the dubbed version  of a film, then there’s something very wrong.

That alone would have been enough for me not to like this film, but it’s also terrible for other reasons. While Hollywood has been known to dramatize the crap out of some minor historical event, this version robbed it of any of its dramatic potential. Watching an ad for washing powder is more suspenseful than this movie. The only story line that was mildly captivating was the transformation of the detective.

Although I think Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson are both outstanding actors, one wouldn’t guess, watching this. Maybe they were told that, on top of the fake accents, they had to keep all the emotions out of their faces. Daniel Brühl isn’t doing a bad job, but he too wasn’t allowed to show his potential.

What a missed opportunity. Was there anything good about this, you may wonder? Actually, yes, and that makes it even more infuriating. It’s beautifully shot. Really appealing.

Too bad pretty pictures don’t make up for ludicrous fake accents and boring dramaturgy.

 

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.

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) A US WWI Air Combat Movie

the-eagle-and-the-hawk

I’d never heard of  The Eagle and the Hawk before seeing it included in a war movie collection box that I ordered from the US. I’m happy to say that it was a real surprise. At one hour and eight minutes, it’s rather on the short side but it still packs a punch. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives, A Star is Born) and Cary Grant (North by Northwest, Notorious, To Catch a Thief)  star in this unjustly overlooked black and white WWI anti-war, air combat drama. And there’s even a short scene with the stunning Carole Lombard (To Be or Not to Be, Mr and Mrs Smith)

Jerry Young (Frederic March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant) are both pilots but while Young is talented and careful, Crocker is rather foolhardy. That’s why, when they are called to got to France, Young makes sure, Crocker isn’t summoned. One can understand why because not only is he not the best pilot, but he’s also cranky and mean-spirited.

Once in Europe, Young’s quickly covered in medals. While many pilots envy him for that, he’s getting more and more depressed. Not only is he shocked to lose all of his young observers after only a few missions, but he also hates to shoot down enemy planes.

He’s more than a little surprised when he discovers that his newest observer, who has just come over from the US, is no other than Crocker. They didn’t like each other in the US but now this dislike turns into hate. Especially since Crocker treats killing like a sport, while Young’s sinking deeper and deeper into his depression. The true conflict however stems from Crocker’s attitude towards the enemy. Even in war, there are some rules, but he just doesn’t stick to them and does a few atrocious things.

When Young shoots down Alfred Voss, one of the most highly decorated German pilots, he earns everyone’s respect but cannot forgive himself for killing a mere boy.

Seeing a decorated pilot suffer from his own victories, isn’t something I’ve seen often in war movies but it’s not entirely new. What was different though, was Cary Grant’s character’s development. I thought this was genuinely well done and led to a surprising end twist that I’m not going to forget soon.

I’ve seen people comment on the scene with Carole Lombard, calling it superfluous. In my opinion, it gives the movie a bitter-sweet quality and foreshadows tragic events.

It’s a neat, short movie with two interesting character portraits, a very outspoken anti-war message, a few pretty good air combat scenes and a great and surprising ending.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a trailer, which isn’t surprising as it’s a movie from the 30s.

Land of Mine – Under Sandet (2015) An Outstanding Danish/German Post-War Movie

land-of-mine

How many WWII and post-war stories haven’t been told yet? How many atrocities have we not heard of? There must be a huge number. It’s important that we hear about them. Many stories help us see what happened in a new light, add something to the discussion about war and post-war. And some of them are even important for the understanding of contemporary issues. The fantastic Danish-German co-production Land of Mine – Under Sandet is one of those. While it doesn’t tell a true story, it’s inspired by facts. As Martin Zandvliet, film director and writer of this movie, said in an interview, these facts show us how quickly people can become a monster when they fight monsters. Some of what he said and some of what we see in the movie, sounded and looked all too familiar.

At the opening of the movie we see Sgt Carl Rasmussen freak out. He sees a German POW carrying a Danish flag. This infuriates him so much, he beats the guy up. The war is over and there are hundreds of German POWs returning home. The Danish hate them. Rasmussen hates them so much, he almost kills the German soldier.

Maybe this hatred of the enemy makes his superior decide he’s qualified for the job he is going to give him. There are 2,200,000 million land mines buried on the Danish beaches. No other country has this many and it’s obviously vital that they should be dug up and defused. It also seems natural to use German soldiers to do that.

For Rasmussen this is only logical—Germans planted the mines, Germans will have to defuse them. If the one or the other dies – all the better.  What he doesn’t expect however is that the POW’s he is sent are very young soldiers. Almost kids. The oldest is nineteen. But Rasmussen soon overcomes his initial hesitation and the dangerous work begins.

Over the course of the movie, we watch the young people dig up thousands of mines and defuse them. It’s horrible work and watching them had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. I don’t think there’s anything that gets to me as much as watching movies about bomb disposal teams. Be that The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, the UK TV series Danger UXB or this movie, Land of Mines. Every time someone starts to dig up, we know there’s a huge risk. Those scenes are always agonizingly slow. I had to brace myself for whatever would happen. Many lose limbs, many lose their lives.

The movie’s not an action movie. It’s a psychological exploration and a character study. Rasmussen may hate Germans but he doesn’t want to mistreat kids. Nor does he want to see them maimed or dead.

The movie shows subtly, how they begin to understand each other. How there’s some sort of camaraderie between them and how fragile that is.

This is such and excellent, harrowing movie. Such an emotional rollercoaster ride. The actors, many of which had never acted before, are outstanding. There are many small stories, relationships, friendships, that make the losses, the danger all the more poignant. I can’t say too much or it would spoil the film.

I hadn’t heard of these historical facts before, wasn’t aware of the number of land mines or that they used German children to defuse them. Not many survived. It’s a shocking story. It’s shocking to realize how easily people start to hate people and wouldn’t hesitate to take revenge. Even in a case like this, in which so many of the enemy soldiers hadn’t even seen battle and mostly hadn’t volunteered to go to war.

The movie is as much about a forgotten dark side of Denmark’s history as it is about keeping our humanity. No matter what.

I hope that I managed to capture how amazing this movies is. It’s hard to watch, at times almost unbearable, but so rewarding.

 

USS Indianapolis (2016) Not So Much a War Movie Than an Action Drama

uss_indianapolis_2d_dvd

I first heard of the USS Indianapolis when I was watching Jaws. One of the characters mentions that he was on the ship when it was torpedoed by the Japanese. The scene is quite long and I remember it impressed me as I’d never heard of the Indianapolis story before. It’s an incredible story. So, obviously, when Lionsgate UK offered a review DVD of the movie USS Indianapolis, I accepted gladly. How I wish my expectations had been met. Unfortunately, they haven’t. Or not fully. I’ve seen a lot of people bash this film and while I have to agree, it has terrible moments, it’s still watchable. And interesting, especially if you don’t know the story. And there’s Tom Sizemore.

The USS Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. It was a secret mission and that’s why they had no escort. On their way back from the successful mission, they were torpedoed by a Japanese ship and sunk within a few minutes. Of the 1,190 men aboard, 300 went under with the ship. Over 900 men landed in the water. This would have been bad in any case but it was especially horrible in this situation because the waters were swarming with sharks. As if that wasn’t enough, because they had been on a secret mission, it took almost a week until someone finally decided to send a rescue team.

Almost 600 men died from exhaustion, hunger, thirst or shark attacks. I’m sure this was a horrific experience and considering the importance of the mission one can really say they have been let down. Once back, the story wasn’t over. As there had been so many deaths but the war was over, it was decided to use the captain (Nicholas Cage) as a scape goat.

This is an interesting story and a problematic one and it could have been a great movie. Unfortunately someone thought that the facts were not enough. The subtitle tells you that the makers of the film tried to turn it into a story of heroism instead of just telling the story of a tragedy and an injustice. It’s not heroic to survive in shark infested waters. It’s either a miracle or a proof or resilience but not heroic. The mawkish, sentimental tone was quite off putting. Especially in the beginning and the end. Both those parts are very short. What remains is the long middle section about the men in the water and that was suspenseful and dramatic. The best bit however was the very end, in which we see a few of the real survivors of this catastrophe and hear them talk about it. That’s a bit like the veteran section in Band of Brothers or The Pacific. I liked that. That was a great idea.

What annoys me a bit is that it wouldn’t have taken a lot to make this movie better than it is. The tone should have been sober throughout and the dialogue would have needed some serious editing. It was mostly tacky bordering on laughable. That said – if you’re looking for a war movie, especially with an anti-war statement – this isn’t the movie for you. The fact that this mission made Hiroshima possible isn’t really much of a topic. On the contrary, we’re led to believe that it was the only way to stop the Japanese. But if you like true stories and action movies – watch it. It’s entertaining.

As for the actors – this isn’t Nicholas Cage’s best role. He’s not saying much. All he does is brooding and that mostly looks weird. But there is Tom Sizemore. I’m very fond of Tom Sizemore and he doesn’t disappoint.

USS Indianapolis is available for download as of December 19 and on DVD and BluRay as of Januray 9 2017.