April 9th – 9.April (2015) A Danish WWII Movie

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Riphagen (2016) The True Story of a Dutch Traitor

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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

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.

 

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game

More than one person I know felt that the Academy Award for best acting should have gone to Benedict Cumberbatch for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and not to Eddie Redmayne. But even without such praise I would have been keen on watching The Imitation Game as I think code breaking is such a fascinating topic, and, after having watched it, I’d like to visit Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game is hard to review. Movies based on true stories are a bit like classic novels. Many people know the story and you can’t spoil it for them, but those who don’t might get a little upset if you are too explicit. On the other hand you can hardly say anything meaningful without spoiling it. Quite the dilemma.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, an eminent young mathematician, who was hired by Bletchley Park to help decoding the famous German Enigma machine, which was said to be unbreakable. Not only did it have an almost infinite possibility of codes but the machine was reprogrammed daily.

Turing soon understood that humans wouldn’t be able to decipher the workings of such an advanced machine. Only another machine could do it. In order to get carte blanche and the necessary founding for his project, he needed approval from high command and the assistance of his fellow code breakers. Unfortunately, Turing was a difficult man. In his youth he had a best friend but later he was never capable of having real relationships and friendships. I was wondering at times if he wasn’t autistic. Judging from the movie, he certainly had some form of OCD. In any case, he wasn’t capable of empathy and took everything people said so literally it must have been a true burden to communicate with him. Still, he was a genius and as soon as he had people’s trust he was capable of extraordinary things.

If Alan Turing had only been the man who broke Enigma, this would have been an exciting movie about a genius, but since the movie also focusses on his homosexuality, it was also extremely tragic.

I knew, of course, that homosexuality was illegal, but I tend to forget how dire the consequences were when someone was found out. I must admit I ignored that Alan Turing was gay, and, so, the end really got to me.

****************************Spoiler************************

It’s hard to believe that the man who helped save millions of lives was forced to take hormones to “cure” his homosexuality and finally killed himself in 1954. This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Not that I would have found it any less tragic if someone who was not famous would have been forced to take such heavy medication. Sixty years don’t even seem all that long ago. It’s hard to imagine things like that were legal. But then again, so was lobotomy and electroshock therapy, and many other dreadful things.

***************************Spoiler End*********************

Cumberbacth is a great actor and in this movie, he’s surpassed himself. He’s very convincing and subtle. It’s a role in which many actors would have been tempted to overact, but he doesn’t. Too bad Eddie Redmayne was nominated this year as well. Any other year, Cumberbatch would have won.

I didn’t say anything about the pseudo-love story with Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, although it’s an important role insofar as it shows that the society was just as hard on women as on gay men. They still were not considered capable of the same as men and not taken seriously. I wished they had chosen another actress. I thought she was rather dreadful in this film.

I really liked The Imitation Game. The cinematography is beautiful. The pictures are very crisp, very defined. The acting is great and the story is amazing and tragic. Don’t miss it.

 

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.