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.

 

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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

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 17.04.27

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.

 

 

The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.

 

The Bletchley Circle (2012- 2014) British TV Series

Bletchley Circle

This post is meant to make you aware that while British TV Series The Bletchley Circle is well wort watching for its wonderful post WWII period feel, it’s not a war movie, nor has it anything to do with Bletchley Park per se. If you’re interested in a movie on the code breakers at Bletcheley, then you’d have to watch Enigma.

Still, there’s a link. The women in the series worked as code breakers during the war. In the series however they put their knowledge to a very different use and catch a serial killer.

I liked watching this because of the period feel. The crime story is OK, not that gripping in my opinion, but entertaining. The idea that you could break a serial killer’s crimes in applying the laws you used to break a code is quite fascinating though. What I didn’t know is that those who worked at Bletchley were not allowed to talk about it not even after the war.

It’s a very watchable series, just not set during WWII but many years later.

 

Das Boot (1985) TV Version

Das Boot

I love this movie. I can’t believe I didn’t rewatch it earlier. When I started this blog I wrote a Top 10 favourite war movies list and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot was one of them. I’m glad to say that after rewatching it, it’s still among my Top 10, even among my Top 3. I don’t think war movies get any better than this. Or, I’d even say, movies don’t get any better than this. I’ve watched the longer TV version. I’ve not seen the Director’s Cut, so it’s hard to compare but I really love the slow build-up of this version.

Das Boot starts in 1941, in La Rochelle. We see a U-Boot crew leave the harbour. They are cheering, singing and looking forward to their mission. The crew members are mostly young, in their late teens and early twenties, only their captain is thirty years old. This time, they have a war correspondent on board, Lt Werner (played by German singer/songwriter Herbert Grönemeyer). He’s a lieutenant but inexperienced in combat, as it seems, and has never been on a U-Boot. We see a lot of the story through his eyes, and, as usual, when we have a young journalist/writer character like this among the crew, the movie is to some extent about the loss of innocence, the futility of war etc. But that’s the topic of many war movies, what makes Das Boot so outstanding is how carefully it’s been filmed, how accurate it is. After watching this, without ever having been on a U-Boot, you’ll have a good idea of how claustrophobic this must have been and of  how helpless the crew must have felt at times.

The first half of the TV series doesn’t do much more than introduce the characters and the daily activities on a U-Boot. Most of the characters are complex and likable and not exactly Nazis. The U-Boot gets in the line of fire of a destroyer but other than that it’s relatively quiet. The worst thing that happens is a three-week storm. And that is awful. Most of the time the U-Boot doesn’t dive and in a storm it’s even shaken more badly than many other ships. The captain lets them dive occasionally for an hour or two, just to give the men some rest.

The second part of the series, is much more action packed. They encounter destroyers and are shot at by planes. When they think they can finally return to La Rochelle after a few weeks, they are sent to Vigo in Spain, to resupply, and from there to Italy. The most exciting part is when they have to pass the straits of Gibraltar, get hit and sink rapidly. The fight for the boat and, ultimately, for their lives, is one of the most gripping scenes in war movie history. But as suspenseful as this is, there’s another scene I like even better. It takes place just before they leave Vigo. The captain and his officers are invited to dine with the officers stationed in Vigo. Spain is neutral territory and those stationed there have probably not seen any combat. They are well-groomed, well-fed and beyond clueless when it comes to the battle in the Atlantic or what the crew has gone through. Without ever being openly aggressive or rebellious, the crew sabotages the nice little dinner event by just being themselves— gruff looking, outspoken and past niceties. I loved how this showed the hypocrisy of those officers who were true to the regime but not willing to actually fight for their country.

Most of the action takes place inside but we occasionally see the U-Boot from outside, see how it silently glides through the waters, like a predator. Those shots are dark grey, almost like black and white shots, and I couldn’t help thinking of a wolf, before I remembered that the U-Boots were called grey wolves. Showing this like that is such a minimalistic approach but it works well. Even if you don’t know, your subconscious is going to register it. The music underlines the different elements and changes accordingly.

Sadistic officers abound in many war movies, luckily Das Boot is an exception. The movie gives us one of the strongest positive commanders I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I couldn’t think of a better actor than Jürgen Prochnow for this role.

According to a text following the opening credits, only 1 out of 4 U-Boot crew members survived, which means over 30,000 died. That’s a huge loss of lives. But not only are they in constant danger but they also have to put up with a lot of other dificult things: confinement, lack of space, air and fresh food. No wonder the men look far less cheerful and aged when they finally return to La Rochelle.

If you haven’t watched Das Boot yet, you should do so as soon as possible. It’s one of the very best (war) movies ever made.

For those interested: I’ve attached a music videos of Herbert Grönemeyer under the trailer. He happens to be one of my favourite German singers. His lyrics are simply brilliant.

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.