Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

I’ve read J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and in his afterword he mentions his childhood in China, which reminded me that I still hadn’t watched Empire of the Sun, which is based on his childhood experiences.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shaghai, in 1941 and tells the story of a young boy. Jim’s (Christian Bale) parents, like so many other of the rich Brits living in Shanghai, didn’t react in time to the aggressions of the Japanese. Many thought that they wouldn’t risk anything as they were not Chinese; they believed they were protected by their status as foreigners and their money. But they were wrong. When the Japanese troops finally invade, it’s too late. Most of them try to flee, leaving behind their houses and all of their possessions.  In the general chaos, Jim loses his parents and has to fend for himself. At first he returns to their beautiful mansion, but the food is soon gone and he starts roaming the streets until he meets Basie (John Malkovitch). Basie is an expat just like Jim’s parents were but he’s a very different kind. A hustler, a thief, someone who lives from hand to mouth. He sees that Jim is from a rich background and decides to look after him. Whether there is some genuine kindness or pure calculation isn’t so clear at first. What is clear is that they get along like a house on fire. Jim is a precocious, extremely intelligent and crafty kid – also terribly annoying – and they complement each other perfectly.

When they are finally arrested by the Japanese and brought to a POW camp, they survive doing what they know best, dealing and stealing, and making money out of everything. The time at the POW camp is one of great liberty for Jim. He’s soon known by everyone and while he’s an obnoxious kid, they also like him and find him very useful.

Despite of the danger and captivity Basie and Jim are doing great for themselves, help each other out, or rather profit from each other. Still, the war leaves traces and when they can finally leave the camp, they are both altered.

I loved the beginning of this film, the cinematography is amazing and the story is fascinating. Basie and Jim are larger-than-life characters, the kind you admire and despise at the same time. At least I did. Christian Bale did an amazing job at portraying Jim. What an annoying kid that was. He talks and talks endlessly and while he’s crafty, he never knows when to stop or give it a rest. Basie is ingenious and maybe, he means well at times, but mostly he’s the type of character who will always be able to make money, preferably even through selling out others and profiting from their misery.

There are a few tense moments, but overall we often get a feeling that this is less a POW camp than a summer camp. I was wondering if that was because Spielberg tried to stay true to the boy’s point of view or whether these camps for civilians were not that bad.

It’s a highly watchable movie and one I will certainly watch again, but unfortunately, the film has a lot of typically cheesy Spielberg moments, which annoyed me. I still think it’s a beautifully filmed movie and a great story. I liked it, but  didn’t love it because I hate it when director’s manipulate us. Spielberg always does that, that’s why I don’t really like Schindler’s List and even think Saving Private Ryan could have been much better than it is.

Turtles Can Fly aka Lakposhtha parvaz mikonand (2004) Iraqi – Iranian Movie on Children During Wartime

turtles-can-fly-2004-lakposhtha-parvaz-mikonand

Occasionally I’m tempted to stop watching war movies. After all, it’s hardly ever cheerful. But there is a huge difference between “not cheerful” and “utterly depressing”. And while combat movie’s are rarely cheerful, they are often not utterly depressing. On the other hand movies focussing on the way common people, and especially children, are affected by war, are often extremely depressing. Among all these depressing movies on the fate of the civilians the Iraqi-Iranian movie Turtles Can Fly, might be the saddest I’ve ever seen. While it’s an excellent film, it’s almost unbearably bleak.

The film starts with a small girl committing suicide. She jumps from a cliff. The story then rewinds and we get to know why she did it.

Somewhere near the Turkish border, just before the war in Iraq breaks out, a group of people live in some houses close to a refugee camp. The elders of the village hire a young boy to buy and install a satellite dish. They want to know if war is coming. The boy is funny, entrepreneurial, and clearly relishes being the only one who knows something about technology and a few English words. He’s maybe 12 or 14 years old (sorry I’m bad at judging the age of children) and runs many small businesses. One of them consists in having other children collect mines which he then sells on the local markets. The whole area is a huge minefield and collecting them is vital because as long as they are on the fields, the farmers cannot work.

Many of these children who collect mines are missing limbs from the one or the other unlucky encounter. The film maker used only children with real deformities and missing limbs which adds authenticity and makes watching it even more harrowing.

“Satellite”, as they call the young boy, falls in love with one of the refugee girls. A very pretty girl who is there without parents but with her older brother who has lost both arms and a small child who has a problem with his eyes. She is the girl who will commit suicide and to learn her story was almost too much.

While there are some funny scenes dedicated to “Satellite” and his business, I’ve rarely seen such a bleak movie. The poverty of these people is extreme. They live in the cold and the rain, there are hardly any trees or buildings, just some huts and tents and a lot of mud. Their situation has a lot to do with former wars. They are surrounded by danger and helpless. Without a proper system of information they are at the mercy of everyone. They never know what hits them or why.

I wasn’t enjoying watching Turtles Can Fly but I was glad I did. This movie is bleak, depressing and heartbreaking but at the same time, it’s very good. The young actors are astonishing, the message is eloquently anti-war.

Here’s the trailer

And the full movie

Incendies (2010)

Incendies is a Canadian French movie which has garnered a lot of prizes and nominations. It’s based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad. I found it difficult to watch. It’s disturbing and depressing.

It starts with a scene in which we see young boys being shaved. It’s somewhere in the Middle East and those boys have very obviously been recruited for a war. It’s a scene that sets the tone and makes you feel uncomfortable right away. From there the movie will constantly switch between the story of the twins Jeanne and Simon, whose mother Narwal has just died, and the story of their mother.

After Narwal has died the lawyer gives her children two letters. One is for their father, the other one for their brother. This information explodes like a bomb in the young people’s lives. They didn’t know their father was still alive or that they even had a brother. They have been living in Canada with their mother and the only thing they know is that she was born in the Middle East, somewhere where the frontiers are insecure and people fight for religious reasons.

Jeanne decides to travel to the Middle East and look for the father. It will take a long time until her brother finally follows her and starts helping her. One of the first things we learn is that Narwal was pregnant at 20, the father of the child was shot, the baby taken away and she was bannend from the village. When Jeanne arrives in the village so many years later, she is not wlecome as she is the daughter of a woman who has disgraced her familiy. What is shocking is that despite this brutal beginning, this is nothing in comparison to what Jeanne will find out about her mother’s life later.

The movie is constructed like a thriller. The two young people, with the help of the lawyer, uncover the truth very slowly. At the same time the movie tells a lot of the mother’s history in flashbacks. We know often more than the twins and they discover what we have seen, somewhat later. This may sound confusing but it’s not, it’s very well constructed and captivating.

Incendies tries to exemplify that hate can only give birth to hate and that the cycle of violence and aggression is hard to break. Some of the highly symbolical images make profound statements about war, violence and fanaticism.

This isn’t a joyful movie but a very powerful one. The truth the twins uncover is highly disturbing. The only problem I had is that it doesn’t choose a real conflict or country but sets the movie in an unspecified region in the Middle East.

The Round Up – La Rafle (2010) – Operation Spring Breeze or The Round Up of Vel d’Hiv

The French/German/Hungarian co-production, The Round Up – La Rafle, is a powerful and intense movie based on true facts. In the nights of July 16 and 17 13000 Parisian Jews were arrested in a raid in Paris and confined in the Vel d’Hiv (Winter Velodrome) or Drancy internment camp and from there to the extermination camps in Poland. Of the 13000 arrested Jews only 25 survived. Many among them, at least 4000, were children. Not one of them survived. The aim was to round-up 25000 Jews but 10000 escaped and were hidden by the people of Paris. The most shameful part was played by the police who actively contributed to make this happen. French President Jacques Chirac apologized in 1995 for the complicit role that French policemen and civil servants served in the raid.

The movie begins with original black and white footage. We hear Edith Piaf sing “Paris” while we follow Hitler on his tour through the city. That sent shivers down my spine. To think that if the Germans had won the war, Hitler would have made Paris his capital. In the pictures he looked like a guy inspecting real estate, deciding on what walls to knock down, what to keep. Horrifying. Here is an account of Hitler’s tour, written by his pet architect Speer.

After the opening we see people in a Parisian street located in Montmartre. The street scenes show that French and foreign Jews amicably lived together with non-Jewish Parisians. Many French people are friendly towards the Jewish population, but others are openly hostile and hate them. The movie focusses at first on a few Jewish families. It shows how secure they felt. They didn’t think the French government would ever give in. But it did. In exchange for privileges it promised to round-up the Jews and deport them eventually.

After the round-up we see the scenes in the Vel d’Hiv and the point of view changes. A young French nurse, Annette Monnod (Mélanie Laurent), has been sent to help alongside a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno). The doctor and a handful of French nurses are the only health care professionals for 13000 people. There is almost no food, no water, no toilets and the hygiene is abominable. Many of the children are ill. There are doctors willing to come and help but they are not let in. Operation Spring Breeze, as this round-up is called, should be kept a secret. While there are many collaborators among the French, there are many more who are hostile towards the Nazis and willing to risk their lives to save Jews.

Annette becomes very attached to the children and does everything to help them survive. She follows them to camp Beaune where they stay until they are finally deported to Auschwitz. Until the last day many think, they are sent to Poland to work. Rumours that those camps are extermination camps are only spreading very slowly.

I really loved this movie. It moved me, I found it very touching and emotional.  I would say that of all the Holocaust movies I’ve seen, this is my favourite. I liked that it focussed on a few Jewish families with different backgrounds. Some rich French Jews, others immigrants and people who fled from other countries. Those individual stories are more interesting and touching than the story of a mass of deported people. In chosing Annette, a French nurse, we see how far the “good” Parisian people went, risking life and health for others. It’s such a shameful chapter in the history of France, its important to remember that there were courageous people as well.

The only thing I didn’t like so much was the end. It should have been different but I cannot tell you why or I would spoil the movie. Considering how excellent the rest is, this is a minor fault. I added The Round-Up to my Children in War Movies List. It’s an excellent example. Other Holocaust movies can be found here: 13 Holocaust Movies You Should See.

Goodnight, Mister Tom (1998 TV)

The TV production Goodnight, Mr Tom is based on Michelle Magorian’s successful eponymous novel. It illustrates the story of the children who were evacuated from London during WWII telling one boy’s heartbreaking tale. Although quite accurate when it comes to WWII, it’s a family movie.

Shortly before Dunkirk a group of young boys and girls is evacuated to a picturesque British village. Some of the villagers are happy to take care for a child, others, like Mister Tom, have to be forced. Mr Tom is an old grumpy widower who never got over the death of his wife and young son during WWI. He keeps to himself and hardly speaks to people. At first he really isn’t thrilled to have a young child stay with him but after a few days he starts to like the boy. The kid is very shy and quiet and wets his bed nightly. Mister Tom takes this catastrophe surprisingly lightly and doesn’t even use the belt the boys’ mother has sent him hoping he wpuld use it. It seems as if the mother, a zealously religious woman, regularly punished the boy.

It’s one of those stories in which an old, lonely person and an abused child become friends and take care of each other. The boy starts to put on weight, becomes more lively and enjoys life again until the day when his mother who still lives in London, sends for him.

When the boy doesn’t stay in touch, Mister Tom gets alarmed and undertakes a trip to London. In the village, while they had their air raid shelters which they had built themselves in the garden, they were rarely if ever bombed. Most planes just flew by on their way to London. London however is constantly bombed and in the mess and the chaos Mr Tom has a hard time to find the boy’s house.

The rest of the story is quite dramatic and says a lot about how children were treated in those times. Not only by their parents but also by the authorities.

It’s quite a nice story but more than that the movie captures the life of the civilians during WWII quite well. It must have been quite an adventure for all these city kids to be sent to the country. For a while it must have felt like holidays. Surely, they were homesick but compared to their life in the city, they had a lot of freedom. It was quite tragic too. Many a child lost his parents while it stayed somewhere else.

I couldn’t find a trailer but attached part I of the movie. The whole movie can be watched on YouTube. This part contains an interesting intro that gives some background information.

Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010) or The Best War Movie in 20 Years?

People who have seen this movie have called it “The best war movie ever” or “The best European war movie in 20 years” or simply “Superior”, “A masterpiece, “Brilliant”. Needless to say that I couldn’t wait to watch Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost. What did I think? It is an absolutely stunning movie. Beautifully filmed and acted. A really great achievement on more than one level. It’s complex, dense and intense and calls for a second watching as you can hardly absorb it all in a first viewing. Is it the best? It sure is one of them.

The story of Fortress of War reminded me of the Nanjing massacre in which Japanese forces butchered Chinese civilians. In this case German soldiers butcher Russian soldiers and civilians. The Brest Fortress, located near the city of Brest, housed soldiers and their families. The narrator of the movie is a little boy. We hear his voice in the off at first, it’s the voice of an old man who remembers the most horrible days of his life. Life at the Fortress is deceivingly peaceful. It’s 1941 and there are rumours of war but nobody believes them. The superior officers even go as far as punishing those who spread these rumours.

How lucky for the Germans. Their surprise attack is succesful and shatters in a few minutes all the false hopes and pre-conceived ideas of war. After the initial 10-15 minutes of quiet storytelling, the next two hours are combat intense like I haven’t seen it often. The effects and battles are extremely convincing and well-done. There are only very few CGI moments (aviation-related) that aren’t 100% convincing, all the other effects are very authentic looking. The fights and battles are fought on three sides and the story moves between these groups of soldiers and their commanders. The little  boy of the beginning moves between the parties and links the stories. He carries water and messages from one group to the other. While they are fighting off the Germans and try to break out of the fortress, the Germans also attack them by air and drop bombs. The devastation and casualties are huge.

The fights last a few days in which water is scarce and the morale gets lower and lower. A Russian bomber pilot manages to land in the fortress and brings the most demoralizing news. The Germans have not only taken Brest but are marching towards Minsk. There will be no reinforcements who will help them defend the fortress. As the families were also in the fortress there are a number of side stories told. As it becomes more and more obvious that they will not escape this trap, soldiers and officers start to kill themselves and their loved ones. A few send them out of the fortress hoping that they will survive as prisoners of the Germans. They will all have different fates as the movie tells us. Some will be shot, a few survive.

The directors have been accused of propaganda. It is true that the Germans are shown as treacherous and evil. I didn’t mind this. This movie tries to give an insider’s perspective, the view of someone who was there that day. Do you honestly think that anyone present there seeing the mass of dead bodies, humans and horses, the constant shelling and bombing, rape and violence would have for one second thought about the fact that not all Germans are evil? Those who call this movie propaganda should think about the fact, that they are watching it now, 70 years after the massacre took place, sitting either in a comfortable cinema chair or on the couch or sofa at home.

How do you like your war movies? Combat intense? – You will love this one. Not too much CGI? – You will adore this movie. Convincing effects? – You will be very pleased. Historically accurate? – You will be satisfied. With beautiful pictures? You will be thrilled. Complex characters? – Yeah well, that’s  a little flaw but it stems from the fact that there are so many independent groups fighting in parallel.  The characters  are still interesting and endearing. Watch this beautiful and intense movie as soon as you can!

Fortress of War does belong on the Children in War Movies: A List.

The whole movie can be watched on YouTube. This is just a little teaser.

Europa Europa aka Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990) The Story of a Jewish Boy Hiding Among Nazis

Agnieszka Holland’s movie Europa, Europa is based on the true story of Salomon Perel. It is frequently mentioned as one of the top 100 war movies. It’s a harrowing and quite unbelievable story, still I have to confess that I did not like it.

The Perels are a Jewish family living in Germany at the beginning of the war. When anti-Jewish acts become more and more frequent, they are attacked and the daughter is killed. Salomon’s parents send the young boy and his brother to Poland where he should try to survive at any cost. He looses his brother early in the movie and ends in a Russian communist orphanage. Here he is given a passport and has to undergo some serious communist re-education. When the Germans invade Russia, the orphanage is attacked. They all flee and Salomon gets captured on the way by a Nazi patrol. All the Jews are shot immediately and it is only thanks to an extreme presence of mind that Salomon manages to make them belive that he is a true German and that he can be extremely useful as interpreter since he speaks Russian fluently. The soldiers take him along and he fights with them, helps them as a translator. He has to be super careful that no one sees him naked and this will stay a constant topic throughout the movie. The fact that he is circumcised would give his identity away.

A German officer hears of the young boy and that he is an orphan. He likes the bright boy and thinks of adopting him but first he sends him to one of the Nazi elite schools where he will be educated and trained. Here again, he has to be careful in order to not be found out. There are a few incredible scenes in the school. In one scene a teacher shows that one can see unmistakably, that, despite his dark hair, Salomon is of pure Aryan breed. The pupils are taught to hate the Jews and how to detect them. The absurdity of such scenes is incredible and Nazi madness made apparent.

Salomon is barely 16 years old and falls in love for the first time. Although the girl is willing “to do it”, he has to say no. The danger of being detected is too big.

It is incredible to think that he got away with it for so long. He blended in so perfectly, was such a good actor and so cold-blooded that they never even suspected him to be Jewish.

After the war Salomon finds out that his whole family died in a ghetto in Poland. He leaves Europe and settles in Palestine. At the end of the movie we catch a glimpse of the real Salomon Perel.

It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t like this movie. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like Salomon. I suspect that I found his behaviour cowardly. He isn’t much better than a collaborator. It disgusted me to see him act and talk like a Nazi. Sure, he was only a boy, he wanted to survive, he lost his family… I think sometimes it’s better to die than to sell out. Bit harsh, I know, but surviving is not everything.

I’d be really interested to know what others think of this movie.

Europa, Europa is part of the Children in War Movies List