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.

 

 

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

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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.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000)

Malèna, set in a little town in Sicily during WWII, combines a coming of age story with a war-time story. The first time I watched it, it stunned me. I still liked it a lot the second time but since the story has a tragic ending, it’s more intense to watch it for the first time.

Malèna (Monica Bellucci) is the most beautiful and seductive woman in the little Sicilian town of Castelcuto. Her husband is somewhere in Africa, fighting for Mussolini, while she is left behind in a very hostile climate in which all the men try to have an affair with her and the women hate her for her looks. All the men see her as an object, with the exception of a young boy who falls in love with her. We see the story through his eyes. He is so besotted with her that he follows her around, sneaks out of his house at night and spies on her.

She is a favourite conversational topic and gossip and rumours follow her wherever she goes. People talk very bad about her behind her back. They call her a whore and say she betrays her husband and has lovers. Only the young Renato knows this isn’t so. But when her husband is reported dead, there isn’t any protection for Malèna anymore. She can’t find a job, she has no money and food is scare and whatever she does, the town, reigned by men, turns on her and finally forces her into prostitution.

When the war is over, the women take revenge on her, not because she sold her body to the Germans but because all their husbands lusted after her.

Tornatore captures the atmosphere and hysteria of an Italian city during WWII very well. How they all cheered Mussolini and pretended to know nothing of it when the Americans arrived. The hypocrisy, the paranoia, the double standards. Malèna has the extreme misfortune of not fitting in. Too stylish, too good-looking, not very sociable nor talkative. This causes the jealousy of the women who have no liberties or power and the hatred of the men who treat women like objects. This society is ruled by fanatic Catholicism and the double standards that go with it.

I don’t want to give away too much but the destiny of Malèna which is extreme is very sad and to a certain extent quite typical for women during that time in Italy. Many women, especially in Italy, were forced into prostitution when their husbands were gone or dead.

Malèna is an extremely esthetic movie, beautiful pictures, matching music, and of course there is Monica Bellucci whose beauty brings Malèna to life. The sexual awakening and infatuation of Renato is touching and extremely funny at the same time. It clashes with his mother’s prudery and his father’s strictness.  The end of the story is tragic and infuriating.

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.

Since You Went Away (1944) A Tale of the American Homefront

This is a story of the Unconquerable Fortress: the American Home…1943

I started watching this movie a few months ago but the very patriotic tone put me off. That’s why it is all the more surprising that now, that I have watched all of it, I really enjoyed it. It is patriotic, it is very religious but still, I found Since You Went Away very watchable. It’s an ideal family and Christmas movie. Some sad things happen but they are not shown, just spoken about which makes it safe to watch it even with smaller children.  By the way, the movie poster is misleading. This is a black and white movie.

I was familiar with UK and French movies about the home front during WWII but can’t remember any US films. This was made during the war which, for me at least, justifies the patriotic tone.

Claudette Colbert plays the pampered housewife Mrs Hilton whose husband decides to join the war and leaves her and their daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) on their own. It seems that this doesn’t only put them under an emotional strain but that their financial situation is very precarious too. The salary of an officer doesn’t cover all the expenses and Mrs Hilton doesn’t know how to make ends meet. The first thing she has to do and which breaks her heart is letting her maid, Fidelia, go. Fidelia has been part of the family and the children are very attached to her. After one of her children mentions that it would be patriotic to have an officer as lodger, they advertise and finally rent the master bedroom to an old retired grumpy Colonel.

It’s clear that this is a family in which all the members are very attached to each other. Even the family bulldog is part of it. But also, Tony (Joseph Cotten), a friend of Mr Hilton, is accepted like he was a family member and comes to stay with them before he will see action in Italy. The two girls are typical teenagers. The older one is in love with Tony. He is flattered by the young girls infatuation and at the same time he declares his eternal love to the mother. But all this is done in a nice way. It’s obvious they will not have an affair.

After Tony has left, Jane, the older daughter meets the grandson of Colonel Smollet and falls in love with him. They even think of getting married but he also leaves for Italy.

The very contrast of the decent and efficient Mrs Hilton is the somewhat loose Emily Hawkins who knows how to exploit the war effort by running a cabaret.

Despite all the lovey dovey moments some bad things happen in this movie and it gets really dramatic when they are informed that Mr Hilton is missing in action.

I think that one of the aims of the movie was to show people how to grieve and keep up the morale at the same time. It was obvious that it was very likely to lose loved ones or that they would return badly injured or as invalids. Post-traumatic stress is as much a theme as how to deal with losing a husband on the battle field.

I thought this gives an excellent idea of how hard life on the home front was and that many a housewife had to toughen up considerably to make it through those difficult times. Emotionally and economically as well. It also shows the various opportunities the women had. Becoming nurses, collecting stuff for the soldiers or even training as welders.

I found it interesting and moving at the same time and, as I said already, it would make an excellent Christmas movie choice not unlike It’s a Wonderful Life. There are a lot of cozy fireplace scenes, snow and Christmas parties.

I couldn’t find a trailer but the opening scenes introduce the score and the filming very well. A lot of the emotions and themes are shown through images of objects and photos. That’s quite a subtle way to include the past and the history of the family without relying on flashbacks.

I included the movie on my Children in War Movies List after Crooked Mick pointed out that it belonged there.