L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.

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Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) A Court Room Drama About War Criminals

Music Box is not a war movie in the strict sense of the term, especially not since it takes place some 40 years after the war. But it is about what happened to war criminals after the war. The one or the other is still caught today. Many tried to hide in distant countries. Some live in South America but there are certainly also a lot in the US. Since I want to watch Der Stellvertreter aka Amen by Costa-Gavras, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this one before. I remembered that it moved me quite a bit when I saw it for the first time. I found it totally gripping. As much of the suspense comes from the question whether or not the accused committed the crimes I could concentrate on other elements this time.

Just imagine for one second, someone told you, your mother, or your father was a war criminal. He is said to have left the country shortly after the war and gone to the US where he led an exemplary life as a devoted father, able worker and much liked colleague. Imagine the two of you had a very close relationship. You love the stories your father tells you about his childhood and his youth, the horrors of the war and how he managed to flee to a more welcoming country. Your son adores him, your in-laws respect him. But then, one day, the US government accuses him of being a monster and wants to extradite him to Hungary where he would be judged. That is the story of Music Box. Ann Talbot’s (Jessica Lange) father, Viktor Laszlo, a Hungarian immigrant is accused of having committed war crimes. Ann is a successful lawyer and decides, after some initial reluctance, to defend her father. She doesn’t doubt for one second that he is innocent and soon she is able to prove that there have been wrong accusations before, that the Communist countries often try to get at those who fled from them. She is outraged by the injustice that is done to her father and equally shocked by the crimes, the man who is called Mischka, has committed. Torture, executions and rape. But what is the worst he is accused of is the fact that he showed no mercy, compassion or any other signs of empathy. Mischka enjoyed what he did. Much of it took place on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, near the famous Chain Bridge. One of the last parts of this gripping court-room drama takes place in Budapest. A nice addition to the movie. Budapest is a town I am particularly fond of but when I had seen the movie for the first time, I hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t even remember that part of it was filmed there.

Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Frederic Forrest, the main actors are fantastic. Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of the very great German actors. I have often problems when actors fake an accent but he does it well.

For one reason or the other, I always compare Music Box to Sophie’s Choice. I find them both equally convincing from a psychlogical point of view. Both have outstanding female actresses in main roles. And they both have this typical 80ies feel.

I was wondering how I would rate this movie. It is interesting and gripping, psychlogically accurate but doesn’t deserve 5/5. It is somewhere between 4 and 4.5 because it is a tad too sentimental.