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.

 

 

Advertisements

Lore (2012)

Lore

What a pleasant change, I’ve actually watched a movie and really, really  liked it. I’d say it was certainly the best wartime movie I’ve seen in a long while. Lore is a German/Australian/UK co-production. Spoken in German, with German actors and subtitled in English. It’s based on Ruth Seiffert’s highly acclaimed novel The Dark Room. Or, to be more precise, on one of the three interlinked stories in the book.

Lore is the eldest daughter of a prominent Nazi functionary. Indoctrinated with the ideology, she blindly loves her father and the Führer, follows every order without questioning and takes everything she’s ever been taught to be the absolute truth. The movie begins at the end of the war. Her parents are in distress, something has happened but they won’t tell their children. The family flees to a holiday home in the country where people treat them aggressively. Lore has no clue what is going on. She knows her parents are hiding something. The father leaves them, and shortly afterwards the mother leaves too. She is giving herself up and goes to prison unsolicited. Before she leaves she tells Lore that the Führer is dead. Everything is lost. Lore has to take her four siblings, one of them is just a baby, and walk in direction of Hamburg where her mother lives.

The movie follows the children on their difficult journey towards Hamburg. It shows how difficult and dangerous it is for them. They risk starvation, rape, being killed or captured. They have to cross three different sectors, the US, the Russian and the UK sector. Even though they are only children, they are suspected and interrogated. At one point a young man starts to follow them. He carries papers and pretends being their older  brother. This makes all of their lives easier.

Lore is more than a road movie, it delicately portrays the total disenchantment of a young girl. On their journey they are not only confronted with severe deprivations but they learn the truth about their beloved father and the Führer. Everything Lore believed in was built on a lie.

I’ve never seen a movie, which focussed on the children of high Nazi officers. I never wondered what became of them after the war. The movie shows what a long and painful process it was to learn the truth.

The story as such is quite gripping and the way it was told was masterful. I haven’t seen any  of Cate Shortland‘s other movies but she’s a film director I’ll keep in mind. Lore was beautifully filmed and the score, written by Max Richter, enhanced the gloomy atmosphere of the film. The atmosphere and the mood was probably what I liked best: lyrical, melancholic and gloomy.

I’m not surprised Lore has won so many prizes and been nominated for many awards. I’d say it’s the first 5/5 movie I’ve seen this year. Don’t miss it.

Has anyone seen the film?

I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

Habermann (2010)

The German/Czech/Austrian co production Habermann tells a chapter of German history which is easily forgotten. The movie is based on a true story and tries to exemplify the destiny of the Germans living in Sudetenland. This is one of those movies which touch on a historical fact which is so painfully absurd in its arbitrariness one can hardly believe it.

Habermann is a rich mill owner in Sudetenland. The tragedy of the Sudetenland was that it belonged to Czechoslovakia before the war but almost 90% of the people living there were Germans. When Germany decided to annex the Sudetenland in 1938 this posed a huge problem to people like Habermann who lived peacefully with the Czechs. Habermann’s best friend is a Czech (Karel Roden), many of his mill workers, his accountant and other people in important positions are Czechs. Being so friendly with the Czechs makes him look suspicious to the German authorities who take up residence in the small village in which he lives. When the despotic and sadistic Sturmbannführer Karl Koslowski (Ben Becker) arrives in the village, things go from bad to worse. He wants Habermann to get rid of the Czech workers, spies on him and the Czechs, bullies and controls him.

But the worst isn’t even known to Habermann and his wife yet. Although she grew up as an orphan and was  brought up by Catholic nuns, her father was a Jew. When Koslowski finds out, the tragedy cannot be averted.

Another dramatic story line circles around Habermann’s young brother you joins the Nazi’s.

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie and the story of the Sudeten Germans is a story which needed telling. The real tragedy for most only started after Germany lost the war and the Czechs turned against them. This drama is shown well but what I didn’t find too good is that there is too much emphasis on the character of Koslowski. Ben Becker is one of my favourite actors and I watch every movie he’s in. I think he is simply brilliant but he is also the type of character who just crushes everyone around him. He is often chosen to play a nasty Nazi villain and does that well, only giving him this role, putting so much emphasis on this characters, almost makes you think that the whole tragedy was linked to this one man while this was a collective tragedy and not just related to one sadistic character.

Still overall I think Habermann is well done, not one of the best but a very watchable movie and the actors, Ben Becker, Karl Roden, Mark Waschke as Habermann, Hannah Herzsprung as his wife, are really good.

Stauffenberg (2004 Germany) and Valkyrie (2008 – US) Compared

After having watched the excellent Valkyrie (here is my review), starring Tom Cruise, I wanted to see how the Germans had treated the very same story just a few years prior to the US production. Stauffenberg is a TV production, starring Sebastian Koch (Black Book, Das Leben der Anderen) as Stauffenberg. Ulrich Tukur (Das Leben der Anderen, The White Ribbon) can be seen in the role of Henning von Tresckow. While Carice van Houten who played Stauffenberg’s wife in Valkyrie looks very different from the real Nina von Stauffenberg, Nina Kunzendorf’s likeness is uncanny.

I don’t think it’s of any use to summarize the movie. Since it’s a true story the plots of the two films are almost identical, however there are some significant differences in the way the story is told which make it worthwhile to compare the two movies.

The title Stauffenberg already indicates that the focus is much less on Operation Valkyrie than on the man Stauffenberg himself. And that’s actually the biggest problem of this TV production. It is quite confusing and for someone not familiar with the story, it isn’t clear what Operation Valkyrie is. I was glad I had seen the US film first or I would have been a bit lost as I wasn’t familiar with the whole story.

While Valkyrie starts with Stauffenberg in Africa, it starts much earlier in this film. We see Stauffenberg first in Berlin, whit his fiancée and future wife Nina, later he is in Poland and only then in Africa. This helps to understand his motivations and his development from someone who believed in Hitler to somebody who was entirely disgusted and ready to kill the man.

What worked far better in this TV production is to make us understand why the assassination failed. The characters in this film are portrayed as determined but they are no sleek robots. There are many mishaps and they are far from perfect. We even get the impression that they were a bit too hasty and that the whole project would have needed more planning. In Valkyrie we don’t really understand why it doesn’t work. Everything seemed so perfect.

What also worked far better here is the human and emotional dimension. These people are scared. They are determined but anxious as well and when they are caught, things do not go well. One of them isn’t even capable of shooting himself, he misses first, tries again, ends up badly wounded and has then to be shot by someone else while in Valkyrie he puts the gun to his head, shoots and is dead right away.

While far from perfect and not as carefully – and one would argue artificially -orchestrated as Valkyrie, Stauffenberg feels emotionally true and is very watchable. If you didn’t like Tom Cruise you might even prefer this smaller scale production.

Stalingrad or Dogs Do Yo Want To Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben (1958) The first Stalingrad

Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? – Hunde wollt ihr ewig leben? is a German black and white movie from the 50s. Although the newer movie Stalingrad is generally seen as a remake I cannot agree with this view. Both movies focus on Stalingrad but the way they are told, the point of view is very different. While a modern movie will often appeal more to us because it’s not black and white, we know the actors and the special effects are normally superior, this first Stalingrad is an excellent movie and I would say as good as the one from 1993, if not in parts better.

The movie opens with Hitler watching a German army parade. A voice in the off which we will hear all through the movie, criticizing the decisions of Hitler and the high command, tells us that these marching soldiers will soon be dying in the Russian snow. After a while we leave the parading soldiers and the camera shows men dying in the snow. After that the story as such begins.

The movie tells of the encirclement of the 6th Army in Stalingrad from the point of view of a young, idealistic and likable first lieutenant. In 1942, just before the Russian offensive which will encircle the 6th Army, Wisse has been commandeered to an outpost, not far from Stalingrad where he is liaising with a Rumanian corps which fights along with the Germans.

When it is clear that the Russians have started the offensive, Wisse is posted in Stalingrad. The town is half-destroyed, the German soldiers are freezing as they are not equipped for the Russian winter and there is hardly any food left. In the end high command gives the order to stop feeding the wounded.

It is obvious from the beginning of the movie that Hitler miscalculated the whole campaign and that the only way the 6th Army could have been saved would have been to break out of the circle and retreat as fast as possible. The Russian army entrapped a Germany army which was lacking winter gear, ammunition and was almost starving. The generals and commanding officers pleaded with the Führer but he was adamant. Still, the German command refused to break rank and disobey Hitler to save the army.  By the time General Paulus decided to surrender, 60’000 soldiers were dead. 110’000 were left, of which only 6’000 would return to Germany after the war.

What is particularly harrowing in this dark chapter is the fact that Stalingrad had no strategic importance whatsoever. It was a purely political decision and for the same reasons Stalin decided to hold the city. What followed was probably the most infamous battle of WWII.

There are many reasons which make Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? a great movie. In focussing on one man, first lieutenant Wisse, it exemplifies the disintegration of the whole army and illustrates the disillusionment and the realization of Hitler’s misguided megalomania. While Wisse is true to the party in the beginning, he, like all the other soldiers based in Stalingrad, becomes aware that Hitler doesn’t care what happens to them. He breaks his promises and as soon as he realizes the fight might be lost, he abandons them completely.

Wisse isn’t the only interesting character, there is the cowardly  commanding officer Linkman, the priest who speaks up and fight for justice and some secondary characters which are all well-rounded too.

While Stalingrad (1993) is a great movie, this one feels even more authentic because a lot of what we see is original footage and it’s blended in so well that we often only realize that we are back to the movie when we can make out one of the actors. I have rarely seen this type of blending done so seamlessly and well. The effect is not only realistic but chilling.

What was better in this one than in the new movie was the way the street fighting and the combat in the city was shown. That must have been so chaotic and both sides were battle weary and would have liked to stop fighting.

Stalingrad – Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever? is one of the top war movies, one nobody should miss. It’s well worth pairing the viewing with the 1993 version as they complement each other.

While finishing this post I discovered that there will be a new, Russian Stalingrad which should be released in 2013. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, starring August Diehl. I’m really looking forward to that.

Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen aka Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen (1960) One of the Biggest Ship Disasters in History

What a surprisingly good movie. I discovered it purely by chance and didn’t expect much but it was well worth watching. The central theme of Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen aka Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen is the tragic sinking of the huge cruise ship Wilhelm Gutsloff. The Wilhelm Gustloff was named after a famous Nazi leader. In the final days of the war it was used to transport refugees from Eastern Prussia to safer German territory. The disaster of its sinking is called by some “the unknown disaster” and if it weren’t for websites like WM.S. Wilhelm Gustloff-The Unknown Disaster it would probably stay widely unknown outside of Germany. The Gutsloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sank with over 6000 people on board. Most of them died, among them 4000 children. The sinking of the Wilhem Gutsloff is seen today as one of the symbols of the Downfall of the Third Reich.

Before watching I thought the whole movie would focus on the final hours but that wasn’t the case and that’s why it was such a great movie. Apart from a few melodramatic elements in the beginning, it’s surprisingly well done. Another main theme of Darkness Fell on Gotenhafen is the situation on the home front, what the women and children had to endure during the war in the city.

The film tells the story of one woman and starts with a ball on the Wilhelm Gutsloff on her maiden voyage as a cruise ship. Maria is engaged to Kurt but Hans is in love with her as well. Later, during the war, Maria and Kurt are now married and Kurt is fighting with the army, Hans, who is officer on a ship, is visiting the city and meets Maria. He is still in love with her and seduces her. She gets pregnant and afraid of the reaction of her husband and because the city is constantly bombed, she flees to a friend in the country, somewhere in East Prussia. She meets a group of interesting characters, a French POW and the widow of a an Army General.

Maria and her friends believe at first that they are safe in Prussia. They are far from any front and assume the war will soon be won. When tales of the Russian approach are heard, they don’t believe them at first until it becomes certain that Germany is about to lose the war and the Russians approach fast. Hans who wanted to see his son, has been staying with them for a while. He tells them about the Gutsloff that will evacuate a great number of women and children. He can convince them that they have no other chance. Finally  they abandon the house and flee together with many others to the Gutsloff. The Russians have already arrived and kill and shoot people.

The ship waits the whole night until it is allowed to sail. Nobody sees any danger. They think the Russians are still too far away and fought back by the German fleet. When the ship finally sails it is soon torpedoed. The ship sinks fast, too fast for most of the passengers.

One could say, the movie has five parts. Each part focusses on other elements of the war. First the war is only a foreboding, then we see how the civilians in the cities struggle, the fear and loneliness of the women, how many flee to the country and how they still believe the war can be won although its lost already. The moments on the ship are excellent and tell quite a few mini-stories. The end is done very well too, dramatic but not melodramatic.

I was surprised that there were such a lot of strong female characters in a 60s movie. Brigitte Horney, one of the great German actors, is outstanding in her role as widow of a General.

The movie has an English title but I have no idea whether it has been subtitled or not. And there was no trailer to be found. If you understand German, you can watch it on YouTube.