The Duellists (1977)

More than anything else Ridley Scott’s directing debut, The Duellists, tells the story of an obsession. I’m glad Guy (Phoenix Cinema) suggested it as I wasn’t aware of the movie and found it oddly captivating and very beautiful too. Plus I find duels fascinating. I can’t really say why.

Based on the short story The Duel by Joseph Conrad The Duellists tells the story of a lifelong enmity. Two officers of Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel), pursue each other for years and fight one duel after the other. While the first duel might have made some sense, at least at the time, the following duels are less and less understandable. Although d’Hubert tries to reason with Feraud, the latter becomes more and more obsessed as the years pass by.

The movie has a lot more to offer than a fascinating story and two interesting characters. It’s visually stunning and brilliantly acted. I couldn’t even say which of the two actors I liked better. Carradine as d’Hubert who seems more complex, more humane or Keitel as Feraud who is relentless in his pursuit of d’Hubert. If you like sword fighting you will adore The Duellists anyway as the choreography of the fights, as many reviewers have commented, is excellent.

The movie starts in 1800 and ends around 1815. After almost every duel the men lose sight of each other for a few months or even years as they are often posted in other places. They sometimes meet under quite improbable circumstances, once for example while retreating from Moscow where they fight a group of Cossacks together.

The code of duels was quite complex, I suppose every country had its own set of rules. I felt we learned quite a lot about the rules in France at the time. What made it especially dramatic was the fact that if one of them had been promoted but not the other one it would have become impossible to go on fighting. So every time d’Hubert is promoted he hopes the folly is about to end, only to find out later that Feraud meanwhile has been promoted to the same rank.

The Duellists has been compared to Barry Lyndon but I don’t think they are that similar. Be it as it may, I’ feel more inclined to rewatch The Duellists, I thought it was more captivating. And I really must read the novella soon.

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U-571 (2000) US Sub on a Secret Mission

If you are a fan of the war movie  sub-genre U-Boot and submarine movies then you might consider watching U-571. It’s not great, it’s not innovative, it’s corny at times but it’s decent and gripping enough – despite an anti-climax towards the end – and offers two hours of entertainment. The cast is well-chosen (Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Thomas Kretschmann, Jon Bon Jovi), the story is somewhat stretched in its plausibility but not totally far-fetched either.

The American submarine U-571 is sent on a secret mission to capture the Enigma machine on a German submarine. They will achieve this by diguising the boat and the crew as German.

While the initial part of the mission works out – they get on the boat – , they are not able to return to their own sub and have to stay on the German boat that has been damaged badly before. There are not many survivors of the German crew apart from the character played by Thomas Kretschmann. Kretschmann is one of those actors who will always be casted in a newer war movie in which there is need for a cool-looking, blond German. He is the prototypical Aryan-looking German soldier, so to speak. I’m generally very fond of him but this isn’t his best role.

Of course all kinds of other submarines will start to chase the U-571 while the boat gets more and more damaged. All the cliché elements of the subgenre are present, waiting for being hit, diving too deep, water leaking in.

Now the truth is that there were far more British missions of this kind during WWII than American ones and the episode shown in the movie is purely fictional. Fact is that Germany sunk far over 1000 Allied ships in 1941 and almost achieved a total blockade of Great Britain. The same year a British crew managed to board a German U-Boot and captured the so-called Enigma machine. The Enigma machine (more of it can be seen in the movie Enigma) was a machine that encrypted messages between the German U-Boots and their high command. Capturing the machine led to a significant breakthrough in decoding messages. But all this is history and little of it can be seen in this movie.

All in all this is a movie for fans of the subgenre and of some of the actors and is decidely more of an action than a war movie.

Taking Sides (2001) or The Denazification of a Legend

Istvan Szabo’s Taking Sides tells the story of the so-called Denazification of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Helmut Furtwängler. (As can be read in the Jewish Virtual Library Denazification was the name given to “the efforts made by the Allies to remove active members of the former National Socialist Party from official public office and influential positions in Germany after World War II.”). The events take place in post-war Berlin. Furtwängler was the conductor of the Berlin Philarmonic. Before going to trial he is being questioned by an American investigator, Major Arnold, who shows no mercy and treats him not much different from the way the Gestapo treated people they questioned. Whatever Furtwängler says is taken against him. When he has nothing to say it is taken against him as well. This is a witch-hunt. There is not much action in this movie that’s why the two actors had to be extremely good. And they are. Harvey Keitel as the self-righteous Major who conducts the investigation is excellent. But Stellan Skarsgard starring as Furtwängler is amazing. This is sublime acting. I always liked him but in this movie he proves to be capable of acting far beyond the average.

Furtwängler is accused to have been a member of the Nazi party, to have been friends with Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. To have known what was going on but to choose to stay anyway. It becomes soon clear that none of this is true and therefore Major Arnold tries to prove him at least morally guilty. Even though he has helped many Jews to escape, Arnold thinks his staying is reproachable. There is a lot of food for thought in this movie. Furtwängler seems to have believed that music and art could better people and that it was his duty to stay. But he was also naïve to an incredible extent. An intellectual living in an ivory tower.

Before starting to question him and during the weeks of the interrogation Arnold watches movies of the concentration camps. The original footage we get to see is one of the most horrible I ever seen. A huge mass of naked emaciated bodies are being shoved away like dirt… This fuels Arnolds’s hatred and lets him lose the right perspective.

One of the best elements of the movie is the clash of these two personalities; the gentle, well-mannered, soft-spoken old-world artist and the aggressive, vulgar and ignorant American major.

The movie does not only take place in the interrogation room. We follow the two young assistants of the major (played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr), both German, one of Jewish origin and just returned from the States, on their outings in the city. This adds a further dimension to the film and we get a feel for post-war Berlin.

Taking Sides has also one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen in a war movie. In an eerily beautiful scene we see an orchestra play in a ruin in the pouring rain.

As stated before, apart from being interesting, fascinating and underlined by beautiful classical recordings (Beethoven, Bruckner) this movie lives from the actors. The leading actors are outstanding but the supporting actors are very good too.

At times Taking Sides reminded me of Judgement at Nuremberg.

This is a movie for people interested in the post-war era, Denazification, classical music, Furtwängler and moral questions tied to WWII Germany. Is it understandable that Furtwängler stayed? Would it have been worse if all the good people had left? Are we allowed to think of self-preservation when faced with the mass destruction of others?

Instead of a trailer I decided to include a scene from the movie.