The Captain – Der Hauptmann (2017) A Chilling German WWII Movie

The Captain – Der Hauptmann is a German black and white movie, directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent) and starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel and Frederick Lau. It premiered in the UK, last Friday.

Before I even begin my review, I have to point out that this is based on a true story. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but in this case it does because if one thought this was fiction, one would find it over the top, but since it’s not, it’s really a shocking movie.

The Captain begins with a hunt. A group of soldiers chases a young soldier, Pvt Willi Herold, who was separated from his unit. Obviously, they think he’s a deserter. The scene is more than effective. We can feel Willi’s fear. We can imagine what they would have done with him, if they had caught him, but they don’t. He escapes.

It’s 1945, two weeks before the end of the war and things are chaotic. The Germans still hope to win the war but even the most hardened realize it might not happen. There are many soldiers, like Willi, separated from their units, but also a lot of deserters. When they get caught, they are shot immediately.

Even though he’s escaped, Willi knows he’s still in danger. When he finds the uniform of an Nazi officer, he doesn’t hesitate and puts it on. As soon as he wears the uniform, roaming soldiers begin to follow him and accept him as their commander. At first, Willi is puzzled and a bit unsure but he soon realizes that the uniform has an almost magical power. The trouble begins only when they encounter fellow officers. They are a little less gullible and so, Willi invents a mission that, as he tells the people he meets, comes from Adolf Hitler directly.

Willi and his band of soldiers arrive at a camp for political prisoners. At first, the commanding officers are not so sure about this Captain, but once they notice how determined he is, how willing to sort out their problems, they put him in charge. What follows is truly shocking. Not only is Willi cruel, but downright sadistic. He seems to enjoy executing and slaughtering people and abuses the blind obedience of his soldiers who follow his most cruel orders. No wonder, he was called The Executioner of Emsland.

I have seen a lot of movies about depraved people, notably in war movies, but Willi Herold might be one of the worst. It’s shocking that someone kills and tortures without restraint, as soon as he gets the opportunity. And to think that all these people died at his hands only two weeks before the end of the war.

I highly recommend this film. It’s a shocking story, impeccably told and masterfully shot. I’m still speechless.

Thanks to Signature Entertainment for letting me view this film in exchange for an honest review.

 

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The King’s Choice (2016) A Norwegian Masterpiece

The King’s Choice is a Norwegian movie about King Haakon VII’s difficult decision after the German invasion of Norway. Last year, I watched and reviewed April, 9 which tells of the speedy invasion of Denmark. It’s an amazing movie because it tells a story that is lesser known. The King’s Choice does the same for Norway and also begins on April, 9. If you’re familiar with the role of the Nordic countries during WWII, you’ll know that Norway didn’t surrender within a few hours like Denmark, but that they put up a fight which lasted several months.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how little I knew of the history of these two countries. I had no idea that the king of Denmark was the king of Norway’s brother. Haakon VII was the first, democratic elected king of Norway. He became king in 1905, after the union with Sweden ended. The movie tells us about that at the beginning and shows a lot of amazing original footage.

Like in the UK, the king wasn’t ruling, but the parliament was and, so, when the Germans invaded and occupied the Norwegian ports, it was up to the government to decide what to do.

Hitler needed Norway just as much as he needed Denmark, because of the long coast line, but also, in Norway’s case, because the country was rich in sources of iron ore. Pretending that Norway was threatened by England, who allegedly was going to invade Norway, Hitler offered his protection under one condition — immediate surrender.

The movie explores how difficult it was for the government to make a decision. Many thought that surrendering would be the safest choice. In the end, lacking determination, they relied on the king to make a choice. By the time the king met the German ambassador, Norway had already been under fire. The king and his family were in grave danger. The king eventually made a decision, but he didnn’t want to reveal it because he felt, that the decision should be made democratically. In the end, he just informed them of what he would do, in case of immediate surrender – abdicate.

The choice King Haakon made is admirable for many reasons, but also because he wasn’t well. He was very frail, suffering from terrible back aches. The war put an immense strain on him personally but he never thought of himself when making his decision.

A movie like this could have gone many ways. It could have been dry and boring or too educational. It was nothing of the sort. It was a pure joy to watch. I was so impressed with Jesper Christensen who played Haakon VII. He’s spectacular. Haakon was an old man, suffering from terrible back aches. Watching Christensen play this role, it’s hard to believe he’s younger and healthy. I wasn’t surprised to find out that he’s a stage actor. You can always tell when a movie actor is also a theater actor. The role of the German ambassador was played by the German actor Karl Marcovics, another seasoned actor.

The acting alone makes this movie well-worth seeing, but then there was the mood and the atmosphere which was absolutely wonderful. It’s very mournful and melancholic as befits the topic. (The superlatives are chasing each other in this review). Cinematography, music, and acting went hand in hand to create a beautiful and very moving film. I would go as far and say it’s a work of art. No wonder it was nominated for an Academy Award.

This is certainly the perfect companion piece to April, 9.

Do yourself a favour  and watch it.

 

 

April 9th – 9.April (2015) A Danish WWII Movie

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April 9th or 9.April is a Danish WWII movie, starring Pilou Asbæk (Game of ThronesBorgenThe Borgias) and Lars Mikkelsen (Borgen, The Killing).

The movie is set during April 8th and April 9th 1940. Lt Sand has just returned to his bicycle infantry company in South Jutland after a holiday. The first scenes introduce us to him and some of his young soldiers. Late on April 8th, the Danes detect movement on the German side of the Danish/German border. The superiors tell their subalterns that they think it’s only showing off. Nothing of any consequence. Nonetheless, Sand is ordered to tell his men to go to bed in their uniforms. During the night, around 4am, on April 9th, the Germans cross the border. Sand and his men are told to hold off the advancement and wait for reinforcements, which never arrives.

As we all know, Denmark didn’t stand a chance. The ill-equipped troops on bicycles were overrun within hours. Sand and his men only kept on fighting a little longer, because they weren’t told that the government had capitulated at 6am.

What a depressing movie. I knew that many countries were overrun and invaded pretty quickly but I wasn’t aware that Denmark capitulated after only two hours. Watching them put up a fight with means that were so inadequate – bicycles, rifles, a few MGs, and hardly any ammunition against tanks and heavily equipped soldiers – was heartbreaking.

I liked the way this was told a great deal. There are no heroes in this movie, only men who fight bravely but to no avail. There’s no mawkish fictional story added, just the facts and how they unfolded.

Although there isn’t a lot of story per se and the movie is 90 minutes long, I was surprised how quickly it was finished. I’m a restless viewer at times but this movie held my interest until the last moment.

If this was a book ,one would say they used showing, no telling. And that’s the reason why it worked so well. Because the movie is tight, unadorned, and to the point, it conveys how humiliating and infuriating this defeat must have felt.

April 9th is a great companion piece to Land of Mine. I’d say, watch this one first and then the other. Some of what is shown in Land of Mine becomes even more meaningful after this film.

Lars Mikkelsen, has only a tiny role, but we see a lot of Pilou Asbæk. He plays this role with great seriousness, which is very fitting. I think he was an excellent choice for the role.

I really admire the decision of the film makers not to embellish this story in any way. It shows that you can stay true to facts and still hold the interest of your viewers.

Highly recommended.

Land of Mine – Under Sandet (2015) An Outstanding Danish/German Post-War Movie

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How many WWII and post-war stories haven’t been told yet? How many atrocities have we not heard of? There must be a huge number. It’s important that we hear about them. Many stories help us see what happened in a new light, add something to the discussion about war and post-war. And some of them are even important for the understanding of contemporary issues. The fantastic Danish-German co-production Land of Mine – Under Sandet is one of those. While it doesn’t tell a true story, it’s inspired by facts. As Martin Zandvliet, film director and writer of this movie, said in an interview, these facts show us how quickly people can become a monster when they fight monsters. Some of what he said and some of what we see in the movie, sounded and looked all too familiar.

At the opening of the movie we see Sgt Carl Rasmussen freak out. He sees a German POW carrying a Danish flag. This infuriates him so much, he beats the guy up. The war is over and there are hundreds of German POWs returning home. The Danish hate them. Rasmussen hates them so much, he almost kills the German soldier.

Maybe this hatred of the enemy makes his superior decide he’s qualified for the job he is going to give him. There are 2,200,000 million land mines buried on the Danish beaches. No other country has this many and it’s obviously vital that they should be dug up and defused. It also seems natural to use German soldiers to do that.

For Rasmussen this is only logical—Germans planted the mines, Germans will have to defuse them. If the one or the other dies – all the better.  What he doesn’t expect however is that the POW’s he is sent are very young soldiers. Almost kids. The oldest is nineteen. But Rasmussen soon overcomes his initial hesitation and the dangerous work begins.

Over the course of the movie, we watch the young people dig up thousands of mines and defuse them. It’s horrible work and watching them had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. I don’t think there’s anything that gets to me as much as watching movies about bomb disposal teams. Be that The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, the UK TV series Danger UXB or this movie, Land of Mines. Every time someone starts to dig up, we know there’s a huge risk. Those scenes are always agonizingly slow. I had to brace myself for whatever would happen. Many lose limbs, many lose their lives.

The movie’s not an action movie. It’s a psychological exploration and a character study. Rasmussen may hate Germans but he doesn’t want to mistreat kids. Nor does he want to see them maimed or dead.

The movie shows subtly, how they begin to understand each other. How there’s some sort of camaraderie between them and how fragile that is.

This is such and excellent, harrowing movie. Such an emotional rollercoaster ride. The actors, many of which had never acted before, are outstanding. There are many small stories, relationships, friendships, that make the losses, the danger all the more poignant. I can’t say too much or it would spoil the film.

I hadn’t heard of these historical facts before, wasn’t aware of the number of land mines or that they used German children to defuse them. Not many survived. It’s a shocking story. It’s shocking to realize how easily people start to hate people and wouldn’t hesitate to take revenge. Even in a case like this, in which so many of the enemy soldiers hadn’t even seen battle and mostly hadn’t volunteered to go to war.

The movie is as much about a forgotten dark side of Denmark’s history as it is about keeping our humanity. No matter what.

I hope that I managed to capture how amazing this movies is. It’s hard to watch, at times almost unbearable, but so rewarding.

 

Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night (2009)

Saviors in the Night

I feel always a bit unkind when I criticise a Holocaust movie based on a true story. Unfortunately though, basing a movie on a true story does not guarantee an interesting result as the German film Unter Bauern – Saviors in the Night, illustrates so well. Saviors in the Night is based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Marga Spiegel and while her experience was certainly nerve-wracking, the movie is absolutely tension-free.

The film opens with a bit of back story. We see Menne Spiegel fighting for his country in WWI. Twenty years later, that same country wants to exterminate him and his family because he is Jewish. Menne is a respected horse trader and when the day of his family’s deportation to a concentration camp comes closer, he contacts his former comrades and finds one who is willing to hide his wife and his daughter, while another one will give him shelter. Because Marga Spiegel and the kid are blond and don’t look Jewish, they are hidden in plain sight, while Menne, who’s looking more typical, has to hide in an attic where he goes almost crazy with boredom.

From there the movie meanders from one tension-free scene to another. Whenever the tiniest conflict arrises, it’s immediately resolved. The biggest challenge these former city-dwellers seem to face is adapting to life in the country. Yes, there are a few Nazi’s in the village, but they are too obtuse to notice anything. The daughter of their saviours dates one of them and while she’s at first outraged that her parents are hiding Jews (she believes the Führer who says that the Jews are the downfall of Germany), it only takes one tale about an injustice against Marga and her daughter, to make her change attitude and convictions.

I was surprised to see this film received praise because it’s so dull. Of course, it’s admirable that these farmers decided to risk their lives and hide Marga and her daughter. And, of course, it’s necessary to remind us that there were people who didn’t care about what the Führer told them and simply listened to their own heart and found the courage to help fellow humans. But unfortunately all those good intentions do not make for gripping viewing. Unlike Agnieszka Holland’s fantastic movie In Darkness, which also tells the story of survivors, there are hardly any dramatic elements here.

To be fair, I have to mention that there are a couple of quiet moments, in which Marga and the farmer’s wife engage in a tentative friendship, which are moving.

It’s a movie you can watch, especially when you’re a fan of German actress Veronica Ferres, but you don’t have to.

The trailer makes this movie look intense because it shows all the dramatic scenes, compressed into 1.5 minutes.

 

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game

More than one person I know felt that the Academy Award for best acting should have gone to Benedict Cumberbatch for his role as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and not to Eddie Redmayne. But even without such praise I would have been keen on watching The Imitation Game as I think code breaking is such a fascinating topic, and, after having watched it, I’d like to visit Bletchley Park.

The Imitation Game is hard to review. Movies based on true stories are a bit like classic novels. Many people know the story and you can’t spoil it for them, but those who don’t might get a little upset if you are too explicit. On the other hand you can hardly say anything meaningful without spoiling it. Quite the dilemma.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, an eminent young mathematician, who was hired by Bletchley Park to help decoding the famous German Enigma machine, which was said to be unbreakable. Not only did it have an almost infinite possibility of codes but the machine was reprogrammed daily.

Turing soon understood that humans wouldn’t be able to decipher the workings of such an advanced machine. Only another machine could do it. In order to get carte blanche and the necessary founding for his project, he needed approval from high command and the assistance of his fellow code breakers. Unfortunately, Turing was a difficult man. In his youth he had a best friend but later he was never capable of having real relationships and friendships. I was wondering at times if he wasn’t autistic. Judging from the movie, he certainly had some form of OCD. In any case, he wasn’t capable of empathy and took everything people said so literally it must have been a true burden to communicate with him. Still, he was a genius and as soon as he had people’s trust he was capable of extraordinary things.

If Alan Turing had only been the man who broke Enigma, this would have been an exciting movie about a genius, but since the movie also focusses on his homosexuality, it was also extremely tragic.

I knew, of course, that homosexuality was illegal, but I tend to forget how dire the consequences were when someone was found out. I must admit I ignored that Alan Turing was gay, and, so, the end really got to me.

****************************Spoiler************************

It’s hard to believe that the man who helped save millions of lives was forced to take hormones to “cure” his homosexuality and finally killed himself in 1954. This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Not that I would have found it any less tragic if someone who was not famous would have been forced to take such heavy medication. Sixty years don’t even seem all that long ago. It’s hard to imagine things like that were legal. But then again, so was lobotomy and electroshock therapy, and many other dreadful things.

***************************Spoiler End*********************

Cumberbacth is a great actor and in this movie, he’s surpassed himself. He’s very convincing and subtle. It’s a role in which many actors would have been tempted to overact, but he doesn’t. Too bad Eddie Redmayne was nominated this year as well. Any other year, Cumberbatch would have won.

I didn’t say anything about the pseudo-love story with Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, although it’s an important role insofar as it shows that the society was just as hard on women as on gay men. They still were not considered capable of the same as men and not taken seriously. I wished they had chosen another actress. I thought she was rather dreadful in this film.

I really liked The Imitation Game. The cinematography is beautiful. The pictures are very crisp, very defined. The acting is great and the story is amazing and tragic. Don’t miss it.

 

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.