The Small Back Room (1949)

In the comments to my recent post on The Archers’ A Matter of Life and Death Guy Savage (Phoenix Cinema) mentioned another of their movies, The Small Back Room based on Nigel Balchin’s eponymous novel. Since I have just read Balchin’s novel on the London Blitz, Darkness Falls From the Air, I was interested in watching The Small Back Room. While I had my problems with A Matter of Life and Death I really liked The Small Back Room a lot. Some say it’s one of the minor movies of Pressburger and Powell. Maybe that is true. It certainly is lesser known but I think that is a shame as it contains many interesting elements. It’s not as exuberant, flashy and over the top as many of the other movies, It’s much darker and thoughtful.

Sammy Rice is an embittered bomb disposal expert, the very best, the British have. He has lost a foot in the war and the constant pain and shame about being not intact make him a cranky fellow. The fact that he is taking heavy medication against the pain which he mixes with strong alcohol doesn’t make things better. Even his very patient girlfriend Susan, who works for the government as well, starts to lose patience. Sammy is part of a research team investigating German booby-traps. They are deadly devices and so far the mechanism isn’t known but it gets more and more urgent to find out what sets them off.

Hi battle with alcoholism, his fear of being alone and his struggles at work put the relationship with Susan under a lot of pressure. Finally she cannot take it any longer and leaves him. While he is on one of his pub crawls, one of the German booby-traps is found on a beach. Sammy needs to clean up as fast as he can and get to the place and deactivate the device.

In many movies set in war-time London we see bombings, people running to air raid shelters. Not in this one. Despite of this it captures the feeling of war-time London perfectly well. The light is dark, many of the shots are rather gloomy, people are dispirited, depressed. The bars are full and everyone seems to indulge in heavy drinking. Sammy may be more extreme than others but I’m sure there was more than one maimed soldier returning from the war, who took it less than gracefully. While Sammy does wallow in self-pity one can still understand him.

I liked the depiction of the relationship a lot. This isn’t a war-time romance but the relationship between two people who seem to have seen a lot, even too much already and whose only consiôlation is their relationship.

One of the best scenes is the bomb disposal scene which is handled in a very interesting way.

This is a very different Archers, it’s sober and dark, not much humor in it. It’s well worth watching though, it has a lot of interesting details and I’m sure it’s even one which will improve when seen a second time.

While I couldn’t find a trailer, I found the whole movie on YouTube.

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Birdsong (2012) Part II of the WWI Drama

This is just a very quick post, an update really. I watched Part II of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel, on the weekend.

Here is what I wrote at the end of post I.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

Well, here are my final impressions. While part one was heavy on the romance element of the story, part two is much more about the war. The story is still told alternating flashbacks and episodes in 1919. Stephen has been at war for the whole duration of the war. Part II managed to change my view of the whole series completely and I have to say, I liked it a lot. I even thought that Eddie Redmayne was after all the perfect choice for this role of a heartbroken man trying to survive the horrors of the trenches.

Don’t miss it if you get the chance to watch it.

Birdsong (2012) Part I of the WWI Love and War Drama

I finally managed to watch Part I of Birdsong, the BBC One TV drama based on Sebastian Faulk’s excellent eponymous novel. They chose to tell the story moving back and forth between 1910 and 1916.

Stephen is fighting in the trenches and thinking back on how he meet Isabelle, in France, in 1910. He stayed at her house and helped her husband, a factory owner, develop new machines. Those machines were going to make a lot of the workers lose their jobs.  The marriage is an odd one. The children are from a former wife, Isabelle and her husband have no children together. At night Stephen hears her cry, during the day he watches her sneak around. She tells him later that she brings bread to the worker’s families.

Isabelle is clearly what the French call a “mal-mariée” – a woman unhappy in her marriage. Stephen is much younger than her husband. He is kind, caring and very attentive. We can’t blame her for falling in love.

All this is shown in flashbacks while Stephen is fighting in the trenches. He is a Lieutenant and has the reputation of being very quiet and superstitious. He seems to have no family, friends or a sweetheart. The trench they are in is above a tunnel system dug out to lead under the German trenches where they could be blown up. The diggers hear that the Germans are digging on the other side as well and are quickly approaching. Usually miners were sent down, not infantry men, but the commanding officer decides that Stephen and his men have to go down as well. Stephen had a problem with one of the miners before and now he is sent down with him.

I’m looking forward to part II as I have forgotten the rest of the story. Or at least the rest of the love story. When I read the book I was much more impressed with the parts on WWI. Although the movie starts in the trenches, it still is much more of a love than a war movie and can’t even be called a war romance as I would only call a movie “war romance” when the romance is set during the war.

I didn’t mind watching it, I even liked it, but it isn’t great, it’s just very watchable. I’ll tell you my final impressions once I have watched part II.

Jakob the Liar (1999)

Movies based on books are often problematic. Even more so when the book is a masterpiece. Jurek Becker’s wonderful novel Jakob der Lügner aka Jakob the Liar is a masterpiece. It’s a touching and very unique account of life in a Polish ghetto. Becker was a German writer of Polish-Jewish origin. He was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. A lot of what he has experienced went into his novel. Despite telling a fictitious story, it’s a realistic account of ghetto life, never corny, free of sentimentality. I had a feeling that adopting a novel like his to the screen would be challenging.

Jakob the Liar starring Robin Williams in the role of Jacob Heym, is the second movie based on Becker’s novel. The first, called Jacob the Liar (with a c) was an Eastern German-Czechoslovakian co-production. I have only seen the American movie.

Choosing Robin Williams as main character does pretty much indicate what type of movie we can expect. Something slightly sentimental. And, yes, Jacob the Liar is quite sentimental but so is Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella. When you try to introduce humour and hope in a movie about life in a Polish ghetto or in a concentration camp, you’re bound to be sentimental as hope and humour were most certainly absent from both places. Compared to La vita è bella, Jacob the Liar is not a bad movie at all. Compared to the novel, it’s not that good but still decent. I’m not going to bore you again with my aversion to fake accents but, yes, it’s another really bad case of fake Jewish accents. Still, as I’m fond of the story of the novel, I managed to enjoy the movie.

Jakob Heym is arrested by the Gestapo on his way home one evening. It looks as if he was out after curfew. They call him into their offices and while they decide what’s going to happen to him, he gets a chance to listen to the radio in which the advance of the Russian troops is mentioned. With some imagination one could interpret this as if the war was going to end soon.

After being released Jakob tentatively tells the one or the other person what he has heard. Soon there is a rumor in the ghetto. They say that Jakob Heym managed to hide a radio and has heard that the Russians are on their way.

Radios are forbidden in the ghetto. To have one and be caught with it would mean certain death. Jakob realizes that his lie is extremely dangerous and since he is at the same time hiding an orphaned girl, he is worried and wants the others to believe that he doesn’t have a radio after all. Unfortunately nobody wants to hear the truth. The people need to believe this lie, they need to be updated with fake news. It’s the only way to prevent that more and more people commit suicide, to help them to keep going, to keep their hope alive.

I liked this story ever since I’ve read the book. It’s touching and profound and manages to say a lot about truth and hope and the power of storytelling. The movie may not be a masterpiece but it’s very watchable.  Jacob the Liar is one of those movies that is ideal if you want to introduce children to the Holocaust. Even though it shows the horror of life in the ghetto, it’s not too gruesome and the humorous parts and the ending carry a message of hope.