Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 (2010)

Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 is a large-scale epic about one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. This is a fascinating and eerily beautiful movie. It is a French-German co-production which explains why there are as many French as German actors.

I’m quite familiar with French history from Louis XIV on but what came before is somewhat blurred. I knew about the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (La St. Barthélemy) and the Edict of Nantes, was familiar with the Queen Margot and Catherine de Medici, I had even heard the famous saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” meaning “Paris is worth a mass” but I wouldn’t have tied all this together and associated it with Henry of Navarre, future King Henry IV of France. What a bloody story, full of treachery, passion, fanaticism, civil war and murder.

Henry, King of the little kingdom of Navarre, is forced to go to war at an early age. By the time he turns twenty it is all he knows. It is the time in which France is divided in two. Catholics are on one side, Protestants (Huguenots) on the other. The Civil War or Wars of Religion rage and tear the country apart. Paris and the court are held by Catholics who are to a certain extent ruled by the Pope. They don’t get married without the assent of the Holy Father. The people of the kingdom of Navarre and Henry himself are Protestants. The opposing parties meet on the battlefield more often than anywhere else.

France is unofficially reigned by the scary Catherine de Medici, the King’s mother. Charles, the King, is an anxious man, constantly afraid of being poisoned or murdered. His fear is well grounded as we will soon find out. Catherine de Medici had the reputation of being a cruel, despotic woman who had people executed on a whim. But even she is tired of war and arranges a marriage between her daughter, the beautiful Margot, and Henry of Navarre.

The marriage is overshadowed by the death of Henry’s mother, presumably she was poisoned. As soon as they are married someone orders to massacre all the protestants in the city which will be the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The following two-thirds of the story follow Henry until he finally becomes Henry IV, King of France. Many people had to lose their life to make this a possibility.

The movie excels in making these people come to life and shows us a King who was far beyond the ordinary. He was  much-loved, tolerant and accepting of people of every religious conviction. This may well have been the first step towards France becoming a secular country, something it has remained until today. Henry was also a womanizer, a trait the film-makers enjoyed to illustrate.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Henry IV, I’m not going to reveal too much. It should suffice to say that love plays a major role. He will also divorce the Queen Margot as she cannot give him the much-needed heir and will get married to Marie de Medici.

I didn’t know much about Henry IV, so I’m not sure how well-chosen Julien Boisselier is. He’s a pleasant, likable looking man and did a very good job.

Ulrich Noethen as Charles IX, is very convincing. He is an experienced actor who has starred in movies like The Downfall.

Having studied old French literature I had to read Agrippa D’Aubignés Les Tragiques. It’s a harrowing account of the times and the Wars of Religion. I liked that Agrippa played a prominent role in the movie. He is played by the excellent German actor Joachim Król. Agrippa was one of Henry’s best friends and only left him towards the end, to withdraw from the world and start to write his famous book.

The most fascinating character of them all, is Catherine de Medici. Hannelore Hoger, a German TV star, plays her very well. She gives an uncanny, eerie and quite scary Catherine de Medici.

All in all, I enjoyed Henry of Navarre a lot and will re-watch it. If you like epic movies, beautiful cinematography and French history you will enjoy it.

I’d like to thank Showbox Media Group for sending me a review copy of the movie.

Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.

12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)

ANZACS Part III Ypres and Passchendaele (1985)

It is debatable when watching a series whether you should review each installment individually. I haven’t done it for The Pacific, nor for Hornblower or Sharpe, so why now do it for ANZACS? Because it is so good? Yes, it really is but so are the others. That’s not the reason then, the reason is that I’m in the mood to do it. Not everything needs to make perfect sense in life, occasionally we can do something just because we enjoy it and I enjoy reviewing ANZACS. There are not all that many good movies and series on WWI, it seems justified to re-emphasize that this one exists.

Part three is a s good as the first two parts and leads us even deeper into some of the catastrophic and notorious battles of WWI. Who hasn’t heard of Ypres or Passchendaele, who hasn’t heard how many soldiers died in these two offensives alone?

In this part we see that the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and General Haig are really not on the same page. Haig is gung-ho, his strategy seems to demand too many losses and Lloyd George doesn’t think it’s justified at all.

Once more we also see how the British and the Australian culture clash when it comes to subordination. Another aspect that is covered in this part is the role of the respective churches. While the Church of England was fully supportive of the war, there were some voices in Australia saying that it might be high time to underline that Australia was independent by now and that the Australian church should adopt another attitude towards the war.

The man on the photo, Jon Blake is one of the main actors in ANZACS. He was also in in The Lighthorsemen. While finishing The Lighthorsemen he had a car accident and sustained severe brain injuries that left him in a near vegetative state. He died on May 29 2011. It’s a very sad story. He was a very promising young actor and many say he would have gone far. We will never know.

Here are the reviews of Part I Gallipoli and Part II The Somme and a List of Australian War Movies.

The Cranes are Flying – Letyat Zhuravli (1957)

It’s nice to watch a movie that is almost flawless like Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, a masterpiece of Russian cinema. It’s touching and beautiful and for once free of any traces of propaganda as it was filmed after Stalin’s death.

I haven’t seen many movies depicting the Russian home front during WWII, so that was interesting as well.

The Cranes are Flying tells the love story of Boris (Aleksey Batalov)  and Veronica (Tatyana Samojlova), two young people who are very much in love and whose love is deeply affected by the outbreak of the war.

The only thing Veronica hopes when she hears about the war is that Boris will not be drafted, only he has other plans. He has already volunteered and his hasty departure doesn’t even permit to say good-bye.

Scenes like the one in which Veronica runs to the train station and hopes to see Boris one last time and say good-bye but is held back by the masses is quite tragic. She can see him but he doesn’t see her and no matter how much she fights to get his attention, it is utterly futile. We see many scenes like this in the movie, in which the camera stays for a long time on Veronica’s expressive face, which mirrors her tumultuous feelings and despair, and in which she seems to fight forces that are beyond her.

After Boris departure Veronica faces utter loneliness. Day in and out she waits for a letter from him but nothing arrives.  When she looses her parents in an air raid, she is completely alone. Fortunately Boris father is a kind man and asks her to live with them.

Boris cousin who was always very interested in Veronica tries to seduce her once Boris is gone and when she doesn’t give in, he finally rapes her. Desperate and lonely Veronica accepts to get married to him.

The family lives together in very quarters. The father and his eldest daughter are both doctors and constantly needed at the hospital. Even though she is now married, Veronica still waits for a letter from the front.

In the second half of the movie scenes from the front and the home front are interwoven.

The story is moving and sad but what is really compelling about this movie is the cinematography. The black and white shots are haunting. The way Veronica’s face is filmed is wonderful. Tatyana Samojlova really has a captivating and expressive face.

I was surprised about the characters as well. The father is one of the most positive father figures cinema has to offer. He is kind, gentle and understanding but at the same time determined and strong. He isn’t very patriotic and doesn’t think it is admirable to volunteer.

This is one of those movies that should not be missed and that will probably be even better when you watch it a second time.

Nuit et Brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955)

I don’t think there are many movies as hard to watch as Alain Resnais’ famous testimony Night and Fog. It’s a testimony to one of the darkest chapters in human history. The film is only 30 minutes long and combines actual footage with a documentary part on the concentration camps in 1955.

I have to admit that this movie made me physically sick. I could literally not stomach it.

The camera takes us to a concentration camp in 1955. This is pretty much what they still look like today. I think most of them have been preserved the way they were and can be visited. The camera approaches the camp and a monotonous voice that almost sounds as if reading a poem tells us what we see and meditates about the fact that this all looks so normal, that all the names like Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Treblinka were once just names and spots on a map.

From those initial pictures the movie switches to actual footage and we see first the trains, then the arrival in the camps, the conditions of the barracks, the hospitals where they performed horrible vivisections, the showers, the furnace, the piles of bodies.

The combination of the voice, the back and forth between the images of today and the actual footage showing those emaciated faces, the grimaces of those who died in pain, the huge mountains of hair and shoes and skin… It’s hard to bear.

I think this is one of the most important films on the extermination camps there is.

Most of it can be watched on YouTube but it would be better to watch it in one go to get the full impact.

I had to watch all of it. I think those masses who endured all this deserved it. Who am I to complain about an upset stomach? After turning it off I was back in my own cozy life, while they had really been there…

Most important of all, a movie like this, that bears testimony to an atrocity, helps us to not forget and to never ever let it happen again.

Please also have a look at this great resource The H.E.A.R.T Holocaust Research Project.

Green Zone (2010)

Wouldn’t it be merciful to be among those who regularly fall asleep when watching a movie? I would have been so lucky if it had happened while watching this.

Green Zone is a hybrid movie that want’s to be war and action drama and most of all aims at a political statement. That’s just like decaffeinated coffee. If you can’t handle the real deal, just stick with something else. Some of my readers know that I do occasionally have strong reactions when I don’t like an actor. This isn’t case here. While not Matt Damon‘s most ardent fan, I enjoyed the Bourne movies. But that isn’t what you will get here.

The major problem is that the topic is really old news. By the time this movie was made everyone knew that there hadn’t been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To sell a story like that as if it was really a discovery can only work on people who have spent the last 10 years in a TV free dungeon.

Now, what is the story? Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is in charge of a group of soldiers who are to discover the mass destruction weapons in Iraq. Every time they arrive at one of the places indicated on their maps that they got from intelligence, they find nothing. Miller starts to suspect that the information is wrong. He tries to talk to people in charge but they don’t want to listen. He talks to experts and a journalist and all pretend, that the intelligence is solid.

Frustrated and disgusted he tries to solve the riddle on his own. What follows is an initially action-packed hunt. What is important in my last statement is the bit about the “initially action-packed”. The action – and that is deadly for an action movie – slows down considerably during the last third. On top of that it gets confusing and, as said, the main topic isn’t gripping.

It’s an OK movie if you have nothing else to watch and are a huge Matt Damon fan anyway. I’d rate it 2/5.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986) Heartbreakingly Bad

Shameful and painful. Shameful to admit I watched this crap and painful to have watched it. I wasn’t even sure whether I should review it on account of the shame factor. I mean, seriously, there is a bit of a reputation at stake, right? But then I thought, I might save someone the time or direct those who would like this movie towards it. I’m sure there are people out there who did or would appreciate this. Anyone who is planning on having an affair with their ex-husband/wife might learn a few things.

The beginning of Heartbreak Ridge isn’t all that bad. I can really sympathize with people who have a problem with their superiors, especially when those superiors do not seem to have reached their position through knowledge and capability but purely by chance or through the right connections.

Gunnery Sgt Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) is a hardened veteran of two wars. He has done more than one tour in Vietnam and is most certainly not the guy to be posted in an office or someone who should be doing some menial task. Since his divorce, and most probably also before, he is a bit too keen on drinking and this, plus a tendency to insubordination, gets him frequently into trouble.

Being a highly decorated soldier and really liked by his friends he is given another chance. Just before his retirement he is sent back to his old unit in Cherry Point, North Carolina. He had been transferred from there, once more, because of insubordination. At present he is appointed trainer of a reconnaissance platoon with a very bad reputation of being true slackers.

Up to this point the movie is ok but then it tumbles down rapidly. Some new characters are introduced which are meant to be funny but are not. The platoon consists of a bunch of cheeky boys reminiscent of some high school comedy. There is a lot of growling and muscle action from the Gunnery Sgt and a lot of cheerless fun from the boys. Plus the ex-wife is introduced and to make matters worse we are served a corny version of the “How to date your ex” romance (it’s so unsexy).

If you think by now, this must be bad, you will be surprised to hear that it got worse. The platoon who, of course, has become one of the most worthy in a short time, is sent to the island of Grenada to liberate some American hostages. Those poor school girls have been captured by Cuban soldiers. Those mean men have a habit of losing their Havanas and that’s how the Gunnery Sgt found out who the enemy is (it’s quite subtle). What was so far a movie about military life + a parody of boot camps turns into a real war movie but of a tacky variety.

I don’t understand why Clint Eastwood accepted this role. I really have no problem with the guy, I even thought his acting was by far the best thing this movie had to offer. Rating? Should I rate it? 1.5/5