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

land-of-mine

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.

 

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The Bletchley Circle (2012- 2014) British TV Series

Bletchley Circle

This post is meant to make you aware that while British TV Series The Bletchley Circle is well wort watching for its wonderful post WWII period feel, it’s not a war movie, nor has it anything to do with Bletchley Park per se. If you’re interested in a movie on the code breakers at Bletcheley, then you’d have to watch Enigma.

Still, there’s a link. The women in the series worked as code breakers during the war. In the series however they put their knowledge to a very different use and catch a serial killer.

I liked watching this because of the period feel. The crime story is OK, not that gripping in my opinion, but entertaining. The idea that you could break a serial killer’s crimes in applying the laws you used to break a code is quite fascinating though. What I didn’t know is that those who worked at Bletchley were not allowed to talk about it not even after the war.

It’s a very watchable series, just not set during WWII but many years later.

 

Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012)

Hannah Arendt

I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Hannah Arendt. It can’t get much better than Barbara Sukowa starring in a movie by Margarethe von Trotta. Just recently I have watched another movie they’ve made together – Vision, which was amazing – and I was looking forward to watch Hannah Arendt. The movie is, as I expected, very good, but the title is badly chosen. It would have been much better to call it Arendt on Eichmann or some such thing. With her name as the sole title we’re led to believe it’s about her life while it’s only about her controversial book on Adolf Eichmann and the extreme hostility she experienced after writing it.

Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt emigrated to France in 1933 and, after having spent some time at Camp Gurs, emigrated to the US in 1941 where she stayed until her death in 1975. She lived in New York.

The movie takes place in 1961. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by the Israeli Intelligence Agency and brought to Israel to be tried. The New York Times sent Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem to report on the trial. The movie uses a lot of original footage of the trial; we see and hear Eichmann answer questions. And we witness Arendt’s fascination and shock. When she travels to Israel, like so many, she’s prepared to see a “monster”, an extraordinarily evil man, but what she witnesses is, what she later coins “the banality of evil”. What the film shows nicely is how Arendt came to understand that Eichmann was not extraordinary at all. On the very contrary. He was just a man who followed orders without ever thinking or questioning anything. People didn’t react kindly to her interpretation. Surely a mass murderer like Eichmann couldn’t be such a banal creature. But Arendt went one step further saying that without the support of the Jewish leaders the mass extermination would not have been as successful as it was.

Of course I knew her position of Eichmann’s banality but I didn’t know she had blamed the Jewish leaders. The uproar and outrage were incredible and for a long time her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was not translated into Hebrew.

The movie also touches briefly on her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an affair when she was his student. Heidegger is a controversial figure because he was affiliated with Nazism prior to 1934.

According to the film, Arendt was not only blamed for her positions but for being very cold. The victims felt that in saying Eichmann wasn’t a monster, they were blamed as well. I agree that some of the interpretation of her findings must have sounded harsh and brutal to the victims, but I think the movie also manages to show that wasn’t what it was about. In saying Eichmann was banal, Arendt warned us. She meant to show that it didn’t take extraordinary people for a totalitarian systems to work; ordinary people who follow orders and refuse to think are all it needs.

The original footage showing Eichmann is chilling, but without Sukowa’s stellar performance this would only have been half as good.

Not a lot of people stood by her side once her articles were published. But she always had Mary McCarthy (wonderfully played by Janet McTeer) and her husband Heinrich Blücher and some of her friends.

Hannah Arendt is one of the best biopics I’ve seen in recent years. I highly recommend it.

For those who don’t like subtitles: a large part of the movie is spoken in English.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives

I’m actually a bit surprised that I really liked this melodramatic movie, despite the fact that the gender roles and the messages about family and marriage are cringe-worthy. While I felt it’s dated, I could still understand why this won 7 Oscars when it came out.

The Best Years of Our Lives shows three WWII veterans returning home to small-town America. The three men meet on the plane home. Homer is a young marine, Fred is an equally young airforce captain and war hero, while Al is a fortysomething Infantry Sgt. The three men go back to very different lives. Homer who has lost both arms is scared that people will react badly, especially his childhood love Wilma. Fred returns to his wife to whom he’d been married for only 20 days before going abroad. He used to work in a drugstore before the war and hopes that becuase he is a highly decorated officer now, he will find a better job. Al, the oldest of the trio, has been married for twenty years and has two grown-up children. He used to work in a prominent position in a bank and is pretty sure to return to an equally good position.

On the rather lengthy trip they share some of their fears and hopes, and before parting they decide they will meet some day at a bar that belongs to Homer’s uncle.

The three men soon find out that returning is very difficult. They have changed, society has changed and people don’t react with a lot of empathy. By the time they meet at the bar for the first time, all three of them are disillusioned about their home and, even more about themselves.

The first part of the film is really good, but then it turns too melodramatic for my taste, although I liked the love story between Fred and Al’s daughter. The movie is worthwhile for many reasons. Some of the scenes are really gopd, the acting is great and the cinematography was convincing too. Some critics found the end too corny. While I wouldn’t exactly deny that, I liked the scene set at the aircraft graveyard, which takes place towards the end. I think it is one of my favourite war movie scenes (see below).

What is worth mentioning is that Howard Russell who plays Homer had lost both of his hands in 1944. I think you can easily imagine how authentic that makes Homer.

A trailer

And here’s the aircraft graveyard scene

Phantom (2013) Sub Movie with a Russian Point of View

Phantom

I discovered Phantom thanks to a comment on my post on U571 . Since it’s a new movie and it has been quite a while since I last saw a submarine movie and because I’m very fond of Ed Harris, I thought I’d give it a shot. While it’s maybe not among the top of the range, it was decent and had an unusual angle. This is a Cold War movie told entirely from a Russian perspective. It took some getting used to in the beginning that Ed Harris, David Duchovny and William Fichtner all played Russians, but once I realized there wouldn’t be any American counterparts in this film, it was easier to accept. And I was very thankful that for once there were no fake Russian accents to endure.

The movie is set in 1968. The aging Captain of a submarine, Demi (Ed Harris), is assigned a final mission on an old submarine on which he served decades ago. Why he is assigned and what the mission is, isn’t said. He’s surprised to find out that two people he’s not familiar with will come aboard as well, not telling him why they join the mission.

Once on board strange things happen. A dog which isn’t there attacks the Captain, he sees people who die in a fire. We soon get to know that these are hallucinations and that the Captain suffers from epilepsy due to a head trauma. The backstory will be revealed later on.

Because he has an epileptic fit, things escalate quickly and loyalties are tested. Shortly after that the two strangers show their real faces and the movie turns into a thriller.

I can’t say too much or the movie would be spoilt. It’s based on a true event, the disappearance of a submarine in 1968, but that’s as historical as it gets. Nobody has ever found out what happened to said submarine. This movie just tries to imagine one possibility and the diea is quite chilling.

Phantom is a rather slow movie that takes a lot of time to show interior shots, which capture very well how narrow and claustrophobic it is in a submarine. There are hardly any outside shots as the bulk of the action takes place inside. The enemies, so to speak, are among the crew members, and finding out who is on which side is an important element.

Phantom doesn’t make my top submarine movie list, but it’s watchable, especially when you like Harris and Duchovny.

Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946)

Notorious

Sure it is debatable whether or not Hitchcock’s Notorious is a war movie. Let’s say it has a war theme, although a very faint one. I’m fond of Hitchcock movies and since I have a big collection, I thought I’ll re-watch this one.

Alicia Huberman’s (Ingrid Bergman) German father has been convicted for treason which leads to Alicia’s heavy drinking and affairs with various men. FBI agent Devlin (Cary Grant) is sent to recruit her for a delicate job. She’s to fly to Brazil and get access to the house of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) who seems to be the head of a group of suspicious Nazis. Since Sebastian has always been in love with Alicia it should be easy for her to approach him.

At first it isn’t clear how far she will have to go. Not  even Devlin knows that his boss wants Alicia to become Sebastian’s mistress. From the first moment when they meet each other, there is something between Devlin and Alicia and if he trusted her he would fall in love with her. Alicia on her side falls in love with Devlin and tries to convince him that she has changed. No more alcohol, no more affairs. For Devlin the assignment to become Sebastian’s mistress is like a test which Alicia fails.

There are two story lines in this movie. One centers on the classic romance theme of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between two people, the other story line concerns their spying activities.

When Devlin and Alicia discover  something in Sebastian’s house, it puts her in great danger.

I know I’ve seen this movie before but I could hardly remember it. I thought it wasn’t one of my favourite Hitchcock movies but this second time around, I liked it very much. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are absolutely great in this. I wouldn’t know of many contemporary actresses who can fill a screen with their faces only. It’s captivating to watch all those conflicting emotions on her face. But Cary Grant who tries to fight his attraction and plays in a much more understated way is equally good.

I’m glad I watched it again, I think it’s become one of my favourite Hitchcock movies now. Why it’s on the History Magazine’s 100 Best war movies isn’t entirely clear. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and I had been discussing this when he reviewed it here. Without his review, I wouldn’t even have considered it as a war movie.  Be it as it may, it’s one of the great black and white movies of the 40s.

Have you seen it? Which are your favourite Hitchcock movies?

Costa-Gavras’ Music Box (1989) A Court Room Drama About War Criminals

Music Box is not a war movie in the strict sense of the term, especially not since it takes place some 40 years after the war. But it is about what happened to war criminals after the war. The one or the other is still caught today. Many tried to hide in distant countries. Some live in South America but there are certainly also a lot in the US. Since I want to watch Der Stellvertreter aka Amen by Costa-Gavras, I thought it might be interesting to re-watch this one before. I remembered that it moved me quite a bit when I saw it for the first time. I found it totally gripping. As much of the suspense comes from the question whether or not the accused committed the crimes I could concentrate on other elements this time.

Just imagine for one second, someone told you, your mother, or your father was a war criminal. He is said to have left the country shortly after the war and gone to the US where he led an exemplary life as a devoted father, able worker and much liked colleague. Imagine the two of you had a very close relationship. You love the stories your father tells you about his childhood and his youth, the horrors of the war and how he managed to flee to a more welcoming country. Your son adores him, your in-laws respect him. But then, one day, the US government accuses him of being a monster and wants to extradite him to Hungary where he would be judged. That is the story of Music Box. Ann Talbot’s (Jessica Lange) father, Viktor Laszlo, a Hungarian immigrant is accused of having committed war crimes. Ann is a successful lawyer and decides, after some initial reluctance, to defend her father. She doesn’t doubt for one second that he is innocent and soon she is able to prove that there have been wrong accusations before, that the Communist countries often try to get at those who fled from them. She is outraged by the injustice that is done to her father and equally shocked by the crimes, the man who is called Mischka, has committed. Torture, executions and rape. But what is the worst he is accused of is the fact that he showed no mercy, compassion or any other signs of empathy. Mischka enjoyed what he did. Much of it took place on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, near the famous Chain Bridge. One of the last parts of this gripping court-room drama takes place in Budapest. A nice addition to the movie. Budapest is a town I am particularly fond of but when I had seen the movie for the first time, I hadn’t been there yet. I didn’t even remember that part of it was filmed there.

Jessica Lange, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Frederic Forrest, the main actors are fantastic. Armin Mueller-Stahl is one of the very great German actors. I have often problems when actors fake an accent but he does it well.

For one reason or the other, I always compare Music Box to Sophie’s Choice. I find them both equally convincing from a psychlogical point of view. Both have outstanding female actresses in main roles. And they both have this typical 80ies feel.

I was wondering how I would rate this movie. It is interesting and gripping, psychlogically accurate but doesn’t deserve 5/5. It is somewhere between 4 and 4.5 because it is a tad too sentimental.