Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book aka Zwartboek when it came out in 2006 and absolutely loved it. That was four years before I started this blog. If I wanted to review it, I had to rewatch it. It does happen that a movie we liked a lot doesn’t hold up as well when we watch it again. Unfortunately this was the case here. It’s not a bad movie, it’s very entertaining, but I think a resistance movie must be a bit gritty. Black Book most certainly isn’t gritty, it’s so flashy and glossy, it could be an US production. Sure, you’re going to argue, that it’s logical, after all Verhoeven’s not only the director of Soldier of Orange but also of Starship Troopers and Total Recall. Although his first European movie in 20 years, Black Book has written “Hollywood” all over it (apart from the nudity, that wouldn’t go down so well in a US production).

The movie starts in Israel in 1956 and then rewinds to 1944. The main story is set in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is in hiding when a bomb falls on the house of the people who hide her. A policeman who works for the Dutch resistance helps her, her family and a lot of other Jews to escape. The boat on which they should be brought to Belgium is attacked by Nazis, and everyone, except Rachel who manages to escape, is killed and all the money and jewellery is stolen. Rachel watches all this and sees the men responsible for this attack from her hideout.

There isn’t much she can do and so she eventually joins the resistance. During one of her missions she meets Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, she seduces him, becomes his mistress and starts to work at the Nazi headquarters. It’s easy for her to seduce Muntze because she is very pretty and used to be a well-known singer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough not to see through her disguise.

Unfortunately her disguise is also discovered by others and she’s lured into a trap and henceforth suspected by the Resistance to be a double-agent. Things get even more dramatic when Muntze is arrested as she has developed feelings for him. When the Netherlands are finally liberated, Ellis/Rachel gets a chance to uncover who betrayed her.

Black Book is visually appealing, it’s well structured and well-paced and a really entertaining watch, but overall I didn’t find the anti-war message all that pertinent. It seems Verhoeven wanted to show that there were good and bad people on both sides and that the Dutch, like many other European people had ambiguous feelings.

Black Book is entertaining and worth watching but I think Soldier of Orange is far better and when it comes to other Resistance movies I can think of many better ones. These are just a few, which I have all reviewed here as well:

Army of Shadows,

Roma, Città Aperta-Rome Open City,

The Army of Crime,

Flame and Citron,

Max Manus,

Lucy Aubrac

I’m particularly fond of resistance movies, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d be very glad.

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Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje (1977) Dutch Resistance

I think it was obooki who first suggested I watch Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje in a comment on my Starship Troopers post. I’m certainly glad he did. It’s like a companion movie to one of Verhoeven’s latest movie Black Boek – Black Book. While I thought Black Book was quite good – although not as good as many other resistance movies – I’d say Soldier of Orange is far superior and deserves to be named among the best.

I have a predilection for the WWII sub genre of resistance movies and I’m aiming at watching them all sooner or later. Most of the really good movies I’ve seen were either French or Nordic in the broadest sense (including Germany and the Netherlands).

Soldier of Orange is based on the autobiographical novel of the Dutch resistance leader Erik Hazelhoff Roezelma. It tells the story of six upper-class university students whose lives are profoundly changed by WWII. While one of them becomes a member of the German-Dutch SS, the others are soon joining the resistance.

The two best friends Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) and Guus Lejeune (Jeroen Krabbé) are the two main characters. While Guus is a resistance leader, Erik is at first reluctant to even join but the longer the Nazi occupation lasts, the more he feels the urge to do his bit.

With the help of their friend Robby and his radio they get into contact with the resistance in England. The first mission they organize goes very wrong. One of their friends is captured, tortured and executed. Erik and Guus manage to escape but from now on they must be extra careful. Erik soon notices that he is followed. It’s obvious that someone has betrayed them and they are quite certain to know who it is. It must be one of their British contacts.

The first part of the movie is set in the Netherlands. It shows how Erik changes. While at first this is only an adventure for him which he doesn’t take too seriously, when he discovers he’s followed, he know he has to make a decision. Although his love interest, Robby’s Jewish fiancée, is in the Netherlands, he decides to escape to Britain and operate from there.

The second part is set almost entirely in the UK. Erik and Guus meet the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who is in exile in the UK. She wants to get in contact with the Dutch resistance and establish a connection between the resistance in England and those at home.

Shortly after their arrival in the UK, the two men are sent back again to fetch some of the Dutch resistance leaders.

The movie contains all the typical elements one would expect in any resistance movie; adventure, danger, missions, betrayal inside the own ranks, torture, executions. What makes Soldier of Orange especially good is that it rings so true. The characters are quite complex and so is the Dutch society which is depicted. The movie doesn’t idealize anything, it shows how many traitors and collaborators there were among the Dutch. It is one of the Queen’s biggest concern what she will do with those after the war.

The picture was remarkably fresh and from that perspective the movie could be very recent. The colors are intense and crisp, it’s really enjoyable to watch. The music however is dated. I’d say it’s a typical 70s war movie score.

What surprised me was how cheerful and uplifting the tone was. Most resistance movies are slightly depressing. This one is not. Erik and Guus are both rascals, they enjoy women and adventures and while they would be glad if the war was over, the idea to cheat on the Germans amuses them so much that almost feel it’s all worth it. Their cheerfulness is quite infectious.

All this together would have made me like the movie but what makes me love it is Rutger Hauer. Ever since I watched Blade Runner for the first time some years ago, I thought he was an extraordinary and very charismatic actor.

From the point of view of the tone, I’d say Soldier of Orange is at the opposite end of  The Army of Shadows – L’armée des ombres and Flame & Citron (Flammen and Citronen) which are both depressing and full of angst. The Army of Crime and Max Manus occupy the middle ground.

Here are the resistance movies I’ve reviewed so far:

Lucie Aubrac – French

Rome, Open City – Roma, città aperta – Italian

Female Agents- les femmes de l’ombre – French

Tomorrow We Live – British

The Army of Crime – L’armée du crime – French

Winter in Wartime –  Oorlogswinter – Dutch

The Army of Shadows – L’armée du crime – French

Max Manus – Frihedskæmperen Max Manus – co-production Norway/Denmark

Flame & Citron – Flammen and Citronen – co-production Norway/Denmark/Sweden…

I have seen many more pre-blogging and will need to rewatch some of those. Do you have any favourites?

War Romances: A Very Long List

I’m amazed about the length of this list and even more so as I know exactly I have certainly forgotten quite a lot. It seems as if the combination of love and war was extremely well liked. Some of the movies I have included are somewhat more on the war side, like Enemy at the Gates, others are much more romantic. I was also surprised to see that I have seen a lot of them. And also liked quite a a few. Some of my favourites are Admiral, The Man Who Cried, Gloomy SundayKing Arthur, Aimée and Jaguar and The Cranes are Flying. Others like House of Fools sound interesting but I haven’t seen them. What struck me was how often the main theme is about two men falling for the same woman. Amazing. As if war wasn’t complicated enough.

A Farewell to Arms (US 1932) Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Affair between an English nurse and American soldier during World War I.

Dark Journey(UK 1937) Conradt Veidt and Vivien Leigh. Spies of from opposing sides fall in love.
Gone with the Wind (US 1939) US Civil War. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the movie based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel.

A Yank in the RAF (US 1941) Tyrone Power and Betty Grable. Americans serving in the British forces meet and rekindle an old flame.

Casablanca (US 1942) WWII, Morocco. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in one of the greatest classics of cinema history. (See my review)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (US 1943) Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in a movie based on Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War.

Crash Dive (US 1943) Starring Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter and Dana Andrews. A submarine lieutenant and his commander fall in love with the same woman.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK 1943) Roger Livesey and Deborak Kerr. British soldier falls in love with various incarnations of the same woman.

To Have and Have Not (US 1944) Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in a WWII drama about an American expat and a French resistance fighter. Set on Martinique.

I’ll Be Seeing You (US 1944) Ginger Rogers, Jospeh Cotten and Shirley Temple. Soldier falls in love with a girl he meets in a train

I Live in Grosvenor Square (UK 1945) British aristocrat falls in love with American airman

Piccadilly Incident (UK 1946) WWII. War separates husband and wife with tragic consequences.

A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) David Niven and Kim Hunter. Pilot falls in love with radio operator.

From Here to Eternity (US 1953) WWII, Pearl Harbor. Love and drama before the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. Great actors (Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra), great story.

Battle Cry (US 1955) Love and drama among a group of young Marines.

The End of the Affair (UK 1955) Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, John Mills in the movie based on Graham Greene’s novel about a novelist who falls in love with a married woman during WWII. There is a later version of the same movie, see below.

A Town Like Alice (UK 1956) Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna starring in a WWII romance set in Asia. A British woman, POW of the Japanese, falls in love with an Australian soldier.

D-Day, The Sixth of June  (US 1956). On their way to the Normandy a US and a British officer remember their love for the same woman.

A Farewell to Arms (US 1957) Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones in a movie based on Hemingway’s novel. It tells the story of an affair between an English nurse an American soldier on the Italian front during World War I.

Sayonara (US 1957) Marlon Brando as US air force major who falls in love with a Japanese performer. Based on a novel by James Michener

The Cranes are Flying (Russia 1957) WWII. Extremely moving film about a young woman who waits for her lover to return from the war. (See my review)

South Pacific (US 1958) WWII, South Pacific. A young American nurse and a Frenchman who might be an agent fall in love.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (US 1958) WWII. Russian front. German soldier on leave falls in love.

Ballad of a Soldier (Russia 1959) A Russian masterpiece. A young soldier falls in love with a girl on a train. (See my review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (France 1959)  WWII, Japan. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man after the war. The woman lived a romance with a German soldier during the war. (See my review)

Doctor Zhivago (US/Italy 1965) Omar Sharif and Julie Christie starring in a war romance set during the Bolshevik Revolution. Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.

In Harm’s Way (US 1965) A classic John Wayne movie. WWII, Pacific. A naval officer falls in love with a nurse (Patricia Neal). A story of second chances. (Here is my review).

Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia 1966) WWII. Set in occupied Czechoslovakia. A young man working for the railway company falls in love for the first time. Based on Bohumil Hrabal’s novel.

Landscape After Battle (Poland 1970) Poland after WWII and the liberation of the concentration camps. A young poet falls in love with a Jewish girl.

Summmer of my German Soldier (US 1978, TV) WWII, US home front. An American girls falls in love with a German POW.

Yanks (US 1979) WWII. British woman falls in love with an American soldier while her husband is at war. Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave and others.

Hanover Street (UK 1979) Margaret is a nurse in England during WWII and married to a secret agent. Things get complicated when she falls for David, an American pilot. Starring Harrison Ford, Christopher Plummer and Lesley-Ann Down.

We’ll Meet Again (UK 1982 TV mini-series) WWII, Britain. American bomber pilots in the UK.

Winds of War (US 1983, TV mini-series) Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw. WWII, America, until the attack of Pearl Harbor.

A Year of the Quiet Sun (Poland/Germany/US 1984) A US soldier in Europe falls in love with a Polish refugee after the war.

An Indecent Obsession (Australia 1985) Nurse falls in love with psychiatric patient.

Top Gun (US 1986) Not set during a real war. Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis star in this movie about a young fighter pilot who falls in love with a female instructor. Macho bravado and romance.

And a Nightingale Sang (UK 1989, TV) Starring Joan Plowright. One family’s struggle to survive during the Blitz. Funny and touching. (See my review)

The Last of the Mohicans (US 1992) Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in an epic of the war between British and French colonialists and Indians.

1942: A Love Story (India 1993) Bollywood drama  starring Anil Kapoor. A young Indian couple, both from wealthy backgrounds, find themselves caught up in the 1940’s Indian revolutionary movement against their families who are under the thumb of a sadistic British general.

Braveheart (US 1995) 13th Century Scotland. The fight against the British rule. Some love this epic, some hate it, still it’s impressive for many reasons. Starring Mel Gibson and Sophie Marceau.

The English Patient (US/UK 1996) WWII, North Africa and Italy. Two interwoven love stories. The first is the tragic story of a married woman falling for a Hungarian count. The second tells the love between a nurse and a soldier from a bomb disposal unit. With Kirstin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and Willem Dafoe. (See my review)

In Love and War (US 1996) WWI, Italy. the story of the love between Ernest Hemingway and the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky starring Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock.

Aimée and Jaguar (Germany 1999) WWII, Germany. Holocaust. Two women fall in love in Berlin during the war. One of them is Jewish and in the Resistance.

The End of the Affair (UK/US 1999) Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the movie based on Graham Greene’s novel. A novelist falls in love with a married woman during WWII in London. She leaves him without an explanation. Two years later he has her followed to try to find out why she left him.

Gloomy Sunday (Germany/Hungary 1999) Set in WWII Budapest. Starring Joachim Król and Ben Becker. This is such a beautiful movie. Another love triangle. A young woman loves a Jewish restaurant owner. One day he hires a young pianist. She falls in love with the young man but still loves the older one. They save the life of a German man who also falls in love with the woman. When WWII breaks out the German comes back. He has turned into a Nazi officer who loves to abuse his power. Gloomy Sunday tells  also the story of the famous Hungarian song Gloomy Sunday that is said to have caused more suicides than any other song ever.

The Man Who Cried (UK/France 2000) Starring Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro, Christina Ricci. A Russian Jew falls in  love with a gypsy during WWII in Paris. She befriends another Russian who helps her find work in a theater. For lovers of sumptuous movies and opera.

Dark Blue World (Czech Republic/UK/Germany/Denmark/Italy 2001) Czeck fighter pilots in England in WWII. Two pilots, a very young one and an older one fall in love with the same woman.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin ( UK/US/France 2001) WWII, Italian troops in occupied Greece. Based on Luis de Bernières eponymous novel, starring Penélope Cruz and Nicolas Cage. An Italian commander falls in love with a Greek girl whose fiancée is fighting in the war as well.

Enigma (UK/US/Germany/Netherlands 2001) Dougray Scott, Kate Winslett and Jeremy Northam starring in this WWII drama about a young heartbroken man trying to break the Enigma code.

Pearl Harbor (US 2001) Real blockbuster cinema.  WWII. Pearl Harbor. Two young bomber pilots are in love with the same young woman, a nurse. Slick, good-looking movie with equally good-looking actors (Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck).

Enemy at the Gates (US/UK/Germany/Ireland 2001) Showdown of two snipers in Stalingrad. The Russian sniper is a local war hero and in love with a Jewish woman who is in the resistance. Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris in a beautifully shot war drama. (See my review)

House of Fools (Russia/France 2002) A war movie that is no war movie. Set in a mental institution during the Chechen war.

Charlotte Gray (UK/Australia/Germany 2002) Cate Blanchett in a movie based on Sebastian Faulk’s novel. She plays a Scottish nurse who joins the French Resistance looking for her boyfriend, a RAF pilot who got lost in France.

Yossi and Jagger (Israel 2002) Love between two Israeli soldiers stationed on the Lebanese border.

Resistance (US/Netherlands 2003) Starring Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond. WWII, occupied Belgium. A reconnaissance plane crashes. The pilot, Ted, is brought to Claire and Henry Daussois who are in the Maquis Resistance. Ted and Claire fall in love.

Cold Mountain (US 2003), Renée Zellweger, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in a story of the American Civil War.

Head in the Clouds (UK/Canada 2004) Starring Charlize Theron, Penélope Cruz, Stuart Townsend,Thomas Kretschmann. A romantic drama set in 1930’s England, Paris, and Spain. Three people share an apartment in Paris, one lives a hedonistic life, the others want to join the fight against fascism.

Island at War (UK 2004, TV mini-series) WWII. The channel islands during German occupation. After the island is invaded by German forces, life changes drastically. The series focuses on three families.

A Very Long Engagement (France/US 2004) Audrey Tautou in a movie about a woman whose husband doesn’t return from the battlefields of WWI and sets out to look for him.

King Arthur (US/UK/Ireland 2004) An epic adventure of war and romance starring Clive Owen, Keira Knigthley, Mads Mikkelsen, Ray Winstone and Ioan Gruffud. The re-telling of the story of King Arthur and his Knights.

The Christmas Card (US 2006, TV) A US soldier visits a town from where a Christmas card has been sent to him during his tour in Afghanistan.

The Poet (Canada 2007) A Rabbi’s daughter and a German soldier fall in love in Poland in WWII. Starring Nina Dobrev and Daryl Hannah. (See my review)

Closing the Ring (UK/Canada/US 2007) Christopher Plummer, Shirley MacLaine and Mischa Barton in a love story that plays then – during WWII – and now. A woman between two men. One is a pilot and gets lost after crash landing in Ireland during WWII. In today’s Ireland a young man finds the wedding ring and brings it to the woman living in the US. Set in Ireland and the US.

Admiral (Russia 2008) Russian revolution. A real heartbreaker. The true story of Admiral Kolchak and his lover. (Here is my review)

Dear John (US 2010) Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in a weepy romance about a young Marine who falls in love prior to 9/11. When he leaves for Iraq their love is tested.

What about you, have you seen many of these movies? Did you like them? Have I forgotten one you would like to recommend?

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.

Winter in Wartime aka Oorlogswinter (2008) Resistance in Occupied Holland

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch-Belgian co-production filmed in three languages, German, Dutch and English. The same producers who did the outstanding movie Zwart Boek aka Black Book did also this one. There are some resemblances picture wise but apart from that the two movies are very different. Winter in Wartime is to be classified among the long list of Children in War Movies (please see my post Children in War Movies).

Michiel, a young boy of 14 years, gets drawn into the Dutch Resistance after one of his older friends, an active member of the Resistance, gets shot. Michiel takes it upon himself to help a young RAF pilot who has been shot down in the woods near his village. As young as he is Michiel has a strong sense of right and wrong and despises his father whom he accuses of collaborating with the Germans. He idealizes his uncle Ben who thinks his brother is a coward.

Occupied Holland is swarming with Germans. It is extremely dangerous for Michiel to help the young injured British soldier and he has to let his sister who is a nurse in on his secret. After a German soldier is found shot in the woods the Germans arrest Michiel’s father. Although his uncle says he can help him, the father is shot.

Michiel’s only mission from then on is to save his the young pilot. The ywill attempt to flee several times. Michiel will learn a few important lessons and come out wizened of this experience.

The movie is very beautiful as we see long takes on the snow-covered Dutch countryside. Snow flakes fall softly in many a scene, the whiteness of the woods builds a stark contrast to the dark uniforms of the Germans. Michiel is a wonderful character. Such a young boy with such an incredible idealism and courage. The young actor, Martijn Lakemeier, did a great job. So did  Jamie Campbell Bower as the pilot Jack. I also liked the relationship between the boy and his father or rather how the opinion the boy is change through the events. Apart from that I’m not too sure about this movie. You could watch it with very young people or children to teach them something about the war and values but I think it is too much of a purely invented story and does lack realism. If you watch it you will understand what I mean. There are a few things that just seem extremely farfetched.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable. Just not great. If you have never seen a movie on Dutch Resistance, go for Black Book. If you’d like to watch something on Nordic Resistance, try Max Manus or Flame & Citron. All three are great. This one is probably a 3.5-4.

The Army of Shadows aka L´armée des ombres (1969): The Classic Movie on French Resistance

Bad memories, I welcome you nevertheless,  you are my distant youth.

If you are really interested in the topic of French Resistance there is no escaping this movie.  If you are truly interested in film there is no escaping this movie either. Especially not since there has been a recent wave of Resistance movies (Les femmes de l´ombre (Female Agents), L´armée du Crime ( The Army of Crime), Flame and Citron, Black Book, Winter in Wartime, Max Manus) and it is always good to see where they come from, what influences they had.

Jean-Pierre Melvilles´s L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (or in the Shadows) is a classic and a work of art.

It is beautiful like a foggy autumn evening, like the solitary cawing of a crow, like bare branches of a tree in winter, like the bluish colour of an early nightfall, like bitter sweet music and coffee drunk at midnight in an empty bar. (Would I  have to compare it to a contemporary movie, I think I would choose Shutter Island.  The movie as a whole and particularly the sad song during the end credits, Dinah Washington´s Bitter Earth blended with Max Richter´s On the Nature of Daylight, has a similar dense atmospheric quality.)

Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is captured by the Gestapo early in the movie. He manages to escape but knows he has been betrayed. Only one of his own could have told the Gestapo where this overly careful man was hiding.

Gerbier is head of a Resistance cell that operates between Paris, London, Lyon and Marseille. They always on the look out for people they can trust. They must always be careful, they could be betrayed anytime. They are hunted and on the run continuously. When they are caught by the Germans or the collaborators, they will be tortured mercilessly as the film shows drastically. But the group will risk everything to save one of their own.

The cell kills traitors as well  as people who become too risky. No matter how much they helped them in the past, no matter how much they like them. The group ultimately lives and dies for the cause.

Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret are fabulous in this movie. It is a pleasure to watch such assured actors.

A feeling of abandonment and utter loneliness pervades the whole film. It seems to illustrate the existentialist angst of the times. Melancholy in its purest form.

What impressed me most was the sound. No effects like we know them nowadays but so artfully and sparingly used noises and sounds and just a little bit of music. The rain in the beginning, echoing footsteps in empty streets, the ticking of a pendulum in a room, the distant cry of birds.

It is quite a sad movie and I would not recommend you watch it should you feel very blue. It would not cheer you up. But on days when you feel balanced enough you will admire these brave people and suffer with them when they find out one of them is being tortured but won´t speak, not even when he knows he is going to die.

And, please remember, this is a true story.

Women in War Movies

War movies are a genre in which women will rarely if ever play major roles.

However there are a few that come to mind immediately.

Nurses

Mothers

Wives

Girl friends

Resistance fighters

Soldiers

Officers

Victims

The nurse is by far the most common role. In many movies they are very prominent. Especially in the sub genre of the war romance they get more than just small roles. (Yes, Pearl Harbor (2001) comes to mind, but…)

Some fine examples of nurses can be found in The Lighthorsemen (1987), In Love and War (1996), The English Patient (1996).

Mothers, wives, fiancées are often found at the very beginning of a movie, when the soldiers leave their homes like in Dark Blue World aka Tmavomodry svet (2001). We often see them again, reading a letter arriving from the field as in The Thin Red Line (1998).  They serve as a sort of counterpoint to make the contrast between those who fight and those who stayed home even bigger. Then, you may find them once more at the very end, when the soldiers return home. One of the most poignant and touching wives is Madeleine Stowe in We Were Soldiers (2002). The story moves back and forth between the battle field and the home front depicting the agony the soldier´s wives went through when the telegrams arrived telling them one of their husbands had been killed.

Nurses become very often soldiers’ girl-friends which makes the two roles blend into each other. But many of the classic girl friends in movies depicting the second WW are the girls the men encounter in the countries they are shipped to. The American soldiers in The Pacific for example have Australian girl friends.

The role of the resistance fighter is quite a noble one. Not very frequent but appealing. Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray (2001) comes to mind. Or the women in Uprising (2001). And definitely Sophie Scholl (2005). The latest example of this kind is Carice van Houten as the jewish woman Rachel Stein who joins the Dutch resistance after having survived a massacre in the brilliant Black Book aka Zwartboek (2006).

Female soldiers that are even involved in combat are not very frequent. The most remarkable one I remember is the Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987). A further female soldier  is played by Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997) where she is said to be the first woman  to have  been granted access to the navy SEALS.

Women as officers is by far more common. Again Demi Moore played a role in the excellent legal drama A Few Good Men (1992). And then there is Meg Ryan as medevac chopper pilot Capt. Karen Walden in Courage under Fire (1996).

Unfortunately some of the above mentioned portraits of women in war movies are quite questionable and have been criticised repeatedly (especially G.I. Jane).

I almost forgot the victims. Inexcusable. There are as innumerable female victims in real wars as there are high numbers in movies. One of the saddest are the victims in Vietnam war movies. I think of  Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (1989). They are not the only ones. Of course not.

My favourite heroines are Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray, the wonderful Juliette Binoche as nurse  in The English Patient and, another nurse, Sandra Bullock in In Love and War, and the outstanding Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl. The first two are based on novels, the other two on historical facts. Sandra Bullock plays the nurse Ernest Hemingway fell in love with when he fought in Italy during WWI.