Carriage to Vienna – Kočár do Vídně (1966)

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A comment by Stillwell on my post War Romances: A Very Long List led me to the Czech movie Carriage  to Vienna  aka Coach to Vienna – Kočár do Vídně. While it’s not exactly what we would call a romance, it’s a love story and I will include it in the list once I get a chance to update things.

The movie can be watched on YouTube as a whole in Czech and while I was a bit startled by Stillwell’s comment that we don’t need the subtitles, after having watched it, I agree. All you need to know is what is written in the intro.

The movie, which is set towards the end of WWII, focusses on one long scene, the trip through a forest in direction of the Austrian border and Vienna. The back story, as mentioned before, is written as an intro. Krista’s husband has been killed by Germans as he was suspected to have stolen something. She buries him and when she’s finished two young soldiers who know nothing of what has happened come to the farm and force her to drive them through the forest. The two soldiers are Austrians, one of them is badly wounded.

Hans is a very lively young man and chats constantly with Krista although she doesn’t seem to understand a word of what he is saying. The way this is filmed, the forest seems endless and as it is winter or just before spring, the trees are naked. A very bleak scenery for sure and the focus is on the three people on this carriage. As Krista is never speaking, we have to deduce her hostility from her actions and her expressions.

There is an axe hidden under the carriage of which the soldiers know nothing. Krista tries to hide it and to get rid of the soldiers’ weapons. Whenever the carriage stops for one reason or the other, she throws away something; a knife, a pistol, a gun…

The drama culminates when she is found out by Hans and he chases her from he carriage into the woods.

Where is the love story in all this, you may wonder, but that’s something you have to find out for yourself.

Not a lot happens in this movie. The protagonists do not understand each other but it’s clear that Hans is a kind man who has been dragged into the war and is on the wrong side because of his nationality. Krista who is full of hatred at the beginning of the film, slowly learns that not all Germans are the same.

This movie wasn’t appreciated in Russia, maybe even forbidden. It’s obvious why. At the end, the Czech woman and the Austrian soldiers, try to flee from the Russians who show no mercy once they get them.

I found this a very captivating, sad and impressive movie and am glad for the recommendation.

Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone’s Iconic Vietnam Movie

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Platoon is one of those war movies I have seen quite a few times and every time I discover something new. It’s one of those which has stayed among my Top 10 after each viewing, I never even considered to remove it like I did with some of the others.

It’s a powerful anti-war and anti-Vietnam movie. There is no doubt about Oliver Stone’s position. Stone is a veteran of the Vietnam war, Platoon was the first in his Vietnam trilogy, Born on the 4th of July and Heaven and Earth were the other two.

Reviewing it seems odd as I have a feeling it’s one of the most famous war movies and almost everybody who likes war movies knows the story to some degree. I will therefore only give a very short summary.

Chris (Charlie Sheen) volunteers to go to Vietnam. He is a college student unlike most of the others who are in his company and wouldn’t have had to join up but since his father fought in WWII and his grandfather in WWI he felt it was his duty. He is the typical naive recruit, one of those who usually get killed in the first week but he survives. He learns a few things which will help him to survive and looses a lot of his illusions.

The main story is certainly Chris’ transformation only I never saw it as that before. It’s only now that I’ve watched it for the third time that I realize how important it is. Until now, the story that I was most interested in was the story between the morally good Stg Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the bad Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger). Barnes represents everything I hate in a character while Elias is – together with Lt David Manning from When Trumpets Fade – my favourite war movie character. Barnes shows the worst aspects of the war in Vietnam while Elias shows the best. The fight and hatred between the two makes for intense viewing.

Barnes and Elias never get along and after a massacre in a village they become open enemies. Based on a true event (My Lay Massacre), the massacre is one of the most sickening scenes I have seen in any war movie.  

Elias is a saviour figure or sacrificial hero and, as I have written elsewhere (see below), it’s not surprising he was cast as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, just like Caviezel was cast as Christ after having been in The Thin Red Line in a similar saviour role.

Many elements speak for the comparison of Elias and Christ. The most obvious is the iconic poster showing him with his arms outstretched. In the movie there are different instances which emphasize this further. One person says that he thinks Elias is Christ, Barnes says of him that Elias is one of those who think they can walk on water. And there are more.

What I had forgotten is the character of Chris who is at first naive and then gets swept away by the collective acts of violence. This shocks him, it shocks him to see that he is capable of such violence at all. I think that at the end, Chris is the most important character as he is neither black nor white but just an “ordinary good” guy who becomes violent under certain circumstances. What is interesting is the fact that the movie shows that he cannot go back to the state he was in before he acted brutally. This seems crucial too and is exemplified by his final actions.

Platoon is certainly a must-see war movie and will always be one of my favourites.

Platoon is a war movie to which I return frequently and I’ve written a bout it quite a few times before:

Is Platoon a War Movie?

History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

My Favourite War Movie Character

Christ and the War Movie Hero

I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn (1968) East German WWII Movie

The East German movie I Was Nineteen – Ich war neunzehn is based on the film director Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Set in April 1945, it is an episodic movie which tells the story of 19 year-old Gregor Hecker who moves with a Red Army  scouting team towards Berlin.

Hecker is of German origin, he left Germany with his parents at the age of 8 and has lived in Russia ever since. Returning to his home country is peculiar for him. He speaks fluently German and Russian but feels much closer to the Russians.

The movie shows a vast panorama of German society. People who have lost everything and despair, those who believe the war can still be won, some who are afraid of the Russians, others who threaten them. Gregor and his group try to persuade all the German soldiers and officers they meet to surrender; some follow the suggestions, some keep on fighting although the war is almost over.

As I said, the movie is episodic, more than a coherent story line we have a lot of short stories which illustrate the different reactions to the end of the war.

The Russians are also depicted in their variety, peasants and people with higher education, people from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds are shown.

I liked the movie, the characters are likable and the approach was interesting however I don’t think it’s a very realistic movie. Sure, it accurately depicts how estranged someone like Gregor would have felt, how different he was from the other Germans but that’s how far realism goes. What I didn’t find realistic is how peacefully they behaved. The Russians in this movie were all good-natured, mostly gentle, protective of women and children. I don’t think that was the case, there are too many horrible stories which tell otherwise.

The movie isn’t a German but an East German movie which may explain why the Russians were depicted in such a positive light.

There is only one instance in which it is shown how much they must have hated the Germans for what they had done to them. When a German woman asks Gregor whether she can sleep in the house he and his fellow soldiers have occupied a female soldier shouts at her in Russian and Gregor translates. She tells her that it serves her right to be afraid and that what the Germans did to the Russians was so horrible and painful that it deserved punishment.

Despite these reservations I’m very glad I watched this. The movie is available with English subtitles I just couldn’t find a corresponding trailer.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Australian SAS in Vietnam

A comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List put me in the mood to watch the Australian film  The Odd Angry Shot. The topic is quite unique as for once it doesn’t show Australians during WWI or WWII but Australians in Vietnam. The movie came with such high praise that I was really looking forward to it. However, before watching it, I had a look at Gary Freitas book on war movies and the movie had a rating of 1.5/5. I cannot remember having ever seen such a discrepancy between someone’s recommendation and Freitas’ assessment and was a bit puzzled and keen to find out for myself. The solution to the riddle is, in my opinion, that if you have the wrong expectations you might not like it but if you know what to expect chances are high you will.

The Odd Angry Shot tells the story of a group of Australian SAS soldiers who do a 12 month tour in Vietnam. Long stretches of boredom are broken up by recon and other missions during which there are casualties, some men are severely, others fatally wounded. During the periods in which there isn’t a lot to do, the men drink A LOT of beer, play games, tease each other. It’s an atmosphere of mateship and camaraderie and to watch them is nothing if not funny. Story-wise that’s it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie done like this and I can understand that if you think you are going to watch an intense war movie like Hamburger Hill or Platoon you will be very disappointed but that’s because you’re watching it with the wrong expectations. For me this is a war comedy, a movie that wants to show the spirit and the mateship in the Australian troops but still tries to show their sacrifice and achievements just without being graphic or gory. Judging from the reviews of a lot of Australian vets who commented on this movie, this is exactly how the Australians experienced Vietnam. They emphasized that most of the time, they were sitting around, waiting, being debriefed but that intense combat was pretty rare. Most of the time they were sent to capture the one or the other informant. In order to keep their spirits high, they did drink a lot, and try to have fun. A way to cope with the horrors of war.

The only real problem I had was that I still have no clue why the Australians felt they had to be in Vietnam. We hear absolutely nothing about the war as such, only that the majority of the people “back home” were not keen on it.

If you want to watch a gritty and graphic war movie in the vein of Platoon, don’t watch it. If you are interested in Australia and Australian movies, why not? If you look for an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it’s a great choice too. It’s very funny, the characters are extremely likable and Graham Kennedy does a great job. 

Here’s a short scene that captures the spirit very well.

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

Habermann (2010)

The German/Czech/Austrian co production Habermann tells a chapter of German history which is easily forgotten. The movie is based on a true story and tries to exemplify the destiny of the Germans living in Sudetenland. This is one of those movies which touch on a historical fact which is so painfully absurd in its arbitrariness one can hardly believe it.

Habermann is a rich mill owner in Sudetenland. The tragedy of the Sudetenland was that it belonged to Czechoslovakia before the war but almost 90% of the people living there were Germans. When Germany decided to annex the Sudetenland in 1938 this posed a huge problem to people like Habermann who lived peacefully with the Czechs. Habermann’s best friend is a Czech (Karel Roden), many of his mill workers, his accountant and other people in important positions are Czechs. Being so friendly with the Czechs makes him look suspicious to the German authorities who take up residence in the small village in which he lives. When the despotic and sadistic Sturmbannführer Karl Koslowski (Ben Becker) arrives in the village, things go from bad to worse. He wants Habermann to get rid of the Czech workers, spies on him and the Czechs, bullies and controls him.

But the worst isn’t even known to Habermann and his wife yet. Although she grew up as an orphan and was  brought up by Catholic nuns, her father was a Jew. When Koslowski finds out, the tragedy cannot be averted.

Another dramatic story line circles around Habermann’s young brother you joins the Nazi’s.

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie and the story of the Sudeten Germans is a story which needed telling. The real tragedy for most only started after Germany lost the war and the Czechs turned against them. This drama is shown well but what I didn’t find too good is that there is too much emphasis on the character of Koslowski. Ben Becker is one of my favourite actors and I watch every movie he’s in. I think he is simply brilliant but he is also the type of character who just crushes everyone around him. He is often chosen to play a nasty Nazi villain and does that well, only giving him this role, putting so much emphasis on this characters, almost makes you think that the whole tragedy was linked to this one man while this was a collective tragedy and not just related to one sadistic character.

Still overall I think Habermann is well done, not one of the best but a very watchable movie and the actors, Ben Becker, Karl Roden, Mark Waschke as Habermann, Hannah Herzsprung as his wife, are really good.

István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.