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.

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Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor

I decided to watch Lone Survivor after having read a positive review on The War Movie Buff’s blog (here). I did not regret it, although I have some reservations.

Talk about a doomed operation. Lone Survivor is based on a true story – Operation Red Wing – which went horribly wrong. Given how the movie starts and its title, it’s not a spoiler to mention that the operation only had one survivor played by Mark Wahlberg. 

The movie is set in Afghanistan in 2005. Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and three other Navy Seals are sent on a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd. While hiding in the mountains goatherds literally stumble over them. The four men have a heated discussion about what they should do with them. Two want them dead, one wants to tie them and only Luttrell wants to let them go. Unfortunately their communication systems don’t work and they cannot reach their commander (Eric Bana) and ask for advice. Finally they let them go as that is in line with their rules of engagement. It’s clear that while this is the right thing to do, nothing good can come of it. And indeed, one of the herders runs down to the village and alerts the men surrounding Ahmad Shadh. What follows is an intense two hours of flight and fight.

First I’d like to say that the movie is well done. The pacing is good, there is some nice cinematography (stunning sunsets), the music works well, the action scenes are extremely realistic. The characters aren’t fully rounded, but that would be absurd in a movie like this. Last, but not least it’s very suspenseful, although we know there’s only one survivor.

I thought that in choosing this title and beginning of the film, which clearly shows that only Wahlberg’s character survived, the director stayed away from sentimentality and melodrama, which is so often annoying in movies of this type.

I’ve seen this compared to Black Hawk Down but I can’t see any similarity. I was reminded of Bravo Two Zero, in which the failing communication also played a major role. Lone Survivor has elements of both Act of Valor and the French Forces Spécilales, but I would say it’s better.

I’ve seen a lot of very harsh reviews of this movie. I think it’s not as bad as some say, but as is often the case with movies, which also find the approval of the military, there’s a mix up in the reception. One thing is the movie as such, and one can really not find a lot of flaws in that, the other thing is the reason that this movie was made in the first place. It depicts a true story and if you are against the way the US handle their war against terrorism, then you are probably inclined to be against this film. But that’s really mixing up two things. I thought that this movie stayed away from a lot of the glorifying we usually see in movies like this. It depicts  highly trained men on a mission that goes wrong. Sure, the characters want to kill as many Afghanis as they can, and they don’t try to apply a lot of empathy, but I’d like to see what all the liberal thinkers who criticized this film would do in a similar situation. Would they still try to understand and speak in a politically correct way about people who are trying to kill them?

I liked this film and the way it was done. I’m not keen on the US strategies against terrorism, but there is no denying that they exist. And there is no denying that the US military has some admirably well-trained soldiers who would do anything for each other.

Watch it if you like watching an action-driven movie inspired by a true story, leave it out if you expect criticism of the US military.

They Were Not Divided (1950)

THEY WERE NOT DIVIDED

I’m usually quite lucky in my choices of older British movies. Some I’ve watched in the past make my extended best of list. However, They Were Not Divided will not be on that list. It’s not a bad movie but it felt at times as if the director had intended to make a war movie – based on true events (!) – which is suitable for the whole family. The result is a bit too cute for my taste.

At the core of the movie is the friendship between a British, an American and an Irish soldier. Especially the Englishman Philip Hamilton and the American David Morgan are very close. After having undergone intense training which we are shown in a long boot camp sequence, which reminded me a bit of Full Metal Jacket, the three men are promoted and assigned to serve in the tank company of the Welsh Guards.  Two thirds of the film are taken up by the boot camp and further tank training episodes, occasionally interrupted by leaves which they spend at Philip’s home. During one of those leaves, David meets an English girl and falls in love with her.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationships in the movie. The marriage between Philip and his wife is explored as well as the relationship between David and his future fiancée.

The last part of the film, could finally be called the real war movie part. The three main characters land at Normandy weeks after D-Day as part of the Welsh Guard’s Armoured Division. They quickly see combat and have to cope with fighting a war in another country, far from their wives and girl friends. The film then picks up speed and we see many of the crucial moments of WWII: Operation Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge. We see how the Welsh Guards join American paratroopers at the Grave bridge before moving to Nijmegen during Operation Market Garden. The film ends with the Ardennes Offensive and the Guards’ unknown operations around the east side of the river Meuse. I suppose it isn’t spoiling the movie too much if I mention that not everyone survives.

I think They Were Not Divided isn’t exactly a must see but I’ve seen far worse. It’s an ok movie, it just doesn’t really have anything that stands out with the exception of some quite humorous scenes during the boot camp sequence. It’s safe to say that even the very squeamish can watch this. If you’re looking for a WWII film to watch with the whole family, this could be your choice.

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Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden

I knew I was going to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, no matter what it would be about but I would have wished she had chosen another topic.

Zero Dark Thirty is an almost 3 hour-long movie on the hunt for Bin Laden. It starts on 9/11 … with voices of victims recorded during the attacks. Next thing we’re in a detention center in Pakistan witnessing CIA agents torturing a man. A male agent is torturing while a female CIA agent, Maya, is watching. Maya is new, recruited fresh from college, and assigned to one of the most important tasks in CIA history – the hunt for Bin Laden.

While she only watches the interrogations at first, she will later lead them and become the most important agent in this assignment. As early as 2002 0r 2003 she starts to follow a lead, a man she believes to be in contact with Bin Laden himself, a courier. Unfortunately the guy is very elusive, the captured and tortured men contradict each other, his name seems only a nick name, his true identity cannot be found. Eventually he is even said to be dead.

Maya is considered to be obsessed and her superiors start to doubt that what she is pursuing is real. But she won’t give up and is proven right in the end. The rest is history.

I felt very uncomfortable watching this movie. The torture scenes are unpleasant and the fact that the US, who always denied that they use torture, are shown doing it even more so.

Does the outcome justify this? The movie is showing the story as it was. Or is it not? That’s the big question. What we see are scenes showing a group of CIA agents trying to find a man, using every possible way, alternating with scenes from terrorist attacks. Islamabad, London, New York…. While the CIA hunts Bin Laden, the terrorists don’t sleep.

The movie takes a lot of time to tell the story and the first 2 hours are long. I couldn’t help finding the last action-packed sequence interesting. They show the final moments, when the special troops invade the compound where Bin Laden was hiding and how they kill him.

The movie is OK but certainly not a must-see. I’m clueless why anyone would want to make a movie about this. If you are not familiar with the details, it’s interesting to watch but it still left a very bad taste. It is like a documentary and never questions anything, never accuses. It seems to say that without torture, Bin Laden would never have been captured. That’s quite possible but does that make torture acceptable? On the other hand, terrorism is despicable…

I was wondering why Bigelow chose this topic. Because a woman found him? Since I’m not watching the news very often, I don’t know how much was known about the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Is the movie meant to get rid of the general public’s naivety about torture?

I don’t think I’ve seen Jessica Chastain who plays Maya before and couldn’t help comparing her to Claire Danes in Homeland. I’m afraid I like Danes much better. Not only as an actress but I also like her character better. She seems a tad more conflicted about what she is doing. Other actors worth mentioning are Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton.

As I’ve just said above, this isn’t a must-see. I’m truly disappointed in Kathryn Bigelow.

Have you seen the movie? Did you like it?

Reach For The Sky (1956) Biopic of a Famous RAF Bomber Pilot

Reach for the Sky

If Reach for the Sky wasn’t a true story it would be one of those movies which you’d just shrug off as way over the top but since it is based on a true story it leaves you astonished.

Reach for The Sky is the story of one man’s love for flying which was so intense that it made him  overcome one of the worst things that can happen to a man and later turned him into a legend.

Douglas Bader is a passionate and reckless young RAF pilot when in 1931, while showing off his talents in front of other pilots, he has a terrible accident which costs him both legs.

Determined and optimistic as he is, he makes the impossible possible and soon learns to walk on tin legs, without help or a crutch. Shortly after leaving the hospital, still on crutches during that time, he meets his future wife and love of his life Thelma.

The only bitter moment comes for him when they don’t accept him as a pilot anymore and he has to do desk duty.

If it wasn’t for WWII he may never have flown again but when war breaks out he undergoes tests and is judged fit for service.

The story which is already quite remarkable until that point, gets truly astonishing now. Not only does he fly one mission after the other, survives the Battle of Britain but he becomes one of the best-loved wing commanders until he is shot down in 1941.

He survives and is captured by the Germans. As a POW he shows the same determination as earlier in his life and escapes several times from different camps until he’s finally sent to Colditz castle where he remains until the end of the war.

Douglas Bader’s story is truly amazing. It would have been so easy to just fall into a deep depression and withdraw from life but Bader was a fighter and nothing, absolutely nothing, could put that man down or stop him. And he was a passionate pilot. As much as he loved his wife, we get the impression that he loved flying even more.

A story like this is quite inspiring but that wouldn’t make this a great movie. What makes it great is the way it is told. While the first half focusses on Bader, his accident and how he learned to walk again, the second half focusses on WWII, the Battle of Britain, the dog fights… It’s quite suspenseful and interesting. It’s not easy for Bader to be accepted at first. The young pilots are a bit taken aback when they find out their wing commander has no legs.

I wasn’t familiar with the main actors Kenneth Moore and the lovely Muriel Pavlow but they were both really good.

It’s certainly a movie I would recommend to anyone interested in WWII, the Battle of Britain and true stories about resilience and overcoming a tragedy.

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.