Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.

Triage (2009)

“It’s complicated to be a survivor. Sometimes you have to place your faith in magic.”

Triage is a movie by Danis Tanovic, the director of No Man’s Land, another really great war movie. It is based on the eponymous novel by Scott Anderson.

What happened to Mark (Colin Farrell) in Kurdistan? He and his best friend David, both war photojournalist who have covered many wars, have flown to Kurdistan together in 1988. They want to cover an offensive that will take place in a few weeks. While they are there, they stay at a forlorn mountain clinic and watch how the doctor (Branko Djuric), at the end of his wits, with nothing else to do for the badly wounded, shoots them one by one. This affects Mark deeply. Later when he is back home he will still see the pictures of the tiny colored slips the doctors puts on the men. The color indicates how far gone they are and if he will have to shoot them or not. It’s part of the triage.

David’s wife is pregnant. The baby is due any day and he would like to go back. But Mark never wants to stop. There is always something more to cover, other shots to take. They quarrel and David finally decides to leave Mark and return on his own.

This is told in flash backs and it isn’t how the movie begins, the movie begins with a badly wounded Mark slowly regaining consciousness. He is at the mountain clinic. They found him near a river. He has no clue what happened to him. After he has recovered he returns home and finds out that David has still not arrived.

Mark’s wife Elena (Paz Vega) is quite shocked to see him in such bad shape and covered in wounds. Plus he is limping and the limp gets worse until he collapses one day. He is brought to a hospital and they find a piece of shrapnel in his head. Only that has nothing to do with the limp. Elena begs her grandfather, a Spanish psychologist, to come and help David. Together, they will reveal, bit by bit, what has happened to Mark and why David isn’t home yet.

I liked this movie a lot. I found the cast very interesting. Colin Farrell is astonishingly good in the role of a traumatized man who is afraid to find out the truth. Paz Vega in the role of his Spanish wife is very well chosen too but the most astonishing part is played by Christopher Lee as Elena’s grandfather. A really great role.

The movie has a lot to say about photojournalists who cover wars. The way, they always maintain a certain distance with the help of the camera. That’s a reason, the movie argues, why so many get shot. They simply forget that there really is a war going on around them.

The movie also shows nicely how a trauma can bring on amnesia and trigger symptoms like paralysis. It was very suspenseful and fascinating to see how the truth was uncovered.

Among the many good movies on war and journalism, this is one of the best, one of the most thought-provoking. Fans of Colin Farrell will watch it because of him, those who doubt he is a good actor, may end up being convinced of the contrary.

The Killing Fields (1984)

Hard to say why I didn’t like the The Killing Fields despite the fact that War and Journalism is a topic that I find fascinating and that this movie is considered to be one of the best of the genre. One of the problems I had was the length. The other one was the score. That’s such a dated score, it ruined the movie to a large extent.

The Killing Fields is based on a true story and one of the first movies whose topic was the genocide of Cambodian people by Pol Pot. The two journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran have been covering the war in Cambodia since the early 70s. They are not only dedicated journalists but close friends. Pran serves as interpreter on their missions.

In 1975 when the United States withdraw from the country and the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, advance on Phnom Penh, Pran, as a US sympathizer is in great danger. There was a moment when he and Syd could have left the country easily but things have developed too fast and now it’s hardly possible for anyone but US and European citizens to leave the country.

Knowing what would happen to Pran if he stayed, Syd and some fellow journalist try to forge a US passport for him. Unfortunately the attempt fails and while his children and his wife have been able to fly out, Pran is left behind when the other journalists leave. Captured by the Khmer Rouge he is brought to a labour camp.

In the second half the movie moves back and forth between a guilt-ridden Syd in the US, and Pran’s ordeal in the Cambodian labour camp. In imaginary letters that he writes to Syd in his head, he tells him what happens, interprets what we see. I’m not sure if this was a problem of my DVD but none of the parts spoken in Khmer have been subtitled.

The parts in the labour camp are very well done. This isn’t only a labour camp. The labourers and especially the children are re-educated and brainwashed. They have to unlearn everything that they knew before. It’s of great danger to have “forbidden” knowledge, like foreign languages or any higher education. The children are easily turned into little fanatics and the grownups who are afraid of being executed try their best to obey.

The Pol Pot regime was a systematic genocide and far over 2 million people were killed. Even though I didn’t particularly like it, I must admit the movie has its merits. And the Cambodian actor, Haing S. Ngor gave a very touching and convincing performance.

ANZACS Part IV and V (1985) The Battles of Amiens and Hamel

This is just a short wrap-up post. I finally watched the last two episodes of the ANZACS mini-series and I liked them as much as the first three. There were a few predictable moments and the end was a bit anti-climatic but very realistic.

I would really like to recommend the series once more. It’s excellent. It’s also an amazing story. The bravery and courage of the ANZACS was really something. I already said it in another post that one thing that struck me was the way they went to war. They took it like some sporting adventure, they were big on comradeship and good spirits. It seemed a bit stretched at first but I’ve done some research and some of my readers confirmed that this was the way they were.

What you get to understand as well, when you watch this series is the huge difference the end of the war represented for the Australians and the French. All through the series you see the ravaged landscape, the bombed villages and although some places remind the lads of home, their country remained untouched. I’m not saying the contribution wasn’t great, no, but when they were finally back home, they could really leave the war behind. That was not possible for the French soldiers who had to cope with a devastated country. The land has still not fully recovered until today. There are still places where you see craters and trenches, where they left the barbed wire and there are still bombs exploding.

While Part IV is still heavy on combat, Part V, which is a bit anti-climatic, is a quiet part. It centers on the Armistice and the ANZACS’ return home to Australia.

Here are the reviews of Part I GallipoliPart II The Somme  and Part III Passchendaele.

ANZACS Part II The Somme (1985)

ANZACS part two takes us to the battle fields in France where the lads we met in the first part will take part in the battle of the Somme. Before they start to fight in the trenches they undergo a bit of training and are also shown the way the Germans fight.

There are still humourous episodes when old-world hierarchy meets with Australian insubordination but this clash of attitudes is also very unfortunate. General Haig, as this episode shows, was less than thrilled by the Australian’s lack of obedience and thought it best to send them off to one of the bloodiest battle fields. Surprisingly they are doing very well. Where most other companies achieve nothing they manage to capture some terrain and there are also more and more losses among the Germans. The British high command is surprised by this can-do attitude and the ability to fight demoralization however they still refuse to recognize their valor.

At the end of the episode the heavy fighting has taken its toll anyway. The men return extremely weary and it’s hard to imagine that the ordeal only just begun.

In episode I an Australian journalist had an important role in covering up the senselessness of the battle at Gallipoli. We see the same journalist once more. He is the Australian prime-ministers’ spokesman and has to find out whether the Australians are not just sacrificed. He points out that they haven’t really won a lot of terrain so far. He is informed that it isn’t only about winning terrain but about wearing out the Germans.

The trench scenes are very convincing. These are trenches that crumble, they have been under such heavy fire all the time, that they are merely shallow dug outs. Usually the trenches we see in WWI movies are very high. The fact that they had to be reconstructed constantly and did at times hardly give any shelter isn’t shown very often.

Like in part two, the story moves between the battlefields and the home front which adds to the authenticity.

I enjoyed part II even more than part I (see review here).

I attached chapter two from Episode 2 (2/10)

No Man’s Land (2001) An Outstanding War Satire

Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land is without any doubt one of the best war movies I have ever seen. The actors are outstanding, the story is different and manages perfectly to convey the tragic absurdity of war. It also very funny, unless you have never heard of black humor or satire.

The movie starts with a group of Bosnian soldiers on their way to the front, bickering and teasing each other and lost in the darkness and the fog. They try to find the way for a while but it’s useless. After some more bickering and sharing of cigarettes, they stop and go to sleep. Horror on horror, when they wake up they realize they are in between the front lines and very close to the Serbs. The fun is definitely over now and as soon as they start to run, the Serbs open fire. Ciki is catapulted by an explosion into an empty foxhole, in the middle of No Man’s Land.

He hides in the foxhole until two Serbian soldiers arrive to investigate if there are any enemies around. They find Cera, who has also been catapulted into the foxhole and, thinking he is dead, they booby-trap his body.

After a while they finally discover Ciki who shoots one of the two Serbs. Two enemies are now trapped in between their lines, together with a unconscious man, attached to a mine, whose every move could make the thing explode.

What follows is one of the most comic farces I have ever seen. Trapped in between enemy lines, they start to quarrel and fight, all the while the poor Cera moans because he needs to go to the toilet, is uncomfortable and thirsty, wants a fag… Ciki keeps on asking him if he is OK which is, considering the circumstance, in a grotesque way funny as well.

A lot of the humor stems from the dialogue. Although they find themselves in the most dire circumstances they still argue and quarrel like a family at the Sunday dinner table; petty grievances, teasing, sulking, all included. Considering they might end up being killed it’s tragically comic. On top of that, the three are really endearing characters.

The movie also criticizes once more the inefficiency and cynicism of high command and the ultimate uselessness of the UNPROFOR troops who, as usual, aren’t allowed to do anything. On top of that a group of sensation-seeking journalists appears and makes matters worse.

Both camps send people into the foxhole which becomes a sort of neutral zone. Journalists are there, de-mining experts, UN troops and what not. Everybody wants to give their opinion, no one is capable of helping.

If you want to know whether poor Cera will be saved, you will have to watch the movie.

No Man’s Land is outstanding and manages like not many to make a very profound anti-war statement.

One word of caution: Should you just have stopped smoking you shouldn’t watch this movie. I have hardly every seen such a lot of smoking going on in any movie. Even a lifelong non-smoker like myself started to feel a certain urge after a while.

I almost forgot to mention that No Man’s Land is a Bosnia & Herzegovina/FR/IT/Slov/UK/BE co-production.

Shooting Dogs aka Beyond the Gates (2005) An Unspairing Look at the Genocide in Rwanda



What a shocking movie. Incredibly good but so sad. I have seen the outstanding Hotel Rwanda a few years back but Shooting Dogs, that is less flawless from a cinematographic point of view, is even better. It is a UK/German co-production starring German, British and African actors.

The story, that is based on true events, takes place in a school compound in 1994. A young British teacher (Hugh Dancy) and an elderly British priest, father Christopher, (John Hurt), are responsible for the school. It is a school to which as well Hutu as Tutsi children come. Early on arrives a troop of UN soldiers who also stay inside the school gates while outside the world as they know it falls apart.

The beginning of the movie is slow and shows with great detail the almost idyllic, if somewhat chaotic life in the city of Kigali, in Rwanda. The moment the Hutu president is killed, the situation changes drastically. The Hutu majority fears that the Tutsi minority wants to overthrow their government and be in charge of Rwanda again. Out of fear and wanting to control a situation that gets out of hands they start what can only be called a genocide. They systematically kill every Tutsi that they can find. To say they “kill” them is an understatement and gives the wrong impressions of the atrocities that happened in Rwanda. The people are not only killed, they are butchered with machetes. Old people, young people, men, women, children and even babies are literally chopped up.

The courageous priest opens up the gate and lets a few thousand Tutsi find refuge inside of the school gates. They are guarded by the UN who are only spectators in what becomes more and more atrocious. They have a very strict mandate which states that they are not allowed to intervene. They watch the butchery without doing anything. Only if they were shot at, would they be allowed to act. The commanding officer (Dominique Horwitz who has an outstanding role in Stalingrad) is helpless and ashamed but there is nothing he can do. The irony is, if the events would be called “genocide”, he would be free of his mandate and could intervene. But no one officially calls it a genocide.

In the beginning we do not see many of the horrible acts but towards the end the movie gets more and more graphic and I could feel the fear that these hordes must have instilled in those threatened by them. They seem so mindless. A mass of violent men, slaughtering, raping and butchering innocent people. And no one helped the Tutsi.

There is a scene that I found particularly profound in which a journalist, talking to the teacher, compares her reaction to the horrors in Bosnia with her reaction to those she sees here. She explains that she cried all the time in Bosnia when she saw dead people but that she was somewhat unfazed by the dead in Rwanda. The young teacher argues that she is probably numbed but she admits that it is more awful than that. “No,” she says. ” It is worse than that. I constantly think, they are only dead Africans.” This is such a shocking confession but how true. I wonder how often Europeans and Americans did think like that during the war. “It’s only Africans”.

When things get worse, the French Army sends soldiers to get the Europeans out of the compound and to the airport. The priest and the young teacher stay until the UN troops get the order to leave as well. At that moment the teacher leaves but father Christopher stays.

This movie is really highly watchable. It is sad and moving and the most touching is that the people who took part in the making, the people in charge of costumes and the settings, the electricians and carpenters, were all Rwandans who lost most of their familiy members in this genocide in which far over 800 000 people were killed.

This is one of the saddest chapters in the history of the 20th century. It should not be forgotten. There is no such thing as “only Africans”.

This movie saddened me a great deal and left me speechless for a long while.