Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

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A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over

The Looking Glass War (1970)

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I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

The Man Between (1953)

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Any relief from life is unattainable wealth. After the fall of Germany, Susanne Mallinson (Claire Bloom) visits her doctor brother Martin (Geoffrey Toone), a major who has relocated to Berlin and married a local woman named Bettina (Hildegarde Neff). Susanne is curious about Bettina’s assignations with a man soon introduced to her as Ivo Kern (James Mason) who feigns romance with her. It transpires that he is Bettina’s former husband, a Nazi whom she and Martin had declared dead following his disappearance in WW2 but now alive and well and operating under a pseudonym.  Ivo is a former lawyer who participated in Nazi atrocities in Holland and Prague and is now selling his expertise to East Germans to kidnap and transport certain West Germans to the eastern bloc.  He agrees to a final kidnapping that fails, forcing his employer Halendar (Aribert Wäscher) to abduct Susanne by mistake. He attempts to redeem himself by helping Susanne escape, even though he must risk everything in the process… There isn’t a great deal of difference between our ages but there’s a hundred years in the way of life we have led. Harry Kurnitz and Eric Linklater wrote the screenplay from an original pulp novel (Susanne in Berlin) by Walter Ebert (as Lothar Schuler) and it’s a curious beast for the first third, with John Addison’s fascinating score doing much of the heavy lifting and the statuesque Neff bestriding the screen like a panther, while Bloom operates furtively, trying to find out more about her sister-in-law’s life and Ivo winning her over in an ice rink.  Director Carol Reed’s visual style (shot by Desmond Dickinson) asserts itself from the midpoint opera sequence onwards, with the canted angles, disturbing close ups and rain-slicked streets that distinguished The Third Man taking centre stage as a chase across the city commences. This post-war tale of politicking, betrayal and love across the international frontier against communism has a distinct personality and a tension all its own however, as the strains tell between the three adults – with a very young Bloom barely making the grade among these war-worn creatures – in a horrible Cold War setting with Mason cutting a tragic figure as a reminder of the man who fell at the end of Reed’s great Odd Man Out. Ivo’s helper, the little boy lookout Horst (Dieter Krause) betrays him, just as the boy betrays Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol; while the kidnap plot is from the original novella (also by Graham Greene)The Third Man.  Neff’s iconic role in Trümmer film The Murderers Are Among Us is recalled in her haunted presence; while the bicycling boy bears the shade of Italian neo-realism.  There are many good scenes but you won’t soon forget the extraordinarily erotic byplay between Mason and Bloom as she hides out, clad in skimpy lingerie and complaining of cold feet. In every sense, this is a film about history repeating itself in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin. The contrast between the Expressionist storytelling and the realistic setting is quite eyecatching, attaining the kind of poetry we’re more accustomed to seeing in French films from the 1930s, with secrets revealed from the whirling snow that the wind blows up from the blanketed streets. They were working too hard. I knew they weren’t real labourers

 

Christiane F. (1981)

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Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Berlin Express (1948)

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That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway

The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

Alone in Berlin (2016)

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We are all alone now. 1940 Berlin. Otto Quangel (Brendan Gleeson) is a factory foreman so devastated by his only son Hans’ death fighting in France that he starts composing postcards dedicated to resisting Nazism and Hitler and dropping them (small grains of sand in Hitler’s machine) in public places all over the city, a capital crime. His wife Anna (Emma Thompson) is an otherwise quiet woman, and their strained marriage now seems intractably gone, but she continues her work with the Nazi’s women league, so vehemently in the case of a senior Nazi official’s decadent wife whom she urges to get out and do something, that her colleagues have to apologise on her behalf, believing it to be due to her grief. However she joins in Otto’s campaign despite the danger and it spices up their life. Police detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is ordered to find the culprit as the cards multiply into over two hundred and the postwoman’s dim bulb ex-husband is fingered and let go when the cards continue after his death and the net tightens around the Quangels …  They hang women too.  Hans Fallada’s posthumously published 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone was inspired by a real-life example of bravery by a Berlin couple whose simple act of resistance earned them the wrath of the city’s police force and the Nazis. Actor Vincent Pérez makes his third feature as director and he doesn’t take chances in his leads – Gleeson and Thompson are reliably confident, bringing a quiet dignity to these ordinary unassuming characters whose rebellion is clamped down upon by the fascistic thought police (led by Brühl who gets his own violent comeuppance by virtue of the SS jackboot). Pérez adapted Fallada’s book with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries, a tribute to small-scale heroism derived from the Nazi’s files after the war.  It’s a small, slow film, gathering its tension from different sources – Gleeson’s inarticulate bull-headedness, Thompson’s supportive steadfastness, Brühl’s pursuit, the betrayals, the informers all bringing the criminal bravery to its evitable conclusion. Escherich’s investigation, partly conducted in admiration of his quarry, then in fear of the S.S. Officer Prall (Mikael Pesbranddt) beating him to a pulp, maps Quangel’s leafletting campaign of dissent in a manner that takes on the contours of the film M. This is a modest film about modest people who are pushed too far, too indecently to sit back and do nothing. With their son’s pointless death they have nothing left to them but the truth and memories of a happier time. Advanced in middle age they may be, but their act demonstrates that it’s never too late to become the person you were truly meant to be and become a heroic voice of dissent, social pressures notwithstanding. Meticulously shot by Christophe Beaucarne and scored by Alexandre Desplat, it takes its time (and perhaps a slightly underwhelming budget) to wind our characters inexorably toward an unavoidable fate. It’s hard to reconcile perhaps but 12 million Germans were active Nazis and only a few hundred of them were ever executed.  Now they run Europe and we’re all running after them like lemmings toward the cliff edge as this generation’s Fourth Reich assumes its creeping shape under cover of diversionary uncontrolled immigration in every direction. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Mothers, Hitler will kill your son, too