Battle of the Bulge (1965)

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I did not lose a war to die in the back seat of a car. At the end of 1944 American Lt. Col. Dan Kiley (Henry Fonda), a military intelligence whiz and former police officer, discovers that the Nazis are planning to attack Allied forces near Belgium. Certain that the exhausted enemy can’t muster much force, General Joe Grey (Robert Ryan) isn’t convinced by Kiley’s findings, and his men pay the price when the German tanks begin their offensive in the Ardennes. In the heat of this key World War II battle, Kiley must come up with a plan when it becomes clear that the Nazis are trying to steal fuel from the Allies, there are Germans disguised as American MPs diverting traffic from the new Western Front and an ambitious German Colonel Hessler (Robert Shaw) who intends keeping the war going as long as possible no matter how many are sacrificed as he leads the Panzer spearhead of the German counterattack … Having been an inspector of police does not disqualify me from thinking. Written by (formerly blacklisted) Bernard Gordon, producer Milton Sperling and Philip Yordan (with contributions by John Melson), this is proper WW2 entertainment about a huge episode that involved a million men and which I once had the temerity to describe to someone as an instance of poor project management on the part of Hitler and his cronies. I love me a good war movie, better still if there are tanks (my dream vehicle, particularly the camo models in Desert Storm. So sue me!) so this is perfect Easter (or Passover!) holiday fare. Criticised for not being 100% accurate and its Spanish locations being a poor imitation of the Ardennes setting, this has a lot going for it, not least the staging and the tremendous cast. There is detail by the yard – and the weather reports are crucial. The way that the strategy and tactics are exposed is a triumph of film storytelling. Shaw is sizzling as one of the nastiest Nazis outside the Bulgarian Waffen SS and it’s a star-making role. Fonda’s doggedness is wonderfully sympathetic, especially when you have the feeling (because you’ve seen him in other movies) that he’s probably right about everything and his bozo superiors find out, soon enough. It’s the perceptive structuring of the narrative from both perspectives that makes this tick along quickly. While not setting out to be a satire (hardly, although WW2 vet Sperling was no fan of warfare) the dialogue is sparkling with zingers – aphoristic and otherwise, particularly punctuating Shaw’s scenes – and there’s one out-and-out comic scene (played straight) when Savalas returns to his business to check how things are doing. Pier Angeli pleads for some promise of marriage because this is what she understands by the term ‘business partnership’ and wants a sign. But he’s rushing back to the front so he just tells her to keep feeding the chickens (they’re looking scrawny). This amusing character sidebar is one part of a dedicated soldier and Savalas plays it to the hilt. There’s a mass execution which won’t surprise you – but someone gets away and the payoff is very satisfying indeed. There are some good map room scenes; a really funny one-word message from US Command to German Command; and a breathtaking POV section with Fonda gliding down in silence over the attack position of the German tanks on the other side of the river:  just listen to the score. Such inventive work by Benjamin Frankel. The final sequence of tank battle is suitably fiery and an injured and vengeful Savalas joins forces with James MacArthur at the fuel depot where they get to blow up more than just the gas supply. Beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard in 70mm and a fine job of direction by Ken Annakin with not a moment to spare in its 163 minutes. Never mind what Ike said – this is simply sensational. When I have a brigade of tanks – that is reality!

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

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Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.  Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a free-spirited teacher at a Scottish girls’ school during the 1930s. She encourages her young pupils to embrace romantic ideals, educating them about love and art rather than hard facts.  She instructs them in poetry and literature and femininity and regales them with tales of her lost love, fallen in Flanders. However, her controversial teaching style draws the ire of the school’s headmistress, Miss Mackey (Celia Johnson), and, as Miss Brodie becomes entangled in a love triangle with art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, who was married to Smith at the time), her behavior towards her favourite students including the lovely but treacherous Sandy (Pamela Franklin) becomes increasingly manipulative…  That’ll teach you to look at an artist like that. An interpretation of the stage version of Muriel Spark’s novel, this is a straightened-out story jettisoning some of the religious references and making composites of some characters to render the narrative easier to follow. At its heart is a barnstorming, beguiling performance by Smith as the charismatic leader of ‘gels’ hoist by her own sexual petard. Spark’s novels are cunning constructions that seem linear and obvious – until you realise the trick that has been played.  Miss Brodie truly makes people in her own image until she realises too, too late that she was never in control of a simulacrum with bad intentions. Is she being saved from herself? Are the girls being saved from her? The very conventionality of the setting juxtaposed with the fascistic politics has its own dynamic power. It’s witty, ferocious stuff, with a great cast acting their socks off in a brilliant tragicomedy.  This is a masterful technical production that is powered by emotional devastation. Written by Jay Presson Allen and directed by Ronald Neame.  Remember you are a child very far from your prime

The Goose Steps Out (1942)

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O for Otto! Bumbling teacher William Potts (Will Hay) turns out to be the double of German General Muller, who the British have just captured. He is flown into Germany to impersonate the general and causes chaos and hilarity in a Hitler Youth college where the students are being trained to spy in Britain … Written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, based on an idea by Bernard Miles and Reg Groves, this is a souped-up Hay outing, co-directed by the star with Basil Dearden, who would of course become a filmmaker of note. (They had previously made The Black Sheep of Whitehall). Parlaying the usual array of schoolboy types and jokes in this espionage caper, Anne Firth makes for a comely Lena, the woman who would if Potts could, Peter Ustinov (in his debut) is a standout as Krauss  and Charles Hawtrey is Max, the boy who figures out precisely what is in their midst and does his best to help Potts make his escape. Diverting, funny, and well-staged, the action blends briskly with the comedy and concludes with a terrific finale in which Potts almost Blitzes London (again). There’s a funny scene involving English pronunciation – Leicester/Worcester/Bicester/Gloucester (helpfully written on a blackboard). If that sounds too complicated, just laugh at Hay giving Hitler’s portrait two fingers. Repeatedly. He does! Jingo all the way.  It’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Goebbels

Frieda (1947)

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You can’t treat a human being as less then human without becoming less than human yourself. RAF pilot Robert Dawson (David Farrar) returns home to Middle England from World War II with his new bride, Frieda Mansfeld (Mai Zetterling), the German nurse who helped him escape from a prisoner-of-war camp and whom he has married in Germany during an air raid. Because she is Catholic and they married in a Protestant church they are to marry in his village. In the meantime, Frieda has to deal with the  bigotry of people, including Robert’s family, and his aunt Nell (Flora Robson) whose political career is threatened and who is forced to denounce her future sister-in-law on the hustings. His late brother Alan’s wife Judy (Glynis Johns) is conflicted over her feelings for Robert.  Robert gives up his teaching job when boys drop out of school because of their families’ objections to his associating with the enemy. Six months later and just when the small town’s prejudice against her begins to subside and she agrees to marry Robert in a local Catholic church, Frieda’s brother Richard (Albert Lieven), a closet Nazi sympathiser, arrives for a visit, causing even Robert’s faith in his wife to be tested and leading to a standoff in a local pub when a victim from the camps recognises his tormentor and declares he wouldn’t forget the man who scarred his face in a thousand years.  Robert takes Richard’s word over Frieda’s …  The Germans look so ordinary we forget they’re not like the rest of us. Vividly written, performed and directed (by Basil Dearden), this is an enervating treatise from the house of Ealing on post-war Britain and attitudes to Germans, Germany and Nazism. With the piquant presence of Farrar, whose hyper-masculinity is well used (as it was by Powell and Pressburger) even if the film doesn’t fulfill the role’s promise, this is balanced by the sorrowful acting of a luminous Zetterling and the pivotal role played by Robson, who is not delighted to be proven correct in her suspicions, just gravely pleased that the British are so accepting of foreigners but aware of the price they must pay as a result. She is the force field about whom this revolves. The eloquent screenplay is written by Angus MacPhail and Ronald Millar. Scored by John Greenwood.  Then it does not matter what I am myself. I am German. That is all that counts 

The Damned (1969)

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Aka Caduti degli dei or Götterdämmerung. It does no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save your soul. Wealthy industrialist family the Essenbecks have begun to do business with the Nazi Party.  The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag fire and the anti-Nazi vice president of the company Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) is framed. His wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) and their children are taken by the Gestapo. The family’s empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Waiting in the wings are his son Günther (Renaud Verley) a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger), an amoral deviant playboy who molests his young cousin as well as a Jewish  girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a fallen WW1 hero. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control … This is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking. The dissipation of a wealthy German dynasty becomes an arc for the destruction of Germany and the rise of Nazism:  offset by a backdrop of decadence and perversion, Visconti’s operatic portrait of society gone rotten makes him the principal chronicler of that history in an Italian-German co-production. The cast is stunningly gorgeous – just look at Rampling! – enveloped in the exquisitely accessorised sets. The startling cinematic arrival of the equally lovely Herr Berger (who was seen briefly as a waiter in Visconti’s segment of Le streghe) in full drag as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is not to be quickly forgotten;  nor his incestuous sex scene with his mother. He embodies the narcissistic amorality at the core of the work which despite its luxuriousness is a critique of bourgeois collaborators standing by while their country is jackbooted. It is an explicitly Freudian work and transformed Bogarde into a European star. Written by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, this is the first of what is known as the director’s German trilogy, comprising Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively a subjective account of that country’s terrible history told in devastating, beautiful imagery. Hugely successful and influential in its day, despite the horrors, you will gasp and swoon in equal measure at the shocking sumptuousness. Nazism, Gunther, is our creation. It was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

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

 

 

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.

I am a Camera (1955)

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I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  In the 1950s the writer Christopher Isherwood visits his London club and discovers that he has arrived in the middle of a book launch by a woman called Sally Bowles and regales his friends with stories of their life together just before the Nazis ascend to power in 1930s Berlin. Chris (Laurence Harvey), an aspiring novelist from England and ‘confirmed bachelor’ meets vivacious cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) at a nightclub where she’s performing her act and an unusual friendship is born. She moves into his boarding house and their lives become inextricably intertwined as he struggles to write and she tries to make her way with men, a ‘future would-be film star’ as she tells the landlady (Lea Seidl). As Sally feeds her extravagant tastes, Chris goes along for the ride and they are financed by American Clive Mortimer (Ron Randell) until their pal, Fritz (Anton Diffring), encounters trouble after ingratiating himself with Natalia Landauer (Shelley Winters) the daughter of a wealthy department store owner and confesses he himself has been concealing his Judaism. Meanwhile the Nazis bully people on the streets prior to a popular election result … Adapted from the play by John Van Druten, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, part of the memoirs of writer Christopher Isherwood, this story also served as the inspiration for the later acclaimed musical Cabaret which Bob Fosse turned into a garish and extraordinary fascist-baiting extravaganza. This adaptation by John Collier of Van Druten’s play is of an altogether more modest variety but is entertaining for all that – the charming Harvey (I’m prejudiced, I love him) and the winsomely over the top Harris are wonderful together in their drab bedsits as they try to make their lives fit their pretensions. The treatment got a lot of criticism at the time and you might even be vaguely shocked by what Sally does in the aftermath of her abortion which is characterised as a false pregnancy here. It still ran into censorship problems because there are no moral lessons. Isherwood himself didn’t like it at all and believed Harris to have been ‘mis-directed’ (she had won the Tony for the role on Broadway) but it was his life of course so he could say what he liked. (Me no Leica.) Watch for Patrick McGoohan as a Swedish Water Therapist! Directed by Henry Cornelius.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

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There are times when I think what a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. In 1930s England James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) serves as butler to the doltish Lord Darlington (James Fox). Stevens is so dedicated that he forgoes visiting his father (Peter Vaughan) on his deathbed in order to serve a bunch of blackshirts dinner. He overlooks Darlington’s Nazi sympathies and growing anti-Semitism even dispensing with the service of two young Jewish refugees who he knows will be returned to Germany. Twenty years after the disgraced Darlington’s death and in the wake of the Suez Crisis Stevens tries to make contact once again with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), Darlington’s head housekeeper who married their former colleague Benn (the late and lamented Tim Pigott-Smith). He travels to see her in the West Country and in the course of his trip begins to regret his blind loyalty and servitude to his former master who pursued a libel case to the detriment of his reputation and whose American critic Congressman Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) now owns Darlington Hall. Stevens now works for him and his life is utterly unfulfilled. He must make up for lost time. The Merchant Ivory team regroup with their Howards End stars and the amazing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize winning novel ponders class relations, political naivete and the lack of wisdom in relationships at every conceivable level. A friend of mine commented caustically on it at the time of its release, The fireplaces are wonderful. And it’s true, they are, but that is much too reductive of a project which  cannot translate the more subtle nuances of the novel instead transmitting through performance on a sometimes barely perceptible register of glances or a slight movement what mere writing cannot – the affect of loss and its immense impact on the totality of a life. Hopkins has one of the most difficult roles of his career – the stubborn butler who simply cannot accept the limitations of his boss or his father’s revelation. His refusal to admit emotionality is devastating. His humiliation at the pleasure of his lordship’s house guests makes you squirm on his behalf. Thompson is heartbreaking as the woman who loves him but hurts him rather than tell him directly. Their final leavetaking is horrifying in its simplicity and tragedy. There are two other exquisite scenes and they both predominantly feature fingers:  when Stevens finds his father collapsed and must wrench his fingers from a trolley after the old man has had a stroke;  and when Miss Kenton prises with great difficulty a novel from his own hand to declare rather disbelievingly that it is only a sentimental romance. The fear of embarrassment is all over this epic tale of a country’s honour in microcosm. It is an achievement that seems much larger in retrospect than a quarter of a century ago. A stylish, intelligent, immensely moving drama.

Evita (1996)

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Statesmanship is more than entertaining peasants. 1952 Buenos Aires: a film in a cinema is stopped by the newsflash that Eva Peron (Madonna) is dead. Flashback to years earlier: a little girl running into a church and placing flowers on the body of the man who was her father before she is hustled out. 1930s:  Eva Duarte is sleeping with a tango singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) before making her name as a radio actress and then befriending a powerful man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) at a fundraiser following an earthquake. She becomes his mistress and encourages and hustles for him as he parlays his way to power, using her broadcasting nous to raise support for him during his imprisonment by political rivals who fear his rise. Throughout this larger than life musical drama (entirely sung through) Che Guevara (Antonio Banderas) is the shapeshifting commentator on the sidelines, positioning us in the narrative, until the final – unthinkable – departure of Evita. This is a robust, admirable adaptation by director Alan Parker and Oliver Stone of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice behemoth that bestrode theatre in the 1970s after its introduction as a concept album – a musical drama that deconstructs the life of the Argentine bastard who became an actress and whore before marrying the dissolute Peron and utilising her powers of demagoguery to help him and his Nazi thugs to Government. All of this is contextualised under the guise of sympathy for the impoverished masses of which she believed she was one because she was the illegitimate offspring of a married middle class man.  The story problem here is the persona of Evita herself – she’s a narcissistic exhibitionist whose principal passion is herself and this presents the issue of empathy for the viewing experience. It’s an epic political pageant but it’s politics as psychodrama:  you can admire the scale but it’s a mirthless spectacle about horrendous people. Madonna does an excellent job with the songs but her limited technical acting abilities aren’t helped by the parameters of the role itself, which is primarily declarative in function. The first opportunity she really gets to properly emote is on her deathbed: everything else is essentially a con job of presentation, inherent to the character herself. Banderas and Pryce are commentators and therefore essential to the interacting of the personal with the political on a broad canvas shot in muted amber tones which is admittedly captivating and occasionally jaw-dropping in ambition. There are some wonderful visual flourishes and pastiche references to classical filmmaking (Parker even makes a cameo appearance). At its heart this is a vengeful journey into fascistic madness framed by two funerals.  It’s certainly interesting to see this again (in any form) in the week in which the Perons’ successors are finally sentencing the pilots who carried out the murders of tens of thousands of dissidents by dropping them in the shark-infested Atlantic 40 years ago rather than wasting time torturing them – so many people had already invested their energies doing that and it was obviously tiring them out. Can you imagine what these toxic avengers would have done if they’d been allowed on the Falklands? Oh what a circus, oh what a show.