The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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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

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!

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

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

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Aka SarabandNo one’s safe in love. In the 18th century, Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) is forced into marriage with Prince George Louis (Peter Bull), an aristocrat destined to inherit the British crown as George I. But when he becomes king, Sophie meets suave Swedish mercenary Count Philip Konigsmark (Stewart Granger) with whom she falls in love.  They decide to flee England together, abandoning her horrific marriage. Their scheme is discovered  however and the lovers must figure out a way to escape while Philip’s previous lover Countess Platen (Flora Robson) plots revenge … My sisters have been liberal with their favours in half the courts of Europe.  Doomed romance! Beautiful costumes! Colour cinematography! John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick’s adaptation of Helen Simpson’s melodramatic novel about the Hanoverian claim to the British throne hit the ground running for Ealing with the man chat show host Michael Parkinson described as resembling a Maltese pimp setting hearts and more aflutter. Greenwood’s husky voice alone is worth the price of admission. This lavish post-war tale was just what the doctor ordered with the exigencies and privations the nation was suffering in the aftermath of combat. Françoise Rosay makes a wonderfully superior Electress Sophia while Anthony Quayle and Michael Gough line up among the ensemble and the score by Alan Rawsthorne is just swoonsome. Fabulously entertaining, overblown saucy fluff directed by Basil Dearden and produced by Michael Balcon and Michael Relph.  I hear she doesn’t want me for a husband. Well, I sympathise with her – I don’t want her for a wife

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