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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Peter van Eyck is one of the great actors of his generation. He can do
almost everything. He is on the same level like Peter Lorre or Marlon
Brando. But he is pretty unknown. This should change. Like the
similarly underrated (though internationally much more renowned) screen
presence of Herbert Lom, he commands automatic attention in every frame
he appears, every glance he makes is haunting, his screen presence
almost three-dimensional. Contrary to the previous year's masterpiece
by Alfred Vohrer "An Alibi for Death" (Austria, 1963 - coincidentally
scripted by the same screenwriter), he is truly the star in this film,
and he doesn't portray a villain, but a remarkable hero, a kind of
Zen-like figure, Eastwood's Man with No Name paired with Rossellini's
St. Francis - though he'll get killed in the end because people believe
he's a wolf in sheep's clothing.
This film is about war. Truly about war, in a manner Terrence Malick would depict in The Thin Red Line or Bertrand Tavernier would study in Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct, 2002). Not about fighting, but about living. What it means to live during war as a human being. It is profound, transcendental, hopeful, nihilistic, whatever you want it to be. But more importantly the film feels in the context of German post-war cinema simply like a revelation. Jugert, who was a long time assistant director of German master Helmut Käutner, is today primarily known for his debut "Film Without Title" (1947) and not much else. And though Kennwort... Reiher did win some German film awards after its release (unbelievable but true: a deserved win for best film of the year) it has seldom been shown on TV in recent times, and as far as I know cannot be obtained on home video. I was lucky to catch it on TV by chance. What is so outstanding about this film, is that a German filmmaker considered of the past in 1964 (Jugert could have started directing films in the late 30s/early 40s), during a time of great crisis in the German film industry (that some would say had already collapsed) made a film that feels modern and honest, and is a unique hybrid of genre formula and modernist(ic) tendencies. In a way, the film recalls Miklos Jancso's portrait of Hungarian society in "Cantata" (1963) and the ending (and the last shot) is truly mind-boggling. But before that, a lot of the film could be a clichéd reactionary war-drama like the ones which were produced by the dozens during the 50s.
Scriptwriter Herbert Reinecker was the main scriptwriting force in German postwar cinema and postwar TV (over 100 cinema scripts and over three times as many scripts for TV movies/series, e.g. the complete 281 episodes of "Derrick" (which ran from 1974 till 1998)), as well as an infamous old conservative, who continued many reactionary and controversial tendencies that were already on display in his work during the Nari rule (e.g. "The Star of Africa" (1957)), but was nevertheless also responsible for the scripts of some daring and innovative German-language films (e.g. "Angels with Burnt Wings" (Zbynek Brynych, 1970) or the film I'm writing about here). A commercial force but also an undeniable talent. No matter Reinecker's political agenda, Jugert makes the film something completely his own. The mostly naturalistic photography is contrasted with bursts of abstract Eisensteinian close-ups in rapid editing, or the intrusion of subversive Bunuelian moments à la "The Young One" (1960).
A further standout is the character depicted by Marie Versini, an actress who is today (at least In German cinema) usually associated with commercial "trash"-fare, but who in this film plays a sensitive and beautiful intellectual that implicitly displays the hopes of a new generation which might be able to build a different society after the war, and becomes a potential love interest for van Eyck's lyrical character. The way the camera shapes and utilizes her face and body language is totally Antonioniesque and in the vein of the French New Wave (think for example Anna Karina crossed with Jeanne Moreau) and brings an at that time completely atypical lyricism to German cinema, that I for one haven't encountered yet in the films of that period (though maybe Wolfgnag Staudte could be credited as an influence, if one looks at films like "Escape from Sahara" (1957) and "The Fair" (1960)).
Whatever Jugert and his crew had in mind, this film is truly unique, and must be experienced to be believed. It's light hand and sensitive touch clearly point into the future, to people like Dominik Graf, or the (New) Berlin School and the observational sensibilities of someone like Angela Schanelec. I was always eager to see something by Jugert, but would have never expected THIS! Maybe it was an introduction to one of the rather invisible and more or less forgotten masters of cinema, as Jugert's could potentially be a rich and diverse oeuvre. He has been compared to Max Ophüls by some, because of his long and similarly spaced camera movements. I can't yet confirm if this is an apt comparison and these kinship patterns really fit. But after watching Kennwort... Reiher, I definitely get the idea.
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