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La vita è bella (1997)
Nauseating Holocaust Farce
I usually don't take time to make reviews about movies I don't like. But this one managed to infuriate me in such a way that for once, I feel I have to make an exception. Now I don't reject as a principle the idea of a comedy about the Holocaust, but mind you, it is a very sensitive subject, so you have to be really talented in order to afford carrying out such a project.
I admit the first part of this flick does get some laughs, but not much more so than some easy entertaining comedy that you watch to relax after a long working day. That's not exactly what you call big art. It would be OK if the movie tried to be a parody of a Fellini movie for example. Roberto Benigni is certainly a gifted slapstick actor, but hardly more profound than Jerry Lewis or Louis de Funès. Actually, if I want to laugh my head out, I'd rather watch Mister Bean instead.
But sorry, I don't think Benigni can compare to Chaplin, and if you compare this film with "The Great Dictator", sorry again, it falls short. First, "The Great Dictator" was shot in 1940, and as such, it was obviously much more of a dare and of a statement to make a caricature of Hitler while he was still alive. Secondly, Chaplin knew about Yiddish culture, and the portrayal he made of the Jewish quarter for instance, as a parody, had at least some connection to reality. It is pretty obvious, on the other hand, that Mr Benigni doesn't know much about the subject he is dealing with, and did not care to document himself about it. By the way, Guido Orefice does not sound very Jewish, but it could be translated from Italian as "Guy Butthole". No, I'm serious.
What is obnoxious from the start is that Benigni seems to be quite self indulgent, naturally convinced that as an accomplished Italian buffoon, he is totally irresistible. He makes a caricatured court to his wife in real life, and it seems to take a few poor jokes and calling her "My Princess" so that she falls into his arms. The point of Mr Benigni seems to be more or less that : I am so funny, I am so genial, that I can take the most horrible and the most taboo subject I can find, and it will infallibly become as funny and genial as I am myself. That's as narcissistic as can be. When does Mr Benigni plan to make a comedy about pedophilia?
Now, the second part is really hard to take. The concentration camp looks like some severe prison in Switzerland. There were actually no children in concentration camp barracks because they were GASSED right away, and I wonder how long our irresistible Mr Benigni would have lasted in Auschwitz. Probably the Nazis would have thought he was so funny and genial that they would have him perform his laughable tricks while somebody was hanged...
Besides, I think lying to children in order to make them believe that life is a bed of roses is a very dubious philosophy. Children are not as stupid as one would like to think, and they generally feel when they're lied to. Transposed into a political context, lying to people in order to make them believe that "life is beautiful" has already been done many times.
Thanks to Mr Berlusconi who started his career by creating a trash-TV empire, the Italian cinema which used to be one of the most productive in the world collapsed in a mere few years. Here is what remains of it. Bravissimo.
The final "happy ending", with the kid laughing his head out while he is riding on an American tank with a white star made me so angry I wanted to punch my TV! I don't remember having ever experienced such a feeling before.
For those interested in Holocaust comedies, if you can get hold on that, check out "Train de vie". It is not the greatest movie, but since Jewish people took part in it, it is already much funnier, much more realistic, and much more respectful. As a long time movie lover, I am genuinely appalled beyond words by the success and recognition Benigni's despicable flick managed to achieve.
I don't even want to give this movie a rating.
Romanticism originally doesn't mean romance. The 19th century romantic hero was always a doomed one. The romantic characters long for something larger than life. The frailness, lightness of things is unbearable to those sensitive beings. This is why romantic stories typically end with the death of their heroes. Romanticism is the opposite of Hollywood, as there is no happy end. The epitome of a romantic story is for example "Romeo and Juliet", where death is preferred to an impossible love story.
Because such intense feelings are a threat, some people try to escape them by taking nothing seriously. For example, Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis), a young surgeon living in Prague in the late sixties. He is a perfect womanizer, but he never sleeps together with any woman, because he instinctively refuses any attachment. Such is also sensuous Sabina (Lena Olin), his favorite mistress and best friend, whose utmost erotic weapon happens to be... a bowler hat.
When Tomas is called for an operation at a small country spa, he seduces a young ingenuous waitress named Tereza (Juliette Binoche), but is not aware that she does not take things as lightly as he does. Bored to death with her provincial life, Tereza longs for something larger than life. She is vulnerable, sentimental, attaching. When she shows up by surprise at Tomas's apartment in Prague one evening, he lets her stay. He is trapped.
Neither of them suspects that they are living an intense moment in a crucial place. This is Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Eastern Block. But the winds of change are blowing in general enthusiasm, and Czechs believe that they are about to create " socialism with a human face". Encouraged by Sabina, Tereza becomes a photographer, and captures on film all the small daily life scenes, the beauty and uniqueness of every moment.
Tereza's caring love can't stop Tomas having affairs with "other women", much to her disarray. As she finally can't take it anymore, she decides to leave. But as she steps out on the dark streets, it sounds like an earthquake is coming. The Soviet tanks are entering the city. The reconstitution of Prague's invasion in this movie is extraordinarily intense, even more so as clips of the real events are included in the footage. Those few moments alone are strong enough to make this long movie worth seeing.
Tomas, Tereza and Sabina exile themselves to Geneva. Sabina has an affair with a married Swiss man, who "doesn't like bowler hats". As he eventually decides to leave his wife for her, she is very shaken, but she disappears. No attachment. It's lonely to be free. As for Tomas, Switzerland can't stop him either playing Casanova. Tereza still can't stand it, and she suddenly goes back to "the land of the weak". But I said it, Tomas is trapped. He can't live without her. He can't help following her back to Prague, although it's clear there is no future for them there anymore.
The story is an adaptation of a novel by much praised Czech novelist Milan Kundera, and it is one of those cases when the movie is more intense than the book. Whereas the movie is highly emotional, the book's tone is dry, cold, almost clinical.
Made by American director Philip Kaufman, this picture is European in every way. It captures perfectly well the "old world" nostalgic atmosphere of Czechoslovakia. The music score by Czech classical composers is gripping, sometimes melancholic, sometimes frantic. The lead actors are giving their all, and this film is certainly among their best performances for all three. The supporting cast also has some big European names in it (Erland Josephson, Daniel Olbrychski, Stellan Skarsgård). Cheerful performance by Czech actor Pavel Landovsky, who personally lived the Prague events. Here, he appears as a jolly and solid peasant with a pet pig called Mephisto, who follows him just everywhere, even at wedding parties!
Tomas and Tereza's pet is a she-dog called Karenin. She is the symbol of their love. They adopt her at the beginning of their relationship, take her together to Geneva, but as she escapes, Tereza takes her along back to Prague. As Karenin gets ill in the end, they make her a lethal injection so that she doesn't suffer. Pretty much what will happen to them too.
And well, I never knew bowler hats could be so erotic!
Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972)
A journey into chaos
One of the film's highlights is the superb intro. We see a cloudy landscape of the Andes, as we hear a haunting heavenly choir singing. As the camera moves, we distinguish small dots climbing down the mountain, like little ants, but as we get even closer, we figure out they are actually human beings, most of them Inca Indians. This emphasizes one of the movie's central themes : the smallness of man confronted to immensity and wilderness of nature.
Among the Indians, we see also a few Europeans dressed in 16th century costumes. These are Spaniards on their way for the conquest of the new world. A gentleman holds the hand of a noble looking lady to help her in this vertiginous descent. Another blond girl is carried in a porter chair. A monk is also part of the journey. The story is based on the diary of that monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, and is therefore inspired by real facts.
The expedition was led by Pizzaro, the Conquistador of Peru, looking for El Dorado, the land of gold. As the troop arrives at the foot of the mountain, they enter an inextricable jungle and come to the shore of a wide muddy river. As they cannot go further, Pizarro appoints a part of the group to explore the river on rafts. The group will be lead by Don Pedro de Ursua (played by Brazilian director Ruy Guerra), and by Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). Ursua's wife, Aguirre's daughter and the monk will also embark on the journey.
From then on, the movie becomes a slow-paced drifting on an endless wild river. Not much is discovered, outside hostile cannibal Indians hiding in the rain forest. But the rapacious Aguirre plots with a few of his handymen to take Ursua's place at the head of this hopeless expedition. He takes advantage of the fact that the crew is getting all the time more hungry, desperate and afraid. He fools them with promises of endless wealth. He names a stupid fat gentleman king of El Dorado, but the "king" will be just a puppet into Aguirre's hands, as he is to die soon after his "coronation", possibly poisoned. After that, Aguirre can take total control.
Ursua is eliminated and his wife disappears into the woods. The monk, sole representative of the church, sides with Aguirre without a hesitation. As the journey turns into a disaster, Aguirre gets all the more megalomaniac. While his crew is slowly dying of thirst and starvation, the delirious adventurer sees himself as ruling on the biggest realm on earth, and plans to marry his own daughter to breed a new pure dynasty. Poisonous arrows are shot from the forest, decimating the few survivors, among them Aguirre's daughter who dies in his arms. Aguirre's realm is but an endless wasteland of water and trees, and his only subjects left are squirms of little green monkeys which invade the rafts like rats, but the mad conqueror has already lost touch with reality.
This movie was directed by a German director, Werner Herzog, and it is possibly an allusion to Hitler's taking of power. Aguirre's thirst for conquest has no limits, even if he knows down inside that he is taking his crew on a journey towards chaos, where not even he has any chance to survive. Hist last words are "I am Aguirre, the wrath of God, who else is with me?" German actor Klaus Kinski, who starred in an incredible amount of B-grade flicks, was offered here a golden role, and achieves a brilliant performance, probably his best one ever.
The shooting was visibly achieved in very difficult conditions. First, it was done in natural locations in the Amazon basin, which really means in the middle of wilderness. Secondly, the cast was made up of different nationalities, Germans and South Americans. Last but not least, Klaus Kinski was known as a very difficult actor to manage, and he had a very hostile relationship to director Werner Herzog, who used to call him "my best enemy".
This journey to chaos helps us remind man's insignificance in front of overpowering nature. The feeling of helplessness will lead most to fear and subservience, while a few will deny fear by sinking into megalomania. Because they believe to be invincible, they are believed to be so by the fearful others, and it is often too late when one realizes their madness.
"Aguirre" was made in the early seventies, a time when the Western world, which had regarded itself as the epitome of civilization, was more and more questioned in its self-delusions. The Europeans had initially presented themselves as the ambassadors of God's word to barbaric Indians but they had come to plunder, enslave and destroy. Their real motive was endless greed. Even if we have got used, since then, to hear that type of message, it still remains quite actual nowadays.
Parallels come to my mind between Aguirre and three other movies : "Deliverance", released the same year, also tells about a journey on a wild river with hostile natives in the backwoods; "Fitzcarraldo", filmed a decade later, was a sort of 20th century version of Aguirre also directed by Werner Herzog, and also played by Klaus Kinski; finally, the recent "Downfall" focuses on Hitler's own denial of reality as his country collapses.
Cría cuervos (1976)
When Franco died
Theme song "Porque te vas" was a huge hit in Europe in 1976, and appealed even to people who didn't understand a word of Spanish. Actually, many people went to see this movie because of the song. As a film, I found it rather austere, and difficult to understand if you are not familiar with Spain's recent history, so I am amazed by the generally good reaction of the public to it.
1976 was the year after Franco died, ending a 40-year period of civil war and dictatorship, which makes "Cria Cuervos" a historical marker in Spanish cinema. Actually, Spanish cinema had until that date been rather poor, very far surpassed by the Italian one, but this situation has lastingly reversed since that date. In 1976, the political future of Spain was still unclear, and this is maybe why Saura remains so allusive.
Action is taking place in the early seventies when Franco was still around. It is centered around 10 year old girl Ana, the second of three daughters. Her father is is a military, which is no innocuous detail in the context of the Franco regime. Her mother is dead, but keeps appearing to her as a ghost, and talks to her, while Ana remains silent. What is going on is a bit unclear, because, very much like in Bunuel movies, reality and dream are hard to tell apart. We don't know if Ana poisons her father, who has affairs with mistresses, but what is certain is that she imagines that, and that he dies too. A symbol for Franco's death?
After their father's death, the girls are fostered by a rigid aunt, who tries to get their affection, but fails. Ana is a silent child, obsessed by death. She plays with poison, spends a lot of time playing with a doll in an empty swimming pool. She also talks to her mute grandmother in a wheel chair, and asks her at one point if she would like to die. As the grandma nods positively, Ana offers to help her dying but the grandma recoils. There is always a grandmother character in every film by Carlos Saura.
Like in many Saura movies, each character seems to incarnate an aspect of Spanish society. The father most likely represents the Franco regime, the mother would be the murdered Republic, the grandmother is probably a reminder of old Spain before the Civil War, and the children, Ana especially, seem to be the symbol of Spanish youth, uncertain about its place and future.
The title refers to a Spanish proverb : "Feed the ravens, and they will tear your eyes up". Does it mean that the Spanish dictatorship did not trust its own children? Possibly, why would there be a dictatorship otherwise?
The ending scene is powerful, as the girls go back to school after the holiday. We see a crowd of children in white blouses walking up the stairs of a high building towering over Madrid, while the theme song plays out loud "Because you are leaving". A vision of future? Looks like it. And who is leaving? Franco? Tempting guess, but the movie lets many questions unanswered.
Geraldine Chaplin, who plays Ana's mother, was by then the wife of Carlos Saura, and as she learned speaking perfect Spanish, she played in several of his movies. As for Ana Torrent, she was at the start of an important career, as she has remained a major actress in Spain as an adult.
Il portiere di notte (1974)
The Stockholm Syndrome
Many people have thought this was a loathsome one, and I can't blame them. When I saw this movie for the first time, it left a depressive and nauseating feeling. But I cannot agree that this is barely "nazi sexploitation" sleaze. In fact, "the Night Porter" is a perfect psychological study of masochism. And masochism is not cheap sleaze, it is a terrible addiction that even basically "normal" people can get trapped into, even though they know it will destroy them. Very much like drug addiction.
Besides, if you're into movies, it's pretty obvious right from the start that this is the work of real professionals. Director Liliana Cavani was not famous before she did this, but she certainly knew how to make a movie, and had learnt the best lessons from her more famous counterparts. As for the acting by the two main performers, Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, it is just top class, no more to say.
The movie starts on a bleak day in Vienna in the 1950's. It focuses right away on the character of Max (Dirk Bogarde), who works as a night porter at a fancy hotel. We soon find out that this ungrateful job is a hideout, as he is a former nazi. And the hotel is actually a secret meeting place for gatherings of former Nazis, who are well determined to let nobody track them down. One day,a group arrives at the hotel. Among them, a beautiful woman (Charlotte Rampling). Her deep blue gaze freezes as her eyes meet the night porter's. They have recognized each other. She was kept years before,as a young girl, at a concentration camp where the night porter was operating as an SS guard. It gets soon hinted at by flashbacks that they had a close relationship, which helped her survive physically, even if she was left mentally destroyed.
The woman, Lucia, is married to an orchestra director who tours in Vienna. He is just vaguely aware of her wife's past, and as she demands him to depart immediately, he convinces her to stay "for just a few days". Lucia is in fact desperately asking for help, but her bland husband doesn't understand. As for Max, he is both afraid to be reported, and at the same time irresistibly attracted. He attends the opera performance where Lucia's husband is playing, while she is in the public. They sit there in the dark, obsessed by each other's presence while "the Magic Flute" is playing, but none of them makes a single move. That's a chilling scene.
Lucia's husband is surprised as, when they are about to leave, she demands to stay "for just a few days". It is already too late. Lucia has lived through hell, then built a new life abroad and more or less forgotten. But it seems life doesn't taste anything for her anymore, just no more suffering that's all. With Max, she experienced a horrible but passionate love affair, and in the deep of her heart, she remained addicted to that atrocious intensity. She is like a former alcoholic who has quit for years but suddenly falls back.The rest of the story is predictable. Max and Lucia find each other again, and cannot part anymore,whatever it may lead them to. Actually, it can only lead them to death. Max's nazi colleagues spy on each other constantly, and soon find out about the affair. Both Max and Lucia become dangerous people who must be eliminated.
We learn more through flashbacks about the past relationship between Max and Lucia. The key scene of the movie takes place in a smoky and sinister officer's mess, where masked men are playing a gloomy tune on an accordion. Half naked Lucia wearing an SScap performs a song by Marlene Dietrich which says "If I were to wish for something, I would like to be just a little happy, because if I were too happy, I would long for suffering". Couldn't be more explicit. As she has finished her show, she joins Max at a table, and he has a present for her in a box. A horrible present. The severed head of a prisoner who kept bothering her. Lucia recoils incredulous as she opens the box, then looks in Max's eyes and sips in her glass of wine. What more extreme love present can a man make than killing for the woman he loves? This scene is almost unbearable, and it's precisely the film's essential five minutes.
So if you don't like this film, it sounds like a normal reaction. It's actually difficult to "like" it , but one can find it interesting and important. Especially those who have experienced sexual abuse by relatives, drug addiction or alcoholism, or people who are related or engaged to such people. That makes quite a few. When one is plunged into destruction, a solution is to take a liking for it. But it's an extreme solution, which gets you intoxicated for life, and may lead you to seek total destruction as an only way out.
The phenomenon described in the movie has been observed many times, even though it is difficult to understand or accept for an outsider. When people are abused and isolated for a long time, whether in prison or in their own family, it usual that they develop a bond with their abuser, as he or she becomes their main affective reference. This is commonly referred to as "the Stockholm syndrome".
Better you don't watch this if you're feeling down.
Horrific but captivating
This movie opens on a most impressive intro. Flames and smoke come up from a furnace, and as the titles jump on and off the screen, we hear a harrowing music theme by Maurice Jarre (the melody is close to Dr Zhivago's, but played with a frantic rhythm). The English/French title, "The Damned ", is far more appropriate than the Italian/German one which is "The Fall of the Gods". As the intro suggests, we are entering an inferno, and the characters we are going to see are the sort who will not hesitate sell out their soul to the devil in exchange of power and glory. "The Damned" is certainly a horrific movie, but as artfully made as can be.
Action takes place in the Ruhr industrial region of Germany, just after Hitler's rise to power. The aristocratic family von Essenbeck is the country's leading steelwork owner, a fictional equivalent of Krupps or Thyssens. Now, this movie is not trying to denounce the fact that big German industrials financed Hitler, but instead, it focuses on the internal struggle for power inside the family. Therefore,"The Damned" is not really a movie about nazism, even if it is often regarded as such. It a movie about power. Nazism is only used as an extreme context where the mechanisms of power are made more evident than anywhere else, because it is a system that openly legitimates the absolute domination of the strongest.
Baroness Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) is the daughter in law of an aging steel baron. Her husband is apparently dead during WW1, but he left her with a son, Martin (Helmut Berger) who is immediately presented as immature and perverse. Baroness Sophie has an official lover, Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), and both are acquainted with an influent member of the nazi party called Aschenbach (Helmut Griem). Sophie is a modern incarnation of Lady Macbeth. Her schemes are to take control of the Essenbeck steelworks by any means, determined to crush anyone who might stand in her way.
Sophie doesn't care for anybody. Her lover Friedrich is anything but an angel, but he appears as a weaker character whom she adroitly manipulates. She has an obvious contempt for her son Martin, which gets obvious right away, as she is seen laughing behind a curtain while he is performing a transvestite number at his grandfather's birthday party...The only one who seems to have her esteem is Aschenbach the nazi, who is just as devoid of scruples as she is.
The steel lady gets both her father-in-law and one of her brothers-in-law murdered, while her other brother-in-law is forced to exile, and her timid nephew to silence. Her son Martin becomes therefore the legitimate heir of the steelworks, but she only intends to use him as a puppet as she plans an official marriage with her lover Friedrich, through which she hopes to take control of the family's fortune. The wedding will take place, but not the way she expected...
The only enemy she did't think about (and does she think about enemies!) is her own son, whom everybody regards as incapable and degenerate. Indeed, Martin, by the way a pedophile, is not interested in power or money. But the blemished love of the boy for his mother has reverted into an infernal hate. Hate is going to be Martin's driving force to become the much unexpected winner of the game, as he is really capable of ANYTHING, even beyond what his merciless mother ever would have imagined.
Ingrid Thulin's performance is stunning, probably her best one ever, and though Helmut Berger tends to overact, you couldn't find a better choice for the satanic role of Martin. The evil figures appear much more intense than the few innocent ones, among them a barely recognizable Charlotte Rampling in one of her early appearances. The baroque lavishness of the scenery makes a striking contrast with the ghastly minds of the characters (hard to speak of heroes) and their equally ghastly deeds. The film makes you wonder if the the already renowned Luchino Visconti deliberately intended to shock by all means, since all his other movies, before and after this one, were by far tamer.
But indeed, in 1969, all ingredients were there to make it a perfect bomb. Two episodes of nazism are spectacularly rendered : first the public burning of books on the streets, then the Night of the Long Knives, which is depicted in a very long and shocking scene. A beer drinking party turns into a homosexual orgy, and eventually ends in a bloodbath. But even worse is still to come...
It can be established that "the Damned" was the first screenwork to deal with nazism so openly, and as such, it abruptly broke a long-lasting taboo. This film has been a trend-setter in many ways, and opened the path to a series of others that hinted to nazism as darkly erotic and fascinating, a trend that some called "nazi sexploitation of the seventies". True, the influence of "the Damned" can be traced in many vile under-products, but also in leading works such as "Cabaret" or "The Night Porter". A reaction to that trend came with the ensuing wave of holocaust movies, which made a point in reminding that nazism was above all sheerly destructive.
Director Bob Fosse hasn't achieved an immense degree of recognition, but his movies have a distinctive flavour. He seems to have an obsession with the world of music-hall, which is felt in other movies like "Sweet Charity" and "All that Jazz". In his other movies though, musical performances tend to steal the show almost entirely. "Cabaret" is an exception because it has an interesting background and storyline, and the music-hall performances are cleverly used here to illustrate and emphasize the plot. They play about the same role as the Chorus in ancient Greek play.
Of course, the depiction of Cabaret's "Kit Kat Club" deserves attention all by itself. It is not surprising that a cabaret buff such as Bob Fosse took interest in the Weimar Republic period in Germany, when "divine decadence " was the name of the game. Only Bob Fosse could recreate with such consumed application the grotesque sleaze of Berlin's lowlife during the rise of Nazism, a context which served as inspiration for expressionist painters, and for Brecht's "Threepenny Opera". During the credits, check out a woman in the public with short hair and glasses smoking a cigarette (something quite dodgy in 1931!). It is the exact reproduction of a famous painting by Otto Dix.
An outrageously grinning clown (Joel Grey) introduces every cabaret number. The girls appear in all possible contorted postures keeping deadpan faces. The Kit Kat club reminds of a roman arena, where the public is out for anything insane (even women fights in the mud...). To give an idea of what sort of den the club is, Michael York finds himself at one point standing next to a transvestite in a men's urinal...The cabaret performances get all the more provocative as the plot gets tense. The club is an essentially immoral place where anything is for sale, and it adapts shamelessly to the radical political changes coming up.
Liza Minelli's character is totally at home in such surroundings. Her persona is perfectly sketched in her song "Bye Bye Mein Herr". She is the incarnation of the vamp, both heartless and ingenuous, the sort of lethal woman who drives men crazy and then gives them up like toys. Indeed, a very typical stereotype of the interwar period, think of Marlene Dietrich in "the Blue Angel"...Minelli's performance onstage with garter belts and a bowler hat still looks elegantly naughty today.
Though, the real nature of her character is well studied as soon as she gets offstage. While Minelli can't help being extravagant all the time, she turns out to be a fragile woman neglected by her father, and in demand of constant and renewed attention. As predicted in her song, she proves basically unable to engage in any serious relationship, despite her involvement with Michael York ( "And though I used to care, I need the open air, you'd every cause to doubt me Mein Herr").
The script was based a story by British writer Christopher Isherwood, called "A Goodbye to Berlin", based on his own personal memories. He is allegedly the character played by Michael York. A serious upper class young man, he meets Liza Minelli out of blind chance, while looking for an apartment to share. She introduces him to all sorts of people, from riff-raff to aristocracy, including a gigolo, a Jewish heiress, and an ambiguous baron who dismisses them both after having "played" with the two of them.
Michael York's sober performance looks a bit pale as opposed to histrionic Liza Minelli, but of course, that was necessary in order to stress the essential difference between those two strangers. The movie ends as they part on a railway platform, but one can guess their experience together will have changed them both, as as far as he is concerned, was a definite coming of age.
One of the scenes, in the middle of the movie, is quite disturbing. At a countryside inn, a young S.A man sings a song called "Tomorrow belongs to me", which starts out nostalgic but gradually turns into an infectious Nazi march as the whole crowd joins him. This unexpected number seems to have embarrassed many viewers. If Nazism had presented itself as pure evil, would it have met any success? This daring scene makes evident that it was for many Germans of the time the symbol of positive values : beauty, tradition, order, pride, future. If you didn't know how things turned out, would you not have been tempted to sing along this powerful hymn to the fatherland as you watch this? Good question to ask oneself even, or especially, nowadays...
Fanny och Alexander (1982)
Bergman's ultimate best
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has a reputation for dark, intellectual and introspective dramas, which is only partly justified because many of his early movies were rather light-hearted. Here is the longest movie he did (three hours), and the theatrical version is only half of the original which was twice as long. But length should not stop you from watching this jewel of a film, which is both complex and accessible. After all, "Gone with the Wind" is just as long.
"Fanny and Alexander "isn't exactly a family movie, but it is a movie about family. Family seen in all its different facets through the eyes of two children. The film is divided into three very different parts, each of them showing a different aspect of family life. It is set in Uppsala, Sweden (Bergman's native city), at the turn of the twentieth century. The story begins on Christmas Eve, and we are plunged right away into a fairytale atmosphere.
Fanny and Alexander"s family seems a happy one, actually a family of theatre actors. During the Christmas Eve party held at the grandmother's heavily-furnished house, the atmosphere is joyful at first glance, especially for the children who obviously feel very much at home. But reality is not just what it seems. The children's father is seriously ill. One of the uncles is manic-depressive, and the other is a skirt-chaser who has an affair with the young maid while his wife shows a lot of comprehension. Even the grandmother keeps a secret affair with a Jewish banker (played by Erland Josephson, a Bergman regular) that has lasted for many years.
The children's world collapse as their father dies. Soon after, their still young and beautiful mother marries the bishop, whose name is Vergerus (that's the name of the villain in all Bergman's movies, don't ask me why). The atmosphere in the bishop's house could not be more different from the children's first home. It is bare, silent, freezing. Alexander and the bishop hate each other from the start. This hate culminates when the bishop flogs Alexander to punish him, during a suffocating scene. War is declared from then on. Although the children's mother is pregnant, she already regrets her second marriage and seeks help from her former family.
The grandma's Jewish friend, who is also sort of a magician, manages to kidnap the children by a clever stratagem. They are sheltered in his house, which is full of puppets and mysterious objects. There, a strange nephew of his lives in seclusion (the role is played by a woman). From then on, reality and fantasy get blurred, but what is certain is that the evil bishop meets a cruel fate, and the children's mother finally makes it back to her former home.
The film ends as it began, with a party. Two new babies are just born : the mother's baby she had from the wicked bishop, and the maid's baby with the luscious uncle. The two of them are accepted immediately as part of the family, which is a rather precocious sign of Scandinavian open-mindedness (in 1900, illegitimate children were generally rejected as bastards).
Despite the title, attention is focused much more on Alexander than on Fanny. She is there all the time but speaks little, while showing unconditional solidarity with her brother. A possible reason is that the movie seems to have strong autobiographical elements, more than any other Bergman, and if so, Alexander seems to incarnate Bergman himself as a child. Bergman's father happened to be a minister, and the director confessed that he was raised in a very oppressive manner. Thus, it is quite possible that Alexander's step family is a representation of Bergman's real family, while Alexander's real family is the family Bergman had dreamed of, unsurprisingly a family of actors.
This film also displays the most accomplished use that Bergman's renowned photographer Sven Nykvist ever made of color. He was a long time reluctant to color and kept shooting in black and white well into the sixties. Bergman's first color movies had nothing special, until "Cries and whispers" where an obsessive use of red started to appear. The color contrasts are very strong in "Fanny and Alexander", and are especially used to underline the difference between the grandmother's colorful home and the bishop's house which is mostly all black and white.
There are many characters in this story, and all the major adult roles are played by actors who are all very famous in Sweden. There is a special appearance by Harriet Andersson, who played the female lead in many Bergmans of the fifties, especially well remembered as the whimsical "Monika". Here, she is ungratefully cast as the bishop's elderly tormented servant who likes scaring the children with horror stories. As for the young maid, she is played Pernilla Wallgren, who married Danish director Bille August and became later famous as Pernilla August. She played the lead in "The best intentions" directed by Bille August but based on a script by Bergman, and also taking place in Uppsala at the turn of the twentieth century...
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Best french movie, highly recommended
"Goodbye children" is to director Louis Malle what "The Pianist" has been to Roman Polanski. These are movies that dealt with intimate matters related to painful childhood experiences, both taking place in occupied Europe during WW2. In both cases, it is palpable that they were movies that these directors had planned to make for a long time, but they waited until they had achieved a considerable degree of recognition at the end of their careers, so that they would feel self assured enough to carry their project out.
"Goodbye children" evolves around two essential guidelines : the first one is the historical background of France during WW2. The second one is about childhood friendship and loss.
There are quite a lot of movies that were set in France during WW2, but the matter of collaboration of the French with the Germans was still a sensitive subject in 1987. A decade before, Louis Malle had made a film called "Lacombe Lucien", portraying a young French peasant entering the Gestapo as a way of social promotion, and it caused quite a controversy. Things had quietened a bit though, when "Goodbye children" came out, and most of the people who had lived through the period as children seemed to be pleasantly reminded of childhood memories, as the boarding school and its characters appears to be a very good reflection of reality.
Ugly as it has been, collaboration was nothing else as a survival policy. In war time and or/dictatorship, people rarely afford to have moral dilemmas, and this is well shown in the movie as a thriving black market goes on among children at the boarding school. The character of Joseph, an illiterate limping cook, is the one who gets blamed when the black market scandal breaks out, and loses his job. He is also the one who is going to sell out everybody, by revenge. He betrays because he feels betrayed. When one has seen "Lacombe Lucien", it impossible not to make a link between the two characters.
"Goodbye children" is also a very good study of the division among French people at the time. When an old Jewish man is arrested at the restaurant by the French "milice" (political police under the Vichy regime), there is as much applause as protest. What comes as a surprise is the positive role played by the church, impersonated here by Father Jean, who is in fact a resistant hiding Jewish children and holds provocative sermons during mass. There definitely existed such priests, and it is all the more surprising to get that portrayal from a left-wing director like Louis Malle.
The plot evolves around two very different young boys. One, Julien, comes from a typical French upper-class family, he is both gifted and spoiled. The other, Jean, is the typical Jewish boy, brilliant but secretive. Of course, no one among the college boys knows that Jewish kids are hiding there under false identities. Julien is at first both irritated and intrigued by this odd rival, but as they confront, they gradually become implicit allies. Their bonding is well illustrated by a few scenes, for example when they get lost together in the woods, or when they play piano during a bomb alert.
As it can be expected from twelve year old boys, they only scantly express an attachment which becomes all the more real. The very fact that a film about child friendship is done by a director who is past fifty is a revealer of its very importance in a whole lifetime. Julien only realizes the price of it when Jean is arrested by the Gestapo, and waves discreetly as he walks out the college door, never to be seen again. The final shot of Julien's disarrayed face, which appears chillingly mature for the first time, is a very powerful one. But well, Louis Malle was not an amateur.
"Goodbye children" is also a major film about loss, and it gets all the more effective in doing so that it ends abruptly, leaving you with a feeling of irreversibility. You never quite know how long you are going to know someone, how long you still will be there, you are rarely quite aware when you see someone for the last time. It is only when people are gone forever that you can realize how meaningful they were to you.
If you are studying French or interested in French culture, this is really a movie which, as a Frenchman myself, I would recommend because it is both excellent, accessible and representative. Unsurprisingly, it received several Cesars, including the one of the best film of the year (Cesars are our French equivalent of Oscars).
Utomlennye solntsem (1994)
A palpable feeling of Russian genius
"Burnt by the Sun" is a powerful example of what a genuinely Russian movie can be when it uses the good sides of western film-making : a coherent plot, professional camera work, and freedom of expression, all things that were rare for the cinema of Soviet times. Of course, it is not surprising that it was made by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the few Russian directors who achieved lasting world success during communism, and therefore he had the right contacts abroad to get a decent budget. Though, "Burnt by the Sun" is way better than Mikhalkov's pompous "Barber of Siberia", which was alloted more money than any other film in the history of Russian cinema.
In "Burnt by the Sun", Mikhalkov was able to give us a palpable feeling of the beauty and genius of Russia. The lighting is magnificent all the way through, and the ripe and wide wheat fields shine like gold. The action takes place in a cozy dacha among the birch trees, a house which seems to be the nest of a bunch of gentle and carefree eccentrics, all in an atmosphere that reminds pleasantly of Tchekov.
Yet, you can tell from the start that "Burnt by the Sun" is not going to be just a comedy, as the first scene opens on a man cutting his veins in a bathtub while the telephone is ringing. However, this first forewarning soon gets forgotten throughout most of the film, which keeps a warm, light-hearted, slightly nostalgic tone almost all the time. It is only towards the middle you realize that it starts looming slowly towards predictable tragedy, and this only gets obvious in the very last moments.
It turns out that the characters we see are all members of an old aristocratic family who were spared the horrors of the revolution because the younger daughter, Marusia, married a Red Army colonel, much older than she is. Thus, they keep on living as they ever did, playing cards, drinking tea from samovars, making private jokes in French. They even have a maid and a parrot. They seem totally oblivious of the reality around them. Except for innocent looking balloons with Stalin's face on them and a few parading pioneers, the communist regime is visible almost only through the presence of colonel Kotov, brilliantly played here by Nikita Mikhalkov himself.
Colonel Kotov impersonates a character very familiar to the Russian mentality : he is tall, strong, authoritarian, but at the same time protective, warm-hearted, charming and prone to jokes. He is about just as sympathetic as the gruff milkman with a heart of gold in "Fiddler on the Roof". Although he is a military, he is not the kind of guy you think as having blood on his hands. But of course Lenin and Stalin's aura over Russian people was also partly due to the fact that they represented strong and protective father figures.
The story takes a sudden turn with the arrival of an enigmatic character disguised as a Santa Claus in the middle of summer. He turns out to be known by everyone in the house, as he is the adoptive child of the late grandfather. In fact, he was Marusia's childhood companion, and her lover in the first place, but was evicted by Kotov, who protected henceforth the whole family from repression. It soon becomes clear that the man, called Mitya, has come to take revenge for his shattered life.
All performances here are good, even though Nikita Mikhalkov, as an actor, still manages to steal the show. But one will not either forget the performance of his then six-year old daughter Nadya , who also plays his daughter in the movie. A charming, energetic and witty child performance which impersonates the innocence of the family about to be lost.
The French title for the movie was "Deceitful Sun", and I find it more appropriate. Although the film bathes in quiet sunlight, it deals with one of the darkest eras of Russian/Soviet history : Stalinism. In the early 1930's, Stalin decided to eliminate much of the newly arisen communist elite whom he did not trust anymore, and hired former enemies of communism, or half-criminals, to eradicate his own official allies. Thus, colonel Kotov remains self-righteous and sure of himself almost until the end because he simply cannot believe that Stalin will not protect him.
Needless to say that "Burnt by the Sun" is one of the first Russian movies that deals so openly with the subject. A subject which still remains quite sensitive since millions of people had their lives shattered by those events. Unlike what happened for Nazism, it was not until the end of the communist regime that it was possible to discuss it openly, even though Stalin's deeds had already been condemned officially a long time before. Therefore, this superb drama is also the symbol of a historical breakthrough.