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Pastor Hall (1940)
Surprisingly ahead of its time
Pastor Hall is an excellent film, about a subject that really hasn't been covered all that much. Most films about the Nazis and what they did usually showcase the horrific slaughter and aftermath of Teutonic aggression. The audience may watch at a distance as the horrible German monsters either commit genocide or stand idly by and watch others do so. That's a nice comfortable perspective which leaves the viewer questioning how the people of an entire country could be so heartless, cruel and twisted. What's wrong with the Germans? Why aren't they good and kind like us? This movie (perhaps unwittingly) answers those questions somewhat. It gives us a very different perspective, as we are invited to see average, work-a-day German people encountering the rise of totalitarianism, one step at a time, one bullying at a time, one disappearance at a time, and one murder at a time, close to the beginning of the rise of the Nazis. I was a little shocked that a movie from 1939/40 would cover such topics as sexual intimidation and teen pregnancy. Even abortion is alluded to as a longed-for option denied by the regime. I'm sure the film buffs will pull out a list of other films of this period that also mention these things, but I wonder if other films have handled these subjects with as much sensitivity and strength as is shown here. Absolutely top notch acting from all concerned. Marius Goring is great as always, showing us a storm-trooper leader that seems at first to be an awkward, stiff young man embarrassing himself in front of a girl, then later appearing as a cunning, cold, lecherous pig manipulating for her submission (and everyone else's) and ending up revealing a somewhat cowardly, almost comically ineffectual dupe. Wilfrid Lawson is truly amazing as the title character. Why isn't he more well known? The scene where he denounces Hitler is one of the most memorable on film. More people should have the chance to see this movie, just for that scene. All that being said, Bernard Miles would have stolen this film had he been given more lines. He's really the "every-Nazi" in this thing, starting out as a man just thrilled to have a job as a storm-trooper after being out of work in the terrible economy after WWI, like so many others. When we next see him, he looks like a man pondering where he went wrong, as he abuses the one man he respects above all others, because he wears the swastika and its his job. Later on, when he breaks at the cruelty he witnesses, he shows us a very human man in a Nazi uniform, crying and repenting and reforming. He does a lot with a paltry few lines. It's true that this film was made as propaganda, and to relate the interesting story of one very brave man's life. It ends up transcending that purpose, going far beyond Nazis and Jews and WWII, showing us the step by step process by which faith, morality, kindness, generosity and individuality are broken down by terror in the face of cruelty. The use of intimidation and physical violence to gain control is a tried and true method that can always be pulled out and used again, anywhere, at any time, and all of us are vulnerable to its effects. This film's lasting importance is that it reminds us that we could all have easily been wearing those swastikas, were we born in another time and place, and that we must pay attention to what is going on around us, and fight injustice and tyranny whenever we spot it.
Great acting and relationships save yet another flawed film...
I enjoyed this little, quiet movie enough to watch it twice in a row, despite the bad quality of the print I was watching. Claude Rains is heartbreaking as an obedient, flawlessly accurate little bookkeeper so devoted to his boss (Herbert Lom)that he is blind to the fact that he's an adulterer and a thief that has ransacked the companies funds, and is planning to declare bankruptcy and run away with his little floozy (Marta Toren). Of course, Lom is not too clever about what he's doing, and Inspector Lucas (Marius Goring) is already sniffing around long before Rains does anything or knows anything. The story is modestly interesting, although there are some bits and pieces that are a little hard to swallow. The real value of the film is in the characterizations. Rains is convincing as a man repressing his impulses and desires until everything he understands about life and his place in it comes apart, and he lets go of all control. I love the quiet conversations between Goring's detective and Rains trembling, stammering suspect, as they enjoy a game of chess. We believe the detective is genuinely concerned about the little bookkeeper, and knows that something important is breaking down in this essentially good man. Unfortunately, the telling climactic scenes were so dark that I almost had to guess what happened. This film needs to be restored. Somehow the director made it seem like the only people in Paris were Rains, Goring, and a handful of miscreants. Nice claustrophobic feel. Worth a look.