Reviews written by registered user
|25 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
First the good. It is good that digitalisation, CGI & straight to DVD
is making low budget film making more possible. This inevitably means
more films, some of poor quality. The writing & general production
values of this film are not at all bad. There has been a plethora of
poor WW2 films on the market lately. This is not one of them. This is
more war drama than war action film & any prospective viewer should
bear this in mind.
The film is informative about the strains, stresses & foibles of the young men sent to bomb Germany. Others have commented on the unlikelihood of a joint RAF/US daylight bombing raid. Night war action seldom excites on film. So perhaps we can afford the film maker some poetic licence. The main air action sequence is pretty good.
It is also good that young white South Africans should cast about for what to be proud of in their recent history, just like Germany's postwar generation has had to do. Both generations live under the shadow of twin evils - Nazism & Apartheid. Innumerable German films have dealt with the German opposition to Nazism. Now we have young white South Africans recounting the tale of young white South Africans fighting Nazism in WW2. The decision to use the SS rather than regular Wehrmacht underlines how evil Nazism was.
One could be cynical and say the anti-Nazi heroics of a few can hardly make up for the decades of injustice under Apartheid which followed victory in 1945. But that is not the point. We are talking about post-Nazi & post-Apartheid generations who bear no responsibility for the previous evils of their countries. It is good that a story like the one portrayed in this film can be seized upon by young South Africans, white & black, to show they have a common story of opposing racism & oppression - but in different times & different places.
Now the bad. The South African actors used in the film struggle with the British accent. The portrayal of the SS is too clichéd but does add a dramatic tension which is otherwise rather lacking. The British soldiers appear rather too spic & span for troops who have been fighting their way across France since D-Day.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Whether or not Goldthwait was influenced by Lindsay Anderson's 1968
film 'If', these two satires bear a striking resemblance.
Firstly, both are anti-Establishment. In the case of 'If', anti-British Establishment of public school, upper class officer caste, and Church of England as Conservative Party at Prayer (the CoE has changed a lot since 1968!). In the case of 'God Bless America', anti-Media Establishment which makes money by dumbing down & anti a wide scattering of Conservative America, including racists, homophobes, anti-Semites & the Religious Right. Trash Culture is the main target but this is slippery customer to pin down which is why the 'exploited retard' is gunned down at the end. Apparently, any desire for TV fame is fair game for Goldthwait.
Secondly, the main protagonists appear to be normal people who are driven to murder & mayhem by a profound sense of disgust at the values which are accepted as good by the majority. Cruelty in 'If' is encapsulated by the famous flogging scene & institutionalised bullying allowed by public school teachers as a way of controlling pupils. In 'God Bless America' we have media owners encouraging audience bullying of a retarded contestant. The protagonist, rightly, says this is on the same level as cruelties witnessed in the Coliseum. Heavy hints of American & Roman Empires in moral decline.
Thirdly, both films have surreal elements, probably to suggest that the violence & gore are a fantasy & nothing else.
Fourthly, both films end with a shoot out between the protagonists and the forces of Conservatism & Reaction. The violent end of 'If' seems a little out of place against the cloistered setting of an English public school & the only handle Anderson was able to use was the school's Cadet Corps which gave weapons training to its pupils. Goldthwait has no problem using America's love affair with the gun throughout 'God Bless America' & even uses one murder scene to throw in a quip about gun control politics. The gun dealer scene is very good indeed.
Fifthly, each film is a morality tale explaining Liberal dislikes of Conservative values, especially where these produce cruelty & injustice. Both are uneven in the writing. Anderson had a much narrower target in the British Establishment. Goldthwait has to take into account the wider complicity of the Great American Public in trash culture and, accordingly, a lot of ordinary people get wasted.
The idea of liberals using the gun to exact revenge is the thing that most jars with each film. Violence is the hallmark of the Right, antipathy to violence, that of the Left. Cinematically, shoot outs have much to recommend them. They end the films with a big emotional punctuation mark. Could better writing have produced better satires without the violence? Violence will attract more of the audience that Goldthwait is satirising but I doubt most of them would get it. Liberals like myself may be left feeling a little dissatisfied that he has to use banality in order to critique banality.
Action or words? At the end of the day, this is a matter of personal taste. There is a lot of fine writing in 'God Bless America'. For me, the best line in the film is, "Why have a civilisation any more if we are no longer interested in being civilised?" Films like this need to be made & fine writing alone is unlikely to sustain audience attention. However, it is a great pity that in order to critique the Right, the Left must indulge in the same narrative as the Right. Kindly people dishing out death doesn't really work.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Two and a half hours well spent if you know the history of the French
Wars of Religion. If not and you think the DVD cover promises a
battlefest then you may be disappointed. The one major battle scene is
short and adequate but war or how to end it - remains the background
theme to this film and occupies little of the screenplay. The film is
more about politics than war.
As such, it is pretty faithful to the events and characters involved. Charles IX was only 23 when he died but appears older. The protagonist Henry of Navarre, one of the few French kings regarded as 'good', had a reputation for lechery and the opening scene shows our hero embarking on his lascivious path at a very young age. It also establishes his persona as a down-to-earth lover of peasants enjoying the bucolic life in his small kingdom in SW France.
Standing between Henry and the French throne we have the last two Valois kings Charles IX and Henri III childless, weak and dominated by their mother Catherine de Medici who is depicted unsympathetically as scheming and unscrupulous. History dealt Catherine a bad hand. She gave her husband Henri II 10 children in 12 years. He then got himself killed in a joust and left her to run a country where religious civil war was about to break out.
Secure in her island fortress on the other side of the Channel, the childless Elizabeth I of England has been credited with preserving religious peace over the same period. Catherine's position was weaker. Effectively the ruler of France for 30 years, she desperately bought time for her sons to grow up. To complicate matters further, we have the powerful Catholic Guise family with their own ambitions for the French throne and the fact that Henry of Navarre is a Protestant in a land where the majority are still Catholic.
Grappling with the French Wars of Religion is difficult enough for any history student. Making a film about this topic demands a careful balance between detail and entertainment. The screenplay includes all the main characters and events and will mainly appeal to those with some background knowledge. More battles would not have explained the story.
To sum up, we have one battle, four political assassinations, a lot of rampant sex between the hero and various women, one dramatic escape, the famous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestants and the good King Henri IV dispensing religious toleration and material well-being to his subjects. To do all this in only 150 minutes is a remarkable achievement.
Inevitably, this film will be compared with the award-winning 'La Reine Margot' (1994). The Margot of 'Henri 4' is a much less sympathetic character. This film tells a different story and covers a longer time span. Of the two films, I think I prefer this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League (Lega Nord) and minister
in Berlusconi's coalition Government has a bit part in this film (I
failed to spot him). The film was sponsored by the Italian Cultural
Ministry. Nothing wrong with taxpayers' money subsidising cultural
projects beyond the reach of commercial reward. I applaud how French
local government sponsors recordings of obscure but delectable baroque
operas. Unfortunately 'Barbarossa' is more soap opera than great
This is a pity because it tells an important story. The film works best when it concentrates on the known history. Rutger Hauer makes a very good Barbarossa the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick 1st who oversaw the canonisation of his predecessor Charlemagne as part of his bid to recreate a Universal Empire. This warrior king is supported by his feisty second wife Beatrice (who bore him 12 children) and his cousin Henry the Lion who finally abandons him before his famous defeat at Legnano. There is some attention to historical detail his standard, Charlemagne's crown, the outbreak of plague in Rome, the destruction of Milan, Henry's refusal to help before Legnano.
Opposing Barbarossa's imperial ambitions we have the film's hero, one Alberto da Giussano, a mythical figure in the mould of Robin Hood and William Tell. Alberto is also an icon of the Lega Nord. He inspires the Lombard League of rival Northern cities to unite against Barbarossa with such cunning devices as - an unbreakable bundle of sticks!! The writers weave an unconvincing story around Alberto. There is a distracting romance with a 'seer-witch' whose sister is pursued by arch-villain and imperial-supporting Milanese 'traitor' F. Murray Abraham. The sub-plot of what happens to these fictitious characters does nothing for the film at all. It simply dumbs down and spoils the film's central theme, pace and dynamic. Alberto is one-dimensional and has little to recommend him. There is much plain silliness, cliché and banality.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in mixing fact and fiction in a feature film. Interweaving the lives of the mythical Alberto and the real Barbarossa is a useful device which personalises the political struggle. It is a pity that the quality of the very good opening scene is not sustained. The film degenerates into a flabby unfocused meander through some 20 years of history. Hildegard of Bingen prophesying Barbarossa's watery death is an unnecessary distraction which has nothing to do with the film's theme. It should be possible to make a much better 'pro- Lombardy' film than this one. Frederick bearing off the Magi Relics from Milan Cathedral to Germany (where they still reside) added insult to injury after he destroyed Milan. But this is omitted. Script and direction needed to be much tighter.
The battle scenes are mediocre when compared with recent medieval films. The portrayal of the climactic Battle of Legnano is inaccurate. A central role is assigned to scythe-wielding peasants in carts who wreak destruction among the imperial cavalry. The one Carroccio (cart) bearing the standard and crucifix of the rebels has been multiplied and transformed into a division of 12th Century tanks! This is a laughable end to a disappointing film. The battle was, in fact, decided by the late arrival of the Brescian cavalry.
Why these North Italian cities opposed Frederick is never clearly explained. We witness some tax-avoiding sword-smiths butcher imperial officers who catch them smuggling. A written demand from Frederick to Milan is ground underfoot with no explanation. Alberto and friends spend a lot of time crying 'Freedom!' Rivalries between and within cities are alluded to but the F. Murray Abraham character is left to shoulder the burden of the pro-imperial cause. This is shown simply as cowardly and self-serving.
All history is partial and I have no quarrel with an Italian film singing the virtues of the Lombard League. North Italian cities have made a great contribution to Western Civilisation. They were but one player in the forces arrayed against Barbarossa. These included Pope Alexander III, the Norman king of Sicily and innumerable German princes who had already drained power and wealth from the office of emperor which was fast becoming elective. None of these appear as protagonists in this film. This complex political struggle lasted centuries and sowed the seeds of future German and Italian disunity.
In this respect, at least, the film renders good service in highlighting an important piece of history. This long-lasting disunity eventually produced two manic nationalisms, wars of unification and unstable modern unities which quickly degenerated into the Fascism/Nazism whose shadow still hangs over us. So the obscure story told here is an important component of European history which raises the perennial issue of Centralism versus Localism.
Bossi and his Lega Nord wish to rally rich Northerners against corrupt Romans and Mafia-ridden Southerners. They would, no doubt, like to remind us that Barbarossa was able to establish a tight control over Central Italy and a marriage alliance with the Norman South. It seems that only sturdy Northerners can be trusted to maintain freedom from corruption, indolence and outside interference! Having defeated the great Barbarossa, the Lombard League's modern descendants must unite to prevent their hard-earned cash being syphoned off to an unworthy South. So the film's message serves modern identity politics. Nothing wrong with that. All politics is identity politics.
Another historical interpretation would argue that Barbarossa ceded very little to the cities after his Legnano defeat, that his 40-year struggle to build a power base in Germany, Burgundy and Italy left him feeling secure and wealthy enough to embark on the fatal Third Crusade. The premature deaths of Frederick and his son conspired to prevent Germany from developing into a united hereditary monarchy with all the consequences this entailed. The relations between the North Italian cities and their subsequent rulers remained tense because cities produce great wealth which rulers want to get their hands on. Clearly, these tensions remain!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For anyone with an interest in history, this is a film well worth
watching. Anachronisms slip in - John 'signing' Magna Carta; the Great
Charter itself symbolising a kind of protean democracy; what appears to
be a Jacobean table adorning John's tent to name a few. Yet the film
is true to the period and events it portrays and is worthier than most
medieval epics in recreating the atmosphere of the time. It outshines
Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood' and bears comparison with 'Kingdom of
Heaven'. Most viewers will find it less entertaining than either, if
only because the scale is much smaller. The writers have made an effort
to do justice to the events and characters portrayed.
The film is very instructive in recreating this short siege of Rochester Castle by King John in late 1215. Autumnal mists, watery Medway landscape, mud balanced with medieval technical ingenuity. The whole business of siege is handled very effectively - water and food supply, siege engines, retreat to the keep as the outer bailey is taken, undermining by fire. The battle scenes leave little to the imagination as steel slices through flesh and bone. Probably the bloodiest and rawest depiction of medieval warfare I have seen on film. The script is pretty faithful to the written records which survive.
The depiction of John is the best I have seen on film probably his first film appearance as a mature king not in the context of Robin Hood. Paul Giamatti is given a good script and carries off the role with panache. It was good to hear him at the end of the film justifying his cruelty with an impassioned speech about anointed kings and his absolute right to expect loyalty from his subjects. A nice little story about his father punishing a servant for a crime John had committed.
As a child, John had seen his mother and 3 older brothers conspire to overthrow his father, resulting in the long imprisonment of his mother. Against all the odds John had outlived his brothers to become king. Possessing ability and cunning, surviving quarrels with both barons and Church; all this gives John a hinterland deserving a script as good as this. 'Bad', impolitic, lecherous, loser against Phillip 'Augustus' of France he may have been, but John was not the one-dimensional villain the Robin Hood stories have bequeathed us, no mere spawn of the 'Devil's Brood'. Unfortunately, the film does add to the 'Bad' King John myth with a blatant untruth. D'Aubigny (Brian Cox) survived the siege to become a loyal servant of John's infant son, Henry III.
It is amusing to see John instructing his chroniclers to omit details of siege events when they are going against him. Amusing because historians have expended much ink debating whether or not John's priestly chroniclers were biased and did him an historical injustice.
Going any deeper into the politics of the period would have presented problems. Stephen Langton, both Archbishop of Canterbury and Arch-inspirer of the Charter, is portrayed sympathetically as John's nemesis. The Pope's recent support for John and the stronger hand this gives him against the rebels is explained. Charles Dance, Brian Cox, and Derek Jacobi all bring convincing gravitas to their well-written roles.
It is difficult to put words into the mouth of an historical John (as opposed to a mythic 'Robin Hood' John) which are both accurate and understandable to a modern audience. We like democracy and hate absolute rulers. John was a feudal overlord rather than an absolute ruler and his relationship to his barons was as much personal as God-given. This long-dead medieval mind-set is hard to grasp and has nothing to do with modern notions of democracy. Magna Carta is rightly seen as a stepping-stone on that long path, but the events we see here were essentially quarrels among the feudal elite and about Church/State boundaries. Quarrelling was endemic to feudalism and any king needed to be 'robust'. Any further descent into historical explanation would undermine the drama. Some viewers may think it already does. As a balance, the minor characters are entertaining and provide some comic relief.
The fictitious romance between the warrior-monk James Purefoy and the lady of the castle will be a plus for some and a minus for others, according to taste. For me it spoiled the film's ending (aimed at the American market perhaps?). A case can be made for it as a device to relieve the dramatic tension of bloody siege and impending doom.
James Purefoy's Knight Templar is an interesting extenuation of the Orlando Bloom character in 'Kingdom of Heaven' and Russell Crow's Robin Hood. Sickened by crusading slaughter in the name of God, all three characters feed into our contemporary existential angst about confrontation with Jihadism.
Pity about the film's title which conjures up images of battleships rather than knights.
To make an interesting historical drama without trashing history is
quite a challenge. This film succeeds admirably. By focusing on the
lives of a few fictitious (?) characters, we are able to experience
slow starvation in a bitterly cold Russian winter, feel how it affects
both body and mind and see how this leads desperate people to do
One and a half million Russians died in the Leningrad siege which lasted nearly 900 days. The film was wise to focus on the first winter only. The historical background is shown accurately. The negatives: a city under constant German bombardment from land and air; reducing daily calorie intake as food supplies dwindle, cannibalism, slicing flesh from a still-living horse; criminal elements encouraged by a black market in food; civilians kept in check by a ruthless Soviet police system and, especially, an immeasurable (because punishable) wish on the part of the populace to surrender to the Germans - 'at least they will feed us.' The positives: the winter lifeline offered by a frozen Lake Ladoga, supplies of American bacon and lard, individuals supporting each other.
This is a very honest film from a Russian director who treads a careful path between paying homage to Russian suffering on the one hand and being truthful about the Communist system on the other. A Soviet director would have had to make a very different film indeed. Fear of the NKVD secret police and its own paranoia about internal and external subversion are central to the story line. The Soviet system was unforgiving of failures and mistakes and this affected how individual Russians thought and behaved.
Director Buravsky says his film is an 'independent' one. It is certainly less commercial than 'Admiral' (2008) which relies on a romantic story line and set-piece battles to capture audience attention. The action scenes in 'Leningrad' are kept to a minimum but are sufficient to remind us that the city suffered unpredictable and spasmodic bombardment. It is much the better film of the two.
'Leningrad' is held together by the supportive relationships which develop between the main characters. It is, after all, a film more about civilian suffering than about a military campaign. Characterisation is fairly good. Our young teacher-turned policewoman heroine is quite willing to shoot any shirkers: her Komsomol years have channelled youthful idealism into ruthless Communist action. And yet she helps a stranded British journalist with whom she can practise her English. She develops an affinity with this exotic educated woman. Olga Sutulova and Mira Sorvino give convincing performances as the female leads who become comrades rather than gushing friends. Given the 'we will all probably die' circumstances, the film avoids over-emotionalism and sentimentality. However, the Kate Davis character would not have forgotten her native Russian at the age of 10.
Involving foreigners in the plot allows the film to escape siege claustrophobia and is more likely to appeal to a wider audience than an all-Russian affair. Rainy Eastbourne offers a pleasant break from frozen Leningrad. On the other hand, it could also be a commercial ploy to allow greater penetration of world markets (as the capitalists would say)!
Given the grim situation, offsetting the film's rising dramatic tension with comic relief is not really an option. Instead the director gives us short action scenes and scenes from the German and Russian HQs. These explain the military background. They also contrast the plight of the Leningraders with the elites running each side of the war from comfort and safety.
The film appears to show the German leadership in a more favourable light than the Soviet one. Buravsky gives the German commander Ritter von Leeb a pilot-nephew who pricks his uncle's conscience about the fate of the Leningraders. Did this catholic Field Marshall really have a nephew with a death wish named Walter Hoesdorff who was shot down whilst attacking a Russian AA battery over Leningrad? This is where historical films have to be careful. If no such nephew existed, he should not have been invented. On the other hand, showing empathy for enemy sensibilities should be applauded. No matter how much armies and combat conspire to homogenise men, individual soldiers retain their individuality.
Zhdanov, the city's ruthless defender, is shown unsympathetically; he has a much smaller role than the Germans. A photo of the dreaded Beria hangs on a wall in the Moscow HQ of the NKVD where fighting subversion assumes a higher priority than fighting Germans. Buravsky's 'extras' interview reveals his belief that Stalin hated Leningraders for being too independently-minded. He thinks that Stalin could have done more to relieve the city earlier. It suited the Great Leader to see Leningraders die?!!! 27 million dead was certainly a high price to pay for beating the Germans in 'The Great Patriotic War'. Russians no doubt debate how many of these deaths should be blamed on Stalin. This film will not find favour with those Russians wishing to revive the Stalin Cult as a means to restoring Russia's sense of her former greatness. Stalin does not appear in the flesh in this film but Hitler does.
In this respect 'Leningrad' offers a useful snapshot of Russia's present-day relationship with her Soviet past. Pity about the subtitles. That black space underneath the film is the obvious place for them. Why can't this be standardised across the industry?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Communists come in all types, from harmless to ruthless: armchair
theorist, industrial and peasant organiser, fighter against the class
enemy, assassin. This film deals with the last two varieties and
accords them some moral scruples. The Manouchian Group decline to blow
up a brothel containing German soldiers and French girls; their
poet-leader Missak Manouchian initially refuses the path of violence
because his 'ethics' forbid him. Nazi-Vichy propaganda famously denied
them any scruples by calling them an 'Army of Crime'.
It may be that the film sanitises and romanticises both their violence and their contribution: using the attractive Virginie Ledoyen to play the role of Manouchian's wife certainly increases one's sympathy for the main protagonist. 'Flame and Citron' (2008) and 'Max Manus' (2008) deal with similar material and clearly do not romanticise violent resistance to the Nazis. Both these films leave one wondering if the anti-German actions depicted were truly worthwhile or simply futile and counterproductive.
Army of Crime's aim is to rehabilitate these foreign Jews and Communists so they may join home-grown heroes in the Pantheon of The French Resistance. In that respect it hopes to accomplish what 'Paths of Glory' (2006) and 'A Love To Hide' (2005) successfully achieve for French Muslims and homosexuals. It is no wonder that it bombed at the box office, not that it is a bad film, but because its subject matter is so difficult and obscure and morally ambiguous for modern audiences facing 'terrorism' in a new guise.
The film is good at explaining the motives of the (mainly) young men who decide to shoot and bomb occupying Germans. Jewish families rounded up by Vichy police for the Germans, Republican fighters from the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascist refugees from Hungary and Romania combine to produce individuals with an axe to grind. They have seen Fascism up close and find it brutal and nasty. Their vendetta is personal. The assassinations and bombings are depicted well, in particular the shortage of weapons and lack of expertise in their use.
Less well depicted is the issue of German reprisals for such 'terrorism'. The film refers to imprisoned Communists being shot in retaliation but no mention is made of the many non-Communists 'innocent civilians' - who paid the ultimate price for 'Communist terrorism'. Most early resistance groups disapproved of terrorism, seeing it as futile, dangerous and leading nowhere. Hitler's attack on Russia in June 1941 saw Stalin ordering the French Communist Party to organise an immediate 'Second Front' in order to take the pressure off the Russians.
On 21st August 1941 the Communist Pierre Georges assassinated a German soldier at a Paris Metro station. Other killings soon followed. The Germans shot 50 randomly selected hostages in October. A vicious cycle of attack and reprisal had begun. The Vichy police had largely wiped out the Communist underground by the summer of 1942 and the film shows them dealing efficiently with Manouchian a year later. Active resistance was always a minority affair and informing was widespread.
By 1943-4 Germany was losing the war and opinion was turning against Petain and in favour of more violent resistance. The Jewish deportations had begun and the film shows this as a prime motive in the Manouchian Affair. Manouchian refers to the Armenian genocide which killed his parents to explain his own empathy for his Jewish Communist comrades.
Asking an off-duty German soldier for a light and then shooting him at point blank range may seem rather brutal. So was Vichy torture. So was the Allied bombing of women and children. So were the Nazi deportations to the death camps. The only important question is, 'Did these attacks on Germans do any good?' When asked about the impact of the French Resistance on German war production, Albert Speer famously replied, 'What French Resistance?' Vichy continued to send labourers, food and materials to Germany and to pay for the occupation. Quantifying the contribution of the French Resistance to Allied victory remains problematic and this film provides no answer.
What the film does do is remind us how important the idea of Resistance was in forging post-war French identity. French Communists and their contribution were frozen out of the story as Gaullists and ex-Vichyists joined to create the Fourth French Republic which soon joined the anti-Communist NATO alliance. Anti-Nazi Germans, Spaniards, foreign Jews and Communists who fought alongside 'indigenous' Frenchmen in the 'Resistance' were largely excluded from this new national myth making. This is what the film aims to redress.
As well as settling personal scores with the Nazis, the Manouchian Group were fighting for a Communist future. Throughout the Cold War period the Communist Red Orchestra in Germany (the subject of 2 little-known films) and the Manouchian Group in France were seen as Stalin's agents. Little sympathy in the West.
History was also being manipulated on the other side of Europe. How appropriate that the Polish film 'Katyn' should be released at the same time as 'Army of Crime.'! 15 months before ordering French Communists to wage war on occupying Germans, Stalin had decided to wipe out the Polish upper-class intelligentsia who did not fit in with his idea of a Communist future. Until 1989 Communist orthodoxy demanded that the 20,000 murdered Polish officers were victims of the Germans, not the Soviets.
I wonder if Karl Marx ever envisaged that 'Das Kapital' might be used to deliver a bomb to a bookshop ? Communism is a great idea. Like all great ideas it can bring out the best and worst in people. However, viewed from my own comfortable life lived through the best half of the 20th Century, I find it difficult to judge these young men who fought a ruthless foe. Within the first 6 months of the occupation, the Germans had beaten up the prefect Jean Moulin and shot Jacques Bonsergent for simply raising his fist against them. Moral ambiguities make this a difficult, murky, subject for a film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It would be a pity to see this film ghettoised as gay cinema. It is
undoubtedly the best film I saw in 2009 and shows what fine work can
result from a painstaking commitment to historical detail on the one
hand and a concern with plot, character and dramatic tension on the
other. No explicit sex scenes and no unnecessary gratuitous violence. A
triumph of intelligence and sensitivity.
Portraying occupied Vichy France has proved notoriously contentious and difficult since 1945. This is one of the the fairest films I have seen so far. In particular, it highlights the moral ambiguities and mixed motives involved for any French person engaging with the Germans in daily life. Whether French administrator, businessman, policeman or friend of Jews, the Occupation offered both moral dilemmas and also opportunities to make a fast buck. Stealing the property of deported Jews and black market profiteering appear here as central themes as does the idea of dealing with the enemy for more noble purposes.
The Fourth French Republic was compelled to construct itself on shaky foundations inherited from this murky world: deciding who was collaborator and who resister became part of a foundation myth which was flawed from the start. 'A Self-Made Hero' (1996) deals with some of the ambiguities involved for Frenchmen compelled to reinvent themselves after the Liberation. Mitterand was never able to shake off his Vichy connections.
'A Love to Hide' highlights this central ambiguity extremely well. We are left pondering the most interesting but least appealing character, Jacques, the petty criminal younger brother, as anti-hero. In a fit of jealous pique he unintentionally brings destruction on the central character Jean, treats with the enemy to enrich himself at the expense of Jews and yet marries and protects a Jewess with whom he is infatuated and kills a cruel exploiter of Jews. Villainy is a very grey condition. Nothing is black and white: a Jewess seeking revenge for the death of her parents feels sullied by her attempt.
The Jacques character in many ways represents the Common Man with no interest in politics but with every interest in fostering his own needs. In this respect he reflects the plight of millions of French people during the Occupation who were not pro-German but sullied themselves in their dealings with the new Power which ruled their land.
The film's central theme of homosexuality reminds us that the Great French Revolution decriminalised 'sodomy' in 1791 as part of its general attack on the power of Catholic Church. Vichy recriminalised it in 1942, a ban that was only lifted in 1982. The film makes reference to the Vichy dislike of Jews and gays whom they held responsible for a French moral decline which led to the 1940 debacle.
The film graphically portrays the Nazi persecution of gays, pink triangles, sterilisations etc. It is not fair to suggest that 'Bent' should hold a monopoly of scenes showing pink triangles breaking rocks or that this film is in some way derivative. I saw 'Bent' on stage with Ian McKellan in 1979 and it made a powerful impression which did not really transfer to the film. 'A Love to Hide' is undoubtedly the better of the two films because its tapestry is so rich and the gay experience is woven so competently into the fabric of everyday life. 'Bent' will always be seen as a piece of gay propaganda and will probably remain 'ghettoised' as such: necessary for its time but also necessarily limited.
All of this historical accuracy would count for little if character and plot did not work together to create a compelling and believable drama. They work magnificently. The dramatic tension produced by the central 'menage a quatre' is skilfully crafted. The characters react to each other in an entirely believable way and the story unfolds in a manner which suggests fact rather than fiction. As with many French films, the use of a narrator adds a touch of authenticity.
Two unrequited lovers must settle for less than the real thing and all four characters have to shift their concept of love to a higher, almost platonic, level so that the greater good prevails. Corrupt policemen and SS-men, gay German officers, Vichy spies, collaborators with good/bad motives, petit-bourgeois Petainist mentalities, sibling rivalry, parental imperfections as well as the sheer hypocrisy of gays living in the closet are key elements which are handled with intelligence and sensitivity. Life is shown in all its complexity but this enhances the drama rather than overwhelms it. Potentially difficult material is handled with a lightness of touch. The story is well told.
The film goes some way in highlighting the 40-year wrong inflicted by the French state on the French gay community and in this respect it achieves what 'Days of Glory' achieves for French Muslims. Two groups of outsiders seeking identity, integration and acceptance within broader French society and with each other. Now there's the stuff of future drama!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I only saw this film because of a friend. I'm glad I did. Having read
much classic sci-fi as a youngster(Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Vance,
Dick etc.), I've had 40 years to become rather disenchanted with the
whole genre. Shoot-em up, CGI schlock becomes rather tedious. Well-made
schlock is still schlock. I blame George Lucas Hollywood has been
following his successfully banal formula ever since. Intelligent
parodies or comedies like Ice Pirates and Red Dwarf gave some relief
but sci-fi films became increasingly shallow, tiresome and predictable.
District 9 has restored my faith.
Classic sci-fi always held up a mirror to the human condition, projecting our deepest fears and fantasies into fantastical worlds of the imagination. But always grounded in human culture and history. Inevitably and inescapably. District 9 is a satire in the classic tradition, like 'Starship Troopers' (book and film), and I congratulate its intelligence.
District 9 should not really work at all because it plays all too obviously on contemporary issues such as racism, apartheid and dislike of immigrants and stereotypes such as brutal South African police, Nigerian criminal gangs and evil arms corporations who are completely without scruple. Yet the film works very well indeed, mainly because the writing is so good, the underlying black humour (characteristic of many Japanese films but too subtle for many Westerners) is so apposite and the acting of the lead character Van De Merwe is Oscar-winning.
The shoot-em up CGI is, arguably, part of the parody on which the film rests. It pokes fun at what our popular culture has come to expect. It entertains but does so in an implicitly self-critical way. One feels regret for the violence, a major achievement in a film containing a fair amount of violence.
I suppose the spiritual forebears of District 9 would include Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' and the 1985 film 'Enemy Mine'. Developing human empathy for aliens has a long and honourable history easy when they are cute like E.T. but only made possible with the less attractive aliens of this film by giving them human personas. Anthropomorphism still rules OK! They may look revolting but under the skin, sorry carapace, they are just like us. Sci-fi has always had a problem in this area because we cannot imagine values, thinking and language beyond the human. Star Trek delegated the job to Spock and his mind meld technique. Vulcans can but humans cannot. The necessary cop-out, as in this film, is to make the aliens human under the skin. Hell, they even pay for sex with our women!
This is my only criticism of an otherwise excellent film which does illuminate aspects of the human condition at this moment in time. It should resonate with European audiences fending off Africans coming up from the South, South African audiences beset by Zimbabweans descending from the North, Americans facing imminent hispanicisation and many other cultures 'under threat' by 'tides' of 'illegals'. There is an amazing parallel between the aliens being evicted from their garbage dump existence and the recent action carried out by the French police near Calais.
District 9 does raise uncomfortable questions for our 'Human Rights Age'. Is our 'humane' response to the alien-human tide escaping poverty and oppression really as humane as we would like to believe? MNU is a state within a state - are multinationals too powerful for politicians to control? Does war generate more profit than peace? Hard questions. No easy answers.
This is a film about humans, not aliens. They simply act as a foil to our deepest anxieties and prejudices. The film could provide valuable source material for future historians of our time. Just like the film 'The Shape of Things to Come' (1936) highlighted the widespread fear of mass bombing by poison gas against which it was thought there was no defence. It's easy to forget that all British civilians were issued with gas masks before World War 2. Never used but a real factor in understanding the mentality of the time.
District 9 provides us with a useful mirror to view our own anxieties generated by the globalising age we live in. Few of us really want to look into this mirror. Sci-fi as the conscience of the world. Welcome rain after a long drought. Great stuff!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Tarantino's Holocaust film is to be welcomed. It is intelligent,
entertaining, witty, stylish and, above all, well-written. I felt as
though I had just watched a European film and not just because most of
it is in subtitles.
The film raises several interesting issues:
1. Adorno posed the question, "Can there be culture after Auschwitz?" The answer is clearly 'Yes'. For some Holocaust survivors with 'survivor guilt' the answer to this question was an emphatic 'No': they killed themselves. But theirs is a different narrative to ours sitting in our comfortable cinema seats. Time moves on and the generation with first-hand Holocaust experience is dying out. In fact, during the last 60 years their perspective has remained largely incomprehensible to the rest of us. The Holocaust has become part of the warp and weft of Western civilisation and pops up all over the place. It has become integral to our culture as well as our history. It is a subject for cultural projects, just like baroque composers raiding ancient history for their operas. Making art out of human suffering is, it appears, part of the human condition. Sensuous music is written about the Passion of Christ.
2. Demonising the Nazis may be emotionally satisfying but has never made much sense in terms of understanding their history. The Christoph Waltz SS character dominates this film: attractive, multilingual, cultivated, urbane, efficient, well-mannered but still capable of strangling a female traitor with his bare hands. He deserves an Oscar. This sympathetic portrayal of individual SS men is nothing new: witness the Muntze character in 'Black Book' (2006). Likewise, Branagh's Heydrich in 'Conspiracy' (2001) is no beast. The Romans thought themselves civilised. So did the Southern planter aristocracy. So did the owners of British country houses built on the profits of the Slave Trade. Intelligence, culture and refinement can go hand in hand with brutality. The multi-lingual talents of Daniel Bruhl are used for the same effect.
3. Tarantino refers to the success of the Nazi film industry. High art could flourish under the Nazis, which is why so many intellectuals and artists continued to work under the Nazis in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. 'The Triumph of the Will' won gold medals in Venice and Paris.
For all their sentimental peddling of folkish, 'back to the soil' nostalgia to the masses, the Nazi elite were really into high culture. Essentially lower-middle class social climbers, they organised galas around theatre, film, opera and classical music where they could rub shoulders with Germany's old elite whom they intended to absorb and supplant. Brutality went hand in hand with culture. Living in the confiscated villas of wealthy Berlin Jews, stealing works of art from all over Europe, the Nazi elite were, quite literally, on the make socially and on the take materially! Tarantino's film conveys a flavour of this Nazi beau monde in which the SS were a new chivalric order, a knightly class based on blood purity, loyalty and self-sacrifice.
4. The 'Basterds' are the thugs of the film rather than the Nazis and are responsible for most of the gory violence. The idea of scalping dead Nazis was a brilliant leitmotif. Famously Hitler thought there was no difference between his project of extermination and settlement in Eastern Europe and what was still going on in the American West at the time of his birth. Indians scalping Whites who were wiping them out. Jews scalping Nazis who were wiping them out. Makes perfect sense!
However, here we have an American director engaged in self-parody. Hitler thought of Americans as decadent mongrels emasculated by a Jewish-Negro culture. The Brad Pitt character is a parody of this concept: monosyllabic, monolingual and almost one-dimensional. Not really as appealing as the Waltz character. Yet these dumb (unsophisticated) Americans did win the war and the Pitt character prevails to inscribe (literally) his own (sophisticated?) brand of justice at the end.
5. Post-1945 history and culture are littered with references to Nazis in hiding and others who raked over their Nazi past. UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, West German President Lubke, The Odessa File, The Quiller Memorandum - fact and fiction, the list is endless. As late as the 1970's many people believed that Hitler had faked his death and was living in South America. George Steiner even wrote a novella about his capture. The world was full of closet Nazis and their collaborators!
Tarantino's other brilliant leitmotif is carving swastikas into the foreheads of Nazis he allows to live. Historically such branding was used for social ostracism and many would agree that too many Nazis escaped their past too easily.
6. Ultimate vengeance is wreaked on the Nazis by a young Jewish female and her Black lover. This is both banal and emotionally satisfying. The film has recruited women, Blacks and Germans into the anti-Nazi camp as well as Jews and Allies. Nazis in occupied Paris were appalled by the number of Blacks they saw. The fact that Hitler did not die in the summer of 1944 does not exclude the possibility that he could have: 'Valkyrie' (2009) explains this. Tarantino dispatches Hitler and his cronies with his own contrived fiery holocaust. This is emotionally satisfying and a clever play on the Nazi concept of Twilight of the Gods as well as a reference to the millions of Jews turned into ash.
History and the cultural representations of history are fast becoming an indistinguishable melange. This was always the case in literature and film is accelerating the process. I fear a growing number of people are unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not. Yet another reason to support the teaching of history in our schools.
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