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Martha et moi (1990)
10/10
Beautiful, unassuming little film that creeps up on you
3 September 2004
There seems to be two approaches to WWII films that deal with the Jewish dilemma. The first type, which is the most popular, is depicting in graphic detail the physical brutality the Jewish people had to endure under Hitler. Going the other route, some filmmakers have instead chosen to explore the psychological torture these people experienced in the years leading up to and during Hitler's reign of terror. This second type are usually much less acclaimed and attended, but in many ways they have a deeper effect, as they seem to linger on much longer in the mind, much more so than a devastating emotional punch given by a SCHINDLER'S LIST, whose impact often seem to evaporate disconcertingly quickly.

Czech director Jirí Weiss' MARTHA ET MOI definitely falls into the latter category. The film is seen from the perspective of Emil (Václav Chalupa and later Ondrej Vetchý), an awkward and sexually inexperienced adolescent who matures into a politically progressive student and soldier. His parents are briefly seen as violently and stiflingly overprotective, and so he develops a father/son relationship with his Uncle Ernst, played by landmark French actor Michel Piccoli (CONTEMPT, LA GUERRE EST FINIE, etc), a sought-after and wealthy gynecologist who treats Emil as an adult, and helps him make sense of his developing sexuality. It is there we meet Martha, the stout, but kind-hearted German housekeeper who Uncle Ernst eventually marries after he catches his young, beautiful, but wild wife in bed with another man.

The robust Marianne Sägebrecht gives a marvelous performance as the Martha of the title. She very subtly digs her way into the viewer's affections, creating a portrait of a poor country woman who has nothing more to offer her husband than an unfaltering love that even Nazism can't destroy. When it becomes known that her husband is Jewish and violent occurrences begin to surface in their tranquil existence, she clings to him all the more.

Though in many ways the film is set up to be Emil's coming-of-age story, the real core of the film is Sägebrecht and Piccoli's autumnal romance. The emotional weight of the film comes from their plight as national politics destroy their relationship- an unremarkable relationship between two elderly, flawed and utterly normal human beings.

MARTHA ET MOI was Jirí Weiss' last film, and it's drastically different than THE WOLF TRAP, his breakthrough film from 1957. It's certainly the work of a more mature and capable director, and even if his presence as director is less visible than in his earlier film, he is certainly more comfortable with his material. The film won him an award at the Vancouver Film Festival for most popular film, and despite enthusiastic reviews, financial and political problems halted its release in America until 1995- but by then it was only given token runs in New York, LA, and San Francisco before disappearing from sight and memory.

Even though there are plot holes and inconsistencies, the combined power of the performers carry the film to unexpected emotional heights. It's a beautiful, unassuming little film, and one that certainly deserves a release in some form, which sadly is something which it has never been given.
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Vlcí jáma (1958)
8/10
Mildly interesting psychological drama
21 August 2004
"Vlcí jáma," better known as "The Wolf Trap," was Czech director Jirí Weiss' first major film, and established him as one of the major figures of Czechoslovakia's emerging film industry in the post-war era. It may not be the most interesting of films, but it does contain several interesting elements which made it well worth watching.

Set in the 1920's, the film is a psychological drama involving an orphan who comes to live with the mayor of a small Czech town and his affectionate but overbearing wife. The mayor soon falls for the sweet young woman he has taken into his home, but can't risk his the public humiliation of acting on his feelings. Due to his job he is away from home for long periods of time, leaving the girl to deal with the stubborn wife's drama and hysterics caused by being left alone.

Plot-wise, "The Wolf Trap" is a rather mechanical and dull film, but Weiss brings a technical flair to the material that keeps things interesting. Several unconventional overhead camera angles are used that really have a bizarre effect when seen on a large screen. There is also an editing technique used that is currently all the rage in today's cinema- cutting away from a scene just before it feels like it has ended, which causes a temporary disorienting effect, and keeps the viewer on his/her toes. There's also some rather surreal moments of two leering maids thrown in for good measure.

The acting is a mixed bag, and is hampered by the ho-hum story. Jana Brejchova, who plays the girl, is a beautiful Eastern European blonde, but she never feels natural in front of the camera. Jirina Sejbalova (the wife), on the other hand, has the most animated part, and has some effective moments of humor and emotional devastation.

"The Wolf Trap" won Weiss the FIPRESCI award at the Venice Film Festival, and the film itself was nominee for the Golden Bear.

Overall, a mildly interesting film that hints at great things to come.
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7/10
Classy
2 November 2001
A polished and classy thriller, in the same vein as Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944). Based on one of Agatha Christie's most celebrated novels of the same name, "And Then There Were None" is a fun, if rather cold whodunit. The cast reads like a who's-who of character actors. Names found in the credits include Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson, C. Aubrey Smith, Roland Young, as well as June Duprez (who looks remarkably similar to Gene Tierney, the star of Laura) and Louis Hayward who become romantically involved during the course of the film in a relationship not found in the book. Rene Clair, the acclaimed French director, directs in a capable, if rather unmemorable manner which neither adds nor subtracts from the film experience itself. Thankfully Clair manages to make the adaptation from written page to film image smooth and fluid, and while the plot does take some liberties with the original story (especially regarding the ending), the essence of Ms. Christie's writing is not only retained but brilliantly executed. The story unfolds as eight guests (as well as two servants) arrive at a large house on a foggy, isolated island. The hosts are said to be detained in London, and that evening at dinner a record is played accusing each assembled person of commiting a crime that cost someone else their life. Almost instantly one of the guests fall dead from poisoning. From then on it's a rip-roaring ride as another, and then another guest falls dead by a completely different manner. Every person begins to suspect the other, causing obvious tension, and some hilarious comic situations. They are stranded on an island in this big house, and because a boat only comes to the island twice a week, the guests who manage to evade death attempt to find the murderer before he or she too falls dead. I suppose it would be much more suspensful if one had not read the book before viewing this movie, and did not know the resolution of the story. The end is different then found in the novel, but the surprise element nontheless is diminished. The DVD put out by VCI Home Video is adequate but not as good as it could be. Still, "And Then There Were None" is a respectable, engrossing and enjoyable mystery, and read the book or not, is great fun and marvelous entertainment. 9/10
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