Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

A Child’s Garden of VD Posters

August 4, 2014

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“The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)

February 10, 2014

Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek is another DEFA production, this one about a Hamburg butcher whose shop is ailing because he can’t afford to modernize. The time is September 1933, i.e., just a very few months after Hitler took power, and through a string of circumstances (a couple of them a tad forced) the butcher is offered 2,000 marks if he’ll do the state just one tiny favor: behead four Communists who’ve been framed for murdering a soldier. The thing is, this isn’t like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo Vittelli had to choke down his scruples to commit murder. No, Albert Teetjen wants to perform the executions, because he wants the money, but knowing that he’ll be ostracized in his community if word gets out, he takes steps to hide the deed, even from his bourgeois, religious wife. Then, of course, word does get out, and…

The Second Track remains the most visually accomplished DEFA production I’ve seen, but The Axe of Wandsbek is the most poetic one. Axe opens with a Langian touch: some little girls playing hopscotch between the words “Heaven” and “Hell” scrawled on the sidewalk. The quadruple execution isn’t shown directly—instead, we experience it through the wildly varied reactions of four secondary characters watching it from an attic. The giant old axe which the butcher is so proud of—it belonged to his grandfather and, as he constantly points out, is made of “the finest Sheffield steel”—is a potent symbol. When things start going wrong for him, Teetjen literally tries to bury the token of his misdeeds, but a neighbor, spotting him, digs it up again, and the bad penny comes home with a vengeance.

The movie was made by people who lived through Nazism’s early years, so all the little social touches—the salutes, the atmosphere of the shops and beerhalls, the decor of the various abodes, the things the characters do for entertainment—ring true. What I’m less certain about is how safe it really was for people opposed to Hitler to air their views back then. None of the characters go so far as to deliver anti-Nazi speeches in the town square, but among themselves they express their political feelings with surprising freedom. A character like the social worker who shows open sympathy for the doomed Reds…well, I’m just not sure how long she would’ve stayed on the street, even in ’33. Communist propaganda is probably heavier in Axe than any of the other DEFA films I’ve seen, but at least it’s confined to the one or two scenes in which the butcher’s neighbors discuss the execution of the Reds primarily as a blow against “the workers”. Even with its symbolic shadings the film is mainly a character study, and a bully one at that.

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Was hast du im Krieg gemacht, Pappi?

September 18, 2013

I’ve watched a couple of those East German films about the war now. Of the two, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case from 1961 is definitely the one worth searching out. It’s based on an incident most people read about and then instantly forget, that the Nazis staged an attack by Polish nationalists on a German radio station and then used it as a pretext for, you know, subjugating an entire damn country. It’s shot in stark B&W with a million unconventional camera angles, and it’s best described as “unstuck in time”, with flashbacks and flash-forwards taking up as much space as the present-time story. It’s also quickly paced without seeming to skimp in any way, and the acting is all fine, too. I’m running through this it’s-all-okay checklist just to say that its origins as a GDR film don’t taint it or turn it into a platform for Soviet ideology.  It’s legitimately good. It has two extraordinary sequences, in fact, one in which, through a series of percussive Citizen Kane-type flashbacks, we’re marched through the experiences that mold the leader of the commando squad into a rabid monster. The best passage, however, comes when the political prisoner whom the Nazis have selected as their patsy (they dress him in a Polish army uniform, then shoot him and leave his body at the radio station) is being transported to Gleiwitz. When the car brakes at a railroad crossing, the endless train carrying German soldiers and materiel toward the border causes him to realize with dawning awareness that this ride only goes one way.

Joachim Kunert’s The Adventures of Werner Holt (1965) is less experimental than Gleiwitz, but it’s still odd to see a conventional Hollywood epic built around the experiences of two German boys from high school to the end of the war. It’s expansive, sexually aware (hot chicks galore in it), and well-made, but it’s a meandering and unnecessary 165 minutes long. It was a huge hit and won several festival awards, though, and both it and Gleiwitz appeared at a time when the West German studios were pumping out serious treacle, the stuff that Fassbinder, Wenders & Co would soon be rebelling against.

What’s impressive is that both films probe deeply into the lives and backgrounds of their fanatics without either rationalizing or judging them. (I mean judging them from a bullying, triumphal point of view—a totalitarian point of view. Obviously the movies are anti-Nazi, anti-murder, etc.) I’ve got a couple more of them ordered, and it looks like the filmmakers were primarily interested in understanding the process by which normal people submit to a totalitarian regime, which is of course a surprise.

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The Gleiwitz Case

A Hill of Beans: A Few Good Movies About World War II

September 3, 2013

Naturally it’s a subjective list: these are movies which satisfy me to some high degree emotionally, dramatically and aesthetically. Their quality as “war films” ranks low on the totem pole. Judged just by its combat scenes, Saving Private Ryan would certainly make the cut, but since its action is in service of a false, even pernicious, idea, I left it off. I’m also not smitten with gung-ho heroism, hence you’ll search in vain for The Sands of Iwo Jima here. For me the value of the World War II film lies in its concentration on the unlikely protagonist; fittingly, the war against fascism gave rise to some of the most egalitarian-minded films in the history of cinema, with many of the greatest ones coming from the Axis nations. The protagonists here aren’t heroes because they’ll charge a machine gun. The vast majority of them are little people, often weak, often cowardly, and almost always unprepared, but the intensity of their reactions to the cataclysm around them makes Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca—“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”—look simply wrong. Even the characters in uniform work to stay alive mainly to return to the normal, non-military life that existed for them before the world lost its mind. These movies make their characters’ humanity the subject of their stories, even in such cases as Army of Shadows or The Conformist, where that humanity is subordinated to a wider cause. Asterisks appear by the titles which mean the most to me—the ones that landed closest to where I live.

I close things out with a short list of films which many people dote on, and several of which are considered classics, but which, for one reason or another, have the same effect on me that The English Patient had on Elaine Benes; I mention them not to be a contrary asshole, but simply to forestall the incredulous query “You mean you haven’t seen The Pianist? Why, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!” I also omitted a handful of films I love or admire (The Long Voyage Home, A Matter of Life and Death and Notorious among them) in which the war was mainly an incidental or peripheral factor. And, obviously, I’ve omitted the ton of movies that aren’t worth ranking at all. (Hail, The Battle of Britain! Ave, The Secret of Santa Vittoria!) God knows what movies I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or need to catch up on, but I’d be grateful for tips on all of them.

Wartime

The Mortal Storm (Borzage 1940)

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49th Parallel (Powell 1941)

To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch 1942)

The Pilot Returns (Rossellini 1942)

Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti 1942)

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Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)

Air Force (Hawks 1943)

The More the Merrier (Stevens 1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943)*

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This Land Is Mine (Renoir 1943)

Le Corbeau (Clouzot 1943)

Lifeboat (Hitchcock 1944)*

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Western Approaches (Jackson 1944)

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges 1944)

Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges 1944)*

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Rome Open City (Rossellini 1945)*

Objective, Burma! (Walsh 1945)

They Were Expendable (Ford 1945)*

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La Bataille du rail (Clément 1946)*

Paisà (Rossellini 1946)*

Les Maudits (Clément 1947)

Germany Year Zero (Rossellini 1948)*

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Home of the Brave (Robson 1949)

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La Silence de la Mer (Melville 1949)

Battleground (Wellman 1949)

The Axe of Wandsbek (Harnack 1951)

Decision Before Dawn (Litvak 1951)

Forbidden Games (Clément 1952)

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The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk 1954)

Attack! (Aldrich 1956)

Kanal (Wajda 1956)

Four Bags Full (La traversée de Paris) (Autant-Lara 1956)

A Man Escaped (Bresson 1956)*

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The Burmese Harp (Ichikawa 1956)

The Battle of the River Plate (Powell/Pressburger 1956)

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov 1957)

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The Devil Strikes at Night (Siodmak 1957)

Bitter Victory (Ray 1957)

The Enemy Below (Powell 1957)

Ice Cold in Alex (Thompson 1958)

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Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa 1959)

The Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhray 1959)

The Bridge (Wicki 1959)

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General della Rovere (Rossellini 1959)

Il Federale (The Fascist) (Salce 1961)

Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case) (Klein 1961)*

Hell is for Heroes (Siegel 1962)

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Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky 1962)

The Great Escape (Sturges 1963)

It Happened Here (Brownlow/Mollo 1964)

Diamonds of the Night (Němec 1964)

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King Rat (Forbes 1965)

In Harm’s Way (Preminger 1965)*

La ligne de démarcation (Chabrol 1966)

Army of Shadows (Melville 1969)*

The Conformist (Bertolucci 1970)*

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (De Sica 1970)

Distant Thunder (S. Ray 1973)

Lacombe, Lucien (Malle 1974)*

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Zerkalo (Tarkovsky 1974)*

Overlord (Cooper 1975)

Seven Beauties (Wertmüller 1975)

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini 1975)

1900 (Bertolucci 1976)*

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Mr. Klein (Losey 1976)

The Ascent (Shepitko 1977)*

Cross of Iron (Peckinpah 1977)

The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979)

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Christ Stopped at Eboli (Rosi 1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder 1979)

The Big Red One (Fuller 1980)

Das Boot (Petersen 1981)

Night of the Shooting Stars (1982 Taviani)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima 1983)

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Come and See (Klimov 1985)*

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Malle 1987)

Empire of the Sun (Spielberg 1987)

Hope and Glory (Boorman 1987)

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Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata 1988)*

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Story of Women (Chabrol 1988)

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Black Rain (Imamura 1989)

Europa Europa (Holland 1990)

Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)

The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998)

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Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) (Rothemund 2005)*

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Indigènes (Bouchareb 2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood 2006)

Vincere (Bellocchio 2009)

The Hangover

Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946)*

Shoeshine (De Sica 1946)

Without Pity (Senza pietà) (Lattuada 1948)

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The Search (Zinnemann 1948)

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The Third Man (Reed 1949)

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura 1961)

Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track) (Kunert 1962)

Wings (Shepitko 1966)*

Camp de Thiaroye (Sembene 1988)

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Enemies, a Love Story (Mazursky 1989)*

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Documentary

Memory of the Camps (Bernstein/Hitchcock 1945)

Days of Glory (Visconti/De Sanctis/et al. 1945)

(The Battle of) San Pietro (Huston 1945)*

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Blood of the Beasts (Franju 1949)*

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Night and Fog (Resnais 1955)*

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The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophüls 1969)*

The World at War (BBC 1973)*

The Memory of Justice (Ophüls 1976)

Shoah (Lanzmann 1985)*

The Doomed City: Berlin (Darlow 1986)

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Hara 1987)

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Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (Ophüls 1988)*

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The Eye of Vichy (Chabrol 1993)

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But Not For Me

The Great Dictator (Chaplin 1940)

Let There Be Light (Huston 1946)

Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean 1957)

Kapo (Pontecorvo 1960)

Two Women (De Sica 1960)

Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer 1961)

The Pawnbroker (Lumet 1964)

The Night Porter (Cavani 1974)

The Damned (Visconti 1969)

Sophie’s Choice (Pakula 1982)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg 1998)

The Pianist (Polanski 2002)

Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)

“The Mortal Storm” (1940)

August 22, 2012

This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.

The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.

Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race),  and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.

It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow.  [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]

Wartime

February 21, 2012

Finally saw Generation Kill, which somehow managed to live up to its reputation. Like The Wire, it’s marked by such an even distribution of mood and energy across its episodes that it’s impossible to settle on just one as a favorite. Part of this is thanks to the wall-to-wall military jargon (it’s even more unapologetically jargon-intensive than Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), but mostly it earns its stripes the old-fashioned way, through solid direction and writing that’s tighter than J-Lo’s kootch. (Just to be clear, that’s a reference to something in the script, and not yours truly being a foul-mouthed fucker just for the shits and giggles it gives him.)

I’m amused by the counterintuitive casting decision that made macho pinup boy Alexander Skarsgård a subordinate to the girlish (and much shorter) Starks Sands, and by the fortitude David Simon and Ed Burns showed by including, and then summarily forgetting about, an off-color running joke revolving around a picture of the reporter’s girlfriend. (Any other production in the history of entertainment would’ve made it the focal point of his goodbye scene.) And yet another raft full of good actors comes out of nowhere? Just how many great actors can possibly be hiding out there? Seriously, they should just all come on out now, from whatever school or shitty job they’re holding down, just to give us some idea of just how many scripts it’s gonna take to keep them all working. (I by no means begrudge him the paycheck, but Skarsgård deserves a lot, lot more than teen vampire flicks.) I especially loved James Ransone in this fucking thing, and the fact that he benefited the most from the writing also worked to our advantage: Ray Person’s ephedra-fueled monologues could have made Ziggy Sobotka’s numbskull perorations sound like the wartime Churchill if they weren’t truly funny.

That said, my biggest grumble about the show involves the scribe’s exit interview with Godfather, the battalion C.O.; it’s a joyless, unworthy scene that resuscitated all of the didactic impulses one hoped Simon had laid to rest in The Wire’s farewell tour. For better or worse, Generation spurts out all of its bullshit in its closing installment as well, its other notable lapses being the chain-yanking close-ups of the incompetent “Captain America” every time he suffers a crisis of confidence and, more generally, a too heavy beating of Simon’s “institutional corruption” theme, which, no matter how legitimate a cause for outrage, has already become a hobby-horse in his hands.

But apart from that it’s a hell of a ride, one which individualizes its characters much as The Wire allowed us observe its characters on their own terms, without preconceptions clouding our gaze—quite an accomplishment given their respective milieus. Much of the humor in Generation Kill derives not from punchlines but from some very droll camera moves, e.g., the slow push-in from an indolent Ransone to a quartet of Marines a mere few yards away as they give some suspicious locals an intense once-over. And the action scenes run absolute circles around all the soft-headed handheld quick-cut bullshit that passes for action filmmaking nowadays: think about The Hurt Locker and then think about the ambush at the bridge in episode 6, and tell me which one looks like Gladiator and which one looks like The Wild Bunch. At its core, though, Generation Kill is a Howard Hawks work for our time.

Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy provides insight into a different type of military order.  A mix-tape of primary sources, Vichy consists of two hours of newsreel and propaganda shorts—though the two forms are indistinguishable much of the time—which are only occasionally broken up by a narrator who sketches in some rough historical context for what we’re looking at. The material is ordered chronologically so we can feel both the peak and then the long decline of Vichy and its chief of state Philippe Pétain, around whom the Reich and its French minions created one of the shabbiest, most unseemly personality cults the world has ever known. The ancient warrior had been made prime minister just as history was casting about for a dupe, and in that role he was both a manipulator and nakedly manipulated. We see him meeting with Hitler (who kept him waiting) and with Franco (who couldn’t have looked more bored), but he spent most of his time implementing laws designed to curry favor with Berlin (when they didn’t actually originate there) and making appearances designed to swell the hearts of France’s pepperpots and schoolchildren. The Eye of Vichy also contains some interesting cultural sidebars: ads for powdered soap and Scandale girdles; the rats sequence from The Eternal Jew; middleweight Marcel Cerdan giving an opponent a thorough drudging; and various propaganda efforts, some of which came in unexpected forms.

But it mostly observes official functions—rallies, conferences, visits from Reich big shots, all the while tracking one of the most important components of Franco-German relations in those years, the work programs by which French POWs and civilians “volunteered” to leave home and provide labor for the German war machine. (Cue clip of many tight-lipped smiles at the Gare du Nord.) But the real face of Vichy is clearest in the speeches given by such ugly-souled functionaries as Jacques Doriot and Philippe Henriot, men who in any other time would be dismissed as the thick-necked bullies they were. Chabrol closes his film with a clip from the famous speech that Charles De Gaulle delivered after the liberation—the speech in which he uttered the words “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!” Whether he meant them to or not, De Gaulle’s words helped lay the groundwork for a generation of denial; by laying down such clear divisions, he reduced the moral complexity of the war in general, and the Occupation in particular, to an Indiana Jones adventure, and France would pay the price for decades to come.

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June 23, 2011

Most of this is distressing to the max, but here’s a compilation of near pristine color footage from WW II. In a couple places I had the sensation of seeing these events with fresh eyes—no mean feat.

Some Things That Actually Happened #1

January 28, 2011


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