Tag Archives: World War II

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DUNKIRK (2017)

After sadistically subjecting me to Pitch Perfect 2 last year (I’m still reeling from that), 366 readers had some compassion this year and voted me into watching Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk. As our administrative prophet and editor-in-chief pointed out, the last choice was rather odd, since we know that is an ambitious, high-caliber filmmaker and any film of his would hardly constitute a viewing ordeal. Largely positive critical consensus would seem to validate Greg‘s observation…. except, this selection, which one would assume to be a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, is fatally uneven: cinema as trauma, with a director at his most aggressively self-important, delivering a film that features, by turns, examples of his most adroit and slovenly aesthetics. Despite its flaws, which inevitably stem from Nolan’s consciously elevated approach, Dunkirk, while falling short of expectations, is an effective work. It’s not a war film, as publicity would indicate. Rather, it could have just as aptly been titled The Great Escape.

Still from Dunkirk (2017)This is hardly the first cinematic treatment of the WWII evacuation of British soldiers from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940, but with the craft and budget that went into this production, it easily surpasses previous, languid versions. On the IMAX screen, Dunkirk is a sensory overload. Undoubtedly, that’s the best way to see it, because all that upheaval, from the lensing of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) to Hans Zimmer’s aggrandizing score, provides necessary detail. With almost no dialogue, we are bombarded by an overbearing, apocalyptic sound design, which includes explosions of every contemporaneous weapon of mass destruction. It’s too much and—although it convinces us of the torturousness of this historical experience—it’s also not enough; curiously, it’s spiritually bankrupt.

The film centers around understandably frightened young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who, with fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), tries to make his way to a rescue ship. The intensity is almost unendurable; so much so that we are forced to sympathize with the protagonists. However, one of Nolan’s worst tendencies sabotages our chance for actual empathy: he begins overwriting, catapulting us into unnecessary vignettes, one of which involves an RAF pilot (). The result is to distance us from Tommy and Gibson. Undoubtedly, Nolan is a superior narrative writer, but he’s an impoverished dramatist. Say what we will about John Ford’s dated, overt sentimentality—he knew, particularly in this type of genre, to level the wham-bam machinery down to a minimum and keep the faces (, Robert Montgomery) upfront. Likewise, Ford could be counted on to utilize color almost orgasmically—even in emotionally harrowing sequences. Comparatively, Nolan’s monochromatic palette here further magnifies the film’s frigidity.

The action scenes, never Nolan’s forte, are hopelessly muddled, and in spending so much time on them, his structure becomes frayed. As in his Batman trilogy, sweat is needed. Nolan then, and Nolan now, is just too literal to perspire.

Dunkirk is inherently about the immediacy of survival, and too many intimate idiosyncrasies would detract from that goal, but aloofness can be carried to an undesired extreme. Ultimately, this is like an aesthetically impressive video game; ferocious, but emotionally blunted.

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up in the museum after hours.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like a spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy Louvre director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or passes each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)

250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other Continue reading 250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE THIRD PART OF THE NIGHT (1971)

Trzecia Czesc Nocy

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, , Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska, Jerzy Stuhr

PLOT: Set in occupied Poland during WWII, during a stay in the country, Michal watches helplessly as German soldiers murder his wife, Helena and son, Lukasz. Returning to the city, he involves himself with the Underground; during a meeting that goes wrong, another man is mistaken for him and shot and he ends up taking care of the man’s wife, Marta , who is a perfect double for his dead Helena.vlcsnap-2012-08-12-23h12m48s126

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Its mix of historical recreation and surreal scenes was eye-opening for audiences at the time, and even more so for Western viewers who may not be aware of the background of the film’s setting. Even at this early stage, most of Zulawski’s tropes are present, and will only become more refined and extreme in the films to follow.

COMMENTS: When film enthusiasts are introduced to Andrzej Zulawski, the go-to film is usually (surprise, surprise) Possession. For good reason: it’s in English, so no subtitle-reading is involved; and, for quite a while, it was the only Zulawski film that audiences in the West could obtain relatively easily. But if you mean to seriously study Zulawski’s work , then, in my opinion, The Third Part of the Night is a far better entry point.

Zulawski scholar Daniel Bird points out that the two films share similarities: they’re both dramas that take place against chaotic and apocalyptic backgrounds; both feature actresses who play double roles; and both feature a degree of Surrealism – and stairways. One could argue that the two films can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

On its own terms, The Third Part of the Night is an eye-opening merging of the Polish wartime experience that could be found in the films of Zulawki’s mentor Andrzej Wajda (who is credited as “Film Supervisor”) with the Surrealism that was beginning to be a mainstay of Eastern European films. Co-written with his father, Miroslaw Zulawski (a diplomat and novelist), the core of the film draws on Miroslaw’s wartime experiences as a “louse feeder” at The Weigl Institute, a facility that manufactured typhus vaccine. To a Western audience, the scenes of lice feeding may seem to be part of the surreal landscape, but to audiences in Poland, those scenes are more like historical recreation, along with the scenes of people being herded and taken away or just shot point blank in the streets. The Surrealism is rooted in Michel’s grief and guilt in losing his family, and replacing them.

tumblr_le90nmRZAJ1qzcur6The Third Part of the Night does not have a current Region 1 DVD release; it is listed in the ‘Future Releases’ section of Mondo Vision’s website. As of this writing, the best release is a disc from Second Run DVD in 2007. It’s Region 0, but a PAL disc, so those with all-region players should have no problem – in addition to an excellent transfer, there is a 20 minute interview in English with Zulawski going into some depth on the film, and an informative 16 page booklet written by Daniel Bird.

The story of the Weigl Institute is fascinating in its own right and worth further examination. In 2014, W.W. Norton & Co. published The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, by Arthur Allen, which goes into the whole history and aftermath of the Institute. Both Zulawskis are referenced in the text, as is Third Part

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything stands on a knife-edge between absurdity and the abyss. Rarely has a filmmaker begin his career by so boldly charting out the territory he intends to explore.”–David Cairns, MUBI Notebook (DVD)

CAPSULE: IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

Ivanovo Detstvo

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina

PLOT: A twelve-year old war orphan serves as a scout for the Russian army, repeatedly sneaking over the border to report on German troop positions.

Still from Ivan's Childhood (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In his debut film, Andrei Tarkovky’s work isn’t yet confidently weird enough, although his decision to wrap this Soviet war drama in dreamy melancholic flashbacks (in stark contrast to the aesthetics of Socialist realism ) was a strong signal of the pioneering direction he would be taking.

COMMENTS: In many ways Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovky’s most conventional work; it’s in a recognizable genre (the war drama) without obscure philosophizing, it’s of a “normal” length (compared to his epic works), and, since the director had not yet begun his experiments with minimalism and ultra-long takes, the pacing is comfortable. There are four dream sequences, but they are all idyllic and tasteful, nothing that would alienate the average moviegoer. So, if you have a friend who is intimidated by slow-paced, three-plus hour philosophical epics like Stalker or Solaris, or if you yourself just want to start in the kiddie end of the Tarkovsky pool, Ivan is the go-to movie. Although it’s stylistically gentler than his later movies, that’s not to say that this debut film is intellectually shallow or atypical of the maestro’s output: all of Tarkovsky’s intelligence and poetry is already on display here. Themes from future masterpieces—the preeminence of the dream, the symbolism of water, careful use of ambiguity—all make their first appearance in Ivan. Anchored by a gritty performance by young Nikolay Burlyaev, who straggles into a base camp half-starved and starts ordering a lieutenant around with the arrogance only a kid can muster but has the right touches of tearful vulnerability at key moments, the story has an easy-to-locate moral and emotional center. Ivan’s childhood has been taken from him by the war. For the most part the wartime scenes are dingy and dark, set in trenches or dirty bunkers. Even the river, the boundary of Russian and German territory Ivan sneaks across the border under cover of darkness, is shot mostly at night, turning it into a cemeterial swamp lined by dead trees. Ivan’s dreams of lost childhood, by contrast, are bright and airy, full of spiderwebs and butterflies and stars that shine from out of wells. Even a ride on a horse-drawn apple cart during a thunderstorm is shot in a negative image so that the shadowy forest glows around the boy. The film’s rhythm of pleasant dream interrupted by gunfire and the call to duty is effective. A relationship between the nurse Masha and Kholin, one of the three officers who together serve as Ivan’s surrogate fathers, interrupts the boy’s story, but is an interesting aside. When the older man catches the dark beauty alone in a copse of white birches, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the dance the two characters engage in is a prelude to seduction or rape. Masha, the only female in the army with a platoon of potential suitors, seems frightened by his commanding demeanor and probing questions; their relationship is never resolved, but the scene develops a great, nervous erotic tension that provides us perspective on an adult world beyond what Ivan knows. His boyhood is inevitably destroyed by the war, but Tarkovsky finds a way to send Ivan off to a heaven thinly disguised as a dream. The ending is one of the enigmatic, just-oblique-enough to pass the censors spiritual moments for which Tarkovsky became famous. Vadim Yusov’s brilliant, fluid black and white camerawork adds immensely to the successful debut of a great cinema talent.

Tarkovsky was given the chance to complete this movie, based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, after another director had failed. Tarkovsky rewrote the script from scratch, adding the dream sequences over the Bogomolov’s objections. Valentina Malyavina, the actress who played Masha, would later serve nine years in prison for murdering a fellow actor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unlike Tarkovsky’s subsequent films, which began to rely more and more heavily on a minimalist approach and a reliance on long takes, Ivan’s Childhood has an eye-grabbing visual aesthetic that makes excellent use of elaborate camera movement, canted angles, and almost surreal compositions.”–James Kendick, QNetwork (DVD)

CAPSULE: JACKBOOTS ON WHITEHALL (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Edward McHenry, Rory McHenry

FEATURING: Voices of Ewan McGregor, , Rosamund Pike,

PLOT: British farmers unite with Churchill and Scotsmen to repel Nazis who invade London by

Still from Jackboots on Whitehall (2010)

tunneling under the English Channel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The idea of an absurd Nazi invasion of England acted out by children’s toys is odd and appealing, but the premise is undercooked, and never hits either the weird or (more importantly) the comic notes that it should.

COMMENTS: Hitler in a dress!  That should be funny, right?  It could be either a great punchline, or the beginning of a running series of gags that see (for example) der Führer more concerned with what’s going on with his hemlines than with developments on the front lines.  But Hitler’s transvestite cameo is emblematic of the problem with Jackboots.  The joke is never developed; the movie just trots out the dictator dressed as the Queen of England, with a pearl-handled Luger, and expects us to laugh.  Although the occasional amusing one-liner slips through the fog of war (usually delivered by in his dead-on Churchill impression), for the most part Jackboots‘ quips don’t exactly stomp on your funny bone.  They’re sparse, as well.  A lot of time is devoted to chuckle-free dramatic scenes between big-handed farmhand turned soldier Chris (McGregor), his lady-love Daisy (Pike), and her disapproving Vicar father (Grant), as well as to intricate battles between plastic Panzers and Punjabi guards that—considering they’re enacted with toy tanks fighting Ken dolls in turbans—are more thrilling than expected.  Jackboots is part WWII movie parody (with a roughneck American pilot who thinks the Nazis are Commies), part clever historical references (the defeated Brits retreat to Hadrian’s Wall, and the Germans are fearful of pursuing where even the Romans dared not go), and part pure silliness (a Braveheart spoof takes up a large part of the last act).  There is a running undercurrent of mock-prejudice against the Scottish (who are depicted as cannibals in skirts) that must be funnier to U.K. residents than to those in the U.S. and elsewhere—at least, I hope it is; otherwise, it’s just another Jackboots comic misfire.  The movie manages to be unique without ever finding its own voice, which makes it interesting without ever being engaging.  Mainstreamers hoping for a script with the sly gross-out humor of Team America or the pop-culture savvy of TV’s “Robot Chicken” (which uses the same action-figure aesthetic as Jackboots) will be disappointed, if not angry and frustrated, by the oblique comedy on display here.  But even if it’s not riotously funny, little touches like a ghoulish pig-nosed Goebbels, a cat who looks like Hitler, puppet gore, and an attack vanguard of bazooka-wielding Nazi dominatrices in black lipstick should be enough to keep weirdophiles watching to the end.

Though the end result is mediocre, Jackboots‘ crazy synopsis managed to attract top-notch cult British acting talent.  Besides McGregor, Pike, Spall and Grant, the voiceover cast includes Alan Cumming (as Hitler), Tom Wilkinson (as Goebbels), and (as Himmler).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for sheer oddity value… must rank as some kind of collector’s item.”–Henry Fitzherbert, Daily Express (contemporaneous)