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Heimatfilm with a twist
This has everything you expect from German films from the 1950s, with lavish song routines, chocolate-box German scenery, and a setting in a 1920s/1930s Germany as it might have been with no Great Depression and no Adolf Hitler. But, though I can't give more details because of the risk of spoiling the plot, it stands out because of its unusual take on divorce. The ending is definitely not what I thought it was going to be, and must have shocked many in the original audience.
The film is also notable for the acting of two characters. The actress Romy Schneider, here in an important supporting role, would later come to be one of Germany's best-loved actresses, for example when she played the title role in Sissi. But most interesting was the actress who played Willy's manager, who I think must be Ellen (Hertha Feiler), who adopts a deliberately "modern" style, and is largely responsible for frustrating the ending one might have expected.
One of the most horrible films I've ever seen
I saw this a year ago and I still lie awake thinking of it. This is how the Nazis would like you to think of concentration camps. We see the inmates engaged in ordinary work, or at a football match or concert. It looks just like a normal happy society, until you notice that here absolutely everyone is thin to the point of being skeletal. I can still remember the facial expressions of some of the inmates, though those are indescribable. I felt guilty for watching this piece of exploitation. I wonder what reward the inmates were promised for trying not to look too unhappy, a bowl of soup?
Reassuring account of modern politics
Covers the last month of the election campaign of a young enthusiastic conservative politician to the German parliament ("Bundestag"). The trouble with films about politics is that it's tempting for them to drag out the usual stereotypes ("conservative" = corrupt, "left-wing" = idealistic and naive), but this film avoids that. Instead it concentrates on the daily grind of the election campaign, with the candidate trying to hand out his campaign leaflets and free biro to passers-by who aren't interested, having to fill the base of a stand in a public toilet to stop it blowing over in the wind, and so on. It would be unfair to comment on Herr Wichmann himself, since he is a real person, but overall I found the film surprisingly optimistic about German politics. True, there are no great ideals floating around, but on the other hand the sort of sleaze and corruption we normally associate with politicians is absent. Perhaps the best scene is when Herr Wichmann and three of his rivals are challenged to design a common campaign poster, and they look like four quite normal and nice people.
Train de vie (1998)
So its unrealistic. So what?
It's amazing how many people seem to be complaining about the unrealism of this film. Given that anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see that the film is not trying to be realistic from scene 1 onwards, the question is not whether the film tried to be realistic and failed, but whether a film about the Holocaust must try to be realistic to be any good.
The trouble is that unless as part of the performance the entire audience is deported in cattle-trucks, slowly starved, and then gassed, it is rather difficult to see how any film can be realistic about the Holocaust. So, if there are to be movies about the Holocaust at all, or if they are to do much beyond telling us that the Holocaust was ghastly (we knew that, didn't we?)
they have to give up on trying to be realistic, and try to look at the Holocaust in an indirect way. This is where I think "Train de Vie" succeeds, for example by the deliberate parallels between the society inside the train, and the society that helped caused the Holocaust. I could list them at length, but if you've seen the movie and didn't notice them, you won't be convinced by anything I say, and if you haven't seen the movie, I'd rather leave you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself.
I never actually thought of the film's relation to "Life is Beautiful" until reading the IMDB comments, after I'd seen both films. Well it's very hard to compare the two films, but I don't think "Train de Vie" needs to be ashamed of the comparison. True, Roberto Benigni does not star in it, and that is a heavy handicap for any film. On the other hand I think I like the exuberant un-reality of "Train de Vie" better. After all the portrayal of the Holocaust in "Life is Beautiful" is just as unrealistic as that of "Train de Vie"; the only difference is that "Train de Vie" revels from the first scene
to the last in its unreality. If we must be unreal, let us at least enjoy it.
Richard III (1995)
This is just brilliant
This film is a treat from start to finish. I've seen and read a lot of Shakespeare, but this is going to be one of the defining versions for me. The Oliver version just doesn't compare.
I just loved the way the film mixed the 1930s with the Elizabethan; for example the 30s-style version of a Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd" (an Elizabethan hit Shakespeare himself quoted), which had a tune I can still hum, or the Plantagenet urinals. And all that's just in the first scene!
The updating was in my view fully justified. Folks, we have to remember that the War of the Roses was, in Elizabethan times, seen almost in the same way we see the First World War today. It was thought to be that horrible. Maybe it wasn't really, but that's how it was perceived. Anyone who tries to perform Shakespeare's history plays in their original setting today has somehow to solve the problem of making a modern audience feel the same sort of horror, otherwise you just end up with a lot of people in funny clothes running around doing funny things. I'm not saying you should never do a
history play in the original setting; Branagh's film of "Henry IV" is a good example of how you can, and succeed. But you ask too much if you just put the play on as if you were in Elizabethan England, and expect the audience today to be able to react to the War of the Roses as an Elizabethan audience would.
The modern connection with fascism is also perfectly reasonable.
Shakespeare's Richard is fascist, and so was the real King Richard III, who
really did haul Hastings out of a meeting and have him executed immediately,
and really did have the Princes in the Tower murdered. This was shocking to
the Elizabethans; even Henry VIII could not have someone beheaded without at
least going through some sort of judicial or parliamentary process. However
many modern audiences do not know this, and think it's just the sort of thing they did in those days. Setting the play in a fascist England helps us
realise how truly shocking Richard III's murders were.
The film also gives us a chilling reminder of how narrowly England escaped from fascism (and I am English). Fascism is not something uniquely German; it happened in Italy and Spain. It could have happened in 20th century England. If it had it might have looked something very like that, though perhaps not with Plantagenet urinals.
And yes, it is a pity so much was cut. But that's reality; that's how
Shakespeare has been done from the time of Shakespeare on. I certainly would like the film to have been twice as long, but you can hardly hold that
Der ewige Jude (1940)
This film flopped when it was shown in Nazi Germany, and it's not hard to see why. Audiences apparently complained that it was simply too much, too over-the-top. The film attempts to show the Jewish people as a parasite corrupting the whole of Western Society; in fact it only succeeds in showing how they underwrite much of Western culture. For example there is a sequence attacking the Old Testament and various characters in the Old
Testament; this must have been very hard for any Christian to swallow. We see a number of famous Jews, including for example Albert Einstein; they couldn't really leave the greatest physicist of the last century out, but how can you leave him in? There are numerous internal contradictions, for example the assertion that Jews even when rich prefer to live in fly-infested hovels, against the later pictures of Jewish mansions. Perhaps the only really effective scenes are the allegedly kosher slaughter, and Peter Lorre's soliliquy which was stolen from "M".
Passage to Marseille (1944)
Bogart's character not always saintly
I think some people have been unduly unfair on this film.
There is quite a complex sequence of flashbacks. But as a matter of fact, I didn't find them at all difficult to follow. My brain only hurts when I try to work it out afterwards. Maybe it's another of those things which work better in a cinema than on TV.
There is a scene where Bogart's character commits a war crime. I think we have to remember that Bogart did not always play saintly characters. He was not exactly saintly in the "Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca". He was even less saintly in "The Caine Mutiny". I am sure that the audience in 1944 would have been shocked by the war crime just as we are
now; even Nazi propaganda sometimes emphasised the importance of being gentlemanly to prisoners. The easy and boring option would have been for
Bogart to play the all-American (or all-French) hero throughout; I find it
more interesting that in this case he isn't. I think the circumstances to some extent explain what Bogart's character does. The fact is war crimes happen in war. They happened then, and they happen now, and the perpetrators are not as through-and-through evil (or different from us) as we would like to think.
I agree with those who say this film is not as good as "Casablanca" or the "Maltese Falcon". The plot is a lot more lumpy and uneven than those films. But I've seen those two films several times already, and I can't watch them every night. "Passage to Marseille" is worth at least one viewing. In fact I would like to see it again, if I get a chance.
The Abyss (1989)
What appalling trash!
For those time is too valuable to waste on this film, I offer the following summary. This will be a SPOILER if you unaware of normal Hollywood conventions, otherwise I hope not.
(1) Military men are evil. Everyone else is quite nice, though they don't always show it at first.
(2) We should spend more time being nice to each other.
(3) The only people who ever die are either evil or unimportant.
(4) Disasters at sea happen because people are far too stupid to take extremely basic safety precautions like providing a reliable way for two connected vessels to separate.
(5) A leading woman will always start being tough and aggressive, but in a crisis her feminimity will come to the surface, making her more attractive to other beings and promoting marital relations.
(6) We should stamp out discrimination. All dangerous missions should have at least one black and one woman on board. The easiest way to achieve this is to combine them into one person, and avoid allowing them to advance the plot in any essential way.
I suppose this film must be for people who like special-effects and a predictably happy ending.
Das Boot (1985)
The ultimate war film
If you want an action movie, watch something else. Das Boot reflects what war must really be like, showing not just the 1% of terror and confusion, but also the 99% sitting around waiting for things to happen. It is also the best if not only explanation I know, of how honourable men could have fought for the Nazis.
I have now seen "Das Boot" 4 times. The first time was the "Director's Cut" with subtitles. Since then I have learnt German, so each time I watch the film I understand it better. It is still very difficult to follow, and a great deal passes me by; I think this film probably has the hardest German of any of the 50 or so German-language films I've seen. This is part of its authenticity; you don't expect people to speak Standard High German when they think they may die horribly in the next five minutes.
The original mini-series has about the same amount of action as the Director's Cut, but a great deal more explanation and character development. For example, the Captain gets to comment on his actions towards the English sailors from the sinking oil-tanker. I think the sound of the Director's Cut was redone for Dolby-7, so the noises seem to come from all around and at times make you want to hide under the seat. However in all other respects, I think the mini-series is very much better than the Director's Cut, brilliant though that is.
Billy Elliot (2000)
Cliched plot saved by some fine acting
It's not surprising so many foreigners think Britain is a class-ridden society. A few years ago the typical British film showed Hugh Grant and various other apparently unemployed filthy rich living the high life, now the fashion is for grimy Northern pictures showing decent working folk being ground down by the forces of conservatism. Well I am British, and I don't recognise either of these stereotypes as being particularly typical of the Britain I know.
Of course the story of the miners' strike is an important one, and Billy Elliot does make a good attempt at telling it. But Billy Elliot is primarily supposed to be about a young boy who wants to dance, so what has that got to do with the miners' strike?
What I think it's got to do with it is that the script needs a father who is basically decent, but is anti-ballet-dancing. Now in fact I'll bet that if you walk into a pub anywhere from the West End to the Gorbals, and ask what the men there think of boys doing ballet, you will get some in favour, some against, and some don't knows. But instead the film patronises the mineworkers by assuming that northern mineworker == conservative (with a small c) =thinks ballet is for "poofs". This is a cliche in the worst sense, because it's a substitute for thinking; the film robs us of the chance to see what really makes Billy Elliot's father anti-ballet, which is never explained.
It's also manipulative. If Billy Elliot was the son of a millionaire and went to Eton, his parents might be just as anti-ballet, and his public-school comrades even more scornful. But the film puts him in a stereotyped Northern family, because the scriptwriters knew that by doing that they'd tug our heartstrings more.
The film is worth seeing because of the acting of Billy Elliot and his dancing teacher, who have a really special and interesting relationship. But I don't think it deserves to be in the IMDB top 250.