Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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Tagged As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, Asia, Berhand, Bernhard, Bettermann, Blu-Ray, Britain, buy into, camp, Cape, character, child, cinema, coal, Comment, concentration, conditions, cruel, cultures, daughter, desperate, dreary, drink, dubious, DVD, emotional, enjoyable, ethicallly, ethics, Europe, fairy, family, film, flimsy, food, Forced, forlorn, France, Gdansk, German, grim, gulag, hard, Hardy, harrowing, harsh, hitting, Holocaust, hopeless, impossible, investment, jews, journey, kind, Labour, Leningrad, loved one, manual, Martins, miles, mines, missing, Mongolia, moral, morality, Moscow, movie, occupation, opinion, perfect, philosophy, photo, prison, Review, reviewer, reviews, right, Russia, sad, Second World War, sentence, Siberia, Society, son, Stalin, Stalingrad, storytelling, tale, trip, trudge, unrealistic, USA, USSR, Verdict, walk, wife, writer, wrong, Yankee
I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint the moment I fully embraced the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. It may have been after my first THRRIP (Totally Humiliating Romantic Rejection In Public), or my second, third or fourth, or it may have been at the doctors after being diagnosed with yet another niggling ailment, or that time on holiday. Yeah that time. Anyway it’s an incredibly liberating and practically useful little philosophical phrase that never fails to help when intoned in worrying hushed tones to oneself at times of crisis. Normally it’s best to redirect your waves of gloom into stinging volleys of verbal venom at something or someone else. However if you can’t quite manage this straight away there is the intermediate stage of self-loathing as opposed to self-pity. It’s surprising how much better it feels to mentally pound yourself, the equivalent of smashing your knee caps to bits with a hammer, than to sit and curse your bad luck and the unfairness of the world and stay true to some ideal that ultimately makes you a worthless martyr. That’s a bit like watching Comic Relief in black and white without the Comic bits and you feel so guilty you want to ring up, only you can’t because you’re tied to a metal chair in a freezing igloo with only cockroaches and old copies of Bella with outdated fictions about the Loose Women for company. I mean you can find the fun in bashing anything with a hammer.
Obviously though it’s better not to destroy yourself, no matter how fun it is, but that’s the beauty of the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. Anger is far more productive than depressing sadness and can usually be channelled like a satisfying stream of hot piss as opposed to the dreary, relentless drip of sadness. If you let it that drip will erode your soul, whereas that stream of piss will just make it a stink for a while, and people will think you’re a prick, but you’ll feel better. Anger gets things done. They may not be worthwhile things but it will get you out of bed in the morning. Countless critics for example seem to make a living out of analysing and ripping to shreds pointless content, such as ITV’s new morning show Daybreak. I mean really who cares about its quality, who actually expected it to tackle the news seriously and intelligently as the producers claimed before the revamp? But what would be the point in collapsing into weepy hysterics about the futility of life, symbolised by Adrian Chiles’ empty autocue reading posture, or Sharon Osborne’s incompetence standing in for Loraine Kelly? Much better to write scathing, fury fuelled critiques that might just brighten the day of all those who tolerate such comfort TV, whilst secretly seething at its failings.
I have to say though that I have realised I was exaggerating to say I “fully embraced” the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. The little method outlined above to deal with life’s ups and downs really just dips its toes in the rivers of possibility. Michael Caine’s character Harry Brown, in director Daniel Barber’s 2009 debut of the same name, fully adopts the philosophy and dives deep into those waters out of grim necessity. Harry has more reason than most to be sad, and therefore extremely mad. He lives in London’s hellish underbelly and watches, his face illuminated in the gentle amber glow of the street lights, as his neighbourhood is terrorised and ruled by mindless thugs. And what really irks Harry is that they are totally mindless. Harry was in the Marines in Northern Ireland and saw ghastly things in that warzone, but that violence was always motivated by deeply held beliefs. In this modern hell he watches as his life is torn apart by bored teenagers, snatching filthy pleasures and dangerous highs where they can get them.
Caine was full of praise for Barber’s directorial skill on his debut after this film’s release and that praise is mostly justified. That is not to say his first film was perfect but it is a solidly gripping and at times moving tale. The film opens strikingly with a random shooting, seen from the frenzied perspective of drugged up youths on a fast moving, noisy bike. The incident comes to a crashing halt and despite the horror of it all the audience can feel the thrill and therefore the twisted motivation behind the criminals’ actions. Barber then swiftly contrasts this dizzying, dangerous high with the monotonous, lonely day to day existence of Harry Brown in his drab flat on a graffiti splattered estate, with only chess games at the pub and visits to his dying wife to fill the dragging bags of time. When Harry’s only real mate, his chess buddy, is murdered standing up to the thugs and the police investigation quickly stumbles in an excellent, frustrating interrogation scene, Harry resolves to begin unpicking the threads of his local underworld. Actually just to back up my earlier theory Harry tries drink first, feels sorry for himself and then is forced to act by a knife wielding hoodie. Sad first, then get mad.
Now if the idea of a pensioner getting things done, pulling out the roots of crime through strength of will alone, seems a little implausible to you, then you’re not alone. Even though it was Michael Caine, once so imposing in Get Carter, so assured in The Italian Job, I was sceptical. But Caine’s performance, vulnerable puppy dog eyes and all, ultimately draws you in. Indeed this is a very well acted production. David Bradley puts in a solid turn as always as Caine’s murdered friend but most impressive for me were the police officers involved in the investigation. Emily Mortimer’s well meaning Detective and streetwise Charlie Creed-Miles as her Sergeant make an intriguing double-act, whilst Iain Glen as the superior officer in charge is totally convincing in his brief scenes trundling out the official line with cold hearted efficiency. If the film has a weak point it is perhaps the crude characterisation of the yobs, whose performances are somewhat predictable. But then again the slightly heightened and simplified version of grim estate life may simply be making the point that scum exists and even the police recognise the best they can do is to be seen to be doing something about and to contain it within areas beyond help. The actions scenes, whilst not perfect, are hard hitting and gripping. The film builds to a climax in which the estate becomes a battleground, with shield wielding riot police standing helplessly against the hordes of savage youths. Again this feels simplified but the film concludes well with a satisfying twist. Barber definitely deserves more opportunities in the director’s chair, if only for the vivid vision of a grimy, sodden and hidden London that is present throughout.
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