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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Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.
The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.
As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.
However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.
If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.
Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.
It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.
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