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#324 The Big Red One

(1980, Samuel Fuller)

“By now we’d come to look at all replacements as dead men who temporarily had the use of the arms and legs. They came and went so fast and so regularly that sometimes we didn’t even learn their names”

If you’ve read through my blog by now, you probably are aware that one subject I’m sick of seeing in movies is World War II. Name a battle in that war and chances are there are at least five movies that examine it in great detail from multiple angles. We have movies from the perspective of innocent civilians caught up in horrendous circumstances. And now, apparently, we have a movie set entirely around a specific squad.

The Big Red One is focused on a band of American soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division, aka The Big Red One. During the events of the movie they fight in battles in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. And…uh…that’s it. That’s the movie. Read the rest of this entry

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#300 Downfall

(2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Der Untergang

“The war is lost… But if you think that I’ll leave Berlin for that, you are sadly mistaken. I’d prefer to put a bullet in my head.”

Hitler parodies were everywhere on YouTube at one point. These were usually videos where Hitler would be ranting away in German while some wacky person added subtitles that suggested he was ranting about something mundane or anachronistic, such as getting his Xbox Live account banned. Well, did you know where that clip came from? It came from Der Untergang, aka Downfall, a movie about, well, Hitler’s downfall at the end of World War II.

It’s April 1945, in Berlin. Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is celebrating his birthday when suddenly loud blasts begin to rock the city. Demanding answers, Hitler discovers that the Soviets have breached German lines and are just outside the city. Determined to face off against the Soviets rather than surrender, we witness Hitler descend into madness as he deludes himself into thinking he can survive the onslaught and still win the war.

Now, there are naturally some reservations about this movie. The idea of humanising Hitler and setting a movie based on his perspective of the decisive Battle Of Berlin is one that not a lot of people particularly like the idea of. There are plenty that say that presenting Hitler as human is an insult to all who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and all those who fought to take him down.

However, Hitler was a real person, not some fairy tale monster made up to scare Jewish children, and a portrayal of him as human is a better lesson for humanity than acting like nobody else is capable of what he did. So here it is, a human portrayal of Hitler, showing him as a flawed human being with twisted thoughts and a complete lack of compassion and empathy. It’s a portrayal of humanity at its darkest, and we need that.

And Bruno Ganz nailed it. His performance is excellent throughout. Hitler is presented as this twitchy, uncomfortable little man with not an ounce of empathy in him. He is quick to anger, makes irrational decisions and deludes himself of his own greatness. He’s not particularly nice, and even in moments where he begins to appear rational and sensible, he’ll start to spout off some nonsense about how proud he is to have eradicated so many Jews. Essentially, he’s portrayed as someone you don’t really want to spend much time with.

The problem is, Hitler’s portrayal is pretty much the only good thing about the movie. The rest of it is a plodding mess that makes me question exactly what it’s trying to achieve. It’s a movie that shows a flawed human version of Hitler in the midst of scenes of concerned looking Germans not saying anything to each other, or at the very least debating whether or not they should leave Berlin, over and over.

The problem is, the many generals and staff under Hitler’s command (and I mean MANY), are not even remotely fleshed out in the way Hitler himself is. As such, everyone tends to bleed together as a single autonomous unit called “the people who aren’t Hitler”. Sure, you can tell them apart physically – there’s the fat one, the creepy-looking one, the stern one, the doe-eyed secretary and the other secretary (I think she was a secretary), but good luck remembering any of their names. Oh, and there’s Eva Braun, but she’s just kind of there because she was Hitler’s wife, but she’s got just as much personality as the rest of them.

The problem is, so much screen time is dedicated to these personality-free extras that the movie feels utterly pointless much of the time. And for a movie about Hitler’s downfall, it’s odd that Hitler kills himself (not a spoiler!) 40 minutes before the movie ends, leaving us with over half an hour of faceless characters running around trying not to get shot…and often getting shot. Repeatedly.

Downfall would be a great movie if it stuck to its guns and retained some level of focus. As it is, its determination to get every tiny little detail, however insignificant, into it 150-minute running time is tiresome and dull. Stick with a story about Hitler and we’ll be in a better place. And to highlight my displeasure with the movie, I’m going to make a Hitler Rants video. Bye!

Starring Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes, Corinna Harfouch, Juliane Köhler & Thomas Kretschmann
Written by Joachim Fest & Bernd Eichinger
Produced by Bernd Eichinger
Music by Stephan Zacharias
Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann
Edited by Hans Funck

Favourite Scene: The famous Hitler rant is probably the best part of the movie for many reasons. Even if you don’t find it a good scene on its own merits, at least it’s easy to turn off subtitles and imagine a comedy reason for Hitler’s rants.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why does the movie just keep going after Hitler’s death? Why won’t it end?!

Watch it if: You really need to complete your collection of movies giving an account of World War II
Avoid it if: You came here for Hitler’s suicide and expect it to be over by then

#294 The Marriage Of Maria Braun

(1979, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Die Ehe der Maria Braun

“Most happy people look indecent when one is unhappy”

Two films ago we looked at a German movie set vaguely around war but not actually about war. Well, it seems like there’s a theme developing because here’s another one! Today, we’re taking a look at influential German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his movie The Marriage of Maria Braun.

As you would imagine from the title, the movie is about Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla), who gets married to Hermann, a soldier during World War II. After spending half a day and a whole night together, Hermann returns to the front, leaving the marriage unfulfilled. The film tracks the time of the marriage, during which Maria takes on a series of extramarital relationships, all for the benefit of her husband. It’s…that kind of movie.

The Marriage Of Maria Braun opens with a bang. No really, the first thing we see is an explosion as the war comes to Maria’s wedding and blows off the wall of the church. It’s certainly a way to grab attention, but sadly the rest of the movie is a bit more of a whimper than a bang.

Almost immediately after this dramatic opening, the movie slides into mundane tedium as Maria goes about her daily life, albeit without her husband present because the war has split them because war is hell, don’t you know? (More movies should cover this topic, I don’t think it’s been done enough)

That said, it’s not completely tedious. There’s a murder in there somewhere, and Maria loses her mind occasionally and has outbursts about the terribleness of her life, and lots of stuff happens, but it all just feels a bit…pointless.

Don’t get me wrong. Schygulla puts in a great performance as Maria, making her as likeable as she possibly can be, but the problem is that Maria just isn’t that great a character. She sleeps around in ways that are supposedly beneficial to her marriage while showing very little in the way of morals and generally she comes across as a bit of a bitch. Not really easy to like a protagonist like this, no matter how well she’s played.

The other performances I can’t be so positive about. American characters appear to be played by Germans affecting American accents in English and struggling to maintain them. Maria’s husband is a tad generic. And Maria’s final affair is with a corporate executive so apparently evil he may as well walk around twirling his moustache.

Plot-wise, there is plenty going on, but there’s a lot of time-skips and the movie feels a tad hyperactive as a result. What’s more, by the time the plot finishes up, we’re left with a sense that while a lot happened, it was all for nothing, and not in a way that makes us think, just in a way that makes us wonder why we weren’t doing something else for the last two hours.

I also think there’s some kind of message here, possible some kind of commentary on the struggles of being a woman, especially during a time of war. Sadly, it doesn’t come across too well and more often than not I was left wondering if I was just imagining that message.

The Marriage Of Maria Braun is ultimately one of the worst films for me to review. It’s the kind of film that leaves me feeling absolutely nothing at all by the time it ends. It’s not incredibly bad, but it’s also not particularly good either. It’s just kind of there, doing things and maybe trying to impart a message, but not communicating it very well.

Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny & Gisela Uhlen
Written by Peter Märthesheimer & Pea Fröhlich
Produced by Michael Fengler
Music by Peer Raben
Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Juliane Lorenz

Favourite Scene: Uhhh…
Scene That Bugged Me: Uhhhhh….

Watch it if: You like plodding German movies (again)
Avoid it if: You like to leave a movie with some kind of impression

#276 The Producers

(1968, Mel Brooks)

“Congratulations! Hitler will run forever”

Two days ago, I reviewed a silly movie which featured Mel Brooks in a cameo and said how much I enjoyed it. Now it’s time to review a silly movie directed by Mel Brooks. But did I enjoy The Producers?

The Producers, one of Brooks’ earlier works before much of his work consisted of direct parodies of existing movies, stars Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer down on his luck. Unable to produce a hit for a while, and reduced to romancing old ladies for money to fund future projects, he hits upon a new scheme thanks to a visiting accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). Bloom discovers that by over-budgeting, it’s possible to make more money with a flop than with a hit. And so the duo set out to make the worst Broadway play possible – Springtime For Hitler.

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#261 Das Boot

(1981, Wolfgang Petersen)
“You have to have good men”

This won’t be the first time I’ve mentioned this, but I have a special disdain for World War II movies. There are so many of them on the Movies You Must See list, more of them continue to be made to this day, and more of them continue to be praised despite them all being largely the same. There’s only so much that can be said about that conflict, and yet everyone feels the need to say something about it in film-making for some reason.

But hey, this is from the German perspective, and is set entirely on a U-Boat in the midst of the conflict. This one at least does try to do something different, so maybe it won’t be that bad?

Das Boot tells the story of U-96, a submarine in the German army during WWII. Its captain (Jürgen Prochnow) is a world-weary, cynical man who clashes with his mostly young and rowdy crew. U-96 travels around Europe attempting to take out British forces and faces hardships along the way.

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#178 Atonement

(2007, Joe Wright)

“I can’t escape from what I did or what it meant”

A few reviews ago, I berated directors from mainland Europe for making navel-gazing, self-obsessed, pretentious arthouse films. Guess it’s time to turn the spotlight on my home country for another unnecessary genre that needs to stop: period drama. I don’t know what it is, but British cinema just cannot get away from adaptations of novels set around nobility in the days before the breakup of the Empire. Even more bizarrely, Keira Knightley seems to be in every single one of them. Atonement is no exception.

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#106 Saving Private Ryan

(1998, Steven Spielberg)

“This time the mission is the man”

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