Category Archives: militarism

The City and The Dogs (1985)

The first thing you learn in the army is how to be a man, and men smoke and drink, and fuck … but the ones that don’t get caught are the smart ones.”

Based on the Mario Vargas Llosa novel,  Time of the Hero Francisco J. Lombardi’s film The City and the Dogs (La Ciudad y los Perros) is an ultimately disturbing film which examines how morality and individuality are subsumed within a militaristic institution. The institution under scrutiny in the film  is a military college in Lima, Peru, and the film begins with scenes depicting the savage “baptism” of cadets. In N. America, the term ‘hazing’ would be used to describe the degrading activities that take place in the dormitories and showers with new cadets humiliated and being treated like dogs by the older cadets. There’s almost too much to absorb in the mayhem of these hellish scenes–a fiery hoop, one cadet hanging upside down, cadets on all fours with leashes around their necks, and two cadets engaged in a ‘dog fight.’ It’s clear that one cadet, a strange figure known as The Jaguar (Juan Manuel Ochoa) refuses to submit to the humiliations heaped on the others. But even more than that, The Jaguar, who’s a former gang member, fights back and establishes his dominance.

All of the cadets are supposed to abide by the college’s strict rules which include no alcohol and no smoking. The Jaguar, however, along with three other cadets: Cava, Boa (Aristoteles Picho) and Rulos (Tono Vega) form “the Circle” a shady organisation responsible for providing the other cadets with contraband: pornography, alcohol, cigarettes, uniforms and even, more significantly stolen tests. It’s almost graduation time, and The Circle arranges for the theft of the chemistry test, but when the theft is discovered, all the cadets who were on duty that night are confined to barracks until the thief is uncovered.

Part of the film follows the relationship between two of the cadets outside the Circle–The Slave (Esclavo) played by Eduardo Adrianzén and the Poet (Pablo Serra), who writes letters and dirty stories for the other cadets in the dormitory. When Esclavo is confined to the barracks following the theft of the chemistry test, he asks the Poet to go and visit Teresa (Liliana Navarro) a girl he adores. When barracks confinement continues, Esclavo, a quiet, friendless cadet who bears the brunt of nonstop bullying, breaks under the pressure….

Although the film’s plot seems fairly simple, there’s a lot going on in this complex film. On one level, there’ s the group behaviour of the cadets–all of whom are afraid to cross The Jaguar. After all since The Jaguar provides the other cadets with cigarettes and booze, to some extent, he’s made their confinement at the college far more tolerable. None of the cadets dare cross The Jaguar–no matter how cruel he is, and this is due in part to fear but also to the material comforts he provides.

When a death occurs at the college, an investigation is conducted and a report generated.  Lt. Gamboa (Gustavo Bueno), a decent man who wants to do the right thing, questions its accuracy with catastrophic results. Through the actions of Gamboa and the Poet, we see just how individual morality is squashed or perverted by institutional & military dictates.  Truth is trumped by such nebulous concepts as ‘duty,’ ‘honour,’ and ‘tradition,’ so we see that those who thrive within a militaristic institution or society are those who are willing to allow their individual morality to be controlled or subsumed. Therefore someone like The Jaguar thrives and even uses institutional dictates to run amok while gentler cadets are crushed by the system. Of course, on another level, life within the college could be symbolic of life within a militaristic society with bullies, sadists and conformists rising to the top.

The film also examines how individual motivation is affected by the perceptions of  ‘the group’. What motivates the Poet, for example? Is he motivated by guilt or something finer? And then what of the Jaguar? Can we believe his final statement? Or is he simply trying to be a ‘hero’ or a tough guy to the last? The film doesn’t give any easy answers to these questions, but the message ultimately is that if the individual decides to stand up against the ruling system, then one should be prepared for the system to strike back against the individual. Just how far anyone is prepared to go to fight the system, depends on just how much one is willing to pay.  

For those wishing to dip into Peruvian film, Lombardi’s film, Mariposa Negra is superb, and Ojos Que No Ven should not be missed. There’s also Tinta Roja, Don’t Tell Anyone, and Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras

The City and the Dogs is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s Foreign film festival


Filed under militarism, Peruvian

Colonel Redl (1985)

 “I’ve got the impression you make enemies easily.”

colonel-redlA great deal of mystery still surrounds the life of Colonel Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer), the head of counter-intelligence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the aging emperor. The historical drama Colonel Redl directed by Istvan Szabo is one possible version of the events surrounding the mystery. When the film begins, Alfred Redl is a small boy of Ukrainian peasant extraction, and his family is ‘honoured’ by the emperor’s acceptance of little Redl into a strict military school. This ensures Redl’s eventual career as a military officer in the Empire, and Redl’s hellish life at school is eased by his close relationship to Kristof Kubinyi (Jan Niklas), a boy from a noble family.

The lower class Redl sticks out like a sore thumb at the school–but he has his uses, and he’s manipulated into being an informer on several occasions. Interestingly enough, the officers at the school select him for this role because as a Ukrainian peasant, he’s an outsider, but it’s Redl’s strict, twisted moral code that makes him comply. Redl has little time, interest or patience for his fellow officers’ predilection for drunken debauchery. It’s clear to the viewer–unfortunately not to Redl, however, that his strict disciplinarian approach is part of his thwarted sexuality.

Redl rises quickly in the ranks–due mainly to patronage from Colonel von Roden (Hans Christian Blech) who admires Redl’s strict approach and unquestioning loyalty to the Empire. But whereas Redl would prefer to concentrate on his military strategy skills, von Roden steers Redl’s career into bureaucratic roles. Redl is eventually promoted and placed in charge of a remote garrison near the Russian border. Unfortunately, his inflexible approach alienates him from the men and leads to a breach with Kubinyi–for whom Redl harbours a secret, repressed passion.

The Crown Prince (Armin Mueller-Stahl) recognizes Redl’s meteoric career, and creates a web of intrigue and espionage that ostensibly will return honour and discipline to the decaying, predominately noble officer class of this corrupt militaristic society. The film’s themes–class conflict and blind loyalty are subtly woven into Redl’s story, and he remains an outsider, striving always to impress. The filmmaker stresses that this is a work of fiction, and certainly the cinematic details of Redl’s life do not match the official history.

The two heavyweight actors–Armin Mueller-Stahl and Klaus Maria Brandauer deliver impeccable performances. The film’s breathtaking cinematography–snow-covered landscapes, horses racing through the forests, and the ballrooms of the wealthy elite–captures the glories of the fading, decadent Habsburg Empire just before its inevitable collapse and destruction. DVD extras include interviews with director Istvan Szabo and Klaus Maria Brandauer. In Hungarian with English subtitles.

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Filed under Hungarian, militarism, Period Piece

Le Coup de Grace (1976)

 “Perhaps I like lost causes.”

coup1German director Volker Schlondorff has a knack for realism when recreating almost forgotten slices of history. The film Le Coup de Grace based on the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, is set in the Baltic States between the years 1919-20. WWI may be over, but the fighting continues for the Prussians and the Bolsheviks. When the story begins, Prussian officer Konrad de Reval (Rudiger Kirschstein) returns to Kratovice–the family castle in Latvia–accompanied by fellow soldier Erich von Lhomond (Matthias Habich). The castle serves as the ex-facto headquarters and stronghold for the Prussian army in the region, and Konrad’s sister, Countess Sophie de Reval (Margarethe von Trotta–director Schlondorff’s wife) lives there with an elderly aunt and various servants.

Sophie is immediately attracted to Erich, and while he initially encourages her attentions, he ultimately rejects her–claiming he prefers brief relationships with servants and prostitutes. Sophie accuses Konrad of being “incapable of passion”, and tells him “you cling so tightly to life.” Once rejected, Sophie engages in a series of self-destructive affairs with the accessible pool of various other officers stationed at the castle. Sophie’s flagrant flaunting of her affairs under Erich’s nose makes a joke out of his stiff personality and his attempts to impose disciple. It’s an unhealthy situation resulting in petty rivalries, jealous scenes and ultimately–betrayal. But is Sophie motivated by Erich’s rejection or by her sympathy and relationships with Bolsheviks?

Le Coup de Grace is–simply put–mesmerizing. All the repressed passion between Sophie and Erich is set against the bleak, frozen landscape. In contrast to the bleak terrain, the characters try to forget that death surrounds them by living in the moment–organizing parties, dancing and gathering mistletoe. One scene shows a line of soldiers trudging through the snow, and the next shot shows the same empty landscape–without the soldiers. This scene is the essence of this marvelous film–a final glimpse at the dying embers of the world of Teutonic knights. Criterion DVD extras include an extensive interview von Trotta and Schlondorff. Le Coup de Grace is in German with English subtitles.

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Filed under German, militarism, Volker Schlondorff

The Desert of the Tartars (1976)

“First I want their submission.”

Set in 1907, The Desert of the Tartars from Italian director Valerio Zurlini is based on a controversial novel by Dino Buzzati. When the film begins, Lt. Drogo (Jacques Perrin) has just received his first assignment. He hoped to be stationed in an urban area, but instead he’s been assigned to the “distant border of the empire”–Fort Bastiano. Drogo bids farewell, in turn, to his mother, his sweetheart, and his friend who obviously envies Drogo and imagines he’ll “live the most exciting adventure.” Drogo rides straight to Fort Bastiano–at first he’s riding through meadows and trees, but after three days, it’s all desert.

Fort Bastiano is known as a “dead border station.” The fort sits right on the border with the mysterious North Kingdom. It’s surrounded by desert, and there is nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. Captain Hortiz (Max von Sydow), however, insists that one day he saw a horde of Tartars on white horses, and this sighting has become legendary. Hortiz believes the Tartars will return one day, but none of the other officers take him seriously.

Life at Fort Bastiano is interminably slow, yet those assigned there are kept in a constant mode of preparedness. A bizarre culture reigns at the Fort, and the result is a peculiar adherence to ceremonies, rules and regulations carried to the point of absurdity. The particularly sadistic gung-ho Major Mattis (Giuliano Gemma) is the least human of all the officers, and the film emphasizes the class distinctions between the officers and the men–there’s an unmarked grave and no accountablity for a common soldier, and a big ceremony for a dead officer.

While The Desert of The Tartars examines the moral growth of its protagonist Lt. Drogo, it is also a blistering indictment of military culture, and its hierarchal structure. The common soldiers share a loyalty and camaraderie that begins to dissipate with the non-commissed officers. Most of the officers are shown as elitists out of touch with reality, and the higher one goes up the chain of command, the more absurd things become. The General (Philipe Noiret), for example, is incompetent and addle-pated, yet he’s the one in charge, making life and death decisions when he can’t even get names straight. Alternately hypnotic and ponderous, The Desert of the Tartars is a film that pays off for those with patience. DVD extras include: an introduction and an interview by the Director of Photography, an interview with Giuliano Gemma, the original trailer, and a poster and still gallery. The film is in Italian with English subtitles.

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Filed under Italian, militarism