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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

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The Blue Angel (1930)

“The films that von Sternberg made with me speak for themselves. There is nothing, and there will be nothing in the future, that could surpass them. Filmmakers are forever condemned to imitate them.” (Marlene Dietrich)

Based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, the film The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel) follows the obsession of a reclusive bachelor schoolteacher with a sexually liberated nightclub singer. The night club singer is, of course, Marlene Dietrich, and her unforgettable performance as Lola Lola catapulted her to international fame.

The Blue Angel is the story of Professor Rath, played by the portly Emil Jannings, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small town. While he is meticulous and stuffy in his personal and professional lives, he is also the object of ridicule. Scenes show him in the classroom where as a petty tyrant, the good students fear him and the poor students torment him at every opportunity. The class swot is appropriately named Angst (Rolf Muller). When Rath notices that some of the boys possess racy postcards of scantily dressed women, it’s Angst who tells Rath that the women on the postcards are from The Blue Angel–a popular hangout for the boys after hours. Rath decides to go to The Blue Angel and catch the boys himself, and of course, this is a very intriguing decision since Rath imagines that his jurisdiction spans the boys’ lives outside of the classroom. But there again, given Rath’s own evident surreptitious sexual interest in the postcard which depicts Lola Lola, perhaps moral intervention is just the excuse he tells himself in order to visit the nightclub after dark.

Once in the nightclub, the professor, who’s there ostensibly to catch the pupils drinking and ogling the dancers, falls under the spell of the fabulous Lola Lola. The Blue Angel is definitely a low-rent club, and the women who sing and entertain the crowds are a motley crew–one young woman just stands there and rotates her eyes in her version of ocular bellydancing. Lola Lola is clearly the star of the show, and for each of her songs she dons a different outfit–all of them managing to display her underwear. One costume is a huge farthingale. Not only is the skirt see-through (so we can see her bloomers), but it’s also backless–as the Professor discovers to his astonishment once he’s inside her dressing room.

The initial scenes with the Professor at The Blue Angel are comic, and much of the humour comes from the Professor’s reactions to Lola Lola. He very quickly falls under her spell, and once he’s lost his social position, he is gradually ground down by humiliation and eventually destroyed by the very sexuality that drew him into Lola Lola’s life.

Thanks to the advent of talkies, the career of thick-German accented Emil Jannings was on the wane when he cabled von Sternberg to join him in Berlin in order to make a film–the first sound film at UFA studios. Director Josef von Sternberg was engaged by Paramount and UFA for this joint German-American co production, and Jannings, who’d fought with von Sternberg on the film set before, argued for the employment of this director for what would be his first German speaking film. Jannings stated that “he had the choice of every director, even Lubitsch,” but that “his heart” was “set on” von Sternberg. In reply, the director said that Jannings was “a horrible affliction and a hazard to any aesthetic purpose.” Then he accepted, so Jannings set out to find a project that von Sternberg would accept and direct. In Berlin, Jannings came to von Sternberg with Heinrich Mann’s novel, Professor Unrat, and this is what the director says in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I liked the idea of the first part of the novel, met Heinrich Mann and asked him if he had any objection to my changing the structure of his story, eliminating and adding whatever suited my purpose. I told him of my plan to call the film The Blue Angel, to change the name of the girl to Lola, and to alter the ending completely …. Mann had no objections; on the contrary, he told me that he wished he had thought of the suggested changes himself, and gave me full liberty to alter or add whatever I thought advisable.

Josef von Sternberg filmed two versions simultaneously–the English version and the German as the technique of film dubbing was not yet possible. Emil Jannings, who was paid  200,000,  stars as Professor Immanuel Rath, the strait-laced, sexually repressed bachelor professor. Marlene Dietrich was paid a mere 5,000 for her role.

With the leading man already in place, von Sternberg’s biggest task was to find the woman to take the role of Lola Lola, a cheap nightclub singer who is the object of the professor’s obsessive desire and the woman who ultimately leads the professor to his doom. Jannings wanted Lucie Mannheim or Trude Hesterberg for the role, but after seeing Dietrich perform in a play (he’d already passed over her photograph,) von Sternberg knew that he’d found his dark angel– “here was the face I had sought.” 

Moreover, there was something else I had not sought, something told me that my search was over. She leaned against the wings with a cold disdain for the buffoonery, in sharp contrast to the effervescence of the others, who had been informed that I was to be treated to a sample of the greatness of the German stage. She had heard that I was in the audience, but as she did not consider herself involved, she was indifferent to my presence.

Von Sternberg also noted Dietrich’s “impressive poise,” and also that she conducted herself with a remarkable “bovine listlessness” with eyes “completely veiled.” For von Sternberg, she was perfect.  Jannings and producer Pommer were not impressed, but von Sternberg pushed for a screen test, and she got the part. During the filming, von Sternberg and Dietrich began an affair.   

Take a look of Dietrich’s first rendition of Falling in Love Again, the song that bookends her relationship with the Professor and then compare it to the second which appears almost at the end of the film. In the first rendition, even though the song is sung with a certain amount of indifference, Lola Lola effectively woos the Professor, and in the second rendition, she rejects him with defiance, triumph and an acknowledgment of her nature. Lola Lola appears to have undergone a transformation between the two songs or is it Dietrich we see transformed?

While the film appears to have a simple structure, it’s full of repetition and doubling. The Professor’s world of order is in complete contrast to Lola’s world of make-believe and chaos. The Professor frequently engages with the clown (the clown was entirely von Sternberg’s invention), but the relationship with the Professor and the clown consists of them both staring at each other–as if they are trying to fit this alien being into some sort of frame of reference. Yet the way they stare at each other is also reminiscent of a person staring at a reflection in the mirror–and this is, of course, a foreshadowing of the Professor’s tragic fate.

It’s clear that The Blue Angel, light on dialogue is just one short step from the silent era, and perhaps this is why the English version is a curiosity. The English spoken is heavily accented, sometimes unintelligible, and clearly this is a German film–the word “achtung,” for example, appears from the pupils when they hear Professor Rath approaching. Kino released a splendid dual DVD release which includes both the English and the German versions and Dietrich’s screen test. Although the German version is superior, it’s still well worth watching both versions. During the Professor’s first visit to The Blue Angel, he spends time in Lola Lola’s dressing room, and as she leaves to go onstage to sing, she stands in the doorway of her dressing room, and somewhat coarsely readjusts her stockings, garter and underwear. This small, and yet deliciously telling detail is absent from the English-speaking version.  

The Blue Angel is an iconic, remarkable film. As the first talking picture made at UFA studios, it has its historic value of course, but it also is a product of the marvels and talent of Weimar Germany–soon to be washed away.  Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert, the magician, was forced by the Nazis to direct a propaganda film extolling the kindness of the Nazis to the Jews. After making the film, he and his wife were gassed in a concentration camp. Karl Huszar-Puffy who plays the innkeeper was trying to travel to Hollywood and, according to von Sternberg’s autobiography, he was removed from a ship and interned in a concentration camp in Kazakhstan by the Russians where he starved to death. Emil Jannings who played the Professor went on to star in a number of Nazi propaganda films, and he was named as Artist of the State by Joseph Goebbels in 1941. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich took a different path entirely. She opted for American citizenship and rejected Goebbels’ attempts to woo her back to Berlin with an offer of 50,000 pounds tax-free to return to Germany to make one film.

The Blue Angel is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Caravan (1946)

You’ll oblige me by keeping her ladyship out of that dirty mind of yours.”

Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, Caravan, a costume drama from Gainsborough Pictures is set in the 19th century and features versatile Stewart Granger at his swashbuckling best. Granger plays Richard Darrell, a penniless author who hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oriana Camperdene (Anne Crawford). Darrell, the son of an English country doctor and a Spanish mother has no fortune of his own, but he’s not without talent. His childhood was spent brawling with the gypsies, poaching on the land of the wealthy,  and picking up various survival skills. One of Darrell’s significant childhood relationships is with Oriana, but he has competition in the form of wealthy Francis Castleton. Francis is a sneaky underhand boy who grows up to be a cruel womanizer who will stop at nothing to possess Oriana. Flashback scenes from Darrell’s childhood establish his early rivalry with Francis over Oriana’s affections.

When the film begins, Darrell, eyeing a window full of succulent food, contemplates using his last coin to buy supper, but fate intervenes when Darrell comes to the aid of wealthy Spaniard, Don Carlos (Gerard Heinz) who is robbed. Darrell not only fights the two men who are attempting to rob Don Carlos, but he also returns him, wounded, to his home. Don Carlos, a dealer in precious jewels, is grateful to Darrell, and arranges to get his book A Way Through the Woods published. Then he employs Darrell to deliver a priceless necklace which once belonged to Queen Isabella back to Spain. Darrell takes the mission because it will help fund his writing career and enable his marriage to Oriana, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave her.

While Oriana and Darrell see their separation as the necessary precursor to their marriage, Francis (a dastardly Dennis Price), sees Darrell’s trip to Spain as an opportunity to rid himself of his rival. Darrell’s departure leaves Oriana unprotected as her father has recently died, and since he gambled away most of the estate, she is left with a 100 pounds a year on which she must live. Francis sees Oriana’s penury and isolation as the perfect setting to manipulate her into marriage, and with Darrell off to Spain, Francis plots the destruction of his rival using his evil sidekick, Wycroft (Robert Helpmann),  and he also leads Oriana into believing she is in his debt.

If this all sounds like great melodramatic romance and exotic adventure, well it is. We have the star-crossed lovers, Oriana and Darrell who become separated by circumstance–some planned and some caused by fate. The exotic sets are mostly just that–studio sets, so don’t expect much authenticity here. In fact, the film’s glaring weaknesses are apparent in the opening credits when we see the back of man with  a guitar who is supposedly serenading a woman up in a balcony. Apart from the fact that if he is singing, the song goes on for far too long, he never moves, so the opening creates a wooden artificiality while the opening was supposed to set the scene for romance. With Caravan, you have to accept the fake stuff to enjoy the fun of the story which is over-the-top at times. Caravan is basically a 1940s version of a bodice ripper, and there are plenty of allusions to what goes on behind bedroom doors including a libidinous husband who promises not to demand his rights and then immediately reneges on the deal. The marvellous Jean Kent plays Rosal, a hot-blooded gypsy girl who makes her living as a dancer, and this involves banging a huge tambourine and stamping the floor from time-to-time. The passionate, wild,  and jealous Rosal is in complete contrast to the very correct British Oriana. Both women love Darrell of course, and here he’s cast as an Errol Flynn type character with all of his physical abilities on bold display: boxing, horse riding and even whipping. The film’s best scenes include Francis and Oriana–although there’s another marvellous scene involving  a group of London prostitutes who meet Oriana.

Dennis Price is deliciously evil as the dastardly Sir Francis, and he has the best role and the most memorable lines in the film–some of which refer to Ariane’s sexual incompetence, suggesting at some points that she could learn a few things from prostitutes and that she needs to start delivering the goods. Due to its sometimes over-the-top moments, Caravan does have its camp factors, so just sit back and enjoy the show. The story is great fun–believable or not.

“You see my dear, I suffer from an exaggerated sense of property and having gone to the trouble of getting something, even though it may be rubbish, I have the awkward habit of hanging onto it.”

Directed by Arthur Crabtree

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Love is My Profession (1958)

“You can’t explain happiness.”

Based on a Simenon novel, Love is My Profession (1958) aka En Cas de Malheur examines the power of sexuality and the issue of control through the obsessive relationship between a bourgeois French lawyer with a young girl. The young girl in question is Yvette, played by sulky kittenish Brigitte Bardot, a woman for whom morality isn’t exactly absent, but it is skewed. Normally, affluent middle-aged lawyer André Gobillot (Jean Gabin) wouldn’t cross paths with someone like Yvette, but Yvette seeks help and legal representation from Gobillot after she and her friend Noémie  (Annick Allières) attempt to knock off a jewelry shop, and Yvette ends up bashing the jeweler’s elderly wife over the head with a crowbar. After the robbery goes wrong, Yvette manages to run away to a bar where her sometime lover, student doctor, Gaston (Claude Magnier) works. Yvette gets the notion that she needs legal help and picks out Gobillot’s name from the phone book. Whether or not you think this is a stroke of luck or not may depend upon your romantic tendencies. 

Gobillot at first refuses to represent penniless Yvette until she raises her skirt and in an unforgettable scene reveals her lack of underwear and her garter belt. From this moment, Gobillot is a goner, and his personal and professional lives spiral out of control.He represents Yvette in court and by some clever, but unethical legal footwork, Gobillot manages to get his client free. Instead of Yvette walking back to her former life, Gobillot pays her bill at a hotel that’s all too conveniently close to the courthouse.  DVD covers often depict scenes far more salaciously than they actually are in the film, but this DVD cover is an exception. Bardot’s skirt is lifted higher in the film and you can see her garter belt and it’s also obvious that she’s not wearing underwear. Well the offer she makes to Gobillot is rather frank after all….

One of this marvelous film’s great characters is Madame Gobillot, played exquisitely by Edwige Feuillère. She’s not exactly a long-suffering wife, but she understands her husband better than he understands himself, so she’s one step ahead of his intentions when it comes to Yvette.

Gobillot begins an affair with Yvette, and although this should be a private matter, the illicit relationship has ramifications on everyone in Gobillot’s life. His wife initially accepts the affair as a silly passing interest, and she decides to tolerate it and keep the lines of communication open until Gobillot comes to his senses. Meanwhile Gobillot’s devoted old maid secretary, Bordenave (Madeleine Barbulée) is alternately shocked, concerned and titillated by Gobillot’s flagrantly erotic relationship with Yvette.

The complexities of the film’s characters add significantly to a tale that could be trite in the wrong hands. After all, the mid-life affair of a man of substance with a giddy, promiscuous blonde is hardly unexplored territory. While Gobillot’s relationship with Yvette is heavily sexual, there’s a large slice of the father-child dynamic at play. Gobillot treats Yvette rather as he would a naughty five-year-old, and this method works for the most part–even though her behaviour includes drug use and flagrant infidelity. For her part, self-confessed prostitute Yvette feels that she owes a debt to Gobillot, but their relationship extends beyond gratitude and also beyond the material security he showers her with.  Yvette’s sense of morality includes admitting infidelities to Gobillot, and he treats her like a child when she confesses or is upset–even holding a tissue while she blows her nose.

As the affair grows more serious, Madame Gobillot’s tolerance is stretched to breaking point, and in once great scene, Gobillot tells Bordenave that he’s giving his wife “real reasons to hate” and compares this to a “mercy killing.” While Madame Gobillot’s tolerance is a strategic move, her decision to allow her husband ‘freedom’ to indulge in this affair proves catastrophic. Freedom and possession also raises its head in Yvette’s relationships with Gobillot and Gaston. Both men want exclusive ownership–whereas Yvette seems happier with no constraints on her behaviour.

Love is My Profession was remade into the 1998 film In All Innocence (En Plein Coeur), and interestingly the original film is bleaker and its characters much more complex. It’s impossible to watch Love is My Profession without recalling Simenon’s life and his turbulent marriages. At one point while married to first wife, Tigy, he had a long-term affair with the maid, Boule, and when he and his wife travelled to America, his wife stipulated that the maid remain behind. However, when Simenon began an affair with Denyse, the woman who would become his second wife, his then current wife sent for the maid to join them. There’s a very odd scene in the film which includes Janine, the maid (Nicole Berger). Is it just me but is there some swinging going on there?

Love is My Profession is an entry into Caroline & Richard’s Foreign Film festival.

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Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ’emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

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The Winter War: Talvisota (1989)

“The only land we’ll give them is their burial plot.”

I came across this film thanks to a hosted blogging event conducted by All About War Movies. I’m more into crime film than war film, but The Winter War from director Pekka Parikka sounded interesting–mainly because it covered a subject I wanted to know more about: The war between the Finns and the invading Soviet army. The film doesn’t give any historical background, so first I’ll back up and say that Finland was considered part of Russia until Finland declared independence in 1917. The new Bolshevik government, facing enormous problems on the home front, rolled over when faced with Finland’s demand for autonomy, and Finland then became an independent country. Move forward just twenty years to the Stalin-Hitler Pact.  Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, and then the old territory of Tsarist Russia became a target. Stalin wanted Finnish land, he claimed, as a “buffer” for Leningrad which really was an excuse for a landgrab.  The Winter War began after negotiations broke down between Stalin and Finland and a provocative Gleiwitz type event conducted by the NKVD took place. For the war, Mannerheim was the Finns’ Commander-in-Chief, and as a former member of the Imperial Russian Army, he had a good idea what the Finns faced. Incidentally, Mannerheim was opposed to the war and supported negotiations with the Soviet Union. The first film footage taken on Russian soil is of the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, and if you watch the grainy footage, Mannerheim is walking slightly ahead of the new Tsar, off to the side, and carries the imperial orb.

 The Winter War lasted from Nov 1939-March 1940, and the film concentrates on a group of reservists from the farming community of Kauhava–specifically the Hakala brothers Martti (Taneli Mäkalä) and Paavo (Konsta Mäkalä) as they defend the Mannerheim Line. The film opens with the chaos of goodbyes and men reporting for duty. This opening scenes are portents of things to come: the men are ill-prepared, there’s little or no equipment, and no one expects fighting to actually begin. Negotiations are taking place between Finland and the Soviet Union, so the more optimistic men don’t expect a war to take place. There’s one seasoned soldier, Yilli (Esko Nikkari) however, who fought in 1918, who fully expects to fight and who also expects the fight to be tough. As the negotiations play out, the men from Kauhava move closer and closer to the front line and there’s a range of innocence and denial about what they face.

No shots took place until 50 minutes into the film, and then from this point on the action was almost relentless. Mostly the film portrays a war of attrition. The group of men whose fate we follow are sent to defend the Taipale River. Watching the film, seeing the men freezing in the ice and snow, well I couldn’t help but wonder what is worse…a war fought in the freezing cold or a war fought in the jungles of South East Asia. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, but there is something dramatic about flamethrowers used against the white landscape and the white snow that turns to blood or is churned with mud by the continual onslaught of tanks.

Since the Finns basically fight a war of attrition in a situation that seems to be a throwback to WWI trench warfare, we see battle after battle as the Finns are decimated in one way or another. The film shows clearly that the Finns were outgunned and outmanned, but while the invading Red Army was vastly superior in sheer numbers and weaponry to the Finns, Stalin had been busy executing Red Army officers over the previous few years. This left the Red Army weak in leadership. The Winter War does not depict the guerrilla warfare waged by the Finns–instead it concentrates on the fierce trench war waged between the lads from Southern Ostrobothnia and the Red Army horde who periodically storm the Finnish territory under cover of aircraft attacks.

The invading Russian horde looks like another species from a distance, and those old Civil war hats add to the sense of alienation. A couple of the close-ups of Russians looked uncannily like Trotsky which was a bit distracting, but since we see things from the Finns’ point of view, the demonic view of the enemy probably mirrors just how those on the front lines felt. One of the most remarkable facets of this film is the way in which the Finns treat each other–while the men are disciplined, the discipline appears to be internal rather than external. Yes we do see so-called superior officers, but for the most part the men appear to hold themselves in check. These men are not, unlike their Russian counterparts–soldiers–but rather simple men fighting to keep their way of life. And when one man, a rather more fragile character can no longer stand the pressure and has a nervous breakdown, he’s treated with compassion and love. Of course, these men all know each other since they hail from the same geographical region, and many of them are related. I couldn’t help but think of all the war films in which troops are shot by firing squads for breaks in ‘discipline.’ That element is absent here, and ultimately The Winter War is an unusual film because of its inner humanity. One scene shows the men agreeing to give up wages in the hope that this will allow the purchase of much-needed equipment and weaponry.

Although there’s a large cast, we follow the action, for the most part, through the eyes of the oldest Halaka brother, Martti, and it’s also through his eyes that the inevitable questions are raised: just how much do you tell the family back home? How honest should you be about the brutality of the conditions? Those left behind say they want to know the truth, but do they really? Are they prepared for the facts? Will knowing the facts even help?

After the prolonged, repetitive but realistic action, the film’s ending comes abruptly to an end and thus introduces a further sense of madness to the carnage just witnessed. How can men be bayoneting one another to death one minute and then proclaiming peace in the next breath?

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Filed under (Anti) War, Finland

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.

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Filed under Drama, Period Piece