Tag Archives: WWII

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov (2013)

There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.

We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.

Vasiliy StalinIt’s during the flight training and WWII  scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.

The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.

While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.

The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.

Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.

Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.

Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.

Directed by Sergei Shcherbin

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Protektor (2009)

Protektor, a 2009 film from Czech director Marek Najbrt examines the corrupting effect of the Nazi occupation through the relationship of a radio broadcaster, Emil Vrbata (Marek Daniel) and his Jewish actress wife, Hana (Jana Plodková). When the film begins, it’s 1938, pre-Nazi occupation, and a few scenes establish the core relationship between Emil, a minor radio functionary and his glamorous actress wife. Pencil thin, and wearing a platinum blonde wig (think Jean Harlow), Hana stars and sings in Czech cinema as the leading romantic lady. Emil, in contrast, is a bit of a plodder who can’t help but feel jealous and threatened by his wife’s on-screen dalliances with the suave leading man, Fantl (Jirí Ornest). Perhaps Emil’s feelings of inadequacy are justified as Fantl, predicting the Nazi’s punishing presence, urges Hana to accept a fake Swiss passport and get out while she still can.

Fast forward to the Nazi occupation, and suddenly films which feature Jews cannot be screened, so this leaves Hana instantly unemployed. In a reversal of fortune, Emil’s star rises at the radio station when announcer Franta (Martin Mysicka) refuses to “cooperate” with their new Nazi bosses. The Nazis understood the importance of controlling the media, and so all radio announcements are first sent to Czech censors, and their versions are then sent to Nazi censors. During a radio station meeting, Franta wryly notes that the ‘censors are censoring the censors,’ and privately he tells Emil that “cooperation leads to collaboration.” Franta goes along with the programme for a while, but a “provocation” live on-air, leads to arrest and prison, and Emil rises in Franta’s stead becoming the “Voice of Prague.”

At first Emil’s reasoning, which after all may be genuine or a good excuse, is that his cooperation provides political security for his wife, but as time passes he becomes deeper and deeper involved in Nazi propaganda and is morally corrupted by the privileged partying crowd at the radio station. Meanwhile at home, Hana, depressed and driven crazy by her home imprisonment, sneaks out and establishes a strange relationship with a man, Petr (Thomás Mechácek) who works at the morgue and who runs ‘private screenings’ of Hana’s films at the local cinema. Petr has his own axe to grind against the Nazis as he was in his last year of medical school when it was closed down by the Nazi occupiers.

While Emil broadcasts propaganda by day and parties by night, Hana establishes a secret life with Petr as they create photographic acts of defiance against the Nazis. This strange activity essentially inserts Hana into a life from which she is forbidden. Ultimately both Emil and Hana’s activities are evidence of their parallel lives of self-destruction and denial of reality. While Hana’s self-destructive streak is literal and apparent early in the film, Emil’s self-destruction is not literal but moral in tone. Emil wants to cooperate with the Nazis in the spirit of ‘greater good’ and supposedly to protect his wife, and meanwhile Hana’s acts are both risky and frivolously sad. The film also cleverly parallels Emil’s role and abuse of his role as Hana’s ‘protecter’ with Reinhard Heydrich’s (the Butcher of Prague) role as the so-called Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Morovia.

The recurring motif of bicycling occurs throughout the film–a rather appropriate one given the significance of the bicycle and the assassination of Heydrich–an event which brought down massive civilian reprisals and removed any remaining veil of self-delusion of the Nazi master plan.  One of Hana’s scenes shows her riding a stationary bicycle in the studio while she’s pursued by her screen lover, Fantl. The implicit idea is riding and exerting all of one’s energy and getting nowhere while  the secondary idea of this recurring motif is that one cannot escape one’s fate. Hana and Emil’s increasingly tortured relationship is in the foreground, but in the background, we see quicksilver glimpses of torture, Aryan thugs and massive round-ups. Protektor effectively manages to blend an uneasy mix of dark fatalism with a sense of escalating madness, avoidance and self-delusion which ends in a stunning, unforgettable sequence.

This Czech film is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema series

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Torpedo Bombers (1983)

“We”ll fix you up with a parachute.”

The marvellous 1983 Soviet film, Torpedo Bombers (Torpedonostsy), from director Semyon Aronovitch is a homage to the Soviet pilots and crews who lost their lives during WWII in their fight against Germany. For the film’s intense look at the lives of these men, Torpedo Bombers is a unique film, and the cinematography of shots of the men in their planes is simply incredible.  Brilliant, stunning shots depict the planes’ navigators in close quarters; other shots depict planes in flames–one in a kamikaze dive in a last-ditch effort to destroy the enemy. Other close-ups show faces inside smoking planes, and then shots of a plane disintegrating and falling from the sky. The Soviet planes must fly in close to drop their torpedos, so these missions tend to have a suicidal edge. This incredible film is based on the stories of Yuri German.

It’s 1944, and the film opens with the report of a “fascist convoy” in the area, so crews scrambles, planes are prepared and then take to the skies. Some shots give us an idea of the rudimentary nature of life on the base, and many of the pilots and crews have their families there with them. There’s a downside to this which becomes evident as the film continues.

Torpedo Bombers throws us right into the action, so the story can be a bit disorienting at first until you get your bearings. Many characters are introduced summarily through barked out orders, or called out greetings, and it’s not initially easy to place just who’s who. The relationships between the ranks seems casual and friendly. There’s the sense that life on the base wouldn’t be bad at all–if it weren’t for the threat of imminent death. As one man says, “Life could be so simple, so pleasant. War is so ugly.”

While the plot explores aspects of the lives of a handful of characters, the main story revolves around Sasha Belobrov (Rodion Nahapetov) who’s just returned from 3 months leave after being injured. He returns back to the remote Northern base to discover that the woman he loved has married another man. Another sub-plot concerns Sgt  Cherepets (Aleksei Zharkov), a man who falls in love with a kitchen worker named Maroussia (Tatyana Kravchenko) but is uncertain just how to approach her.

Torpedo Bombers shows the men at home on the base and at war, and of course we follow their stories to their conclusions. In one scene Soviet crew members investigate a downed Messerschmitt only to discover the pilot dead and frozen while his thermos of coffee still steams when opened.  Another scene depicts the men attending a theatre performance conducted entirely by midgets, and when the acting troupe leaves and the pilots & crew members thank them, it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion about just where these midgets would be if Hitler ever got hold of them. No heavy-handed conclusions are necessary from the plot, but these scenes grant humanity to the Soviet cause.

Real black and white footage from WWII is seamlessly spliced together with the created scenes.  We see grainy archival black and white footage of German ships firing at the sky, and then these scenes are juxtaposed with the Soviet flyers. While a large portion of the film concentrates on the air war, a substantial portion of the film concerns the men’s private lives: one man is reunited with his mentally traumatized son who was thought to be lost, but there’s no news of the pilot’s wife and baby. The boy was located in an orphanage, and the father begins to question whether the boy is indeed his son. Belobrov’s opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter: here’s a boy who needs a father and a man who needs a son. This aspect of the film underscores the social upheaval afoot inside the Soviet Union with millions dead and missing, and those left behind trying to enjoy whatever time they have left.

Another subtle idea within the film examines the role that women play as supporters for the Soviet pilots and crews. There’s tremendous pressure on them to have sex. One woman’s husband is killed and there’s substantial social pressure for her to pick up with Belobrov. No one seems to appreciate the fact that she’s pushed to the brink by the death of a husband, and may be too fragile to get involved again in a relationship with another pilot who’s very likely to die.

The film concludes with a photo library of real torpedo bombers who died in WWII.

Torpedo Bombers is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s World Cinema Series.

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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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Deception (1946)

“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”

Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).

The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.

Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.

The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.

Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.

As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.

Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:

“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”

Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.

Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.

Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.

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Lacombe Lucien (1974)

As I watched the marvellous Louis Malle film, Lacombe Lucien, I remembered Simenon’s account of living under the German occupation of Belgium in WWI. Simenon fictionalised this period in perhaps his most autobiographical novel, Three Crimes. In the novel, Simenon argues, and argues well, that a period of occupation is an inevitably corrupting experience. Simenon offers many examples of this through the opportunistic individuals who float with the scum who happen to be in power. This thought came back to me repeatedly as I watched Lacombe Lucien. Malle’s film takes an unsparing look at the breakdown of French society through the life of Lucien, a twisted, emotionally stunted youth who lacks both political ideology (which would at least explain his attitude and actions) and compassion towards the people who fall into his path.

It’s German occupied France–south-west France to be more precise in 1944. Definite Vichy territory here, and the film opens with young Lucien (Pierre Blaise) mopping the floors in a hospital and emptying the slop from bed pans. While the nurses listen to the radio for news about the war, Lucien sneaks a moment to take a hidden slingshot from his pocket. In just a few seconds, he kills a songbird as it sings in a tree outside of the hospital window. Lucien smirks to himself at his petty victory, and in this one act, Malle sews up Lucien’s character in a nutshell.

Lucien hates his job at the hospital. On his time off, he returns home to the village farmhouse where his mother (Gilberte Rivet) now shares the bed of her employer, Laborit (Jacques Rispal). Lucien’s father is absent–forced labour for the nazi war machine in Germany, and while Lucien is at loose ends at his old home, it’s also clear that he’s not welcome. The village is a hot bed of resistance, and the farm owner’s son–a known patriot–is off fighting with the Resistance. Lucien, attracted to the excitement and glamour of the Resistance, and tired of the boring drudgery of the hospital, wants to join, but his efforts are rightly suspect, and the local Resistance leader, schoolteacher Peyssac (Jean Bousquet) rebuffs Lucien’s interest. 

Since Lucien’s attraction to the Resistance is not ideologically based, it comes as no surprise to see him next hanging about a huge hotel–the headquarters of the French collaborationists. Soon Lucien is part of the collaboration team, and it’s a role that suits him well. As his vicious, bullying nature begins to thrive, Lucien becomes the pet of the collaborationists, toting weapons, threatening the locals, and throwing around his ill-gotten gains (he calls it “war loot“). For the collaborationists, life at the luxury hotel is one big long party with champagne, sports cars, and rich food.  Those who live at the hotel are shown to be a motley crew of misfits: an ex-bicyling champion, a minor film star, and a former policeman who was dismissed in ’36 as an “undesirable.” These are the sort of rejects who are running the show, rounding up pockets of resistance and then handing them over to the Germans, and apparently there’s no shortage of those eager to offer information. A large amount of time is spent opening letters–about 200 a day–which detail suspicions against friends and neighbours.

Nasty Jean-Pierre de Voisins (Stéphane Bouy), a French aristocrat whose behaviour hints that he’s the black sheep of his family,  takes Lucien under his wing, teaching him the tricks of how to trap members of the Resistance and once caught how to torture them. But it’s not all work, and Jean-Pierre takes Lucien to the home of  Parisian, jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler) who lives in complete seclusion with his daughter, France (Aurore Clément) and his taciturn mother, Bella (Therese Gieshe). The Horns live in tenuous circumstances buoyed with tarnished glamour. While they are somewhat protected by Jean-Pierre, they must pay rent and protection money and Albert also serves as Jean-Pierre’s exclusive tailor. 

Lucien becomes obsessed with Horn’s daughter, France. This obsession ignites a change of events and a series of moral quandaries for the Horns as Lucien offers protection at a price, and it’s a protection that will expire when the Germans lose the war. Time, then becomes a crucial factor. The Horns must survive but at what price?

Time is also a factor for the collaborationists, and there’s the sense that for those who used the occupation to feather their own nests, there’s not much time left. At first the vast hotel is their party hangout/torture and interrogation headquarters, but that soon changes as 1944 wears on, and the hotel becomes a sanctuary for those sympathetic to the nazis.

Malle’s wonderful film shows the collaborationists as a nest of opportunistic, lowlife bullies who, inflated by nazi power and weapons, lord it over the locals. They are in contrast to people like the Horns who seem to be an almost entirely different species. In spite of their daily humiliations, the Horns appear to rise above their circumstances, and this is in direct contrast to Lucien and his fellow collaborationists who’ve sunk to almost unspeakable behaviour. At one point, Horn acknowledges that he cannot hate Lucien–in spite of everything he’s done.

Many reviews state that Lucien, by his youth and inexperience alone, is not an entirely unsympathetic character. He is devoid of any moral feeling, and torturing a fellow Frenchman seems to generate the same sort of feelings he experiences when he slaughters a chicken or shoots rabbits. The first scene paints Lucien as very unpleasant, and for this viewer, Lucien remained unpleasant and with more than one screw loose. While it can be argued in many films that bad characters act the way they do due to circumstances, any sort of moral compass is entirely absent in Lucien, and this is not simply due to his youth.

Tragically, Pierre Blaise was killed in a car accident the year after Lacombe Lucien was released.

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The Cranes are Flying (1957)

“Give me something I will always remember.”

If you are in the mood for Soviet cinema, then go grab a copy of the 1957 film The Cranes are Flying (Letyat Zhuravli). It really doesn’t get much better than this eloquent touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov. The story focuses on the impact of war on two young lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov).

The film begins with the lovers enjoying the last moments of the afternoon together as they walk beside the banks of a river. As is typical with lovers, Boris and Veronika focus on the wonder of being in each other’s company, but they also find joy in nature–cranes flying overhead in a v-shaped formation. They part, eagerly counting the moments until the next encounter, and Boris heads off to his night-shift job at the local factory while Veronika dashes home.

From this point, things begin to go downhill for Veronika. Boris has secretly enlisted in the army with his friend, Stepan (Valentin Zubkov). Like many young men who respond to the call for volunteers, Boris doesn’t want to ‘miss’ the opportunity. He imagines that he will leave some time in the misty future, and so both he and Veronika are stunned when Germany invades and the volunteers are ordered to report for duty the next day.

The next day is Veronika’s birthday and she’s still reeling from the news that Boris enlisted without telling her. Feeling hurt and betrayed, she refuses to spend Boris’s last evening with him, but Boris leaves her a birthday present to be delivered after he leaves. Boris tells his family, his physician father Fyodor (Vasili Merkuryev), his practical sister, Irina (Svetlana Kharitonova) and his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) to take care of Veronika if she should need help.

At this point, the film enters some sentimental territory which is ameliorated by some ambiguities in the plot. While this is a wonderful film and can easily be judged on its own merit, it’s interesting to note some of the subtle undercurrents in the film’s dialogue. Boris’s father, Fyodor is the film’s moral centre, and he’s distressed when his son volunteers. The scene involving the factory workers’ send-off to Boris includes a speech that would have been unacceptable a few years before. Two young girls from the factory arrive at Boris’s home to give him the hero’s send off, but their speech is preempted by Fyodor who announces for them:   “and we at the plant will meet and exceed our production quotas.” The two young, eager girls are flummoxed by Fyodor’s behaviour. He’s taken the wind out of their sails, but Fyodor is too generous a human being to continue making fun of the girls’ mission, and Boris’s last evening is spent in celebration.

In another scene, Fyodor, a widely respected physician is approached by a slimy party member who wants to use the ambulance for his own sleazy purposes. The man completely mis-understands Fyodor and thinks he’s corrupted (and corruptible).  The film subtly notes the man’s shift in tone and body langauge when he realizes that the doctor isn’t just another corrupt human being after all.

The Cranes are Flying is an incredibly touching film which also explores the issue of the loyalty of Soviet women while their men served at the front. The themes of grief and patriotism are overwhelmed in the film’s superb finale which takes place at the train station. The key, of course, is forgiveness; I won’t give too much away here, but bottom line, this is an exquisite film.

The film’s director Mikhail Kalatozov and the cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky also made the stunningly beautiful film I am Cuba in 1964. Urusevsky’s skill with the camera is apparent in the very first scene of The Cranes are Flying, and he shoots the same location several times throughout the film. In this fashion, the landscape becomes a sort of character as events take their toll not just on the people but on the country too. Another scene takes place at Fyodor’s home and one shot takes in the entire family as they all sit around the table. The camera’s placement effectively makes us the invisible guest at the table, and indeed this sort of intimate mood is present throughout the film.

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The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950)

“A woman’s bookshelf is an infallible guide to her character.”

The title of the film The Happiest days of Your Life refers, of course, to the nonsense that is told to children who are unhappy about attending school for a range of reasons. What the teachers don’t say is the happy part is not the school–but perhaps the innocence of childhood, and even that’s arguable depending on the sort of childhood you had. This classic British comedy is directed by Frank Launder of the marvellously funny St Trinian’s films, and you can see the same hand at work in The Happiest Days of Your Life. Launder started his career as a scriptwriter, but it was with Sidney Gilliat that the highly successful St Trinians films were created. For The Happiest Days of Your Life, Launder teamed with playwright John Dighton to adapt his play for the big screen.

The Happiest Days of Your Life is set during WWII. During the Blitz, children from the city were evacuated to the countryside, and in the film, an all-girls school, St Swithin’s, is evacuated by the Ministry of Education to the village of Nutbourne with the expectation that St Swithin’s will ‘share’ with the all-boys boarding school, Nutbourne College. Wetherby Pond (played by the wonderful actor Alastair Sim) is headmaster of Nutborough College. The film begins with the arrival of a weary professor, Arnold Billings (played by Richard Wattis, who later appeared in the St Trinian’s films) and the brand new English professor, Richard Tassell (John Bentley). Billings notices that the college looks a bit tidier than usual, and as it turns out, this is due to the fact that Wetherby Pond is hoping to win a new, better position as headmaster at a much more prestigious, Harlingham School.

Just as the term seems on the verge of beginning as usual, all hell breaks loose with the arrival of an entire girl’s school, their headmistress, Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) and her complete entourage of mistresses. A battle begins over resources, and the females, led by the cunning, strategic planning of Muriel Whitchurch soon dominate. Under the insufferable conditions, Wetherby Pond tries his best to get the Ministry of Education to correct this error, and Whitchurch resorts to blackmail in order to gain an uneasy truce.

The fun really begins when a passel of St Swithin’s parents descend upon the Nutbourne College to witness the new environment for themselves. As bad luck would have it on the very same day, a team of inspectors from Harlingham School arrive to witness Wetherby Pond’s school management. It’s in the vested interest of both Pond and Whitchurch to cooperate with each other to create an atmosphere of normalcy at the school, and that means that the girls and the boy’s school both pretend that there are no members of the opposite sex on the premises.

Alastair Sim is, as always, pure joy to watch–from his long-suffering submission, to his moral outrage, his performance is perfect. Margaret Rutherford, as his administrative opposite is equally excellent. She plays an indomitable force–she sees men as superfluous and contaminants. The battle (and attraction) of the sexes plays throughout the film. Of course, the boys cannot concentrate on lessons when the older girls wiggle by in their PE outfits, and the male English master falls in love with his female counterpart. And then there’s the outrageously wonderful Joyce Grenfell (who also later appeared in St Trinian’s). Here she plays the gauche Miss Gossage (“call me Sausage“) and she rather incongruously sets her cap at the suave wolfish games master, Victor Hyde-Brown (Guy Middleton), who’s also known as “Whizzo.” Hyde-Brown does his best to avoid Miss Gossage–he’s much more interested in the 17 year-olds and their botany lesson. George Cole also appears in a miniscule but memorable role as a caretaker in the Ministry of Education.

Quotes:

Wetherby Pond (when asked how he will vote): “You can tell your lady that if there is a male candidate whether he is conservative, socialist, communist or anarchist, or for that matter, liberal, he may have my vote.”

“There appear to be no depths to which you will not sink.”

“I don’t want your sympathy, man, I want action. I want these women removed, bag and baggage.”

“There are only two types of schoolmistress, chum, the battle-ax and the amazon.”

“Cards, the race horse,gaming, nicotine, fisticuffs…we’re moving in a descending spiral of inequity.”

“I once won thirty bob. It’s led me astray ever since

 

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Mosley (1998)

“Pardon me for asking, but what do you know about the working class?”

I never thought I’d find myself watching a film about Oswald Mosley–let alone that I’d really, really enjoy it. I recently came across Mosley, a  four-part made-for-British television biopic based on the life of the man who was a member of parliament, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and later was interned during WWII. The film is based on two books written by Mosley’s son, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale. Part One: Young Man in a Hurry covers the years 1918-1920, Part Two: Rules of the Game covers the years 1924-1927. Part Three Breaking the Mold covers the years 1929-1933, and Part Four: Beyond the Pale covers the years 1933-1940.

Mosley very effectively shows the rot within the British upper classes through its depiction of Mosley’s life and political ambitions.  The film begins on Armistice Day when young Lt Mosley is in London watching the celebrations. Mosley (Jonathan Cake in a terrific performance), fresh out of WWI is determined to make a difference and believes that another war should never be fought. As an aristocrat (Mosley was the eldest son of the 5th Baronet of Ancoats), he very quickly finds a spot in British politics. Invited to the best houses and the best parties, he’s introduced to Lloyd George (Windsor Davies) and makes the older, married American Maxine Elliott his mistress. Mosley becomes the youngest member of parliament–not a bad start to a career that ended in infamy.

Mosley makes a beeline for “Cimmie” Lady Cynthia Curzon (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of the wealthy and influential Curzon family, and he’s assisted in his courtship by Cynthia’s stepmother–yet another mistress. In real life both Cimmie’s older and younger sisters became Mosley’s mistresses too, and the film depicts Cimmie as rather naïve and severely out-of-touch with her husband’s true character. But these are all aspects of Mosley’s personal life, and he is established rather quickly as an unpleasant and rather cruel egoist with little or no thought of other people beyond his ability to use them to his advantage.

As for his political life, Mosley had many ideas for England which involved a great deal of change. He’s portrayed as a young “man in a hurry,” in direct opposition to the establishment. At first Mosley is a member of the Conservative Party and is the MP for Harrow. The film depicts his impassioned speeches, “crossing the floor,” and his outrage at the Conservative government’s so-called Irish policy. The film tracks Mosley’s switch to Labour and his supposed interest in socialism and the ‘working classes.’ The use of the word ‘supposed‘ is intentional as the film includes many scenes of Lady Cynthia and Sir Oswald delivering speeches to the working classes. She’s wearing her fur coat and they’re ferried around by chauffeurs. In one scene the couple actually squabble about who is going to get the nicer car when they toddle off to lecture the masses. But while Lady Cynthia seems genuine (if a naïve Champagne Socialist), Mosley is depicted as much more calculating, ready to use women silly enough to fall in love with him and to exploit the working classes silly enough to vote for this wanker. ALL politicians do this sort of thing, of course, but Mosley was much more naked about it.

Mosley is highly entertaining and if it fails, it fails to show what is going on in Mosley’s head at crucial moments. At one point, for example, Mosley has formed the BUF and while his underlings labour to create a financial policy, they seem to go into one direction (heavy leanings towards Communism) with no idea that Mosley is headed towards fascism. We see Mosley’s eyes glinting with delight when he glimpses Mussolini for the first time, and there’s a giant hint that Mosley has gone off the deep end when he shows up in Italy wearing a black shirt. The film depicts Mosley’s political switch occurring largely in his head with those in his inner circle oblivious and rather shocked.

While the film spends a good amount of time on Mosley’s affairs, and his first marriage, a relatively small amount of the film is spent on his affair with Diane Guinness (nee MITFORD) one of those oh-so-famous Mitford sisters who mucked about in the politics of the time.  The film shows Mitford’s (Emma Davies) influence quite well, and before we know it this notorious pair are off to Berlin to be married at the home of Goebbels with Hitler as one of the guests. 

The film also depicts the Battle of Cable Street and one of Mosley’s explosive BUF rallies. Amazing really that he wasn’t locked up until 1940, but that’s one of the bennies of being an aristocrat–you can get away with more shit.  Unfortunately, the film does not explore Mosley’s life after internment, and that’s a shame. Still this was a highly entertaining look at Mosley, and he doesn’t come off well at all. While the film emphasises his personal relationships, the point is made that Mosley was a chameleon–ready to wear whichever political skin got him the votes, and more importantly, THE POWER. There seems to be a traceable line, in Mosley’s case, from aristocrat, adulterer, autocrat and fascist–his way or as the old saying goes–or the highway. Fascism seems to be the natural state for Mosley to devolve to as it bypassed any notion of humanity & equality and simply made it easier for him to pass off his ideas without modification from anyone else.

From director Robert Knights.

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Divided We Fall (2000)

Divided We Fall (Musime si Pomahat) is the third film I’ve recently watched from director Jan Hrebejk, so I suppose you could say that I’ve been on a Czech film bender. After watching and throughly enjoying Beauty in Trouble and  Up and Down also from Hrebejk, I came across Divided We Fall. This director has a sizeable number of films to his credit, but sadly (and predictably) not many are available with English subtitles.  Divided We Fall begins in Czechoslovakia just before the war, and with just a few scenes the film establishes how life quickly shifts over the course of a few years in this small village.

The story focuses on childless married couple Josef (Bolek Polivka) and his delicate-looking wife Maria (Anna Siskova), and when the wealthiest family in the area, the Jewish Wieners are ‘relocated’ from their villa, they stay, temporarily with Josef and Marie in their tiny apartment. But this state of affairs isn’t for long, soon the Weiners are shipped out–supposedly to join other ‘relocated’ relatives in labour camps. The Weiners’ son, David (Csongor Kassai)mentions in parting that a postcard from a previously deported relative states that the labour camps are decent places that  have their own schools. David is puzzled by the postcard, however, since it referenced Uncle Otto–a man who’s been dead for years.

The viewer, of course, knows exactly what these ‘labour camps’ really are, and while Josef and Maria blithely wave off their houseguests, we know this is the last glimpse of the Wiener family. But life continues in the village.  More Jews are shipped out, and their possessions are confiscated–sometimes to mysteriously reappear in others’ homes.

With the shift of wealth and power in the village, some people prosper. Horst (Jaroslav Dusek) for example, even sports a Hitler-like moustache, and he manages to look and act like the perfect little fascist. Horst is a former workmate of Josef, and both men were at one time employed by the Wieners. Horst seems more than comfortable with the deportation of the Jews, and as a collaborator, he works for the Nazis and helps organise the deportations.

One night, an extremely emaciated and terrified David Wiener (Csongor Kassai) shows up in the village and seeks temporary shelter from Josef and Maria. Circumstances intervene, and it becomes too dangerous for David to leave, and so he remains locked inside a tiny room. It’s a nerve-wracking situation; there’s no one they can trust for help, and as the war continues, a sense of paranoia reigns in the town. As Horst points out, everyone is under suspicion and in one hilarious scene, he even gives Josef lessons in how to look like the perfect little fascist bureaucrat.

But, and this is where Divide We Fall is at its strongest, director Hrebejk in conjunction with screenwriter Jarchovsky (the same team created the wonderful films Beauty in Trouble and Up and Down) shows the complexities of human relationships in this character-driven drama. Even though the film is set in the direst of times, the story transcends the brutality of the Nazis and instead chooses to focus on the idea that human beings are also capable of decent behaviour. At the same time, the film doesn’t paint all of its characters in black and white. One neighbour for example, tuts in disgust over Horst’s collaboration with the Nazis, and yet this same neighbour is the first to sound the alarm at the appearance of a Jew. German-born Horst is initially shown extremely unsympathetically, but as the story continues his human side is revealed through his various interactions with others. Rather interestingly, even though Horst’s wife remains invisible, she represents a large, daunting force in Horst’s life. The Nazis remain in the background, for the most part, so instead we see the Czechs coping, surviving, collaborating and sometimes ratting on each other, and these scenes bring up the issues of judging others’ behaviour rather than examining our own.

The film includes a couple of jarring scenes, and the presentation isn’t always successful when gentle humour amplifies into comedy. But these minimal faults aside, this is yet another delightful film from Hrebejk, and the film’s final scene is perfect.

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