WWII Communists as Rebels and Prison Guards. Movies Reviewed: The Army of Crime, The Way Back, The Edge

This week I’m talking about three European movies that look at the people out of power during and right after WWII.

Some of the best historical movies are about WWII. There’s something more monumental and profound about this huge, all- encompassing war that can’t be matched in movies about, say, the Americans’ war in Vietnam, or France’s in Algeria. And a lot of the fighting boils down to the two prevalent ideologies of the time: right-wing Fascism, and left wing Communism. So this week I’m going to talk about three movies that take very different perspectives on the role of the Communists in eastern and western Europe in WWII.

A few years ago, Western Europe started to examine its own role under the Nazi occupation, both as collaborators and as victims. The resistance – those who fought against the occupiers, often through violent actions – was facing not just the enemy but their own countrymen who sided with the occupiers.

Released in 2006, the Dutch movie, The Black Book, (directed by the fantastic Paul Verhoeven) is a great fictional story of a beautiful Jewish Dutch woman, Rachel (Carice Van Houten) a cabaret singer, who joins the resistance by infiltrating the Nazi’s as a spy—but she ends up being the mistress of a high-ranked, but kind-hearted and handsome Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch). Although fictional, this is a major rethinking of Dutch attitudes toward their German occupiers.

After this, other Western Europeans countries, one by one, made their own dramas about the occupation. The Danes made Flame and Citron, a retelling of two young heroes of the Danish resistance, one a redhead, one blonde, who blew up bridges and carried out espionage. It’s a good, tense drama.

Max Manus (2008), the Norwegian story, is an old-school adventure movie about a brave young man (Aksel Hennie) and his confreres who, on behalf of the Norwegian government in exile, fought against the Nazi’s and their own Quisling government by jumping out of windows and engaging in acts of sabotage against the enemy’s military ships around the Oslo harbour.

Germany had it’s own resistance, as portrayed in the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) , a true historical drama about an upper-class Munich university student, and her friends, who plotted against the Nazis by distributing anonymous leaflets in a movement known as the White Rose.

There were others as well, including the awful American drama Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as one of the aristocratic military officers who plotted to assassinate Hitler. Quentin Tarantino made a much better American movie. An exaggerated but enjoyable spectacle, Inglorious Basterds, was simultaneously a melodramatic love story, a war-time comic-but-violent action flic, and a tense, espionage thriller.

Well, just when I thought this sub-genre was all played out, comes another very watchable and moving drama called…

The Army of Crime (2009)
Dir: Robert Guédiguian

This is a true story. It’s 1941 in Paris, and the Germans have moved in, the government has fallen, but day-to-day life hasn’t been affected much yet. The policemen are still French, and the shops, schools and institutions still operate the way they always have. But, for immigrants and minorities, things are getting worse. The police are cracking-down, searching homes, and the axe feels like it’s about to drop.

A group of young people who are already doing clandestine protests, independently of one another – communist grafitti, paper flyers dropped from buildings, street scuffles – are brought together under the French poet, Missak Abkarian (Simon Abkarian), who had survived the Armenian Holocaust as a child.

It’s interesting: in the past, the French resistance was shown on TV and in movies as the brave and noble Frenchmen who fought off their Nazi occupiers. In this movie, it’s mainly the French themselves who are collaborating with the Germans, ratting on their neighbours, and zealously joining the police force to catch all the vandals and resistance members that are upsetting their peaceful, occupied lives. And the ones fighting hard against the occupation are immigrants or their children – Armenians, Communists, Jews from Poland, Hungary and Romania; Italian radicals, and Spanish Republicans.

Some are using hidden printers in backrooms, and practice the piano in the front to cover the noise. One teenaged boy continues to compete in swim meets (under a false French name) while he secretly shoots German officers. A shadowy hierarchy — unidentified, but looking like eastern European Communists — impose order and planning on the individual firebrands. The story follows four or five plotlines as the diverse resistance members gradually converge into one unit with the plan to do a dramatic action… or die trying.

This is a good, gripping WWII dramatic thriller of the French resistance as de facto terrorists battling the complacent, majority collaborators who were aiding the occupiers in their nefarious schemes of deportation and death. Their various love stories, families, and historical events are all woven together in this dense, fascinating movie.

But what about the opposite side of the coin? What happened to the Eastern Europeans who opposed the Soviet Union’s occupation, or fell out of favour with the communist party? A new movie, by a very well-known Australian director, looks a group in some ways diametrically opposed to the ones in The Army of Crime.

The Way Back
Dir: Peter Weir

… depicts life in a Siberian gulag, a great escape, and an epic journey (by a few of the survivors) all the way south to India.

Januzs, a Polish man, is sent to Siberia for being “anti-Stalin” when his wife “confesses” his crimes after being interrogated and tortured. He finds himself in an isolated prison camp where the harsh snow and winter itself is the toughest guard. The other prisoners are petty criminals, purged party members, actors, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and anti-communists. The criminals are the highest-ranked ones, and therest cower from them. They move logs and some are sent to work in the mines.

But a group manages to escape, including Januzs, a shady American known only as Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and a rough criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell). An innocent young girl (Saoirse Ronan) they meet outside the prison helps the suspicious and cautious men to get to know one another. They set off on great walk, and here the movie makes a strange shift — from a prison movie to a human travelogue, pitting man against the great outdoors. The scenery is really beautiful, as they travel from the Siberians steppes, the plains of Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas.

Cliffs, dunes, lakes, plains, forests, temples – all truly breathtaking and spectacular. I found the story itself, though, less interesting. Their main drives — to go on, to survive, to reach India — seemed incidental to the trip. What was their motivation? And it had a bit – just a bit — of the feel of a cold war-era propaganda flic: We must escape iron curtain and reach free world!

I don’t want to downplay those sentiments, and Stalin’s very real war crimes, but the movie seemed oddly out of date in its fuzzy-religious, anti-communist tone.

I think it’s almost worth seeing it just for the outstanding scenery – almost, but not quite.

Finally, a very different view of Siberian prison camps.

The Edge
Dir: Aleksei Uchitel

…which played at this year’s TIFF, and is the Russian entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov) is a decorated war vet who is sent, in uniform, to Siberia just after WWII. There he hooks up with Sofia (Yulia Peresild) to become a sort of a husband/sex partner and a father to her baby. Sofia is surviving, by hook or by crook, having been a servant in Nazi Germany during the war, and then punished by the Soviets. Ignat is obsessed by trains, and wants to get them up and running again. He hears there’s an engine still out there in the forest somewhere, so he decides to bring it back. This is where the story gets really interesting. He finds it, but it’s being guarded by a mysterious, violent creature, whom he has to vanquish in order to get to the steam engine. (I don’t want to give this away, since that character becomes important to the plot).

Ignat becomes obsessed with getting the train across a fallen bridge and over a river so they can all get away. His rival – the mysterious Fishman – represents the authorities he wants to overthrow. Will his train ever work? Will he get away? Will he win over the hearts of the locals?

The Edge is a good, old-school Hollywood-type drama/adventure, laced with the  Russian irony and absurdity that was largely missing from Peter Weir’s movie.

It’s also strangely nostalgic, for the “good old days” just after WWII, despite the bitter losses (war, poverty, death) that went with it. Believe it or not, The Edge is a sort of a feel-good movie about Siberian gulags, told Russian-style.

The Way Back opens in Toronto on January 21st, (check your listings), The Army of Crime is showing in Thornhill, one screening only on Sunday, January 23rd , as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series, (go to www.tjff.com for details), and The Edge played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Also check out a rare chance to see Spike Lee in Toronto, in conversation with Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo in celebration of Black History Month. They’re appearing at the Varsity Cinema, Tuesday, January 25, 2011, at 7pm.

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