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 Manouchian (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.

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

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