Markus Imhoof’s early feature film Das Boot ist voll (The Boat is Full) from 1981 was an immediate success. It won prizes at the Berlinale in 1981 and got nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film a year later, but didn’t win. It made waves at the box office, and it still turns up on many top ten lists of best Swiss movies, and rightly so. The title is a cowardly statement by a leading Swiss politician about the refugee situation in Switzerland during the Second World War. The movie is about six refugees who jump off a train going to Nazi Germany, trying to find shelter and safety on the other side of the border in Switzerland. Three of them are children, but there is also a spirited woman named Judith Krüger who is looking for her husband who is in a detention facility somewhere in this country. There is an old man named Lazar Ostrowskij who has lost his wife during the escape attempt from the train, and since he can no longer be a husband, he is a grand-dad to the three children, although it’s hard to remember who is related to who. The sixth refugee is a deserting German soldier, and the other five are reluctant to be in the same room with him. Judith Krüger soon realises that they have to reshuffle their relationships in order to pass for a real family so they can either stay in Switzerland or get transit visas. Continue reading
I don’t go out of my way to watch films about the Second World War, and this is even more the case with respect to Holocaust-related movies. That’s little to do with the subject matter and a lot with the way such films often turn out to be samey in terms of form and content. Especially when it comes to the Holocaust, there’s a certain iconography, at least in Western films, that is rarely escaped or at least varied. The topic is an important one, undoubtedly, but important topics don’t automatically make for good films.
When Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness was shown on TV recently, I was nevertheless interested. On the surface it sounded like a story we’d seen before, of how a simple, flawed man finds his own humanity to save a group of Jews at risk of being killed by the Nazis and their helpers. Holland, though, is an interesting director. I’d greatly enjoyed the episodes of The Wire and Treme she’d directed, and I’d heard very good things about Burning Bush, the miniseries she’d done about Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in 1969 Prague to protest the Soviet occupation. While she’s worked in America, In Darkness is a Polish film, and the film is told from a perspective we don’t often see, without excusing or minimising Polish anti-semitism.
The story of a sewer worker protecting a dozen Polish Jews fleeing the massacre of their families and friends in Lvov and looking after them in the sewer system, first for money but later because he comes to see it as the right thing to do, is interesting in itself, but apart from the details it’s not altogether new. What makes the film effective even when it follows fairly well-trodden ground is what Holland gets out of her actors and how she portrays all of them as essentially human – though not in a sentimental way. The characters she shows us are flawed, petty, jealous, shallow, selfish, craven, and this is as true for the Jewish refugees in the sewers as for Leopold Socha, the Polish sewer worker. There’s often a tendency, not only in films, to idealise the persecuted and the victims, and while the impulse is understandable, such idealisation can be dehumanising. Holland never loses sight of the humanity of all her characters, the good and the bad, and the film benefits greatly from it.
In Darkness is not perfect, and its story, while closely based on the real events, doesn’t always ring true; a near-disaster late in the film may have happened the way it is shown, yet it doesn’t feel altogether believable as part of the film. Yet more than any film about WW2 and the murder of European Jews I remember watching since, well, The Pianist, I found it affecting. Holland’s film doesn’t come across like it wants to communicate a message, but in refraining from doing so, at least up until the very end, it succeeds all the more.
P.S.: There is a message in the title cards that close the film: after the war, Socha died saving his daughter from a runaway army truck. At his funeral, the screen text relates, someone said that perhaps this was God punishing Socha for protecting the Jews during the war. Holland ends on an angry, sad and bluntly timely note: “As if we need God to punish each other.”
I resisted watching Band of Brothers for a long time, just as I still haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan and am not planning to do so any time soon. While I acknowledge Spielberg’s skills as a director, I tend to mind those films of his that purport to be “important”, because usually he mistakes pathos for importance. (I’m excluding Schindler’s List from this, though.) Band of Brothers came out in the wake of Spielberg’s Omaha Beach Party, and I assumed that it would be more American WW2 pathos.
When we watched the first episode, I was afraid that my expectations would be proven true. The main theme of the series, without the context of the actual episodes, dripped with solemn, righteous pathos, like a particularly constipated John Williams on Fourth of July. The episode itself neither confirmed or rebutted my fears, though: it concentrated on the battalion’s training in England, so there was little space for outright heroism. The episode was interesting enough, although it was hampered a bit by casting David Schwimmer as a bullying instructor. Schwimmer did a good job, but it’s more or less impossible to look at him without thinking “Ross! From Friends! and wanting to smack him in the gob.
It was only in the second episode, “Day of Days”, that I came to realise that my fears were unfounded. Yes, there may still be lots of soldierly pathos in the remaining eight episodes, but there was little to none of that here. It’s extremely difficult for a war movie – even for a supposed anti-war movie – not to make scenes of warfare exciting, so the implication is “War is hell… but it’s a bloody adventure, innit?” Instead, the first scenes we get of the characters involved in an actual battle is them sitting in the planes, waiting for the jump, as flak fire shoots several planes to bits. The soldiers are powerless, and whether they live or die isn’t down to their heroism but rather to sheer luck.
We were eating lunch when we started watching the episode, but both of us stopped digging into our sandwiches pretty soon as horrible, frightening, saddening things started to happen on the screen: as a plane went up in flames, and you saw little human specks on fire tumbling from the conflagration to fall to their death. The surviving soldiers’ first direct encounter with the enemy was no more heroic, as they shot a group of Germans on a horse cart from the safety of an ambush, riddling the horses as much as the enemy troops with gunfire. At this point, you got the impression, wartime reality for these men was probably not that different from that of the German soldiers: you point your gun at the guys in differently coloured uniforms and you hope that they die before you do.
This impression that even the Good Fight is a pretty crappy fight became even stronger when Sgt. Malarkey gets to talk to a prisoner of war, a German-American born in the States whose parents decided to move back to the Fatherland. Just after he stops chatting to the young man who, but for the accident of family might have been wearing the same uniform as him, all the POWs are rounded up and shot. Can’t waste time and men on protecting these prisoners.
Right now I’m impressed at the lack of “Rah, rah, Allied Forces!” pathos and very curious as to how the series will continue. After a pretty gut-wrenching second episode, will it be able to maintain this level of intensity?
And, perhaps more importantly, will I manage to remember the names of all the soldiers (looking so similar under their over-sized helmets, where you haven’t even got hair colour to go on) before we get to the end?
P.S.: Talking of distracting cameos by TV comedians – there was this little guy in one of the scenes in the first episode, and I thought, “Man, he looks just like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead… but it can’t be him, because why would they want to cast a Brit for an American?” Well, turns out that Simon Pegg is far from the only Brit playing a US soldier in Band of Brothers. Is this payback for all of those villainous Germans played by British actors?