Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

Signs of Life

July 29, 2012

Werner Herzog’s first feature film, shot in black and white in 1968, deals with themes that were to reoccur throughout his later works. Signs of Life is set during World War II. Stroszek (Peter Brogle) is a German soldier who is severely wounded in an attack by partisans on the island of Crete. To give him a chance to recuperate, his officers transfer him to the small island of Kos. There he is stationed at a Venetian fort that was built in the fourteenth century, where an ammunition dump is now kept. It is on a hill overlooking a town below. He is accompanied by his Greek wife, Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and by two other solders, Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) and Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg). Meinhard is obsessed with killing cockroashes, while Becker is fascinated by the ancient Greek tablets that the Venetians embedded along with the stones in the fort’s walls. They find various ways to try to deal with the heat, isolation, and boredom of the place, such as building fireworks.

Strozsek is deeply unhappy in this place, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. One day he goes into town and asks the commanding officer of the island to send him out on patrol, just so he can have something to do. The officer agrees. The next day, Stroszek and Meinhard go on patrol. They come across a valley that has windmills in it. Stroszek has a sort of breakdown at this point, but Meinhard eventually brings him to his senses. The next day, Stroszek learns that Meinhard has reported the incident to their superiors. He goes berserk, and he chases the others out of the fort with a rifle. He then begins shooting at the town below. A delegarion of solders, along with Nora, cautiously approach the fort to try to reason with Strozsek. He tells them that he is now “alive”, and that if they try to capture him, he will blow up the ammunition dump, which would destroy the town. The town is evacuated, and an uneasy stand-off ensues. From time to time, Stroszek sets off some of the fireworks that he and the others made. One night, while he is doing this, some soldiers sneak into the fort and overpower him. They take him away to a hospital. At the end a voice-over tells us: “thus it always ends with people of his kind.”

A recurring theme in Herzo’s films is the world’s indifference to the fate of the individual. In an early scene in Signs of Life, the camera moves through a narrow winding street on Crete. It suddenly comes out on a broad street running along the ocean. We see people moving around in the far distance. The camera suddenly pans over to two dead German soldiers lying on the ground, presumably killed by partisans. After a moment, the camera pans back to the scene in the distance and lingers on it. The deaths of these two men mean nothing to the world at large.

In one scene, a gypsy gives Stroszek a small wooden owl figurine. Its eyes and ears move. Determined to find out how this is possible, Stroszek finds that there is a fly trapped inside the figurine. This foreshadows Storszek’s won fate. After he rebels, we only see Stroszek in long shots. He looks like an insect while making his way around the huge fortress. He is trapped like the fly in the figurine. His attempt to liberate himself from the boredom and routine of his life has only puts him in another kind of prison.

Herzog’s grim fatalism doesn’t offer us much hope, but the breadth and originality of his work make him one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.

Triumph of the Will

June 6, 2012

I recently saw Triumph of the Will. I felt obligated to watch it because it is considered the penultimate example of a political propaganda film. Such is its notoriety, that when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 first came out, right-wing pundits immediately tried to smear it by comparing it to Triumph of the Will. Of course, they only revealed their intellectual poverty by doing so, since Moore’s approach to film making is nothing at all like Leni Riefenstahl’s.

The early scenes depict Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg for a party rally. The creepy thing about these scenes is how normal they seem. Take away the gaudy uniforms and raised arms and Hitler could be just your ordinary politician, shaking hands with people, smiling for the camera, and engaging in small talk with the plebeians. It’s not until Hitler addresses the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a sort of paramilitary construction group, that we begin to sense that something profoundly weird is going on here. From a visual standpoint, this is the best part of the film, because there is something slightly surreal about the sight of hundreds of uniformed men marching around with shovels as if they were rifles. This cuts to a spooky scene of storm troopers gamboling in the woods at night. (At least I think that’s what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell.) Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there: seemingly endless scenes of people marching around, with an inexplicably large number of them carrying Nazi flags, occasionally interspersed with speeches by Hitler.

The most striking thing about this film, however, is how physically unimpressive the Nazi leaders are. Many of them are fat: Goering, Wagner, Ley, Streicher. Wagner, Rosenberg, and Ley sweat profusely. Schirach has sweaty armpits. Hess, however, looks underfed, and he has a strangely high-pitched voice. (I must say, though, he did know how to give a crisp salute.) Lutze also has an annoyingly high-pitched voice. (Did Hitler have a thing for male sopranos?) Goebbels looks like a weasel. As for Himmler, why didn’t they just put at bag over this guy’s head? Seriously, he could have had a lucrative career as a character actor in Hollywood, playing ignorant rubes who get taken in by the likes of W.C. Fields. (“Here’s all my life’s savings, mister. Give me all the bottles you can of that there miracle elixir!”) Even the storm troopers and SS men are unimpressive. They look a bit scrawny, and their uniforms often don’t seem to fit quit right. Hitler, however, looks well-fed. Yet the plumpness of his face makes you uncomfortably aware of how silly his tiny moustache looks. And he has too much Brylcream in his hair. (Or whatever was the German equivalent of Brylcream in the 1930’s.) And his uniform makes his ass look huge. (This is true of some of the other people in this film. I wonder, did Hitler think that having a big ass was a sign of racial superiority?)

The reason I bring all this up is that it has often been said that Triumph of the Will was a highly effective advertisement for Nazism. I find this hard to believe. This film is mostly boring. A lot of it is just people marching around to bad music. Riefenstahl knew that rapid cutting and moving the camera around can make things appear more interesting than they actually are, but these tricks can only do so much, and sometimes they can even be counter-productive. When, for example, we see the stage at a rally from a camera that’s being lifted upwards, the effect is merely showy. Indeed, it actually seems a bit naive. True, this was the 1930’s, but they were already using more sophisticated techniques than this in Hollywood – or in Germany’s own cinema, for that matter.

Early in the film, there are evocative shots of the amazingly beautiful city of Nuremberg. Alas, these are marred by the ubiquitous presence of Nazi and German imperialist flags.

Even the speeches are not all that interesting. There are repeated calls for “national unity”, as well as a lot of talk about how the Nazi Reich will last thousands of years (heh, heh). I must say, though, that Hitler did occasionally inflect his voice in interesting ways. There are, however, some ominous references to the notion of “racial purity” in the speeches of Hitler and of Streicher.

In her later years, Riefenstahl collected many awards from film festivals. (Her fellow propagandist, Streicher, was hanged.) Since Triumph of the Will was, far and away, her most famous movie, one must wonder about the people who decided to give her all these honors. Riefenstahl claimed that she was a neutral observer, but this assertion is contradicted by her own film. At the beginning, it says it is Das Dokument der Reichsparteitag 1934 – hergestellt im Auftrage des Fuehrers. (The Documentary of the Reich party conference of 1934 – produced according to the Fuehrer’s instructions.) Well, you can’t get any more explicit than that, can you? Also, it’s clear just from watching this film that Riefenstahl could not have made it without plenty of help from the Nazis. Also, there are some scenes that were clearly staged specifically for the camera.

There’s one scene in the film in which we see Hitler and his cronies watching soldiers riding around on horseback. While I was watching this, I was reminded of the fact that during World War II, 90% of the German army’s supply transport was horse-drawn. The truth was that Germany was actually under-prepared for the war. My father rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but one story he did tell more than once was about when his unit captured a German army base. In the mess hall there was a gigantic soup tureen, which was apparently what everyone ate from. It always amazed my father that a government that could only afford to feed its soldiers gruel actually believed it could conquer the world.

Winter in Wartime

June 6, 2011

Usually when an historical event recedes into the past, people tend to regard it with greater objectivity. However, as World War II recedes into the past, Americans seem less able to view it objectively. Instead, the media in recent years subject us to bombast about the “greatest generation ever”. When I was young, people read books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, two novels that took a distinctly unsentimental view of the war. Nowadays, people swoon over sentimental trash like Saving Private Ryan, in which Tom Hanks sacrifices his life, so Matt Damon can go home to his Mommy and Daddy. I think one reason for the difference is that many people in my generation had fathers or uncles who served in the war. (My father was at the Battle of Bulge.) I think that connection made the war seem more real to us than it does to young people today.

What set me to thinking about this lately is that I recently saw the Dutch film, Winter in Wartime, which was directed by Martin Koolhoven, based on a novel by Jan Terlouw. It takes place in a town in German-occupied Netherlands in January, 1945. Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) has mixed feelings towards his father (Raymond Thiry), the town’s mayor, who tries to maintain a neutral stance towards the the Germans. He prefers his uncle, Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) who has ties to the resistance. When a British pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) is shot down, a local member of the Resistance helps him hide from the Germans. Michiel soon learns of this, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of helping Jack escape back to Britain, even though this endangers himself and his family. In addition to being a war story, this is also a coming-of-age story, as Michiel’s illusions are eventually shattered.

As World War II adventure movies go, this one is pretty good, although there are some things in it that I found hard to believe. When, for example, the resistance hide Jack, they put him in an underground hideout that is accessed by a wooden trap door with branches glued to it. It clearly looks like a trap door, yet we’re supposed to believe that the Germans, who are combing the woods looking for Jack, fail to see it. Maybe they just have bad eyesight.

This film was released in the Netherlands in 2008. It was a huge hit in that country. Yet this film wasn’t released in the U.S. until spring of this year. Why is that? Could it be that nobody thought that people in this country would want to see a World War II movie in which the good guys are not Americans? This brings me back to the point I made at the beginning. It seems to me there is a reluctance in the media to admit that most of the war did not involve the “greatest generation ever”.