A HIDDEN LIFE – movie review

A HIDDEN LIFE
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Moretti, Bruno, Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Karin Neuhauser, Ulrich Matthes
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/9/19
Opens: December 13, 2019

A Hidden Life Movie Poster

In the novel “Middlemarch,” George Eliot praises those of us who do good without getting our fifteen minutes of fame: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Among directors who take this expression to heart and project to their audience the lives of such people, you can scarcely find one more qualified than Terrence Malick. The master of meditative movies is back with his best offering in eight years, having wowed his (admittedly) relative small audience with “The Tree of Life,” the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956 wherein an adolescent boy is conflicted by his mother and father’s opposing ideas of upbringing.

With “A Hidden Life,” Malick takes us back to the 1940s, focusing his lenses on a family of six on a farm in St Radegun, Austria (filmed on location), a vista of compelling beauty framed by the Alps, complete with trees that rustle in the wind and brooks that flow without impedance. In a story based on real events, Franz Jägestätter (August Diehl) lives with his wife Franziska Jägerstätter, his mother-in-law, and his three young daughters. Franziska appears to have influenced him to the wonders of religion, a loving woman who cannot embrace her husband enough, who joins in the fun of mock chases with the little girls. He will later prove that he did not remain a hidden life, for his momentous decision to refuse to swear loyalty to Hitler who had annexed Austria threatens to cost him his life. A conscientious objector who nonetheless reports to an induction center where he refuses to raise his arm in a salute to Hitler, he suffers the hostility of all members of his farming community outside of his family. He would be punched spit upon, lectured by the town mayor, and altogether ostracized by these simply Austrian fellows who ecstatically welcomes the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.

Much of the three hour presentation is bound to tax the patience of some in the audience who might not be aware of the types of movies that Malick regularly makes. In this case, though the people in the story are all German speaking, ninety percent of the dialogue is in English, and not so much the dialogue of the people but instead that of their narrated thoughts. During the first segment of the movie, some in the audience will be wondering: When will something happen? Instead we see the daily, monotonous, grinding work of the people, threshing without the aid of modern equipment, cutting the wheat with scythes and harvesting with the aid of a donkey and a cow. The writer-director gives us a splendid picture of what farming was like some eighty years ago, later to contrast that with the brutality of the Nazis given almost complete authority over their Austrian prisoners.

You can’t say that when the Germans heard of this “traitor” who refuses to fight for the fatherland, they just hoisted him up on the gallows. Several military officers did their best to get him to sign a loyalty oath and take his chances on fighting. There was even some expectation that he would be exempted as were some farmers. Even in the end, when condemned to death, Judge Lueben (Bruno Ganz), one of the elderly judges on the military court, counseled that his protest would not mean a thing; that it would not stop the war or hinder the war effort in the slightest. Franz would probably agree. Though he probably lacked much education, his ethical choice was influenced not by consequentialism (make your ethical choice by the results that would ensue), but more by deontology (do the right thing even if by consequence it did not matter).

Since the church declared him a martyr and later beatified him, and since Malick made a film about him, the German judge was obviously wrong. It’s not clear from “A Hidden Life” what was in Franz’s background that made him the only farmer to refuse to serve the Führer, but by the conclusion of the three hours, we have a solid picture of the daily, natural life of small-town farmers contrasted with the brutality of the war effort. Diehl and Pachner anchor the film in their stirring roles, the latter showing how far a wife would go to stop her man from being a martyr, while Diehl demonstrates the absolute determination to resist.

This is a film that Malick fans will find irresistible.

180 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

JOJO RABBIT – movie review

JOJO RABBIT
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Taika Waititi
Screenwriter: Taika Waititi based on on the book “Caging Skies” by Chrstine Leunens
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Scarlett Johansson
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 10/14/19
Opens: October 18, 2019

The time is long past that we did not dare to treat Hitler and the Holocaust with broad comedy. Hitler was a demon, the most evil man of the 20th century, so how can we deal with him other than with serious documentaries and dramas? Must everything be as serious as Berthold Brecht’s 1941 play “The Resistable Rise of Urturo Ui”? No. Charlie Chaplin knew that the best way to take such people down is to laugh at them, thus “The Great Dictator,” though in 1940 Chaplin could scarcely have known just how evil the German chancellor was. “The Producers” could be considered the first major movie that laughs at Hitler, and now comes “Jo Jo Rabbit” that mocks Hitler as a fool but hardly shows the depths of depravity in his characterization by Taika Waititi. If you’re wondering about the name of this inventive director, Waititi hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast of New Zealand, and is the son of Robin Cohen, a teacher, and Taika Waiti, an artist and farmer. His father is Maori (Te-Whanau-a-Apanui), and his mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent.

While the director has twenty-two credits, largely from overseeing TV episodes, his “What We Do in the Shadows” about vampires who worry more about paying the rent than about nourishing themselves, gives us a hint of the oddball and original works to come. The title figure in “Jojo Rabbit” is a ten-year-old boy from a German village played by Roman Griffin Davis, the son of Rosie Betzler, (Scarlett Johansson), who has an adult playmate in his spacious house named Adolf Hitler (the director himself). In the opening scenes which are the movie’s fastest-moving and zaniest, he attends a Hitler Youth camp taught by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), where the young men are taught military skills while the girls, scarcely teens, are instructed in how to get pregnant. (Truth to tell, the Nazi government cared not a whit about marriage. Women’s purpose was to give birth as many times as they could to populate the Reich with Aryan babies.) The girls here are instructed by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who gave the Fatherland eighteen of ‘em.

When Jojo Belcher is injured by a grenade he is drummed out of the camp but not before taking part in such fun activities as burning books. When he refused orders to kill a rabbit, he is derided by the counselors, given the nickname Jojo Rabbit. Filled with ridiculous tales of alleged Jewish depravity he is shocked to discover that his mother is hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish woman of about eighteen years of age. You might expect that Elsa, when discovered by this young nazi kid, would cower, but instead she boldly declares that if Jojo turns her in, she would tell the Gestapo that he and his mother were hiding her, even using some physical force to show her lack of fear. Eventually, as everyone in the audience knew, he would hear about the Jewish tradition, how Jews were chosen by God, and comes around even to falling in love with her.

Brief archival shots show the genuine love for Hitler as thousands lined the streets when he passed in his car, reminding us that the people in charge of governments, the CEOs as you will, are often hardly the types of people that Plato advocated to be leaders. Few of them even now are Platonic philosopher kings, and many subjects are blown away by their vulgarity and cannot understand how their decisions could spell disaster for themselves and their country.

This is a remarkable feel-good movie in the style of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner who must shield his young son from the terrors of the Nazis. Eleven-year-old Roman Griffin Davis is the actor to watch, having turned in an astonishing role, evoking the full range of emotions from surprise to joy to terror. “Jojo Rabbit” was filmed in the Czech Republic.

108 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

SOBIBOR – movie review

SOBIBÓR
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Konstantin Khabenskiy
Screenwriter: Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein, Ilya Vasiliev, based on the book by Ilya Vasiliev: “Alexander Pechersky: Breakthrough to Immortality”
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 29, 2019

If you travel to Poland, you will do well to take the day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, certainly not because there is entertainment to be found there but because the most notorious death camp and its promotion by Germany is part of what is now called grief tourism. The German government has been surprisingly transparent in its vast campaign of owning up what the Nazi government did to the Jews they arrested, most of whom either died in the camps or were summarily shot on location. If the camp at Sobibór is not among the most visited camps today ,it is because unlike with Auschwitz, the Nazis government tore down the camp in 1943 after a dramatic escape by prisoners, making it part of the adjoining forest.

Konstantin Khabenskiy, who directs and stars in “Sobibór” takes on the role of the actual hero, Alexander Pechersky, who led one of the only two successful escapes from concentration camps, standing in as one answer to naïve accusations such as “Why didn’t the Jews do more to fight against the enemy?” Obviously given the way that the guards at the camps crushed not only the spirit of the inmates but did their best to work them to death, Jews were generally in no condition to put up a fight. Given this situation, you can’t blame Russia for commemorating the heroic uprising led by Pechersky, though under an anti-Semitic Stalin, information was kept quiet only because the rebellion was led by Jews. Happily things are different now as we witness the box office success of Khabenskiy’s film, which has among the most gory, bloody scenes of chaos month after month involving German officers living on Cognac and laughing at the humiliations they visit upon the poor prisoners.

Ramunus Greicius films entirely in Vilnius County, Lithuania, standing in for the Polish city of Sobibór which lies southeast of both Warsaw and Treblinka, hugging the border with Ukraine. With a cast including scores of Lithuanian extras, Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya’s Vasiliev screenplay based on the book “Alexander Pechersky” by Ilya Vasiliev takes us first to the railway where Jews being resettled have allegedly been treated fairly well on the transport to cover up the goal of the Germans. As they depart, they are told “Welcome to your new life,” but instead, most of the women are forced to strip naked and march into the “showers” only to be gassed with carbon monoxide. The men and women who are kept alive are made busy with sewing and chopping, their hard work met with strange rewards including one attempted rape, nonstop floggings, setting Jews up as horses to run the officers around.

As a result of one attempted escape early on, the officers order one inmate of every group of ten to be shot, to discourage further escapes and to demand that the Jews tell the Nazis of any future plan. Among the prisoners is one kapo who is crueler to his fellow Jews than any German, calling them “kikes,” and bringing clear definition to the term “self-hating Jew.” The camp commandant, Karl Frenzel (Christiopher Lambert) does little to discipline the men, even encouraging them to shoot Jews for sport and, in one instance, to allow Berg (Mindaugas Papinigis) to pour alcohol on one prisoner and set him on fire.

Most of the story deals with life in the camps, which the officers find to their liking being the sadists that they are, nobody forcing restraint while the Jews are beaten so regularly that we wonder how they are able to kill eleven officers, duping them by saying that they have beautiful Parisian leather jackets to show them in their quarters and then stabbing or shooting them. It is only during the final twenty minutes that the actual escape takes place, as prisoners take the pistols and rifles that they capture and make their way into the forest. Slow-motion photography adds drama to the narrative. Regrettably, of the six hundred taking part in the mad dash to freedom, most perished, either killed by guards or exploded in the mine fields surrounding the camp. Only 58 are known to have survived, while some are killed by locals and some by Ukrainian guards.

Because the film so boldly displays the misery dished out to the Jews, who never know whether they would survive the day, it stands as a great tribute to Alexander Pechersky without whose leadership all might have been either killed or too petrified even to attempt escape. English subtitles provided for languages spoken: Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Yiddish

117 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

TRANSIT – movie review

TRANSIT
Music Box Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Christian Petzold
Screenwriter: Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/15/19
Opens: March 1, 2019

click for larger (if applicable)

The first lesson that a teacher gives in introducing the story of humankind’s past is that “History repeats itself.” Throughout the course, whether U.S. history, European, Asian, African or what-have-you, this slogan, if you will, will pop up in quite a few lessons. And why not? People are from different countries, with various cultures, but wherever you may be, what is happening to you right now has occurred to people last year a decade ago, and centuries past. Conquests take place, occupation soldiers solidify their rule. Economics goes boom and go bust. The cycle of life assures us that whatever Mr. Trump does now has been done by presidents in the past. OK maybe that’s an exception. Now Christian Petzold gives us a film that has us visualize such a cycle. He has stated that he could have made a movie set in Europe in 1942 but chooses to make the occupation, the anxieties of the people trying to escape, the brutality of the conquering regime, all the stuff that took place with a vengeance in the early forties in Europe is occurring today. Does ISIS ring a bell? The Syrian Civil War that has caused hundreds of thousands to flee to refuges willing to accept them?

The characters are in good hands with Christian Petzold in the director’s chair, since in 2014 his film “Phoenix,” about a disfigured Holocaust survivor, a Jewish woman eager to discover whether her husband betrayed her hiding place during the German occupation, gets vengeance in the final two or three minutes. Those moments are a gem, a classic, inflicting harm on the weasel without having even to touch him. Now, as in “Phoenix,” Petzold deals with life, with death, and with the ghosts that flow between these two extremes. Petzold, then, takes the chaos in Europe during the early forties, transposes it to the near future, and shows how the Nazi “cleansing” then is leading to a similar fate now, as many in population are desperate to escape to Mexico, to Spain, to the U.S. and anywhere else that is far away from the front. It’s a doozy of a picture.

Petzold’s central character, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is a German refugee fleeing from the ongoing troops occupying one French city after another. He has no papers but as luck would have it he has picked up the identity of a novelist, Weidel, who has committed suicide in his fleebag hotel, leaving the bathtub flooded with his blood. He uses the papers to negotiate with the Mexican consul in Marseilles, where only those who can prove that they’re on their way out of the country are allowed to stay in the hotels. He—in transit, so to speak, between the old world and the current one–seeks what else? A transit visa. Then, complications. The wife of the novelist feels guilty that she left him and is now taken with refugee Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor. In fact every refugee has a story to tell, slim parts of which Georg hears while waiting on line in a consulate. Further complicating the plot, Georg becomes fond of a boy named Driss (Lilien Batman) with whom he plays a quick pickup game of soccer.

Getting back to our theme of history’s repeating itself, the looks of Marseilles are such that had we not known when the action takes place, we would not be able to figure the year. Presumably if a Burger King appeared in the set, takes would wind up on the floor. “Transit” is adapted from the novel by Anna Seghers (1900-1983) published in 1942 and now reprinted in English. The book is from the hands of a woman born into an upper-class Jewish family in Mainz, Germany, who fled (surprise!) from Marseilles to Mexico to escape the Nazis. Director Petzold, who notes that the Nazis destroyed German culture with its propaganda, herein uses the character of Georg to assert the fate of the refugee, always moving around, rootless and lonely until he meets the woman he loves since with the novelist’s identity he has become as centered as one can be in his situation.

The film, which is in German and French with English subtitles, is one of those works that reward viewers who have the patience to allow the different fragments of the story to become solidified. Did I say reward? Yes I did.

104 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY – movie review

WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY
Abramorama
Reviewed for Shockya.com and BigAppleReviews.net by: Harvey Karten
Director: Roberta Grossman
Screenwriter: Roberta Grossman, Samuel Kassow from Kassow’s book “Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto”
Cast: Jowitz Budnik, Piotr Glowacki, Piotr Jankowski, Wojciech Zielinski, Karolina Gruzka, Bartlomiej Kotschedoff, Gera Sandler
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/1/19
Opens: January 18, 2019

Who Will Write Our History Large Poster

We in the U.S. are living now in a time that the printed word has been downgraded, where texting and sexting are the language of youth, and where the New York Times is denigrated by our country’s chief office holder as “failing” and full of “fake news.” How refreshing it is, then, that a film and the book from which it is adapted honors the word, whether in English, or Yiddish, or Hebrew or Polish. “Who Will Write our History” commemorates and even idolizes a few remarkable people shut inside the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi conquest of Poland who dedicated the rest of their brief, remaining lives to writing an archive of material. The material, mostly of the printed word, includes some pictures, so that people in London could be made aware of the delivering of Polish Jewish into a gated neighborhood ghetto followed by their mass murder. The sixty thousand pages of first-person testimony were buried after the ghetto and, indeed, much of the entire city was burned to the ground and found only recently by groups of workers with some documentation presumably buried under the Chinese Embassy in Poland’s capital.

Using archival film taken mostly by Nazis who, by photographing Jews wasting away with starvation and afflicted with lice and disease, employed the films as propaganda to show the world that the Jews are filthy and lice-infected—as though the heartless conquering people had nothing to do with their miserable and desperate condition. The source material, from Samuel Kassow’s book “Who Will Write our History,” cannot be faulted as the author, who lectures on Russian and Jewish history, received a commentary from the New Republic magazine “May be the most important book about history that anyone will ever read.” (Available from Amazon for $17.04.)

The documentary mixes in contemporary footage in full color as actors taking the parts of journalists, scholars and community leaders who go about their secret work of writing voluminous accounts of the greatest crime of the last century. Emanuel Ringelblum was the leader of the group, a historian who gave the project the code name of Oyneg Shabes, determined to puncture German lies with the pen while lacking the sword—at least until the uprising of those Jews remaining in the ghetto on April 19, 1943.

The project is directed, written and produced by Roberta Grossman, whose passion for social justice is easily understood by looking at her previous works. “Seeing Allred,” which she co-directed, takes on the recent testimony of sexual assaults, while her “Hava Nagila” is a virtual travelogue of the famous Jewish song. For this film she employs the voice of Joan Allen, whose narrative offerings include “Rickover: the Birth of Nuclear Power” Catherine Senesh from a movie about Hannah Senesh, who was captured by the Nazis while trying to rescue Jews during the war. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, narrator Adrien Brody used his narrative voice in the past as the mouse in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Focusing on the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and his Oyneg Shabes archive, writer-director Grossman honors the determination of writers to become eyewitnesses to the destructive criminality of the Nazis, indicting the Jewish police as well for their desire to save their lives by treating other Jews with the same brutality as the Germans. What emerges from the writings is not simply a narrative history, as the sixty writers also knocked

out diaries, essays, jokes, poems and songs. Most significant is that they depict the Jews from the Jewish point of view so the world should see German propaganda as little more than the lies of a craven people.

This is a major piece of documentary filmmaking, the scholars and filmmakers working for six months to prepare the actual shooting, while the words spoken by the actors are the very words that emerge from the printed material. In 1999 three document collections from Poland were included by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the works of Chopin (ironically enough considering the composer’s virulent anti-Semitism), the works of Copernicus, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive.

Some may argue that the special effects and reenactments threaten the veracity of the material but Grossman makes sure that every word spoken in the recreations, every emotion, boldly supplements the amazing collection of archival celluloid, much of which I for one had never seen before despite my aim to see every film made that tries to make sense of the Holocaust.

95 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – A
Overall – A-

WHERE HANDS TOUCH – movie review

WHERE HANDS TOUCH

Vertical Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Amma Asante
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston, Tom Sweet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/18
Opens: September 9, 2018 at Toronto Film Festival

Amandla Stenberg in Where Hands Touch (2018)

Once you get past the absurdity of Germans’ speaking only English in a film that has a little French spoken in the final scene, you realize that this Holocaust story is one that to my knowledge had never before been explored. “Where Hands Touch” examines the life of 15-year-old Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who comes of age by having her first sexual experience with an “Aryan” member of the Hitler Youth. To the young woman’s discredit, she does not have a problem with her liaison with Lutz (George MacKay), a young man who does not try to get off the hook by pretending that every kid had to accommodate himself to the Nazi program and join the organization. He is so loyal to the Nazi regime that time and again states that he might even try to be assigned to the Russian front, and who is protected by his father (Christopher Eccleston) who assigns him to work in a concentration camp.

For her part, Leyna is protected from persecution, at least for a time, by her mother (Abbie Cornish), an “Aryan” German who had had a relationship with an African, thereby producing a mixed-race child.

Amma Asante, a London-based actor, screenwriter, and director who was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to Film, is known by her fans largely for her 2004 film “A Way of Life.” That story is about a 17-year-old girl who is paranoid that a Turkish neighbor is plotting to take away her 6-months’ old baby. Asante, therefore, is in her métier by this lataest story requires no paranoia to realize that Leyna is really in serious trouble. Her mother is sensible, as mothers often are when dealing with their daughters’ passions, doing her best to have her daughter fade into invisibility. That she is having an affair with a die-hard Nazi troubles her, while her daughter, passion trumping rationality, plunges headline into danger.

So much is known about the Nazi persecution of Jews that we overlook the fact that Afro-German professionals found it almost impossible to work in Germany under Hitler. They were forbidden to have sexual relations and marriage to Aryans, they were called “Rhineland bastards,” and were subjected to undergo forced sterilization. Yet they were better off than Jews and Romani, segregated with a plan to make them disappear by having the 25,000 women of color disappear after the present generation.

“Where Hands Touch” does give us insight into the Holocaust as it applies to women who are not Jews but whose papers were somehow not in order. In the situation here, Leyland’s mother is taken away for producing a mixed race child while her daughter is confined to a concentration camp located not far from a neighboring facility where Jews are murdered and sent up in smoke.

The film bills itself not particularly as a coming-of-age story, though Leyland’s virginity is lost and the girl is made pregnant by her Nazi lover. Instead, I believe the writer-director wants us to look at the work as principally a romance, albeit a love affair dominated by the political and social order of 1944-1945. The film has received some backlash, including a screed by Tara Nafisa, a Nigerian critic who is incensed that we are “expected to develop a special bond with a mixed-race girl who sees past the blood in his hands, the emblems on his uniforms, and the philosophy of the association he represent.” However let’s face facts. Leyland, who is the principal character, is not meant to be a shining example of a caring, compassionate woman, but is rather limited by her tender age, driven by passions that her mother fears. In the same sense, her young man, despite his love of Germany, partially to overlook his ideology, which would make similar people avoid and even denigrate women of mixed race. He is willing to risk his standing with the society of his day and become alienated from his father. There are no saints in this story with the possible exception of the girl’s mother, but rather a basket of flawed personalities, some, like the boy’s father, who would fit easily into a basket of deplorables. The same could, of course, be said of the extras, the Nazi officers who bark orders, demand right and left that citizens produce papers, shooting some in the back as easily as they could put a hook on a fish.

Ultimately the picture is flawed by a script that is both saccharine and simplistic, the British actors delivering their lines in a stilted manner. The dialogue between Leyland’s mom and the girl, and between the Aryan and her father could remind us of the long-winded advice that Shakespeare’s Polonius gives to Laertes, but there is nothing in the conversations that transcends the banal.
So give Ms. Asante the credit for exposing us to a segment of the Holocaust not before treated in a film that, despite being based on a true story, does not come across as credible. Remi Adefarasin films in Belgium, moments of melodrama aided by Ann Chmelewsky’s music.

Rated R. 122 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – C+
Technical – B-
Overall – C+

THE CAPTAIN – movie review

THE CAPTAIN (Der Hauptmann)

Music Box Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriter:  Robert Schwentke
Cast:  Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel, Frederick Lau, Bernd Holscher, Waldemar Kobus
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/17/18
Opens: July 27, 2018
Poster
Movies about impersonation could be as contemporary and witty as  Fred Schepsi’s 1993 “Six Degrees of Separation,” based on John Guare’s 1990 play involving a young black man who shows up on the doorstep of a rich couple pretending to have an involvement with the family that could offer him a  chance at the good life.  Or you can look at Danile Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre,” taking place in medieval France where villagers challenge the story of a man who claims to have returned from the army.  Joseph Losey’s “Monsieur Klein” focuses on a Roman Catholic who takes advantage of Jews needing to sell art work and is avenged by another, a Jewish Mr. Klein, who in 1942 seeks to make authorities think that the lout is himself Jewish.   On the subject of Nazis, we now have Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain” from a director whose “Tattoo” involves a veteran cop and a rookie who are looking for a serial killer who murders people with tattoos and skins them, so he’s not all about making comedies.  Yet there is something darkly comic about his latest project, taking place in Germany in April 1945 during the last two weeks of the war.  At this point, the Germans all agree that the battle is lost, and an increasing number of ordinary soldiers are deserting, leaving the sinking ship.  They are afraid, they are hungry, they are pursued by both military police and the regular army, in some cases shot on sight as they run and try to hide.

The film is in black and white except for a few moments to highlight an important change in the topography years after the war and to introduce us to the cast and some of the crew of the almost two-hour drama.  When Willi Herold (Max Hubacher), a private in the Wehrmacht, dodges bullets of the loyal soldiers and successfully hides, he might wonder how long he can get away with his rogue behavior.  Happily, he finds that a captain who has been killed left behind a neatly pressed uniform in his Mercedes. He puts it on, and except for the pants which are too long, he looks almost like a real captain, though at the age of twenty-one he might give soldiers pause.

The theme of the picture, that given the right attire changes a man’s character, may remind you of East German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s view on that subject. Nor is Shakespeare a slouch on that subject, for didn’t he say “the apparel oft proclaims the man”?  Schwentke’s film highlights Private Herold, who, in his uniform of the dead captain not only gets soldiers to give him immediate authority, but more important changes his own view of himself.  Though actually a deserter, he will act in scenes that make him so contemptuous of deserters that he has no problem ordering “his men” to gun them down, even though the executions are carried out without the due process of court martials that other German officers insist upon.  In the movie’s most gruesome scene, he has 90 deserters dig a trench and then, linking them up in groups of 30, he orders men to gun them down with an anti-aircraft gun, and then to proceed to the ditch with automatic rifles to make sure everyone is dead.

Captain Herold throughout refuses to show his papers, telling interrogators that he is under direct orders from the Fuehrer to check out conditions behind the front lines.  Wouldn’t any Nazi with half a brain realize that Hitler was not about to order a mere captain to take on this mission, much less a 21-year-old?  Yet he gets away with his scam throughout in a story that involves large groups of officers and soldiers actually celebrating the executions of ninety fellow German, drinking schnapps, looting, whoring and the like.  Of all the soldiers, he speaks the least, fearful, perhaps, that he might be caught in his impersonation and indeed, there are two soldiers who smile at the “captain” as though winking at the movie audience to show that they know what’s up.  The film includes intra-mural brawls though there is no ground action against the British who show up only once to strafe the shack sheltering the soldiers.

“Der Hauptmann” as this is called in the original German (the dialogue is wholly German with English subtitles), embodies various subgenres from the absurdism that might have found a home in the writings of Ionesco and Brecht, its comic touches asking the audience to embrace this clown of a scammer as though he were a hayseed way out of his class.  Schwentke does not have time to tell us more about Willi Herold, his background seemingly unimportant and even a point that would take him away from his act as an Everyman.  Those filmgoers with a particular interest in World War II—and there’s no shortage year after year of films depicting every crevice of the subject—will find “The Captain” appealing, including the comic touches of the soldiers in a shelter who seem to come out of the comic 1953 TV drama “Stalag 17.”

Unrated.  118 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical –  B+
Overall – B+