THE LAST VERMEER – movie review

THE LAST VERMEER
Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dan Friedkin
Screenwriter: James McGee, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez
Cast: Guy Pearce, Claes Bang, Vicky Krieps
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 3/19/20
Opens: May 22, 2020

It’s about time that the film industry has come around to portraying a first class melodrama of one of the great forgeries in art history, one of many that allowed Hans van Meegeren to amass enough of a fortune to buy 52 properties and 15 country homes throughout Europe. Van Meegeren’s story has is covered in an elaborate Wikipedia essay, a fellow well known to the residents of the Netherlands but until now unfamiliar to the average American. “The Last Vermeer” is adapted from a book by Jonathan Lopez, “The Man Who Made Vermeers,” available on Amazon, now brought to life before cinematographer Rami Adefarasin lenses with all the splendor of Fort Widley in Portsmouth, England and Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

The film should cast Dan Friedkin in the limelight as a first-time director with a potential future in uncovering the lives of people as colorful as Van Meegeren, who thanks to this picture will allow us in the U.S. to dig further into aspects of the Third Reich rarely illuminated before. This film is graced by a stunning performance from Guy Pearce in the role of the forger who must have been thankful that he did not make the cut as a grade-A painter, but who amassed a fortune of thirty million dollars (that’s in 1943) by swindling the number 2 man in Hitler’s stable, art lover Hermann Göring. Implied in the tale is the certainty that if Göring knew he was taken advantage of, he would have had Van Meegeren shot. Then again, some of Van Meegeren’s countrymen might have done the deed given that Dutchmen who collaborated with the Nazis were tied behind a pole in a central square and shot before a mass of citizens screaming epithets.

The two central characters are Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) and Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang). The movie, like the book, emphasizes the captain’s Jewish background given his disgust with the Nazis for stealing hundreds of masterworks in the art world when Jews escaping the Nazis in the Netherlands as in most of the rest of Europe had to sell their collections for bargain basement prices. Presumably van Meegeren acquired these paintings partly for his collection, but always conspiring to sell them and accumulate vast riches. What Göring did not know was that the painting of “Christ and the Adulteress” that he bought from van Meegeren was not an original Vermeer and that in fact Vermeer had not been credited with the work at all. One must wonder—though the film does not—why Göring could not check on the complete list of the works of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) where he would discover that no such title exists.

The film is bogged down by a large number of characters, most if not all might be unfamiliar to American viewers. Otherwise the story involves throughout with several melodramatic touches, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene presided over the three judges, with the Dutch people gathered outside seemingly favorable to van Meegeren as they credit him with swindling the Nazis. On the other hand the judges and the prosecutor are adamant about prosecuting the forger and giving him a death sentence, as they consider him a fellow who enriched himself by collaborating with Nazi bigwigs.

The women in the story get short exposure, lost in the maze of personages, including the forger’s ex-wife and his mistress, while Piller, a handsome Dutch fellow with a clear, penetrating voice, has his own bedmates. Yet Guy Pearce, well known to American audiences for roles in “Mary Queen of Scots,” “The Catcher Was a Spy” and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Genius” takes a role in which he is almost unrecognizable, giving support to Claes Bang, recently seen in the wonderful “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which also deals with the world of painting.

An epilogue that tries to imitate some of the novels of John Grisham—wherein a winning case unravels in the final pages—is unconvincing, dealing with a suggestion that the Dutch painter indeed collaborated with Hitler himself.

117 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ – movie review

THE WALDHEIM WALTZ

Menemsha Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Ruth Beckermann
Screenwriter: Ruth Beckermann
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/24/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Waldheims Walzer (2018)
Pete Seeger once sang a Tom Paxton song, a section going like this:

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine,
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine.
I learned our country must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong,
Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school.

Don’t you think it’s true that in America all our leaders are the finest men?  Grade school optimism of this nature would not fare well in other countries, as their presidents and prime ministers are not as saintly as ours.  Take the bottom-feeder that came out of Austria.  No, not that one.  Think of Kurt Waldheim, Wouldn’t it have been great if that war criminal, that Viennese vulture, spent his life baking sachertortes instead of taking part in Nazi paramilitary activities?  Instead the one-time president of Austria repeatedly states throughout this documentary that he was just a soldier drafted by Germany to serve on the Russian front.  What he conceals while at the same time virtually shooting himself in the foot by his denials, that he knew nothing about the shooting of Serb civilians one hundred meters from his office in Yugoslavia nor did he have any knowledge of the deportation of 12,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece during the years of World War II particularly 1942-43.

Maybe he lied, maybe he didn’t. But there is enough doubt sowed here to have caused the Austrian voters to demur about casting ballots for him when he ran for president in 1986.  He won on the second ballot with 53.8% of the vote.

Filmmaker Ruth Beckermann, who has considerable experience with documentaries, is adept at dramas as well.  Before “The Waldheim Waltz” she traveled across Europe and the Mediterranean to unfold “The Dreamed Ones,” focused on chance encounters with the likes of Nigerian asylum seekers in Sicily, an Arab musician in Galilee, nationalists drunk on beer in Vienna, and veiled young women trying to cross a busy road in Alexandria.  She provides voiceover narration throughout “The Waldheim Waltz,” which concentrates on the 1986 presidential election, showing archival film from the forties and from Waldheim’s tenure as UN Secretary General.  One must wonder at the kind of world that existed in 1972 to allow this fellow, later banned from travel in the U.S. for lying about his service in the S.A., or Sturmabterlung, the Nazi paramilitary force.

The most dramatic incident occurs when, during a street confrontation between pro-Waldheim people on the street and those opposed, a member of the former group yells to Beckermann and to all around gathered to watch the action, “You belong in the ground, you Jewish swine.” Then to another in the crowd, “Are you a Jewboy?  A Jewboy?”  This antisemitism is nothing new for Austrians.  To this day, they consider themselves citizens who suffered just like the Jews under the Nazis since the Anschluss, or annexation of their country to Germany.  The reality is that crowds turned out to cheer wildly for Hitler and generally to show that the majority, perhaps, were quite comfortable attaching themselves to another German-speaking country.

We can’t fail to add that Waldheim’s “memory loss” or “amnesia” about his wartime activities brings to mind similar situations that have arisen here in the U.S. as politicians, grilled by journalists and congressional committees to ‘fess up about shady dealings in their past, have “no recollection.”  This is not to say that any office holder or candidate for high-level jobs is on the same base level as was a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization.  This is just the way that we, watching local politics about the Kavanaugh hearings in particular, can have an AHA! moment.  This is what dirty politics is all about.  It’s no wonder that so many of our citizens have given up on participating even once every two years in the simple act of casting ballots, given that neither Tweedledum nor Tweedledee will be able to solve or even to bother understanding the real problems that all but the richest one percent face.

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

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

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+

THE KING’S CHOICE – movie review

 

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    • THE KING’S CHOICE  (Kongens nei)

      Samuel Goldwyn Films
      Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
      Grade: B
      Director:  Erik Poppe
      Written by: Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, Jan Trygve Røyneland
      Cast: Jesper Christense, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics, Tuva Novotny, Katharine Schüttler
      Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 8/24/17
      Opens: September 22, 2017
      click for larger (if applicable)
      “The King’s Choice” turns out to be a perfectly respectable piece of historical cinema, one that would be particularly appreciated by its audience in Norway, just as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” about America’s Doolittle raid on Japan, would inspire us here in the U.S.  To my knowledge this film is the only one that ever reached our shores dealing with a special patriotic segment of life during World War 2, namely the resistance to the Nazis when Hitler’s soldiers first sought capitulation from the Norwegian government, and then, failing that, proceeded to bomb the neutral country.  Norway was valued by Germany for its iron ore and its strategically long harbor.

      One may wonder, after watching the fervor of Norway’s king in refusing to capitulate whether he, and the cabinet whose votes he inspired, was worthwhile.  After all, anyone could see that the forces of Germany, a single country in Western Europe that conquered Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France—some after great resistance and others by capitulation—was a force to be reckoned with.  But Norwegian King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), an older man with a thick mustache, states to Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics),  the German diplomat urging him to surrender and to save Norwegian lives, “Your own Führer said that a country that surrenders does not deserve to live.”

      Director Erik Poppe, whose “1,000 Times Good Night” about a war photographer whose husband no longer wants to abide by her dangerous profession, focuses on the king and the royal family.  Whisked out of Norway’s capital, Oslo, by train from the Eastern Railrway Station, he heads north, where he is given authority to rule the country for the rest of the war.  He meets the German envoy, whose strongly advises capitulation as the envoy sincerely wants to save Norwegian lives.  As the king meets with his cabinet, back home in Oslo, Vidkun Quisling has been set up by the Nazis as Norway’s traitorous prime minister, one not recognized by Haakon.  The king would later set up a government in exile in London, broadcasting patriotic messages and encouraging the resistance.

      Vivid battle scenes are not the point, which, instead, is to show the courage of the king. However, cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund does capture German aircraft regularly flying across Norway and occasionally dropping bombs. There is also a dramatic scene in which Norwegian soldiers fire open a German ship that were headed into Norwegian waters without waiting to see whether they are arriving as messengers of peace or whether they are the enemy.

      Though “The King’s Choice” educates us about an incident mostly forgotten by the current generation—just as the escape from Dunkirk gets celluloid about a special incident cheered by France—it is not in the same class as that expensive movie.  Yet in some ways it is even superior, as it tells the story in chronological patterns, which “Dunkirk” eschewed in favor of three chapter in disarrayed order.  “The King’s Choice” will probably be seen by people outside of Norway as a history lesson, less inspiring than major cinema like the far more expensive “Saving Private Ryan,” but it does earn its stars by being chosen as Norway’s Oscar candidate for movies opening in 2016.

      The film is in Norwegian, German, and a smidgen of English with English subtitles, the white letters often overwhelmed by the snows of April.

      Unrated.  133 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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