Sympathy for the Devil’s Children in Lore

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany's dark past in LORE.

Saskia Rosendahl has a bright future ahead after her expert depiction of Germany’s dark past in LORE.

At a posh German estate, a gaggle of beautiful blond-haired blue-eyed children have been ignorant of the horrors of war but are now suddenly brooding when news of their Führer’s death hits home and their once stalwart and dependable parents suddenly lose it. Nazi officer dad and crumbling mom dash off on different paths headed for prison or death at the hands of the invading Allied forces. As is so classic in German folklore (notice the double meaning behind the film’s title – both our young protagonist’s short-hand name and representing a bit of modern volk-lore) the abandoned children led by Lore (a devastatingly natural Saskia Rosendahl – running hot and cold, confident and scared, petulant and innocent at the flip of a switch) disappear into the Black Forest headed for Grandmother’s house.

Adapted from a novel by Rachel Seiffert, Australian director Cate Shortland delivers in a realist way what The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (for all its power) fumbled heavy-handedly with in its attempt to declare Germany’s actions in WWII as a form of nationalist murder-suicide. Much like the children in Haneke’s The White Ribbon who grew up to become the people who joined the Nazi party, the children in Lore represent Germany as a whole…complacent, seduced and all too willing to follow a madman promising decorum and riches. When that madman dies, the cause is revealed as a vicious hoax, and the children are left to literally wander in the woods scrounging to survive.

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Sarah’s Key and the Privilege of Choice

What choice did little Sarah have in a world gone mad?

 
It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them.  It’s a way to reach into the past.  It’s a way to invoke nostalgia.  It’s a way to uncover secrets.  It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face. 
 
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation.  Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story.  It was real.  One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale.  Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats.  Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?”  In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity. Continue reading

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

Why, yes, Mr. Hitler, I do object.

Character driven historical dramas used as vehicles for acting showcases have long been the bread and butter of many an Oscar campaign.  The King’s Speech is one such throw-back picture, harkening to a simpler time when entertainment was good and pure.  It’s 100% by-the-numbers bread and butter…but it’s that really good bread, you know the kind that is crusty on the outside and warm and tender inside, and the butter, it’s like that really fancy kind infused with garlic and stuff. 

It’s the dawn of WWII in England, and the royals are still reeling from the Wallis Simpson scandal.  After his brother abdicates the throne, King George VI (Colin Firth – not looking, but certainly acting the hell out of the part) reluctantly takes charge while cowering in fear of a life-long stutter.  With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, still damn good when not stuck in Tim Burton films) he finds an unlikely speech therapist in the Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush in his wheelhouse) to help him overcome his stammering.  Continue reading

You Might Be a Basterd If

If shes a Basterd...sign me up!

If she's a Basterd...sign me up!

A Review of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS:

I walked into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds expecting non-stop Basterd-style Nazi killing, over the top violence and borderline kitsch.  Sure, there’s some of that, and an anachronistic use of a David Bowie song among other minor albeit forgivable annoyances, but what struck me most was that this was not just a story of Basterd scalping maniacs.  This was also a story of a young Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) hiding out in Paris under the guise of a cinema operator and her elaborate revenge plot against the bastard SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who murdered her family.  This is a story of a ballsy double agent parading as a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who risks everything for an operation to assassinate Hitler.  And most memorably, and cyclically, this is the story of that ruthless SS Colonel Hans Landa and his inevitable comeuppance after he arrogantly and erroneously plays everyone as if he were the smartest man in the room.  In fact, the whole movie hangs on his story arc.  From the moment at the end of the opening prologue where Shosanna barely escapes from his overreaching grasp, we wait…ever so patiently…to see…in that final scene…Hanz receive his comeuppance.  And Tarantino, in his signature chapter-stop style weaves in all of these stories and others and uses the Basterds (essentially as a McGuffin) as the comic relief.

By all measures, this is Tarantino’s best-looking film.  Continue reading

A Review of Joe Wright’s Adaptation of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”

(01/04/2008) I rarely do this, but I felt compelled after a second viewing of Atonement to admit where I may have been off base with my initial review.  I judged the characters rather harshly, but on second look felt them worthy of forgiveness from the audience.   I was especially unfair to Keira Knightley.  Her emaciated appearance adds a bizarre element to her character in that it could be viewed as a physical manifestation of her character’s lovesick nature.  She loses herself and her body in this role much like Christian Bale did in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn.  There were also certain nuances in her body language and performance I witnessed the second time around that made the film richer and more emotionally complex.  Joe Wright’s camera adores Keira, lingers on her unique features, and makes her a far better actress. I also found the ending, which at first look seemed all too clever, to be a fitting conclusion and mirror of the film’s greater themes that honored the source material from Ian McEwan.  Atonement is a brilliant and haunting piece of work.  I still can’t get the Dunkirk tracking shot out of my mind.  The rest of my original review appears below unabridged. –DHS

Suite Britianna, 10 December 2007
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

A budding young writer named Briony witnesses an innocent act she doesn’t fully understand between her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and long-time family servant Robbie (James McAvoy) one restless summer day on her family’s lavish country estate in 1935 England that leads to scandal in Joe Wright’s dreadfully sumptuous adaptation of Ian McEwan’s international best-selling novel, “Atonement.” Four years later, all three characters try to find their own personal sense of peace or redemption during WWII.

This brief synopsis does nothing to explain the intricate complexities of the plot and actions that take place. Although Keira Knightley’s performance is slightly off-putting due to the fact she appears like she just escaped from a concentration camp (surely young British socialites did not look like this in the 1930′s), the stunning cast shows full range here racing through curious emotions: spite, lust, recklessness, and selfish wanton abandon. The facial expressions, especially from the children in the early scenes on the estate, are priceless. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic as they are often vain, self-absorbed, and quite silly in their drama, but they are fascinating to watch. The first third of the film is played like a “Masterpiece Theater” production of “The Great Gatsby” as seen through the eyes of Nancy Drew.

However, what makes “Atonement” soar is the impeccable direction of Joe Wright. He makes the most audacious coming-of-age as an auteur since Anthony Minghella delivered “The English Patient” back in 1996. Wright displays a near Kubrickian mastery of sound effects (notice the strikes of the typewriter keys) that transition from scene to scene and often bleed into the amazing score from Dario Marianelli. Wright also crafts a finely textured mise-en-scene that visually translates McEwan’s richly composed story onto the screen with near note perfect fashion. Nothing can really prepare you for how well directed this film is until you see it, and the scene of the three soldiers arriving on the beach at the Dunkirk evacuation is one of the greatest stand alone unedited panning long shots ever captured on film. It left me gasping.

That scene leads to the heart of the film. The often clichéd romance at the core is trumped by Wright’s depiction of Robbie, a single man forlorn and obsessed, his dizzying inner turmoil reflected against the grand canvas of a chaotic world at war. Likewise, Briony’s redemption comes not in the too-clever conclusion at the end of the film, but in the intimate and symbolic confessional at the bedside of a dying French soldier. These moments leave lasting impressions, and left me imagining that if Joe Wright were to ever adapt Irene Nemiorovsky’s “Suite Francaise” onto the silver screen, he would knock it so far out of the park it would leave “Gone With Wind” spinning in its gilded Hollywood grave.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

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A Review of Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book”

*Above: Carice Van Houten in “Zwartboek” aka “Black Book.”

Triumph of the “Performance” over the “Act.”, 23 April 2007
8/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Paul Verhoeven is a strange breed. He’s responsible for three of the most gleefully violent, fascist, and wildly imaginative sci-fi thrillers of a now bygone era (“Robocop,” “Total Recall,” and “Starship Troopers”). He’s also directed the only commercially successful erotic thriller of the past twenty years (“Basic Instinct”) and what is arguably one of the worst films ever made (the highly un-erotic and campy “Showgirls”). With “Black Book” he digs back into his Dutch roots and delivers a thrilling, though flawed, WWII flick anchored by an amazing lead performance from Carice Van Houten.

The first thirty minutes play like a crackerjack version of a “surviving the Holocaust” epic. Imagine what Hitchcock might have done had he ever tackled the genre and you’ll get an idea of just how splendidly Verhoeven starts the film. He begins with the plucky and beguiling Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) hiding out in the Netherlands from the Nazis, traversing tragedy after tragedy and escaping by the skin of her teeth due to her own innate will to survive until she becomes embroiled with a terrorist Dutch resistance group plotting against the German occupation. The first third of the film is full of suggestive dark humor, crisply shot action set pieces, and a luminous Van Houten who throws her whole body into her acting and could melt (or kill) a man with her smile.

The middle portion where Rachel Stein becomes Ellis de Vries and infiltrates the Nazi regime is a stark contrast to its excellent build up. All suggestion is thrown out the door for a crass, misogynistic take on the spy genre. It’s fun to watch, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s also the type of crude sadism that is likely to offend the typical audience for this type of historical drama. Van Houten once again throws her whole body into the role, and it’s often naked and glowing in this portion of the film. She’s immensely watchable as she becomes a pawn in the games of these fascist men hell bent on mutual annihilation. Once driven by her own wits, she now must be rescued time and again by the amoral men who have fallen under her spell.

All changes when the Allied Forces march into the Netherlands triumphant, returning sovereign rule to the bitter Dutch, and striking up deals with the crumbling Nazi infrastructure. The fall out from the multiple double-crossings in the middle portion of the film turn the last third into a pulsating and memorable revenge saga.

Ultimately, justice is in the eye of the beholder, and Verhoeven seems to be saying that all men are capable of evil deeds when their freedom has been taken away and their lives threatened. In his view of war there are no heroes. The only character with any virtue and good sense is a woman, and her inherent “weakness” often leads to pain, tragedy, and humiliation. It’s a troublesome and often fractured view of the world (which leads to the film’s fracturing into three distinct parts), but it’s miraculously held together by Carice Van Houten’s galvanizing performance that emotionally and physically upstages the worst of what Verhoeven can deliver thematically and visually on any given day.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0389557/usercomments-68