Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.
Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)
The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy. – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?
An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.
For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).
It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.
A Russian trailer (with English subs):
A beautifully photographed film with good central performances, The Eagle seems to lose its way in the final third. After being engaged fully up to this point I suddenly realised that I couldn’t imagine how the story could end without some kind of implausible outcome – and, of course, that is what we got. That’s a shame but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the film.
The Eagle is an adaptation of the first of the famous historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was written in 1954 and has since garnered a legion (sorry!) of fans both young and old. I didn’t read it as a child, but I think I’ve always known about the stories and this particular title. The premise is simple and concerns a Roman legion that appears to have disappeared somewhere in the North of Great Britain (i.e. the largest of the ‘British’ Isles) around 110 AD. The ‘lost legion’ brings dishonour to the family of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion who vows to find the lost standard of the legion and what happened to his father in the hope that this will restore his family’s honour. In the first part of the film he proves his valour in Britain but is injured and it is only later that he sets out north of Hadrian’s Wall with only his British slave Esca to search for ‘the Eagle’, the large bronze bird which topped the standard.
The problem for the script is that the original story appears to have included a great deal of detail about the routines of Roman military life. The film goes for a downbeat ‘realist’ look (which is nevertheless ‘stylised’, especially through lighting) photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle for director Kevin Macdonald. This isn’t the Roman world of the Hollywood spectacular or even of Gladiator (a film I thought was let down by its over-use of CGI). Macdonald made his name as a documentary director and at times life in the fort felt like a documentary reconstruction – but there wasn’t enough narration or graphics (save the odd scroll map – in English) to help us ‘see’ how the Roman occupation worked. I think that the film falls between two contrasting aspirations. It isn’t an all-out entertainment film with bloody action and military plotting, but it also isn’t credible as a historical film about a specific period. It opts instead for the other conventional narrative of the son wanting to redeem the reputation of his father, so what we get is a character-driven film about heroism and honour. Perhaps a bit more attention to Kurosawa’s similar historical films might have helped?
Politics are very important in the presentation of the story. In a Guardian feature, it is conceded that Sutcliff’s novel was written when the UK still had an empire and somehow she felt able to side with a Roman character who seems to have a very ‘liberal’ relationship with a British slave. Since I didn’t have a classical education, the Romans for me are just imperialist invaders and I automatically side with the ‘Ancient Brits’ and especially the Celtic peoples of the North. Director Kevin McDonald has emphasised the possibility of this reading by casting Americans to play the Romans. This is an interesting ploy which reflects a more realistic view of which identity represents contemporary imperialism. Just an aside, but it is interesting that the Germans, the French under Napoleon (?) and the Americans have tended to adopt the eagle but the English have usually favoured a lion or John Bull – a way of refuting Roman influence? Anyway it is a nice change to have the Americans as the educated bad guys and the Brits as the guerilla fighters. It was an interesting idea too have the young Frenchman Tahar Rahim (from Un prophète) as a Celtic warrior but he’s hardly recognisable under the warpaint. The other quirk in the casting is that Mark Strong, a British actor, has to adopt an American accent to confirm that he is a Roman.
The ‘star’ of the film is supposedly Channing Tatum who is quite likeable but for me the completely wrong physical shape for a Roman legionnaire. He’s almost square in shape with a thick neck and upper torso that I presume comes from gym work but just looks wrong. Jamie Bell on the other hand looks wiry but muscular. I had my doubts initially but he convinced me over the course of the film. Besides the cinematography itself, the other ‘star’ of the film is the landscape. Budget considerations were presumably the reason why both Scottish and Hungarian locations feature with added CGI. Though it is possible to see differences between the three, overall I was impressed with the way landscape was used.
I haven’t yet seen Neil Marshall’s earlier take on the same story (Centurion, 2010) but it would be interesting to compare the two films. With the appearance of Valhalla Rising last year, action stories set in the British Isles seem to be in vogue. Perhaps somebody should think about a new ‘Hereward the Wake’ film – but not in the mode of Ridley Scott’s strange Robin Hood please.
Official US trailer for the film:
Back in 2007 UK independent distributor Revolver had a big hit with the French thriller Tell No One. Since then they’ve tried to repeat the process with varying degrees of success (i.e. the romcom Heartbreaker). Revolver’s initiatives are to be welcomed if only because they are looking at ‘popular’ French product that the more art-orientated independents ignore. What then to make of this DVD release of the 43rd film by Claude Lelouch? I mention the ’43rd’ tag only because Lelouch himself tells us this in his voiceover that accompanies the credits. We also learn that he’s been in films for 50 years. He’s something of a forgotten figure in the UK, remembered mainly for Un homme et une femme which was an international smash hit in 1966 – and an Oscar winner. Twenty years later he offered a less successful sequel but apart from that his films haven’t been particularly successful in the UK. In France his critical reputation has never been high but his films are usually well-produced and often with big stars. Somebody has been watching those 40 plus films, so Lelouch appeals to certain audiences. His last big hit was Hommes, femmes, mode d’emploi in 1996 and What War May Bring lasted three weeks in the French box office Top 20 in September 2010 making around $2 million.
Revolver are trying to sell this film as a ‘war epic’ and indeed there are some action sequences of the D-Day landings and the final allied push into Germany in 1945, but primarily this is a story about a woman who “loves too fast”. This quote from the film might have provided a better title (the French title is not easily translated, but the original English title ‘What Love May Bring’ would have worked). The woman in question is Ilva who arrives in Paris as an 18 year-old refugee from Italy in 1936. Ilva’s mother marries a cinema projectionist but then dies a few years later. The film’s narrative is actually presented as one long flashback and it follows Ilva through the war years and into the postwar world. She loves ‘quickly’ and dramatically five men against the background of war – and cinema. The cinema scenes are beautifully rendered and a character clearly intended to be Lelouch himself appears as a small Jewish boy being sheltered by the projectionist and his daughter (this is a rather wonderful ‘live-in’ cinema with an apartment in the same building). The same boy appears as a grown-up film student in the 1950s, like Lelouch travelling to Moscow to shoot footage secretly and provoking a bizarre montage of seemingly all the love stories in Lelouch films which is inserted into the narrative! In fact the film is stuffed with these kinds of inserts and jokes about the history of cinema as well as posters and dialogue references to important films. Lelouch would like us to think that this is his tribute to cinema – his response to Truffaut amongst others – as much as his own experience of it.
There are several pluses in the film. Audrey Dana as Ilva is always watchable and holds the film together through her performance. She looks right for the part, ages convincingly and I could certainly believe that the male characters would fall for her. As well as the magical scenes set in the Eden Palace cinema (very effective screenings of classics like Le Jour se Leve and Hôtel du Nord in a beautiful cinema) there is music running throughout the film offering a history of French popular and romantic music – some of it composed by Francis Lai who has worked with Lelouch since the 1960s and some by Laurent Couson who plays a pianist and one of Ilva’s love interests in the film. The DVD looks great in CinemaScope. IMDB suggests that much of it was shot in Romania and there are certainly some epic sequences which reminded me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Great War story A Very Long Engagement (2004). However, . . . I’m not sure that it works as a whole. Lelouch presumably sees this as his swansong. The publicity tells us it has been 10 years in the making. The cast and crew include several members of the extended Lelouch family. The story is written by Lelouch with Pierre Uytterhoeven also with Lelouch since the 1960s and Anouk Aimée (star of Un homme et une femme) has a cameo role. The tone swings between war, sex/romance, comedy and music. I hadn’t realised that Lelouch is from an Algerian-Jewish background and he draws on this for the elements of the film that seem to refer to the recent surge in films exploring the French Jewish experience of German Occupation. But these elements are only marginal to the central story, as are the plotlines dealing with the Resistance. Lelouch tends to lose the emotional impact of these narrative threads in switching to add something else to Ilva’s story (including an extraordinary sequence set in Texas). Researching the earlier Lelouch films suggests that this does seem to be his method – film narratives with lots of characters and romance relationships dependent on twists of fate. In a sense What War May Bring is essentially that – how some survive war and others do not all filtered through music, cinema and romance.
In short, if you are a Lelouch fan you should enjoy this. If you are simply a film fan you’ll be interested in the filmic references. Those intrigued by the idea of ‘popular’ French Cinema may find the film attractive and enjoyable in parts but not totally coherent and if you are a French film scholar you’ll find it to be a strangely fascinating generic hybrid with a rather absurd postmodernist edge as the ‘author’ inserts himself into the story.
The UK DVD/Blu-ray is released on May 2nd from Revolver. It will also be available for rent and online download.
The UK trailer can be downloaded here. It gives a good view of the battle scenes but not the central romance (and love of cinema).
This film seems to have gone straight to DVD in the UK. I would have liked the chance to see it in a cinema and I feel that some of its power is diminished on video. Based on diaries first published in book form Switzerland in the 1950s and then controversially in Germany in 1959 (after which the anonymous author withdrew the book until after her death) the stories finally re-emerged in Germany in 2003. The film details the last few days of war in 1945 when a Red Army company finds itself camped on the streets of Berlin. The soldiers don’t know why their commanders are holding them back from a final assault on the Reichstag, but in the meantime they take advantage of the local population – which means casual rape of German women. For the women, young and old, there are few options. ‘Fraternisation’ is not a moral choice but rather the only pragmatic course. ‘Anonyma’, an attractive younger woman who speaks Russian (and has worked in Moscow as a journalist), decides to seek out a Russian officer as a ‘protector’ rather than suffer continual attacks from soldiers. What will happen when the war ends?
Nina Hoss is terrific as Anonyma but there are other strong performances as well amongst a large cast playing the women and the Russian soldiery. It’s one of those films which ‘humanises’ war and its effects. Anonyma is certainly a patriotic and nationalistic German, if not a fascist (she refuses to directly answer the question “Are you a fascist?”). Her husband goes to the Russian front with the SS in 1941. But despite this we feel for her and the actions she takes. Similarly, the film shows the brutality of the Russians, but also discusses the atrocities they have suffered at the hands of the Wehrmacht and particularly the SS. The Russian soldiers and their officers become individualised. The casting offers us a variety of Soviet ‘types’ from the grizzled officer through the Mongolian soldier to young blonde men and women (we learn that there are over a million women in the Red Army). Quite noticeable too is the surprise that the older Germans show when they realise that the Russians are not ‘beasts’ and their slow understanding that the Russians were forced into a war to defend themselves. On the other hand, it is not all friendly discovery and there is tragedy as well. The film is a challenge for women in the audience since the Russian men view rape as relatively trivial compared to the atrocities they have seen and suffered (and committed).
What interests me most is that director Max Färberböck and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann have so deftly blended several genres and somehow caught the contemporary mood – that sense that a younger generation now wants to explore many of the stories of the 1940s in Europe before the last survivors of the action are gone. In this sense the film sits alongside well-known titles such as Der Untergang (Downfall) (Germany/Austria/Italy 2004), Sophie Scholl: The Last Days (Germany 2005), Flame and Citron (Denmark/Germany/Czech Republic 2008), Black Book (Netherlands/Germany/Belgium 2006) Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009), Fateless, (Hungary/Germany/UK 2005), Defiance (US 2008), Max Manus (Norway 2008), Un Secret (France 2007), L’armée du crime, France 2009) etc. – all released in the last few years. Most of these films have been big popular hits in their domestic markets. Anonyma has been turned into a TV series in Germany this year (which reminds me of the UK TV series Tenko which involved a group of European women put into camps by the Japanese in 1942 after the occupation of Malaya and Java). This is quite surprising since the Lumière Database suggests only a modest performance at the German Box Office.
The fate of women in Berlin in April/May 1945 has appeared in other films. The two I remember are Carl Foreman’s The Victors (US 1963) which ends with a fight over a woman between a Russian and an American and Fassbinder’s wonderful The Marriage of Maria Braun (West Germany 1979) – the metaphorical tale of a woman standing alone in the rubble of 1945 and what happens to her in Adenauer’s West Germany. (There is a brief moment in Anonyma when two Germans discuss the future they hope to see when the war finally ends.)
But whereas Maria Braun escapes the rubble, a whole genre of films developed in both East and West Germany in the months and years following the final days of war in Berlin. These were trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, the most famous of which is Die Mörder sind unter uns, the first post-war film in East Germany which deals with the problem of identifying former war criminals now living in a new society. Anonyma hints at this and raises questions about how she will survive. The most harrowing rubble film was arguably not German at all but Italian – Roberto Rossellini’s 1947 feature Germany Year Zero. One other point to make is that the contrast between the sunny (even when smoke-filled) streets outside and the dark and dingy rooms in which the women, children and old men hide recalls the high period of Hollywood film noir. Hardly surprising since this was the film noir period worldwide, both in terms of style and thematic. I was reminded of similar Japanese films set in the rubble of Japanese cities in the immediate aftermath of the war – both made in the late 1940s and in the 1960s – such as Suzuki Sejun’s lurid and delirious Gate of Flesh (Japan 1964). That would make an interesting contrast with Anonyma: Prostitutes in garish one-colour outfits versus the subdued realism/naturalism of Anonyma.