I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)
I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.
The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.
The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.
The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.
In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.
Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.
I’m glad I saw this on the big screen at Vue West End (but disappointed to miss the live appearance of Nina Hoss). Put simply this is a great melodrama by Christian Petzold with a setting associated with the Trümmerfilme or ‘rubble film’. It includes elements from Fassbinder’s ‘BRD trilogy’ including the image of Hanna Schygulla as the Maria Braun character from The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) stepping through the rubble and the nightclub at the heart of Lola (1981).
It is a few months after the end of the war in 1945 and two women drive into Switzerland. One is swathed in bandages and is being transported by her friend Lene. Beneath the bandages is Nelly, whose face has been disfigured during her escape from Auschwitz. She is about to visit a plastic surgeon and get a new face. Lene searches in the archives for a new Jewish identity for Nelly who was a famous popular singer before the war. Lene’s plan is that the pair of them should go to Palestine where Lene has already rented a flat in Haifa. But Nelly has other ideas – one of which involves finding her husband Johnny back in Berlin. This is where the bar, the Phoenix comes in. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that Johnny reappears in the guise of Ronald Zehrfeld (previously paired with Nina Hoss in Petzold’s Barbara (2012)). What follows has been likened to Hitchcock or film noir. There is a suggestion that Petzold didn’t know how to end the film, but I thought it was a perfect ending and as Howard Schumann suggests in his IMDB posting, it creates a moment so resonant that it could become one of the great final scenes in cinema.
The script is based on a novel by the French crime writer Hubert Monteilhet which was first adapted for the screen for a British film directed by J. Lee Thompson with Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow and Samantha Eggar in 1965 under the novel’s title Return From the Ashes (Le retour des cendres). This film (which I now want to see – I don’t remember it coming out – is only available on a Region 1 ‘print on demand’ DVD from MGM Archives). Petzold, working on a new adaptation with the late Harun Farocki, changed the location from Paris to Berlin and some of the other story elements – shifting the genre from crime melodrama to something more metaphorical concerned with identity and fidelity.
I’m a little frustrated that I can’t find a Press Pack for the film so I’m forced to look for interviews with Petzold to explore some of his ideas. The film was first seen at Toronto and has since then provoked a great deal of discussion – much of it querying why it was turned down by Cannes and Venice. I haven’t seen Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep yet but if it’s better than Phoenix it must be quite something. I’d like to explore aspects of the film in detail but I’d need to se it again first and I don’t want to spoil the surprises. What I would say is that it looks stupendous shot on Super 35 film in CinemaScope and with rich reds standing out against the rubble. Nina Hoss gives a breathtaking performance. Nelly has to gradually recover her confidence and her sense of self – and then the plot requires Nelly to play another role.
As well as Hitchcock and Franju (Eyes Without a Face) some critics have also referenced Douglas Sirk’s 1958 Hollywood adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel ‘A Time to Live and a Time to Die’ set in the last few months of the war. Sirk changed the title to A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Apart from the setting in a bombed out Berlin suburb for part of the film, Remarque’s story is rather different, but Sirk produced one of the first films to try to deal with the emotional lives of individuals in the chaos of Germany’s defeat. This is certainly what powers Phoenix. Nelly has to find an identity and a major part of her quest is to find out what happened to her husband. Did he betray her? Does he still love her? Does she love him? How will people live in the new Germany(s)? How will they deal with memories? The simplicity of Nelly’s final appearance is a response to these layered questions.
Soda Pictures have Phoenix for the UK and Sundance Selects for the US, Films We Like for Canada and Madman for Australia/New Zealand. In fact most territories are taking the film. Keep your eyes peeled – don’t miss it!
SPOILERS!! This trailer gives away a crucial plot development:
Earlier this year I posted on Miyazaki Hayao’s anime The Wind Rises. BBC2 recently transmitted the British equivalent film to Miyazaki’s hymn to the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. The First of the Few celebrates the work of the aero designer R. J. Mitchell whose designs included the prize-winning Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes, winners of the Schneider trophy in the 1920s, and then the single most important fighter of the Second World War, the Spitfire which first flew in 1936.
The First of the Few has several similarities with The Wind Rises. Both designers are inspired by the flight of birds, both are obsessed with their work, both visit Germany – and admire the Italian love of high speed planes. Both have important relationships with understanding women that end tragically. But there is also a major difference in that the British film began shooting in 1941 and was completed in 1942 just two years after the ‘Battle of Britain’ (the title is taken from Churchill’s speech about the debt owed to the fighter pilots who flew the Spitfires – and in larger numbers the Hurricane). It was therefore produced in the context of the war effort and has been described as ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure that is the most useful term. The film doesn’t work crudely to ‘persuade’ its audience – it assumes that the audience understands the aims of the war effort. Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain from milking the emotional response to a British success story which was crucial in 1942 when the outcome of the war was still in doubt. German and Italian figures in the 1920s and 1930s are shown as sometimes comical characters, though like the Powell & Pressburger films of the period, some Germans are shown sympathetically (e.g. the airmen of the the Great War in the Richthofen Club).
The wartime context allowed the producers to get the active support of the RAF and Vickers Supermarine. Mitchell was played by Leslie Howard who also directed the film. Howard was a major star who tragically died, shot down by the Luftwaffe on a civilian flight, in 1943. The other ‘marquee’ name in the film was David Niven who was released by Sam Goldwyn in exchange for the US rights to the film. Unfortunately Goldwyn decided to rename the film Spitfire in North America and to cut around 35 minutes from the 123 minutes UK running time (supposedly because as the test pilot, Niven didn’t appear throughout the film). There is a great deal of background on the film’s production on the website of ‘South Central Media’ (i.e. the locations around Southampton) and also on this Leslie Howard appreciation blog.
The Leslie Howard website (see above) reveals that the story and script of the film went through several processes to end up with the final version in which the development of Mitchell’s ideas to eventually produce the Spitfire is told in flashback to a group of young pilots by the Niven character Crisp, now a Station Commander during the Battle of Britain. The film begins with one of those familiar wartime montages introducing the threat of invasion (though it seems bizarre that the British audience of the time would have needed such an intro – this may have been deemed necessary to introduce the story to an American audience). It ends with a quasi mystical image of a Spitfire flying into the sun as seen by Niven, now up in a Spitfire himself. These last few shots seem to prefigure the Powell and Pressburger films A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). In the first of these a flying hawk from a medieval Canterbury noble is transformed into a Spitfire flying over Kentish fields – an iconic image as many writers have noted. In A Matter of Life and Death, Niven is again an RAF officer, this time caught between life and death and quoting Andrew Marvel as his Lancaster bomber crashes into the sea on its return from a bombing raid.
Howard plays his role very well and portrays Mitchell as a sympathetic character. He and the test pilot (Niven) are solidly middle-class, supposedly from the same school with Mitchell as introspective and Crisp as outgoing. In reality Mitchell was a working-class lad from Staffordshire, imposing and athletic with a temper. It’s interesting to conjecture how different the film might have been if made in 1944 or 1945 when working-class characters were starting to appear in lead roles as the country prepared for a Labour government. In the 1930s, most British leading actors were middle-class (or played as such) and in 1942 Howard and Niven certainly sold the film to audiences. But by 1945 someone like Eric Portman might have played Mitchell ‘for real’. Although a biopic of sorts (but only covering Mitchell’s later life), a great deal about the story of The First of the Few has been changed – the trip to Germany for instance never happened – with focus on the Spitfire presented at the expense of Mitchell’s other work. One aspect of the film that does represent the realism of documentary however is the brief montage of the craftsmen at Vickers working to produce the parts for the first prototype Spitfire. Watching the film now is to be reminded how much has been lost in the UK with the neglect of engineering in the last 40 years. The other ‘documentary’ feature of the film is of course the appearance of ‘real’ RAF pilots, some of whom had fought in the Battle of Britain themselves. There seems to be a suggestion in the writing about the film that the focus on the young pilots (many of whom were lost in aerial combat) and the pre-war struggles to get the Spitfire built meant that the film had a very different tone to that expected by Goldwyn. There are relatively few combat scenes and there is an emphasis on how only Mitchell’s brilliance saved the UK in 1940. If this is propaganda it is of the ‘warning to future generations’ kind. In fact the RAF were seeking a fighter like this from the early 1930s onwards. The First of the Few is also a romantic picture in which the shy Mitchell seemingly dies from overwork in completing his design. In reality a very successful top designer suffered from cancer which killed him aged 42. Just as tragic but perhaps not as romantic.
After the final episode of Generation War, BBC2 in the UK offered a discussion of the series by three distinguished academics alongside the series producer. The discussion was chaired by Martha Kearney, a regular presenter of cultural programming on the channel. This strategy was once fairly common on the BBC after controversial films or television productions but this is the first time (that I can remember) when a foreign language production received this kind of attention.
The discussion was intelligent and stimulating and the three academics, specialists in this period, historians Richard Evans and David Cesarani and writer/literature professor Eva Hoffman, all expressed their agreement on how well-made and exciting the film was as well as the range of problems it raised in terms of the history of East/Central Europe during the Second World War. The programme also included some brief interviews with two writers but my main problem with the discussion was that no one was prepared to discuss the film ‘as a film’ and there was no other filmmaker’s voice apart from the producer Benjamin Benedict. Richard Evans, while asserting that the film was not plausible in historical terms, noted that it was as if five young Germans from today had been parachuted into the events of 1941-45. He also admitted that it was impossible to represent characters from the 1940s in a modern drama in an historically accurate way. Of course, he is right and that’s why the film needs to be discussed as a modern drama, not a historical reconstruction. Its artistic intention is to engage younger Germans in an exploration of what their parents and grandparents might have experienced.
The second major issue raised was the depiction of the Poles, Ukrainians and Russians in the film and specifically their treatment of Jews. Again, the academics agreed that the events shown did have a historical basis but that they weren’t representative of the whole experience – and yes it wasn’t possible to cover the whole war in 4.5 hours! My argument is simple, let’s discuss this fascinating mini-series as a long-form film narrative. It is intended as popular entertainment on mainstream television. Inevitably it will use the conventions of mainstream cinema, including the generic conventions of the combat picture and home-front melodrama. We should consider the riveting performances and the stupendous production design as well as the music and cinematography. As a popular film it does have some flaws and we need to address these – but it captured its audience and got audience members talking to each other. Finally, we should consider how it compares to films from other combatant nations in 1941-5.
Outline story (no major spoilers about what happens to the characters)
The film begins in the Summer of 1941 when five young people are celebrating in Berlin before they split up and the war takes them into different stories. The five are aged from roughly 18 to 21. This is important since they are just old enough to have known Germany before the Nazi regime took complete control, but have also been bombarded with propaganda as adolescents. They are Berliners so possibly more liberal than those elsewhere in Germany, but even so, two of them have approached the war in the spirit of fighting for the nation. “I represent German womanhood” Charlotte says when she presents herself as a nurse at a frontline hospital. Wilhelm has already fought in Poland and France and is a Leutnant in the Wehrmacht. Greta and Viktor are lovers. He is a Jewish tailor’s son and this character attracts most of the critics’ attention. Is this plausible they ask? I don’t know – but it is a useful narrative device, requiring Greta to act in a way that will help Viktor escape Berlin. Friedhelm, Wilhelm’s younger brother is the most problematic character for me given the narrative structure. The scriptwriters send three of the friends to the Eastern front and Greta will visit the front as a popular singer for the troops. After the party in Berlin, the five are never together again but four of them meet up on the front and at various times Wilhelm and Friedhelm fight in the same unit and meet Charlotte. Viktor goes his own way but meets Friedhelm. At the end of the story, three of the five are together again in Berlin.
The scriptwriters contrive to weave the five separate stories together so each of the three 90 minute films, subtitled ‘A Different Time’, ‘A Different War’, ‘A Different Country’ features something of each of the five characters’ stories. This means that the coincidences of melodrama are more obvious as the writers bring characters together in different ways. Friedhelm seemingly changes the most in his behaviour, yet it may be that his understanding of the psychology of war remains the same. I couldn’t work it out. He begins as the ‘rebel intellectual’ (rebelling against his father and to some extent against his older brother) almost unable to fight but in time becomes a ruthless killer. Wilhelm travels in the opposite direction, recognising quite early that Germany will lose the war. Charlotte becomes a better person. Greta perhaps gets ‘above herself’ but arguably suffers more than she should. Viktor becomes the catalyst in the story, both for Greta’s actions and for a lengthy sub-plot about the anti-semitism of some members of the Polish ‘Home Army’ – but also the courage of other Poles.
I wonder if the series would have worked better as a longer narrative in which each of the five characters had their own one hour episode plus an opening and closing episode where the five stories coalesce. This might have allowed more attention to character development and required less manipulation of the separate stories. In a sense, Viktor’s story is different, simply because he exists ‘outside’ the central German narrative (i.e. in relation to the German military, Gestapo etc.). I think that overall I reject much of the criticism that the series has taken re the representation of Jewish characters and the ‘too positive’ representations of the young (and attractive) German characters. The films don’t ignore the Jewish question and they certainly represent both the cruelty and viciousness of some of the Germans and the political naivety and ideological confusion as well. Having said that, I do think the final scenes in 1945 don’t represent the horror of Berlin as well as Anonyma– Eine Frau in Berlin (Germany-Poland 2008).
The main problem for film viewers and critics in the Anglophone world is that we don’t know enough about the Eastern front from 1939 to 1945. There are a couple of UK/US films that do engage with the range of issues in Generation War. Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977) and the recent Defiance (US 2008) by Edward Zwick are both worth exploring but mostly it is German, Polish and Russian films that should be the basis of comparative analysis. Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005) is a very different kind of film but it shows very well what kind of ideological ‘work’ is possible in stories about Germany from 1943 onwards when the ‘final victory’ becomes increasingly less likely for some young Germans – as distinct from the younger teenagers recruited into the German forces in 1944-5 who are depicted in Generation War as completely driven by propaganda.
The Russian and Polish films discussed on this blog include Trials on the Road (USSR 1971/85) and Katyn (Poland 2007). These films view the events of the war through the eyes of Russians and Poles as much as Generation War focuses on the views of young Germans. What all the films explore is the sweep of the action across a huge swathe of territory disputed over centuries by different occupying powers. Individuals in 1939-45 often changed sides and changed uniforms, atrocities were committed and great courage was shown. Notions of ‘friend or foe’ must have been very difficult to negotiate and concepts of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ soldiers or morally correct civilians seem hard to apply. Of course there were internal conflicts in all the countries occupied by the Axis powers in Western and Southern Europe during 1939-45 (and films have been made about them in those countries) but I don’t think those conflicts were quite as complex in terms of identity as in the disputed lands of Eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus etc. Generation War offers another perspective on what happened in the East as far as five twenty-something Germans were concerned. Now it would be good to see a bit more about what happened at home in Berlin (the father of Wilhelm and Friedhelm is a mysterious character and I’d like to know about Charlotte’s and Greta’s families). I’d also recommend Lore (Australia/Germany/UK 2012) as a good follow up to Generation War (which is now available on DVD in the UK). And of course it’s always good to go back to Edgar Reitz’s mammoth TV serial Heimat (West Germany 1984), also on DVD.
I enjoyed the first episode of Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers broadcast on BBC2 last Saturday. In the UK this is being broadcast, as I think it was in Germany last year, in three 90 mins episodes. In the US it is being shown theatrically in two parts. The action covers June 1941 to May 1945 and offers a combined combat picture-home front melodrama. At a reported cost of €14 million it has been argued to be a relatively high budget series from Germany which has now got international distribution.
I’m not going to review the series as such until I’ve seen all three episodes but I’m intrigued/disturbed by some of the responses that I’ve come across already. I quickly stumbled into what appeared to be an almost neo-Nazi blog (i.e. it questioned the Jewish experience and deaths in WWII and quoted David Irving with approval) and then some American reviews which took the opposite view and complained that no concentration camps are shown and that this is airbrushed history making it possible for a new generation in Germany to see their grandparents in a more favourable light. So clearly, this series, as well as attracting big audiences and prizes in Germany, is going to be the site for a major ideological struggle.
I’m just a little surprised that so many commentators seem to have ignored the great many films that have been made about both the fighting in Poland/Ukraine/Soviet Union by Polish and Russian filmmakers and the domestic lives of Germans at home by German filmmakers. To be fair, most of the films I could quote tend to deal with the latter part of the war and in that respect this series is different in starting from the high point of German expansion. On the other hand I’ve recently watched Douglas Sirk’s last film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) which although set in the winter of 1944 includes some of the same incidents contained in this new series.
At this point I’ll just comment that Generation War: Our Mothers and Fathers is very well staged with exciting action, good performances and detailed production design. But I am sick of reading that the director must have been studying Steven Spielberg in order to handle a narrative like this and to show action so realistically. He may have done of course – but there are also plenty of other directors, especially Russians, who know how to make convincing combat pictures and home front melodramas. The war in Eastern Europe was extremely complex and many layered. Knee jerk analysis isn’t going to help. But perhaps the Saving Private Ryan reference does have some relevance since the series seems to have got families in Germany talking amongst themselves about what actually happened under the Nazis.
The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.
Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.
The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.
I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.
My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.
On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.
Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?