With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk due to open in the UK this week [now released, see Keith’s review here], I thought it might be interesting to re-visit this Ealing Studios film from 1958 – the only other film completely focused on the Dunkirk evacuation. Joe Wright’s Atonement (UK/France/US 2007) includes a long segment dealing with events during the retreat and evacuation, but these form only part of a complex narrative about the relationships between three characters. Nolan didn’t mention these films in his Sight & Sound interview with Nick James in the August issue, arguing that his film will ‘fill a gap’ in British storytelling on screen. (James does mention the 1958 film.)
The military catastrophe that saw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a significant part of the French Army trapped by German forces in a pocket around the port of Dunkirk in late May/early June of 1940 was turned into a propaganda victory with the successful evacuation of 338,000 British, French and other Allied troops taken off the beaches and brought back to the UK. Military historians still debate the reasons why the German forces failed to destroy/capture the Allied troops before they could leave. All the equipment, including military vehicles taken to France by the BEF was lost. In addition, many of the French troops rescued at Dunkirk were later returned to France to fight for the remainder of their country and were subsequently taken prisoner after France fell. More than 30,000 French troops in the ‘rearguard’ at Dunkirk were captured. Dunkirk was a defeat – virtually all Allied operations up to El Alamein in 1942 were defeats. The propaganda victory which established the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was based on the contribution of the ‘Little Ships’ – the civilian boats that augmented the Royal Navy vessels in the evacuation fleet. Here was the image of ‘total war’ and of the British people with their backs to the wall.
As I noted in an earlier posting on the recent British film Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk was not an appropriate film for propaganda purposes (i.e. visualising and representing the evacuation was not as effective as ‘spinning’ the story in more indirect ways) but some of the elements of the story did appear in fictionalised wartime narratives, including films made by Ealing Studios such as The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945). In the 1950s Ealing did not join the other British producers in creating 1950s ‘heroic’ war films (e.g. The Dam Busters (1955) or Reach For the Sky (1956)). Instead, Ealing opted for more downbeat narratives such as The Cruel Sea (1953) in which one of the most memorable scenes sees Jack Hawkins, commander of a submarine-hunting corvette, risking the lives of torpedoed sailors in an attempt to destroy a U-boat. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), like The Cruel Sea from a Nicholas Monsarrat novel, three ex-Roal Navy men buy their wartime motor boat and find themselves sucked into a smuggling racket to service the black market in ‘Austerity Britain’ of the late 1940s. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Ealing’s Dunkirk film was similarly downbeat. Its director Leslie Norman had been the producer on The Cruel Sea.
In 1958 Ealing Studios was in its last incarnation having moved out of the Rank film empire and re-located to MGM’s British operation at Borehamwood. Leslie Norman had spent much of his career working on Ealing’s ‘overseas productions’ and had just returned from directing The Shiralee in Australia. For Dunkirk he had his DoP and editor from the Australian shoot, Paul Beeson and Gordon Stone. The script was based on several sources including an Elleston Trevor novel and two non-fiction books by military men. The screenplay was written by another veteran of Australian and African productions William Liscomb (with a younger writer, David Divine). Dunkirk is one of Ealing’s ‘small-scale epics’ with a long running-time (134 minutes). The plot sees the parallel stories of a group of small boat owners on the Thames and a small group of British soldiers separated from their regiment in Northern France. The two groups are destined to meet on the beaches of Dunkirk and the narrative cuts between them until those final scenes. We also briefly visit press conferences in Central London and Royal Navy bases in Dover and Sheerness plus General Gort’s HQ in France. Other than that, the top brass are kept out of it, only seen in newsreels watched by the troops. The film had a budget of £400,000 and Norman claimed to come in under budget. (For comparison, the first three or four Carry On films over the next few years were budgeted at less than £100,000 each. Ealing’s films were usually more expensive than the norm.) Dunkirk was expensive and a gamble for Ealing. MGM’s distribution muscle promised overseas sales and the film did go into profit, although the North American response was relatively weak. Surprisingly perhaps, the film only boasted two star names alongside a host of familiar character actors. John Mills as Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns leads the group of Tommies and Richard Attenborough plays Holden, a rather reluctant boat-owner who needs a lot of persuading and shaming to make the trip. In many ways, the key figure in the film is Charles Foreman, a journalist who is also a boat-owner, played by Bernard Lee, a very familiar face but not considered a star. (He would later gain fame as M in the Bond films.)
Despite its commercial success, Dunkirk failed to inspire critics and scholars. Two of the chroniclers of Ealing Studios, Charles Barr and George Perry, are dismissive of the film. Both find it dull. Barr is particularly damning though he seems more concerned with equating its story of a defeat with Ealing’s own demise as a studio. David Quinlan suggests that it is “routinely exciting, but disappointing”. It seems to me that Michael Balcon as Ealing’s hands-on leader had embarked on a nearly impossible task – to make a commercial picture about a defeat and a propaganda ‘miracle’. Dunkirk comes across as ‘realistic’ in its attempts to include as a many different facets of the actual events as possible. There are attempts to create analysis through the juxtaposition of newsreel footage and scripted dialogue, but mostly the intent seems to have been to represent the events as fully as possible. I suspect its success was mainly with audiences who already knew about the events but who wanted to see them ‘documented’ in this way. In that sense, Balcon was justified. I found the film interesting rather than exciting, but it did make me think about how I might have felt thrust into such a situation.
The Bernard Lee character is clearly meant to be the representative of the ‘ordinary’ (middle-class) British man. And it is a very male film – virtually the only women in the film are the boat-owner’s wives. Foreman (Lee) is a journalist, although he never files any copy and we don’t find out who he works for. He clearly has clout as he knows all the foreign correspondents in London and he attends Ministry of Information briefings. It’s through him that we hear the grumbling about the lack of real information about what is happening in France and despair about complacency during the ‘Phoney War’ (the title given to the first seven months of the war before the German invasion of Denmark/Norway and then Holland/Belgium and France). Tubby and his men watch propaganda newsreels in France and in the UK, the women in Holden’s factory listen to Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless. Tubby (presumably a veteran soldier – Mills was nearly 50 at the time) finds the men in his group are sometimes whingeing. Having established this sense of a nation that doesn’t really know what is happening – in the armed forces or on the Home Front – Dunkirk closes with a voiceover that is actually quite balanced. It remembers the dead and the captured soldiers, sailors and civilians left in France and clearly states that it was a defeat, but then asserts that the evacuated men “dazed and resentful” returned to a nation that had learned that it now stood alone but ‘undivided’. The UK was a nation made whole. The very last scene shows a parade ground on which Tubby and his closest mate from Dunkirk are part of a larger squad being drilled by a CSM who warns them that Dunkirk was a defeat and not a victory and they need to work hard (and quickly) to become an effective fighting force. Tubby gives his mate a knowing look.
Dunkirk‘s producers were able to use an array of military equipment that was still in working order. The film was made on Camber Sands and in the Port of Rye in East Sussex, on the Thames and at Borehamwood. Even so they needed model shots and stock footage to convey the scope of military action. Christopher Nolan has advanced technologies and a huge budget. He promises something much more immersive but still aims for the personal stories of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and adds an airman. Nolan only has 106 minutes and he has talked about preferring the suspense thriller mode to that of the war film. It sounds like he will be less interested in the mythologising impact of the evacuation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of meanings his film produces – and what it leaves out – and how audiences respond.
Ealing’s Dunkirk is re-released to cinemas in September in a restored version which will also be available on DVD/Blu-ray from StudioCanal. Here’s the Australian trailer from 1958:
Barr, Charles (1977) Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, Newton Abbot: David & Charles
Perry, George (1981) Forever Ealing, London: Michael Joseph
Quinlan, David (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years, 1928-1959, London: Batsford
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I’d been researching Australian Cinema and, zapping through the channels on TV, I stumbled across this key film on Sony’s ‘Movies 4 Men’ channel about to start. I’ve always known there was a Vietnam War film from Australia and I thought I’d seen it back in the 1970s, but couldn’t remember anything about it. The Odd Angry Shot was made in 1979 and was based on a novel by William L. Nagle who served in Vietnam as a cook in the later 1960s. The film was written and directed by Tom Jeffrey. Australia became involved in the Vietnam War under the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’) government of Robert Menzies, whereas the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to bow to American pressure. Vietnam became a signifier of the shift of Australia into the American sphere of influence and away from the UK. The war would eventually become the focus for protest movements in Australia, especially after conscripted men started to be sent to Vietnam after 1966.
The Odd Angry Shot belongs to what seems now to be known as the ‘AFC period’ of production in the 1970s. The Australian Film Commission and the funding agencies of the individual states provided a big boost for Australian production in the second half of the 1970s and it was these films that became known in the UK as the ‘New Australian Cinema’ or ‘Australian New Wave’. Several got mainstream theatrical distribution in the UK and others appeared on UK TV. The Odd Angry Shot didn’t make it to the UK until a 1988 video, but it did get a simultaneous Australian and US cinema release in 1979, presumably because of the subject matter.
The film begins with a combined 21st Birthday/’Going Away’ party for Bill (John Jarratt) who soon finds himself on a chartered Quantas flight to Vietnam. He’s the rookie in an SAS Unit led by Harry, an experienced corporal played by Graham Kennedy. Bryan Brown (‘Rogers’) and John Hargreaves (‘Bung’) make up the quartet who we follow throughout the film. In one sense, The Odd Angry Shot is an unusual ‘war combat’ picture. We don’t get any of the training period for young conscripts – I don’t think we know how Bill gets there. Is he a recruit or a conscript? Does he already know the ropes? Soon we are on patrol and the narrative switches between brief snatches of action – when the ‘odd angry shot’ is fired (and the odd squaddie is killed or badly injured) – and longer periods back in the makeshift tented base camp. This latter is familiar from M.A.S.H (1970) and the TV series that followed. There is a brief R&R visit to Saigon, but mostly the film is about that Australian sense of ‘mateship’. The four central characters are also ‘larrikins’ – that uniquely Australian term for the unruly, whose disdain for authority and search for fun is received with affection by many. There are only a few scenes in which officers appear and they are depicted as quite sensible, the big confrontation comes when the four mates meet a Sgt-Major who tries to be officious and Harry gives him a mouthful. Harry has clearly seen it all before and an officer arrives and backs him up.
The Odd Angry Shot found generally very appreciative audience in cinemas. Reading through the IMDb comments it’s clear that the Australian and US Vietnam vets recognise the accuracy of the film in terms of the preparation for patrols, the quiet and methodical way of advancing on suspected Viet Cong positions and the boredom and attempts to relieve it in the camp. Because of the tiny budget (it was shot in Northern Australia, utilising a military training area in Queensland, for around A$600k) there are no doubt mistakes in the right kinds of helicopters and weapons, but that doesn’t really matter. As several commentators note, it gives a much more realistic depiction of fighting in Vietnam than most of the Hollywood films of the period (the film followed Apocalypse Now and Coming Home but preceded Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. The importance of the film, however, is best articulated in its closing section when Harry and Bill return to Sydney at the end of their tour. There is no triumphant or heroic ending – nothing ‘gung-ho’. They go to a bar (in dress uniform) and answer “No” when the barman asks if they have just come back from Vietnam. They take their beers and sit back with a view across the bay. Earlier, in one of the few ‘speeches’ in the film Harry expresses his world-weary view about being in a dangerous place in Vietnam. ‘We all have to be somewhere, and we’re here.” In this useful review of the DVD, there are quotes from the DVD commentary suggesting that some critics thought the film wasn’t sufficiently ‘anti-war’, but I think that misses the point. The film never attempts to ‘explain the war’, only to present the soldiers’ experiences.
Here’s the trailer for the 2016 restoration of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The entry on the NFSA website is also useful.
Over the last seven or eight years Danish film and television has become almost familiar in the UK. The major TV serials from the Danish public service broadcaster DR have attracted audiences of around 1 million each week for BBC4 – far larger than for any foreign language films in the cinema. But the same lead actors, writers and directors have also begun to feature in both ‘Nordic’ and Anglo-American films.
Tobias Lindholm is at the centre of much of this activity as a writer and also as a director. Between 2010 and 2012 he wrote 20 episodes of the TV serial Borgen and then the script for the Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt before writing and directing his own second feature A Hijacking (2012). That film, about a Danish ship boarded by pirates off the Horn of Africa, had lead roles for Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling and Dar Salim – three of the actors who became known to UK viewers via Borgen and other Danish serials. The same trio appears in A War and Pilou Asbæk’s high profile in Denmark is an important factor in how the film works.
Danish shipping is central to Denmark’s profile in international affairs, as is the country’s role in NATO and its participation since Iraq in the so-called “coalition of the willing”, including supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. The aftermath of military service in Afghanistan was the setting for a crime thriller in The Killing 2 serial, but A War offers a rather different narrative in which the focus is on one man’s decision in the midst of battle and its impact both immediately and as examined in a tribunal back in Denmark.
Anti-war? Realism and personal stories?
Tobias Lindholm has made several statements about his film after its selection as the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars – where it was nominated as one of the five finalists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it received a great deal of attention in the US, including from other filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fibre of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathise with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy? (Tobias Lindholm interviewed on IndieWire: blogs.indiewire.com)
In the same interview Lindholm explains that he developed the script with soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and several of them appear in the film supporting Pilou Asbæk. Lindholm also worked with Afghan refugees from a camp in Turkey (where part of the film was shot, as well as Jordan, Spain and Morocco). Apart from a few key lines of dialogue much of the script was improvised/developed by the soldiers themselves, ‘reacting’ to the situation. In the same way, the interpreter gave Asbæk a ‘live’ translation of what the Afghans said during each scene. Lindholm also used the same technique for the Danish scenes of family life – the children were left to behave more or less as they would do at home with relatively few set lines of dialogue. All of this tends towards a mode of realism often associated with Ken Loach and others influenced by Italian neorealism.
The audience I watched the film with seemed to feel that Lindholm did indeed present the complexity of the situation. Claus Pedersen is a company commander in Afghanistan who, because he feels close to and wishes to protect his men, perhaps becomes too involved in the day-to-day routine patrols the men carry out. As a consequence he finds himself in a situation in which he makes an error of judgement – one which is quite understandable but as the senior officer he must be called to account when things go wrong. Back home in Denmark we see the effects of his absence on his wife Maria (Tuva Nuvotny) and his three small children – and we know that whatever awaits him after a tribunal, his family will also suffer. We are asked to think about the deaths of families (men, women and children) in Afghanistan alongside the dangers for Danish soldiers and the effects on their families. Only the deaths of the Taliban (seen here only in long-distance shots) seem to be ‘collateral damage’. But the Taliban didn’t invite the Danes to come and be shot – perhaps there is an argument that the Taliban (and their supporters too) should be humanised?
The political context
There are several key ‘absences’ in the film. We don’t see any media representations of what would presumably be a significant legal action in the military tribunal and we don’t hear any debates about why Denmark is in Afghanistan. Although we see a few TV vans in the distance and there are reporters in the court room, we don’t hear politicians or media commentators and the soldiers are not ‘doorstepped’ by the tabloids. Though the country is identified, the (English) title implies this is not specifically about Afghanistan but rather about ‘war’ in general (Lindholm’s previous film was ‘A’ Hijacking). For the World Socialist Website (wsw.org) this won’t wash at all:
A War is one of those ‘non-judgmental’, ‘apolitical’ films that is, in fact, thoroughly judgmental and political – its assumptions are simply so in tune with official public opinion as to go unnoticed by the filmmaker and critics.
There is something in this charge and it is certainly a valid point to make about many of these films about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure about the Danish polity but it would be fair to say in the UK that while a majority has been opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (post Blair and the Iraq fiasco) there has also been widespread support for the men and women who have been sent to Camp Bastion (where the Danes were also stationed up to 2014). But that seems to be Lindholm’s point. He wants us to sympathise with Claus Pedersen while at the same time considering what he has done and what the effects are.
I was surprised by the ‘coolness’ and ‘flatness’ of the film in that it deals with quite shocking and emotional material. I found that I was engaged and I cared, but also that I was aware of the issues. Lindholm avoids all the genre trappings of the usual courtroom drama. It is a ‘lay court’ comprising three assessors hearing evidence presented by a judge-advocate with Pedersen defended by a lawyer (Søren Malling). By UK standards the tribunal is remarkably calm and civilised (and takes place in a typically low-key, modern setting). The film has a simple narrative and direct, often hand-held cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Lindholm makes the most of small scenes and, for all the improvised acting, a carefully-written script in terms of structure. The WSW criticism lambasts the film for not ding many things and ends up claiming that Lindholm:
seems to be making an effort to create a national-patriotic mythology, portraying the Danes as hardy, stoical and ‘straight-shooting’, precisely at the historical moment when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is being stoked up in the country.
I don’t agree with this and a film which tried to do everything that the WSW demands would be very difficult to produce. Lindholm cast Dar Salim (a prominent actor who was previously a soldier) as Pedersen’s second in command and close friend placed in a difficult position. He also cast Dulfi Al-Jabouri as ‘Lasse’, the soldier whose welfare Pedersen seeks to protect and who unwittingly becomes central to the incident which leads to the tribunal. Is this contrived casting to skew the argument or is Lindholm trying to act positively to represent Denmark’s immigrant communities? I don’t know, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
A War is definitely worth seeing and provides further evidence of the strength of Danish/Nordic production. The film is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal and I’m disappointed that one of Europe’s leading film companies hasn’t made a better job of promoting the film. I couldn’t find a Press Pack and the DVD (no Blu-ray?) is a barebones affair. As a film that deals with military procedures, one of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to tell what rank Pedersen holds and as someone pointed out to me, in the British Army Pedersen would have been supported in the field by senior NCOs, experienced men with authority. Is the Danish Army different, just like the Danish legal system? It would be useful to know.
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.
Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality.
Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence.
The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body.
Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the West at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.
The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)
German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.
Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.
Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.
This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.
This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.