In Darkness (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In the Nazi-occupied Lwów, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sanitation worker, decided to rescue a group of Jewish people who were contained in the ghetto. His partner in the sewers, Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny), was reluctant to help at first because if they got caught, it meant treason and certain death for them. But Socha proved persuasive. He urged his partner that they could always turn in the Jews to the Nazis later, but it would benefit them now to see how much money they could squeeze out of the desperate Jews. A payout of 500 zlotys a day, provided by the affluent Chiger (Herbert Knaup), suddenly wasn’t so bad, especially for a pair of sewer workers. But what would happen when the money ran out? Based on the book by Robert Marshall, while no one can deny that the events in “In Darkness” were horrifying, the filmmakers failed to harness the material’s power in order to really deliver a film that is both about the efforts of Socha as well as the Jewish individuals he hid from the Nazis. The first half was at times confusing because too many characters were introduced at the same time, their surface characteristics permeated and choked the remaining fresh oxygen prior to the extended stay underground. And once they had made one part of the sewers their “home,” it felt like an obligation for the camera to check up on them. While not a bad idea, glimpses in terms of how they coped (or did not cope) offered nothing beyond what we could see: the physical, psychological, and emotional suffering they had to endure. What I liked about the first half, however, was it had a chance to establish Socha’s complex motivations. He eventually learned that the Nazis were willing to pay 500 zlotys per Jew found hiding in the sewers. Given that the daily cost of food pretty much ate up Socha’s extra salary provided by Chiger, it would make sense, if his motivation was only influenced by economy, to hand over the people he protected. But he didn’t. Socha’s personality wasn’t especially likable but it became clear that his motivation was beyond money. The director, Agnieszka Holland, did a wonderful job using money as the protagonist’s excuse to hide his genuine human compassion amidst indescribable cruelty. Furthermore, because Socha was established slowly and in a subtle way, the events in the second half, especially when the location of the hideout was threatened, were suspenseful and moving. Unfortunately, the camera remained focused on jumping back and forth, showing us the terrible conditions in the sewers as if we didn’t already knew that such a place was untenable. To its credit, the scenes that took place underground looked and felt very real. It was appropriately dark and grimy. We could see rats, garbage, and excrement floating on the water. There were even corpses in there, Jewish corpses, and no one from above could be bothered enough to take the bodies out and give them a proper burial. I guess to the Nazis, Jewish corpses were exactly that: rats, garbage, and excrement–out of sight, out of mind. “W ciemności” certainly had emotional peaks, some earned while some weren’t, but the thinly molded supporting characters hindered its pacing and emotional momentum. At one point I wondered if Socha and “his” Jews’ story deserved something better.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) was hired to be Adolf Hitler’s (Bruno Ganz) secretary in 1942. The real Traudl Junge, in the opening shot of the film, confessed that she wasn’t really aware of what Nazism was about when she ignored her family’s warnings against joining the growing political movement. Cut to 1945, she still worked for Hitler as the Russians inched closer to Berlin. The majority of the picture focused on the growing sense of dread Hitler and those close to him as they foolishly decided to stay in the secret bunker instead of fleeing for their lives. I saw this film a month before I started the university and about five years later, its impact on me remained the same. While Ganz’ performance was absolutely tremendous, especially when he expressed explosive rage, I spent more time observing his quieter moments as he questioned where his leadership had gone awry. While I did not feel sorry for the monster in him, the actor and the filmmakers successfully revealed a more human side to Hitler by highlighting our fears. Specifically, our fear of death, abandonment, and our accomplishments ultimately amounting to nothing. I thought it was a brave and risky move because no one can deny the evil that cost over fifty million lives. The supporting characters were just as fascinating. There SS Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) who attempted to talk his comrades into leaving the bunker but they were too deeply embedded in their illusions of last-minute victory. There was a boy with a talent for destroying tanks. He loved the recognition and was willing to put his young life in the line for praise. However, he wasn’t even sure what he was fighting for. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) found horror when he stumbled upon areas where the elderly were left to die and unsanitary surgeries were performed. And then there was Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler’s right-hand man, who foolishly and selfishly brought her six innocent children to the bunker just to be with her Führer. She claimed that she couldn’t imagine a life for her kids without National Socialism. The movie was able grab ahold of the various story strands and weaved them into a coherent and meaningful product despite the chaos and confusion. Lastly, while the film managed to put Hitler under a more humanistic angle, I’m glad it never lost track of the crimes he committed–crimes that no amount of jail time or community service can off-set. While he led the murder of over two million Jews, he killed his countrymen as well. Those who he considered weak, like the elderly and people with disability, were left to perish. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall,” taken out of its historical context, was ultimately a story of responsibility. Our leaders are responsible for us, but we mustn’t forget that we have a responsibility toward ourselves. Questioning or usurping our ineffective leaders is not tantamount to betraying our country.
★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
Europa Europa (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on true events experienced by Solomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider) in World War II, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, was about the teenager’s plight in taking many identities in hopes of surviving and being reunited with his family. Solomon was Jewish but he had Aryan features. He also knew multiple languages which proved to be an advantage when he was separated from his brother (René Hofschneider) while trying to escape from both the Russians and the Germans. Initially, he ended up in a communist orphanage, then the battlefield, up until he joined the Hitler Youth where he was trained to hate his kind and those that didn’t belong in the “elite race.” Watching this picture was quite an experience because it was probably the first movie I’ve seen where I was taken in a Hitler Youth classroom and had a chance to observe how the brainwashing worked. It was maddening but at the same time fascinating because of the way the Nazis shaped a small fear and applied that fear to every aspect that they believed wasn’t worthy. I also got to see how that fear turned into anger and anger into hatred. I hated how the teachers used so-called science to justify who, essentially, deserved to die. For instance, one of the scenes that stood out to me was when Solomon (now named Josef Peters) was called in front of the classroom and his head was measured from various angles and how far apart his features were from one another. When the film focused on the details, it was at its best because I couldn’t stop thinking about small elements afterwards. Furthermore, I’m glad that the film didn’t paint all Germans as monsters. In each location he ended up in, our protagonist met at least one person who made a difference in his life. One was a closeted gay soldier (André Wilms) who had a crush on Solomon and eventually found out that Solomon was Jewish but didn’t turn him in. Another was a mother (Halina Labonarska) of girl Solomon really liked who was stuck with a daughter (Julie Delpy) so consumed with hatred and trying to impress her leader. In a way, those two also had to hide who they really were and how they felt about the Nazi occupation. However, the film’s first half verged on heavy-handedness. It needed to trim some scenes because we all know that the Holocaust was one of the darkest times in history. What the movie should have done was immediately focus on Solomon’s personal journey and less generalizations. Nevertheless, “Hitlerjunge Salomon,” also known as “Hitler Youth Salomon” and “Europa Europa,” had a strong sense of momentum once it found its footing. The scene that summed up the film best was when Solomon sat in a comfortable Nazi vehicle, peered through a heavily stained window and saw the horrible things that happened to his people. He saw the dead and wondered whether his family was there. Solomon had to stop himself from breaking down because he might be caught as a sympathizer, or worse, a Jew.
Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A Catholic boarding school hid three Jewish students, one of which was Jean (Raphael Fejtö), from the terrorizing Nazis in the middle of World War II. We viewed the events from Julien’s (Gaspard Manesse) perspective, a home sick boy who, like most kids, did not really understand what was really happening yet he had no problem throwing words around like “Jew” or “yid” and the bigotry that came with those words. Julien and Jean started off as enemies but the two eventually became friends. However, their friendship was challenged my the Nazis who came to their school to hunt down the three students and send them to their deaths. What I admired most about Louis Malle’s film was the fact that he was able to take the events that happened in his own life and ponder over the decisions he made. Right from the beginning, it felt very personal. The opening scene was a mother and her son saying goodbye at a train station. It was a simple scene but we immediately got to know the protagonist: he was sensitive when he needed to, he felt neglected by his parents, and he hid his real emotions through transference. The other scenes that stood out to me were also simple scenes. One of them was when Julien got lost in the woods in the attempt to find a hidden treasure. On top of the giant rocks, he looked around. What did he think about? Did he know which direction to go? Was he afraid to go down the rocky terrain? Was he worried about the sun setting? In one specific glance around his surroundings, I had so many questions and felt so many emotions. I felt like that scene was a test for him and for us. Even though he was somewhat of a bully, I found that I cared about what would happen to him. Another highlight was when the kids and the teachers watched a Chaplin picture. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I love the movies, but I felt so much joy while watching them laughing collectively at the screen. In one scene, even though the kids made fun of each other and didn’t always get along, they found a common ground. The Chaplin film brought them together and I couldn’t help but feel moved. Malle’s strength was definitely taking simple portraits from his youth and letting us feel why those were important to him. Even though his experiences happened more than fifty years ago, the feelings cut through time and we find ourselves able to relate and sympathize. The closing scene was simply masterful. Slowly, the camera inched toward Julien’s eyes as he realized that sometimes his actions can be powerful. There was no going back. It was a loss of innocence at its finest. He became a man because he finally learned to take responsibility. “Au revoir les enfants” is an astute picture, a rewarding experience, and utterly unforgettable.