Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ohm Kruger

"The belief in our cause is stronger than death!"
Joseph Goebbels commissioned Ohm Kruger (1941) after watching Gone With the Windresolving to make his own historical drama. Looking to spur anti-English sentiment, Goebbels chose the Boer War as a subject. Hans Steinhoff's cockeyed epic condemns Britain for atrocities the Nazis were committing in real life.

Paul Kruger (Emil Jannings) is the wizened president of South Africa's Transvaal Republic. English adventurer Cecil Rhodes (Ferdinand Marian) eyes South African gold reserves, hoping for conquest through war or bribery. Kruger defies Rhodes' perfidy, causing Secretary of State Joseph Chamberlain (Gustaf Grundgens) to declare war. The Boers successfully resist the invaders, with the British resorting to cruel measures.

Like all Nazi epics, Ohm Kruger offers stunning scope. Steinhoff reenacts the Boers' Great Trek, parades and battles with aplomb. The centerpiece is an epic pitched battle marshaling 25,000 Wehrmacht extras, matched later by an Eisenstein-inspired massacre. It's stirringly, if not artistically shot; having Goebbels bankroll your production affords endless resources.
Ohm Kruger combines common themes in Nazi cinema: Anglophobia and the Fuhrerprinzip, combing history for proto-Hitlers. While Carl Peters and The Great King hail German heroes, Steinhoff's film oddly celebrates a Boer statesman. Then again, how better to demonize England than showing them mistreating a white colony? One assumes that Britain's quashing Indian mutineers or Zulus wouldn't merit comparable outrage.

Early on, British missionaries distribute Bibles and rifles to Africans while singing God Save the Queen! Hilariously on the nose, this sets Ohm Kruger's tone. When the British aren't manipulating tribesmen and bribing Boer politicians, they're provoking war. Soldiers burn farms and herd civilians into concentration camps, where they're shot or starved, soldiers insisting they're just following orders. The irony's lost on no one.

Steinhoff depicts British statesmen as duplicitous savages. Rhodes is a capitalist blackguard, buying Boer land while encouraging Leander Jameson (Karl Haubenreißer) to provoke violence. Queen Victoria (Hedwig Wangel) is a doddering drunk, easily swayed by Chamberlain. From her deathbed, she squawks the dread consequences of British defeat in South Africa: world peace!

Perfidious Albion meets its match in Paul Kruger. Derided as a "cattle breeder" by his adversaries, Kruger's a crafty statesman with unshakeable nationalism. Immune to bribes and persuasion, he bullies African tribesmen, resists Rhodes and outwits political rivals. His nation of warrior-farmers beats plowshares into rifles; everyone from teens to 82 year olds join. Blinded by an eye infection, Kruger's a tragic patriarch who foresees the consequences of collaboration.
Steinhoff and his writers Harald Bratt and Kurt Heuser mix stirring speeches with tart epigrams and trite homilies. A subplot focuses on Kruger's son Jan (Werner Hinz), an English-educated lawyer whose pacifism undermines Boer resistance. He chooses sides only when the British assault his wife (Gisela Uhlen) and burn his farm. Only traitorous intellectuals defy the Fatherland!

Emil Jannings's outsized performance helps. He injects humor and warmth, whether arm-wrestling with a general or playing with two of his 45 grandchildren. Jannings also captures Kruger's integrity and indignation with hammy aplomb. Roguish Ferdinand Marian and silky Gustaf Grundgens are effective villains; grotesque Hedwig Wangel and boorish Otto Wernicke, less so. Werner Hinz later played Rommel in The Longest Day.

Compared to Jud Suss, Ohm Kruger is more head-scratching than offensive. It envisions a Bizarro World where the Nazis are an oppressed people rather than colonizing empire. One imagines that Jews, Poles and Russians weren't amused.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sergeant York

"Them guns was killin' hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns."
Of all Hollywood's pre-WWII propaganda films, Sergeant York (1941) was the most influential. Howard Hawks' biopic of Alvin York, Tennessee farmer-turned-hero, targeted Americans skeptical that Europe's problems were their own. Hoary but effective, it couches military service as a moral imperative.

Alvin York (Gary Cooper) terrorizes Tennessee as a drunken, sharpshooting troublemaker. York comes under the wing of Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan), finding religion and wooing farmer's daughter Gracie (Joan Leslie). When World War I breaks out, York finds his principles conflicting with the need for military service. Nonetheless, when York lands on the frontlines, he becomes an unlikely hero.

Based on York's memoirs, Sergeant York focuses on its hero's background. Hawks and a quintet of screenwriters (including John Huston) craft a backwoods melodrama, emphasizing York's rough-hewn family life and conversion to Christianity (inspired by a lightning strike). These sequences are hokey but sincere. Later flag-wavers like The Fighting Sullivans (1944) repeated this device, emphasizing the ordinariness of American servicemen.

York's second half shows Alvin preparing for war while wrestling with his conscience. A benign Major (Stanley Ridges) convinces York that religion and military service needn't conflict, helped by York finding an appropriate Bible passage. To its credit, York treats its hero's struggles with respect: York's objections are naïve but sincere. Ultimately, he squares any reservations with the observation that helping end the war saves lives.
Hawks finally transitions to war movie with impressive battle scenes, with York's unit fighting a pitched battle against well-entrenched Germans. York's Medal of Honor heroics are too absurd to invent: he kills an entire German platoon with guile, marksmanship and turkey calls. York becomes a celebrity but declines to exploit his fame. Like all American heroes he embraces duty, shuns wealth and returns home, placing family before fame.

If Sergeant York's patriotism seems hackneyed today, it was controversial in July 1941. Charles Lindbergh and America First isolationists battled Franklin Roosevelt's military preparations; Congress's Dies Committee investigated Hollywood's "premature antifascists" for advocating intervention. Nonetheless, it inspired thousands to enlist even before Pearl Harbor. Where Foreign Correspondent and Man Hunt were fantasies, York's appeal to moral duty struck a chord.

Gary Cooper won an Oscar playing York. Cooper makes York an archetypical American, evolving from hard-drinking hillbilly to hard-working farmer and reluctant hero. Joan Leslie makes an appealing love interest while Walter Brennan is a wizened pastor. Ward Bond is York's drinking buddy, George Tobias his New York squad mate, Stanley Ridges a friendly Major.

Modern critics slam Sergeant York for its homespun, uncritical patriotism. Certainly its message becomes questionable if applied to later conflicts. Nonetheless, Sergeant York works a document of its time, and a tribute to America's fighting men.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Coming Home

Coming Home (1978) came out the same year as The Deer Hunter and Go Tell the Spartans, showing Hollywood finally tackling the Vietnam War. Hal Ashby's melodrama with a message has aged better than its counterparts, despite occasional lapses in insight.

Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) arrives at a Marine base in California, just as her husband, Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) ships out for Vietnam. Sally volunteers at the local VA hospital, disgusted by the squalid conditions. She's drawn to Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a high school friend turned paraplegic veteran. Sally and Luke bond, developing a romantic attachment over time. Then Bob returns from Vietnam profoundly broken.

While set stateside, Coming Home is angrier than many Vietnam flicks. Ashby shows the plight of vets rotting in underfunded VA hospitals staffed by uncaring doctors and inefficient nurses. Sally finds her fellow service wives indifferent, becoming an activist in spite of herself. Luke channels his anger into an improvised protest after losing his friend (Robert Carradine). It's a searing indictment of a country who sends men off to war but discards them afterwards.

Ashby immerses viewers matching hospital life with Sally's character development, scored to an impressive mixtape of '60s hits. Luke his fellow vets play wheelchair basketball and attend picnics, snoozing through a patriotic speaker. Sally finds befriending a fellow wife (Penelope Milford) and romancing Luke changes everything from her hairstyle to her outlook. These relationships underpin Coming Home's message, giving abstract issues a human face.

Jane Fonda manages Sally's evolution with sensitivity, evolving from repressed Marine wife into an assured, confident woman. Jon Voight's equally powerful charting Luke's self-actualization. Both actors won Oscars. The supporting cast is more mixed: Penelope Milford scores as Sally's liberated friend, but Robert Carradine and Bruce Dern are one-note kooks. Dern's angry frothing undermines any sympathy Bob's plight might generate.

Which points to Coming Home's shortcoming. The opening shows Luke and friends debating the war, and Ashby's politics grow even cruder. Luke's liberalism renders him sexually virile while reactionary Bob can't pleasure Sally. While Luke becomes an antiwar activist, Bob turns psychopath, threatening his wife before offing himself. Along with other '70s films (The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver) it labeled Vietnam vets as violent and unstable, moments from a meltdown.

This clumsy politicking prevents Coming Home from attaining The Best Years of Our Lives' all-time classic status. Nonetheless, recent scandals ensure that its solidarity with disabled vets remains powerful. You don't have to be Ron Kovic to find its message affecting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sunset Boulevard

"No one leaves a star. That's what makes one a star!"
Hollywood loves showing itself as a soul-destroying wasteland, endless repeating the message in films satirical and serious. Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) remains the best, transforming a familiar subject into high tragedy.

Hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) flees creditors into the arms of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). An aged silent movie actress, she lives in a mansion with her servant Max (Erich Von Stroheim), still convinced she's a star. Norma enlists to Joe to write her comeback vehicle, but their relationship grows uncomfortably close. Eventually Joe tires of the arrangement, sneaking away to help Betty (Nancy Olson) write a script. When Norma finds out, she loses her mind.

Like many Wilder films, Sunset Boulevard defies categorization. His razor-sharp wit provides droll humor, with Joe's hardboiled narration and sarcasm off-setting the grimness. Boulevard's black satire shows Joe begging for work while his agent (Lloyd Gough) golfs and producers lounge around ornamented offices. For verisimilitude, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nillson and Hedda Hopper contribute cameos.

Along with cowriters Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr., Wilder's more ruthless than affectionate. Aside from Betty, a failed actress eager to climb the ladder, Boulevard's characters are desperate or delusional, broke or bonkers. Joe goes from reluctant screenwriter to glorified gigolo. Max, a director ruined by Norma and eclipsed by De Mille, debases himself as a servant. Wilder's Hollywood is a cutthroat business, frightening outsiders and eating its own.

And Norma is ;its ultimate victim. She never outgrew her silent stardom, ruined by talkies and age. Discarded by Hollywood, patronized by friends and enabled by Max, she cocoons herself in memories: endless photos, a collection of her films, phony fan mail. She's pathetic yet frightening, so obsessed with image that she can't face reality. When Joe tries penetrating her delusions, he only triggers tragedy.
Gloria Swanson makes Norma a memorable monster. Swanson veers between girlish charm, forced bravado and sneering pantomime. Her affectedness serves the character well: Norma's always acting, whether wooing Joe or reminiscing with stagehands, trapped by her delusions. Her crime of passion makes melodrama reality. However autobiographical Swanson's acting (Norma watches clips of Queen Kelly, directed by Stroheim and starring her!), it's an unforgettable performance.

Sunset Boulevard often resembles a horror movie, infused with sick humor. Norma's rotting, oversized estate plays host to bizarre events; she and Max hold an elaborate chimp funeral; she impersonates Chaplin in a grotesque vaudeville act; an orchestra plays to an empty party. Joe's narration and John F. Seitz's photography provide a noir feel, but Wilder's puckish weirdness keeps viewers off-balance.

William Holden went from pretty boy to heavyweight with his faultless performance. Slimy, desperate and charming, Holden was never better. Erich Von Stroheim's grave, wounded dignity makes a flawless foil; certainly he understood an aged director gone to seed. Nancy Olson's freshness offsets the desperate or deranged leads. Jack Webb, unusually likeable, plays Betty's chummy fiancée.

In the end, Norma finally gets her audience: peeping newsreels, gawking reporters, policemen waiting to arrest her. With Max directing she descends a staircase, Franz Waxman's score swelling. Norma's face locks into a snarling rictus, reaching into the camera like a monster. Few films offer a more disturbing, memorable conclusion.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Father (1966)

"Only weaklings keep making up stories!"
Istvan Szabo's second feature, Father (1966) established him as a leading light of Hungarian cinema. The film loosely resembles Italian neorealism, showing a defeated nation coming to terms with the past. But Szabo's imaginative trappings provide a deeper allegorical resonance.

Young Tako Bence (Dani Erdelyi as a boy, Andras Balint as an adult) loses his father (Miklos Gabor) in early 1945. He reimagines his father, a mild-mannered doctor, as an heroic Resistance fighter who saved Jews while foiling Nazi invaders. Tako maintains his illusions even into adulthood, proving central to his personality. Eventually, Tako realizes he must forge his own identity - but he must uncover his father's first.

Father mixes grim neorealism (postwar poverty interspersed with stock footage) and French New Wave-style fourth wall breaking. Tako's fantasies range from flickering memories to full-scale action, his Father dodging fascist bullets or rescuing a tramcar full of Jews. Sandor Sara's breathless camera captures the spinning delirium of a school dance or a long take capturing Tako's dash through a revolution-scarred street.

Juxtaposing the grim and fantastical provides Father its meat. Hungary rode the maelstrom of 20th Century upheaval: Admiral Horthy's reactionaries, Arrow Cross fascists, Soviet-imposed Communism. It's only natural that Tako's fantasies match a country. Tako's Catholic school becomes a state-run school; his girlfriend Anni (Kati Solyom) struggles with her Judaism. Tako even imagines a Communist rally where his father's portrait watches over Budapest.

Neither affirming epic nor tale of disillusionment, Father offers ambiguity. Tako's role in the 1956 rising proves as farcical as his participation in a WWII film, switching from Jew to Nazi at the director's whim. His father's friends offer vague, unhelpful answers which he spins into grandiose anecdotes. Father closes with a scene both hilarious and haunting, with Tako undertaking a "heroic" achievement matched by dozens of others.

Andras Balint provides Father's anchor with a performance of brooding, focused humor. His child counterpart, Dani Erdelyi, is engaging enough to carry the early scenes. Kati Solyom gets a show-stopping monologue recounting her family's Holocaust experiences. Miklos Gabor is an endearing figure sporting Harold Lloyd glasses, leather overcoat and boundless energy.

Istvan Szabo explores Hungary's torn, tortured identity in several films: 25 Firehouse Street, Confidence, Colonel Redl and Sunshine among them. Any nation's heritage mixes facts with fantasy, especially such a troubled one. Whatever debt Father owes to De Sica or Rossellini, Szabo's eccentric approach stands on its own.