Anthropoid (2016)

True-to-life account of the two heroes behind a stunning assassination in the heart of Nazi-occupied Bohemia is brilliantly staged but marred by peculiar editing decisions and mishmash of accents.

anthropoidUK/Czech Republic
3.5*

Director:
Sean Ellis

Screenwriters:
Sean Ellis

Anthony Frewin
Director of Photography:
Sean Ellis

Running time: 120 minutes

There are few people as unequivocally heroic yet as little known outside their home country as Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. Czechoslovak soldiers born during the First World War, they would grow to see their proud nation in the heart of Europe betrayed by the Allied forces and handed over to Nazi Germany by the time they reached their mid-20s. Their supreme act of bravery – assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s cold-blooded emissary to the occupied territory of Bohemia and Moravia – ultimately did little to change the tide against the Nazis, but the stand they took against the Third Reich is one of the most admirable acts of the 20th century.

UK director Sean Ellis spent many years developing the screenplay for Anthropoid (the title refers to the codename of the two soldiers’ top-secret mission), and the film’s plot closely resembles the events as they occurred at the end of 1941 and the first half of 1942. However, accuracy and entertainment are by no means the same thing, and it is with this latter point that the director fails to make an adequate impression.

Anthropoid opens late on a cold December night when the two men, who had received their orders from the Czech government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, are dropped 30 kilometres from Prague. Anthropoid screenplay is boldly structured to eschew flashbacks and to limit itself to the Czech territory for exactly as long as the two men’s lifespan.

Very little happens over the course of the first hour, however. Although there is a sense of foreboding regarding the execution of the plan, Ellis does a poor job of showing us life under occupation. Czechs appear to go about their business, even as Germans in uniform show up at their cafés and bars, but there is no real feeling for the Czechs and their (presumably) terrified frame of mind. Uncle Hajský (Toby Jones, whose presence in the film is very steadying) expresses anger about the 1938 Munch Agreement, but that is as much as we get. The film also makes very little effort to show us the camaraderie between the two men who spend six months in very close proximity, most of the time hiding the real purpose of their presence in the Prague to everyone around them.

Unfortunately, because of the actors involved and a number of peculiar decisions made during the editing process, the final product is wildly uneven.

The actors are Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as the Czech Kubiš and the Slovak Gabčík, respectively, and it was certainly a clever bit of casting, with Dornan being a native of Northern Ireland while Murphy hails from the Republic of Ireland. This cleverness, however, cannot make up for Dornan’s unshakable Irish lilt that hits us every time he opens his mouth, which has the effect of leaving the viewer wholly alienated from the story’s time and place.

Among the rest of the cast, the inconsistency in pronunciation is another nuisance. From a financial point of view, it is understandable that the film was made in English. But while the accents are already imperfect, the issue is compounded by the fact that some Czech cast members choose to pronounce uniquely Czech letters (such as the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce “ř”) in their native tongue, while other players stick to the closest English equivalent.

The editing process is equally flawed, and perhaps the most egregious examples are the otherwise stunning set pieces that serve as pivotal moments in the narrative: the assassination of Heydrich, which takes place in public in broad daylight, and a six-hour shootout inside the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral.

Both of these events, while meticulously staged and deserving of admiration because of how they unfold, have their sound turned off at the most crucial moments. At times, they are only accompanied by the soft sounds of an extradiegetic piano, which imbues them with a cloak of artistry when they require a more gritty sense of immediacy.

The film’s opening minutes are similarly inelegant. After a few introductory bits of text that are misleading at best and historically inaccurate at worst (Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in October 1938 and its full-scale invasion of Czechoslovakia less than six months later are seemingly lumped together), we get a handful of shots in close, slapdash succession that communicate precious little but point to a director more interested in telling his story through the editing suite than with the camera.

Visually, there is nothing particularly memorable about Anthropoid, at least not in a good way, as the film is tinged in a golden hue that is completely unnecessary, and Prague is always covered in a thick layer of fog, with only a church spire, a few rooftops and Prague Castle visible, most likely in order to save money.

And yet, despite all these problems, Ellis does draw on some genuinely moving material in subtle and very effective ways. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the entire film comes very early on when the two parachutists are questioned by the Prague Resistance: Kubiš’s response to a question about his hometown in Moravia shimmers with nostalgia and patriotism conveyed through words alone that conjure up a single image. In that moment, we understand Kubiš’s firm connection to his country and why he has come back to defend it against the ongoing Nazi aggression. Quite simply, it is extraordinary.

Dornan’s accent does not do him any favours, and in general he appears to be absent from the narrative, except for the numerous close-ups on his shivering hands (to make the point, in no uncertain terms, that he is also just a man and does not have nerves of steel). By contrast, Murphy excels as Gabčík, and so does Anna Geislerová, who plays his romantic interest, Lenka, a young woman who has already seen more than her share of violence and experienced more pain during the war than we could imagine.

It would have required a real genius to turn this story of bravery and success-despite-all-odds into anything but riveting, not unlike the entertaining hatchet job that Wolfgang Petersen did with Troy. The lead-up to the action-packed final act is rather dull and dreary, although Ellis has to be commended for minimising the visibility of swastikas – usually a hallmark of these kinds of films, but it is particularly disheartening that the two major set pieces fall short of perfection because of the sound choices. In addition, the climax contains a laughable hallucination that has no place in the film.

This is a story that everyone should be aware of, and this is the most poignant portrayal of the story to date, but the film itself would have benefited from a greater focus on realistic sound, particularly with regard to the accents of the cast.

Unbroken (2014)

Story of Louis Zamperini gets sumptuous treatment in dramatically uneven retelling of his World War II ordeal.

unbrokenUSA
3*

Director:
Angelina Jolie

Screenwriters:
Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Richard LaGravenese
William Nicholson
Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 135 minutes

Life is what happens while some are just trying to survive. In Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s epic, ambitious but also commendably restrained retelling of the life of Louis Zamparini, the canvas is vast and so, too, is the range of pain inflicted on a young man during wartime. Jolie proves to be enormously talented as a storyteller, but unfortunately the film is preoccupied with showing us that everybody has their reasons. In so doing, and by watering down the violence and bloodshed, it also commits the indefensible sin of downplaying the horrors of war.

Zamparini’s life was filled with good fortune but also a great deal of physical suffering at the hands of his captors, and the desire to survive obviously makes him a heroic character that deserves the big-screen treatment. The film plays it safe throughout, making sure to achieve nothing higher than a PG-13 rating by having children-friendly dialogue and restraining its depiction of violence; however, in its final moments it goes for broke by clearly drawing a visual parallel to Jesus Christ on the cross, and the absurdity of this comparison leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

British actor Jack O’Connell does a fine job in the lead, his clean-cut face serving him well as both the romantic representation of the wholesome American and ultimately as the object of sadistic affection of one of his detention camp guards in Japan, the feared Matsushiro Watanabe, better known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara).

The first half of Unbroken opens above the Pacific Ocean, aboard a B-52 bomber during the Second World War, where Zamperini is in charge of dropping the bombs at exactly the right moments. There are some hairy situations with the boys in the aircrew nearly losing their lives, and at the most dramatic point in the scene, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s early childhood in Torrance, California, with his Italian immigrant family. He was headed towards teenage delinquency when his older brother noticed how fast he can run, and suddenly, in a jump cut that comes as no surprise, we see him running as a teenager who has turned into an athlete of some renown.

After a few more scenes during the Second World War, we get yet another flashback to Zamperini’s early years, during which he sets off to compete in the Olympics in Berlin, Nazi Germany. This section of the film is magnificent, not only because of the overwhelming success of director of photography Roger Deakins in recreating the feeling of being inside the enormous arena, but also because of the subtle but powerful moment that is so brief the viewer might miss it on the first viewing: When all the athletes gather inside the stadium and the cauldron is lit, Zamperini looks behind him and sees a Japanese athlete looking back at him. They smile at each other in sportsmanlike camaraderie, both elated to participate at the highest level of their game. But as we watch them, the dramatic irony is evident as the bloody United States–Japan war scenes from earlier in the film still ring in our heads.

Once we return to the battlefield, we stay there, and it is a never-ending parade of misery for the poor Zamperini, who spends weeks on the open sea before being taken captive and held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The quick pace of the first half slows down significantly in the second, as the screenplay focuses intently on Zamperini’s ordeal in the detention camps and the unjust treatment he receives at the hands of the androgynous Watanabe, whose ambiguous behavior towards the Olympic athlete make him a menace from whom we can only expect the worst. Viewers familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence will notice familiar traits in the Japanese sergeant, but unfortunately Ishihara doesn’t bring much to his performance except sexualised menace.

In the film’s final moments, however, Jolie reveals the story behind Watanabe, and while this explanation in no way excuses his actions, the glimpse into his own story does offer us a way of recognising the humanity in some of the most malicious people we have ever come across. But perhaps it is a good thing Jolie decided not to show Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Louis’s older brother tells him in one of the film’s many trailer-ready snippets of dialogue. “If you can take it, you can make it” is another oft-repeated saying. The inspirational power of these two expressions is lost because the moment we hear them, very early in the film, we know they will be important later on.

Given Deakins is the film’s director of photography (the visual stalwart of the films of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay), it should come as no surprise that the images are gorgeous, as all the yellows and browns are tinged with gold, and the blues of the sky and the ocean hew between azure and a clear green-blue, respectively.

As Russell “Phil” Phillips, one of Zamperini’s crewmen aboard the bombardier, who endures much of the same hardship throughout the film, Domhnall Gleeson delivers a poignant, highly memorable performance. By contrast, Zamperini’s parents are caricatures of Italian-Americans, and his mother in particular, who never learns a word of English, is maddeningly simplistic.

With Unbroken, her second feature film as director, Jolie plays it too safe. Despite the publicity around the film that stresses the personal importance of the project to her, we feel little passion, and only a handful of scenes have the visceral quality we expect from a war film. The notable exceptions come during the characters’ near-death experiences, when the tension is handled admirably without sentimentality or exaggeration.

On the whole, however, the film is rather disappointing, with dialogue that is often stilted and situations that, while perhaps historically accurate, have little credibility when they are stacked together like here. It remains to be seen what becomes of Jolie as a director; as a storyteller, she is very capable, but as a filmmaker, she still has some way to go.

Heil (2015)

Nazi satire is heavy on the jokes but makes no serious effort to convey coherent message except to mock those seeking power.

heil-bruggemannGermany
3*

Director:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Screenwriter:
Dietrich Brüggemann

Director of Photography:
Alexander Sass

Running time: 100 minutes

Hitler seems to be all the rage recently, and not just because of the recent celebrations marking 70 years since the end of World War II. What makes the former Führer’s comical resurgence all the more interesting is that it originates in Germany, a country that has been ashamed of its Nazi past to the point that Mein Kampf is banned (copyright is held by the government until it expires in 2016), and any display of the Nazi salute is prohibited.

In the opening credits sequence of his latest film, Heil, the playful German director Dietrich Brüggemann intercuts the Nazi salute with Angela Merkel raising her hand to take the oath of office. Despite the provocative title, Hitler himself does not appear in the film, but the scourge of neo-Nazism is addressed in a very light-hearted way that basically makes caricatures out of any individuals with far-right tendencies.

The literary hit from a few years ago, Look Who’s Back, took a similar tack by having Adolf Hitler wake up from a coma in the present and work his way back into the public consciousness. One of the highlights of the book is a meeting between the principled, highly disciplined former leader of the Reich and a far-right party official who pretends to be in favour of Hitler’s policies but is only a few marbles away from being illiterate.

While it is debatable whether comedic simplification is the best approach to tackle this admittedly toxic subject, the issue has been topical for some time, and with the current emphasis across Europe on immigration, at least with regard to non-European or non-Western citizens, national identity is worth considerable discussion.

However, that is all far from the mind of Brüggemann, who plays up the sensationalism of Nazism in the opening minutes before he settles into a slapstick narrative that is always fun and has a booming soundtrack that pretends to propel the action forward even when little of note is happening.

The plot revolves around Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann), a handsome young Afro-German intellectual who regularly makes an appearance on the speaking circuit following the publication of his book, The Coffee-Stained Nation. Klein is about to become a father, but his (white) girlfriend and mother-to-be of his child, Nina (Liv Lisa Fries), still harbours fears he would break up with her and move back to his ex, Stella Gustafsson. When Klein is hit on the head, abducted by neo-Nazis, branded with a swastika on his forehead and turned into a zombie, the film enters the world of unbridled comedy that makes one or two points about how weak the characters on the anti-immigrant side really are.

Meanwhile, the not-quite-German-named Sven Stanislawski (Benno Fürmann), an ambitious but incompetent leader of a neo-Nazi cell, wants to impress his girlfriend by staging a false-flag operation that would lead to the invasion of Poland. However, he has his work cut out for him as at least two in his gang are informants, albeit with very little grey matter between them. In the opening scene, one of them, Johnny (Jacob Matschenz), struggles to write “White Power” correctly, and this emphasis on the stupidity of the neo-Nazis is a running joke in the film.

There is no question that Brüggemann’s gamble pays off, as his satirical take on Nazism – and the potential (or not) of a hate group to take up the mantle of the Führer once more – is uproarious and seemingly informed even though it is in fact little more serious than your average film coming out of Hollywood. Brüggemann seems to lose his nerve to address deep-rooted problems of integration in German society almost immediately after his opening credits, and while some of his comedy is rooted in (tragic) reality, as when we are reminded how much easier it is to get a gun in the United States than in Germany, most of it is purely for the sake of a quick laugh.

The most serious indictment of politics today comes in the form of a powerful song that accompanies the end credits. Performed by Adam Angst, the track “Splitter von Granaten” throws firebombs in the direction of Obama, the NSA and the German chancellor before this golden line is uttered: “Putin runs through woods and kills bears for pleasure and gives the green light to beat up homosexuals.” Heil briefly reminds us that while it is possible to be a (brainwashed) black Nazi, being gay is an unpardonable offense in certain circles; however, the only time a connection, tenuous though it may be, between the nationalist figures of Putin and Hitler is made is during the end credits, which appears to be another missed opportunity.

Speaking truth to power is not exactly what Heil is going for, and the film turns out to be infinitely less political than the viewer would hope for. But if you are looking for a comedy tinged here and there with an astute observation on what miserable creatures the neo-Nazis are, and how they should be mocked instead of feared, look no further.

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Diana (2013)

Film about the late princess of Wales shows her reckless, romantic sides but marks a terrible Anglophone début for its revered German director.

dianaUK
2*

Director:
Oliver Hirschbiegel

Screenwriter:
Stephen Jeffreys

Director of Photography:
Rainer Klausmann

Running time: 115 minutes

With Diana, director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made a film about Adolf Hitler in 2004 (Der Untergang, released for the English-speaking market under the title Downfall), has created a movie about another figure who is not exactly loved in her own country. Though not generating the same kind of vitriol as Margaret Thatcher, the late princess of Wales was thought to be enjoying the limelight a little more than she let on when she was publicly denouncing the British press’s lack of respect for her privacy.

The film only focuses on the last two years of her life, and in particular her on-again, off-again relationship with cardiologist Hasnat Khan. It is easy to see why Hirschbiegel was drawn to this project, as this is again a historical character who was a point of conversation and always in the public eye. Far from empathising with her, the director shows the situation in which she finds herself – at the mercy and yet simultaneously at the beck and call of Buckingham Palace – and her inability to realise how difficult it would be to make a relationship work with someone who cherishes his privacy much more than she does, and for whom hers is an alien world.

Khan seems like a very intelligent man who would give Diana the world if he could, but he refuses to give up his own identity. While the princess claims she is not asking him to do that, she simply fails to realise what an impact the constant flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras – or, for that matter, the hush-hush, the whispering or the finger-pointing in the street or in a restaurant – has on the life of an otherwise ordinary citizen. Having lived with such trifles for a long time already, she simply cannot sympathise with how little desire Khan has to interact with the nosy press.

We are shown what a narcissist Diana was by her constant looks in the mirror, and that goes some way towards explaining her actions late in the film, when she intimately plays along with members of the press, hinting at where she will be so she can be photographed and thus annoy “the Windsors” with her antics. She was anything but a damsel in distress when it came to the media; on the contrary, it almost seems she would start to drool Pavlov-style at the click of a shutter.

But we never get closer to her than did all the tabloids that covered her for so many years. While we see some details about her relationship with Khan, enormous chunks of her life are left out. She interacts with her own children in one single scene, and by the time we meet them she is seeing them off at the airport. For a woman who boasts about having four mobile phones, such an absence of communication between her and her children is impossible to understand.

Poor Naomi Watts, though not given much to work with in the title role, doesn’t meet our expectations either, as her delivery is often histrionic, and especially in the recreation of the well-publicised BBC television with Martin Bashir, Watts tries to interpret rather than mimic the real Diana but ends up appearing robotic and embarrassing.

Hirschbiegel nearly gets into Diana’s mind when she meets famed South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard (who performed the world’s first heart transplant) at an event in Italy and opens up about her love for Khan, but instead of asking him about his own experience reconciling his public and his private lives, she doesn’t even flinch when she asks him to find a job for her boyfriend so they can move abroad. The scene isn’t helped either by actor Michael Byrne, who plays Barnard, making a truly ghastly attempt at an Afrikaans accent.

The viewer will have many questions, most pressing of which is probably why Diana dons a wig only some of the time instead of carrying it around with her to avoid being recognised. But here is one of the most famous women in the world prancing around the streets of London at 3 a.m., completely exposed. Such lunacy does not elicit empathy, and neither does her self-pitying piano rendition of Bach’s “Aria”, which she performs not once but twice.

Diana famously said there were three people in her marriage with Prince Charles, referring to his mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, but going by this film, even if they were only two, the marriage would have been too crowded with her ego taking up so much space.

This is a story about a very troubled woman whose problems we are supposed to know from the real world and not because the film tells us or even hints at them, and such a reliance on facts outside the immediate world of the film nearly sinks the production, because it undercuts its very existence. That, on top of the slightly deranged central character whom we never really warm up to, the flat delivery of mediocre dialogue and truly odd directing choices (the opening scene prepares us for a Hitchcockian thriller), makes this film just another run-of-the-mill biopic.