Heart of a Lion (2013)

Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion tells the gripping tale of a Finnish skinhead adapting to life with his girlfriend and her half-black son.

heart-of-a-lionFinland
4*

Director:
Dome Karukoski

Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Henri Blomberg

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Leijonasydän

Many viewers may be tired of Second World War films and choose to leave the history in the past. And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the consequences of racism. It is an ideology that, albeit in a slightly different form, remained on the books in the United States in the form of segregation until the mid-1960s, and in South Africa was codified into law shortly after the National Party came to power in 1948.

Neo-Nazis, or skinheads, can be found in most countries in Europe, and their guiding philosophy usually combines ideas of “purity” from Nazism with patriotism for their particular country. The title of Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion refers to the animal, found in Africa and Asia, that holds a sword above its head on Finland’s coat of arms and appears as a tattoo on the bodies of many of the country’s skinheads who proclaim their conservative intention to protect the country from change.

The problematic provenance of the symbol is an interesting point of departure for a discussion about the film, which has a skinhead character, the leader of a small pride of like-minded tattooed individuals, fall in love with Sari (Laura Birn), a woman whose son is half-black. This neo-Nazi is called Teppo (Peter Franzén), but having seen his previous love life crumble because of his commitment to defending the fatherland against imposters (anyone who doesn’t look like his idea of a true Finn), and perhaps also because of the great sex with Sari, he is willing to look the other way when his new love breaks the news to him that her son is called Rhamadhani (Yusufa Sidibeh).

Despite what we may be expecting, the film is filled with examples of love, all with neo-Nazi leader Teppo at the nexus, as his relationships – sometimes tender, sometimes fraught with challenges – with Sari, Rhamadhani and his own brother, Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen), inject positive feelings into a storyline that could easily have settled for cheap thrills and violence.

Not that Heart of a Lion lacks violence or aggressive characters, but the overarching idea seems to be reconciliation rather than destruction, and of course it helps our capacity for empathy when Teppo seems to share this desire.

But Karukoski has to step very carefully among the landmines of empathy in a film dealing with this subject matter, as it would be entirely inappropriate to care too much about Teppo or his brash younger brother. Teppo may be conflicted, and Harri may be torn between affection for Teppo and a need to hold onto the seeming security provided by his band of macho neo-Nazis, but although Teppo comes to accept Rhamadhani, he continues to show an affinity for an avowed kind of pro-Finnish fascism for a large part of the film.

Karukoski and lead actor Franzén approach the character of Teppo with extreme circumspection towards his credible development, and their success fuels the viewer’s appreciation of the storytelling here. Teppo is certainly a multifaceted character, but Harri shows signs of even greater complexity: He is an upstart and a provocateur, but when push comes to shove, he protects his brother, even when their ideas about the races are no longer alike. It is unfortunate that the other skinheads are much less well-rounded, as they mostly serve the purpose of a foil to the two brothers’ journey towards a relative liberation from the Nazist ideals.

One particularly puzzling detail is why the skinheads write their graffiti in English, a language that certainly is not part of the proud Finnish traditions they pretend to espouse and protect. In one scene, director of photography Henri Blomberg’s camera even goes in for a closeup on the back of one of the skinheads’ skulls to let us better see the tattoo that reads “White Power”. This English term suggests these Finnish troublemakers see themselves as an extension of the subculture that includes far-right extremists in the English-speaking world. However, none of this is ever discussed, making our comprehension of the way they see themselves rather problematic.

The story itself is very involving, although, oddly, Sari disappears for long stretches of time, apparently without being visited by her boyfriend or her son while she is receiving care at the hospital. It also contains several comical moments that counterbalance the inherent drama. Although Blomberg never shows off with his camera, there is one scene, shot late at night in a single take during a rampage on a few Gypsies, and the violence contained in that unedited bubble of a moment is upsetting and clearly communicated with Karukoski’s choice of shot.

Heart of a Lion is a strong, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable film about love, pride and prejudice, and as relevant as ever.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014

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