Fury (2014)

David Ayer’s Second World War film has a dose of the infernal as it shows what has usually gone unsaid: good guys also have to kill.

fury-david-ayerUSA
3.5*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 135 minutes

When the Allied forces disembarked on the shores of Normandy, Dante’s famous sign at the gates of hell should have informed them what they were up against: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, in the end, they prevailed against Hitler, Mussolini and their troops, and the heroism of the soldiers and their actions during the Second World War still make grown men cry. But as much as war is about conquest and defeat, the fights that have to be fought lead to death, and it is not only when you have killed hundreds or even dozens of people that you change, but when you have killed a single one.

Every time there is a war, this realisation has to dawn on soldiers, and the moment when war becomes real is when you aim your pistol and pull the trigger at someone whose ideology differs from yours but who has not tried to kill you. In David Ayer’s Fury, war is a painfully miserable experience for the viewer, because it so clearly turns people into bloodthirsty animals, often against their will. It tells the story of five men, huddled inside a tank named “Fury”, who do their best to survive, despite the odds, as they proceed across the German countryside and make their way towards Berlin in the waning days of the war.

Despite the green fields, sometimes decked with light snow, we get the impression throughout that the U.S. troops are crossing the valley of the shadow of death, and there is indeed evil to fear, because anything from a landmine to a brush-covered sniper can flip someone’s life switch in a matter of seconds. In the dark but meaningful opening scene, we get a very good sense of just how fragile life can be.

The film’s opening scene goes from ominous to gory to utterly bleak as someone we can’t see approaches on horseback, only to be stabbed through the eye, the blade presumably sinking deep into the skull, and dying instantly. The guy who did the stabbing is played by Brad Pitt, and he is in charge of a band of brothers during the Second World War who want to kill as many Nazis as they can as fast as they can so that they can go home and forget about all the people they killed. It is a vicious circle from which they can’t escape.

That opener, in which we are utterly unsure at first whether to cheer for the stabber or feel bad for the stabbee, shows this violence between individuals we don’t know, and who in all likelihood don’t know each other. It is a kind of violence of which this film is powerful but ultimately a pale representation of the large-scale moral carnage that occurs during wartime.

The main meat of the story does not involve the five soldiers as much as it focuses on the very quick growing up the newest addition to the group, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), has to do not. Not only does he have to stand his man and fit in but also survive in this environment of threats that are as constant as they are imminent.

Besides Pitt’s Sergeant Collier, the others in the group are as varied as one can expect: There is the silent, serious and very subdued Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who cites Scripture when need be, and these guys need it very often; the hedonist Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) who has clearly been fighting too long; and the Spanish-speaking Trini “Gordo” García (Michael Peña).

Ellison goes through the predictable trajectory from refusing to shoot anyone (before his transfer to the battlefield, he used to be a clerk, and he prides himself on typing 60 words per minute) to shooting like his life depended on it, and often it does, earning him the nom de guerre “[killing] Machine”.

But it is not all moonlight and roses, and Ayer takes pains to point out the moral minefield these characters have to navigate as they commit atrocious acts so that good may triumph in the end. At one point, we realise even Sergeant Collier might not be above taking an innocent German girl by force if given half a chance.

Because of his age, his lack of experience and his much less violent worldview, Ellison does not seem to fit in with these men, and neither does the audience, but over time we get to see the humanity in each of the characters, albeit often buried beneath a layer of denial for the sake of survival.

The film itself is an odd creature: While the characters get a somber dose of humanity and texture, the story is aimless, and there is no clear goal. We know the war is winding down, but by the end of the film, we are still stuck somewhere in the German countryside with only tiny triumphs and defeats having been racked up along the way, including an unforgettable scene that involves the Nazis’ feared Tiger tank.

The acting is superb, and it is particularly inspiring to see the greatness that lies within LaBeouf when he represses his emotions. But despite its historical accuracy, the “tracers” that light up one battle scene are more reminiscent of a Star Wars battle, complete with what looks like green and red lasers on the battlefield, than a 1945 shoot-out in the real world. Ayer should have found another way to make this scene palatable to an audience not at all used to such visuals in a realistic setting.

While the story may be thin, we leave the cinema utterly drained because of an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a realisation that even the good guys do terrible things so that their side can win. Soldiers are human, and in situations as primal as warfare, they are reduced to their most basic instincts, and for all the honour and glory we bestow on them when they return home, many of us probably would not want to know what they did so that the rest of us may carry on.

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.

With a Little Patience (2007)

With its focus on the point of view of a single character, With a Little Patience anticipates the thematic and visual concerns of its director’s feature film début by eight years.

with-a-little-patience-turelemHungary
4.5*

Director:
László Nemes

Screenwriters:
László Nemes

Timea Varkonyi
Director of Photography:
Mátyás Erdély

Running time: 11 minutes

Original title: Türelem

László Nemes should be the only director ever allowed to tell stories of the Holocaust. Just like his feature film début, Son of Saul, released in 2015, his first short film shot in 35mm, With a Little Patience, made eight years earlier, is remarkably intense in its focus on a single character within the context of Jewish extermination during the Second World War. In this wordless, 11-minute film consisting of a single take, an anonymous office worker first appears to us when she emerges from soft focus, just as Saul Kaminski does in the opening seconds of Son of Saul.

An epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, specifically the poem’s curtain-raising “Burial of the Dead” section, figures on a black screen even before the first image: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Öd’ und leer das Meer.” These lines perfectly frame the misery and desperation that follow shortly afterwards.

Although the office worker appears in the frame almost immediately when the film opens, the first object that is in focus is the object handed to her by an unknown individual: a brooch. It takes some time before we come to realise the significance of this piece of jewellery, and in the interim, the silence takes on an air of mystery and tension that finally breaks with tremendous force, even from far away, in the closing moments.

As the narrative unspools, a nagging sense of misfortune hangs in the air, created in large part by the dark interior where most of the film is set. The setting is nondescript. The space is clearly an office of some sort, but the anonymous woman whom we follow for most of the film does not speak to anyone, and the only words spoken to her are a whisper, their meaning unknown to us. Furthermore, as Nemes would do again in Son of Saul, the focus is so shallow that the actions of all except this woman are presented as nebulous blurs of movement.

Very little happens, although it is obvious the woman is hiding something, and all along, we wonder, “Where did this brooch come from, and why is she clearly not supposed to have it?”

It is only at the very end – when the camera’s perspective changes, and in an unfortunate moment of directorial timidity, we leave the confines of the main character as the focus is racked to show events much farther away – that we grasp the spatio-temporal context of the film: a death camp somewhere on Nazi-occupied territory during the Second World War. The brooch is one of the pieces of jewellery that belonged to a Jewish prisoner, and this woman dressed in white, calmly and expressionlessly doing clerical work amid the grotesque carnage occurring just offscreen, is materially benefitting in her own small way from the subjugation, incarceration and liquidation of the Jews.

But this is but one interpretation.

While some may whimsically use the title to describe the lack of any robust dramatic development during the first two-thirds, this considerable part of the film actually works to heighten the impact of the final revelation on the viewer. By the time the chilling closing minutes roll around, the sudden shift in tone produces a visceral kick to the gut.

In With a Little Patience, Nemes offers a clear vision of his cinematic principles and a firm foundation on which he would ultimately go on to build the modern-day masterpiece that is Son of Saul. Tipping his hat to masters of the art form that include Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, Nemes uses a carefully choreographed single take to exquisite effect and proves his is a voice that will reverberate through the industry in the years to come.

Ida (2013)

Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida, which deals with a young woman’s journey towards becoming a nun, is of the most beautiful films ever made.

idaPoland
4*

Director:
Paweł Pawlikowski 

Screenwriters:
Paweł Pawlikowski

Rebecca Lenkiewiczi
Directors of Photography:
Łukasz Żal

Ryszard Lenczewski

Running time: 80 minutes

With Ida, Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski may have created one of the most visually stunning motion pictures of all time. Harking back to the era of Carl Theodor Dreyer, one of the film’s main themes – religion – finds expression in the beautiful whites and blacks of the images, most of which are presented by means of static camera positions.

In the early 1960s in Poland, a young redhead nun named Anna, who grew up in a convent, is preparing to take her vows. But before she does that, her prioress asks her to visit her aunt, Wanda, whom she hasn’t seen for most of her life. Anna is reluctant to head out into the sinful world outside the nunnery, but she does as she is asked to do. In a moment of incredible candour, Wanda announces to Anna that she was born of Jewish parents (her real name is Ida Lebenstein) and sent to the convent because at the time of her birth Jews were being hunted down in Nazi-controlled Poland.

Wanda is a former state prosecutor who once got the nickname “Bloody Wanda” for her role in sending enemies of the socialist state to their deaths. It has been a long time sincethe Second World War, but although she doesn’t talk about it much, and we only glean tiny bits of information from her about her family’s life in hiding, it is an event that clearly took a toll on her, and along with Ida she tries to locate the remains of her sister and brother-in-law, among others.

The investigation is simple but leads to the introverted Ida coming face to face with the evils of the world. Her exposure to the life led by her more free-spirited aunt, who spends many a night with a different man in her bedroom, also attunes her to alternative ways of behaving (in other words, black and white turn slightly grey) that will significantly influence her way of thinking by the end of the film. This change is made visible in her arrival and departure from the city of Łódź, where Wanda lives, which is shown with a static shot of her arriving on the tram, and a lateral tracking shot that shows her leaving the city toward the end.

The world depicted is one of intense religious affiliation, and God’s blessings are mentioned in nearly every greeting between friends and strangers. However, always in the background, are the events of the Second World War, and the staggering injustices suffered by such a large part of the Polish population. The film moves at a leisurely pace, with scenes stripped down to their essential parts, even if those parts often mostly consist of silence.

We never feel that things are moving too slowly, but surprisingly the fragments of the final act seem disjointed, and the film moves too quickly from one scene to the next, often without explaining how characters got certain kinds of important information and how they respond to them.

The investigation in the present has as much to do with unveiling the past and getting at historical truths, painful as they might be, as it is about the veiled Ida’s quest (albeit one she is indifferent to at first) to find the truth within and about herself. She grew up a Catholic, always surrounded by the nuns of the convent, and it may not appear that her birth into a Jewish family is worth exploring, but she soon finds herself no longer able to ignore the circumstances under which she was torn from her family – an act that led to the point where she finds herself in the present.

The process is presented without any sentimentality or melodrama; on the contrary, things happen with very little fanfare, but there cannot be any doubt that Ida is affected by the discoveries she makes and the world she encounters, where she continues to believe in God despite all the misery of her earliest days on the planet. Whatever your view of religion, Ida is a character with integrity. She faces her struggles in silence but not with a mere shrug of the shoulders. And Pawlikowski’s gorgeous film is a very worthy modern-day addition to the canon of films dealing with religious subjects.

Viewed at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Fateless (2005)

Hungary
4.5*

Director: 
Lajos Koltai
Screenwriter:

Imre Kertész
Director of Photography: 

Gyula Pados

Running time: 140 minutes

Original title: Sorstalanság

If you have any sense of compassion, films about the Holocaust are very difficult to watch. And yet, the stories that they tell must be acknowledged and absorbed by a generation that could easily forget the events of more than 70 years ago.

At the time I am writing this review, I haven’t seen a Holocaust film, either fictional or documentary, since I sat down to watch Claude Lanzmann’s staggering multi-disc Shoah (1985) six years ago. Lanzmann and Alain Resnais, whose Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) is considered to be an equally impressive achievement reminding us of the need to remember, both constructed films of the Holocaust as reflections of the past that still have striking resonance in the present.

Fateless‘s main character, who features in every single scene and is somehow involved in every single shot, is Gyuri “Gyurka” Köves (played by Marcell Nagy), a teenage boy with a mop of curly black hair, who lives in Budapest with his father and stepmother, part of a Jewish community in Budapest at the beginning of the Second World War. First, his father is sent to a labour camp, and then he himself is picked from a bus and sent to concentration camps, where he stays for the duration of the war, along with thousands of other Jewish Hungarians.

The young actor playing Gyurka is perfectly cast: Exactly on the verge of adulthood, he conveys innocence without childishness, and sometimes he seems to look straight at us, engaging our sympathy without soliciting it. His ideas are still evolving, and during a conversation about the essence of Jewishness, he wants to comfort a girl he has a crush on, who doesn’t understand why being a Jew makes her the object of so much hatred, but he doesn’t quite have the experience to do that yet. It is a touching moment, despite the evident political slant (fortunately, the only time the film hammers home the point) and one that obviously relates to the film as a whole.

Fateless is beautiful. It is the debut film of cinematographer Lajos Koltai and is clearly the work of someone with an eye for visual impact. The film’s colours are very muted: Mostly, the images resemble sepia photographs, and often the colour scheme is almost completely monochrome, with only hints of colour in the frame, especially the colour yellow, which of course is the colour of the infamous Star of David badges sewn onto the clothing of the Jewish population.

The film’s many different moments are not filled with the horrors one usually associates with Holocaust films but add up to a very human portrait of the people in the concentration camps and their desire to support each other. The fragmentary nature of the narrative, especially in the second half, is not always entirely effective, but the fragments themselves are like small gems in the mud of the Second World War.

A few scenes stand out for the emotion they are likely to evoke and very often the soundtrack of Ennio Morricone (one of the best he has ever scored, with the always incredible Lisa Gerrard adding her voice to some very emotive pieces) plays a significant role. At one point, the prisoners are asked to entertain their fellow inmates, and they sing a song whose relevance to their plight is difficult to miss:

What does a girl dream on a moonlit night?
That her prince will come on a steed of pure white

It’s a dream so sweet, but soon she must wake
And princes are scarce, so it’s all a mistake

Fateless ends on a very different note from most of these kinds of films and may rub some people the wrong way, but the point that the film makes illuminates the human ability to find light in the darkness and to hold on to the goodness in some people and use it as a shelter against the dreadful acts of others.