Monday, December 28, 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"The Last Blitzkrieg"

Part of my continuing examination of "good Germans" in Hollywood films.
     In the 1950s there was an ongoing "rehabilitation" of Germans in American cinema.  This included films that took place during Wold War II.  I think that as America was improving its relationship with West Germany, an ally in the Cold War, more Germans on film were shown to be worthy of our friendship.

     A good example of this is "The Last Blitzkrieg," a film from 1959 starring Van Johnson, and directed by Arthur Dreifuss.  Johnson plays  Sgt. Hans Von Kroner, the son of a famous Nazi general.  Von Kroner was raised in the United States and speaks fluent English, and more importantly, he understands American culture.  He makes a good spy; at first he is put in a POW camp with American prisoners.  Pretending to be an American prisoner named Sgt. Leonard Richardson he befriends them, notably a German-American soldier named Ludwig, played by Dick York.    From York he learns of their plans to escape.  He tells the camp Commandant, who is pleased he will be able to shoot the prisoners as they are escaping.  Von Kroner is taken aback by this news, and questions the Commandant's need to kill the prisoners (but he does it in a subtle way).  Clearly Von Kroner is different than the Commandant.   The Commandant also expresses puzzlement over the American, Ludwig, who is trying to escape; why do German-Americans fight against their true Homeland?  Doesn't he have German blood?  Maybe he's secretly a Jew, he wonders?
Van Johnson as Sgt. Hans Von Kroner / Sgt. Leonard Richardson.
     The Commandant tells Von Kroner that because of his English he's been chosen for a special force that will infiltrate American units fighting in Belgium.    Von Kroner gets paired up with an ex-SS man named Wilitz, played by Kerwin Mathews.  Mathews thinks the Third Reich can do no wrong - he's a true believer.  He can't wait to kill American and British troops.  While waiting for their orders Wilitz reminisces about being a Brown Shirt and how much fun he had "rounding up traitors and Jews" before the war.  Again, as with the Commandant, Von Kroner is visibly bothered by the glee with which Wilitz carried out his brutal work.   And again, Von Kroner is subtle in his criticism. 

     Von Kroner and a small team are sent behind the Allied lines in Belgium, where they perform acts of sabotage and sow confusion.  They move signs around, tying up traffic and sending troops in the wrong direction; they pick up information and radio it back to the Germans; they spend a night with a Belgian woman, who is convinced the war is going badly for the Germans, while Wilitz argues that the Germans might still punch back with the Luftwafe.  When Wilitz tries to rape her, Von Kroner stops him - and he tries to console the woman by telling her to think it's the war that makes men evil.  This is interesting - Wilitz is impersonating an American soldier.  Von Kroner could have allowed Wilitz to attack the woman, who would then be soured on the Americans.  Instead Von Kroner tries to defend America - and mankind - by blaming atrocities on war. 

     The film takes a dramatic turn when Von Kroner and his team, posing as Americans separated from their unit, get assigned to a group that includes Sgt. Ludwig.  It's revealed Ludwig and another soldier were able to escape from the POW camp, but everyone else was killed in cold blood.  At first Ludwig is a little suspicious of Von Kroner, who was transferred from the camp right before the attempted escape, but Von Kroner is openly sincerely fond of Ludwig, and it allays Ludwig's trepidation. 
Dick York as Sgt. Ludwig.
     Once they are embedded with the American forces, Von Kroner's crew sabotages a jeep, killing an officer.  They also are involved in a firefight against Germans holed up in a farmhouse - but the Americans win the battle easily - the Germans were all boys and old men, and they surrender easily.    Von Kroner volunteers to bring the prisoners to central command, and he plans to let them escape - but the German soldiers WANT to be POWs, they are sick of the war.  Wilitz says the men who surrendered were traitors, but Von Kroner understand why they are sick of war.  Again, Von Kroner is able to show his disenchantment with the Reich.

     Von Kroner continues to be a good soldier and do his assigned job - causing havoc behind enemy lines.  His team attempts to blow up an ammunition truck.  But the bomb is discovered, and one of Ludwig's men sees that it was a soldier dressed as an American who planted it.  Again, Von Kroner is a suspect; he claims he can't be a spy because he delivered the German prisoners instead of helping them escape.  That wins him a reprieve from Ludwig (even though Ludwig is still suspicious of another member of the team who doesn't know what a "hot-foot" is).  But soon later, Von Kroner and his team are on lookout, and they appear to come under German fire; Von Kroner yells, in German,  not to shoot, that they are a German commando unit. 

     It was all a trap by Ludwig, who speaks German - he knows now they are spies, and he tells them to surrender - they flee, and the Americans fire at them, killing all but Von Kroner.  He asks if they will shoot him, as they will eventually, when he is tried as a spy, but Ludwig says that isn't his job.  His job is to hand Von Kroner over.  Von Kroner ask Ludwig if he's being kind because he's a fellow German.  "No," Ludwig says, "because I'm a human being."  Again, Von Kroner is impressed by Ludwig's compassion.

     Ludwig's men are told to advance.  They bring Von Kroner along, under guard.  The Americans are winning the battle, but some of their men get separated and captured.  Von Kroner sees them surrender to Germans, who shoot the Americans instead of taking them prisoner.
That's too much for Von Kroner.  He picks up a machine gun and fires at the Germans.  The Americans win the battle and take many German prisoners.  Von Kroner, with his dying breath, tells the prisoners, in German, that "Hitler's dream is insane, they've been doing the work of the devil, go home and never say Heil again."  He dies.

     There are two "good" Germans in this film, Sgt. Ludwig, the German-American, who rejects the Nazis despite his "German blood"; and of course Von Kroner, who sees through the brutality and false "inevitability" of the Third Reich, as personified by the cruel Wilitz.  The good German-American was a common character during the war - think William Bendix as Smith/Schmidt in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944).  But German soldiers rejecting Nazism and being sympathetic characters didn't appear much until after the war, when Germany was now an ally against a new foe, and Germans had to be rehabilitated. 

sketches by J. Betke

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fall Colors

"Strange Interlude"

     In 1932 Norma Shearer and Clark Gable starred in a bizarre film, Strange Interlude, directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  In most films, characters' inner thoughts are conveyed in dialogue; if they have secret thoughts, or if they think something different than what they are saying, the filmmakers need to figure out a way to show the character's true feelings.

Norma Shearer, Strange Interlude, 1932.
     This is an interesting example of a Pre-Code film.  Shearer plays a woman married to a man with mental illness in his family; afraid of having a disturbed child, she gets pregnant by another man, played by Clark Gable, and pretends the child is her husband's.  Gable leaves the country, unaware he is a father, but when he returns after the child is born Shearer tells him the truth.   The film is ripe for melodrama, and everyone has secret feelings.  
     Characters deliver dialogue (written by Eugene O'Neill, and based on his play), but then we hear in voice over what they are also thinking, which is sometimes different than what they are saying.  This is a very odd, and unique, experience in film.  I've never seen this before.
     Cinema is meant to be a lived experience - we see the world through a character's eyes, and we experience their lives through action.  If characters tell us what they think, as dialogue, it feels very talky and expository.  Sometimes we hear a character talk in a Voice Over, as narration, and that can work if the film is being told "as a story."  Both of this happens in the real world - but we never hear what other people are thinking.  Only telepaths in science fiction can do this.  Perhaps that's why it doesn't really work on camera. 

     I would rather learn what characters are really thinking through camerawork and direction, with subtle use of reaction shots and how dialogue is edited, then stopping the action to freeze on a character's face as we hear their inner dialogue.
     I think this film can be compared to other interesting experiments like Lady in the Lake from 1947.  In that adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, Robert Montgomery starred as the main character, but he was almost never on the camera as the film was shot from his direct POV - characters talked to him directly, and we never saw his reaction, unless he was looking in a mirror.

     Both of these films subvert the way we connect with the main characters.  Instead of using traditional Hollywood editing techniques to define point of view and create a connection with the character, experimental techniques fail to help the audience connect with characters. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"The Enemy Below"

Part of my continuing examination of "good Germans" in Hollywood films.

  "The Enemy Below" is an interesting World War II drama from 1957 directed by Dick Powell.  Robert Mitchum stars as the captain of a Navy Destroyer, new to his ship, who proves himself to his crew in a cat-and-mouse chase against a German U-Boat.  The German captain is played by German actor Curd Jürgens (often written as Curt Jurgens).  As we often see in films about "regular" German soldiers and seamen, Jürgens, and many in his crew, are presented not as Nazis fighting for an ideology, but as regular people fighting for their lives and their honor.

Curd Jürgens, "The Enemy Below," 1957.

  Much of the film shows Mitchum and Jürgens maneuvering and counter-maneuvering, anticipating their enemy's next move while trying to outsmart each other.  At numerous times they compliment their opponents tactics.  It's similar to many of the tank films of WWII, where the fighters recognize the military skill of their opponents, or to the "dogfight" films of WWI.  The enemy is seen as an equal that needs to be outsmarted, not as an evil force that needs to be defeated.

  A few things make this film special.  A number of American seaman are horrifically wounded in the battle, one losing his fingers after incorrectly deploying depth charges; another losing his arm when the Destroyer is struck with a torpedo.  The film doesn't hide these injuries, instead it shows how dangerous the battle is and how high the stakes are.

  Another interesting moment is during a montage where both ships, the U-Boat and the Destroyer, are trying to stay quiet to stay hidden.  The seamen on the US ship are shown reading, one "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," the next a "Little Orphan Annie" comic book.  On the German ship, an officer is shown reading "Mein Kampf."  Jürgens sees this and, in full view of another officer, rolls his eyes.  He clearly doesn't think much of that officer.

  Finally, at the end of the film, after both ships have been struck and both are sinking, both Mitchum and Jürgens are shown as captains more worried about their crew than themselves.  Both wait until all of their crew are overboard - and many men of both ships end up sharing lifeboats.  Jürgens goes below deck to save an injured friend, and Mitchum proceeds to help both Jürgens and the friend get to a lifeboat.  At the end of the film, after they are all rescued by an American ship, the injured German has died and is cast to see in a funeral.  Mitchum and Jürgens share a smoke, with Jürgens saying he has survived more times than he should have.  Mitchum "apologizes," and the two are seen looking off to sea as the film ends.  Clearly, director Powell thinks that there is some comradeship in battle, especially when the opposing sides have more in common than they are led to believe.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bird Feeder Action

Lots of activity at our bird feeder this morning.  Northern Cardinals (male and female); Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks (male and female); a Red-Bellied Woodpecker; a White-Breasted Nuthatch; Robins and Doves; and a White-Crowned Sparrow!