Cast: Vladimir Svirskiy, Vladislav Abashin, Sergei Kolesov
Original title:V tumane
Germany, Russia, Latvia, Belarus 2012
Based on the novel of the same name by Vasil Bykov, Sergei Loznitsa’s follow up to the wonderful My Joy is a hard-hitting, brilliant experience. The year is 1942 and the place is the Western frontier of the USSR – Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy) is suspected of collaborating with the Germans after he is let go when three of his co-workers are hung. Two partisans, Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) are given the task of killing Sushenya in punishment for his crime. However, what awaits the trio is much darker than they could have anticipated…
Continuing his exploration of the dark heart of the Russian people, Loznistsa constructs a brutal but paced affair. Reminiscent of The Killers (1946) in its opening act, the film unravels to show exactly how the darkness operates – In the Fog can almost be considered a companion to Loznitsa’s previous work – the bleak landscape reminiscent of the road in My Joy, while the guilt the characters carry can be seen as being handed down through the ages.
Although the deliberate pacing might put off viewers, those willing to invest their time will find a film that’s dripping with atmosphere: eschewing the black-and-white morality of big-budgeted epics, Loznitsa constructs a personal journey to hell.
The cinematography washes the barren landscape out even to the point of indiscrimination – these places are beyond the audience’s imagination. The harsh winter is reflected in the way the light constantly bleaches the surroundings. The lengthy takes almost dare the audience to look away, while the performance of Vladimir Svirskiy is nothing less than mesmerising: his take on a man whose guilt has long been assumed before any proof is produced is both angry and laden with the weight of a thousand resignations.
The other mention must go to Grossmeier, played with aplomb by Vlad Ivanov, who is perfect at bringing the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to life. His cruelty, the moving force of the tragedy on the screen, is indeed one of the most affecting performances anyone can hope to see on the big screen this year.
All in all, In The Fog is one of the most impressive films of this year, a brutal tale told in the most languid language imaginable. Unmissable and a terrific step forward for Sergei Loznitsa.
Cast: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel
Original Title:L’armée des ombres
The sound of marching feet. The now familiar sight of German soldiers trooping through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, marking their own triumphant seizure of the city, and symbolically, of France as a whole. From the opening shots through to its tragic end, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Army of Shadows about the French Resistance is so full of influential, iconic imagery that, watching the film more than 40 years after its original release in 1969, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of déjà vu.
A key figure in the Resistance, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is interned, without charge, in a prison camp. His jailers aren’t German, but French (the first of many critiques of collaborationists, and subtly, of the French as a whole). He soon escapes and finds his way to Marseilles, where, with two trusted colleagues, Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), justice is meted out in brutal fashion to the person who betrayed him. Now a known and wanted man, Gerbier’s survival takes on new prominence, with the film twisting its way through a series of arrests of both Gerbier and his helpers and the subsequent, dangerous attempts at their rescue.
For the three comrades are part of the handful of men and one formidable woman (with her one, fatal flaw) who form the cell at the heart of the film, which was based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name and influenced by Melville’s own war-time experiences. Devoted members of the Resistance, they are isolated figures, alone in the sacrifices they make to protect each other and in their efforts to subvert the Germans. Their strength lies in their convictions and unswerving devotion to the cell; Gerbier almost worships Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a philosopher, writer and their leader.
There is little romanticism in the portrayal of their actions, no bending of history to make the Resistance seem somehow glamorous. Melville’s Army of Shadows is an austere film, shot in steely grey and blue tones, in an almost minimalist style. The languorous, late-60s pacing succeeds in creating an almost real-time sense of suspense. When Mathilde (terrifically played by Simone Signoret), disguised as a nurse, tries to enter the jail where another comrade has been kept prisoner and nearly tortured to death, the seconds crawl by as she waits for her papers to be approved by the guards. Melville creates the feeling of nervous energy and fear that anyone would feel in those tense moments, unsure if they’re about to be exposed as agents, and knowing the horrific reality of what would happen if they were. And by the film’s unhappy conclusion, the members of the cell have all been humiliated, tormented and sadistically toyed with by the Germans in what, in those years, was an almost futile battle.
With its strong political undertones, Army of Shadows was doomed to failure on its original release and denounced, in part, for being Gaullist – it was released shortly after the May 68 protests and the backlash against de Gaulle. Thanks to the controversy that surrounded the film, it was never released for distribution in the United States until it appeared on DVD in 2006. Now widely regarded as a masterpiece, its reissue on Blu-ray is a welcome opportunity to rediscover this compelling and important film.
Writers: Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford, Kit Denton
Based on the play by: Kenneth G. Ross
Cast: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters
A palpable, and justifiable, air of anger, bewilderment and injustice permeates Bruce Beresford’s Boer War drama, a major entry of the Australian New Wave of the late 70s and early 80s. With an Academy Award-nominated screenplay co-written by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a never better Edward Woodward in the title role, and an all-Australian supporting cast including Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Breaker Morant recreates the damning true-life tale of a court martial where military chicanery and international diplomacy doomed the accused before proceedings had even started.
A lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Boer War in South Africa, the Anglo-Australian Morant, now a folk hero to many in Australia, was arrested, along with lieutenants Peter Handcock (Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and charged with the murders of six Boer prisoners. Morant and Handcock were also charged with the murder of a German missionary, who witnessed the killings and may, or may not, have been siding with the Boers. Acting under long-standing orders to take no prisoners and also to seek vengeance for the killing and mutilation of their ranking officer Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), Morant, Handcock and Witton would end up as sacrificial lambs for the greater good of the British Empire. Used as scapegoats to appease the South African and German governments after news of the summary executions by firing squad spread, and to keep the planned peace talks on track, the accused claimed that they were following the direct orders of their superiors, including Lord Kitchener, but their assertions held no sway in what was, ironically, little more than a kangaroo court. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad, and Witton, the youngest of the three, was sentenced to life with hard labour.
The larrikinism, earthy mordant humour and loyalty of the trio stand in direct opposition to the handlebar moustaches, repressed emotions, deceitfulness, clipped accents and air of privileged arrogance evinced by the British military leadership throughout Beresford’s expert retelling of the story. Morant, a renaissance man known for his great skill with horses, ballad writing and poetry, Handcock, a simple, working-class soldier and Witton, a naí¯ve, idealistic young man, were thrown to the wolves by the army they had volunteered to join. Presented in a non-linear, episodic fashion, reflective of the disjointed (and patently false) narrative that the British army forced onto the incident, Breaker Morant, shot entirely on location in South Australia, is awash with cutting dialogue, memorable performances and striking imagery.
The winner in 10 categories at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, and including a performance by Thompson as the accused’s lawyer, Major J.F. Thomas, that won him the Best Supporting Actor Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Beresford’s take on the 1978 stage production Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts by Kenneth G. Ross is an enduring reminder of a shameful act of betrayal, not just of individuals and colleagues, but of the colonial bonds between Britain and Australia. Morant’s bitingly sarcastic comment that ‘It is customary during a time of war to kill as many of the enemy as possible’ lays bare the hypocrisy, pig-headedness and callous indifference of his superior officers. Thompson indelibly captures the frustration, stoicism and professionalism shown by Thomas in fighting a battle that was already lost, and the climactic hilltop execution of Morant and Handcock, filmed at sunrise in a coincidental but notable reversal of the sunset sacrifice of Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man, is both gut-wrenching and visually breath-taking. As with much of Breaker Morant, the eschewing of a musical score in the climactic scenes enhances the grip of the emotionally engaging material. Everything you need to see and feel is up there on the screen without the need for aural manipulation.
The corrupting influence of war on all those involved and the heavy price paid by some for their blind allegiance to a cause, the flag they fought for and those in charge of espousing its virtues is thrown into stark relief in Beresford’s anti-war classic. Specific though the narrative may be, it attains a timeless quality made abundantly clear by the contemporary horrors of Abu Ghraib and the distance the US military’s chain of command put between itself and the perpetrators of those crimes committed in the name of the War on Terror.
Armadillo, the prize-winning Danish documentary on a group of soldiers during their first tour of Afghanistan, is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story, albeit one that aims to work on multiple levels. On one level, we have the story of soldiers changing as they are increasingly drawn into warfare during six months on the frontline, while on the other, a subtler story regarding the psychological effects of watching hostilities unfolds without a discernible moral standpoint. From the altruistic desire to help the locals to an instinctive urge to eliminate as many Taliban as possible, director Janus Metz explores the addictive nature of fighting and why so many of the soldiers opt to return to active duty despite injury and trauma.
Like so many other war narratives, Armadillo starts at the airport with the emotional departure of the soldiers, the hand-held camera and gritty footage an instant clue to a desired sense of authenticity. On site at Armadillo, the cameraman becomes one of the boys as we are hurtled through fields, shot at, and ultimately in the same ditch as the Taliban soldiers executed after a particularly brutal battle, rummaging around blown up bodies in order to retrieve whatever weapons can be found.
We are, then, in the same territory as in The Hurt Locker, a film that markedly aims to ‘explain’ the addictive nature of soldiering in psychological terms, the addictive nature, in other words, of murdering within the context of an institutionalised force. Our sense of the purpose of the documentary itself is shaped by its ability to relatively quickly establish this context, chiefly though the juxtaposition between those soldiers who embrace the necessity to kill with uncomfortable relish and those whose traumatised and glazed expressions post-battle indicate darker and less comprehensible forces are at hand.
Situated on the Helmand frontline, Camp Armadillo becomes, like so many cinematic outposts of soldiering, a curious mixture of infantilised male camaraderie - complete with computer games and the shared viewing of pornography - and rather hollow machismo, as the increasing awareness of the futility of war is repressed. Metz takes the time to show us how emotional attachments are played out on the micro-level of male bonding and in terms of a vaguely defined patriotism. One of the most notable aspects of Armadillo, and the Scandinavian psyche may be partly responsible for this, is the way in which rank seems rather perfunctory, the hierarchy in place based more on experience and age. It is all the more noticeable then that the parameters of the battle in ethical and even practical terms seem oddly makeshift, as though the people in charge were themselves slightly puzzled over what they are doing there. Excursions into enemy territory are explained as forays designed to signal that the coalition has the upper hand, and yet the sense of Armadillo being under siege becomes more palpable as we realise that the local population more or less uniformly wants them to leave.
Some of the more remarkable and telling footage therefore takes place away from the camp, where we get a breather from the official line as presented by the commanders and get to fix our gaze - albeit an uncomfortable one - on the local population. The fact that this gaze is uncomfortable is as it should be - the locals are given cash settlements to cover for the loss of crops, animals and even, one surmises, family members. We sense a certain embarrassment in this, even when the social liaison officer explains to the locals that they have to allow the ‘good’ soldiers to win so they can rebuild local schools and roads. In this respect, Armadillo‘s sense of narrative construction is paramount in establishing what effectively can only be seen as criticism of the war’s raison d’être, but it does so, wisely, in subtle ways. When the climactic moment towards the end of Armadillo reveals that one of the recruits has phoned home with information about the ways in which Taliban soldiers are executed rather than captured, we are left guessing which soldier has retained his sense of moral outlook.
Screened to both politicians and a shocked public upon its hastened release in Denmark, the film was used politically by both right- and left-wing forces to alternately prove the futility of the war or the heroism of the soldiers. Metz clearly wants the film to situate itself between both positions, a stance that many will see as lacking the male body parts that the soldiers reference in nearly every scene. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of the film’s construction, and in particular the haunting and evocative soundtrack by Uno Helmersson, one of the best I’ve ever heard in a documentary and eerily reminiscent of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog’s best work, does a great deal to add a lyrical quality to the proceedings and thus paradoxically ensures that we feel both a sense of pathos and melodrama throughout. At one point, we see the soldiers in a moment of respite, playing with their motorcycles like boys let loose on a playing field; at another, a group of soldiers, their naked torsos marked by both scars and muscles, leap into the Helmand river, reminding us of the fact that these men are boys first and foremost.
If one wants Armadillo to clarify the moral ramifications of engagement both in terms of embedded journalism, a fact that Metz himself has drawn attention to in interviews, or in terms of whether Western troops should be there in the first place, then the film refuses to deliver. But as a remarkably exciting, and I would say insightful, reminder of what happens when nations send boys off to fight, this documentary tells a gripping, and sadly still topical, tale.
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