Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) (1990)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (AKA: Europa Europa) – 1990

Director – Agnieszka Holland

Starring – Marco Hofschneider, Julie Delpy, and Solomon Perel

What’s more uplifting than a story of a young Jewish boy lasting out the war by imitating those who want him dead?  Apparently, it’s that exact same story plus the lusty escapades of a hormone addled teen movie tossed in for fun.  It’s the lighter side of the Nazi fueled war machine!

Like I said already, as far as Jewish survival stories set during World-War II go, this one was surprisingly lusty and light.  Though the main character, Salomon’s, journey is a difficult one, it was oddly punctuated by sexual encounters, camaraderie with those who want him dead, and seemingly, the joys of growing up.  Also, oddly enough, deep in the heart of Nazi, Germany, this young interloper manages to find a surprising number of sympathetic people who help him along the way.  One or even two instances along these lines seem plausible, human nature even, but as many lucky breaks as young Solomon gets during the length of the movie skews the film into the realm of the surreal, and removes from it, some of the danger that other films such as Schindler’s List, and The Pianist seem to exude from their very pores.

While that fact doesn’t make it a bad film, as such, it definitely makes it unique.  An oddity even.  Seeing it now, through the lens of history, makes the film seem somewhat in-authentic.  A farce dressed in the clothes of history.  If dramatized reality has taught me anything, it’s that people who are/were Nazis weren’t really people, clearly they were actually just murderous machines, blindly spewing rhetoric and hate (sarcasm).  I realize of course that the film is a biographical one, and tells the actual story of a very real Salomon Perel, it is just a novel thing to see a film that doesn’t completely demonize Nazi’s, and in many ways treats them as people too, and some of them are worth our pity.

Though it served to lessen the overall impact of the horrors of war in general, and the holocaust in particular, this general humanity that was  bestowed upon the antagonists was indeed a refreshing change from the usual.  Not only does our main character struggle with feelings of fear, jealousy, lust, and love, but so do the people who condemn him so, and it’s not only limited to the Germans.  We see the human side of the whole of eastern Europe, with realistic portraits of Poles, and Russians as well as the Germans who Salomon encounters on his path through the war.

Being a young man at the age where hormones threaten to take control of the thought processes, Salomon indulges himself quite a bit in some pretty shockingly dangerous ways, some of which threaten his safety, others of which are the only things keeping him alive.  One of his amorous encounters with an instructor in the Hitler youth, has him (a Jew) being compared loudly, and often, in a sexual way to the “fuhrer” himself (the accuser of Jews).  This film was never one I’d talked about, or read on during film school, so I’m not sure if I am to infer this comparison to mean that even Hitler is/was a human being, or if it was relying solely on the irony of the situation to inject humor, and a sense of heightened stakes into the situation.  I like the idea that this film might have been making a bold statement, so I choose to believe that it humanizes everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, at no point do I think that the actions of the Nazi party, or of Adoph Hitler deserve a pass, or even a re-evaluation.  I don’t.  All I’m saying is that the only path forward from a wound as great as the Holocaust is acceptance and ultimately forgiveness.  I was surprised to find that forgiveness in this film along side the anger, fear, joy, and sadness that every human is capable of.

So, Europa, Europa wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I started it, and looking at it objectively, I would say it doesn’t have as much impact as the Schindler’s Lists or The Pianists, or even something as singular of purpose as the incomparable, Inglourious Basterds.  Still, the tale of Salomon Perel is one that seeks to open the eyes, as well as the mind.  It chooses a different formula through which to process this history, deal with it, and ultimately heal both the physical as well as psychological wounds left on the soul of a people by the holocaust.  Like I said, it is not the most effective, it’s not even my favorite, but it’s a new take on the same old story we’re used to.  Not just a tale of one survivor, but of many, and that is why it made it on this list.

The Haunting (1963)

 Thehaunting1963

The Haunting – 1963

Director – Robert Wise

Starring – Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn

The Robert Wise production of The Haunting suffers slightly from the fact that I saw the shitty 1999 remake first, and unfortunately it never really recovers.

Based on the short story by Shirley Jackson, the Haunting is a good example of the 1960’s horror film.  It is far enough away from the 50’s to avoid giant monsters, and a cliched premise, but it is still too far from the late 70’s and early 80’s when gore was in vogue.  By comparison, it manages a certain legitimacy that movies in either of the other two camps aren’t afforded.  The scares are based around tension rather than gross-outs or horrible creatures, which makes the film seem all that much more grown up. 

Julie Harris, stars as Eleanor, the troubled, put-upon woman who is perhaps a little sensitive to the paranormal.  She, and a few others, are the guest of Dr. Markway, a scientist interested in the spiritial disturbances that have taken place for decades at Hill House, a mess of corridors and rooms with a lonely and bitter past.  The presence of these newcomers (two of whom are sensitive to the otherworldly happenings), awakens the angry spirits in the house and causes them to run amok.

While the set up of each version of the film (the original and the remake) are the same up to this point, the remake diverges at this point and as the characters start dying.  So, having seen the latter version, I was waiting for the original version to start killing off our main characters.  I was waiting for the caretaker and his wife to turn up dead (like in The Others, another movie with a similar plot), once Markway’s wife showed up, I was waiting for her to die.  The point was, I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Despite the fact that I thought the newer version was dumber, with inferior acting, and pacing, I was a little let down by the lack of death, or at least the lack of percieved danger.  This version seemed tame.  Not that tame is bad, but this seemed like it was missing a scene or two, or maybe even a whole act.  The conflict of our main character (her guilt about how her own mother died) is never fully realized, and ultimately doesn’t seem a good enough reason for her to be so introspective, and awkward.  Without the realization of threat of the spirits manipulation of Eleanor’s neediness, and fear, the motivation for what happens is not fully believable, and ultimately rings false.

Despite my disappointment, The Haunting has a number of very effective scenes, the most notable of which is the scene in which Eleanor wakes up to the sound of the ghost stomping around outside her room.  She grabs hold of the hand of who she believes is her roommate (the at times aggrivating, at times compassionate Theo played by Claire Bloom), only to find out after the moment has passed that she was much to far away for it to have been her.  Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks) has a few funny lines and is generally the best character whenever he’s on screen.

One other thing that was a bit of a disappointment to me, was the inside of the house.  It is supposed to be this awesome, fearful place, that is completely it’s own character.  It wasn’t that so much.  All I saw of it was a jumbled grouping of dark walls that didn’t convey a mood or tone.  Also I didn’t really have a sense of where in the house the characters were.  There seemed to be no main room, no kitchen, no logical layout, it was all bedrooms, and stairs.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabeMrsMiller

McCabe and Mrs. Miller – 1971

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

So we come to yet another Robert Altman movie. This time Altman subverts the western genre, transforming a series of characters from cookie cutter black and whites into more realistic grays and earth tones. Warren Beatty plays the McCabe of the title, arriving in a new frontier town in the Pacific Northwest with his sights set on jump starting the gambling and whore house industries. His reputation in town precedes him as the bartender bolsters his reputation by telling stories of his “gunfighting past” (it’s not revealed till later whether or not this account of his past is rumor or authentic). The town folk, rapt with attention, line up to hear his stories, play poker with him, and to sample his wares. His operation is going well, and McCabe grows more and more full of himself until Mrs. Miller, another entrepreneur new arrival in town, shoots holes in his rather short-sighted and limited plans.

She knows the true potential for this sort of business in town, and more importantly she knows how to run it. She convinces McCabe to put up the cash and soon enough they are in business. Together, their business flourishes as does the rather one sided affection that McCabe feels for Miller. Her desire to legitimize the spot she has cut out for herself, serves as a blockade to McCabe’s attempts to sweep her off of her feet. The greater their success, the more amorous he tries to be, and the more distant she becomes.

When a large conglomerate business makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to purchase the business, McCabe refuses in a bluff, attempting to squeeze a larger sum from the buyers. Mrs. Miller knows how ruthless these men can be, and does what she can to warn McCabe of the danger of playing with fire. Beatty’s “gunslinger” is full of the glory of his own legend, claims to know how to play the game. Unlike the rest of the townsfolk however, Mrs. Miller can see right through his posturing.

Altman’s tendency to turn archetypes on their heads, results in McCabe having the ego and confidence of a Hollywood cowboy, but without the skills or experience to back it up. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but up until now he’s been lucky. Despite her addiction to opium, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller can see that plain as day, and resigns herself to what is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. What follows at the end of the film is brutish and inevitable.

When the shunned offer results in the conglomerate company sending a couple of fearsome, hired guns to forcibly relieve McCabe of his enterprise, his pomp and ego turns into bargaining and cowardice. The three men sent to kill McCabe are a scary bunch of outlaws who seem to fear nothing, or no-one. They run roughshod over the town, and the townspeople, taking what they want and killing indiscriminately. Rather than stepping out on the street and having a showdown, Altman’s characters fight it out like they would in real life, by hiding and through ambush. The bad guys fight dirty, and in order to stay alive, the good guys have to fight dirty too.

Altman’s change of venue from the arid southwest of the United States, to the chilly and bleak northwest provides just the right tone for the film. Bleak and foreboding, harsh and unforgiving. Altman had his cinematographer purposefully flash expose the film to light before developing to get that hazy 1800’s photo quality. Before learning this, I thought it was a bad transfer on my DVD, and it annoyed me to no end. Just like each of his other movies, I grew to appreciate it. While I never ended up loving how it looked, I could at least appreciate that the film itself was used as a tool through which the story was being told. Altman isn’t necessarily afraid of making the finished look of the film weathered and used, if it helps along the story.

The town’s sets in this movie, reminded me a lot of the apartment complex set from Rear Window. At first the flood of visual information seems overwhelming, but as the story progresses and the sets are used again and again, we become at home in them. They start to take on a reality, a three dimensionality, and a familiarity, that transcends the 2 hours or so that we inhabit them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is still standing somewhere (I guess I actually would be surprised, but the feeling of it being a real functioning place is no less diminished for it being gone in today’s world.)

Like each of Altman’s films that I’ve seen (and I suspect the ones I haven’t seen as well), The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short-Cuts, and M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a product made up of carefully laid out elements that form the cohesive whole. Film stock, film-developing, editing, direction, acting, sets, and costumes all work with one another towards a common goal. I started out not liking this movie, ready to write it off as a dud, but as I kept watching, I felt more invested in this little nook of the world. I felt like I grew with each of the characters as they went through the story.