Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe—V-E Day—so this seems like a good occasion to mention a few WWII-themed films I’ve seen over the past several months. The most recent one is Suite Française, by English director Saul Dibb, which is, as one may expect, the cinematic adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s best-selling, unfinished novel, whose rediscovery and 2004 publication in France caused a minor literary sensation. The story begins with the German advance on Paris in June 1940 and the flight of its population, here to the fictive town of Bussy, with the rest of the movie about the protags—the mid 20ish Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is in the army, her widow mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the (cultivated) German lieutenant (Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts) who is billeted in their bourgeois home—and what happens between them and in Bussy more generally. Reviews of the film in the Paris press were good to terrible—averaging out to mediocre—but Allociné spectateurs overall appreciated it far more, as it’s definitely a movie for the masses. As Variety’s critic put it, the pic is a “handsomely crafted, sincerely performed wartime weeper.” And in this vein, Screen Daily’s critic wrote that it “ticks all the right boxes as a classy literary adaptation, favouring a heightened sense of soap opera romance over gritty drama.” A tad schlocky? Maybe, but I side with the masses, as I found it generally well-done and entertaining—if one doesn’t mind seeing a Wehrmacht officer portrayed sympathetically—and with some positive facets, e.g. the decor of the period and depiction of the behavior of the population under occupation—toward the Germans and among themselves—which ran the gamut, from collaboration, anonymous délation, and egotistical chacun pour soi to resistance, passive and active, though with just about everyone hating the Germans for the mere fact that they were there, occupying their country, and because French people, for comprehensible historical reasons, were hard-wired Germanophobes. The German soldiers in the town are shown behaving more or less civilly toward the population, which was indeed the case in the early phase of the occupation, though was short-lived. As for negative aspects of the film, the main one, for me at least, is that it’s in English. I would have preferred to see it in V.F. I haven’t read the novel but know that the film generally adheres to the story, except for the ending, where director and co-screenwriter Dibb took liberties. Cinesnobs will turn their collective nose up at the pic but for everyone else, it may be seen. Trailer is here.
Briefly, on the other films:
Fury, directed by David Ayer, who normally does cop flicks (among them, the very good End of Watch). A Hollywood grand spectacle set in the furious final month of the war in the European theater—of the US Army’s push into Germany’s heartland, where it met fierce resistance—the pic’s story is of a fireteam led by the intrepid, tough-as-nails Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), which takes on whole Wehrmacht companies from the top of a Sherman tank. The kill ratio of Sgt Wardaddy and his men looks to be on the order of 80 to 1. It’s a classic war movie and with the whole range of characters: e.g. the Bible-reading nerd (Shia LaBeouf), hillbilly whack-job (Jon Bernthal), and heavy-drinking Chicano (Michael Pena). Not totally original but, as far as war movies go, is pretty good, or so I thought. It may definitely be seen. The reviews by the LAT’s Kenneth Turan and THR’s Todd McCarthy get it right, IMO. Trailer is here.
Phoenix, by German director Christian Petzold, whose previous film was the excellent 2012 Barbara. I saw this one at Paris’s Festival du Cinéma Allemand last October, where it won the audience coup de cœur award (I voted for another). It’s set in devastated Berlin just after the end of the war, with the protag, Nelly (played by Petzhold’s fetish actress Nina Hoss), a German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz—the only one in her family—whose face was seriously disfigured at the end of her captivity, so underwent plastic surgery, which did not entirely restore her previous looks. Everyone—including her German Aryan husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)—thinks she’s dead, except for Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) from the Jewish Agency, who is pressing her to emigrate to Palestine. But Nelly, who was a cabaret singer in Berlin until her arrest and deportation, wants her Johnny—a piano player, whom she finds in the Berlin nightclub, called Phoenix, where they had worked together—not only because she still loves him but needs to find out the truth of what he may have known about her denunciation to the Gestapo, which Lene insists to her (as to what happens: no spoilers). But as her face has been altered, he doesn’t recognize her, so she begins a charade with him. It’s film noir-ish and Hitchcockian, as more than one critic has opined. Reviews in the Hollywood press were dithyrambic (here, here, and here), as they were in France, though a few (e.g. here) found the story overly implausible and could not suspend disbelief. Chacun son appréciation. I’m somewhere in between. Trailer is here.
Wolfskinder, by Rick Ostermann. I also saw this at last October’s German film festival. It’s set in summer 1946 in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, with its subject the little-known tragedy there of the “wolf children”: German children, some 25,000 in number, who were orphaned or separated from their parents at the end of the war, left to fend for themselves in the forests, where they foraged for food (and stole from farms) and lived in permanent fear of Red Army soldiers, who shot them on sight. Many of the children died—of hunger, illness, or exposure—or were killed. Some were taken in and clandestinely adopted by Lithuanian farm families, with the rest eventually deported to orphanages in East Germany (the Soviets entirely cleansing East Prussia of its remaining Germans after the war). The film follows the saga of several children, with the principal characters two brothers, Hans and Fritzchen, age 14 and 11. It’s a well-done film but tough to watch. How adults can be so cruel and devoid of humanity toward children is beyond my comprehension. Reviews by Hollywood critics who saw it at the Venice film festival are here and here. Trailer is here.
Run Boy Run, by German director Pepe Danquart (en France: Cours sans te retourner). This is another film about children during the war—specifically one child, aged 8 to 10—and the cruelty, when not sadism, of adults. It reenacts the true story of Yoram Israel Friedman (here, here, here, and here)—Srulik in the film, played by the talented Polish child actor Andrzej Tkacz—who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where his family was killed or later exterminated in Treblinka, and spent two years hiding from the Germans in the forests, seeking food and shelter from Polish farm families—concealing his Jewish identity with his life—who alternately treated him with kindness, circumspection, or meanness. Delivered to the Gestapo by venal Polish peasants, he miraculously managed to escape back into the forest, lost his right arm along the way, but survived the war, after which he was taken by the Jewish Agency to Palestine. The story is almost unbelievable but it did indeed happen. Like ‘Wolfskinder’ it’s a tough film to watch but is gripping and well-done, though Variety’s critic, in a lukewarm review, opined that while “[a] natural for Jewish viewers and older arthouse-goers, ‘Run Boy Run’ feels too old-fashioned and by-the-numbers for a wider audience.” I guess I’m one of those older arthouse-goers. Trailer is here.
In Darkness, by Polish director Agnieszka Holland (en France: Sous la ville). This one, which came out in 2011, I saw last year on DVD. It’s another Holocaust true story, of two dozen Jews in the Lvov ghetto who hid from the Nazis for over a year, in 1943-44, in the sewers of the city, protected by a Polish sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (played by Robert Więckiewicz), who was no philosemite and whose initial motivations were purely monetary gain, but ended up bonding with those whose lives depended on his good will, and at great danger to his own life and that of his family. The heroism of Socha and his wife, Magdalena, earned them Yad Vashem’s status of Righteous Among Nations. It’s a good movie but, like those above—and all Holocaust movies—does not make for enjoyable watching. Again, the reviews by Kenneth Turan and Todd McCarthy are on the mark. Trailer is here.