Land of Mine film review

March 30, 2017

(This film review of Land of Mine appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 30 March 2017.)

Written and directed by Martin Zandvliet

The title of the Danish-German film “Land of Mine” (“Under Sandet”) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm the land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark. Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant (Roland Møller) who is filled with rage against the Germans.  Although there are no Jewish characters or themes in “Land of Mine”, this powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished because of the actions by Nazi state, and how? Møller wonderfully portrays the emotional journey of his character, giving the film a strong and satisfying emotional development.

“Land of Mine” is not a fanciful story: it happened. The Germans laid almost two million mines along the Danish coastline. The process of clearing them took more than five months, reportedly killing more people than the five-year German occupation of that country. More than 2,000 German prisoners were forced to undertake mine removal, and about half of them died or suffered serious injuries: the film does not shy away from these injuries (viewers be warned). Because forcing prisoners to undertake such work contravenes the Geneva Convention, this era in history remains a shameful one for Denmark – although it’s just that theme that attracted Danish writer/director Martin Zandvliet to the subject. Zandvliet credits Jewish documentary film directors (and brothers) David and Albert Maysels (“Gimme Shelter”, “Grey Gardens”) as his inspiration: “The way the Maysels brothers filmed their subjects was so vulnerable and sensuous that you could not help feeling the presence of their characters.”

“Land of Mine” was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to the Iranian film “The Salesman”. In a different year, “Land of Mine” could easily have won the Oscar. The film premiered in Australia at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, where it was one of the Festival’s most popular.


Allied film review

January 6, 2017

(This film review of “Allied” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 January 2017.)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Steven Knight; starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Jared Harris and Simon McBurney

Wars are great for the movie business.  And there’s nothing like battling the Nazis to engage us even now, more than 70 years later: rarely has the world seemed so well divided into good and evil as it did then. The new film “Allied” brings one of the most powerful heroic war themes to the big screen – allied agents operating behind enemy lines.

“Allied” opens with a lone parachutist landing in the desert, with the short screen caption, “French Morocco 1942”.  The parachutist is Canadian Air Force Intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), there on a secret mission to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca.  He teams up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (French actress Marion Cotillard), as they pretend to be husband and wife, and operate in open society, he as a supposed chemical businessman from Paris. Danger arises in that Max’s reasonably fluent French (part of the film neatly uses subtitles and original languages) is hampered by his Quebecois accent, which will mark him out as an imposter to anyone actually from Paris.

At the time, Casablanca was governed by Vichy France (the Allies captured it in late 1942), and the film’s early scenes lovingly depict the architecture, culture and politics of that long-ago North African city.  At Marianne’s insistence, Max sleeps on the roof, because “that’s what men in Casablanca do” after making love with their wives.  Max and Marianne prove to be a powerful and successful team, leading Max to propose marriage.

The action of “Allied” then shifts to blitz-ravaged London, where Marianne eventually joins Max and they have a daughter, born during a massive air-raid in a hospital courtyard.  The film’s nasty plot twist – a spoiler that any viewing of the film’s trailer will tell you – involves the allegation that Marianne is a double agent.  If she is, Max must “follow the protocol” of intimate relationships and kill her, an “is she or isn’t she?” question with profound consequences that tears at the myths of wartime heroism. Thus the film’s title “Allied” operates with a double and possibly triple meaning.

The production values of “Allied” are definitely “big screen” (this is a film worth viewing in the cinema), with director Robert Zemeckis neatly blending special effects into the convincing action, working with cinematographer Don Burgess.  Although the result is not as exciting as their “Forrest Gump” collaboration, it is state-of-the-art Hollywood professionalism. Notable scenes include Marianne and Max’s mutual seduction in a car stuck in a sandstorm, and the London bombings.

In the lead roles, both Pitt and Cotillard do a fine job, with an excellent supporting cast that includes American Jewish actress Lizzy Caplan as Max’s sister, and a great set of supporting British actors including Jared Harris (son of Richard) and Simon McBurney. This is Brad Pitt’s third World War Two heroic outing: he played a tank commander in “Fury” (2014) and the head of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge squad in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).

“Allied” consciously references its famous forebear “Casablanca”, the 1942 Oscar-winning film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with specific references to the importance of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”.  “Allied” maintains “Casablanca’s” themes of self-sacrifice and heroism set against the wartime effort, but turns the plot in psychological Hitchcockian ways.

*****

If you have a taste for war dramas, Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent “Hacksaw Ridge” – a multi-award winner at last month’s Australian Film Institute’s “AACTA” ceremony – is currently playing in Australian cinemas.  Also opening later this year are two true stories:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, how the director of the Warsaw Zoo saved more than 300 Jews from the Nazis; and “HHhH”, from the Laurent Binet novel, recounting the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

“Allied” is currently screening in Australian cinemas.

allied2(above: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in “Allied”)


Symposium on “A Serious Man”

January 15, 2012

Academic journals are not necessarily known for their readable coverage of popular film.  As a long-time Jewish film critic, I follow the discussions about popular Jewish film. And here’s one worth looking out for (although you will need access to the resources of an academic library, unfortunately, to see this):  the symposium on the Coen brothers 2009 film A Serious Man, in the November 2011 (volume 35, number 2) issue of the AJS Review (Association for Jewish Studies), taken from the December 2010 AJS conference session on the topic. Good articles by:

–          Jeffrey Shandler (Rutgers University) analysing the Jewish and Yiddish elements of the film;

–          Shai Ginsburg (Duke University) looking at the film from the perspective of modern physics (Schrodinger’s Cat);

–          Riv-Ellen Prell (University of Minnesota) examining the verisimilitude (or not) of the setting – the Jewish suburb of St Louis Park in Minneapolis; and

–          Jonathan Boyarin (University of North Carolina) and Ariella Lang (Columbia University).

Strong writing, fascinating analysis – I particularly loved Prell’s piece about Jewish Minnesota.  Worthwhile for fans of Jewish film.

Watch the trailer here:


Inglourious Basterds film review

August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds, the new film directed by Quentin Tarantino, has just opened in Australia.  It’s long (2 hours, 33 minutes), messy, bloody, loud and frequently hilarious.  This is Tarantino does World War II.

Basic setting:  a group of Jewish-American soldiers become Nazi hunters around occupied France, led by hillbilly Brad Pitt.  A weird set-up.  Lest you think this is a Jewish-American revenge film, none of the Jewish soldiers approach anything like three dimensional characters, all remaining cardboard cut-outs.

The real action surrounds an SS officer who is hunting Jews:  Colonel Hans Landa (played by Austrian actor Christopher Waltz, the best thing in this film), who speaks a fluent German, French, English and Italian – all to devastating effect.

The first scene – where Landa arrives at a French farmhouse looking for hidden Jews – is a classic of suspense and horror.  The only thing which keeps us removed from the horror is that we have not met – and therefore have no emotional attachment to – the Jews Landa is looking for.  Brilliantly written, acted and directed.

The film is full of extraordinary scenes like this, including Tarantino’s signature “Mexican stand-off”, which takes place in an underground French cafe.

Aside from Waltz, the great parts of this film:

– The language, well more than 50% not in English, mostly in German and French.  When the characters should be speaking German, they do.  When they should be speaking French, they do.  There is only one exception to this (in the first scene), which is both comical and horrifying – and surely that’s exactly what Tarantino meant it to be.

– The beautiful French actress, Melanie Laurent, who plays a Jewish survivor and comes back to play a major role in the final scene.  Also the wonderful references to pre-war (and Nazi period) German film, as only a film aficionado could do it.  Emil Jannings appears, as do others.

– The “film within a film”, a Nazi propaganda film, apparently based on a real event.  Daniel Bruhl plays the “hero”, and Bruhl is great.  We previously saw him in Goodbye Lenin and Ladies in Lavender.

Great scenes, but for me the whole film does not add up to being greater than the sum of its individual parts, and left me un-moved.  Entertaining to be sure.  Better than I expected, given the subject matter.  But way less than great.  I predict this will remain an oddity, even though it opened strongly in Australia (number one in the box office against a very weak field).

Trivia note:  Wikipedia reports that Cloris Leachman was also cast as a “Mrs. Himmelstein”, an elderly Jewish woman living in Boston.  “Although filmed, the scenes featuring Mrs. Himmelstein drinking tea with Donny Donowitz (and signing his trademark baseball bat afterwards) were cut from the final film.”

Postscript:  Click here to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interesting article on Inglourious Basterds, entitled “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger”, from The Atlantic, September 2009.