Tag Archives: Second World War

Stones for the Rampart (Kamienie na szaniec, Poland 2014)

The 'Grey Scouts' attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

The ‘Grey Scouts’ attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

Unlike several other recent mainstream Polish films in the UK that have been released ‘on date’ with Warsaw, Stones for the Rampart had to wait over a year after its Polish release. An adaptation from a 1943 ‘patriotic novel’, the film directed by Robert Glinski offers a story about older teenagers who are members of a clandestine Scout troop known in English as the ‘Grey Ranks’. Worried by the possibility that the boys’ actions against the Nazi occupiers of Warsaw might create more trouble than it is worth, a group of the Scouts are recruited into the ‘Home Army’ – the official Polish resistance. There are a number of links/categories that this film brings to mind and, although it is clearly a very specific context, it does reveal generic features. The most obvious link is to Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war-time films produced in the 1950s and in particular the first part A Generation (1955). This too was based on a novel about teenage resistance fighters in Warsaw (with Roman Polanski as one of the younger boys). The new film also relates to Hollywood’s attempts to enable familiar genre films to appeal to younger audiences through stories featuring younger versions of generic characters, e.g. in films like the Westerns Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns 2 (1990). Finally we might consider this Polish film as another example of European film industries re-visiting the Second World War and national myths about resistance to occupation (or in the German case, resistance to Nazi ideologies such as in Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005)).

Probably the first point to note is that in re-visiting the resistance struggle in Warsaw, contemporary filmmakers are working in a very different context to Wajda in in the 1950s. They are not under any pressure to highlight the importance of the communist resistance groups – indeed they may feel pressurised not to mention them. I confess that I do not have the historical knowledge about the Polish resistance in Warsaw to know when the communist resistance becomes important. The Home Army with its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile in London was certainly the much larger force and I didn’t register any direct references to communist activity. The sensitivity of these issues makes it very difficult for non-Polish speakers to decode all the subtitled dialogue and written texts shown in the film. I’m not surprised therefore to discover what seem to be very negative comments about this film. In the review in the Polish version of Newsweek, Michał Wachnicki lambasts the film for poor dialogue and lack of realism. Google Translate itself offers only a rough approximation of Wachnicki’s arguments but he seems to be quoting Hollywood films such as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket as successful war films. I would have thought that a film like Rossellini’s Rome Open City would have been a better benchmark. By contrast, the most positive English language review is from an American priest. Father Dennis Zdenek Kriz from Chicago suggests that the film offers important moral questions about the sacrifice of young lives in a just cause.

What do I make of all this without the language and cultural historical knowledge? The young people depicted are on the whole middle-class with all the resources that implies. The air of ‘amateurish’ resistance is contrasted with the brutality of the Nazi occupiers towards the working-class people on the street who are randomly executed in retaliation. In some ways the film is quite ‘realist’ in showing credible psychological reactions to events – the ending of the film is poignant in the confrontation between a young German soldier and an equally inexperienced ‘scout leader’/student. The complex relationship between the Home Army leadership, the scout troop and the other more isolated ‘agents’ (including the parents of the boys who have roles their children don’t know about) isn’t perhaps as clear as it might be. What is clear, however, is that the Home Army is a much more substantial force in 1943 than the resistance in many other Nazi-occupied countries. The inclusion in the narrative of the relationships between the young men of the scouts and their girlfriends is potentially problematic and this is perhaps where I feel most inadequate to deal with the dialogue.

I’m glad I saw this film and I wish it had found a wider audience in the UK. As far as I know it has only been seen at selected Cineworld cinemas. It is certainly an interesting addition to the increasingly large collection of WWII stories of resistance.

Trailer (no English subs):

Rossellini #2: Paisà (Italy 1946)

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisa.

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisà.

This is another earlier set of notes from 2006, now slightly updated during current work on Rossellini.

The second of Rossellini’s post-war films, Paisà (‘countryman’) is often quoted as the film that comes closest to the neo-realist ideal that Rossellini himself described some years later. If neo-realism was concerned with ‘finding’ stories in the world rather than imposing a fictional narrative on a location, then surely Paisà is that film. Equally, it meets the criterion of a film that refuses to be an ‘entertainment’ and speaks directly to the memory of the recent past. As the Taviani Brothers, filmmakers themselves who were inspired by Rossellini when they saw the film in 1946 as teenagers, have commented: “It presented what we had just experienced, but now we understood that experience through the presentation on the screen”.

Paisà tells the story of the Allied (here, very much the American) advance through Italy, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fighting in the North in the winter of 1944, and their interaction in each episode with the partisans and ordinary Italians. Different characters appear in each of six separate episodes – there is no possibility of us identifying with an individual American hero who ‘makes it through’ (or indeed with a British squad like that in The Way Ahead, UK 1944) to a triumphant conclusion with a German defeat.

The story derives, in Rossellini’s terms, from the concrete reality of the situation and the approach he takes to the production supports this aim. The six episodes are intercut with actual newsreel footage, titles and voiceover in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish ‘real’ from staged footage. The Americans in the film are professional actors (but not ‘stars’), but many of the Italians are played by local people in the ‘real’ locations which Rossellini uses whenever possible. In the final episode, the incidents are based on events recounted by the ‘real’ partisans. The bleak ending of the film would not be possible in a Hollywood film, but for Rossellini it is not the end of the ‘story’. As Bondanella (1993) points out, for Rossellini the ‘reality’ is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity as understood in Christian philosophy. When the film begins, the Americans and the Italians are clearly unknown to each other, but the experiences they have through the course of the narrative prove their humanity and the development of their understanding. Pierre Sorlin suggests that:

Paisà might be considered as a history film – but it is a history not told from without by a historian trying to clarify the issue. It is the subjective, intuitive vision of an Italian who thanks the Allies for their support and condemns them for having taken so much time and let so many Italians be killed. Open City asserts the cohesion of the Roman population, Paisà wonders what has been left of Italy after two years of war. (Sorlin 1996: 101)

Sorlin’s comments prompt some consideration of the British characters in Episodes IV and VI, who seem (at least the military, not Harriet) to be ineffectual and arrogant. This may just be Rossellini recognising that the Americans were paying for the film.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

Episode IV and Episode VI feature the use of Rossellini’s ‘long shot, long take’ approach to action. The argument in favour of the long take and the long shot is clearly demonstrated in the production still above. We are presented with a series of long takes in which the action unfolds, often in relatively long shot. The scenes are carefully orchestrated to flow almost seamlessly. Although there is clearly a ‘leader’ (the American officer), we are not invited to adopt his viewpoint. When mid-shots or medium close-ups are used, they pick out particular narrative incidents rather than develop individual characters. Most of all, the camera is used to create for us the viewpoint of the partisans who live in this unique environment. As André Bazin writes:

. . . the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions exposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon (Bazin 1971:37) )

Robin Wood (1980) makes some important observations which place the analysis of style and content in Paisà in context. He reminds us that what distinguishes Rossellini is his refusal to make a ‘well-made film’ and that his placing of the camera is governed by a desire to reveal the actions of characters and their consequences. Comparing the final episode of Paisà with the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, he comes down on the side of Rossellini who, unlike Eisenstein is not producing a film from a position of having triumphed in the Revolution. Instead, Rossellini’s camera suggests: . . . “total instability, the sense of a world where nothing is certain except ultimate desolation, physical and emotional, a world of random and casual cruelty . . . “ (Wood 1980: 889) In other episodes, especially the one with the MP and the boy, Wood sees Rossellini as undermining our expectations of conventional stories with familiar ‘types’ and predictable outcomes, “leaving us in every case, not only without complacency, but without hope”.

Paisà was, not surprisingly, shunned by popular audiences in Italy at the time, but does it work now to bring home the horrors of war and the capacity for human suffering? We could argue that Paisà was the ultimate achievement of Rossellini’s neo-realist approach. Its episodic structure, long shot compositions and avoidance of star performances focuses absolutely on the concept of liberation won by partisans and soldiers en masse.

References

André Bazin (1971) ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ in What is Cinema?, Vol. II (originally published in Esprit, January 1948), Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: CUP

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

Roy Stafford 20/5/06

Cross of Iron (UK/West Germany 1977)

Senta Berger and James Coburn (Grab from DVD Beaver)

Researching anti-war films for an event, I remembered Cross of Iron. Unfortunately, the current DVD from StudioCanal doesn’t have any of the extras which come with Sam Peckinpah’s Hollywood Westerns – but we do now have several books on Peckinpah that fill in some of the background to the production. The Region 2 DVD is the full length version, the equivalent of 132 mins in the cinema. I think the film was shorter on its original US cinema release. (There is now a Blu-ray disc that does have extras.)

Cross of Iron is a war combat picture set during the German retreat from the Crimea in 1943. It is most definitely not a ‘Hollywood’ film. The production was backed by the final survivor of the UK studio system, EMI, and the package was put together by a German independent producer whose background was in soft porn films. He had little experience of what was intended as a $4 million war film to be shot in Yugoslavia and post-produced at EMI studios in Elstree. Since Peckinpah was by this stage seriously out of control on cocaine and booze and the German producer didn’t have enough money to pay for all the necessary props, the whole thing should have been a disaster. Fortunately the outline story of the book on which the script was based (by Willi Heinrich, published in 1956) was one that Sam could identify with and he became fascinated by the archive footage used in German and Russian propaganda films that he found in Koblenz and London. The opening credits sequence which utilised these archive findings is as good as any of those in Peckinpah’s more famous films. Perhaps only Saul Bass was as good at creating credit sequences as Peckinpah. Bass used graphics, but Sam used editing. Peckinpah followers will recognise the use of children in the credits montage – much as in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

As far as I can see the film extends far beyond the scope of the novel. The Hollywood screenwriter Julius Epstein (of Casablanca fame) was first attached to the project, but Peckinpah managed to ditch him and conducted a complete re-write with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, two men with wartime experience. The plot of the film is straightforward, focusing on a single Wehrmacht company that is gradually destroyed as the Russians advance. There are several set piece battles in which Peckinpah’s crew attempt to represent major engagements using military equipment (and presumably extras) from the Yugoslav forces. But the real drama is the interplay between Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) and his men and with the three officers played by James Mason, David Warner and Maximilian Schell. Mason plays an old style Prussian Army colonel, Warner (in his third Peckinpah role) plays a seemingly anachronistic cynical/philosophical captain, perpetually drunk. Steiner is a professional soldier who has won the Iron Cross, saving his colonel (Mason). He is now devoted to his men but otherwise alienated from the army. Captain Kransky (Schell) is a Prussian aristocrat, recently transferred from France, who seeks an Iron Cross because his family honour expects it – but Kransky is a coward. Combat is thus as much between Steiner and Kransky as between the Russians and the Germans. The Russians are largely a faceless enemy appearing in great numbers, but first a young boy soldier and then a group of female soldiers are captured by Steiner’s men. These encounters ‘humanise’ the enemy – but they also both end badly and the representation of the women helped to fuel the debate about Peckinpah’s alleged misogyny. I think it likely that the producer insisted on both the Russian women and the bedroom scene with Senta Berger who plays a nurse looking after Steiner in an army hospital. Even so, I suspect Peckinpah wasn’t too unhappy to include the scenes.

What is most interesting for me is the range of responses to the film. I’m relying for background detail on David Weddle’s 1996 book (If They Move . . . Kill’ Em). He tells us that the film flopped badly in the UK and the US, but that it was one of the most successful films of its period in Germany and Austria and generally did well on the international market. I was surprised to find that despite its initial problems, the film now has American fans – its IMDB rating is 7.5. Even so there are many detractors and even some of the Peckinpah scholars seem to call the film wrongly. Several critics refer to this as a film which either depicts ‘Nazi soldiers’ or which ‘de-Nazifies’ the Germans by making the enemy Soviet Communists in a Cold War film. Several US blog posts are just completely wrong in their observations. One I read suggested that “Schell is one of the few German actors in the film”. In fact the entire squad, apart from Steiner and the officers is peopled by quite well-known German actors, helping to explain perhaps why, along with the casting of Schell and Berger, German audiences so took to the film. The same blogger (and many other commentators) see Mason as personifying a ‘good German’ as if this was simply a cliché or something reprehensible. There are few ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters as such apart from Captain Kransky. You could argue that Peckinpah helped to revise the Western by trying to present characters who have been brutalised by experience of violence in as humanistic a way as possible.

I did actually stumble across a neo-Nazi website which validated the film, but which called it a ‘Marxist’ representation of German history. Peckinpah’s politics were quite complex as far as I can see, but he wasn’t a Marxist – nor were his writers as far as I know. But Peckinpah is perhaps a combination of liberal and anarchist. The Peckinpah character here is Steiner who hates the army, officers in particular and his own government. His enemy, Kransky, is an aristocrat. The other officers are professional soldiers. There is only one Nazi amongst the soldiers and he is exposed and then tolerated. Stephen Prince, one of the best-known Peckinpah scholars makes a strange argument in his book Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) when he claims that Peckinpah misunderstood Brecht in using a famous quote from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The play is Brecht’s satire on Hitler’s rise to power which uses an allegory about a Chicago gangster. The quote used by Peckinpah is: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.” It appears at the end of the film (which lacks a clear narrative resolution, but implies that the main characters in the film are killed by Russian troops). Peckinpah was fond of quotes like this (Straw Dogs opens with a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which is the source for the film’s title).

Prince argues that Peckinpah aimed to ‘de-Nazify’ Steiner and his squad and that using the Brecht quote was an insult to Brecht. Peckinpah didn’t understand Brecht according to Prince. This sounds like nonsense to me. As I’ve already noted, there is only one Nazi in the squad. The other soldiers are not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘moral’ men, but their loyalty is to each other, not to the Nazi Party. How could Peckinpah not know Brecht? He was a theatre scholar, he read widely and he directed experimental theatre in the late 1940s (see Weddle 1996: 68) He must have been aware of Brecht having been in Hollywood and his subsequent return to East Germany.

I’m not going to claim that I completely understand the closing section of Cross of Iron and therefore the use of the quote. But it seems clear to me that Peckinpah’s overall intention (and that of the writers and James Coburn) was to present the events as evidence of the futility of war and its consequences which included the barbarity of the battlefield and the corruption of the men who fought it. The opening credits montage intercuts images of children, including a Hitler youth group climbing a mountain, with the rise of Hitler and the gradual deterioration in conditions for the armies (German and Russian) on the Eastern Front. (Two separate music tracks are also intercut – one of children singing, one of martial music.) The closing credits repeat the contrast between children and Nazi officers – but now the images refer not just to partisan children executed by the SS and refugees from the front, but also children suffering in more recent conflicts such as Vietnam, the Middle East and Africa. One reading of the opening and closing of the film is that Hitler corrupted a whole generation of children, causing many to be killed or to become killers. In this context the Brecht quote seems appropriate, the corruption certainly hasn’t ended with child soldiers in Africa and conflicts across the world. For me, Cross of Iron works as a statement against war.

Here is the opening sequence (from the Region 2 DVD):

The Winter War (Talvisota, Finland 1989)

Exhausted Finnish soldiers in 'The Winter War'

This remarkable film is a good example of what some film theorists have called the ‘national popular’ film. By that I mean a film that explores an important national event, is made by a local production company and seen by a significant audience both in the cinema and subsequently on TV/DVD etc. ‘The Winter War’ was the relatively short and bloody war in which Finland managed to stave off a Russian invasion in late 1939. The war ended in March 1940 with some Finnish territory ceded to the Soviet Union. Technically this was a victory for the Soviet Union but Finland remained independent and the Finnish forces proved a match for a much larger Red Army that suffered casualties on a 4:1 basis, arguably because of poor leadership and misguided strategic and tactical decisions. (The ‘Continuation War’ started in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Finnish forces attempted to win back territory, this time with German support.)

The Winter War was the most expensive Finnish film production to date in 1989 and it isn’t hard to see where the money went with many extras and scenes of destruction. The PAL Region 2 DVD available in the UK from Scanbox Entertainment offers quite a poor transfer of what I assume was the original print in the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – which makes the film seem much older than 1989. The DVD runtime is just over 120 mins which means it offers only two-thirds of the original running time. The Finnish PAL Region 0 DVD runs to over three hours. I found my copy in my local library but if I’d known about the original version I’d have gone for that (it seems to be easily available in the UK). Because I’ve only seen the shortened version, I’ve got be wary in commenting on the narrative – which not surprisingly seemed to be somewhat elliptical!

Director and co-writer Pekka Parikka adapted a novel by Antti Tuuri focusing on a Finnish regiment that is quickly recruited and armed and sent to the front in the Karelian peninsula (strategically the most important target for the Russians as the original border was relatively close to Leningrad). Here the Finns are eventually forced to defend the rudimentary ‘Mannerheim Line’ of trenches against a large Soviet force. The Finnish forces comprise some grizzled veterans alongside a larger proportion of young recruits. They have makeshift uniforms and a motley array of light weapons. The Russians have all the tanks and aircraft and far more artillery. The Finns know what they are doing and they are at least camouflaged by their white capes and outer tunics. In the truncated version of the film, the major achievement is the representation of war as brutal and relentless. The Russian tactics were stupid with massed infantry walking towards the trenches alongside the tanks. Hundreds were shot and killed by the defenders but nevertheless we understand the terror of the defenders faced with successive waves of attackers. The film is remarkable for two absences. We have no access to the Russian perspective so they remain a faceless enemy apart from a few individuals killed or captured at close quarters. There is no representation of Finnish politicians or senior military figures and apart from one speech by a senior officer to his men there is relatively little jingoism. The Home Front focus is on the young wives and girlfriends and the mothers. Because the frontline was so close to home, some of the men get leave – but as one of them says the likelihood is they will go home in a box.

Perhaps because the narrative features an older brother looking after his sibling, several American commentators have compared the film favourably to Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that Spielberg might have seen it. I can’t comment on that except to say that the Finnish film is mercifully free of the sentimentality that too often overwhelms Spielberg’s films. For me the Hollywood films that this reminded me of were those combat films about WWII and Korea made by Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich – and of course, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. But then the real comparison might be with Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

So, despite the truncated narrative, I’m glad I’ve seen this – it helps to explain some of the background to those Nordic crime fiction and horror stories I’ve been reading in which Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are fighting as volunteers alongside the Finns and against the Russians in 1939.