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

¡Viva! 2013 #4: Las largas vacaciones del 36 (Long Holidays of 1936, Spain 1976)

Las_Largas_Vacaciones_Del_36-Caratula

vivalogoThe Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).

I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.

The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.

One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.

My Way (Mai Wei, South Korea 2011)

A Korean soldier in a Russian uniform is captured by German troops in My Way

My Way has been promoted as the most expensive Korean blockbuster yet produced. It has had a handful of cinema screenings in the UK courtesy of the Terracotta Film Festival but it is released today on DVD by Universal in the UK. (Co)writer-director Kang Je-gyu was one of the principal figures in launching the concept of the Korean blockbuster with his earlier films, Swiri (Shiri, 1999) and Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood 2004). The Korean concept of a blockbuster is slightly different to the Hollywood concept. The term tends to be used for any film that gets a wide release and which attracts a large number of admissions – i.e. the term refers more to distribution and exhibition than genre or narrative. All kinds of films have become blockbusters in South Korea, but often it is their appeal to aspects of Korean culture that is important.

Kang Je-gyu’s films have been blockbusters in both the Korean and the US sense. Shiri and Brotherhood both dealt with North-South conflicts in Korea, the latter with the 1950-53 Korean War and a story about brothers caught up reluctantly in the fighting. This spectacular war film attracted over 11 million admissions in South Korea (about a quarter of the population). My Way has a similar structure and theme as Brotherhood, but takes on an even bigger story that crosses Asia from Korea to the D-Day beaches of 1944. Kang was inspired by a reported historical event – the capture of a Korean soldier in a Wehrmacht uniform by American forces during the D-Day landings. Kang discovered the elements of the man’s story and then added another intriguing element of his own.

My Way begins and ends with a marathon runner during the 1948 London Olympics. The remainder of the 142 mins is a long flashback that begins in 1928 with two small boys racing each other. One is Kim Jun-shik and the other is Hasegawa Tatsuo, son of the Kim family’s Japanese colonial landlord. Tatsuo has his future mapped out as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. As a child he revels in the tussle with his Korean friend but ten years later he will face Jun-shik again in an ‘all-Japan’ trial. Jun-shik can’t be allowed to win and instead he is ‘pressed’ into the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuko (Manchuria). He becomes an unwilling participant (with other Korean pressed men) in the major battle with Soviet Russian forces on the Mongolian border in 1939 – where he again comes up against the now Colonel Hasegawa. Both men are captured by the Soviets and put in a Siberian work camp from where in 1941 they are pressed into the Red Army and after a battle with the Germans they escape westwards only to end up in a German work battalion on the Western Front. During this long trek they work through their personal antagonisms.

The emphasis in the film is on the epic battles fought in Manchuria/Mongolia and on the Eastern and Western European fronts. Kang Je-gyu uses CGI extensively and re-created his version of the D-Day landing at Utah beach in Latvia on a budget of $3 million. The cinema screening I saw was missing most of the subtitles because of a projection problem with the digital print. Since the film includes Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and German dialogue this could have been a major problem. In reality, although I might have missed some of the nuances, I think that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. Certainly, I was not bored at any point through 142 minutes.

My Way is not an art movie. It’s a popular epic war movie with masses of CGI. It could be compared to Hollywood films like Pearl Harbor (which I haven’t seen) and that seems to be what most US critics have done, seeing it as just another bombastic mindless adventure movie. I think it is the Hollywood Reporter review that derides it as “blowing itself to bits”. I’m not going to claim that the film is an incisive analysis of war in the twentieth century, but I think that it deserves a little more consideration, at least as a project if not as a successful film narrative.

My first thought was that as a rare East Asian film that attempts to represent historical events in Europe, My Way offers a lesson for superior European critics. I felt myself about to scoff at an opening which pretends to be London, before I checked myself after realising that I have no idea what Seoul looked like in 1948 – just as I had little idea of the major battles fought between the Japanese and Russians over the Mongolian/Manchurian border in 1939. Kang has to be applauded for the ambition of his storytelling. He is also very brave to take on Japanese-Korean relationships in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategy for this big budget film was to use major stars from Japan, Korea and China to attract a Pan-Asian audience. Jang Dong-geon (who plays Jun-shik) and Odagiri Joe as Tatsuo have to carry the film. Fang Bingbing has a much smaller role as a Chinese sniper in Manchuria and other than Kim In-gwon as Jun-shik’s friend, pressed into the army at the same time, none of the other characters in the film are developed.

The strategy appears not to have worked in the sense that My Way attracted only around 2 million admissions in South Korea and a fraction of that number in Japan. I haven’t seen any figures for a Chinese release as yet. The Korean producers are looking at a significant loss with a worldwide box office take of only $16 million. On reflection, the loss of subtitles in the screening I attended probably didn’t help me understand the changing relationship between the Korean and Japanese characters and that relationship may be the stumbling block for audiences in both countries. I’m not sure what Chinese audiences might make of the film. The current animosity towards the Japanese won’t help but at least the film does offer an East Asian perspective on events in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, rather than Hollywood films, My Way resembles Chinese epic productions and I notice that the film’s release in Korea and Japan at the end of 2011 coincided with Zhang Yimou’s latest epic production Flowers of War (China/HK 2011) about the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 – not the best time to release a film about the Imperial Japanese Army, even if the focus is mainly on the Koreans forced to serve in it.

Since I’ve not seen the Hollywood CGI representations of World War 2 battles, I’m probably repeating a well-known observation, but I have to say that the depiction of the D-Day landings in My Way were almost surreal, especially in terms of the massed squadrons of bombers and American capital ships. I was reminded of anime like Graveyard of the Fireflies (Japan 1988) which includes the firebombing of Kobe by the Americans. Here’s an idea of how My Way looks in the US trailer:

Fires On the Plain (Japan 1959)

Tamura decides to do without boots in one of the film’s lighter moments.

What is an ‘anti-war film’? A straightforward question perhaps if we accept that the single purpose is to promote the idea that war is always a bad thing. But that is in itself a contentious statement. Audiences often reject invitations to go along with a film’s perceived intention. They are more inclined to find their own pleasures in what is presented. It would be wrong too to think that there is only one kind of anti-war film. Fires On the Plain is one of several films I’ve considered for an event supporting the release of Nadine Labaki’s new film Where Do We Go Now?

Fires on the Plain is almost the polar opposite of the other famous anti-war film made by the husband-wife team of director Ichikawa Kon and writer Wada Natto. The Burmese Harp (1956) is a film which explores loss and defeat in Burma in 1945 but does so with optimism and humanism and which sees the possibility of Japanese soldiers returning home for a new life. Like the earlier film, Fires On the Plain is a literary adaptation, but this time the theme is the brutality of war and the ultimate degradation of the human spirit. It’s not an easy watch but its status on IMDB (with a score of 8.1) suggests that it continues to make an impression on audiences in North America. The DVD is not available in the UK and must be imported from Criterion in the US or Korea. The Criterion release has several ‘extras’ and an essay by Terry Rafferty on the label’s website.

Outline

The first few weeks of 1945, the last year of what the Americans term ‘The Pacific War’, see the Japanese occupation force of Leyte in the Philippines reduced to a rump by the much stronger American forces who are moving through the islands on their way to a possible invasion of Japan. The forlorn hope of the Japanese survivors is to reach the town of Palompon where a ship may be waiting for them. To get there they must march across rough terrain during the rainy season and avoid the Americans who occasionally attack but who are otherwise too busy preparing to move to other islands to bother too much about these soldiers ‘left behind’. We infer from what happens that the Japanese Occupation of Leyte had itself been brutal in the treatment of the local population who are now not going to help. Starvation is the likely outcome for the Japanese who scramble to find a few yams left behind in the fields after harvest.

The central character is Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji), a slightly older draftee who we see spurned by the hospital and by his own field commander. He has TB but the hospital has no room for him and his commander does not want another mouth to feed. He finds himself wandering towards Palompon, often alone but also meeting up with small groups of Japanese soldiers with the same intention. The film’s title refers to the pillars of smoke that Tamura often sees in the distance. He believes that they are smoke signals sent by Filipino guerillas and he avoids them. Other Japanese tell him that they are just fires lit by farmers to burn corn husks. By the end of the film we cannot be sure what it is that Tamura sees – or what sense he makes of it.

Commentary

I found the film quite difficult to get into at first, but gradually the narrative took hold. By the end it was difficult to tear myself away from the screen. Ironically, for all the brutality and degradation, the film is actually very beautiful. Shot in rich black and white ‘Scope by one of Ichikawa’s regular contributors Kobayashi Setsuo, it includes beautifully composed ‘figures in a landscape’ as well as close-ups of the ‘everyman’ face of Tamura. Funakoshi Eiji manages to be quite handsome, very miserable, bemused and tortured with equal facility. Ichikawa began his career as an animator and he was also interested in graphics. The strong visual imagery and especially the widescreen compositions are to be expected. (The landscapes were actually shot on the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo in a region used by Kurosawa for his jedaigeki films – but I was convinced this was the Philippines when I watched the film.)

As an anti-war film, Fires on the Plain raises several issues. It doesn’t explain the events which led up to the situation or offer us any kind of back story – there is no attempt to suggest who is ‘responsible’ for what happens. There is a suggestion that Japanese officers have perhaps a better chance of survival, but really we only see what happens to a group of Japanese soldiers – some individuated but others not. The Americans come out of the film quite badly I think with attacks on the straggling Japanese soldiers when they are clearly not a threat to anyone. Having said that we only see the Americans from the perspective of the Japanese (who, it is suggested, think that the Americans will always kill them rather than take prisoners).

The more inhuman the behaviour of the soldiers becomes the more ‘humanist’ is the effect of the film. In one famous sequence, Ichikawa offers us a darkly comic moment when one of the dead soldiers answers an aside by Tamura and this is followed by a little sketch in front of a static camera that borrows directly from Chaplin’s little tramp. Be warned though, things get much worse though a little later on. How much of what we see is ‘real’ and how much is the product of delirium and despair is for us to judge. The only hope that you can take away from a film like this is that somehow the human spirit will survive. But I think it is clear that war will charge a very high and unacceptable price to prove the point.

Checking the release of the film in the UK, I discovered it was a Compton release – a distributor associated with X Certificate films in the early 1960s. At that time Japan was the source of the ‘extreme’ cinema of the period (as it was again in the 1990s) and I’m reminded of the most gruesome, yet most humanist, war film I’ve seen, Masumura Yasuzo’s Red Angel (1966).

If we are going to have ‘canons’ of films that we recommend to students, I’d certainly place Fires on the Plain on that list. Here’s a tiny snippet to whet your appetite:

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):

Max Manus (Norway/Den/Ger 2008)

The Nazis arrive in Oslo . . .

Max Manus is interesting for three reasons. It is one of the most successful films ever at the Norwegian box office. It is part of a current cycle of Second World War films produced locally in countries that suffered Nazi occupation (see our recent post on Flame and Citron). It’s well made and feels genuine in its attempt to tell an important story.

Max Manus himself was an authentic hero of the Norwegian resistance – or more properly a soldier of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, the Norwegian force created in the UK after Norway fell. The UK DVD carries a documentary about him and the ‘making of’ the film made by the Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK. He survived the war and died only in 1996. The events portrayed in the film all happened more or less as they are represented with only a few minor changes such as compositing several lesser characters to make the narrative more manageable. Manus published his own accounts of his adventures soon after the war and these provided material for the script.

Early in 1940, Max, a rather wild and rootless young man in his mid-20s without close family ties, decided to volunteer for a small Norwegian contingent fighting on the side of the Finns against an invading Soviet Army in the so-called ‘Winter War’ (see our post on the Finnish war film with that title). Injured in battle, Max returns to Norway to discover that his country has been invaded by the Nazis. He links up with Oslo friends and becomes involved in acts of resistance. Captured by the Gestapo he escapes and sets off on a journey that would take him several months and halfway round the world before he reaches the UK where the Norwegian government in exile is based. In a training camp in Scotland he learns the skills of a saboteur and resistance fighter and is eventually parachuted back into Norway. For the remainder of the war he carries out various raids on German ships in the port of Oslo, retreating for bouts of ‘rest and recreation’ in neutral Sweden where he meets Tikken, the Norwegian wife of a British diplomat.

The film covers a range of actions and a range of sub-genres. There are sequences which relate to the urban intrigues with the Gestapo and others which focus on the commando-style sabotage attempts on German shipping on Oslo’s waterfront. The scenes in Stockholm seem more part of a Casablanca type of spy/romance. Much of the action was shot in Oslo with its distinctive architecture but the overall presentation is fairly conventional. Really this is just a cracking good story with real-life characters who were clearly very brave men and women. At the centre is a small group of young men who have known each other since childhood. This is what distinguishes the film from others, like Flame and Citron, in which resistance proves to be a more confusing process. Max Manus tells us a story that few outside Norway will know and since it is so engaging the film should prove both enjoyable and informative for any audience. Max is played with exuberance by Aksel Hennie, currently wowing audiences in the UK as Roger Brown in Headhunters – a very different role.

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.