Tag Archives: war film

Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron, Denmark 2008)

Thure Lindhardt as Flame (left) and Mads Mikkelsen as Citron

Thanks to BBC4, I’ve finally managed to see this film which forms part of a recent surge of World War II films produced in countries occupied by the Nazis. I hope to report on Max Manus from Norway soon and there is already a posting on Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009). Another recent title is the Hollywood film Defiance (2008) – though it was made by Polish-American Edward Zwick.

Each of these films explores an aspect of war in occupied territories that isn’t so well known outside the domestic market and may indeed be news to younger domestic audiences. The films tend to have been big successes at home and to have gained wider distribution overseas. ‘Flame’ and ‘Citron’ were historical figures, working as assassins for the Danish resistance. Posing as police officers they carry out orders from British intelligence delivered via a controller in Copenhagen. The local police and ambulance services support them but they have to be careful not to attract the attention of the collaborationist police force comprising Danish Nazis – and, of course, the whole panoply of German Occupation forces, but especially the Gestapo.

‘Flame’ (he has red hair) is a 23 year-old in 1943. His father, a hotel owner sent him to Germany in 1940 and his exposure to the Nazis he worked alongside confirmed his worst fears. ‘Citron’ (named because he worked on Citroen cars as a mechanic) is a family man and the war wrecks his marriage. The two aim to assassinate only Danish collaborators and difficulties arise when they are told to kill three Germans, including a senior army officer and his wife. From this point on it becomes impossible for the duo to know who is ‘controlling’ them and what the eventual aims of the resistance might be. It seems that they can only depend on each other.

This is a much darker film than the Norwegian and Dutch films. The production, by Nimbus Films included shoots in the Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam as well as in Copenhagen and Prague. Director Ole Christian Madsen used a moving camera and staged action in long shot on almost empty streets but also in crowded bars etc. Overall the sthe production cost nearly 7 million Euros – very expensive by Danish standards. I thought everything worked very well. Madsen claims to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres. I’m not sure that it reaches as high as that masterpiece, but certainly I found it gripping and thought-provoking. I confess that after two series of The Killing and now halfway through Borgen on BBC4, I’m starting to spot Danish actors. There are three in this including Peter Mygind who plays a seemingly unreliable character, just as he does in Borgen. Stine Stengade (also in a similar role to her Borgen character) strikes perhaps the only odd note as a rather conventional femme fatale figure in what is otherwise a downbeat and realist portrayal of resistance activity, far removed from Hollywood heroics.

The more I see of these kinds of films, the more I admire the people who could carry out resistance under occupation – not because I’m being carried along on a nostalgic flag-waving wave but because I recognise human beings taking risks and accepting both likely failure and possible death because they believe in something or someone.

Ken Loach: Route Irish (UK/Fra/Bel/Ital/Spain 2010)

Fergus looks down on the Liverpool waterfront from his sparse modern flat.

I’m not sure why I didn’t see Route Irish on its cinema release. Watching it now on DVD is not ideal but I can see that this is a complex work that feels very different but nonetheless shares elements from several titles across Loach’s back catalogue. It isn’t an easy film and seems to have almost been designed to alienate a casual viewer. Certainly it has fared very poorly in the UK (opening at No 27 on only 22 screens) and it’s interesting that the IMdb entry for the film carries few ‘external reviews’ from the usual critics and a pretty thin collection of ‘user reviews’ and bulletin postings – mostly condemning or praising the film on the basis of its politics or its status as a ‘thriller’. As usual for a Loach film, Route Irish opened on many more screens in France (126) for a Top 20 entry in Week 1 – but the screen average was still disappointing and this looks like being the least successful Loach-Laverty film for some time. Thanks to pre-sales, however, Sweet Sixteen Films is unlikely to lose its shirt.

Route Irish is about a metaphorical ‘journey’ taken by the lead character Fergus Molloy (Liverpool actor Mark Womack, mainly seen on British TV). As Loach points out in an interview, Fergus does not seek redemption as in a Hollywood movie. Instead he attempts to make some connection with the man he used to be. It’s virtually impossible and there is no happy ending. Fergus is an ex-soldier, once in the SAS. It is 2007 and for the last few years he has been working as a security contractor in Iraq running his own team but now he is back in Liverpool, unable to leave the country after a night-club incident and the confiscation of his passport. He is distraught when he hears that his best friend Frankie (played by the Liverpool comedian John Bishop), who he persuaded to join him on the team, has been killed on ‘Route Irish’, the most dangerous road in Iraq between the airport and the ‘Green Zone’. Frankie’s funeral sees the highly sceptical Fergus begin to ask questions, not believing anything of what he hears about Frankie’s death – especially from the men who run the security operation. He has one lead – a mobile phone that Frankie had left with a mutual friend for safekeeping and which carries photos and short video clips.

The phone provides a narrative device that allows the audience to ‘witness’ scenes from the security work in Iraq (filmed on location in Jordan). Fergus gets an Arabic and Kurdish translation of dialogue from a Kurdish refugee in Liverpool – recalling the use of refugee characters in Ladybird, Ladybird and Carla’s Song. We also experience flashbacks as Fergus discusses being a soldier with Rachel, Frankie’s girlfriend (who might have known Fergus first). In fact, the film begins with quite a subtle use of flashback which I didn’t immediately twig – as Fergus looks out across the Mersey, leaning over the rail of the ferry he hears the last messages that Frankie left on his phone. Cut to the title and then back to two young men larking about on the same ferry. The image is slightly degraded but the production can’t afford to present an image of 30 years ago, so it is only later that we get confirmation that this was indeed Fergus and Frankie as teens bunking off school and dreaming of travels overseas.

The ‘action’ of the film has been described as ‘Bourne-like’ by some critics and derided by action fans. It has also been suggested that it is a distinct change for Loach. Most of this commentary is nonsense of course. There is no attempt to compete with Hollywood on action scenes. Yes there are explosions and violent, brutal actions but similar things have happened in films throughout Loach’s career. The difference for me is Fergus as a lead. Womack plays him, successfully in my view, as severely emotionally damaged, barely under control, never sure when he is lying, fooling himself or being coldly honest. Often the characters at the centre of Loach films – scripted by Paul Laverty or the earlier ones by Jim Allen – have some form of warmth, some charisma, some sense of hope. Fergus has a difficult relationship, dependent on violence, with Rachel. One of the few times he laughs is when he is watching another ex-soldier, his friend Craig, playing for a blind football team. The image of Fergus laughing as Craig, wearing an Everton shirt, blunders into another player is very affecting. (Loach, a big football supporter, made one of his best TV plays in 1968 about supporters of the Golden Vision – Alex Young, Everton’s centre forward in the early 1960s.)

So, what are the politics of Route Irish that so enrage/bore some reviewers? I think that there are a couple of lines of dialogue that don’t quite work – Fergus remarks that Iraqi families ‘turned over’ by British and American soldiers will end up supporting Al Qaeda. This doesn’t seem to fit with Fergus. He is a political animal only in the way that he represents the damage done to the men who have served. His actions in the film are driven by guilt and revenge – and by this desperate attempt to re-discover something of what he and Frankie had before they became soldiers. In the process of doing this, Fergus reveals the political points that Laverty and Loach want to make about the futile British ‘mission’ and the damage done to Iraq and its people. In this respect, Route Irish feels like an honest film about a shameful period of British history in which British troops were asked to fight an illegal war and then, with private contractors (making huge profits), to clear up the mess. The look of the film is cold and bleak and although Liverpool has appeared in several earlier Loach plays and films, here there are few shots (the ferry apart) that are recognisable and none that romanticise the city  – everything is presented by Chris Menges in a very different style to the Kestrel Films productions such as Black Jack in 1979.

The original Press Conference from Cannes in 2010:

Incendies (Canada/France 2010)

Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as mother and daughter in ‘Incendies’

If this film’s relatively low-key UK release has slipped under your radar, I urge you to sniff it out and go see. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year in the UK, it claims to be 130 mins long but it seemed like 90 mins. I was gripped for every second. It is a powerful film that often achieves its impact by understatement – but still leaves you awestruck at the end.

The narrative is partly a mystery so I’ll avoid spoilers. The set-up is something like a Wilkie Collins narrative. After a pre-credit sequence set somewhere in the ‘Middle East’ (or ‘the Levant’ as the French used to call it) the narrative switches to Quebec where twins Simon and Jeanne are sitting before a notary who is reading their mother’s will. She was his secretary in the legal practice so the notary feels almost like family. It is a strange will which involves each of the twins being given a letter. One is required to find another sibling who is unknown to them. The other is required to find the father they had assumed was dead. The narrative then unfolds in parallel strands – one relating the events as the twins travel (separately) to their mother’s native country and the other via flashbacks revealing some of the various terrible events that the mother experienced directly.

The country and the history are never identified. The film was shot in Jordan but the nature of the events (Christian-Muslim conflict in a civil war) suggests Lebanon. The film doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the war as such. It is simply ‘shocking’. The reviewer for the World Socialist Website finds this problematic. I agree that the war does need to be contextualised in terms of anti-Imperialist struggles, but I think a filmmaker should be allowed to focus on a personal history – and in any case, the conflicts of this region are highly complex and can’t easily be explained in global political terms.

The original ‘property’ was a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad who left Lebanon as an 8 year-old in 1976, initially for France but then for Montreal. His play has been performed and very well received around the world. The four central characters are all exceptionally well-played by three Canadians and Lubna Azabal who is the Belgian-born daughter of Moroccan and Spanish parents. She’s probably best known as the ‘exile’ in the Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005). I’ve seen a complaint about her ‘Moroccan Arabic’ but that seems a pointless remark about a character in a film where her native country is not identified. (She presumably also speaks French with a Belgian not Montreal accent, but so what?) Anyway, she is sensationally good, especially since she must age 30 years. It’s a performance not to be missed – like the film.

Sight and Sound made this its ‘Film of the Month’ in July 2011. The same issue includes an interview with director Denis Villeneuve.

(Sony) Official website with Press Kit etc.

Official Canadian trailer:

New Spike Lee DVD

Spike Lee’s last feature film, Miracle at St Anna has finally got a DVD release in the UK. Revolver are releasing the DVD/Blu-ray of the film on June 27. We featured a review of the American Region 1 disc here. The film is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride about a small group of ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – African-American soldiers in Italy in 1944. As in many recent war films, the central story is ‘book-ended’ by events in contemporary New York. The film is long (150 mins plus) but always packed with incident. It’s a Spike Lee film so it is controversial and some people don’t like it for various reasons. But this is an important story about the Second World War and particularly about the segregated American armed forces. The film deserves to be seen.

The UK official website is here.

One of the interesting aspects of this release is the simultaneous launch of the film on DVD/Blu-ray, online via LOVEFiLM, iTunes, Playstation, BlinkBox, FilmFlex, BT Vision and on TV via Sky Box Office.

The film has never had a UK release (unprecedented for a Spike Lee fiction feature, I think) so Revolver should be rewarded with some interest.

The release prompts us to ask what Spike is up to at the moment. As far as we can see he has been working primarily for television documentary (plus one stageplay recording). Nothing new is available in the UK but a Region 1 DVD was released in April of his follow-up to the epic When the Levees Broke (2006). This is the documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010). To keep up-to-date with Spike Lee’s output, the best source is the 40 Acres and a Mule website.