Tuesday 27 September 2022

Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje) (1977)


Hemmelig mission

Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer is back and this time in a very different movie from “Turkish Fruit”. “Soldier of Orange” (“Soldaat van Oranje”) is a war epic, the kind of movie that celebrates heroic and patriotic feats, where men are real mean and women pretty and… not so much more. Really far away from “Turkish Fruit”. Yet, it would not be a Verhoeven movie if it did not have a subversive element or two.

In 1938 a group of young men are starting university in Leiden. They become friends and we see them together in a number of settings, including a photo session. Each of these young men will have a different fate during the war. Erik (Rutger Hauer) is the one we follow the most. He is not, like Robby (Eddy Habbema), drifting towards the resistance, nor is he like Alex (Derek de Lint) joining the Germans. Circumstances, such as when Jan (Huib Rooymans) gets in trouble for being a Jew, forces him to commit and soon he is wanted by the Gestapo. Erik and Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) are spirited away to England, where they meet the Dutch Queen and are soon engaged on a secret mission to smuggle out some high-profile leaders for Queen Wilhelmina’s exile government. A mission that does not exactly go according to plan.

Erik Lanshof was a real character, and the movie is based on his own story. Tying a story to real events has the distinct advantage, especially when filmmakers are true to the story, that the plot does not follow a standard storyline. There are twists and turns here that a classic Hollywood screenwriter would not have liked, and few of the characters are as black and white as the almost cartoonish format will have us think. This is also the Verhoeven trick, to lead us into a cliché world of exaggerated color and characters that are easy to classify (think “Starship Troopers” and “Robocop”) and then undermine it by throwing in some gray or just some ugly reality.

The young men think they are invincible. A little war will just be fun. Teasing the Germans is just next level of pranking and suddenly it is deadly serious and death is really ugly. Guus, the overconfident womanizer, gets a very bad wake up call and his demise is like the ugliest of all. What is a hero really out there in the real world? How many terrible mistakes by the heroes do we not hear about?

Speaking of Guus, I had this strong feeling that I knew his face from the moment we see Jeroen Krabbé in the first scenes, and then it struck me, its Dr. Nichols from “The Fugitive”! It is such a distinct face.

“Soldier of Orange” is a big production, the biggest in The Netherlands at the time, and it shows. There are no half measures on the production value and it feels impressive as a grand film and maybe that is its problem. At least until halfway in. It feels like flag-waving, as The Netherlands wants to celebrate its heroes. Maybe they needed that as a counterpoint to the Anna Frank story which is the one most people know. But when I caught the Verhoeven undercurrent, when imperfections and gray zones sneak in, when humans become small, then I started to appreciate the movie. It is random circumstance that set people up as friend or foe, as hero or coward. Even the worst traitor is fighting for something. Even the biggest hero fails. That is total Verhoeven and that is, I believe, why this movie is on the List.

 I certainly liked it better than “Turkish Fruit”.


Monday 19 September 2022

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) (1977)


Den amerikanske ven

The seventies was a fertile period for many young directors and I am enjoying watching the early movies of directors who would grow into famous and influential filmmakers. Wim Wenders is another one of those and though “The American Friend” was by no means his first movie, it was his international breakthrough.

“The American Friend” is a neo-noir, which is already a plus for me. We never learn exactly what is going on, just bits and pieces. Lighting is faded, it is always either sunrise or sunset as if the characters are living in that half-light. Everyone is doomed in some way or another but retain some level of coolness. In the case of “The American Friend” there is the additional element of naturalism that just makes it scarier. This is not a cartoonish world but a very familiar one.

We follow the story through two viewpoints rather than one. Tom Ripley, American, (Dennis Hopper) deals in art forgery from a base in Hamburg and Jonathan Zimmerman, German, (Bruno Ganz) is an art expert who due to a blood disease now just do picture framing. They get in contact at an art auction where Jonathan recognizes Tom as a fraud and refuses to shake his hand. In return, when Tom is contacted by a gangster, Minot (Gerard Blain) looking for a hitman, he recommends Jonathan and exaggerates his poor health.

Minot contacts Jonathan and suggests that he take the contract to secure funds for his wife and son. Jonathan first refuses, but Minot tempts him with an expensive second opinion on his condition in Paris. One Minot of course falsifies. So, Jonathan becomes a hitman and through a very intense pursuit actually succeeds. Minot wants to follow up with a second hit, but Tom has come to like Jonathan and intervenes and eventually they have to fight together against a bunch of gangsters.

I never understood what the gangster war is about. Who are the people they are killing? And why? And why are they suddenly after Tom and Jonathan? But neither do Jonathan. Or Tom for that matter, though at least he understands how dangerous they are. And it is that uncertainty, that unseen, unexplained presence that makes them terrifying. Jonathan is in far deeper than he can even understand and suddenly finds himself living a double life apart from his wife and child. Who are both as adorable and innocent as it is possible to be.

This half-life, half-light and inability to control your own life is at the heart of this movie and it works surprisingly well. It is not quite a suspense movie, and it is not quite a European art movie but it is somewhere in between and succeeds at that.

I love the language element. Characters are using “natural” language, which means an odd mix of German, English and even a bit of French. Accents are sometimes heavy, but natural, and it helps me believe in the story. The Book mentions an American-European conflict, but I do not see that at all. There are no misunderstandings here, just the haziness of reality using people from different places to give it an international and even more mysterious flair.

Noir, or neo-noir for that matter, never have happy endings and it is no spoiler to say that this movie is true to form, but there is a sense of closure that provides some satisfaction and that is another plus in my book. It is an ending I will probably contemplate for a while.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more plusses this movie accumulates, so I guess this ends up with a recommendation from me. And hopefully a lot more from Wim Wenders on the List.


Saturday 10 September 2022

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)



I am wondering why I never watched “The Hills Have Eyes” before. This falls well within the sort of movies we liked to watch on campus back in the nineties and a lot of the storyline was familiar to me, but alas, this was a first viewing for me.

“The Hills Have Eyes” is an early movie by horror/slasher legend Wes Craven. This is from the part of his career where his movies were more driven by enthusiasm than budget, but that is often how the best movies, or at least most watchable movies, are made.

A middle-class family enroute to California is making a detour through the desert to look up some obscure silver mine. When they make a brief stop at a derelict tank station they are warned to stay on the main route and make no stop in the desert, but this sort of people never listens to good advice. Soon they find themselves lost on a dirt road with a broken car. To be stuck in the desert, underequipped and with a broken car is bad in itself, but this particular desert is home to a family of feral cannibals… How will that work out for the stranded Carters?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is a movie in the same vein as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in that a group of unsuspecting outsiders venture off the main roads and civilization to enter a depraved and barbaric world. A theme that has been used far outside the horror genre, but has been particularly embraced by that one. We know something is wrong out there, but the characters do not, and they usually find out too late that this is a very dangerous place.

Another trope is that the outsiders are particularly obnoxious, with problems or complaints that are utterly insignificant to the much more serious situation they are about to find themselves in. You feel like shouting to them to pay attention and NOT do stupid, silly things, but that is the point, no? Bobby (Robert Houston) is the first to realize something menacing is out there when he finds one of his dogs gutted, but nobody is listening to his worries. When Lynne and Doug (Dee Wallace and Martin Speed) insist on sleeping in the car rather than a trailer to have a cozy time, Bobby and we know this is a very bad idea, but there is no getting through to them. The father (and grandfather to the baby) Bob (Russ Grieve) learns the truth when he hikes back to the gas station for help but too late. His death is a gruesome one.

The feral family is a counterpoint to the victim family. In many ways a parallel, even. Except they are the hunters and have shed civilization. Jupiter (James Whitworth) as the family head is particularly gruesome with his broken face, but it is Michael Berryman as Pluto with his particular physical appearance and sinister acting that steals the picture. I learned later that he is a really nice guy and very intelligent, but his acting skills are excellent, and he is very convincing as a monster. Berryman had and still has an amazing career.

Had a movie like this been made today (and they are!) I feel certain that everybody would die a gruesome death, maybe leaving a testimony as found footage or something, but the direction of “The Hills Have Eyes” is a little different. The point here is that only by becoming murderous and feral themselves, like emulating the desert family, will the Carter family or what is left of it, make it through. The victims have to become the hunters themselves and shed their civilization. That is not so unusual a plotline either. It is probably more in line with the age in which it was made. The “Aliens” movies went is the same direction.

“The Hills Have Eyes” was made on a low budget and sometimes it shows, but it is actually not a bad thing. Intentionally or unintentionally, it allows for a dark humor to sneak in and gives it a cartoonish element that makes this more enjoyable to watch than the gruesome story would allow. This has probably contributed to its popularity and its cult standing. Personally, I am too easily startled for horror movies and does not really have the stomach for slasher movies, but these qualities make “The Hills Have Eyes” endurable for me and even entertaining. Dare I say enjoyable?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is one of the important and defining movies of its genre and it is a recommendation from me.

Sunday 4 September 2022

Ceddo (1977)



It is not every day I get to watch a Senegalese movie. In fact, I cannot remember having watched any before, like in ever at all. Had it not been for the List, a movie like “Ceddo”, like so many other movies on the List, would likely have flown under the radar for me. So, yeah, “Ceddo” is a first for me.

As usual when watching a movie from a culturally very different environment, there is a lot to take in here. Director Ousmane Sembene has made a beautiful film, colors are bright and sharp, sound is clear and the sets are stunning. Yet, to actually grasp what is going on is a challenge and without reading the summary in the Book and Wikipedia, I am not at all certain I would have understood what is going on. Even then, I probably missed a lot of essential elements. That is on me.

“Ceddo” takes place in some undefined past in Senegal. It depicts a microcosmos of Africa in the form of a (large?) village, ruled by a king. The traditional life is under threat. Europeans have set up shop selling guns and alcohol for slaves and a church, which remain in the background throughout the movie. An Imam has moved in and actively converts the locals to Islam, including the king. The warrior cast, the Ceddo with their amazing headgear, rebel against giving up their traditions. They see their influence and position under threat and so kidnap the king’s daughter, Princess Dior Yacine.

During a lengthy public and formalized council, we see how the king has completely set aside traditional rules and allegiances to the laws of Islam and in all things abide by the council of the Imam. The heir apparent is cast aside because he cannot inherent according to Muslim law (a claim on maternal side) and loyal favorites are sent out to bring back the princess. They fail. The Imam then stages a coup, kills the king and the Europeans and forcibly converts the village. What is a princess to do between her kidnappers and the usurping Imam?

This is a curious mix of hyper-naturalistic images of village life and scenery and stylized representation of African history. The latter feels formal and stiff while the former is easy and natural. The dialogue is the most challenging to follow with formal talk being done through intermediaries in third person and with cultural references that are at best alien to me. Since these give the reasoning and explanations for the actual story, and to a large extent is the actual story, missing part of this caused me some confusion. Although it is very much to the point, the form made these scenes feel lengthy.

It is clear to me though that the story represents the struggle in Africa against all these outside influences to preserve a cultural identity, be it against the western or the eastern pressure. It also shows how rich and yet how fragile and defenseless the indigenous culture is against both the sneaking undermining from the west and the aggressive top-down oppression from the east. Which could just as well have been the other way round. The story is placed in that undefined past in a village setting, but as a universal story it applies everywhere in Africa and just as much in 1977 or even today. It is this universal relevance that makes “Ceddo” a movie worth watching far outside its cultural context today. That it is also technically adept and beautiful is just a bonus.

I probably got less out of “Ceddo” than most and had moments where I was losing patience with the movie, and yet it comes out on the plus-side with a recommendation from me. This is not a movie you get to see every day.