In “Memoir of War,” Marguerite Duras Suffers Through the Nazi Occupation

In adapting the wartime diaries of Marguerite Duras, Emmanuel Finkiel captures the author’s oblique style, which filters events though a thick layer of ennui, and centers on women who deal with inflicted trauma by torturing themselves. When Duras’s episodic memoir was released in 1985, her U.S. publisher changed the French title La Douleur (a/k/a Pain) to a more generic The War: A Memoir. Writer-director Finkiel (Voyages) deals with both aspects, using voiceover narration and subjective visuals to express Duras’s anguished emotional state, and also presents a clear-eyed vision of history as nerve-wracked Parisians anticipate the end of Nazi occupation.

Memoir of War works best when there’s tension between the inner thoughts of Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) and outside forces that require her to take action. After she meets Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the eager collaborator who arrested her husband (like Duras, writer Robert Antelme was in the French Resistance), they commence an intellectual seduction that explores the iron grip and tenuous grasp of power. But the bulk of the 127 minutes involves Marguerite exquisitely suffering in a haze of cigarette smoke, fretting over the fate of Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), whom she worships yet may no longer love.

Cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine uses long lenses to present Marguerite’s slippery state of mind, rendering solid buildings as expressive blurs and transforming robust men into Giacometti stick figures. It’s one of the effects Finkiel employs to convey the duality of her prose (Duras is simultaneously participant and observer), but his balance is off. He emphasizes Marguerite’s passivity — she waits, she worries — over her resolve. While clearly adoring Duras’s work, Finkiel doesn’t credit the strength it took for her to ruthlessly detail the experience.

Memoir of War
Directed by Emmanuel Finkiel
Music Box Films
Opens August 17, Film Forum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center


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A Nazi Deserter Turns Vicious Killer as “The Captain” Exposes the Madness of War

Twenty-six years before the infamous Stanford prison experiment revealed how quickly figures of authority can collapse individuals’ moral framework, there was Willi Herold, a German World War II deserter who found a decorated captain’s uniform and transformed himself from hunted soldier to marauding punisher. Director Robert Schwentke explores Herold’s exploits in the final days of the war in his off-kilter drama The Captain. Filmed in black and white in the wintry countryside of Görlitz, Germany, Schwentke’s vision of a man who would be posthumously named the Executioner of Emsland is chilling and yet, at times, almost farcical.

In the opening scene, Herold (Max Hubacher) seems an innocent baby face running for his life from the Nazis. Schwentke immediately endeared me to Herold, an underdog you can root for; when Herold loots a farm for eggs but then flees as his friend is caught and stabbed with a pitchfork, his behavior seems reasonable in the circumstances, a means of survival. But the moment Herold finds a Nazi captain’s uniform in the back of an abandoned car, his demeanor morphs. His chubby cheeks seem slimmer somehow, his cheekbones more pronounced, his back straightened, as though he’s dropped whatever weight of hunger and fear had once hunched him over. Hubacher’s performance is a masterful physical feat.

The film is a psychological exploration of fascism’s roots in the cowardly human heart. Herold begins collecting a misfit team of fellow deserters and military goons looking for one last kill and a strong-armed leader, and Herold grows more and more comfortable in that role. He sees how others admire him when he executes a looter; he craves more of that approval. Herold as the captain is never sympathetic, but his behavior — goaded by a gang of psychopaths under duress as their world crumbles around them — is nearly predictable: If his newfound crew longs for bloodshed, he will give it to them.

Things reach a head at a German prison camp, where Nazi deserters are strictly monitored. Herold sees a chance to solidify his rule and usurp the prison captain by murdering the deserters, even as it’s obvious that Allied forces will soon arrive to kill or capture them all. It’s unnerving and surreal how efficiently Herold and his men arrive at the decision that they will order the deserters to dig a trench, then stand in it and sing a merry German song while they wait to be shot to death by their own people. The soldiers speak to one another like this is the only rational solution to a problem that didn’t exist before they got there, a deadly mixture of bureaucracy and cold-blooded murder.

Upon hearing the order to kill prisoners, soldier Hansen (Waldemar Kobus) hoots and hollers, “Finally, some action!” The giant machine gun used in the execution jams halfway through the trench murders, and the soldiers turn to one another, momentarily horrified that they’ll have to kill each deserter one by one themselves — and Herold knows that he could have been in that trench himself. The scene perfectly encapsulates the almost childish impulses of war and how the fantasy dissolves. The entire film, in fact, lays bare the debauchery and depravity of bored men on the brink of extinction.

The Captain
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Music Box Films
Opens July 27, Quad Cinema

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“13 Minutes” Takes Almost Two Hours to Tell Us Why Georg Elser Tried to Kill Hitler

You can’t expect a storyteller to wring much suspense out of a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler. In the case of Georg Elser, the subject of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s German drama 13 Minutes, the filmmakers must contend not just with the fact that we know Elser’s 1939 bomb won’t end the Reich — poor Elser, a German national, manages to get arrested after he plants that bomb but before its explosion. That comes some ten minutes into the movie, after a tense and detailed montage of Elser (a convincingly terrified Christian Friedel) piling dynamite in a hole in a brick wall in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall, where the Führer will soon be expectorating at a phalanx of his most rabid brass. Elser checks his wiring, sets his timers, then painstakingly boards up his work. He pants, in the dark, a flash bulb dangling from his mouth; he scrapes up his knuckles and knees enough that, when he tries to cross the Swiss border, the German officers will find him suspicious and lock him up.

Hirschbiegel and editor Alexander Dittner intercut all this with Hitler yapping later at his lectern, with that speech broadcast through the streets, with shots of timepieces and Elser’s schematics, with the protagonist confined before the act that will define his life has even had a chance to fail. The blast, when it comes, is captured in a long, silent shot of prewar Munich; it rips the night open, but not the Führer, who cut his speech short that night. No dummies, the cops and the Gestapo immediately suspect Elser, and he doesn’t really bother denying their charges. The story’s suspense then becomes diffuse: How much torture can he take before signing a formal confession? Did he act alone? Will his loved ones suffer, too? How long before the Nazis kill him?

The question of torture, I fear, is handled with the same attention to detail that distinguishes the opening sequence. Hirschbiegel shows us Elser strapped to a box spring, his pants yanked down, as his questioners whip him. We get vomit glopping out of his bloody mouth like slime from a Double Dare sluice. We see the interrogators sterilize the instruments they will plunge beneath the hero’s fingernails, though we’re spared the actual penetration.

We’re not spared his howls, though, which shake the soul of a secretary we observe sitting just outside the door. She maintains her disinterested composure, but in her eyes we see the toll her work for the Reich exacts upon her. Hirschbiegel’s film is mainly about a German who was moved to try to stop what was happening to his country, but its most upsetting moment is this, the contemplation of someone who can’t bring herself to do the same.

Elser had no accomplices. Soon, to protect his fiancée, he’s not just confessing — he’s re-creating his blueprints for his bomb to prove to the Nazis that, yes, he could do this on his own. Eventually, he poses for awkward photos with the investigating officers, over a full mock-up of his impressive schematics. He’s an enemy of the Reich, yes, but they’re impressed.

Unfortunately, the script (by Fred and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorfer) does little with these ironies, and never surmounts the dramatic challenges those first scenes suggest: Here’s a story where getting pinched for not quite killing Hitler is the inciting incident. Where to go from there? The unsurprising — but never satisfying — answer is into brutality (see in real time a hanged man twitch till he stops!) and flashbacks, which find Elser younger, a factory worker pining for a married woman (Katharina Schüttler) and wishing he could get through just one night of playing accordion at the pub without bands of Nazis brawling with Communists. The married woman, Else, likes him, too, and we can see why: He’s a pacific dreamer, caught up in music and carpentry rather than in the politics of a country going mad. Besides, her own husband (Rüdiger Klink), a drunken lout, routinely clobbers her, even when she’s pregnant.

Elser moves into the Elser house as a boarder and soon takes up much more clandestine activities: an affair, first of all, and then smuggling food to a friend who has been given reprieve from a labor camp to toil in the factory where Elser works, building tanks. Watching a propaganda film about those panzers, hearing his countrymen cheer what looks to him like the war that will destroy his country, Elser seems to come to his big decision.

If the film were more invested in his psychology, or more provocative in its consideration of political violence, this might all prove compelling. But nothing here gets to the central question: Why Elser? In these flashbacks, he witnesses the same horrors that everyone around him does. Why does he do what so many others would not? These flashbacks often come during the torture scenes, and they’re framed as relief rather than revelation, filling in the blanks instead of illuminating his conviction. The film is more fascinating as another example of Germany contending with its past than it is as drama or history.

13 Minutes
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens June 30, Quad Cinema and MAYBE Angelika Film Center


Congresswoman Yvette Clarke On The 1898 Dutch Enslavement Of Brooklyn (That Never Actually Happened)

Democratic Brooklyn Congresswoman Yvette Clarke attempted to re-write history last night during an appearance on the Colbert Report, during which she struggled with the details of hypothetical time travel and then claimed that slavery existed in Brooklyn in 1898, where the Dutch kept people in bondage more than 30 years after the Civil War.

Then, after ironing out the details of the aforementioned hypothetical time travel, she decided — after some lengthy internal debate — that if she were around in the 1930s and 1940s, she probably would have tried to stop World War II.

Good call, congresswoman.

The whole thing was dizzying, and would be hilarious — if the Dutch hadn’t lost control of New York in the 1660s, slavery hadn’t ended in the United States in 1865, and — most importantly — Clarke wasn’t a sitting congresswoman.

Clarke’s office didn’t immediately respond to our request for an explanation of her take on history — and time travel.

See the video of Clarke’s history lesson after the jump.



The Allied Forces’ Plan to Poison Hitler’s Food Revealed

Could Hitler have been defeated using food poisoning? Probably not. But a new book reveals the £1 million plan British spies tried to implement that involved dosing the Nazi leader’s dinner, and why it would never have worked.

So, what was the Brits’ poison of choice?

It wasn’t arsenic or salmonella. According to a Telegraph article citing the author of Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II, the plan was to give Hitler the female sex hormone estrogen in order to make him less aggressive. Apparently, estrogen is tasteless and so would not have been detected by Hitler’s food testers, who, of course, would also have been “feminized” by the tainted food.

It’s not the first time food poisoning was considered to fight an enemy leader. The U.S. hatched a plan to poison Fidel Castro’s food and cigars with a substance that would make his hair and beard fall out, which was supposed to have the Samsonite effect of taking away his power in the eyes of his followers. Not quite a plot of Shakespearean magnitude, but pretty darn devious, had it been carried out.