Criterion Sunday 283: Pokolenie (A Generation, 1955)

An excellent debut feature from Andrzej Wajda, which with his following two films, deals with Polish involvement in World War II. The stark black-and-white cinematography has enough flourishes to sustain cinematic interest — there’s a long opening tracking shot that’s almost Wellesian in its accomplishment, and seems to fit into a particularly Eastern European tradition that people like Miklós Jancsó would take up. It’s about a young man, Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki), who joins the Communist underground resistance to the Nazis, fighting on behalf of the Jewish ghettoes, with one particularly compelling sequence towards the end as his cell get rather too closely involved in the violence, which leads to consequences for a budding relationship that Stach has started up with Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), one of the key organisers. It’s a fantastic and stylish first film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Bohdan Czeszko; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska, Tadeusz Janczar; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

None Shall Escape (1944)

Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).


A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.

None Shall Escape film posterCREDITS
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.

Journey’s End (2017)

War films of the last few years have understandably been focused more on World War I, given its centenary, as does the new release 1917. I’ve hardly been following all of them (though I wasn’t a huge fan of Testament of Youth, to take one example), but one of the strongest was this film based on a 1928 play. It has a stagy feel to it, but set in the trenches that feels somewhat appropriate.


I was taken along to see this war film, and honestly had no expectation of liking it (it’s not a film or a genre I would have sought out otherwise), but it’s a really solidly mounted, excellently acted character study of men under duress in World War I. When I say solidly mounted, I mean it looks like a film with a big budget, but I expect it didn’t have that — I suppose it helps that it’s set largely in the trenches, but it never feels cheaply done. It really helps too to have acting as good as Paul Bettany gives here (and of course Toby Jones is no slouch either), and the whole project is immensely lifted by the way he plays his character: genial, world-weary, not given to false optimism, but never defeated by the grinding awfulness of the men’s lives. (We see a fair bit of that.) And when I say it never feels cheap, I mean too that it’s not prone to being overly sentimental — there are opportunities for tears (I found the letters home particularly poignant), and many of the men are emotional enough on screen — but it eschews the orchestral in favour of a cleanly minimal score, and it’s the telling moments of class divisions and generational conflicts that are among the most interesting bits.

Journey's End film posterCREDITS
Director Saul Dibb; Writer Simon Reade (based on the play by R. C. Sherriff); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Vue Piccadilly, London, Wednesday 22 January 2018.

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1955)

Unlike some of my other choices during this themed week of war films, this one very much is in the classic war genre, as a group of soldiers band together to fight the enemy, in what has become a patriotic epic for Finland, remade many times over the years.


I gather this occupies quite a prominent place in the Finnish film pantheon, and I suppose that must largely be for the way it ties in a country’s idea of itself into a group of characters at a key and difficult moment in their history, via a novel and many subsequent adaptations. It tells the story of a group of soldiers in a machine gun unit during World War II, when Finland was allied with Germany against its old foe of Russia, and the key to pulling that off I suppose is to focus tightly on these men, with all their various issues with their commanding officers as well as, eventually, the whole idea of the fight itself. (Not because they don’t hate the Russians, but just because it all seems so futile.) The core of the film is in these interactions, whether in training camps at the start, trudging across the country to the front lines, and then in the trenches, and you get a sense of the different guys, even if at times the film is somewhat reliant on familiar tropes: the cynical one, the grumpy one, the anti-authoritarian and yet supremely talented one (who may be a hero but is also a bit of a d!ck). The chief feeling in these scenes is a gentle sort of comedy, even a hint of satire — it never feels fully mocking of the war itself, but there’s something reminiscent of a lot of wartime-set television sitcoms to these interactions, a gentle sort of self-deprecating humour. And then, periodically, one or more of the characters faces something really nasty that jars you out of that feeling, as these almost interminable battle scenes stretch out, replete with falling bombs, trees blowing up, bullets flying and people getting crushed, maimed or shot. Some of the humour has dated somewhat, and it does run rather long, but it feels like it defines the spirit of a certain era of a country, and for someone like me who has no connection to Finland, I can almost see the appeal.

The Unknown Soldier film posterCREDITS
Director Edvin Laine; Writer Juha Nevalainen (based on the novel by Väinö Linna); Cinematographers Osmo Harkimo, Antero Ruuhonen, Olavi Tuomi and Pentti Unho; Starring Kosti Klemelä, Heikki Savolainen, Reino Tolvanen; Length 169 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Tuesday 29 January 2019.

Sarraounia (aka Sarraounia, une reine africaine, 1986)

Although my theme this week is building up to the release of 1917, this African epic isn’t strictly-speaking a war film (at least as far as its generic cues go), though it deals with a war between European colonisers and an African people who strongly resist.


A bold African epic about the titular queen who resists the French colonising armies in, I gather, what is present day Niger. In terms of the film, the queen (Aï Keïta) is more talked about and feared than actually seen, and in the end it is the white men who sort of do it to themselves, but the focus is on the moustachioed Captain Voulet (Jean-Roger Milo), not very far from some of the roles that Klaus Kinski would play for Herzog, as a power-addled self-destructive little dictator whose military rank makes him believe he is somehow beyond reproach. The film is really about the rot at the core of the colonialist mission, exemplified by this man, whose fixation on defeating queen Sarraounia becomes his undoing. It’s beautifully filmed in widescreen, with a score of traditional African percussion, along with some rousing acting from the non-professional (African) cast. It suggests not just the way that the 19th century European colonial project was resisted by Africans, but also some of the ways that African disunity allowed it to take hold in the first place, while also being celebratory of heroes like Sarraounia.

Sarraounia film posterCREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Abdoulaye Mamani (based on a novel by Mamani); Cinematographer Guy Famechon; Starring Aï Keïta, Jean-Roger Milo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.

Battles (2015)

This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.


There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.

Battles film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.

For Sama (2019)

With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.


There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.

For Sama film posterCREDITS
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.

Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)

I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.

Continue reading “Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)”

Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.

Continue reading “Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)”

Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).