Thursday, December 31, 2020

Panfilov’s 28 Men (2016)

                    “Panfilov’s 28 Men” (also known as “Panfilov’s 28) is a Russian film about the legendary defense of Moscow by members of the 316th Rifle Division which was commanded by Gen. Ivan Panfilov.  The 28 men were collectively awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

                    The movie opens on Nov. 14, 1941 at a bleak moment for the Soviet Union.  Operation Barbarossa has been spectacularly successful and the Wehrmacht is closing in on Moscow.  The Red Army is fighting desperately to slow down the Germans.  The 28 are all that is left from three companies.  They prepare by training using a wooden tank (ironically as you will read later).  As the men throw snowballs at the tank, their officers discuss the odds against them and the plan to block the 11th Panzer Division.  They march to the site and dig foxholes and trenches.  They withstand a heavy bombardment that shows you how soldiers can survive when they are dug in.  Soon German tanks and infantry approach.  From here the movie is a last stand.  The Soviets fight desperately with anti-tank artillery, machine guns, Molotov cocktails, and grenades.  Some of the men are armed with PTRD-41 anti-tank rifles.  The unit is led by commissar Klochkov (Aleksey Morozov).  He inspires the men to fight to the end.

                    “Panfilov’s 28 Men” is a good pure combat film.  It doesn’t spend a lot of time on background.  But we do get to know the men as generic, stoic soldiers.  On the march, they discuss the Seven Samurai and the 300 Spartans.  The banter is realistic, although there is no dysfunction and no one grumbles about the suicidal nature of their mission.  The acting is adequate for a film that is focused on action.  The cast is sincere, but no one stands out.  They are all warriors who give the Germans hell.  The movie is not a Soviet style propaganda piece, but it is clearly meant as an homage to the 28 and not interested in depicting any of the 28 as anything else but patriots.  As evidence of the goal, the main character is a commissar who explains to the men what they are fighting for.

                    The main reason for seeing the movie, besides learning about one of the most famous legends of the Great Patriotic War, is the combat.  It is not combat porn of the Korean variety.  The bombardments are realistically horrific.  The cinematography puts you with them in the trenches.  The fighting is intense and there is a lot of it.  The soldiers use a variety of authentic weapons which is a treat for war movie lovers who care about weaponry.  It’s a good tank movie.  Besides the ironic use of a full-scale wooden replica that was moved on a sled, there were 1:16 scale models that are better than CGI.  Unfortunately, the movie makes the common mistake of having the tanks less than capable.  They rarely use their machine guns or even their main guns.  They are too easily taken out.  If the movie was realistic, the Germans would have easily broken through the Soviet line.  But then we wouldn’t have had a heroic last stand.  And we wouldn’t have gotten the satisfaction of Nazis being slaughtered.  The tanks do little to stop the 28 from mowing down the infantry.  The deaths are not of the touchdown signaling type, thankfully.  This is not the Russian equivalent of “Battle of the Bulge”.  Instead, it is closest to “9th Company” in its combat.  It is not as good as that movie because most of the characters are not recognizable and although you care about the group, you don’t care about the individuals.

                    “Panfilov’s 28 Men” is an entertaining combat movie.  It is just for guys as there are no female characters.  It is an excellent example of a movie that perpetuates a legend and is not interested in historical revisionism.  By the time the movie was made, scholarship and evidence from opened Soviet records had proved that the story of the 28 was made up.  It originated in an article in a Red Army newspaper at the time of the Battle of Moscow.  That should have been a major red flag that the story was invented for morale purposes.  In spite of the fact that the movie could easily be proved historically inaccurate, the culture minister snippily defended it as telling about “a sacred legend that shouldn’t be interfered with.  People that do that are filthy scum”.  Since I am not really interested in the true story of Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen (mainly because there is no story), I have no problem with the historical license taken here.  I would assume most Russian viewers were aware that they were watching a movie about a legend.

GRADE  =  B+



Wednesday, December 30, 2020

1944 (2015)


                    “1944” is an Estonian film directed by Elmo Nuganen.  It highlights Estonia’s participation in WWII.  Some of its young men fought with the Germans and others were in the Red Army.  Each considered the other group to be traitors.  The movie is set in 1944 on the Tannenburg Line.  The Soviets are pushing into Estonia on their drive to Berlin.  Estonian units on opposite sides meet each other in combat in their own country.  The movie was a huge success in Estonia.


                    The movie begins with a title card explaining that in 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and conscripted 55,000 Estonians.  In 1941, Germany took the country during its invasion of the USSR.  72,000 Estonians joined the Wehrmacht, mostly the Waffen-SS.  That’s all the background we get as the movie jumps to July 27, 1944.  Estonians are holding a trench line for the Germans.  The first explosion in the movie comes within the first minute.  It’s going to be a combat movie.  The narrator is Karl (Kaspar Velberg).  He and his mates have to fend off a Soviet horde attack featuring T-34/85’s.  They use their panzerfausts and MG42’s effectively in a nice scene with realistic deaths.  We are then introduced to the squad.  Karl and his comrades are in a bunker in the trenches.  There are a variety of personalities, with the focus on Karl.  He is haunted by the fate of his parents who were taken away by the Soviets.  He and the others have reasons for fighting the Soviets.  That doesn’t mean they are fans of Hitler.  In a revealing scene, a government official comes to the front to pass out photos of Hitler.  When he says “Heil, Hitler”, one of the men responds with “Why Hitler?”  Later, they discuss the war and the possibility of facing countrymen on the battlefield.  This happens half way through the movie and we get a twist that shifts the focus to an Estonian soldier named Juri (Kristjan Ukskula) who is in the Red Army.

                    I had not heard of this movie until I started looking for foreign combat movies to fill out my Non-English Combat Film Tournament.  The title did not give me much hope for the film.  It is a terrible title.  My apprehension was wrong.  This is an excellent war movie.  The cast is strong and it is well-acted, especially by Velberg and Ukskula.  Their characters, Karl and Juri, are very appealing.  You really care about both, even though they are on opposite sides.  The movie is effective in creating empathy for both sides.  It does not take sides on which Estonians were the traitors to their country.  The men are portrayed as young men caught in a situation they did not bargain for.  Their masters may be Nazis and Communists, but they are simply Estonians.  It’s their “allies” that are the villains with a stereotypical evil commissar being the only weak character. 


                    “1944” feels authentic in its depiction of Estonian soldiers.  They are cynical, reluctant warriors.  No one tries to be a hero.  They question orders.  Karl and the others fighting for the losing Germans are fatalistic.  When one asks his commanding officer how many Russians are coming, he responds:  “A couple.”  The dialogue is terse like that.  The debates are brief, but you learn the reasons why they are fighting. 


                    The film has some noteworthy combat.  There is an impressive array of appropriate weapons.  This enhances the reality of the battle scenes.  The tactics make sense.  There is a scene where Karl and some others crawl through a minefield to take out a bunker.  They enter the Soviet trench and throw grenades before going around corners.  Juri’s men use fire and maneuver to attack a farm.  The coordination with the tanks is good.  The scene is one of the best for buffs who like to see rampaging armor.  Best of all, the deaths are random, unpredictable, and heart-tugging.  One of them is one of the most shocking deaths I have seen in a war movie.  The movie really packs an emotional punch.  This is partly through an implausible romance that connects Karl and Juri.  It’s pure cinema, but it adds a female character (Maiken Schmidt) to make the movie a more rounded cinematic draw and not just a high testosterone ammo-fest.


                    In the tournament, “1944” tied “Unknown Soldier” in its match.  I advanced “Unknown Soldier” because it has a little more combat.  However, it could be argued “1944” is the better movie.  It is certainly the more unique.  Where “Unknown Soldier” does an excellent job as a small unit combat film, it does not break new ground.  “1944” covers two small units and they are on opposing sides.  There are plenty of war movies that give both sides of a conflict, but “1944” spends the first half on one side and the second half on the other.  The connection between the two halves is adept and the transition is awesome.  You will not see it coming.  This is a must-see movie!


GRADE  =  A  


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Jojo Rabbit (2019)


                    “Jojo Rabbit” was written, directed, and acted in by Taika Waititi.  He won an Oscar for his adaptation of Christine Leunen’s book.  The book is about a young boy in Hitler’s Germany toward the end of the war.  Waititi added the imaginary Hitler character and played him in the movie.  He did no research on Hitler and meant the role to be a mockery of the dictator.  The movie was controversial because of its comedic take on Hitler’s Germany, but it was critically acclaimed by most critics.  It received six Oscar nominations:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Scarlet Johannson), Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Adapted Screenplay.  Waititi won Best Adapted Screenplay from the Academy Awards, BAFTA, and the Writers’ Guild. 


                    The movie opens with a German version of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.  (And closes with the German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes”).  Let the satire begin!  Jojo Belzler is a ten-year old who is in the Hitler Youth.  He has been thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi doctrines, like anti-semitism.  But he is not likely to become a stormtrooper as he is just a na├»ve little boy corrupted by the system.  Jojo has an imaginary friend – a buffoonish Adolf Hitler.  Hitler is his mentor and confirms what Jojo has been taught.  On the other end of the spectrum, his mother Rosie is secretly an anti-Nazi.  She tries to keep his childhood whimsical, but he is being pulled into the serious nature of the war as the Americans and the Soviets are closing in on his town. As preparation for their conscription, Jojo and his best friend Yorki attend a Hitler Youth Camp run by the decorated combat veteran Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell).  There is the requisite training montage, but this one includes book burning.  Jojo gets his nickname “Rabbit” because he refuses to kill a rabbit to earn his Nazi merit badge.  His world is turned upside down when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  Their relationship will force him to reassess what he has been indoctrinated about the Jews.


                    This is a unique movie.  I understand the criticism about portraying the Nazis and Hitler in a humorous way, but Mel Brooks (who lauded the film) did a similar thing in “The Producers”.  Clearly, Waititi is making 21st Century satire and no one could have left the theater wanting to join a neo-Nazi militia.  However, it is not dark satire.  It tends more toward silliness.  For instance, when Klenzendorf asks for some German shepherds to defend the town, he gets a group of actual shepherds.  When the Gestapo visits Jojo’s home, 31 Heil Hitlers are exchanged in about a minute.  The minor characters are caricatures.  Rebel Wilson plays a butch she-Nazi.  Alfie Allen is Klenzendorf’s lackey second-in-command.  There is a huge gap between these characters and the main trio of Jojo, Rosie, and Elsa.  All three are amazing characters.  The relationship between Jojo and his mother is moving and Rosie is the real hero of the picture.  She gets the best line.  When Jojo asks what the people who have been hanged in the town square did, she responds:  “What they could.”  It is one of the few lines in the movie that is not aimed at smiles.  There are many funny lines told with straight faces.   Some of the funniest lines go to Yorki.  Here is a typical exchange between the two friends:

Yorki:  There are bigger things to worry about than Jews, Jojo. There's Russians somewhere out there. They're worse than anyone. I heard they eat babies and have sex with dogs. I mean like that's bad, right?

Jojo: Sex with dogs?

Yorki: Yeah. The Englishmen do it too. We have to stop them before they eat us and screw all our dogs.

                    The key to the movie is the romance of Jojo and Elsa.  While it does take the standard route of a rom-com, it is much deeper than a film from that subgenre.  The Jojo/Elsa dynamic allows Waititi to poke fun at German myths about the Jews.  It’s uncomfortable humor and in a drama would be considered offensive.  This is high-level satire to balance the slapstick portrayal of the Nazis.


                    The movie has a top-notch cast and they are clearly fully on board.  Scarlet Johansson earned her Academy Award nomination and is perfect as Rosie.  But the movie relies on the work of two young actors who have very bright futures.  Roman Griffen Davis plays Jojo.  He is wonderful in his acting debut.  His performance is matched by Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa.  She is the one character that exemplifies the dark aspects of the war and McKenzie brings a blend of hopelessness and feistiness to her portrayal.  Her interactions with Jojo are the highlights of the film.  Their arc is not trivialized.  Those who criticize the humor of the movie need to give it credit for giving us one of the great Holocaust characters.


                    The movie is a real treat for the eyes.  Waititi found that most German towns were not bombed into rubble and life continued fairly close to normal.  Filmed in Czechoslovakia, Jojo’s neighborhood has an old world look to it.  The pristine environment is meant to convey the cluelessness of the German public as to what was actually happening in the war.  The Oscar nomination for Costume Design must have mainly been for the costumes put on Johannson.  Elsa’s fashions are great at conveying her personality.  She wants to shield her son from evil, but dresses to evoke her pre-war party-girl days.  She also dresses to try to distract Jojo from the realities of the war.  The very odd music score by Michael Giacchino (“Rogue One”) matches the vibe of the film well.


                    “Jojo Rabbit” deserved its Best Picture nomination.  It deftly blends satire, broad humor, and drama.  For a movie that is laugh out loud funny in parts, it has some very poignant moments.  It is a movie that does not fit clearly in a category, but that is one of its strengths.  I have seen hundreds of war movies and I am always open to movies that push the boundaries of the genre.  There are some significant war comedies, but this subgenre is not noted for great satires.  “Jojo Rabbit” takes its place with movies like “Dr. Strangelove” at the upper tier of war comedies.  It is a must-see for war movie lovers, but I can’t promise everyone that they will like it.  I can enjoy both “Jojo Rabbit” and “Hail the Conquering Hero”, but not everyone can.