Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

Never let it be said that Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t give us something to think about. With his latest film The Master, Anderson has tackled a subject arguably more challenging and confounding than his previous offering There Will Be Blood, which looked to the American oil business and its relationship with Christianity for sensational dramatic material.

With The Master Anderson has stepped into the world of quasi-religions. Herein we discover a fictitious group called The Cause, based in no small part on Scientology and the legacy of the group’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. An alluring Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (based on Hubbard), an outrageously charismatic charlatan who describes himself thus: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.”

It is when Dodd meets Freddie Quell (a frightening Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II suffering from a severe case of Post-traumatic stress disorder that he is fuelled into action and feels compelled to help the man. Dodd takes Quell under his wing and offers him therapy, support and above all seemingly genuine friendship, in exchange for Quell’s expertise in brewing a dangerous substitute for alcohol; a drink largely comprised of paint stripper.

Initially Dodd’s friendship with Quell seems genuinely beneficial and Dodd’s therapeutic techniques have a short term impact on Quell’s sense of catharsis, but Quell’s troubles are deep seated and Dodd’s faux expertise begin to seem doubtful. Despite being a damaged soul, Quell is still a fiery individual by nature and soon conflict arises between Dodd and he. In one extraordinary scene the men are imprisoned together, leading Quell to smash a cellblock toilet in misdirected anger.

In spite of Dodd’s declaration that “man is not an animal” (a theory that seems to be the basis of The Cause) the relationship between Dodd and Quell has a very animalistic quality. Anderson shows this with particular clarity when the men wrestle on the grass outside of Dodd’s house. The portmanteau ‘bromanace’ has never seemed more pertinent.

The expertise with which Paul Thomas Anderson carries off the continually fascinating (and consistently entertaining) relationship between Dodd and Quell is without question. His command of the cinematic language is so competent (with his stunning use of 70mm film) that it makes us wonder to what extent the title of the film can be considered a pun. Yet, in spite of its mastery, a question remains: what exactly does Anderson want to say?

Like There Will Be Blood the meaning of The Master is illusive. Anderson leaves us with numerous disparate thoughts and feelings, but no closure. Like Quell’s battered seaman we are adrift in search of meaning, left only with Frank Loesser’s song (I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat To China, abysslike shots of the ocean and naked women (sculpted out of sand, if all else fails).

Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson wants to tell us that, instead of seeking a higher meaning and instead of following the theories of others, we can only rely on our basic animalistic urges. Perhaps when Dirk Diggler fixated on the content of his pants back in Anderson’s second film Boogie Nights, the director had said everything he had to say. As for The Master only time and repeat viewings will tell.

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With Polish Holocaust film In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland shows she is not afraid to test her audience. With a run time of almost two and a half hours and a cinematic style reminiscent of The Third Man if it were shot with the grungy modernity of Anthony Dod Mantle, this film is a dark, lengthy and unrelentingly unsentimental experience. In spite of its steeliness however In Darkness tells a true tale that is still utterly moving upon conclusion.

In Darkness focuses on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker (and petit thief) in WWII Poland. The film tells of how he risked everything by hiding a group of Jewish people in the sewer network during the Nazi invasion of Lvov. While jaded viewers might feel we have seen enough of the Holocaust on the big screen (with Schindler’s List and The Pianist still reasonably fresh in our minds) Socha’s story resonates with enough moral dilemma and reluctant courage to make the trip worthwhile.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha makes for a robust leading man, holding the film with an earthy charisma. His character brushes death numerous times and Wieckiewicz carries his character through the proverbial minefield of Nazi occupation with a directness that gradually makes him endearing. His home life offers something of a relief from the oppressive occupied world, with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska) offering some stability. Holland stages family scenes inside, lit with Rembrandtesque warmth by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.

This warmth is in direct contrast to the milieu inhabited by the Jewish characters. For the majority of the film they live, quite literally, in darkness in the sewers. Somewhat inevitably not all of these characters are given an entirely rounded character treatment. A number of them exist as cyphers to create drama, yet Holland does not allow them all to become victims. The tough Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) becomes an important motivator for the cause of the Jews as he forfeits cover, attempting to reunite missing members of their group. This leads to a number of tense scenes where he encounters the singular brutality of the Nazi characters.

Tensions between the Jewish characters however, are where some of the most intense drama originates. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) leaves his wife Szona (Etl Szyc) for younger woman Chaja (Julia Kijowska), whom he impregnates in the sewers. The scenes of these events feel sordid, particularly as Szona witnesses them and attempts to prevent her daughter Rachela (Ida Lozinska) from seeing her father’s primal betrayal. While they are strong scenes, a problem emerges. Due to underdevelopment, characters like Yanek and Chaja remain one-dimensional, sucking some of the authenticity from an otherwise realistic scenario.

But at its heart In Darkness is Socha’s story. It is a film about a morally ambiguous man whose instincts ultimately guide him to do something remarkably ethical, in the face of depravity. Holland gives Socha’s story clarity and, with her impassive style, allows us to consider critically how we would react in similar circumstances. Only during the last scene does she step close to the melodramatic. The strongest emotional punch however, comes with the information we are given in text form, when the film has ended. We discover the fate of each character outside the context of war, reminding us of the fragility of life, even in times of peace.

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