labyrinth-of-lies-2014-poster-1050x1556Having grown up with a German father who survived being drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight in World War II, films with German war themes interest me. My father was not shy about sharing his experiences in WWII, from being drafted at age 16 when his family tried to flee to Spain to using his skills in English to assistant U.S. forces entering Berlin (he saw the Americans as liberators and later renounced his German citizenship to become a U.S. citizen). One day I hope to write a book about this (as noted in this article: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story), but for now, I still believe I have a lot to learn, as I found out while watching Labyrinth of Lies, Germany’s selection for the foreign-language film Oscar.

Set in late 1950s Germany, Labyrinth of Lies focuses on the level of ignorance the German people still had about the concentration camps, more than 10 years after the war. It’s well-known that the death camps, run by the SS, were secret to the public until the Russians and Americans marched into Germany 8to discover the horrors that lay beyond the barbwire fences. However, I never thought the widespread denial of these camps continued into the late ‘50s. This debut feature by Giulio Ricciarelli, examines the story of an ambitious young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who wants to convict those who committed atrocities at Auschwitz, from Josef Mengele (a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”) on down to the camp’s guards.

For a debut feature, Labyrinth of Lies is a well-plotted, finely acted, tight movie. Ricciarelli is an actor first with loads of experience in German TV movies. It shows, but he also has a strong eye for theatrical compositions. The movie feels like a big scale “Masterpiece Theater” production. The scenes are compact and always move the drama forward, be it Radmann’s quest to do his daunting task, his love affair with a young seamstress (Friederike Becht) or his friendship with a know-it-all journalist (André Szymanski). But then there is also grandeur to many scenes, from the new, sterile buildings like the U.S. fort holding the overwhelming stacks of records from the concentration camps or the vast green, countryside of Germany.


The film’s title holds a reflective connotation that speaks to our enlightened perspective on this difficult time in the 20th century but also refers to the state of denial of the German people during this era. As Simon (Johannes Krisch), a deeply traumatized Auschwitz survivor hiding a horrifying back story, tells Radmann, “This country wants sugar coating. It doesn’t want truth.” I will not deny that the film feels a bit heavy-handed at times. The attorney general warns Radmann, “Be careful this is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it.” At a low point, Radmann staggers in the streets at night in a drunken stupor calling everyone he sees Nazis. As he grows more obsessed with his crusade, Radmann suffers nightmares of being one of Mengele’s experiments. But the film tells a stark story in an entertaining way that will keep viewers hooked for its 124-minute running time. Ricciarelli maintains a consistent pace, and doesn’t make Radmann a pure hero. He does pay a price for his obsession in his personal life. The production value for this period piece and the performances also never falter. It’s a kind of historical drama that will draw in more than history buffs, even though it may not necessarily win Germany the Oscar prize.

Hans Morgenstern

Labyrinth of Lies runs 124 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is rated R (for gruesome images, cursing and sex). It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Oct. 30. UPDATE: it is now also playing at O Cinema Miami Beach (visit this link for tickets). It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Fury posterBefore the very first stark image hits you, Fury director David Ayer unnerves the audience with a simple title card describing the all-out war they are about to witness. The text establishes this is 1945, the end of World War II and U.S. troops are advancing on Berlin. Hitler’s forces are down to recruiting children and old men to fight, but they still have tanks that outgun the comparably puny Shermans of the U.S. army. Then the land fades up from black. It’s all gray and black mud, destroyed war machines and crumpled, muddied bodies. The camera tracks and tracks across this for enough time to set up that this is not a film out to glamorize or romanticize war but to present it as stark and as harrowing as Hollywood can.

For the most part, Ayer succeeds. Forgiving an early sequence that tries too hard to reveal the heart of Brad Pitt’s character Don “Wardadddy” Callier, where he frees a horse from an SS officer, the film’s power lies in its ability to present the unforgiving quality of war. Soldiers are burned alive and torn apart. Faces are removed and bodies burst below tank tracks. These events of horror occur in the film’s first 20 minutes. “This ain’t pretty,” Don tells his new, fresh-faced co-pilot Norman (Logan Lerman). “This is what we do.”

Ayer not only stages vicious battles and skirmishes but presents aftermath as horror: stacks of squishy, gelatinous body parts quivering in rumbling truck beds and even a bit of stiff, pancaked human road kill. He does it all in sharp, steady deep focus. Unlike Spielberg, who, in Saving Private Ryan, stylized Michael Penahis presentation of war violence by enhancing the imagery with tints, shaky camera movements and ratcheted shutter speeds, Ayer wants to present something more unadulterated. Even the interior of the titular tank is far from romantic. Besides photos of loved ones, there is nothing but cold, hard metal bits, much of which blocks out the faces and bodies of the five-member tank crew. They have been consumed by this machine and are only partly human. They are family and hive with various capacities in making “Fury” run while trying to cling to their individual tiny, salvageable bits of humanity.

All actors deserve nods for realizing their characters. Michael Peña’s Mexican character, Trini Garcia, nicknamed “Gordo,” the tank’s driver, handles anxiety with cool determination. Don refers to Jon Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis as an animal when we meet him trying to fix a broken-down “Fury” on a smouldering battlefield. Bernthal infuses Grady with an unstable sort of menace, even when he tries to show affection to his mates by tugging at their ears and noses. Then there’s Boyd “Bible” Swan played with tortured heart by the too often underrated Shia LaBeouf. His Bible-quoting could have easily been a contrivance had LaBeouf not brought such expressive heart to his character. He’s a focused psychotic but also has great affection for those in his company. Sadness and anger with righteous Christian logic used to rationalize behavior never appeared more conflicted.


Yes, they are a motley crew, but to fault the film on that means you should fault all ensemble adventure films for such tropes since John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s Ayer’s unflinching sensibility that makes the film stand out as a statement film because this is not entertainment. This is a nerve-rattling confrontation with the sublime. The tank battles are not CGI, and the effect only enhances the weight of their power on soft humans — both internally and considering the unforgiving science of visceral matter. Ayer’s only enhancement to the tension is a score by Steven Price featuring swelling, rhythmic horns, voices and timpani and bass drums, but it’s plenty enough to tune into for the sense of dread the director is trying to present with this anti-war film.

We follow these men as they show little mercy to surrendering SS troops, the most fanatical of Hitler’s military. Early in the film, Don gives Norman, who was a mere Army typist before being sent to the front, a brutal lesson in killing. After taking a town “decorated” with bodies of hanged children with signs around their necks dubbing them cowards, Gordo mows down an unarmed, surrendering SS officer alleged to have committed the atrocities. Then, one splice cut later, he makes out withWardaddy (Brad Pitt) in Columbia Pictures' FURY. a now gracious, liberated fräulein. The boys can have a civilized extended meal at the home of two rattled women, and Norman can have a moment to fall in love. But nothing quiet can last in this all-out war. So the mood can be brought down when Fury’s crew brings up France and their methodical execution of scores of wounded horses, and then there’s worse… the return to killing for their lives.

The brutality of the end of World War II was harsh. I’ve heard stories from my father who was forced into the Wehrmacht at 16 years old, when his family tried to flee to Spain. It was that or face a firing squad. He survived Africa and Stalingrad (I’m still looking for a translator of his diaries from that era as pictured in the following post: Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). I’m glad that Ayer did not turn this film into some fluffy adventure movie. You might nitpick the characters, but the real star of this film is violence and the strain for humanity to break through it. The culminating skirmish that ends the film speaks to both random luck both good and bad but also a little more: a sense of hope for the only strategy that can end wars:  just stop fighting.

Hans Morgenstern

Fury runs 134 min. and is Rated R (it’s one of the most justifiably, unflinchingly violent films I’ve seen in years). It opens today at your local multiplex. Sony Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If there is a moment in history that does not need overwrought drama, sentimentality and heavy-handedness it is the roundup of Jews to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Since the 2010 release of La Rafle (The Roundup) in France, where it was a bona fide box office hit, there have been many reviews of the film. Many have accused director Rose Bosch of sentimentality. But I feel differently about her movie, as she does seem to show restraint. Based on true accounts of this dark bit of history in Nazi-occupied Paris, though unrated by the MPAA, she tempers the film for a PG-13 level of audience. Some will argue this weakens the impact of the story, making it in fact sentimental. OK, so she does not exploit the violence. This does not make this story any less powerful. Besides, the horror of the Holocaust can never be matched sitting in a cozy movie theater for a couple of hours no matter how “unsentimental” you make it.

The music, though sometimes melodramatic, remains subdued. Especially if you compare it to, say, John Williams, who composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There are few grandiose moments in La Rafle and no abuse of slow motion or other such high-pitched, stylized techniques. Though the production value is high, it serves the story, and never feels too showy. The production even includes a digital effect that sweeps through the thousands rounded up in one day contained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, on their first step to the death camps. This is not a fun film to watch, but a testament, if a straight-forward one, with little standout stylistic flourishes, so despite the fact that this film features Mélanie Laurent, who shines in an emotionally charged performance, do not expect Inglorious Basterds.

I’m not saying La Rafle is a perfect film. It actually falls in a sort of middle ground of compromise of violence and sentimentality that will probably be shrugged away by most. But, I, for one, was moved by the film’s little touches of detail. The story is, for the most-part, told from the perspective of Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), a naive 11-year-old boy who is based on a real, still living person, who barely escaped the trains to Auschwitz to tell the story that informs this movie. The film is at its strongest when it stays with his perspective. However, Bosch tries to cram too much exposition around Weismann’s story to the film’s detriment. It is in the intimate moments with Jo where the simple power of the film resonates.

The film begins with too much expository dialogue running the viewer through a historical context that should be familiar to anyone who might be curious about such a movie. There is even a brief cut to Vichy, France, the famous seat of the collaborators that paved Hitler’s entrance into France. There are also cutaways to Hitler himself (Udo Schenk) who has such obvious lines as “Everything is happening as I wrote in Mein Kampf.” He also tells Himmler (Thomas Darchinger) of making “ashes” of the Jews so no one can tell the children from the adults. There is one brief moment showing a German officer calling from Auschwitz, with flames raging behind him, asking for the deliveries to slow down. In more deft hands, say Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, that moment could have resonated, but it’s muted and oddly matter-of-fact, as Bosch tries to over-reach for comprehension in the drama.

The truth of the horrors of this period in history do not need such painstaking, all-encompassing re-enactment. It’s the small, intimate moments that ultimately hold the film together, like the little Jewish boy Nono (played by identical twin brothers Mathieu Di Concerto and Romain Di Concerto) who tag along with the masses. Through it all he continues to ask when his mother will arrive to join he and his brother, not knowing that she has already died. He clings to a Red Cross nurse named Annette Monod (Laurent) who knows the truth but tries to keep his spirit afloat as her own spirals downward. There are also more personal details like the disposal of jewelry in the latrines just before the detainees are hauled away to their final camp and the arrival of firemen at the Velodrome d’Hiver offering their hoses to the thirsty masses. Those contained at the stadium also do not pass up a chance to hand over notes to the firemen addressed to those on the outside. These are the sort of details a child might remember from a life experience. The historical context was something far beyond and would have naturally come out in the film in more subtle ways.

It is a difficult line to walk for a director who wants to tell a side of the Holocaust that has not really ever been given such a grandiose, big budget treatment. This was a true human tragedy in France. Anyone unmoved by film’s end, during the reunion of those who should have died, is not allowing themselves a chance to understand the horror that Bosch is trying to communicate. She does it best during the small details, like the unrelenting drive of a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) to help his people stay alive in the unsanitary conditions they were relegated to. Or the small but powerful lines by the victims as they are rounded up. One woman screams, “I won’t leave. This is my house!” as she clings to her home’s door frame while a French policeman yanks on her. When the neighborhood baker’s wife yells out “Good bye, Jewish vermin” as those gathered up are placed on trucks, a little girl yells back, “I’m not vermin!” These moments resonate with immense tragedy, proving there is no need for melodrama or over-explanation. It is these observant touches of humanity that pay off in the end.

Hans Morgenstern

La Rafle opens Friday, Feb. 17, in select theaters nationwide, in the US. In South Florida it will play the Intracoastal Mall Cinema in North Miami, Sunrise Eleven in West Broward, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood, Regal Delray and Cobb Jupiter 18. The following Friday, Feb. 24, it will start its run at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film is unrated and runs 124 minutes. Up-date: If you missed it at any of the prior venues, it arrives for a limited run at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema as part of Miami Film Month on Friday, Mar. 16. Get tickets to those dates here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My Joy (Schastye moe) is a rare film with concentrated potency in story development as well as social commentary that does not succumb to cheap tricks. I might call this the darkest movie I have ever seen. Flashy shockmiesters like Takashi Miike and Gaspar Noé cannot hold a candle to it. The implications of hopelessness in My Joy go much deeper than the pushing of a moral envelope or raw brutal, horror. It crosses generations and implicates an entire society. No wonder the Russians are so pissed off about this movie.

The film opens with a shot of wet, churning concrete, which some gangsters will soon use to seal away a body. The lumpy gray mix swirls and folds over itself in a continuous cycle that leads only to a dark abyss. It’s a fitting image for the grim story of My Joy, which not only follows the doomed journey of Georgy (Viktor Nemets), a trucker on the back roads of post-communist Russia, but also encapsulates the cross-generational downward spiral of a corrupt nation.

If you are wondering if there is any hope in My Joy, well, despite the title, there is none. But it takes a man who loves his country to paint such a bleak portrait of it. As Fassbinder did with Berlin Alexanderplatz in the early eighties, director Sergei Loznitsa, who had only worked in documentaries up until this feature film, has angered his countrymen with this film, according to an article by Michael Koresky.

Loznitsa offers a story that unfolds in a non-linear narrative. It’s a brilliant creative move as scenes of Russia during World War II and the current time flow into each with associative dream logic. But My Joy is more nightmare than dream, as one scene after another offers a portal to even starker and grimmer situations, which all too often lead to murder.

The movie’s first pivotal scene happens as an elderly man (Vladimir Golovin) tells Georgy a story after the Russians had invaded Germany at the end of World War II (I know this bit of history very well, as my father was drafted into the German army and survived the brutal military campaign to take Moscow. It is also well known that the Russians raped and pillaged as they marched on Berlin). He was a Soviet Lieutenant back then (Aleksey Vertkov) and was heading back to his village with some modest war trophies: a red dress, a camera and a German soldier’s coat, waiting to catch a train. Another Soviet officer (Dmitriy Gotsdiner) is making the rounds asking travelers for their papers and invites the lieutenant to sit with him for a drink. This officer at one point drapes the coat over his shoulders to model it for the lieutenant. “It suits you,” says the Lieutenant. “You look like a real German.”

Of course, the comment stings the commander, and, just as the lieutenant is about to board the train, the commander demands the lieutenant turn over his bags. Soon after, as the train pulls away, the lieutenant shoots the commander. “I lost my name there,” the old man tells Georgy. And on the films goes, in a full throttle journey toward the darkness, a place where you give up a sense of humanity, of self, of morals, in order to survive one moment to the next in a world where no one can care less, not even you to your own person.

Though the film is quietly paced, a tense, ominous air hangs heavy over every scene, as if danger lurks everywhere, even when looking out in the distance across vast lands where nature tears through concrete to take back a land man no longer deserves, leaving dilapidated homes and villages that harbor only dilapidated souls. Even a young prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) wants to have nothing to do with turning her life around. When Georgy tries returning her home with money in her pocket without taking any sexual favors, she throws the money back at him and says, “You think you’re so noble? … Are you an idiot? I’ll earn my own money with this,” she says slapping her crotch.

Georgy then walks her village, as the camera turns to its denizens with their worn out, beat up, scraggly, ugly, sad faces, slowly panning from one person to the next before one brutal man pushes through the mass, and the camera follows him until he paces off into the primordial woods encroaching the village’s boundaries. We never glimpse his face.

Credit is due to cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), who certainly brings an elegant production value to the lush imagery that brims with so much character. From the people who populate the film to vistas that only show tiny figures walking to who knows where from who knows what, a sense of dread and mystery surrounds every scene in My Joy.

Georgy moves on from the village, down a back road said to be cursed, but one that will take him around an accident that has choked the main road to a standstill. Day turns to twilight, which turns to night, and it seems he is the only living soul on the road, as he maneuvers his truck around potholes, through a village of derelict homes, with only his headlights to lead the way.

After an encounter with some men who he welcomes to a fire and roasted potatoes, Georgy ends up laid out from a blow to the head that seems to come out of nowhere. Then it’s on to another scene from World War II where two soldiers are given food and shelter by a man and his young son. One soldier asks the man, who says he is a teacher, if there are police in this seeming one-home village. “We thrive untended like the grass,” says the teacher who admits his hope for a school once the war has ended. “Germans are civilized. They’ll establish a school,” he tells these soldiers. Of course it will not end well for such an idealist.

One scene after another fascinates, and Loznitsa, who also wrote the screenplay based on stories he heard during his years as a documentary filmmaker, wastes no words of dialogue, as it all seems to reverberate with the ghosts of the past and the foreboding of the future. Do not misread this review. This is not about celebrating a film because of its doom and gloom. This is about celebrating a filmmaker who can explore the gloom to maximal effect. This movie has an almost literary sensibility, as the seeming anecdotal encounters entwine and illuminate one another. It’s as if Loznitsa is illustrating the collective unconscious of a country that has repercussions on future generations. This director shows immense promise as a feature filmmaker, and he could very well be another Krzysztof Kieślowski.

After he winds up with a concussion that seems to have robbed him of his ability to speak, Georgy ends up beaten and scavenged upon for the rest of the film, absorbed into the village by a woman who will use him in every way, shape and form. He winds up a human zombie, and when he finds himself in a lethal situation of villains, by-standers and victims, his reaction seems to encapsulate oblivion. Where is justice when one has become a zombie? Georgy shambles off into the night, as cars keep passing down that road that lead him on the path to nihilism. What is left when there is no conscience?

Indeed the only thing joyful is in the film’s title. However, there is clear affection driving this movie, as it takes a deep love of country to create such a  freakish nightmare journey into the madness of backwoods Russia. You thought Winter’s Bone was a bad place to find yourself? This is hell on earth. One shudders to think of the US arriving at such a state, as it falls behind in education, innovation and the gap widens between the poor and the rich. As the old man says when his life comes full circle toward the end of the film, “Anything is possible, lad. You know yourself these are troubled times.”

After screening at a few scattered festival dates, including making it into Palme d’ Or competition at Cannes in 2010, My Joy will make its US theatrical debut at the Miami Beach Cinematheque for one night only: Wednesday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. This special preview screening even beats its New York screening run.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)