I haven’t traveled widely, but from what IÂ have gleaned at art houses and in history classes, both Germany and Russia haveÂ a certain recognizable something that distinguishes their native sons, anÂ identifiable quirk of national character unmistakable and uniquely their own.Â While both films under consideration are up for Academy Awards, I’ll bet veryÂ few Smackdown readers have seen either one. I’ve braved the arthouse crowds andÂ brought back this humble comparison intended to help you decide which nominatedÂ film is most worthy of your valuable time and attention. Creepy Germans versusÂ Mad Russians. Bring it on.
In This Corner
Over the fifteen months preceding thefir st world war, a series of increasingly strange events unfold in a tinyÂ German town. (In this hamlet, something’s rotten in the state of Germany, notÂ Denmark.) The denizens are not individual characters so much as monstrousÂ archetypes; the landed baron a controlling overlord who gradually losesÂ control, the doctor a cold, cruel, and sexually perverse father, the pastorÂ sexually repressed and physically abusive to his many children, theÂ schoolteacher ineffectual, romantic, and somewhat distracted. The children are beatenÂ and tortured, molested and abandoned, mistreated and punished for everyÂ infraction. The women are muzzled, abused, and dispatched with not muchÂ fanfare. Even the crops suffer brutal beheadings, and the pets are savagely killed.Â In revenge, they act out their dark fantasies, traveling in a creepyÂ Children-of-the- orn-style pack, walking in an ominously straight line,Â visiting mysterious cruelties on the different, the Other. All this ritualizedÂ punishment rains down on the entire town; initially, the town looks normal, butÂ soon the bucolic vistas yield to a slow motion horror movie, all portent andÂ unease.
In That Corner
The last days of Leo Tolstoy provide aÂ provocative setting for “The Last Station.” All the charactersÂ struggle for Tolstoy’s affection and approval; as the Great Man nears death, aÂ contest of wills erupts and explodes, focusing on his hotly contested will.Â Tolstoy’s wife and muse, the formidable Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren) battlesÂ Tolstoy acolyte Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) over the rights to Tolstoy’sÂ work and property. Politics and philosophy make for a fascinating screenplay.Â The squabble personifies the great Russian philosophical question of the earlyÂ twentieth century – the preservation of personal property and security versus theÂ pursuit of an anti- aterialistic, greater good. Tolstoy and his followersÂ struggle to reject all material comforts and personal concerns –Â fame, wealth, even romantic love — andÂ most of them fail in intriguing and telling ways.
I’d characterize movie Germans this way;Â they seem to thrive under strict discipline, fostering domination and creatingÂ high achievers through regimentation and repression, control and remarkableÂ reserve. Stiffly formal and resolutely uncomfortable with open emotionalÂ expression and release, movie Germans stoically stand and sit at attention,Â sticks planted firmly and rigidly supporting their spines.
Most post-war German films must deal somehow with theÂ elephant in the room as all Germans must address the past and make some peaceÂ with all that warring. How did that nation conspire to exterminate millions?Â Asking “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” makes for someÂ intriguing and involving cinema. Everyone over a certain age carries thatÂ historic burden, and all those born too late carry the national guilt uneasily.Â “The White Ribbon” poses a slightly different question with some veryÂ unsettling answers. This very creepy look at a highly dysfunctional littleÂ hamlet on the eve of the first world war shows us the children who grew up toÂ be Nazis and asks us to examine up close and personal some of the factors thatÂ might have created such a secretive and sadistic generation.
The film is beautifully, if statically, photographed inÂ murky black and white. The mood is somber and haunting; horrors lurk behindÂ every closed door, and deaths occur often and without much ado. Proceeding at aÂ snail’s pace, “The White Ribbon” challenges its audience with allÂ that joyless slogging, but those who brave the two and a half hours ofÂ heaviosity will have much to discuss and analyze. Still, reading about it andÂ thinking about it might prove more fun than actually watching it.
Movie Russians are very emotional, passionate andÂ obsessed with words and big ideas – love and justice for instance. They argueÂ operatically, hugging freely, laughing heartily, crying openly; these humanÂ hurricanes of feeling and philosophy are given to grand gestures and granderÂ speechifying. “The Last Station” is not a foreign language film; no bogusÂ Russian accents clutter the aural landscape. Brits and Americans alike doÂ justice to an intelligent and emotionally affecting screenplay.
Featuring an award-worthy performance by Academy favoriteÂ Helen Mirren and a career-capping turn by Christopher Plummer asÂ Tolstoy, writer-director Michael Hoffman draws terrifically lively performancesÂ from his entire cast. Mirren plays the countess as spitfire seductress, withÂ brain and balls to boot. No tiptoe-ing into her dotage for this formidableÂ dame. James McEvoy is particularly winning as Valentin, the young man whoÂ idolizes Tolstoy and comes to work for him. Most of the story unfolds throughÂ his innocent (and no-longer-innocent) eyes. The scenes of Valentin falling inÂ love (and forbidden lust) with Masha (Kerry Condon) are filled with welcomeÂ warmth and humor.Â Tolstoy’s deathbed scene felt both historically accurateÂ and emotionally relevant; somehow, through the veil of history, somethingÂ universal and timeless shines through and overtakes us. Over the end credits,Â we are treated to actual silent footage of the real Tolstoy and hisÂ pigeonbreasted Countess; while Mirren cuts a decidedly more elegant figure, theÂ period details and settings of the film ring true and resonate in the memoryÂ coupled with this rare documentary glimpse.
“The White Ribbon” means toÂ disturb and unsettle us; it accomplishes its goal almost too well. A slowlyÂ unfolding nightmare of unanswered mysteries and haunting images, it lingersÂ long. “The Last Station” is a more rollicking adventure, filled withÂ humor and big ideas. Its drama is leavened with comedy and recognizable familyÂ dynamics, and the performances are uniformly excellent. The locations too areÂ exquisite; there are cinematic thrills to be had riding through those quintessentiallyÂ Russian birch woods by carriage and arriving at a country estate in its lastÂ gasp of elegance and privilege. The winner: “The Last Station.”