is just about unifying Europe—or at least a handful of refined National
Socialist officers would like to believe.
Of course, it is hard for them to kid themselves when Berlin is ordering
mass reprisal executions. Based in part
of the diaries of the old line German war hero-novelist Ernst Jünger’s diaries,
Volker Schlöndorff dramatizes a notorious episode of Vichy-era French history
in Calm at Sea, which screens as
part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.
the orders of the Communist French resistance faction, two high-ranking German
officers are to be assassinated. They realize
the occupying Germans will likely retaliate.
In fact, that is part of the point.
It will help radicalize the general populace. Unfortunately, one of the shoddy guns
supplied to the triggermen jams, leaving a target alive. While the actual gunmen escape, the occupying
power intends to set an example. If the
partisans in question are not turned over to the authorities, one hundred “hostages”
will be executed.
figure of one hundred was the result of a bit of diplomatic negotiating on the
part of Jünger and his superior officer, cutting down the literal death list
from one hundred fifty. These are not
randomly selected names—they are political prisoners, roughly divided between
Gaullists and Communists, like the seventeen year-old Guy Môquet, who would
become a martyr figure for French leftists.
that should not be a spoiler to anyone.
Indeed, Sea becomes something
like the Môquet passion play in its slow, overwrought third act. That is a bit of a shame, because the second
act offers a surprisingly insightful and intriguing perspective on some pretty
familiar cinematic terrain. In addition
to clearly suggesting the mass executions were exactly what the Communist
leadership had in mind (except more so), several of their imprisoned partisan
openly question whether allying themselves with the National Socialists during
the Hitler-Stalin alliance was possibly a mistake in retrospect. You think maybe? Likewise, Jünger pointedly asks if mass
executions will prove to be counter-effective as they try to win French hearts
and mind. Hmm, perhaps. Yet, the disdainful Jünger’s reluctance to
stick his neck out is in turn challenged by the sophisticated French woman he
is pursuing—the only sort of conquest that interests him.
French-German television co-production, Sea
is still relatively cinematic and boasts a big screen cast. As the reluctant Nazi Jünger (officially
rehabilitated in the 1950’s), Ulrich Matthes is smart, cool, and riveting in
every second of his screen time. Veteran
French character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the hardware merchant in The Well-Digger’s Daughter) also elevates
the otherwise disappointing endgame, appearing as an anti-Vichy Catholic
priest, who compassionately ministers to the doomed men, by not ministering,
per se. Indeed, his work is welcome and
notable as a sympathetic depiction of a man of the cloth. Unfortunately, the prison ensemble is stuck
portraying symbols rather than characters.
At its best, Sea
is a fascinating film, critically exploring the murky psyches of conflicted
Germans like Jünger and the collaborating gendarmerie France is still apologizing
for. However, it can also be as blatantly
manipulative as a made-for-TV movie, which in fact, it is. Though not nearly as powerful as Schlöndorff’s
underappreciated Polish Solidarity docudrama Strike, Calm at Sea is an
interesting little film with somewhat more on the merit side. Worth considering, it screens Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (8/28-8/30) during this year’s World Film Festival in
Labels: Ernst Junger, French Cinema, Volker Schlondorff, WFF Montreal '12