Saturday, March 03, 2012

Unintentional Double Bill: Silence of the Sea and The Night of the Generals

Anatole Litvak’s “The Night of the Generals” and Jean Pierre Melville’s “The Silence of the Sea” express their Occupation-timed themes with wildly varying degrees of sensitivity. While both could be subtitled “The Inner Monologue of an SS High Commander”, how they get to the root of madness via their self absorbed, larger-than-life Nazi commanders are distinctly different events. Litvak’s film, released in the late 60’s, is a much more lurid treatment of the Nazi atrocity, headlined by an all star international cast and an overwrought, queasy performance by Peter O Toole. Melville’s film is a chamber piece, rarely leaving its single main setting and drowning the viewer in subtle voice over that plays out like a stream of conscience diary just 5 years after the war had ended.

At 2 and a half hours, Litvak’s “The Night of the Generals” (1967) doesn’t seem to have a very hearty appreciation, yet it’s an ambitious, terrifically entertaining film that dared to frame a fictional murder mystery around very real events of the Third Reich. Omar Sharif is Colonel Grau, an intelligence officer following up on an eyewitness account of a murdered prostitute in 1942 Warsaw. Seen leaving the building immediately after the murder was a German soldier identified by the red stripe in his trousers, a clear indication of a general’s uniform. By process of elimination, Grau discovers that only three generals had unknown whereabouts the night of the murder: General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasance), General Gabler (Charles Grey) and General Tanz (Peter O Toole). Grau’s investigation spans over twenty years and is consistently interrupted by history- first by the sacking of the Polish ghettos by General Tanz, followed by his own promotion to Paris and the Occupation there, and then later interrupted by the plot to kill Hitler. Yes, there is justice served and a perpetrator is eventually brought to justice but its not by the good guy of our story, but by a peer instead and only after two decades of the war ending. “The Night of the Generals” is good for a history lesson, but immediately startling for its no-nonsense treatment of these hallmark Nazi moments. Just when Litvak establishes the three possible murderers and Grau is closing in on the most likely candidate of Tanz (O Toole), his division is in the throws of executing Hitler’s Final Solution in the Warsaw ghettos. These atrocious actions, memorialized for the entire running time of other films, is given only a few minutes of screen time here, considered as buffer for the lethal mental state of General Tanz and an excuse for Grau (Sharif) to temporarily postpone his investigation. It’s only a day later when Grau receives a promotion to Paris by two of the three men he’s investigating and his case is permanently sidelined.

Flash forward two years and another girl turns up murdered in Paris, this time with all three Generals stationed there as the Allies push toward the German positions. Grau re-opens his investigation, only for the film to be sidetracked and deepened by the plots of a coup to assassinate Hitler. Again, the murder mystery takes a curious backseat as the film explores the various backdoor dealings of several Generals, but it’s also in this hefty middle section where the film explores the mental breakdown of General Tanz. O’Toole really gets to go off the deep end here. Through his fractured state of mind, obsessed with cleanliness and timeliness, “The Night of the Generals” becomes a Jack the Ripper tale that, for my money, best appropriates the nature of unchecked Nazi aggression on both the global and personal scale. We’ve already seen O’Toole wipe out a whole section of Poland, so what’s going to stop him from murdering a girl of the night? While the real life events of “The Night of the Generals” are firmly recorded, it’s the fictional aspects that seem to dictate the driving madness behind the whole Nazi agenda.

Jean Pierre Melville’s “The Silence of the Sea” trades in terror as well, but it’s psychological terror. His debut film released in 1947, “The Silence of the Sea” is based on a short story secretly released during the Occupation by a French writer named Vercors. It’s depiction of a Nazi Lieutenant slowly turning his back on the Nazi movement while embracing the quiet beauty of France certainly establishes the novella’s Resistance tinted ideas. In cinematic terms, Melville’s film is simple and economic. As the Nazi lieutenant, actor Howard Vernon is steely and opaque. In the film’s opening moments, he arrives in a small provincial Paris suburb and requisitions the upstairs room of an old man (Jean Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stephane). As an act of resistance, the uncle and niece resolutely deny speaking to him. This doesn’t seem to bother the Lieutenant very much as he swaggers downstairs every night and delivers a soliloquy of thoughts and statements about his past love affairs and his love of French culture. Through simple point of view shots, Melville also weaves a delicate relationship between the three, continually framing the nape of the niece’s neck under the Lieutenant’s loving gaze and the uncle’s stone stare. Initially designed as a monster due to his uniform and career choice, Vernon and director Melville slowly peel away the veneer and create a conflicted narrative where its difficult to assign blame to anyone. It’s only late in the film when the Lieutenant, confronted with his army’s ultimate goal of wiping out France, that his inner pacifism is released and the monster is given a human form.

As with “Army of Shadows” years later, Melville would complete what was ultimately hailed as the best Resistance film. With “The Silence of the Sea”, the basics are there…. And remember this was only a few years after the war itself had ended. Placing “The Silence of the Sea” in retrospect, its examination of a high commander coming to terms with his nation’s atrocities is downright frightening. There are vague mentions of gas chambers and a massacre in Treblinka that ultimately shake the Lieutenant to his core, but its also Melville’s inference that this man’s sexuality is questionable. After a conversation in which an old roommate decries France and calls it a “beast”, the Lieutenant returns to his country boarding room with self destruction in his head. That conversation is the real dagger to his heart. And like the best of Melville’s films, where quick editing and fluttering glances provide the big thrills, it’s the hushed murmur of the niece that deals the biggest explosion.

With so many portraits of psychopathic Nazi commanders littering the cinema landscape, “The Night of the Generals” and “The Silence of the Sea” give us alternative glimpses into this cinematic paradigm. Both films are readily available on DVD, with “The Silence of the Sea” available on a Korean DVD label as well as a region 2 Blu-Ray edition.

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