Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood, and the movie industry as a whole, absorbs a fair amount of criticism for the perceived lack of originality and creativity in this era of remakes and sequels. However, filmmakers also deserve some credit for constantly finding fresh stories associated with The Holocaust and World War II – seemingly endless sources of material for new movies. As Russia’s official Oscar Foreign Language entry, this film from director Andrey Konchalovsky (co-written with Elena Kiseleva) offers up three distinct perspectives of the same tumultuous period.
Julia Vysotskaya plays Olga, a former Russian Countess and member of the French resistance. Ms. Vysotskaya is the wife of director Konchalovsky and has a screen presence somewhat reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman with her ability to appear alternatingly tough, loving, sensitive and stubborn. Her character Olga has been arrested for sheltering two Jewish boys. Philippe Duquesne is Jules, the lead detective assigned to Olga’s case. His questionable loyalties are accompanied by a weakness of the flesh that is all too common among those in a position of power. Christian Clauss plays Helmut, a nobleman and German SS officer who is emotionally torn between his personal desires and his duty to the cause of his country.
The story is told from the perspective of each character through a blend of flashbacks and interviews. Harsh lighting, stark surroundings, and their respective wardrobes during the interviews appear to show each being held captive as they are interrogated by an entity that remains unheard and unseen. The interviews provide some insight into the characters, but almost seem intent on keeping us off-balance as the film progresses. It’s really the flashbacks that are the most interesting and provide the fascinating details for Olga, Jules, and Helmut.
Beautifully filmed in black and white with an excellent use of lighting effects by cinematographer Alexander Simonov, the tangled web of paths intersecting during war time offers some terrific sequences: a father and son on a morning walk, an isolated and guilt-ridden officer in a fog-draped forest, the immediate scavenging after an unexpected prisoner death, the excruciatingly emotional deportation of Jews, and a remarkable sequence involving a meeting with Himmler and Helmut’s subsequent mission to audit the concentration camps.
The brief flashes of joy are usually crushed by the weight of despair and bleakness, yet by the end, we believe we know each of these characters – and what motivates them. Director Konchalovsky’s film is an unconventional, creative, and ambitious combination of The Holocaust, Germany’s quest for perfection, and the greed and daily desperation of those involved. The interviews might not be what you assume, yet cause us to wonder how might our own interview sound while reminding us that, no matter the circumstances, we can always choose to do good.