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Original, featuring a fine performance by Malkovich
Dennis Littrell | SoCal | 10/12/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This strange and original work is a French film about Nazi Germany done in English. There are no subtitles. Director Volker Schlondorff is German, the screenplay is by veteran French writer Jean-Claude-Carriere, who has scores of films to his credit including Bell de Jour (1967) and Valmont (1989), and the star is the American, John Malkovich, who plays a French simpleton named Abel Tiffauges who ends up as a servant in Field Marshall Herman Goering's hunting estate during World War II, and then later in a Hitler youth academy for boys.Malkovich's Abel is enormously sympathetic because he has suffered but harbors no bitterness, because he genuinely loves children, and because he has a certain magic about him based on his childish belief that somehow he will survive any catastrophe. In a boy's home as a child he survives the brutality of a proto Goering-like fat boy, and then later as an auto mechanic he overcomes a false accusation of child molestation. Both of these little stories are vividly rendered and seem entirely realistic. Then begins Abel's war time adventures, and it is here that the story becomes, as some have observed, something of a fairy tale. Abel is able to leave his barracks at the prison to wander about where he meets a blind moose and then a German army officer at a deserted cabin in the woods. This leads to his being established at Goering's hunting estate, and from there to the Hitler youth academy where he is treated as a privileged servant. We see the Nazis as just another part of the bizarre personages of his world.The depiction of Goering as a kind of self-indulgent Nero, living in opulence as the world burns, seemed entirely believable. The overall portrait of the Germans in an objective and balanced manner was refreshing and thought-provoking and one of the strengths of the film. The Nazi eugenicist is contrasted with the officer who was part of a failed plot against Hitler, both men enormously sincere and dedicated, the one unbalanced, the other unlucky.This is not a film for those looking primarily to be entertained. This is a work of art, dark, uneven, and a bit curious."
Paul Emmons | West Chester, PA USA | 02/19/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"_Pace_ the anonymous Los Angelino who dismissed this film on the basis of a few morbid/vaguely scatalogical moments, this is one of my favorite movies.These moments are few and mild compared both to the original book _Roi des Aulnes_ by Michel Tournier (where I'd agree that they are overdone, without disputing the critical consensus that this is a rather great modern novel) and to the director's earlier film "The Tin Drum". Here Schlondorff should be congratulated for his restraint. He seems determined to tell a story with beauty and artistry-- portraying the charms of Nazified Germany not in alien black and white but in the beguiling living color with which its citizens actually had to contend-- rather than depending upon shock value.Abel, the protagonist, combines three images from literature or folklore: ogre, Erlkoenig, and Saint Christopher. Similar to a pied piper, the Erlkoenig is a mysterious horseman who entices and carries children away from home, described in a poem by Goethe and in one of Schubert's most famous songs. (The film also alludes to the pied piper himself with a scene in which Abel plays a pipe to seven boys before bringing them into the castle). The ogre is a man-eating monster who is stupid and almost blind but has a keen sense of smell. Saint Christopher, the flip side of the Erlkoenig, was also known for carrying a child-- but in this case valiantly. The salient characteristics of all three figures are reflected in many details in the film.With regard to the title figure, however, little in either the screenplay or Malkovitch's characterization suggets that Abel is feeble-minded. He is a reader, a skilled auto mechanic, and comfortably bilingual. Herein lies the clue, as I see it, to the message that our Angeleno can't find. Abel's stupidity and blindness were primarily moral, and it is a fact of history that this same failing afflicted millions of intelligent people in the presence of Nazi ideology. As Count Kaltenborn observed, for a long time Abel, along with hundreds of normal boys, was intrigued by the flags, torches, and nocturnal ceremonies designed to appeal to weak minds. The Nazis co-opted and twisted the history and culture of which the Germans were justly proud: genealogy, chivalry, romance, legend, even traditional Christian symbolism. They also co-opted and twisted both Kaltenborn (the ancient aristocrat) and Abel (the admiring newcomer), shrewdly appealing to their particular tastes, desires, and sense of self. In return Abel tells us "this school felt like home... I was happy with my new mission." The realization dawned on him slowly that, despite doing what he loved and did best, and with the best of intentions, he was aiding and abetting an evil and catastrophic regime. But once it penetrated, his behavior, far from trivial, became heroic while remaining completely true to himself. I'd like to hear this critic's suggestions as to how anyone in his situation could have done better.In one sense this story was a fairy tale. In another, it was quite real: it happened to an entire nation. As the historian John Lukacs said, understanding history depends on self- understanding. Only if we viewers realize how we might succomb to the same blandishments can we prevent such a disaster from befalling us."
The Beauty within the Beast
geminijef | 11/30/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Unfortunately, The Ogre was not released in the U.S. (as far as i know). I was fortunate enough to see it back in 1996 while in Europe. The film is one of the most incredible portrayals of humanity and the usually tepid John Malkovich rises uncharacteristically to the occassion, giving an incredible performance.Malkovich plays an ignorant man, Abel, living in a small town at the dawn of the Nazi movement. He seems to be mentally slow, but emotionally heightened as he has a great passion for the vitality of the children in the town. He is fond of photographing, especially children. However, due to a mis-understanding, because the people of the small town are so ignorant and afraid of the quiet lumbering Abel, he is sentenced to jail (undeservedly) for the crime of molesting a child. He is transferred to help with the war effort in France, and eventually comes to work for the Nazi party, "recruiting" children for the cause, in part due to his ability to relate with the kids. He, however, does not seem to know what the Nazis stand for, or why he shouldn't be taking in children. He cares for the children as if they were his own, and is eventually persecuted for harbouring a young Jewish boy, which is when he begins to realise the ramifications of his plight.A brilliantly scripted film with a very interesting study of disparity and what it means to be good or evil. A must see.-jgl"
A poignant and compelling film
flickjunkie | 04/18/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 1996 film, which was not released in the U.S. until 2000 in the rental market, offers a fresh German perspective of World War II. It puts a more human face on the people of the Third Reich, much in the same way as `Das Boot'. We are used to depictions of German soldiers as brutally evil, soulless killing machines (and there is a bit of that here) but this film mostly presents a softer more balanced portrayal. This is the story of Abel, an affable simpleton from France with a love of children and animals (no, there are no undertones of pedophilia). Prior to WWII, he is wrongly accused and convicted of child molestation. While working in the work camps, he is captured by the Germans and through a series of events ends up as a prisoner of war worker in a training school for Hitler youth. He is emotionally seduced by the romantic notions of Hitler's national socialism and the great devotion to the fatherland that is being taught there. And of course, he loves working with the boys. The Germans notice this and how much the boys like him as well, so they ask him to recruit more boys for the school from the local countryside. Things go along well until the Russians invade and the only defense of the school must be made by the students (who are well trained in the art of war).This is a terrific story that gives us a more realistic look inside Germany during the war. No, it wasn't an idyllic free society. But it wasn't exactly a factory for mechanized inhuman killers as it has been routinely portrayed either. We come to understand that what we considered evil was being presented to the children in terms that seemed good and noble. They felt as if they were on an idealistic quest, not on a diabolical mission of subjugation.The direction of this film was expertly done. Volker Schlondorff's presentation of the story, though slow moving at times, offered an excellent character study of Abel and was patient in proffering revealing looks at the people and the feelings of those around him.Malkovich is fantastic as the naïve and slow witted Abel. He is wonderfully childlike and sincere in his portrayal; reminiscent of his role in `Of Mice and Men'. This is the best I can remember him in quite some time.This is a poignant and compelling film of substance. I rate it a 9/10. The sophisticated viewer will enjoy it."
Children of Light, Children of Darkness
Dark Mechanicus JSG | Fortified Bunker, USSA | 10/19/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Is a man's character forged at birth, in his genes---or is it determined by his experiences, by his loves, by his ambitions, by his will? What is the difference between a man and a child? Why is the dreamworld common to a child's playtime any more---or less---real than the often nightmarish, brutal 'reality' common to grown-ups? These are questions that Volker Schlondorff's fine, haunting, surreal and compulsively watchable "The Ogre" spends a great deal of time with, though Schlondorff is far too subltle and skilled a craftsman to beat the viewer over the head with these things---at least, until the movie's final minutes, which felt oddly ham-handed (given what had preceded them) and grafted on to a film that devotes itself to the mysteries, secret fantasies, and occasional horrors of childhood. "The Ogre" mixes a very modern evil, Nazi Germany, with a very ancient one, the legend of the Ogre (known in Germany as the Erl-Konig, the horrible "Erl-King"), stirs them together in Schlondorff's black cauldron, and produces a potent, visually haunting witche's brew indeed. The movie chronicles the short, bizarre, and strangely happy life of Abel Tiffauges(played brilliantly by John Malkovich), a Frenchman who strikes up easy friendships with children, chiefly because he himself is in many ways a child: innocent, simple but not simplistic, drawn to myths and fairy tales and ripping yarns of adventure in the Canadian wilderness---and especially the silly faces and scary spook voices that endear him to his young friends and, as "The Ogre" progresses, his charges. Wrongfully accused of attacking a young girl, Abel is spared prison by the outbreak of World War II, and agrees to join the army to fight the Germans. His brief military career is brought to a halt when his command unit, blithely sipping champagne and discussing the use of carrier pigeons on the front, is captured by German soldiers. Abel is sent East on a prison train, and it is at this point "The Ogre" slips into high gear---and takes a decidedly surreal turn. While Abel's companions plot everything from escape to using Abel's pigeons to convey information back to the doomed French High Command (they ultimately eat the pigeons, causing Abel, in his fanciful way, to renounce the Motherland forever), Abel sees his imprisonment, ironically, as a doorway to freedom. He gazes upon the passing German countryside he glimpses from the slats in his boxcar, and imagines his dream: a cabin, smoke curling up from the chimney, deep in remote woods. Interned at a German prison camp, while his comrades toil to build a landing strip, Abel wanders off into the nearby woods, discovering the cabin of his dreams---and a moose, "The Ogre", who roams the surrounding wilderness. Rather than plot escape, Abel returns to his prison camp, but makes weekly visits to the cabin in the woods, and ultimately encounters the keeper of the estate, Hitler's Chief Forrester, who takes the simple man under his wing and transfers him to SS Reichmarshall Hermann Goerring's hunting lodge, where Abel begins his slow, strange transformation into a procurer of young boys for nearby Nazi Kaltenborn Castle and Hitler Youth training camp, and into the Legend itself: the Ogre, eater of children. There is far too much to "The Ogre" to describe in a brief review; it is a masterful, compelling, gorgeously shot film, and from Goerring's opulent hunting lodge, to the medieval castle that is the SS redoubt, to the sublime carnage of the hunt, to the sequences in which Malkovich pursues terrified boys through a darkening forest on a black horse with snarling dogs at the leash---every shot, every sequence tells. The acting is also excellent, from Volker Spengler's childish, impudent Goerring to the deranged eugenicist played by Dieter Lasser; particularly important are the child actors, all of whom turn out utterly believable, naturalistic performances. But this is Malkovich's movie, and his Abel is no simpleton, but rather a grown child, which is why he is so good with children of all ages himself, and ultimately so much more innocent than the young SS footsoldiers he recruits from the surrounding countryside. Malkovich plays the role with restraint and with a childlike, affable quality which underscores why so many decent minds could have been ensnared by Nazi Germany, and this touches on the film's underlying notion of childhood: Nazi ceremonies, with their dark pageantry, their torchlit marches and ceremonies, their pounding drums, were calculated to appeal to the mind of the youth, the adolescent, the dreamer of dreams. Even the wicked, depraved Goerring is himself an easily distracted child, and is soothed by Abel in a moment of pique, dipping his fat hands into a bowl of gem stones to calm himself. "The Ogre" is shot as a dark fairy tale, from Abel's rambles in the woods, to Hermann Goerring as the reincarnation of Abel's sensual childhood friend Nestor (look at Malkovich's face when the eugenicist praises an SS youth's "Nestorian" nose), to shots of Malkovich riding out through haunting forests straight out of the Brothers Grimm, to the image of Jews, fleeing concentration camps in the final days of the dying Reich, viewed as "legions of the dead" marching past Castle Kaltenborn.
There are some missteps, particularly the ending, which strikes me as completely out of character for Malkovich's Abel; Mueller-Stahl also phones in a performance in which his lines are so mumbled that you need subtitles to decipher them. But that is quibbling. "The Ogre" is an amazing movie, one that requires repeat viewings to unlock its treasures. Darkly fanciful, hoplelessly tragic, it is a deeply rich study of the Children of Light and Darkness."