The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, March 08, 2009


My Trip To Movieland: "The Reader" And What I Learned
In Advanced Hitler Studies

This past weekend my wife and I took the opportunity to walk to Richmond's newest cinema -- it's first of its kind here in 37 years -- the 17-screen Movieland at Boulevard Square operated by the Bowtie Cinema partnership. The event is unique for the Holy City. Such a large scale project built not to satisfy some civic edifice complex but a good old-fashioned private sector entrepreneurial entertainment center for wide public enjoyment. The cinemaplex is fit into what was originally a locomotive factory established in the 1880s.

As we strolled at a brisk pace out our street toward the Boulevard we witnessed a line wrapped around the block of the grand Byrd Theatre for the 9:30 showing of Valkyrie. Here was a second-run, second-rate film in its second week and still drawing a a crowd to the one-screen 1928 neighborhood movie palace. Nazis are big box office. Well, and World War II in general. And the Byrd was constructed at the cusp of the sound era in film according to specifications for a typical neighborhood theater of the silent era -- Wurlitzer theater organ included. Yet another example of Richmond's "behindedness" emerging to our eventual benefit.

But as we strolled in the unseasonable and pleasant evening air, I considered the film we'd seen, and the one we were about to.

Hilter Au Cinéma


The cinematic Hitler provides interesting history and one, I'm sure, has supplied fodder for at least one graduate school dissertation. We've come some distance from 1969's The Battle of Britain, when actor Rolf Stiefel demanded that his portrayal of Hitler be filmed from behind or at a distance. He didn't want his later career compromised by audiences associating his as "that Hitler actor." Of course, I think if anybody who knows him these days it is because you cannot see his full-on Fuehrer.

TBOB also included the best Goering portrayal by Hein Reiss until eclipsed by that of Brian Cox in the television film Nuremberg. They are Goerings at two different times: the vainglorious over-grown brat of 1941 who becomes the charming and bullying sardonic noose-cheater of 1946.

But Valkyrie threw me, for several reasons. Cruise's profile sorta resembles Stauffenberg, but put an eyepatch or Aaron Eckhart and he would've done a far better job. Not that it's Cruise's fault, but Cruise was too much Cruise for the film. I couldn't get past the associations. When Stauffenberg returns to Berlin and with General Beck is working the phones to ignite the coup by calling various military districts, all I could think of was that scene in Jerry Maguire when the ousted sports agent is frantically making cell phone calls to prevent clients from getting poached by his nemesis in the office. There's even a woman in the Valkyrie steno pool making moo eyes at him, like she's getting ready to say, "You had me at High Treason."

Branagh Confusions

There's all this high-priced British acting talent playing Germans, too, that befuddled me, especially with Cruise thrown in the middle of them, with his flat Midwest American voice. Then Kenneth Branagh playing conspirator Hening von Tresckow, who, with a switch of uniform, portrayed a chillingly matter-of-fact Reinhard Heydrich in HBO's 2001 Conspiracy.

Can't Germans play Nazis convincingly? They sure managed in Downfall.

And Valkyrie had at least one cast member in common with that film, and in both cases, playing a "good German."

Christian Berkel in Downfall portrayed physician Ernst Schenck employed by the SS who in fact wants to save lives, not extinguish them. In Valkyrie, he's similarly persuasive as Colonel Albrech von Quirnheim. And apparently he was also in a film I've not seen, Black Book, playing not so nice Nazi guy.

Still, Valkyrie had some nice touches in it: the sub-motif of Stauffenberg's baleful glass eye popping up in strange places -- a bit dropped in just twice I think, there needed to be a third. Then a deft touch where a guard at Hitler's "The Wolf's Lair" headquarters in Rastenburg, a stifling, bug-infested place, kills a mosquito on his wrist with a cigarette.

When Stauffenberg must go up to the Berghof to get Hitler's signature on documents, that place's interior is just like the pictures I've seen, quite well done, down to the crazy steps that lead into the main seating area, that would've caused somebody to trip if they were unaware and not facing them. But the contrived assortment of Nazi higher ups reminded me of a Tony Soprano sit-down.

And Valkyrie's Hitler looked more like Saddam Hussein with a forelock. None of the inner circle really look like their counterparts -- no film I've seen ever has gotten their Keitel or Jodl right. But we've come some distance from Patton wherein the Nazi military high command looks like it's holed up in a redressed set "evil genius" central from a contemporary James Bond movie.

The short scenes before the "People's Tribunal" presided over by the crazy Roland Freisler are on the mark. Freisler's epitaph should've been included in the crawls at the end: he was apparently killed during a bombing raid on Berlin when a beam of the courtroom fell on him, though this story is disputed. However he bought it, Freisler's demise saved the life of another "July Plotter," Fabian von Schlabrendorff. I bring this up, because in Valkyrie, Schlabrendorff's idea of rigging a bottle of cognac to explode in Hitler's airplane is conflated with Branagh/Tresckow.

So Amie and I stroll arm-and-arm up the Boulevard, past alluring balcony parties and at least one fellow strumming his guitar on the front porch. Richmond as she approaches spring is one of the most beautiful places. Alas that the Boulevard no longer has its alleés of linden trees.

Movieland's E-Ticket Ride
In front of Stronghill Dining Company, young lovelies in shoulder-baring summer dresses were yammering away on cell phones and smoking. (What is it with people under 30 voluntarily huffing down cigarettes? I don't get it. Sex and the City is in an artifact in reruns — at least the qualities of the show these ladies were emulating. Even Carrie quit eventually.)

I thought, too, of my March 2007 magazine piece about Scott's Addition and the poised-for-revival neighborhood of midcentury architectural finds and industrial and warehouse buildings. Stronghill is one example of that burgeoning life, and Movieland, which, though not in the Addition proper, is diagonally across from the old Lighthouse Diner (left, via Dementi Studios), now a discount medical-supplies store and minus the distinctive lighthouse cupola. When things improve, some entrepreneur is going to swoop down on that place and offer the owners many ducats to relocate, hopefully for the clientele, nearby.

I signed up for the E-ticket ride at Movieland; I wanted the whole schmear, the pizza, the beer (Stella — they'd already gone through the Sam Adams) and the ambiance. What was impressive was the diversity of the crowds. All kinds of folks were there (we even spotted arts maven Pam Reynolds!), which was unusual for an entertainment venue in Richmond, where the crowds can tend to be one thing or another.

For the record, the pizza was ... not so good, but it's a movie theater, not a restaurant, and I wasn't expecting much; still, my immediate need was satisfied.

We were there to see The Reader, and a fine film it is, though I was disoriented by some of the casting. The great Bruno Ganz (left), who went from being one of the kindly angels in 1987's Wings of Desire to playing Hitler in 2004's Downfall — the indelible representation of the dictator, making Anthony Hopkins' and Alec Guinness' turns in the role look like cartoons. That's one of the negative aspects of playing a character well — you're forever associated with it. In The Reader, Ganz appears as a weary, kind-eyed law professor taking his advanced-seminar class to observe a war-crimes trial. I just half-expected him to explode in a rage then grumble, "Wo ist Wenck? Wo ist Steiner?"

And who should also show up in The Reader but Alexandra Maria Lara, the actress from Downfall who played Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary. (And nobody looks cuter than Lara [left] in a big helmet, except, maybe, Juliet Binoche in The English Patient. )

But here she plays the daughter of a massacre survivor who points out the women guards who allowed it to happen. I experienced cinematic whiplash.



But one of the biggest cultural neck-snappers was seeing Ralph Feinnes who played the despicable, pot-bellied concentration camp commandant Amon Goth of Schinlder's List here as the conflicted lawyer who is haunted, even tormented, by the memories of a life-altering affair he experienced as a youth, in The Reader. Feinnes has played some notable roles since then; in Quiz Show and The English Patient, and picked up an Academy Award. But his Goth was so banal and terrifying -- and pretty. Which is why they call it, "Acting!"






We sat too far forward in the theater. We're kind of used to the Byrd, I guess. We got a great view, a crystalline picture and incredible sound. But I found myself looking up from my rocking seat, and so I left a little sore.

Apostrophe

Wandering the corridors and looking at the coming attractions, I have to say, it's not the theater's fault that some really lousy movies seem headed our way — do we really need another Friday the 13th, or Halloween, or a remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3?

Of course, we need another Star Trek. At least I think so.

Anyway, the pleasant amble home reminded me again of our city's European qualites, and how downright cosmopolitan, given that I can now walk from my front door to a 17-screeen cinema.

But we need to work on a movie tram. For the days when we don't feel like walking.Except the amble helps me work thorugh my movie mashup confusions.








Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home