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History, Television, World War II

TV: The Dawns Here Are Quiet

June 8, 2017

Recent Russian miniseries The Dawns Here Are Quiet (2015) possesses a peculiar blend of contemporary filmmaking gloss and old-fashioned sensibilities, which bears out its origin as a remake of a patriotic, Soviet-era war epic. During World War II, a discarded Russian officer named Vaskov (Pyotr Fyodorov) commands a small anti-aircraft detail that guards a railway junction far from the front lines. His biggest problem is keeping control of his soldiers, so when his men finally get reassigned for making too much trouble, he requests replacements that are teetolaing non-womanizers. Much to his surprise, he’s sent just that: an all-female unit. Vaskov’s awkward interactions with his new outfit develop into a true leadership challenge when German paratroopers are observed nearby. Vaskov deduces they must be the vanguard of a German attack, their mission to sabotage Russian supply lines; he therefore sends for reinforcements. But all he receives is approval to take a squad of five soldiers with him to deal with the threat. It will put his tactical abilities to the test, and also give him a new appreciation for the bravery of the women under his command.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet is a lavish, attractive production that refreshingly gives voice to the stories of women in wartime. Since Russia is the only nation that employed female combat soldiers during World War II, this tale is every bit as action-packed as any other war epic. On the other hand, while the female soldiers are clearly revered by the story, they’re also characterized a bit stereotypically. There’s an element of protective male-gaziness to this celebration of their heroism. While the women are given flashback histories, their backstories aren’t particularly interesting, and the series very much belongs to Vaskov, whose initial reluctance to lead these women evolves first into grudging acceptance and then to downright love and respect. The story is at its most effective as a suspenseful slow-build, as Vaskov ponders out thorny battlefield tactics that continually paint his small, inexperienced unit into tighter and tighter corners. (Unfortunately, this plot’s unnerving forward momentum is frequently disrupted by the less-interesting flashbacks.) The women are effectively played by Anastasiya Mikulchina, Evgeniya Malakhova, Kristina Asmus, Agniya Kuznetsova, and Sofya Lebedeva, and the camaraderie the group develops with their new commander is inspiring. But considering the female focus, it feels very much a man’s story. Still, it is a compelling watch on many levels, and made me curious to see the original film upon which it is based.

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Film, History, World War II

Film: Anthropoid

June 3, 2017

I’m the type of person whose interest is immediately piqued by a film entitled Anthropoid (2016). Surprisingly, despite the title, it’s not science fiction; it’s a dramatization of the operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich during World War II. (ANTHROPOID was the operation’s code name.) The film follows the exploits of agents Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcík (Cillian Murphy) to parachute behind enemy lines into Czechoslovakia to assassinate the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” Heydrich has been crushing Czech resistance to Nazi occupation with ruthless efficiency, but Kubis and Gabcík are determined to put a stop to his evil reign. They meet surprising reluctance, however, from the remnants of the Czech network they’re counting on to assist them. These resistors have been living under the Nazis and fear the inevitable, murderous reprisals. Nonetheless, the two agents follow their orders, proceeding with their dangerous, high-stakes mission.

If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen Operation Daybreak, which coincidentally I saw ealier this year. Based on the same true story, and despite forty-one years separating them, Anthropoid and Operation Daybreak are essentially the same movie. Oh, there are altered details and subtle differences in emphasis, but the films share an almost identical tone of reverence and tragedy, and tell the story with similar effectiveness. Ultimately, I think Anthropoid is the more successful film overall, with slightly more focus, polish, and realism than Daybreak. Dornan and Murphy supply charismatic heroism, and the new film’s web of intrigue seems more nuanced and detailed. It also makes more room for women in the resistance, played well by Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerová. I’m not sure I learned anything new from the new version, but it was interesting to compare the two films, particularly during their climactic action setpieces, which are so strikingly similar they may have been filmed in the same place by the same director. In the end, viewers could easily watch one or the other without needing both. Forced to pick one, I suspect Anthropoid is the more accessible and convincing watch.

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Fiction, History, Spies

Novel: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

February 10, 2017

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne NesbetInfusing middle-grade fiction with the dark and twisty tropes of the spy novel might sound like a counterintuitive notion at first, but Anne Nesbet’s wonderful Cloud and Wallfish (2016) delivers the best of both of those worlds. Briskly paced, with smooth, accessible prose and likable young characters, it’s a great, informative read for kids that also satisfies as a historical espionage puzzler, immersively depicting the end of the communist era in East Germany.

Noah Keller is smart young kid with an astonishing stutter and a photographic memory, and he’s about to go on an remarkable journey. In 1989, his parents take him out of school, change his identity, and bring them with him to East Berlin. Evidently his mother is behind the Iron Curtain to work on a dissertation, while his father’s along for the ride writing a novel. But as Noah acclimates to his new life behind the Iron Curtain as “Jonah,” he senses that his peculiar parents aren’t entirely what they seem…and neither is anything else in this bleak, paranoid country. Even more mystery is afoot when he meets the clever girl from the downstairs apartment, Claudia, with whom he becomes fast friends — much to the consternation of a very suspicious East German government.

Persuasively conjuring its era, Cloud and Wallfish is a bracing, entertaining read that seamlessly integrates classic spy tropes into a fun, educational middle-grade read. The common denominator, of course, is pretending: a confident voice manages to walk the line between the wide-eyed, make-believe fantasy of childhood play and the serious, high-stakes play-acting of secret agents in a hostile environment. The resulting tale is successful for readers of all ages, I should think, thanks to its likable protagonist, masterful historical world-building, and the endearing, loyal friendship at the story’s core. This book is a joy.

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History, Spies, Television, World War II

TV: The Heavy Water War

January 15, 2017

With resistance to tyranny much in the news lately, The Heavy Water War (2015) is highly relevant viewing. But this historical drama is just as much about complicity with tyranny, an angle which lends a tragic aftertaste to its annals of remarkable heroism and horrifying moral conundrums.

Set during World War II, The Heavy Water War follows the story of Germany’s efforts to develop the atomic bomb. According to brilliant German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), the key to their research is deuterium oxide (“heavy water”), which is being produced at Norsk Hydro in Norway. After the German invasion, the Nazis install Erik Henriksen (Dennis Storhøi) as Norsk’s director in order to increase production. But the British, when they learn of this initiative, quickly move to stop it, with the strategic assistance of escaped Norwegian officer Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner). Together with British officers of the Special Operations Executive, Tronstad plans a number of daring commando raids on the plant to foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions.

The Heavy Water War dramatizes its corner of history quite effectively, an educational and rather suspenseful look back at a lesser-known struggle of the Second World War. Evidently some of its characters are fictitious, added for dramatic effect; Anna Friel’s intelligence officer Julie Smith, for example, is inserted in an expected but well executed romance-under-fire subplot. But overall the series’ mission is to depict the exploits of the men who risked their lives to keep the atomic bomb out of German hands, as well as the impossible moral decisions of the officers in charge of the sabotage. Like many great war epics and spy films, the thorny politics of cost-benefit analysis come into play. But the series also has insightful subtexts about the insidious lure of complicity, as shown in the shady, opportunistic paths followed by Heisenberg and Henriksen, who sacrifice all decency in the name of ruthless personal ambition. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even if the details of its history don’t deliver the justice of its message, The Heavy Water War comes down on the right side of this moral argument.

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Film, History, World War II

Film: Operation Daybreak

January 1, 2017

Based on a true story, Operation Daybreak (1975) has its dated aspects but is an otherwise effective World War II historical. Free Czech soldiers Jan Kubiš (Timothy Bottoms), Jozef Gabčík (Anthony Andrews), and Karel Čurda (Martin Shaw) are flown back to their homeland on a high-stakes mission: the assassination of Hitler’s trusted right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring). Nothing goes as expected, but the agents persist in the attempt, which comes at extreme cost.

Viewers seeking a bleak, deglamorized film about resistance to tyranny could do worse than to watch Operation Daybreak, which benefits from extensive location work and good production values. Daybreak is an ironic name for this operation (the real codename was “Anthropoid”); it’s a messy, less-than-clockwork operation, to say the least. The performances are merely decent, and the soundtrack is weakened by third-rate synthesizers, but overall the story feels authentic, and the frantic action sequences in the final act are memorable.

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Fantasy, Fiction, History, Science Fiction

Novel: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

November 29, 2016

Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair (2016) is a striking and ambitious book, a steampunk alternate history that tackles tough subjects in a sprawling mosaic. Do the components all work together perfectly? In my view, not entirely, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the novel for its beautiful prose, its scope, and its mission.

It imagines an alternate timeline in which members of the Fabian Society and American missionaries purchase land in the Belgian Congo to found a new nation, Everfair, in the late nineteenth century. A democracy composed of Congolese natives, freed American slaves, and expatriates from all over the world, Everfair is conceptualized as a tolerant haven, and its disparate citizens work together to realize that vision, aided by the emergence of new steam technologies that transform their society. But the march of history throws numerous world-shaking challenges in Everfair’s path, including a world war, forcing the nation’s citizens to work tirelessly to sustain their society.

Everfair’s mosaic structure involves numerous viewpoints and short, time-gapped chapters that incrementally paint a picture — a storytelling strategy adopted, perhaps, to convey this multicultural society’s gradual progress. At times, the scattered approach makes it a difficult read; a sustained, flowing narrative is sacrificed in a favor of a cumulative impression of the setting, pieced together from the observations of a massive cast of characters over a span of decades. Fortunately, the pieces are finely rendered with beautiful prose, complex relationships, and fascinating historical detail. The novel ventures into largely unexplored corners of history, giving voice to marginalized races, genders, and sexualities against a backdrop of epic geopolitical upheavals.

It’s perhaps not the most compellingly readable novel, frequently changing focus in a manner that is occasionally distancing. But it’s also unlike any other speculative history I’ve ever read, compensating for its somewhat disjointed storytelling with other assets, especially an impressive historical reach and a hopeful political vision. Overall, an impressive debut.

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History, Television, World War II

TV: Foyle’s War

November 16, 2016

foyle1Mixing together history, mystery, and memorable characters, Foyle’s War (2002-2015) is a classy British procedural that spans from the early days of the Second World War to its conclusion, and then onto the early stages of the Cold War. Detective Chief Superintendant Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a widower, a father, and a policeman in southern England, based in the city of Hastings. He’s also a veteran of the Great War, and if he had his way, he’d be doing his bit against Hitler as well. Unfortunately, his military enlistment is blocked by his superiors, who think he’s too valuable where he is. Foyle’s none too pleased by the arrangement, but he’s too good at his job not to carry it out, and with his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and subordinate Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) by his side, he soon finds himself contributing to the war effort on the home front, one nefarious crime at a time.

Foyle’s War is classy, authentic, and a little bit cozy, an addictive, dark mystery series that builds its world convincingly and peppers its intriguing plots with interesting bits of historical detail. It develops, and quickly perfects, a winning formula: first, a picture is painted of its world, then a crime is introduced, then Foyle and his team are deployed to solve it. While that skeleton framework does get repetitive, it never fails to work, thanks largely to the chemistry of the heroes. Kitchen is especially good as the mysterious, understated Foyle, whose unassuming demeanor conceals both penetrating intelligence and a fierce sense of right and wrong — which often boils over in eloquent, brilliant argument when confronted with selfishness and injustice. Foyle’s subdued, bleak eye is countered by his underlings, especially the good-hearted Sam, played winningly by Weeks. The father-daughter rapport between Foyle and Sam serves as the core of the show’s continuity as circumstances and characters and world events swirl around them.

The first five or six seasons are superb, at once entertaining procedurals and insightful windows onto the era. As the war comes to a close and the series reorients in a logically different direction, however, I found it losing its hold on me slightly. Perhaps the long production gaps changed the flavor, or marred the actor continuity too much, and Foyle’s role in the proceedings feels rather reduced down the home stretch. I’m also disappointed they never quite developed Sam beyond her cheerful, occasionally clumsy persona as Foyle’s aide and sounding board. Despite this slight decrease in quality, the final couple of years are still quite good, and Kitchen’s memorable protagonist is ever worth the price of admission. Well worth a look, especially for fans of British period mystery.

foyleswar

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Fiction, History, Spies

Novel: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

September 4, 2016

Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (2012) is the first in a long-running series of World War II-era mysteries that feature Maggie Hope: a bright, ambitious woman with a math background who, by chance, lands a secretarial job in the Prime Minister’s office just as Winston Churchill takes power. A mix of espionage, murder, romance, and history, it’s a breezy, cozy read that I never quite fell in love with, but ultimately enjoyed.

Maggie, a British citizen with an American upbringing, is in London to sell a family estate when war breaks out, and unexpectedly does her bit for the war effort by accepting a position at No. 10 Downing Street. It’s a clerical position for which Maggie, a polyglot with exceptional math skills, is vastly overqualified, but she undertakes it dutifully, and in the end it places her in position to prove herself. If it’s not enough that she begins to uncover a conspiracy of Nazi and IRA agents working to unleash attacks on British soil, she also starts to learn that there’s more than a stuffy patriarchy keeping her career prospects in check. With the help of friends and colleagues, Maggie gradually reveals both the skeletons of her family history and the devious plans of the enemy, taking early steps toward becoming an important weapon in the Allied arsenal against the German war machine.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is an accessible, quick read, with a Masterpiece Theater vibe; it’s like Foyle’s War through a feminist lens, a refreshing World War II story that focuses on what women were up to, and up against, while the British were holding out alone against Germany. The beginning of the novel spends quite a bit of time on detailed historical world-building that seasoned readers might find remedial; I think this orientation is at the expense of a timely point of attack. But eventually the book develops an enjoyable mystery-solving rhythm, as Maggie uncovers secret after secret, and gets herself out of ever-more-dangerous jams. There’s a bit of a wish-fulfillment feel, a romanticizing flavor to its treatment of the era, with Maggie serving as a vicarious window on this turbulent time. But it’s also a thoughtful and confident entertainment, with a cast of likable characters exploring under-explored corners of the past. I’m wouldn’t call myself addicted, then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I dipped back into this well for another adventure.

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Fiction, History, Spies, World War II

Novel: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

August 1, 2016

Alan Furst’s more recent releases are less standalone novels than collected episodes from the greater metanovel that is his entire body of work since Night Soldiers: a sprawling, now 14-volume chronicle of World War II as seen through the eyes of its many secret soldiers. This seems especially true of A Hero of France (2016), the latest, slim novel in the series which, like its predecessors, is vividly realized, impressive in its historical detail, and in complex dialogue with its series-mates. Unfortunately, once again the author has fallen back on strict formula, and seems to be running light on fresh ideas; there are glimpses of the old magic, but this is undoubtedly a lesser entry, and probably the first of the series to truly disappoint me.

Furst clearly loves Paris, so much so that he has contrived to set at least one scene per book there. This time he goes whole hog on this obsession, focusing his narrative on a Paris-based leader of the French Resistance, Mathieu (last name unknown). Mathieu is, unsurprisingly, a fortyish romantic with a fierce sense of a duty, an uncommon bravery, and a fine hand with the ladies. He’s also got a knack for staying one step ahead of the French and German authorities who want to shut down the escape lines he’s esablished across France to smuggle downed Allied airmen back to England. As the war rages and the challenges of the secret life intensify, Mathieu and his tight-knit network of colleagues feel the noose tightening in their defiance of the Third Reich, and face hard decisions along the way.

A Hero of France bears a superficial resemblance to Furst’s best work in its rolling, thoughtful prose, its effortless mastery of the era, and the exciting action setpieces. And there’s a certain intrigue to layering this volume down over Furst’s vaster mosaic, as characters from previous books flash into and out of the picture. One imagines a spectacular spreadsheet somewhere tracking fourteen novels’ worth of characters across time and space in Furst’s greater  metanarrative. By and large, it slots in adequately in the greater scheme of his achievement.

But there’s a certain something missing, and not just the disappointingly familiar protagonist and the clear reliance on the tried-and-true. As usual the book is broken up into episodes, but only one of them — “The Secret Agent,” in which Mathieu undertakes a mission to smuggle Allied saboteurs from a secret beach landing in Normandy back to Paris — truly stands out. Meanwhile, the closing segment, where the most jeopardy exists, is somehow the least suspenseful, and peters out in a sequence of summarized fates for Mathieu’s network. The result is a book that delivers the expected experience for the expected audience, without stretching at all from its comfort zone. In the past, this consistency never bothered me because it was so well done, but A Hero of France left me wondering if perhaps it’s time for Furst to finally try a new direction.

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Film, History, Spies

Film: Carve Her Name with Pride

September 3, 2014

Netflix spent months convincing me I should watch Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), so I finally obliged…and indeed, it is my kind of movie. Hardly among the top rank of World War II spy thrillers, it’s nonetheless an effective and occasionally moving one, rendered noteworthy as an unusual early action vehicle for a female star.

At the height of World War II, Violette Szabo (Virginia McKenna) falls in love with a dashing soldier of the French foreign legion, only to lose him to the war shortly after their marriage. A child of a British father and a French mother, Violette – fluent in French, athletic, fearless, and uncommonly motivated – is given a unique opportunity to aid the war effort. Despite having a young child by her short-lived marriage, she agrees to become a spy, jumping behind enemy lines to aid the French resistance.

Based on true events, this film is almost identical structurally to another one I watched recently, Decision Before Dawn, showing the origin, the training, and finally the missions of an unlikely spy. Carve Her Name with Pride isn’t nearly as accomplished, however, at least partially because it’s a much more modest production. While it is a vehicle for a female action hero, the feminist subtext is dated: Violette isn’t characterized much beyond her gender, and her story skews toward the home front, family, and marriage. But McKenna is an accessible lead, and the action scenes late in the film, when the going gets tough, are bracing – with Violette right in the thick of it. Carve Her Name with Pride is an uneven and occasionally slow wartime drama, but for me it was a diverting weekend matinee, quietly rewarding.

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History, Television

TV: Island at War

July 15, 2014


The six-episode British series Island at War (2004) takes as its subject the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. While it provides a chilling look at what life was like under Nazi oppression, unfortunately it’s not a particularly satisfying or complete story.

It’s set on the fictional island of St. Gregory, a stand-in for Jersey and Guernsey, British-colonized islands which are actually much closer to France than to England. With the fall of France, the British withdraw their military presence from the small, strategically insignificant island. This leaves its populace at the mercy of the German invaders, who promptly move in to set up an airbase. The story focuses on three families:  the Dorrs (who are involved in local politics), the Mahys (who run a local market), and the Jonas’ (Mr. Jonas is a local constable, and they run a farm together). Incapable of resisting the German invasion, they’re forced to make tough decisions about how to handle the occupation:  to cooperate, to collaborate, or to resist?

The local constable Wilf Jonas (Owen Teale) suffers the indignity of losing his position and being forced to work for an occupying officer. For the Dorrs, things are complicated by the return of their son Philip (Sam Heughan), who sneaks onto the island as part of an ill-considered intelligence-gathering mission. His presence ends up putting people at risk, while challenging their patriotism and resolve. Meanwhile, the Mahys – mother Cassie (Saskia Reeves) and daughters Angelique (Joanne Froggatt) and June (Samantha Robinson) – are each forced, in different ways, to cope with the influx of young German men to the island. None of them, however, have it as bad as Zelda Kaye (Louisa Clein), an undocumented Jew who becomes the obsession of a monstrous anti-Semite, Oberleutnant Walker (Colin Jonas).

As a historical glimpse at the horrifying injustice of living under a Nazi bootheel, Island at War succeeds quite effectively – and one gets the sense this is the German Army on their best behavior in this particular occupation . The production values are high, the acting is fine, and conflict is inherently built into every scene. Unfortunately, there’s just a general lack of spark to it: there’s rather a day-in-the-life pace to a scenario that’s full of life-and-death stakes. One would suspect more energy and suspense from a series that largely involves ill-fated spy missions, black marketeering, secret fraternization between enemies, and bitter enemies attempting to coexist under impossible circumstances. But Islands at War is curiously buttoned-down, and a little lifeless. And alas, it also feels incomplete…the series ends before the war does, so we never see the islanders delivered from their frustrating circumstances.

It’s certainly a competent and attractive production, and I found it historically interesting, but I probably wouldn’t recommend to anyone who doesn’t already possess an inherent curiosity for the premise.

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Film, History, Spies

Film: Decision Before Dawn

June 23, 2014

In light of how soon it was produced after World War II, Decision Before Dawn (1951) has a surprising central conceit: its hero, Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), is a German soldier. In the latter days of World War II, Maurer is captured by a US intelligence officer, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart). A medic and an idealist, Maurer was caught up in the German war machine and did what he had to do…but when his fellow German prisoners murder his friend for speaking up cynically about his country’s chances, he volunteers to work for Rennick as a spy. It’s a new US initiative to send German POWs behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, and Maurer is given an important assignment: identifying the HQ of a panzer division that is sure to be deployed against an upcoming Allied assault. He parachutes behind enemy lines, and goes about his dangerous assignment – his resolve challenged at every turn as he confronts his countrymen. Maurer is determined to save his country by betraying it, but in the end he’ll be asked to risk everything for his ideals.

With an unusually nuanced glimpse into Germany’s war-time psyche, Decision Before Dawn is an occasionally clinical, but often powerful film. Especially compared to other wartime films of its era, it shies away from moral black-and-whites to paint the enemy in much more realistic terms. It’s helped immeasurably by Werner’s principled central performance and effective visual story-telling. Most importantly, perhaps, it has unparalleled geographic verisimilitude; filmed almost entirely on location, in the European rubble of a war just concluded, it feels uncommonly real compared to the usual soundstage fare. Some of the explosive action sequences are impressive even by modern standards.

Oh, there are old-fashioned elements here and there, and especially in the early-going – when the film is more in the American POV – the film is a bit stiff and conventional. But once the focus shifts to Maurer, it becomes quite a bit more. An excellent film…and another glaring omission from the Spy 100 list!

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