Göteborg Review: Volker Schlöndorff’s ‘Calm At Sea’ Is A Wrenching WWII Tale Told In Capable But Old-Fashioned Style

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by Jessica Kiang
February 5, 2013 6:02 PM
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A story that is apparently very famous all over France -- that of Guy Moquet, a 17 year-old boy executed by the Nazis as part of a reprisal for the assassination of one of their officers -- forms the heart of veteran German director Volker Schlondorff’s latest film, which screened at the Göteborg International Film Festival last week. Titled “Calm at Sea” and based on primary source documents from the period (the letters, diaries and reports left by the participants, the writing of which often forms part of the onscreen action), the film is a solid piece of historical reconstruction, that despite never quite reaching any heights of inspiration, nonetheless builds to a surprisingly moving finale.

In a small town in occupied France, a local internment camp, presided over by the gendarmerie who represent the collaborating French government, houses a motley crew of petty criminals and political activists. This is 1941, and there is perhaps an air of unreality to the German occupation of France from the point of view of the occupied at this time -- the prisoners regard their detainment as an injustice and a depradation, but there is no real sense that the situation is life-or-death. This is especially true for 17 year-old Guy and his friend Lalet, who spend a lot of their time running races, staging boxing matches and flirting through the barricade with Odette, a young female detainee in the women’s camp next door. If the war, and their part in it as political prisoners is not a game to them, then it’s certainly an adventure. But when three Parisian communists execute a Nazi officer in nearby Nantes, retaliatory executions are ordered to the tune of 150 victims, all to be taken, not from the criminal populations of the local camps, but from the political side.

Schlöndorff makes the unusual choice of refusing to focus entirely on Guy, which might well have been the Steven Spielberg way of telling this story (or perhaps it’s just that newcomer Leo Paul Salmain reminded us of the Christian Bale of “Empire of the Sun”). Instead he lets the young boy’s story thread in and out of that of the other communists in the camp, the commandant, the French bureaucrat, the local Nazis, to build up a more choral picture of how these executions came to happen. Along the way, we get a picture of the local Nazi hierarchy at a little-seen juncture: when many of the generals and party functionaries still seemed to believe there was a way to invade with honor, and with respect to the local culture. But, foreshadowing the evolution of the “just following orders” ethos, their initial incredulity at the harshness of the terms ordered by Hitler gradually gives way to total compliance for fear of rocking the boat. A list is compiled, and if Schindler’s was life, this one is the other thing.

Schlöndorff's calm, unhysterical style matches the kind of banality with which these individual decisions are taken, leading inexorably to the dreadful act. But perhaps a little more hysteria might have been warranted in the shooting style: it can feel too measured and rather lifeless at times. And the film is so admiring of old-fashioned values, like ideological conviction, and the faith and courage that especially the older communists draw from it, that the dialogue does lapse into the kind of plodding, dry sloganeering (“After the revolution there will be no war,” “Long live the international proletariat”) that distances us from the humanity of the people involved, rather than bringing them closer.

But despite the stolid and rather uninvolving storytelling up to that point, the final third still packs quite an emotional punch. Using voiced excerpts from the real letters the prisoners were allowed to send before facing the firing squad, here the respectfulness and gentility of Schlondorff’s approach pays off, and tiny details of real-life tragedy have their moment, without ever feeling exploitative (the childish exclamation point with which Guy punctuates his opening “I am going to die” kind of broke our heart). As a film, “Calm at Sea” is a little too by-the-numbers to really make a lasting impact, but as a history lesson its story compels and moves. [B-]

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