Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Sacha Baron Cohen Reportedly Returning To Write, Produce, Star In & Direct The Freddie Mercury Biopic Sacha Baron Cohen Reportedly Returning To Write, Produce, Star In & Direct The Freddie Mercury Biopic Watch: James Bond Is Back In First Trailer For 'Spectre' Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, & More Watch: James Bond Is Back In First Trailer For 'Spectre' Starring Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista, & More Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Watch: Explore The Loneliness Of Sofia Coppola's Films With This Supercut Watch: Explore The Loneliness Of Sofia Coppola's Films With This Supercut 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More

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

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 5, 2013 at 6:02PM

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.
0
Calm at Sea Header

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.

Calm at Sea race

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.

Calm at Sea Nazis

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-]

This article is related to: Volker Schlöndorff, Göteborg International Film Festival, Review


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome

E-Mail Updates