Ruth Vitale and Richard Shore

As Steven Soderbergh recently learned, convincingly putting across the character of the Good (Nazi) German onscreen is a fairly hopeless task, and "The Poet" only puts a punctuation mark on the point.

As Steven Soderbergh recently learned, convincingly putting across the character of the Good (Nazi) German onscreen is a fairly hopeless task, and “The Poet” only puts a punctuation mark on the point. A curious departure for vet Canadian schlockmeister Damian Lee, this account of the WWII star-crossed love between a rabbi’s daughter and a war-hating Teuton officer wants very much to be taken seriously. This proves impossible, since the script, casting and wartime atmosphere play as pure make-believe, lacking any vitality. After a brief theatrical run, vid and cable will be invaded without anyone noticing.

This includes Daryl Hannah fans curious to see how she manages in the unaccustomed role of a woman, Marlene, married to high-ranking Nazi Gen. Koenig (Kim Coates) and mother to sensitive, poetry-scribbling Oskar (Jonathan Scarfe). Hannah looks as uncomfortable as might be expected, especially when asked to speak her lines in that strained manner many English-speaking thesps do when trying to sound “German.”

Her role’s purpose — to remind Oskar at every juncture that he doesn’t believe in Germany’s war and should flee to Canada — demonstrates the key flaw with writer Jack Crystal’s screenplay, which slots every character into a talking point rather than allowing them to simply live and breathe.

While Nazi Germany invades Poland in 1939, Oskar’s attention is divided between leading a scouting unit and refining his (crude-sounding) poetic technique. Despite his antiwar instincts, he feels forced to join out of obedience to his true-believer father. When Jewish girl Rachel (Nina Dobrev) gets stuck in a snowstorm on her way home, Oskar, like a knight in shining armor, rescues her and helps her recuperate in the forest cabin where his unit is stationed.

Seldom has a love affair blossomed so quickly (or felt less well-earned), and even the lovers’ knowledge that they’re from profoundly opposite sides doesn’t dampen their passions. This is the stuff of a summer pulp romance, with Rachel — already engaged to a man she likes but doesn’t love — compelled to leave when Oskar’s thuggish cohorts return from the front.

All points lead to an inevitable repairing of Oskar and Rachel, but “The Poet” does it through an awkward narrative obstacle course that includes a rabbi in hiding (Roy Scheider, in one of his final screen roles), Oskar proving for the umpteenth time that he’s a good German, and a ruthless Russian spy (Lara Daans) whose suspicion of everyone leads to the semi-tragic finale.

Under Lee’s earnest but walking-on-eggshells direction, the pic resembles nothing so much as one of those WWII Euro-pudding productions from the ’60s and ’70s. Thesping is wooden and rote, undermining the drama’s clarion call for a passionate commitment to pacifism, spoken most bluntly by Hannah’s Marlene.

Widescreen lensing by David Pelletier in the Ontario woods is reasonably well disguised, but pic’s limited budget prevents a richer sense of the terrible strife experienced by Polish Jews during the 1939 invasion that prefigured the Holocaust to come.

The Poet

Canada

Production

An American World Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Crystal Star Prods. presentation of an Alchemist Entertainment, Lee/Conn production. Produced by Lowell Conn, Damian Lee. Executive producers, Jack Crystal, David Crystal, Zev Crystal, Gregg Goldstein, Kim Coates, Julius R. Nasso, Simon Williams. Co-producer, Lara Daans, Sam Hershoran, Zion Lee. Directed by Damian Lee. Screenplay, Jack Crystal.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), David Pelletier; editor, J. Joseph Weadick; music, Steve Raiman, Zion Lee, Aaron Holloway, Dominic Lewis; production designer, Oleg Savytski; art director, Kenneth Watkins; costume designer, Ton Pascal; sound (stereo), Cory Siddall; sound designers, Raiman, Weadick; re-recording mixers, Michael Baskerville, Paul Williamson; stunt coordinators, John Stoneham, Layton Morrison; line producers, Joe Barzo, Nan Skiba; associate producers, Daniel Matmor, Marco Tallarico; assistant director, Megan Banning; second unit director, Curtis Petersen; second unit camera, Glenn Pineau; casting, Lou Digiamo, Stephanie Gorin. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, May 31, 2008. (In 2007 Boston Film Festival.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jonathan Scarfe, Nina Dobrev, Zachary Bennett, Daryl Hannah, Kim Coates, Roy Scheider, Colm Feore, Lara Daans. (English dialogue)

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