Volker Schlondorff’s largescale Euro co-production, based on a French novel, “The Erl King,” by Michel Tournier, delves into the dark days of the Third Reich with positive intentions but decidedly mixed results.
Nightmarish saga of a simple man whose love of children involves him in the kidnapping of boys who are forced to train as SS troops poses some interesting moral dilemmas, but couldn’t arrive at a worse time, with disturbing revelations of pedophile activities a hot issue in Europe and elsewhere. Handsome production, and a typically attention-grabbing central performance from John Malkovich, may spark interest, but pic requires strong critical support to attract audiences to this bleak, uncomfortable tale.
Schlondorff, who scored an Academy Award and international box office attention with “The Tin Drum” (1979), another filmed novel with a World War II setting, has attempted a similarly bold depiction here of Tournier’s tome, whose title refers to the Greek word for “carrying.” The story involves a gentle giant forced by evil circumstances to work for the Nazis but who eventually redeems himself by literally carrying a child out of the inferno.
Pic Kicks off with a black-and-white prologue set in Paris in 1925 with scenes depicting the traumas of young Abel (Caspar Salmon), who is forever falling afoul of teachers and fellow pupils, until he is befriended and protected by the overweight Nestor (Daniel Smith.) When Abel, about to be punished for his latest misdemeanor, prays the school will burn down, it in fact does, saving him from punishment, but at the expense of his friend, who expires in the flames.
According to the film’s narration, Abel comes to realize “fate is real, cruel and on my side.” Action shifts forward 14 years (and into color), with Abel now played by Malkovich, who, to say the least, is too old for the role. Abel’s become a simple lughead who works in a Parisian garage, lives a quiet life, and has occasional sex with girlfriend Rachel (Agnes Soral), who dubs him an “ogre” because of his rough lovemaking.
Abel’s fondness for children gets him into trouble when he’s falsely accused of raping little Martine (Sasha Hanau) and imprisoned. The German invasion brings about his release, however, he’s sent to the front and promptly taken prisoner. Before long, Abel has become, though still a prisoner, a member of the inner sanctum of German leaders, including Herman Goering (Volker Spengler) and the aristocratic Count Kaltenborn (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
Employed at Goering’s lodge in the Bavarian forest, he works as an assistant during the hunting season, with deer and wild boar the victims. The hunting sequence, patterned after a similar scene in jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” make tough viewing for the sensitive. Eventually, Abel is ordered to take charge of hunting of a different kind. He’s given the task of recruiting boys to be trained in the army, with or without their consent, and he sets out daily, on horseback and accompanied by a pack of Dobermans, to kidnap youngsters from their homes.
These scenes are staged with such intensity that they, too, are likely to repel many viewers and perhaps obscure pic’s ultimate intention — which is that , despite Abel’s rationalizations and ghastly compromises, he’s still able to redeem himself.
The chief problem here is that what works on the page takes on a totally different dimension onscreen. The ultra-grim world inhabited by Abel is relieved only by the dubious pageantry of the Nazis and by the pristine beauty of the Bavarian landscapes in winter. Schlondorff and Malkovich struggle to bring out the goodness in Abel, but the character remains stubbornly unlikable.
Schlondroff and adapter Jean-Claude Carriere take a disappointingly didactic approach to the material, ramming home points that should already be obvious, especially in the final reel. The constant narration is of questionable value.
Secondary characters are mostly ciphers. Mueller-Stahl hasn’t enough scenes to register strongly as the “decent” member of the German nobility. Spengler’s Goering is an over-the-top, comic-strip monster. Gottfried John, Heino Ferch and Dieter Laser are more successful in depicting various faces of Nazi Germany. Marianne Sagebrecht has little to do as headmistress of the SS school to which Abel’s kidnapped recruits are brought.
The film’s construction is at times awkward, with a couple of abrupt transitions suggesting a longer version that’s been reduced. Film editor Peter Przygodda gets a prominent “creative consultant” credit, though pic’s official editor is Nicolas Gaster.
Production, filmed on locations in France,Poland and Norway, with interiors shot at the Babelsberg Studio in Berlin, is handsome in a fairly traditional style. Michael Nyman’s music score effectively counter-points the action. The compromises brought about by producing an English-language Euro co-production will irritate some viewers; suffice it to say that there’s the usual mixture of English accents.
Pic is dedicated to “our late friend, Louis Malle,” who gave Schlondorff early work in the industry as his assistant. Interestingly, Malle’s most controversial film, “Lacombe, Lucien,” also dealt with a Frenchman who worked for the Germans during wartime.