Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
Original Title: Der Unhold
Germany/France/United Kingdom, 1996. Canal+, France 2 Cinema, Heritage Films, Recorded Picture Company, Renn Productions, Studio Babelsberg, Universum Film, Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere, Volker Schlondorff, based on the novel by Michel Tournier. Cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer. Produced by Gebhard Henke, Ingrid Windisch. Music by Michael Nyman. Production Design by Ezio Frigerio, Susanne Hein, Heinz Röske. Costume Design by Anna B. Sheppard. Film Editing by Nicolas Gaster, Peter Przygodda. Toronto International Film Festival 1996.
As a child, Abel was a student at a Catholic boys school that meted out corporal punishment generously, and now as an adult he has grown into an emotionally sensitive and somewhat naive giant (played by John Malkovich). Working as a mechanic, Abel makes time for the neighbourhood’s children, including accompany one particular little girl when she has no one to drive her home. After the child accuses him of hurting her as revenge for his having forbidden her to play with his camera, he is arrested and almost sent to prison until the onset of World War II makes the judge realize that he could serve France better in the army. Quickly captured by the Germans, he goes first to a prisoner of war camp before being sent to the castle of a German count (Armin Mueller-Stahl) where he is made supervisor of the children being trained there as Hitler Youth. Here, the man’s simple and pure love for protecting children is perverted against his knowing, having him prepare these kids for their inevitable destruction in battle, which he only realizes far too late in the game. Director Volker Schlondorff makes a film that is something of a companion piece to his Oscar-winning The Tin Drum, another voyage into the madness of World War II through the eyes of an almost preternatural outsider whose focused perspective revealing the widespread horror of what the western world experienced in those years. It begins with promise and strength as something of a reverse bildungsroman, each picaresque turn of the plot destabilizing and devolving the main character’s original foundation, but loses its way somewhere in the last third, and what was engaging and dramatically interesting becomes a messy indulgence in violence and noise. Malkovich is surprisingly good in the role, this usually sharp-edged and intellectually calculating performer manages to pull off simple and sweet even better than he did in Of Mice and Men.