Sunday, 27 July 2008

Le Lunghe notti della Gestapo / Red Nights of the Gestapo

This is one of the more unusual Nazisploitation entries to come out of Italy, with none of the otherwise de rigeur concentration camps and only a few sadistic experiments of dubious scientific value.

Instead what we get is a factually grounded narrative that, by virtue of being based on the book of the same name by Bertha Uhland, the wife of the protagonist, here named von Uhler, and a supporting character in her own right, aspires to be taken a bit more seriously as an exploration of the evils of the Third Reich.

The film begins and ends with intertitles, the former announcing Rudolf Hess's dramatic flight to the UK and the latter the beginning of the invasion of the USSR, with the event depicted in between predicated on the first of these and seemingly contributing in no small way to the latter.

A history lesson

As Hess's underling SS man Manfred von Uhler (Ezio Miani) knows that his loyalty will be called into question by his master's defection and is prepared to commit suicide to preserve his, his family's and the SS's honour when he is taken by other, still more sinister, members of the selfsame organisation.

Effective symmetrical shots that wouldn't be out of place in The Conformist; outwith the SS lair and as the film progresses such symmetry and control is carefully lost

They strip him of rank and go through the motions of preparing a firing squad, which Uhler stands before impassively, but unexpectedly then announce that the whole thing was a test, which Uhler has passed, and thus assign him a mission vital to the security of the Reich that, as an ex-SS man whose loyalty to the party may be doubted by all but Himmler's inner circle, he is now uniquely well equipped for.

Uhler is to sound out a number of important civilian elements on the idea of plotting a coup with certain members of the Wehrmacht, in order to weed out those whose devotion to the cause and the war is less than wholehearted. The challenge is that he only has two weeks to bring them all together and acquire the necessary evidence – evidence that, as the film progresses, would in fact seem to be already there and probably not needed given the SS's usually pro-active approach.

Uhler's old friend Helmut von Danzig (Fred Williams), a francophile with no particular enthusiasm for the Reich, provides him with an initial route in while the sexual perversions of most of his targets – one man is obsessed with a particular dancer and actress, another with sucking milk from his partners' breasts as if he were a baby and so on – make it easy to lure them into compromising situations.

Von Danzig's women, with their lesbian tendencies, could also be from Bertolucci's film

As might the child who plays with dangerous toys

It's at this point, as Uhler sets to work recruiting appropriate female company and then lets them loose that the film either begins to lose its way or ups the ante, depending on your tolerance for sleaze, plot holes and sheer repetitiveness – significantly the film runs a comparatively epic 110 minutes rather than the usual 80 to 90 – whether you are willing to credit the filmmakers with attempting to say something meaningful about the nature of fascism thereby, and how far you believe the events depicted are a adequate representation of the truth given that Bertha Uhland presumably could not have been party to them.

Von Uhland and the women he has recruited

The first problem is that it's difficult to get a handle on what Manfred von Uhler is supposed to represent and what we are meant to feel for him.

He isn't an out and out bad guy along the lines of his Salon Kitty counterpart Helmut Vallenberg, being neither power-mad nor much of a pervert but rather a devoted family man and Nazi.

If the tension between these two is never adequately resolved it could be argued that this is quite deliberate and, indeed, makes a point about a contradiction in Nazi ideology – had the issues been explored in a way that made it clear this was indeed the intention.

Similarly, though Uhler sometimes intimates that he has his own agenda he subsequently fails to act on it, despite having foolishly being caught saying this and taking actions that one would have expected to have forced his hand.

Put another way, if Bertha Uhland's goal in telling her husband's story was to exonerate him, she either did a very bad job of it or was misled and / or misused by the filmmakers.

The second major problem is the presentation of the putatively anti-Nazi forces within Germany. Initially they're referred to as prominent members of the intelligentsia, but when gathered at the schloss are presented as a more mixed and sometimes internally conflicted group with those representing of culture and business or new and old money not always seeing eye to eye. Then there is the sense that, as far as the more intellectual types are concerned, they're second-rate figures anyway, furthered by one characters' reference to all those who have left, including the likes of Einstein, Brecht and Mann.

Perhaps more damaging, however, is that the SS are proved right in their intelligence suggesting them to be perverts almost to a man – one is even implied to be a paedophile – such that we're left wondering why their silence and compliance couldn't have been achieved long ago through a spot of judicious blackmail, buying off or other, more permanent means.

The Great Dictator never did this

Certainly, there's little sense of these men being able to take the high moral ground or having the capacity providing any sort of genuinely effective opposition or alternative leadership and every possibility that the unsympathetic viewer will come to regard them as just as bad, perhaps even worse, than Uhler.

This in turn foregrounds the whole question of how far the situation depicted really reflects the truth of Nazi Germany at the time, given the strength of the regime's propaganda machine, the succession of easy victories that already been won and the elimination, imprisonment or exiling of most of Nazi's most obvious enemies, whether real or imagined, during the preceeding eight years – unless we credit the filmmakers with attempting to illustrate the kind of perverse logic by which the regime and / or factions within it needed to be generating new enemies out of a paradoxical self-destructive self-sustenance.

Technically the film is better than most of its ilk, with more convincing period costumes and settings than usual, with the direction and performances also good enough to avoid much in the way of unintentional laughter. Some of the music choices, most notably the SS theme with lyrics in Italian about the sleep of reason breeding monsters – a theme important enough to also appear as an intertitle, albeit mis-spelled in the English translation – and frequent references to the pleasures of the whip, are a bit doubtful.

Luciano Rossi as a bearded intellectual

Tom Felleghy appears sans moustache as the head of an asylum who has managed to condition sadistic, masochistic and nympomaniac female patients in the hope that they might prove useful to the Reich – it won't ruin anything to say that they do – while Luciano Rossi is cast against type not as a Nazi pervert but as a relatively upstanding anti-Nazi professor.

A genuine oddity that's worth a look for curiosity value alone.

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