Tuesday 10 December 2013

Menschen (2012)

Director: Sarah R Lotfi
Stars: Dan Cheatham and Connor Long
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Wrapping up the high drama set, as well as the entire Filmstock Arizona festival, was Menschen, a war yarn that doesn't play the usual safe cards. For a start, the lead is a Nazi officer, albeit a captain drafted into the Wehrmacht who was never in it for the politics; he especially has no interest in fighting for the Reich in the last days of the war after Hitler's suicide but before Dönitz's surrender. He's only interested in keeping his men safe behind Russian lines in Czechoslovakia, both from the Russians and partisans who are smelling victory. His idea is to find the Americans to turn them all over to and it's a pretty good one, but they're hindered by the unplanned addition to their ranks of a boy with Down Syndrome who was left alone after the death of his mother. Their journey is a complicated one, partly because of the circumstances, partly because of the history and partly because it doesn't really end when it ends, just continues on in our minds because of who the characters are and the context they're placed in.

Hauptmann Himmelbauer is an interesting lead character, not only because of who he is but because of what he does. He looks like the usual Nazi villain with a severe face and sour expression but he cares for his men and for Radek, who he tolerates patiently. The boy is just as interesting a character in support because he's as important to the story and its message as the captain and he's played very capably by an actor who really does have Down Syndrome, Connor Long. He and Dan Cheatham, as Himmelbauer, work well together and prove a surprisingly successful pair to carry the film, given that neither of them has a previous acting credit. Sarah Lotfi, who directed from a script she wrote with Dustin Dunaway and Randy Rodriguez, refuses to do things by the book, highlighting her approach with her title. In German, Menschen means 'people' or, as the poster tellingly translates it, 'human beings'. These characters are examples of those the Nazis destroyed as subhuman and those the Russians murdered after the war.
Himmelbauer is a challenging character and we leave the film wanting to know far more about him. As an officer of the Reich who presumably fought the Allies for years, he's clearly a 'bad guy', but he feels more like a 'good guy'. He's loyal to his men if not his Führer, he openly despises the SS and he risks much to save Radek from a sure death. Radek is another fascinating character, because we don't just see his human nature as well as his condition, we see instances where he's superior to the characters around him; he can hear a sniper before trained and experienced soldiers. Appropriately, Long swam in the Special Olympics during the shooting of this movie. Clearly we're shown Radek as an example of a human being whom the Nazis would have euthanised under their T-4 program, but just as clearly we're given Himmelbauer as an example of a human being who the Russians would have killed off in captivity after the war. If the Nazis were wrong, then surely the Russians were wrong too. And how about us?

Lotfi successfully expands this concept by showing every character in her war movie in shades of grey. The SS are perhaps the only truly black characters and there are no white ones. Most notably, the key American soldiers we see are flawed, whether a triggerhappy rookie or a quick to judge officer. In each scene, there's another reminder that we're not watching the good guys vs the bad guys, we're given a war between human beings and menschen, each with their flaws. It's impressive how Lotfi manages to avoid preaching to us, all the while highlighting that many of us would have brought bad assumptions along with us. She clearly aimed at giving us a war movie with leads who flouted our expectations and supporting actors who did no less. That she did as much as she did in a short film that runs just under half an hour is impressive; it would be fascinating to see what she could do at feature length. Her cast and crew are more than up to the task and clearly so is she.

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