The International Writers Magazine: Film Talk History in Cinema
vKingdom Of Heaven
History In Cinema
the release of the German-made Downfall and the very Hollywood
Kingdom Of Heaven, we are given an opportunity to compare
differences of approach in the production of historical dramas.
is a brilliant piece of sober filmmaking.
Oliver Hirschbiegel, in contrast to Ridley Scott's sweeping Crusader
epic, retains a low-key, hyper-realistic envisioning of the last days
of Hitler, in his bunker below Berlin. The grey tones that smear the
screen, compliment the dinginess of the setting, as well as the uniforms
of the desperate Nazis. Each of the German-speaking cast members offer
eerily accurate performances that capture the personas of their historical
counterparts with chilling effect. Controversy arose at how the film
managed to evoke the human side of these most demonised of figures.
In particular, the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, excels in the role of Hitler,
bringing a nuanced, very real portrait. With his subtle ticks, Ganz
not once steps into parody; an issue that has plagued previous actors'
interpretations. His Hitler is a very real human being, who at times
shows politeness and humility to people around him, whilst at other
times, expresses the anger of a petulant flawed visionary.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to a very unfamiliar Hitler,
as he interviews several young ladies to be his secretary. It is a jarring
moment, as we are presented not with the hand-gesturing, podium thumping,
raging dictator from newsreels, but rather a quietly spoken, patient,
thoughtful man; the antithesis of everything the audience would have
seen in previous portrayals.
At one point in the film, his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria
Lara) asks Eva Braun (Julianne Kohler), how it is possible that Hitler
could be so gentle and compassionate to some people, and yet so brutal
to others. Braun replies that it is when Hitler is The Fuehrer that
she sees his cruelty.
Some critics have complained that this humanising of the Hitler myth
is a dangerous and unnecessary folly that somehow excuses or diminishes
the nature of the actions that he cruelly perpetrated. Whilst he is
most definitely a figure that does not deserve any sympathetic redemption,
he was nonetheless a human being, and it is perhaps this aspect that
continues to fascinate us. What kind of person could become so ruthless?
What was the personality that lay behind the Holocaust? He remains an
inexplicable, destructive anomaly on the conscience of humanity.
Downfall is exquisite in capturing the psychosis of Nazism and
its personality cult as it crumbles. Soldiers sit around the bunker
getting drunk and planning various methods of suicide, as the Russians
close in. The almost manic farce of the situation, encapsulates both
the helplessness and the blindness in which they have fallen under Hitler's
spell. Magda Goebbels (Corrina Harfouch), the wife of the infamous propagandist,
best illustrates the Nazi intoxication, when she stubbornly refuses
to release her six children, because she believes that without National
Socialism there would be no future for them to live. As a result, in
perhaps one of cinema's most chilling scenes of infanticide, she breaks
poison capsules in the mouths of her sleeping infants, while her husband
Historical interpretation is a risky process that should never be taken
lightly, especially when the subject has been the creator of so much
cruelty and suffering. However, history should always try to be responsible
to the truth, even if the truth is sometimes politically incorrect.
Downfall is a thought-provoking film, which approaches its material
with appropriate gravitas and responsibility.
Kingdom Of Heaven is a totally different historical beast to
Downfall. As fine a director as Ridley Scott is, he is a filmmaker
entirely at the mercy of a screenplay. If the screenplay is great, then
the always-beautiful Scott imagery is entangled in cinematic perfection,
as was the case with Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma And Louise.
Unfortunately, on occasion, Scott has found himself creating magnificently
handsome-looking films, with very little else on offer within, such
as 1492, G.I. Jane and Hannibal. Sadly, Kingdom Of Heaven
falls in this latter group.
Kingdom Of Heaven deals with the Crusades of the 13th Century
- a subject that is particularly sensitive in our current political
climate. It is surprising to believe that any Hollywood suits would
have been prepared to green light a project that focuses on a period
of history when Muslim-Christian relations were at their worst, especially
as they sink ever further in our present time. That said, the Crusades
are a fascinating part of history that deserve to be told on film, preferably
without the machismo or intellectual infantilism of Hollywood.
Scott was quite obviously aware of the responsibility that lay upon
is shoulders in bringing this film to the screen, at this time. Yet,
what is being proclaimed as a historically accurate representation of
events, is in fact a politically correct affair, pandering not to offend,
and therefore becoming an injustice to history. It comes off as a rather
pointless heavy-handed pulpit dialogue with very little meat to chew.
Thespian lightweight, Orlando Bloom, takes on the lead, as yet another
blacksmith discovering himself on an unexpected mission. In Pirates
Of The Caribbean, he becomes a cutlass swashbuckler of the high
seas. Here, he discovers that he is the abandoned son of a major Crusader,
played by the always-reliable Liam Neeson. Everything starts well, with
an excellent skirmish in a blizzard, very reminiscent of the first battle
in Scott's other period drama, Gladiator.
The problems begin when Bloom arrives in Jerusalem. There is so much
PC tinkering with historical facts, that the contriving of it all becomes
more offensive than if they had just filmed a story that portrayed events
as they actually were.
In Scott's tale, the Crusaders that occupy the ancient city are split
into two camps; those that fall under the watchful eye of Jeremy Irons,
and are pro-relations with Saladin and the Muslims; and the Knights
Templar, who are painted as the villains, desperate at all costs to
battle against the vast Muslim armies. Historically, there was no such
split of positions, as the Crusaders were all unified against the Muslims.
It is obvious that Iron's band of merry men have been manufactured to
create neutral supposition in the story. And this is one of many blazing
A moment towards the end that just stinks of insensitivity trying to
feign sensitivity, is when the Muslim leader, Saladin, lifts up a fallen
crucifix and places it upon a table. Whilst the great leader may well
have had a respect for the religion of his enemies, it is such a forced
moment in the film, blaring out idealistic sentiments with all the subtlety
of a bullhorn.
The glossiness of Kingdom Of Heaven, even with its attempt to
capture the grubbiness of the times with a gloomy dark hue throughout,
fails to muster, because it approaches the material with the same superficiality
as a children's book about the Crusades.
Of course, there have been many so-called historical dramas that have
been produced to merely entertain within the context of a particular
period. Unfortunately, the Crusades is a time in history, which is surrounded
by controversy that still reverberates today. Kingdom Of Heaven
fails to maturely tackle the material, and instead, throws a tale more
reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings than history. There is a film
still to be made that fully captures the brutality, intensity and insanity
of this chapter in our history.
© El-Branden Brazil June 2005
See El-Branden Brazil's Photography and Art at www.el-brandenexhibition.blogspot.com
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