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“Le Village Francais” Is a Mixed Bag. French TV Series on WWII now on MhZ

French VillageMuch as I admire its’ audacity and ambitious reach of subject, the entire history of World War II, as encaptured in the life of a “French Village,” I hate to say it but this hit European TV series is very hit and miss.

It sounds good on paper. Each season of the TV series will focus on a different year in the occupation of France by the Germans during WWII.  And it starts off with a bang, as a group of school children go out to play on a field trip on a sun-dappled day in the tiny town of Villeneuve, a fictional subprefecture in the Jura region of France.

German planes suddenly are seen over head and begin shooting up everything in sight, including the children. A horrifying beginning, to be sure. But then we are slowly introduced to the characters and I have to say I had no great feelings for any of them.

Sure, the SITUATION they are is in riveting, but only up to a point. And the actors all look so similar it’s very hard to keep them and their plot-lines straight. The exception is Robin Renucci, a doctor who is co-erced into becoming the town’s reluctant Mayor.

Robin Renucci 1And he is forced to do many things that he does not want to do within the course of the 10 episode series. Each episode a little under the hour in length. He is actually by his acceptance of the Mayoral position, an unwitting symbol of the Vichy government. His bourgeois family continues to live well as all around him begin to starve due to ration restrictions.

The actors all being dark-haired and dark-eyed and average-looking, it took me a long time to sort out their different characters and predicaments. However, the incredible attention to war-time detail does fascinate. Some one can be jailed for just booing Hitler in a newsreel in a movie theater, for instance.

Then there’s the leftists who want to insert resistance pamphlets in all the daily newspapers. And do. But the characters doing this are all sadly two dimensional.

The Jewish question, and there a lot of Jews in this small town, is pretty much a non-issue until the latter part of Season One. Our understanding of WWII is so much based on the plight of the Jews that that part of the series suddenly springs to life as the Season ends.

It’s a great record of the period, though and I particularly loved the Special Features wherein the actual townspeople these characters are often based on get to speak, in French, of their own real-life stories and they are all hair-raising.

Being set so far out in the country the full impact of the War hits them only gradually, in stages. And it is truly harrowing, as one by one their liberties and freedoms and businesses and lives are all taken over by the  occupying Germans.

I am looking forward to Season Two. Maybe this time they’ll have more relatable characters.

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“Wallander 3” World-Weary & Wonderful on MHz

I have to confess that I am coming late to the Wallander party. Wallander, the character, the novels, the many, many TV films in Swedish and also in BBC English with Kenneth Branagh, no less, is more than a cottage industry. It’s pretty much a world-wide phenomenon.  After the early, tragic death of Swedish author Steig Larsson of the Millennium Trilogy, another Swedish crime novel author has emerged on the Swedish crime stage and  has survived and thrived to 66 . He is Henning Mankell and he has written a mountainous number of books, on Wallander and many other topics,  and is more than taking his place, in Sweden and in the world.

The super-quaint,  little medieval town of Ystaad, where Wallander is set and shot, has become a tourist destination! And Kurt Wallander, his world-weary, potato-like, sad sack of a Swedish detective, is underplayed in this series quite brilliantly by Krister Hendrickson,  and is almost as famous as a Swedish fictional character as Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” anti-heroine to end all anti-heroines.

Wallander (pronouced Val’-en-da) couldn’t be more different. He’s so every day, so every man, so ordinary, he’s almost invisible. But he has also taken hold of the world’s imagination, and its’ thirst for all things Swedish. That gloomy morose desire to suffer in the cold and ice was mightily filled in his lifetime by legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

To my dismay, the younger generation does not take to Bergman or even know his work. If they know anything of Swedish note today, besides Ikea, it is Lisbeth Salander, and the American version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” And also, right behind her is Kurt Wallander.

Larson was said to have devoured Swedish crime novels and one of the authors he was most influenced by was the prolific Henning Mankell. Who wrote more Wallander books and many other books, than Larsson ever did in his brief life-time.

Larsson, and the “Girl’ movies and books have whetted the public’s appetite seemingly for Swedish noir crime. In fact, I was shocked when I went to the main library in Manhattan and found out the nothing of Wallander, DVD, film or novel was in. All were checked out, but one, which I hungrily grabbed.

The female librarian said to me “Wallander is VERY popular.” The Vox Populi! The people have spoken.

In Mankell’s “The Man Who Laughed,” there is this passage that jumped out at me.

A solitary man, presumably Wallander himself, is driving down a lonely Swedish road at night, and feels a bump. He has hit a rabbit.

“He stopped and got out. The hare was lying on the road, its’ back legs kicking. But its’ eyes stared at him….He had never forgotten those eyes and the wildly kicking legs. The memory kept coming back again and again , usually at the most unexpected times…”

That’s a very good metaphor indeed. With a kind of awful poetry that Steig Larsson’s “just the facts” Milleninum writings eschews.

I think it’s this richness of the source material, Mankell’s writing, that lifts Wallander out of the realm of the ordinary procedural, though police crime drama is what it is.

The Swedish TV series, now available in the US on MHz DVDS,  is produced by the same company that produced the “Dragon Tattoo” movies. And it shows. Those films and the Wallander TV series echo each other, not just in their topics, human trafficking, arson, pedophilia, and of course, drugs, but in their doomy Swedish atmospheres.

Wallander is the essence of the plodding policeman, who doesn’t always get it write, in the opening episode, he gets so drunk, he leaves his police gun at a bar, and is suspended, until the Ystad police find out they can’t solve a crime without him.

The terrific Krister Hendrickson makes him so endearing a chap, I can’t imagine anyone else playing him. Especially not Kenneth ham-is-my-middle-name Branagh. But we’ll see.

And sometimes this season hits it right out of the ballpark in terms of impact. One episode “The Arsonist” particularly got to me. So well done and well acted and well shot by all parties. It was gripping and the ending chilling. Bravo to Episode 5! Wallander’s pen-ultimate case.

And you better enjoy Hendrickson’s Wallander while you can, because in the last episode,  #6 in this series, “A Troubled Man,” he gets Alzheimer’s. What American series would risk that? The central figure losing it to a disease that no one ever seems to suffer from on American series television. Hendrickson becomes increasingly forgetful and lost. He gets suspended (Again!) by the Ystaad crime unit.

His daughter, Linda, a cop herself, and also a devoted mother, with a small daughter who Wallander dotes on, is marvelously played with degrees and shadings of sympathy and strength and frustrated horror by Carlotta Johnson, as she begins to notice that Kurt, her father, is getting absent-minded and gradually slipping away.

As early as episode one, “The Troubled Man”(like for instance the forgetting the gun in the bar) and culminates with him wandering the streets of picturesque small town Ystaad with his shoes untied, not knowing where he is, in “The Man Who Wept,” who is ironically is the melancholy Wallander himself. And yes, in a climatic moment, Wallander cries. The series has built so carefully to this, it’s shattering.

Shakespeare  explored this same disease in “King Lear,” which I found myself seeing right in the middle of my Wallander binge-watching.

Dementia has always been with us as a disease and a topic and continues to be the unnerving presence that turns into an absence as we watch the sun sadly set on Kurt Wallender.

Don’t miss this Swedish series! You’ll find it hard to forget, and you’ll be hooked on all of Henning Mankell’s work, too! Just like Steig Larsson was, and half the world it seems is!

 

German”Crime Stories”(Verbrechen) Grisly but Good

VervbrechenCrime Stories 1“Verbrechen” is German for “Crime Stories”. Famous lawyer turned author Ferdinand von Shirach has penned the short stories of the real life crime cases he was prosecuted to great acclaim in Germany and now they exist as a hit TV series. And a six-episode DVD set of three discs by MHz.

You have to be in a really blood-thirsty mood to enjoy these six grisly, but good episodes, which vary wildly in quality.

Josef Bierbichler plays Friedrich Lionhardt with a stoicism that makes his French counterpart Inspector Maigret seem absolutely flamboyant in comparison. Bierbichler is a focused mountain of a man best known in the US for his role as the sadistic Steward in Michael Hanneke’s frightening thriller “The White Ribbon.” With a voice like thunder, when roused, his intelligent, omniscient eyes see through all comers.

I was really gripped by Episode 1, wherein a mild-mannered husband Friedrich (everybody seems to be named Friedrich in this series)Fahner finally turns on his vicious wife Ingrid played with memorable relish by Annette Paulman, and murders her with his gardening tools. Based on, as I noted, a true story, you totally root for Friedrich to get off.

This is a neat reversal of the battered wife story, and in this case,it’s the long-suffering husband who is constantly brow-beaten, insulted and humiliated by his overbearing, vulgar wife. They are first shown as a deliriously in love young couple. As newlyweds, there seems nary a cloud on the horizon, and Ingrid is charming and sexy as a young girl.

But over the years, she has turned into a harridan he hardly recognizes, and can barely stand. Now 60, Friedrich maintains he has married her. He’s her husband and feels he cannot violate his marriage vows to her. So he kills her. German logic.

And Friedrich Leonhardt( Von Shirach’s alter ego) enters the scene as Friedrich Fahner’s defense lawyer determined to get him off. For as he states over and over, “a lawyer does not always want to know what really happened.” It is his job to get his clients freed and he pursues this goal with a single-minded intensity that powers each 44 minutes episode. It’s not a whodunit at all, but the suspense is always “Will Leonhardt prevail and get his client off?” which is an interesting twist in this overworked genre. A character describes Leonhardt as “the brakes on the carts on justice.”

Leonhardt doesn’t feel he has to like or even understand his clients, which are as varied as Germany is today.

Ripped from the headlines, “Crime Stories” when it works is riveting. I also particularly liked Episode 3 where Phillip Von Nordicke, a young student played with a burning intensity by Vladimir Burlakov, kills, blinds, and dismembers sheep. Stabbing each “victim” 18 times in a signature way that the local Polizei immediately know it’s him. But can you imprison someone for simply killing sheep argues Leonhardt. Then a young girl goes missing and of course, the young Phillip is the lost likely suspect. So in jail he stays, until Leonhardt enters the scene.

Some episodes don’t work at all and are merely confusing like Episode 2 “Tanaka’s Bowl.” But when it works, it really really works and loving crime stories and murder mysteries and film noir as you know I do, these German ones are a dark treat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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