Tag Archives: World War II

Rossellini’s fifth end-of-WWII film

Roberto Rossellini (1906-77) jolted international audiences with three films — “Rome, the Open City” (1945), “Paisa[/n]” (1946) and “Germany, Year Zero” (1948) — that came to be called “neorealist” and at least according to the Criterion Collection as the “War Trilogy.” They focused, respectively, on the end of the Nazi occupation of Rome, the US fighting from Sicily north to the Po River, and hard-scrabble life in bombed-out Berlin for a young boy.

Rossellini returned to the last days (weeks?) of the Nazi occupation of Rome in “Era notte a Roma” (which means “It Was Night in Rome,” though the English-language release title was “Escape by Night,” 1960; the DVD reverts to the Italian title), following upon another great film set during the Nazi occupation, “Il generale Della Rovere” (1959), a Pirandellean drama about rolue engulfment in which fellow neorealist pioneer Vittorio de Sica delivered his greatest onscreen performance.

I’d estimate that half of “Era notte a Roma” was in English, with some of the rest in Russian. These were not subtitled for the Italian release, so that audiences were in the same situation as the Roman characters harboring a British army captain, an American Air Force lieutenant, and a Russian army sergeant who had escaped a prisoner-of-war camp when Italy surrendered (and before the northern two-thirds of the peninsula came under Nazi domination).

The opening narration (in what sounds like American rather than British English, though the point-of-view of the movie is that of the British captain, played by Leo Genn) attributes the sheltering of enemies of the Reich to “Christian charity” more than any political feelings — thus not directly participating in the erasure of fascism in revising history to make Italy a victim of the Nazis rather than a co-aggressor when things were going well for the Wermacht. I think that the movie whitewashes the complicity of the Holy Mother Church in particular, and of fair-weather fascists in general, but there is at least one still-ardent fascist in the movie, albeit a limping failed priest, Tarcisio (George Petrarca).

At the start, after the invocation of “Christian charity,” nuns are scrounging food somewhere north of Rome. A farmer gives them foodstuffs for practically nothing so long as they take the escaped prisoners, who have been hiding in an Etruscan tomb, with them. Back in the Eternal City (Roma, perpetual), Esperia Belli (the vivacious Giovanna Ralli) removes her habit and lets down her luxuriant long hair, and it becomes clear to the viewers (including the three prisoners) that she has been masquerading as a nun.

Esperia is an active participant in the black market and reluctant to add harboring enemy (of Germany) prisoners to her already risky existence. But she does, and her fiancé, Renato Balducci (Renato Salvatori in the same year as his scoundrel performance in Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers) is very enthusiastic about a Soviet comrade (how many Soviet prisoners were there in Italy? Not to get into how these three bonded with only two sharing any common language…)

I think Leo Genn (born in 1905 and a real-life WWII officer two decades earlier than when the movie was shot) was too old for the part of Major Pemberton. Also, throughout the movie, he speaks very, very slowly (perhaps helpful for those with marginal English comprehension in the Italian audience?).

I doubted that the actor playing the wounded American bomber pilot was really American, but Peter Bradley (the name of the actor and of his character) was born in Winnetka, Illinois, and eventually said something that convinced me (I don’t recall what it was, though).

The original American release was trimmed down to 82 minutes from the Italian 151. The DVD I saw ran 138 minutes. It seemed overly long with some shots held unnecessarily long. I later learned that Rossellini was enamored with a new zooming capability and delighted not to have to cut as often as previous technology had made necessary.

Despite the protracted length of some shots, the movie is not bad as a thriller, and despite the sentimentality of a Christmas dinner in the attic of Esperia’s apartment, the dangers are not sugarcoated. I find Major Pemberton a bit wimpy, not least in comparison to his alien mates.

The DVD subtitles everything in all three languages, which is just fine with me. It contains no bonus features, but I have three books on Rossellini, and am going to look at the bonus features on the Criterion “War Trilogy” release. Though I consider “Era notte a Roma” (also released in the UK as “Blackout in Rome”) the least of the five Rossellini WWII movies I have seen, not as close to the time of the events portrayed as in the “War Trilogy,” and not among the best of the thousands and thousands of WWII movies, it was fairly absorbing and suspenseful.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

 

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Although I am definitely not one of them, there are those who feel that in “Bowling for Columbine” Michael Moore ambushed NRA spokesman Charlton Heston (not yet diagnosed with Alzheimer’s). Like many “60 Minutes” segments, Moore’s documentaries have involved filming some unwilling participants refusing to answer questions. They do not, however, prepare a viewer for the outright assaults on unwilling interviews portrayed in the 1987 documentary directed by Hara Kazuo “Yuki Yukite shingun” (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On). The self-anointed instrument of divine justice and truth excavation, Okuazaki Kenzo attacks other survivors of the Japanese Imperial Army’s disastrous foray into Papua New Guinea.

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The extent of cannibalism by the starving Japanese 32nd Corps there in 1945 remains murky, and it is not definitively established that they ate “white pork” (that is, eating dead Japanese soldiers) or only in “black pork” (eating Papuan native peoples—one survivor comments on how difficult to catch they were). The distress of Japanese soldiers without any supplies at the end of the war has been powerfully portrayed in Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain,” and an attempt to relieve the sufferings of the souls of unburied Japanese Army corpses is central to Ichikawa’s great Burmese Harp.

After having served prison terms for using a slingshot to hurl lead at Emperor Hirohito and for distributing obscene materials picturing him, Okuzaki went after surviving comrades in arms with a documentary film crew in tow. The camera (and, so far as one can tell, crew) impassively recorded Okuzaki assaulting two of them, one just out of the hospital.

Without question, the country/society/government of Japan and former officers in the Imperial Army have not forthrightly addressed atrocities ordered down the chain of command (let alone countenancing many others). The frustrations of a veteran like Okuzaki who wanted the truth to be told are understandable, but assaulting frail old men and shooting the son of an officer he thinks has obfuscated his role do not seem to me to be defensible tactics (I can accept obscene representations of the Emperor, though the particular ones Okuzaki made are not shown in the documentary.)

The Emperor and many other Japanese were at least complicit with atrocities, but in my view Hara is complicit with attempted murder and aggravated assault as an accomplice of what he filmed. His presence and recording surely encouraged (/legitimated) Okuzaki (who hired the film-makers to film him. Their presence certainly increased the pressure to try to accommodate Okuzaki’s invasions.) And aside from the violence of one old man against others, the documentary shows Okuzaki instructing his wife and another man to impersonate siblings of two Japanese soldiers who were shot after Japan surrendered (for desertion or cannibalism or both). The film-makers are, thus, complicit with deception in the quest for Truth, too.

The documentary has no commentary, giving Okuzaki and his inquest complete control of the floor. What Okuzaki saw and did in Papua New Guinea in 1945 can reasonably be said to have driven him mad, but just as with the Mayles brothers “Grey Gardens” documentaries, I find “Naked Army” guilty of exploiting mental illness and encouraging crazy people in their delusions (in this case, that Okuzaki has a divine mission to force survivors to confess to murder). Okuzaki’s cheerfulness and extreme politeness when not involved in hectoring interrogations further unnerved me.

In terms of narrative exposition, what is going on is often difficult to follow. My initial sympathy for the righteous critic of the Emperor’s war crimes to horror at his self-righteousness may be what Hara wanted, and no commentary is necessary on an anti-war crusader who says “”As long as I live, I’ll use violence — if it brings good to mankind” and “I beat him because he didn’t treat me politely”—, but even if his engagement in Okuzaki’s crusade was entirely passive, I consider Hara (and Imamura Shohei who provided assistance to the film’s making and is listed as its producer) an accomplice in crimes—and one who does not have the excuse of having been driven mad by surviving in Papua New Guinea in 1945 (Hara was born that year).

The movie is disturbing and in my view unethical and perhaps criminal (an accomplice to felonies) in addition to dealing with the horrors experienced and the horrors perpetrated by Japanese soldiers not only during but after the official end of the Pacific War (in addition to the searing Ichikawa movies of the 1950s, the last of the Human Condition (Ningen no joken) trilogy directed by Kobayahsi Masaki recalls the long-term enslavement by Soviets of Japanese troops who surrendered to the Soviets, who had declared war against Japan all of a week before Japan surrendered; and Kobayashi’s penultimate film was a 5-hour documentary on the Tokyo War Crimes Trial).

The hand-held 16mm camera is very unsteady, so the visuals are sub-home-movie quality. There are no extras (and if ever there was a movie that cries out for some supplements, this is it!) This is also a film in which it would be very useful to have subtitles in more than one color, since there are a number of junctures in which I was not sure whose lines were being translated.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray