Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Battle of the Last Panzer (1969)

Original title: La batalla del último Panzer

During the Allied invasion of France, at a point when Germany has been beaten back far enough that more than one soldier of their side knows which way the winds blows regarding the whole master race thing, a single Tiger tank finds itself caught behind enemy lines, and worse for the handful of soldiers involved, commanded by a Lieutenant (Stelvio Rosi) who is still a gung ho Nazi out to win a war that’s already lost.

Not surprisingly given these circumstances, the handful of soldiers decreases in numbers fastly, what with the good Lieutenant’s unwillingness to just surrender to someone. There are encounters with the French resistance, a village repeatedly in need to change the flag congratulating their newest conqueror/liberator, an innkeeper’s wife (Erna Schurer) with a bad taste in men to live out her existential crisis with, and much interpersonal wrangling. And that’s before the Americans get wind of the German tanks loose behind their lines and send in Guy Madison (as well as a dubious plan). It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that things will end badly.

If you are one of these sad people populating even sadder parts of the Internet demanding historical accuracy from your cheap Spanish war movies, and get in a tizzy when an on-screen Tiger isn’t an actual Tiger, or when soldiers wear the wrong helmets, or really, if you’re the kind of person who cares about the helmets people wear in a war movie instead of what any given film has to say about the people wearing those helmets, you’ll probably probably die of a heart attack watching this. Me, I’m made of sterner stuff when it comes to films that aren’t documentaries, and really don’t think the helmet makes the movie, though it is of course nice when a film can afford the money and care to find the right ones.

Really, José Luis Merino’s Battle of the Last Panzer is worth a bit of tolerance, seeing as it features a handful of moments of clever filmmaking and a script with some ideas of its own you don’t find in every World War II film - though generally more often in those made in Europe, because the filmmakers will approach the theme from a different direction, and perhaps with more mixed sympathies.

The film’s script is quite loosely structured, only escaping the description of “episodic” by not having all that much happen in it at all. However, the stretches of little happening with an undercurrent of watching psychological damaged people getting close to their breaking points, followed by violence, followed by little action again, which make up the film’s structure seem to fit the nature of the war as its German protagonists experience it quite well. Now, I’m not necessarily saying the script uses this structure on purpose, however, the impression while watching stays the same in any case. What I definitely am saying is that the film is more interested in the psychological pressure of the situation and exploring the strain of people in a situation built to crush them than in clever plotting. This approach works quite well for the film, too. It has its share of boring scenes, but also a cast of characters that is as a rule more complicated than you’ll find in most war movies.

The complicated relationship between Erna Schurer’s Jeanette and her husband, as well as the thing going on between her and the Lieutenant come to mind at once, or the fact that the Lieutenant is not just a deeply unpleasant Nazi thug (though he is that, too) but also shows moments of kindness. He also suffers from PTSD, something films generally seem to think is ennobling, and therefore only inflict on whomsoever they deign to be the good guy in any given situation, as if history (and hey, even World War II) wouldn’t make quite clear that monstrosity and vulnerability are both very human traits, and both traits can appear in the same person, perhaps even one entwined with the other so much it becomes difficult to tell which is which.

The violence here is generally not of the fun and adventurous sort, yet also keeping away from the kind of gruesomeness that produces a visceral reaction in its audience (one suspects there wasn’t a budget for the latter). It stays in a middle ground where violence is a bad thing, and war is hell, but there’s nothing spectacular or emotionally disturbing shown. There is, though, one blunt yet clever directorial trick in a scene that would have been a big (or biggish, with the budget involved here) violent action set piece in most films but turns it into something quite different, and arguably more interesting, here. When the Lieutenant and his surviving crew slaughter the French resistance members, Merino films the action through a simple red filter, turning what we see of the violence surreal and strange, and echoing the estrangement, and what I’ve read described as the tunnel vision of battle, of the men involved.

It’s difficult to disapprove of a film that exchanges a sure-fire moment of outward excitement for something like this, and for me, this scene is emblematic of Battle of the Last Panzer’s ambition as well as of its strengths. Not a bad thing for a cheap exploitation movie.

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