Berlin 2012: ‘Calm at Sea’ review

Calm at Sea (La mer à l’aube, 2012), the latest work to come from Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979) director Volker Schlöndorf, is a classically presented – if unremarkable – World War Two drama that depicts the execution of 150 French POWs by German occupying forces in October 1941. Whilst lacking the surrealist edge of Die Blechtrommel, Schlöndorf successfully evokes memories of Italian neorealist classics such as Rome, Open City (1945) through the careful use of multiple interweaving storylines.

At the film’s opening, German occupying forces have been encamped in France for over twelve months, meeting with only mild, sporadic resistance from native freedom fighters, stifled by the introduction of internment camps for perceived Communist sympathisers. However, after a German officer is assassinated by a group of three men in Nantes, Hitler demands that 150 French citizens be shot immediately, sending a clear message to those opposing Nazi rule. A young 17-year-old boy, Guy Môquet (Léo Paul Salmain), and his fellow prisoners in a Brittany camp are immediately put forward as tributes, whilst German dissidents begin to question the shear brutality of their Führer’s far-reaching actions.

A pivotal, hard-hitting subject for Schlöndorf to grapple with then – and on the most part, the German director deals with historical events well. With a firm nod to French master Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), the inmates of the Brittany camp offer up an eclectic cross-section of 1940’s French society, from teachers and doctors to poets and Communist revolutionaries. Marc Barbé’s Timbaut and Philippe Rèsimont’s Désiré are both extremely watchable as the camp’s ringleaders, whilst Salmain’s Guy cuts a stoic, if somewhat one-dimensional lead protagonist.

At several key moments, Calm at Sea feels seriously overcooked and over-staged, with Schlöndorf struggling to lift any memorably complex characters from the pages of several sources, including accounts from French journalist Pierre-Louis Basse, German officer and author Ernst Jünger (played by Ulrich Matthes is the film) and novelist Heinrich Böll. Whatsmore, one plot strand – which follows a young, war-weary German soldier (played by Dreileben: One Minute of Darkness’ Jacob Matschenz) – falls completely flat due to its staid, hackneyed presentation.

When considering its ‘TV film’ origins, one should perhaps not be too quick to condemn Schlöndorf’s latest, which remains thankfully fortified by its deeply tragic subject matter. However, those looking for a return to form from the German filmmaker – who once tore up the WWII movie rulebook through his depiction of the extraordinary Oskar Matzerath – may well come away numb and underwhelmed by Calm at Sea.

For more Berlin Film Festival 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green 

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