By STEPHEN HOLDEN
In its most unsettling scenes, set at a castle being used as a military training school for Hitler youth, Volker Schlondorff’s film “The Ogre” suggests the stirring cinematic equivalent of a Wagner opera.
As you watch hundreds of adolescent boys being hyped with a messianic blend of heroic German mythology and Nazi ideology and participating in torch-lit rituals and athletic contests, you sense of the thrill of being a boy swept up in the demented pageantry and passion of the Nazi cause.
“The Ogre” — made by the director of “The Tin Drum,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and, most recently, the overripe American film noir, “Palmetto” — is just the sort of grand, tortured allegory in which Central European filmmakers have long specialized. Adapted from Michael Tournier’s novel “The Erl King,” the film poses knotty questions about good and evil and innocence and guilt, focusing many of them on an ambiguous (and pathetic) symbolic figure named Abel (John Malkovich) who narrates the movie.
When we first meet Abel, he is a misfit and troublemaker at a strict French boarding school. One day, while on his way to be disciplined for disrupting a chapel service, he prays that the school burns down. As if by magic, fire suddenly breaks out in the chapel, distracting the headmaster and saving Abel from a severe beating but killing his best friend.
As a result of this incident, Abel grows up with an inordinate sense of personal power and the rightness of his own destiny, even though he is consistently treated as an outcast.
When a little girl he has befriended falsely claims he molested her, Abel avoids prison by going to the front in 1939 as World War II breaks out. Captured by the Germans, he becomes a lackey to a group of high-ranking German officers. One of them is Hermann Goering (Volker Spengler), whom the movie portrays as a grotesquely charismatic supermacho caricature, a Prussian giant obsessed with German mythology and with hunting wild animals.
When it is discovered that Abel has a talent for making friends with children, he is sent into the countryside to find young boys and lure them to the castle as military conscripts. Abel’s escapades earn him the nickname “the Ogre” in the neighborhood.
In the film’s climax, the last-ditch Nazi fantasy of a heroic children’s crusade against the invading Russian army collapses in a fiery Gotterdammerung as the Russian tanks arrive at the castle.
Schlondorff treats this fantastical story as an expressionistic fable with some scenes shot in sepia, others in color and still others in black and white.
As Abel, Malkovich gives an understated performance that captures the ambiguity of a character who does monstrous things yet remains a tender-hearted innocent, a kind of idiot savant who identifies with children and animals. Malkovich, who speaks in the soft, halting voice of a man-child, moves through the film with a blankly questioning, slightly cross-eyed stare. What’s odd about his performance, and about the movie in general, is that a film this European, teeming with references to Goethe and German mythology, should have been made in English.
“The Ogre” has strong supporting performances by Armin Mueller-Stahl as a count involved in a plot against Hitler, and Gottfried John, as Goering’s fanatically loyal henchman and chief forester.
But for all its ambitions and moments of brilliance, “The Ogre” doesn’t feel unified or even complete. Episodic and vaguely surreal, it is the antithesis of a Hollywood film that tells us what to feel. Having unfolded an ever-widening series of moral questions, it deliberately leaves them hanging.
1.64GB | 1h 57m | 704×400 | mkv