Schlondorff’s ‘The Ogre’ Explores the Enticements of Evil
Volker Schlondorff’s “The Ogre,” adapted from Michel Tournier’s celebrated novel “The Erl King,” is a superb companion piece to the director’s Oscar-winning 1979 film of Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” Both deal with the specter of the Third Reich in epic and ironic fashion, with mythological overtones.
“The Ogre” marks a triumphant return to filmmaking for Schlondorff, who devoted five years to establishing Studio Babelsberg, former home of the legendary UFA studios and East Germany’s subsequent DEFA organization. (In a sad commentary on art film distribution, “The Ogre,” an English-language production three years in the making, was actually completed two years ago; it will run one week at the New Beverly Cinema. “The Tin Drum” will be the second feature today and Saturday, Fritz Lang’s “M” Sunday through Tuesday and G.W. Pabst’s “The 3 Penny Opera” Wednesday and Thursday.)
“The Ogre” is a wrenching, richly imaginative tale of innocence, corruption and redemption. It opens in 1925 at a bleak, strict seminary outside Paris, where a miserable, ill-treated orphan boy named Abel wishes that the entire place would burn down. By accident it does, conferring on Abel a sense that he possesses special powers.
When we next catch up with him, it’s 1939, and Abel (John Malkovich), near-sighted and still childlike, is a Paris auto mechanic whose identification with youngsters will inevitably be misinterpreted. A series of events catapults Abel from French soldier to prisoner of war in Germany, where he ends up a servant at Hermann Goering’s vast country estate. Here Abel, always an outsider in his native country, receives unexpected opportunities.
Until this moment, “The Ogre” unfolds as an odyssey of a naive yet intelligent misfit, but with Abel’s entry into Goering’s baroque world, the film takes on a darkly satirical tone as it depicts the excesses of the field marshal (Volker Spengler), a man of legendary appetites and deadly iron whims who, when he tenses up, calms himself by thrusting his hands in a giant champagne glass filled with jewels.
Not far from Goering’s estate is an elite military school, headquartered in a magnificent ancient castle, which is also the home of Count von Kaltenborn (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who belongs to an ancient line of knights--and is actually a member of the Resistance. When Goering departs, Abel ends up at the academy and, for the first time in his life, feels at home.
Now we’re at the heart of the matter. Here is where the scions of Germany’s purest Aryan aristocrats are steeped in physical culture and theories of genetic superiority. For all its discipline and demented thinking, the academy, with the warm and kindly Frau Netta (Marianne Sagebrecht) as its housekeeper, has a surprisingly gemutlich atmosphere. That’s because everyone is caught up in Hitler-worship and the myth of Teutonic ascendancy.
But as the war wears on, Abel finds himself asked to swoop down on peasant boys to fill out the academy’s thinning ranks; no wonder, too, he earns the nickname “The Ogre” across the countryside. Only gradually will Abel come to see the light, which keys the film’s stupendous climactic sequence.
“The Ogre,” which invites endless connections to German myth and legend, evokes that sense of a longing for an ultimately treacherous artificial paradise that experimentalist Hans Jurgen Syberberg explored so imaginatively in his monumental trilogy, “Karl May,” about the German novelist who wrote of an American West he never saw; “Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King,” about Bavaria’s ill-fated builder of fantasy castles and palaces and mentor to Richard Wagner; and “Hitler: A Film From Germany,” which envisioned Hitler as a master manipulator of a heady, seductive German Romantic tradition.
“The Ogre” is in all ways a remarkable accomplishment by a master director, working with a perfectly cast Malkovich and the cream of Germany’s character actors, and with some of Europe’s most distinguished film craftsmen, starting with Schlondorff’s co-adapter Jean-Claude Carriere. Malkovich’s plain features and strong physical presence combine with his silky charisma to create an unsettling Abel, at once so vulnerable and so dangerous; his Abel seethes with the outsider’s longing and cunning, intermingled with tenderness and complicated by naivete.
In addition to the always formidable Mueller-Stahl, Sagebrecht and Spengler, Malkovich is supported by Gottfried John as Goering’s chief forester and the epitome of the intelligent yet obedient soldier, Heino Ferch as the academy’s proponent of health and strength, and Dieter Laser as its crazed science professor.
“The Ogre” is a glorious-looking film of both intimacy and scope. Goering’s Jagerhof, a cathedral-like structure in a kind of East Prussian folk Deco style, was re-created at Babelsberg, and much of the academy was filmed at Marienburg Castle, one of the most imposing monuments of the Order of German Knights. (There is a parade ground, complete with torches on pillars that looks like pure Albert Speer.) Production designer Ezio Frigerio and cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer give the film an even, burnished glow, and Michael Nyman has composed a magisterial score that is alternately witty and elegiac.
If there is any justice, “The Ogre” will move to another theater once it has completed its New Beverly run. But don’t count on it.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: complex adult themes, battle sequences, some sexuality and violence.
John Malkovich: Abel
Armin Mueller-Stahl: Count of Kaltenborn
Gottfried John: Chief Forester
Marianne Sagebrecht: Frau Netta
A Kino International release of a German-French-British co-production: Studio Babelsberg (Germany)/Renn Productions (France) and Recorded Picture Co. (Britain) in co-production with WDR and France 2 Cinema. Director Volker Schlondorrf. Producer Ingrid Windisch. Executive producers Claude Berri, Jeremy Thomas, Lew Rywin. Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere & Schlondorff; based on the novel “The Erl King” by Michel Tournier. Cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer. Editor Nicolas Gaster. Music Michael Nyman. Production designer Ezio Frigerio. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
Exclusively at the New Beverly Cinema for one week, 7165 Beverly Blvd., (323) 938-4038.