The message movie isn’t quite a staple of Hollywood filmmaking, which is an enterprise generally dedicated to crowd-pleasing entertainment for over a century. But that doesn’t mean the industry hasn’t benefited from, embraced, and exulted over-earnest, ever-relevant cinematic efforts that purport to reveal societal truths, no matter how ugly, to enlighten spectators.
To that end, we’ve seen such renowned features as 12 Years a Slave, addressing the horrors of slavery in 19th century America; A Face in the Crowd, which showed the cynical political manipulation of media and citizenry that could get an empty, crass figurehead elected in a democracy; Norma Rae, an impassioned look at union organization in the face of oppressive management; The Best Years of Our Lives, delving into the peacetime struggles of returning war veterans; Silkwood, about one woman’s fight for worker safety in the potentially dangerous nuclear power industry; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a personal look at race relations through the prism of a family’s reaction to interracial romance.
Some may say that there’s a thin line between message movies and propaganda, and that’s a fair point. If there is a distinguishing characteristic that sets them apart, it’s that the intentions of a good message movie are generally noble, and its makers want the viewers to draw their own conclusions after weighing what’s onscreen. Propaganda is unleashed to persuade an audience to buy what it’s selling and do so without the use of critical thinking.
LAND OF MINE
Like a number of message movies, Land of Mine — the current foreign film Oscar nominee from Denmark — is a powerful drama inspired by actual events. Writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s script begins right after World War II has ended. A group of young German POWs are forced by their Danish captors to remove 2 million land mines that the Nazi army planted on the coast of Denmark. And they have to dig them up with their bare hands. It’s a shoe-on-the-other foot situation as a Danish officer, Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller), now has a chance to torment these dazed, chastised, relatively inexperienced recruits who were among Hitler’s invading troops.
The historical aspects of the movie are chillingly true, and deserved to be disseminated. According to reports, more than 2,000 German soldiers were compelled to remove the mines, and roughly half of the contingent lost life or limb. As such, the dangerous task given the prisoners has serious moral complications because these enlisted men were doing the bidding of their German commanders. Yes, it’s the old “just following orders” conundrum for a soldier, but insubordination likely meant imprisonment or death. None of it seems particularly fair insofar as the war was over, and perhaps these kids should have been repatriated. This perspective arises in Rasmussen’s increasing unease with his command, its mission, and its consequences.
Even aside from the inherent philosophical and moral implications, Land of Mine has the tension of the 1953 Jean-Pierre Melville classic The Wages of Fear (with its pair of truckers who must drive a haul of volatile explosives over a rocky mountain road in South America), as something or someone could blow up at any moment. And it’s thoughtful regarding the ethics of the task depicted, not to mention the limits and nature of revenge. Shot in stark, bleak fashion, Land of Mine is a haunting piece that’s beautifully acted by its cast of Scandinavians and Germans. And the depiction of wartime horror and its aftermath place it firmly in the realm of the message movie.
Land of Mine opens March 3 at the Clay Theater.
Not everything needs to be dark, gloomy, and fraught with importance. With that in mind, I’d like to heartily endorse Kedi — a delightful documentary about the cats that roam the streets of Istanbul with sublime independence and/or live in harmony with their human friends. Apparently, the kitties have been a facet of life in those parts since the days of the Ottoman Empire, when the great ships (with their rat-killing cats on board) sailed in and out of the Turkish port. Many of the cats scampered onto the docks, never to return to their vessels, and thus was a pride born, one that grew and grew over the centuries to the point where there are now hundreds of thousands of them wandering everywhere by the Bosporus.
Some of the cats have made stores or restaurants their territory and feeding ground, others are at home as pets in apartments where they are free to come or go as they like. Many of them are cared for by locals and willingly interact with the people doting on them. And there are the cats that are loners left to the alleys and abandoned buildings of the city. In all cases, the cuteness factor is massive. Istanbul itself is lovely as seen through the lens of the film’s director Ceyda Torun, who manages to get up close and personal with the felines and the men and women who love them. There’s even a cat-cam for that cat’s-eye view of the area. Whether you’re a cat-lover or not, Kedi is a treat to watch, offering up all of the charm, antic behavior, and occasional stubbornness common to the species — without stirring up any allergies you might have.
Kedi opens March 3 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.