Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hearts of War

Hearts of War
Directed by Damian Lee
Image Entertainment

Most poets consider themselves lovers rather than fighters. For Oskar Koenig, a sensitive German writer, serving the Nazi war machine is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, particularly when he falls in love with a beautiful Jewish woman. Such are the misfortunes of love and war in Damian Lee’s Hearts of War (formerly known as The Poet, trailer here), the winner of the 2007 Staten Island Film Festival's Best Film Award, which is now available on DVD.

Oskar Koenig has always had a strained relationship with his strict father, a general in the German Army. To toughen up the poet, General Koenig sends his son to Poland as an intelligence officer, charged with infiltrating the local Partisan groups. One snowy evening riding through the forest, he finds Rachel, the young daughter of a rabbi, unconscious and near-dead. Taking her back to his cottage, he nurses her back to health, at which point they immediately fall in star-crossed love.

Not only is Rachel Jewish, she is also betrothed to another, making their relationship extremely problematic. When the Germans attack her village, Koenig deliberately sends Rachel away with her fiancé Bernard, in an act of sacrifice. However, events conspire to draw all parties to Russian border, where German troops are massing in preparation for the Soviet invasion.

Though not exactly Doctor Zhivago, Hearts is also essentially a sweeping romance set during a tumultuous period of history. Using the Holocaust in melodrama is a dicey proposition, but to their credit, director Lee and screenwriter Jack Crystal never seem exploitative in their treatment of such material. Since most of the action occurs with the Partisans in the forest, the concentration camps are never seen on-screen. However, there are several massacre scenes that are reasonably realistic, leaving no doubt as to the evil nature of the National Socialists.

Primarily known for television roles, Jonathan Scarfe and Nina Dobrev are surprisingly credible as the separated lovers. However, the real standout performance comes from Zachary Bennett, who brings a real human dimension to the noble but jilted Bernard. In addition, Hearts boasts a notable supporting cast, including Roy Scheider in one of his final screen roles as a Rabbi in hiding with Rachel and Bernard. Daryl Hannah makes a memorable appearance as Koenig’s sympathetic mother, the kind of part that is still hard to envision for the star of Splash and Roxanne. 24 fans should also note Colm Feore (a.k.a. First Gentleman Henry Taylor) has a small supporting role as a Nazi officer.

Hearts might be melodrama, but as such, it is relatively restrained. While some might object to its historical backdrop on general principle, it is always respectful in its handling of the Holocaust. Thanks its likable leads—all the three sides of its tragic love triangle—most viewers will find it a perfectly satisfying DVD experience.