Monday, August 02, 2010

Axis Face Defeat: Last Letters from Monte Rosa

It is 1945 and the war is obviously going badly for the Germans. It would be difficult to argue the contrary to a German platoon stationed on the frontline that now runs straight through Italy. Though the Italians are still ostensibly their allies, partisan forces have made the Italian countryside quite inhospitable for them in Ari Taub’s Last Letters from Monte Rosa (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

Lieutenant Breukner’s troops are very near their breaking point. Food and supplies are running low, while the partisans’ deadly guerilla attacks continue unabated. He holds out hope that the promised Italian reinforcements will turn the tide against the partisans, allowing his men to concentrate their attention on the Americans. However, when Lieutenant Gianni’s Alpine platoon finally arrives, they are in little better condition than the German troops.

Reluctant to engage his countrymen, Gianni repeatedly clashes with Breukner, despite the clear respect they hold for each other. Frankly, both officers can see the writing on the wall, but Gianni is more inclined to accept it, while Breukner will fight the war through to the bitter end, as his sense of honor dictates.

Inspired by the discovery of undelivered final messages to loved ones penned by German and Italian troops serving in Northern Italy, Letters is a deliberate attempt to humanize the pawns of war. In a decision that might be controversial with some audiences, it only features Axis characters, aside from one American serviceman selling contraband wine to Rossini, the local gangster. Frankly, the early interludes involving Rossini do not seem to belong in Letters. However, when the boss and his henchmen are caught plundering the bodies of German war casualties, it crystallizes the soldiers’ struggle to maintain honor and dignity in the face of likely death. Indeed, their crime is an affront neither the German or Italian soldiers are willing to forgive.

Letters has a DIY vibe that is hard to describe but works better than one might expect. Shot mostly in the northeastern United States with a German and Italian cast speaking their native languages, it shares characters and entire scenes with Taub’s earlier film, The Fallen. He captures the chaos and confusion of war quite well, showing empathy for common grunts, impressed into a war not of their making. Obviously, portraying Nazi officers, even those of relatively low rank, is a delicate business. Taub steers well clear of any mention of the Holocaust or other National Socialist atrocities, which might indeed be necessary to tell his story as he intended, but leaves such issues conspicuous by their absence.

Still, Letters’ depiction of the national rivalries and class distinctions that still divide the Axis soldiers is rather effective. Amongst the European cast, Fabio Sartor and Thomas Pohn are both particularly good as the aristocratic officers, playing off each other nicely during their confrontations.

Ultimately, Letters is a modest but memorable war film with a genuinely humanist sensibility. It is definitely worth checking out for those hardy enough to venture out to Williamsburg, the home of IndieScreen, the newest venue for independent cinema in the County of Kings, where Letters opens this Friday (8/6).