Calm at Sea: Berlin Film Review

"Calm at Sea"
Two-dimensional chronicle of wartime resistance and martyrdom.

Volker Schlöndorff directs a wartime drama set in occupied France.

A World War II atrocity is dramatized in old-fashioned but ultimately affecting style in Calm At Sea (La mer à l'aube or Das Meer am Morgen), a low-key comeback of sorts for veteran director Volker Schlöndorff. Funded mainly by French and German TV channels, this flat-looking, digitally-shot affair will play best on small screens - although in France, where these events and individuals remain very well-known, theatrical returns might accrue. And while Schlöndorff's name will guarantee a certain measure of interest from festivals, this latest work won't be flattered by being screened alongside his earlier headline-makers.

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Indeed, while his colleagues in the 'New German Cinema' of the 1970s Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders have been enjoying unexpected late-career revivals, Schlöndorff remains in the shadow of his earlier achievements like Palme d'Or winner The Tin Drum (1979). Five years after central-Asian 'western' Ulzhan, he now reunites with the star of his penultimate feature, 2004's The Ninth Day, Ulrich Matthes - who that year also played Goebbels in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall.
Here Matthes is poet and author Ernst Jünger, whose writings - along with those of French journalist Pierre-Louis Basse and German novelist Heinrich Böll - form the basis of Schlöndorff's screenplay. Jünger, a captain in the German army, was close witness to events which unfolded in 1941 following the assassination of a Nazi officer by Communists in Nantes. Hitler personally ordered a mass execution of 100 French hostages as punishment for this killing, the identities of the victims to be decided by local officials in consultation with their German occupiers.
Over a quarter came from the Choiseul camp near Chateaubriant, largely populated by troublesome political prisoners and chief setting of Calm at Sea (though the real camp was farther from the Atlantic). They included, most famously, Communist teenager Guy Môquet (engagingly Léo-Paul Salmain, whose fresh-faced looks recall Jean-Pierre Léaud and Alain Delon.) Môquet became an icon of the Résistance, and a touching letter he wrote in captivity has, since 2007, been read by every French school-child on the anniversary of his death.
Schlöndorff also gives plenty of time to the camp's other prisoners and staff - many of the latter wrestling with terrible quandaries about collaboration with the enemy and moral culpability. Attempts at fleshing out the characters work only to a certain degree, hampered by some clunkily on-the-nose dialogue ("war is so bloody stupid! When we've changed society, there'll be no wars.") Thuddingly grim ironies are the order of the day - from idealistic Môquet's dreams of becoming a doctor, to the cruel fate of young newlywed Claude Lalet (Martin Loizillon) who's on the 'kill list' only because of a technicality.

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The painful emotion of the scene in which Lalet says farewell to his wife is counterproductively underlined by the keening strings of Bruno Coulais' score - typical of Calm At Sea's by-the-numbers approach to sensitive subject-matter. That said, attempts at anything more ambitious usually fall flat - most notably Schlöndorff's baffling ploy of framing certain shots using off-kilter angles - and this is a story best treated with the minimum of fuss and distraction, as in the stark, tactfully-handled final scenes at a sun-bleached beach-quarry.

Proceedings are elevated by French star Jean-Pierre Daroussin's third-act cameo as Abbé Moyon, a world-weary priest who's brought in to comfort the doomed Communists and atheists. Harshly critical of the Germans' policies of hostage-taking and retaliation, Moyon fumes at the French officers who place following orders ahead of listening to their consciences - issues which still cause much controversy, all these decades later.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 14, 2012.
Production companies: Provobis (in co-production with Les Canards Sauvages, Arte France, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Südwest-rundfunk)
Cast: Léo Paul Salmain, Ulrich Matthes, Marc Barbé, Martin Loizillon, Sébastien Accart, Jean-Pierre Daroussin
Director / Screenwriter: Volker Schlöndorff
Producer: Bruno Petit
Co-producers: Thomas Teubner, Martin Choroba
Director of photography: Lubomir Bakchev
Production designer: Stéphane Makedonsky
Costumes: Agnès Noden
Editor: Susanne Hartmann
Music: Bruno Coulais
Sales Agent: Provobis, Berlin
No rating, 94 minutes

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