“It’s true. I do have the face of a murderer—if you’re looking for one.”
Although it claims as many mediocre moments as darkly magical ones, Volker Schlöndorff’s Der Unhold, co-adapted by Schlöndorff and Jean-Claude Carrière from one of the most brilliant novels of the twentieth century, Michel Tournier’s 1970 Le Roi des aulnes, is not to be missed. Mostly in English, it comes from France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Tournier’s symbolical autobiography, it is the story of Abel Tiffauges (John Malkovich, softspoken and exceptionally fine), a Frenchman who has believed since boyhood that his life is charmed, and whose odyssey during the Second World War takes him, as a prisoner-of-war of the Germans, from Hermann Goering’s hunting lodge to Kaltenborn Castle, where his love for children, earlier mistaken for pedophilia, prompts his becoming, the lurer/“recruiter” and, finally, the protector of boys being trained there to become German soldiers. When last we see him (here he is spared Abel’s fate in the book—a scene that may have inspired the tragic episode of the Jewish boy in Samuel Fuller’s film The Big Red One, 1980), his voiceover narration stops mid-sentence as he carries at night a child on his back, believing that he and the boy are protecting each other: a haunting non-conclusion.
For much of its length, as it blatantly, unconvincingly combines sepia, near-sepia color, full (although still subdued) color, and black-and-white segments, the film is exceptionally dark as well as haunted by the dark, dangerous fairy-tale atmosphere of Goethe’s 1782 “Der Erlkönig.” But a good deal of the material loses the focus on Abel, “the ogre,” without expanding context.
Armin Müller-Stahl, as Count von Kaltenborn, an initially duped (because flattered) aristocrat who comes to hate Nazism and Hitler, contributes the finest performance.
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