Reviews Short Narrative

Übel (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Edwin Schaap

Writers: Edwin Schaap

Cast: Bryarly Bishop, Ray Thacker

Running time: 9mins

The Second World War ended three-quarters of a century ago – yet still casts a long shadow over international politics, economics, religion and media. A large part of its continued significance in ideological life is clearly that it is easy to portray as the last clear-cut example of the US and UK going to war with an un-ambiguous bad-guy – a mass murderer whose defeat saved countless lives.

Thanks to this status as the last ‘righteous’ war, it is no surprise that it has continued to be at the forefront of political rhetoric and education – often as a way of excusing the blood-soaked trail the Allied powers have cut across the world in the decades since. There are of course a great many of far worse impacts this has had on the way we view the world, and its prevailing power structures – but the one I am going to highlight today is the glut of lazy filmmaking it continues to see churned out across all aspects of the industry.

The problem is that many filmmakers believe Nazi is short-hand for ‘unrepentant evil,’ and Allie is the antithesis. As a result, in neither case do a great many writers or directors believe said archetypes need to have fleshed out backgrounds, character traits or motives, beyond needing to defeat one-another. It’s a troublesome way of approaching the matter – as it not only means that the players in such films are un-engaging, identikit tropes mashing together over a four-hour run-time; but worse still, the end-product will not help audiences to look critically at the geo-political landscape of history after 1945, or indeed at the leaders who weaponise these tropes to justify their own actions today.

I would of course be wrong in claiming you cannot make an interesting, morally conflicted story about the struggle to overthrow the Axis Powers, but for every Iron Sky, we are inflicted with multiple renditions of Pearl Harbour. For every Inglourious Basterds, cinema pumps out a dozen versions of Valkyrie. This is also a contrast which plays out in the independent scene; for example, while Eric Esser’s The Angel of History is firmly in line with the former, Edwin Schaap’s Übel (literally the German for Evil) is largely in the latter.

The first thing which audiences will notice in any film like this is which option the filmmakers choose for the non-American voices. Will they go for the Tarantino route of actually bothering to speak in German; will they ‘Allo ‘Allo it, and garble English lines through a borderline stereotypical accent; will they get confused and have Tom Cruise retain his unmistakably American drawl while others attempt a ruling-class English accent?

Taking place at an ambiguous time and place during the global conflict, the action takes place in the office of Dieter Übel (Ray Thacker), a charmless German officer of some kind who has risen to prominence due to his ability to locate hiding Jews. He is unmistakably authentically English, and so is maid Mia Schumacher (Bryarly Bishop, an American doing a pretty solid job of the Queen’s, albeit in the worst possible context). It comes across as more than a little Jerry Brickhammer – but at least, mercifully, this production plumped for one definitive ‘German’ voice, which is more than Bryan Singer’s lacklustre film can say for itself.

The most interesting facet of the film comes on a technical level. The film’s lighting and camera angles telegraph where the power lies at different moments in the story; and from being top-light with the camera located beneath his eye-line (like Marlon Brando in The Godfather) to having the camera look down upon him from the heavens, Übel goes from a position of omnipotence to a hapless child who has been outflanked. In terms of cinematography, Schaap has a good deal of competence and flair then – but this polish is wasted on Übel and its unchallenging, A-B writing.

Indeed, in terms of the plot, Übel’s descent in the movie’s writing is rushed at best and botched at worst, leaving us with very little food for thought by the time the credits role. At first he attempts to make grating small-talk with his evidently uneasy employee, pushing a plate of over-cooked wurst towards her, and imploring her to eat before remarking “Do I know you from somewhere?” It is impossible to look past the fact this is a truly shoddy attempt to ape Hans Landa’s conversation with Shoshanna in Inglourious – sans any of the charm, wit or tension – but worse than that, Schaap is apparently in quite a hurry to see the plot progress, so it is soon replaced with a series of all-too-familiar tropes relating to cinematic vengeance.

Moments after this particularly WASP-ish opening, where Übel’s two characters attempt to avoid making eye-contact during a jarringly stand-offish dinner conversation, the initially terrified Mia ‘finds her voice’ to reveal that yes, she is actually a Jew hiding in plain sight. It is immediately clear why she might have tried to disguise herself and work her way into a position where she has access to Übel and his steaming plate of food – though he is inexplicably naïve to what someone whose parents he murdered might want to do to that.

Übel will not be the only one who was left confused by the film’s events however. As the film continues to blast through its pedestrian plot, viewers will be left entirely at sea as to any but the most bare-bones details relating the piece’s two players.

Übel apparently grew up with Mia’s mother looking after him – does he have any regrets for having seen her killed, or is he simply a ‘monster’? If he is, there is little point in telling this story, as there is nothing to learn with it; the Nazis were not an example of the depravity and hysteria humans can sink to as a result of any systemic or historic circumstances. They just liked to kill people. So we don’t ever have to worry that we could become the Nazis of our own time and nation. Meanwhile, Mia might have taken immediate revenge on an individual connected to the death of her loved ones – but what good will this do in the struggle to overthrow a society which is producing millions more like him?

As is typical of the mainstream brand of World War Two drama, the world is distinctly divided into one of black-and-white archetypes, while any attempt to fight injustice is reduced to the most impotent, individualistic level. Overall, the only thing we can take from this is that we should be glad we are not members of a fascist movement in the 1900s, and that most of those who were are now dead – and really, could there be any more of an asinine thing to say about history or the world than that?

It is always dangerous to make objective statements about a subjective art-form, but in my opinion cinema should always try to do more than simply serve up a world of pantomime baddies and un-compromised heroes – especially when handling something as politically complex as the historical legacy of fascism. A simple moment of using Google Translate should not be able to summarise this film-going experience but here we are. Übel, the name Edwin Schaap bestowed on his lead-Nazi and the film itself, literally means Evil – and that pretty much says it all.

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