By Tim Pelan
In early 2016 BAMcinématek held a major retrospective of all Michael Mann’s filmography, throwing up a few surprises, such as a fresh and one-night-only exclusive showing of a new “Director’s Cut” of Marmite hacker movie, Blackhat, and a great conversation with the director, moderated by New York Magazine critic Bilge Ebiri. But although it also screened, fans were out of luck if they expected the director to announce any kind of restoration of, or illumination on, the oddity in his back catalog, the self-proclaimed “World War II Fairy Tale,” The Keep. The film, Mann’s second feature which followed his ice cool heist drama Thief, is his one attempt to delve into the truly fantastical, an expressionistic foray far removed from his standard template of Pinteresque, self-reliant and solitary professionals, on each side of the law.
Loosely based on F Paul Wilson’s novel, The Keep has Nazi soldiers in 1941 unearth an ancient evil locked deep within the eponymous sepulchral Keep, buried in the Carpathian mountains. A small unit of war-weary Wehrmacht soldiers led by Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) set up base there. The local village priest warns him that it is an evil place, and not to touch any of the 108 nickel crosses embedded in the rock. Two bored and greedy soldiers pry one out of the wall, unleashing the evil being within, Molasar, who kills them. This action alerts Glaeken (Scott Glenn), who is the guardian of The Keep, who hops on a boat from Greece to confront the creature. Meanwhile, more vicious Nazis led by Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) arrive and take reprisals against the villagers for the deaths of the soldiers. He finds an inscription of an ancient language (a spell to imprison the creature?) and summons a wheelchair bound elderly Jewish scholar Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) from Dachau to translate. They see Molasar as the embodiment of an ancient Golem. Molasar carries on killing Nazis, and proposes to Dr. Cuza that if he removes the Talisman that imprisons him within the stone walls, he will kill all the remaining Nazis for him. Glaeken knows Molasar won’t be satisfied with that, and the stage is set for the final confrontation. Oh, by the way, Glaeken is a vampire. But you’d never know it. Perhaps because Mann’s three-hour supernatural fairy tale was slashed to 93 minutes after going wildly over time and budget, with abrupt edits and cuts that make no sense.
It is telling how in this 1983 Film Comment interview with Harlan Kennedy Mann is pulling away from some of the very elements that appeal to die-hard fans of the film, like German soldiers exploding, Scanners style (hilariously in slow-motion, and very obviously dummies). Elements which have also influenced other war horror, such as 2001’s The Bunker. “The idea of making this film within the genre of horror films appealed to me not at all,” he said. “It also did not appeal to Paramount. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t scary. It’s very scary, very horrifying, and it’s also very erotic in parts (Glenn and Watson get it on with barely an introduction, the seduction another victim of the cutting room floor). But what it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional. It has the passions that happen in dreams sometimes when you’re grabbed in the middle of a dream and yanked into places you either want to get out of or you never want to leave.” He studied Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment—Bettleheim believed fairy tales were complex moral fables—“The myth is pessimistic while the fairy tale is optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some of the story may be.”
Mann dismissed the presence of the Nazis as incidental to the central three-way struggle between Glaeken, Molasar, and the “Golem’s” temptation of unearthly power offered up to a newly revitalized Dr. Cuza. Yet when researching, Mann also boned up on Otto Skorzeny, the Nazi Brandenburger officer who rescued Mussolini by daring glider assault in 1943. Mann was drawn to “the specific kinds of aberration that explain why a lower middle-class bourgeois in Munich would be attracted to the Waffen SS in 1933.” To what end this particular research manifests itself in Gabriel Byrne’s performance is debatable.
The director gave Glaeken his surname of Trismegistus, Greek for “Thrice Greatest”—a reaper of evil spirits? In fact, he seems to have made up half the film on the spot, changing the script on the day, often rewriting dialogue. Then, he would storyboard and change his mind again, because he was struck by how the light had changed and evoked a different feeling to him. “Once I’ve written the screenplay I’ve finished the movie, in the sense that I have a complete evocation of it on paper, then it’s a whole new film again when I start shooting. It doesn’t change that much, but now the words are plastic, flexible. So I’m constantly rewriting bits of dialogue before I shoot, which drives the actors really crazy.”
Poor Ian McKellen suffered the most. The exterior location for The Keep was an abandoned Welsh slate quarry. It was 150 feet deep requiring crew and equipment to be lowered in, working 16 hour days in the cold and rain. The actor recalls being made up to look 30 years older, a process that took five hours. At one point, for twelve days in succession, he was put through make-up, but never called to work. The producer sent him home to recuperate, fearing a nervous breakdown. Mann seemed driven by a vision, but whatever it was, it was elusive, almost as much as the feeling evoked by Tangerine Dream’s anachronistic score. Incidentally, copyright around the score is one reason (apart from Mann’s unwillingness) why you won’t see a home release on DVD or Blu-ray of The Keep anytime soon.
Yet the film is undoubtedly striking and evocative, channeling a feeling of underlying strangeness and oppressive dread. Mann dresses his sets and location in fog and very specific lighting, utilizing arc lamps from the twenties and thirties to achieve a certain hard blue shaft of light emanating from the openings in the keep, recalling the German expressionism of the period. “Creating a kind of Albert Speer-Mussolini monumental quality.” The village outside, by contrast, is very bright, white, overexposed, yet naturalistic enough to seem grounded, to represent innocence. Before its truncated form, the film would have shown the disturbance from the keep’s released prisoner disturb and disrupt the villagers—one character can briefly be seen drinking a dog’s blood. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently tweeted in reaction against the current “absolutist” appreciation projected by “Film Twitter” about how one can find redeeming qualities in films that one doesn’t love outright, or even in films dismissed as flawed:
There are films I’ve seen multiple times that I don’t love unreservedly. I love them in part, or I am impressed by them.
There are films that do very little for me emotionally that I cherish because of their brilliant technique. The reverse is also true.
Interestingly, Mann didn’t see Molasar as a simply evil force, but rather a pure distillation of power, to be used for good or ill. A kind of metaphor for the forces shaping the world during the war. “He’s just sheer power, and the appeal of power, and the worship of power, a belief in power, a seduction of power. And Molasar is very, very deceptive. When we first meet him, we too believe that he is absolute salvation. And it’s all a con. Now when Glaeken shows up, the first thing he does is seduce Eva Cuza. So my intent in designing those characters was to make them not black-and-white.”
It’s a pity Molasar is such a disappointing presence in the film, first manifesting as a cloud of particles, then gradually becoming what looks like a muscle-bound version of one of German anatomist Gunther Von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibits, with two glowing red balls for eyes. Special effects chief Wally Veevers died two weeks into post-production, leaving no clue to his method. The ambitious finale planned out by him also had to be scrapped, another reason perhaps why Mann is reluctant to have the film released on disc in its butchered, imperfect form. He later said, “The Keep was really hard because I went into pre-production without a completed screenplay,” conveniently forgetting how much he chopped and changed it to his producer and cast’s dismay. Author Wilson scoffed at this. “The film followed his script pretty faithfully.”
Or maybe it’s also because Mann finds that, looking back, he really wasn’t sure what he was trying to achieve, becoming lost in the night and fog of The Keep’s black heart.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, a 1983 interview with Michael Mann about filmmaking and The Keep, from The Electric Theatre Show: “Mann talked about the power of dreams, and moving The Keep story out of the horror genre of the novel and into a dream reality. He felt it was not necessary to try and explain non-natural events or causes because they are states of mind in an expressionistic dream reality, which is what he was attmpting to do with in his film version.” —The Keep Score by Tangerine Dream
Here’s a rarity: Michael Mann’s script for The Keep [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The LaserDisc of the film is available at DaDon’s Rare LaserDiscs and other online retailers.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s The Keep. Photographed by Graham Attwood © Paramount Pictures, Associated Capital, Capital Equipment Leasing. A special thanks to the great folks at A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann’s The Keep. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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