Directed by Volker Schlondorff. Starring Sasha Hanau, Volker Spengler, John Gottfried, Marianne Sagebrecht, Armin Mueller-Stahl, John Malkovich. (1996, NR, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 17, 1999
Schlondorff's best film since 1979's The Tin Drum reiterates many of that Academy Award-winning film's main themes: the corrupting influence of fascism on the young and young-at-heart, the inescapable attraction of evil, and redemption through the eyes of youth. While The Tin Drum, however, revolved around a child who literally refused to grow up in the face of war, The Ogre (originally shot in 1996) presents an adult who becomes more and more childlike and naive when surrounded and embraced by conflict. Malkovich is excellent as Abel, a hulking naïf caught up in the madness of the Nazi regime believing he has entered into a “fairy tale” as the realities of wartime spin lazily out of control. Schlondorff first introduces us to Abel as a young boy growing up in a rigorous, post-WWI Jesuit orphanage. When he prays that the stifling place might burn to the ground, it does, and Abel recognizes his life is going to be different from those of the people around him. “Fate has chosen me,” he thinks, and indeed it has. Years later, working as a mechanic in the French countryside, he finds he has a special affinity for the neighborhood children in the way he views the world and his environs. Simple, forthright, and virtuous, Abel is nonetheless branded a child molester when he spends too much time around the village children, and is offered a chance to redeem himself by joining the French army, which promptly falls to the Nazi blitzkrieg. Captured, he eventually ends up as a close servant to Hitler's right-hand man, Herman Goering (the porcine Spengler), tending the Field Marshal's hunting lodge and, later, unwittingly using his special skills to corral Aryan boys from the countryside to serve the Reich. Schlondorff is playing with some very loaded themes here, and does so with admirable results. There's much more to his story (taken from Michael Tournier's novel The Erl King) than can be covered here -- the film spans two decades -- and at least a half-dozen major relationships that arise from Abel's interactions with children, Nazis, and Nazi children. His transformation from a simple and simplistic country bumpkin into “The Ogre,” a black-cloaked stealer of innocence both literal and metaphorical, is wrenching in Schlondorff's unvarnished attention to detail, and it's hard to imagine anyone other than the squirrelly Malkovich in the part of Abel. That said, the actor is abetted by a plethora of powerful German actors, among them Gottfried as Goering's Chief Forrester and Mueller-Stahl as an Old Soldier loath to see the Reich crumble before the Nazis' blind fascism. Schlondorff uses less of the magical realism that informed The Tin Drum, relying more on the literal and linear to get his trenchant points across this time out; it works just as well. Astonishing, disturbing, and altogether an affecting piece of work, The Ogre is Schlondorff -- and everyone else involved -- working in top form.