I finally got around to watching this dark and gripping 2004 German drama about the last days of Hitler and the Third Reich. Realistic, hard-hitting, impeccably crafted, meticulously researched and detailed, Downfall is easily one of the best historical war films I’ve seen.
I don’t usually write about TV shows on my blog, but I really wanted to give a shout-out to this classic 1976 BBC mini-series set in ancient Rome, based on the historical fiction novels by Robert Graves (which I of course will have to read now).
I’m slowly catching up on the acclaimed 2019 movies, most recently this World War I drama from the director Sam Mendes. I always have to overcome a barrier of reluctance with war movies set in the modern era, but I’m glad I managed to watch 1917 on the big screen (and in the plush comfort of Village Gold Class too!)
I continued my recent Danish streak with this historical film about adultery and Enlightenment in the 18th century Denmark, which succeeds both as a sweeping romance and a tense political drama.
The royal palace of Versailles and its doomed queen Marie Antoinette get a new perspective in this French film, which covers the last fraught days of the monarchy through the eyes of a young woman serving as the queen’s official reader. While ultimately somewhat slight, the movie’s eavesdropping-on-history approach is compelling, and gains a lot from being shot at the real location.
One of the joys of travel is finding things you’re never going to encounter at home. I spotted this book at a supermarket checkout while in Alaska, and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have come across it anywhere else. I’ve read quite a few stories about the famous Alaskan gold rush, but this book offers a very unique perspective on the time and place, focusing, as the title suggests, on the women of the demimonde who flocked to the Far North’s gold camps in the late 1890s and early 20th century. It aims to shed light on the “off the record” history of the pioneers, and women who in their own ways influenced the frontier life.
Another gem brought to my attention by the History Buffs YouTube channel. Directed by Peter Weir and adapted from nautical historical novels by Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander unfortunately didn’t make enough money to become a series, which is a shame. Maybe the long unwieldy name put people off; as far as terrible film titles go it’s no Mrs Caldicot’s Cabbage War, but unless you’re a fan of the books it doesn’t really sound like an exciting proposition, which is probably why I skipped the theatrical release myself.
A solid, low-key Cold War drama thriller from Steven Spielberg. “Solid” might not sound like much of a compliment, but sometimes it’s just satisfying to watch a well-made film that might not be edgy or exceptional and just about avoids the worthy and dull basket, but which also brims with confidence and expertise in cinematic craft. It achieves a difficult balance of dramatising a true story where, on one hand, too much of real life would probably make it boring and on the other, it still has to retain some realism in order to not lapse completely into fake movie-land.
It takes something special to lure me into a cinema to watch a modern war movie, and the involvement of Christopher Nolan definitely piqued my interest, even though I thought that The Dark Knight Rises was a bloated misfire and Interstellar was deeply flawed. Thankfully, Dunkirk is a lean mean machine that dispenses with stilted dialogue about love, and in fact relies very little on the dialogue. It’s probably not an obvious comparison, but of all the recent movies Dunkirk reminded me the most of Mad Max: Fury Road, and not just because Tom Hardy’s face is covered up with a mask in both films. Like George Miller’s instant classic, Nolan’s latest is a visceral, purely cinematic survival story that made me feel like someone grabbed my insides, twisted them in a knot and didn’t let the grip go for a couple of hours. It’s a kind of movie where you need some time and preferably an energetic walk to decompress after.
My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.