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The Keep (#110 of 2)

Flashback: The Keep

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Flashback: <em>The Keep</em>
Flashback: <em>The Keep</em>

As dated as it is, The Keep (1983), Michael Mann’s second theatrical release after Thief (1981), remains an intriguing mess of historical provocation. The film answers “Nazisploitation” filmmakers’ favorite “What if” question—“If you could go back in time and kill the Nazis, would you?”—with a stirring “No.” Set in occupied Romania during 1943, the film’s central location, identified as “The Carpathian Mountains,” hints at a familiar supernatural threat (hint: He vants to suck your blood) but forgoes that kind of undead evil for a more Jungian kind. Mann’s film posits that the only thing more evil than the Nazis is Molsar (Michael Carter), an evil deity that stands in for humanity’s collective hatred. Sealed into the eponymous locale by nickel and silver-plated crosses, Molsar reveals Himself to us with an unholy amount of dry ice and blinding white lights that are straight out of a certain Russell Mulcahy music video.

Small as Molsar may be (he looks like more of a robot than a god, kinda like the Micronauts’ Baron Karza) he’s the monster you conjure up when you contemplate such fruitless speculative questions as whether or not murdering the Nazis, at any point in time, is the best way to deal with the consequences of their actions. And all of His power resides in a lil’ rinky-dink talisman that looks like it took only a few minutes for some poor techie to whip up on location. The film and Mann’s monster are for all intents and purposes earnest, but how seriously you can take the film is entirely dependent on your tolerance for camp.

The Conversations: Michael Mann

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The Conversations: Michael Mann
The Conversations: Michael Mann

Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I’d suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann’s body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the “based on a true story” social drama (The Insider).

His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He’s more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He’s more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.

He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He’s a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.