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 Keep begins with the Nazi occupation of a small Romanian hamlet. Led by Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow), the Nazis set up camp in the village’s imposing, Cabiria-esque citadel (though we never know for sure, the locals must be ecstatic about having such a mammoth edifice overshadow their little corner of paradise). Woermann is the first sign that Mann is not strictly interested in vilifying and then punishing the Nazis for fictional dramatizations of real-life atrocities. Unlike Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), who later fulfills the role of the “Bad Nazi” by slaughtering the locals, Woermann is the “Good Nazi,” heeding the town’s priest (Robert Prosky) when he indirectly alludes to the castle’s sinister past.
More importantly, Woermann is “Good” because he’s also reluctant to toe the party line and kill the Jews because of their “other"ness. Later, this crucial tidbit is unceremoniously thrown at the audience in a sloppily arranged, heated argument Woermann has with Kaempffer over the morality of their respective politics. By that point, Woermann has seceded his role as protagonist to Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), a sickly, vengeful Jew intent on unleashing the film’s bogeyman. Woermann’s argument with Kaempffer elucidates why Mann chose to pick him up and then drop him for a more reactionary hero. Unlike Cuza, Woermann is paralyzed by fear, choosing to be a Nazi instead of a partisan because he, as Kaempffer accuses him, doesn’t have the guts to take a stand. He is not Mann’s typically restless man of action, but in this case the action in question has consequences. Here it’s better to be hesitant like the tellingly named Woermann (get it? Woermann? Wo-man?) than Cuza, who only realizes at the last minute that it would be wrong to resort to such an easy and ultimately loaded way out.
Heady as it may be in a, shall we say, colorful kind of way, The Keep shows many signs of being an early film by Mann. He’s still not quite sure how to bring out the best performances in his actors, still tinkering with his love of slow motion photography on a much bigger scale than in, say, The Jericho Mile (1979). You can see both of these tell-tale signs of Mann’s green-ness in the way that certain actors lope with a Vaudevillian gait during the slow-mo sequences. Mann’s script, based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, is likewise wanting in parts, especially in how its fitfully meaningful dialogue is always too bunched up to achieve any kind of emotional resonance, though it’s doubtful that Mann was really striving for reactions beyond a gut level. And yet, by toying around with the Nazi dilemma as fast and loose as he does here, Mann provides a surprisingly steadfast, moderate take on why revanchism cannot succeed. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t so restrained.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books, and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press, and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.