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Simply the Worst: Michael Mann’s “The Keep”

Simply the Worst: Michael Mann's "The Keep"

Perhaps it was just a bad dream. Perhaps writer-director Michael Mann didn’t really veer from his crime-film comfort zone after 1981’s terrific Thief (an entrancing amalgam of seventies grit and eighties gloss), only to end up in supernatural phantasmagoriaville with 1983’s much-maligned period horror film The Keep. Perhaps it would have been preferable (especially for that part of us that futilely demands life and its associated arts to move in easily classifiable straight lines) to jump directly to 1986’s Manhunter, the first cinematic swipe at Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter mythos—a luridly antiseptic bit of genius that Chicago Reader reviewer Pat Graham incisively likened to “white noise” and “electronic snow.” (The critic’s memorable “am I recommending this or not?” punchline: “Just try not to nod off…”)

Appropriate, then, that The Keep begins in some tenebrous fugue state between waking and dreaming, between sound (ominous thunderclaps) and image (impenetrable fog). Caught in this foreboding mist—this white noise, scored to a pounding Tangerine Dream dirge—is a convoy of Jeeps driven by SS soldiers, chests pumped with pomp and power. “Now we are the masters of the world,” says their leader, and the story’s ostensible star, Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), after they arrive in an isolated Romanian village in the Carpathian Alps circa 1941. We believe his prideful boast; just moments before, Mann and cinematographer Alex Thomson introduce Woermann in a couple of searingly iconic extreme-close-ups (of a match struck and lifted to a cigarette; of the character’s penetrating blue eyes) that are rife with possibility and potency. In a way, Woermann himself seems to be controlling the narrative, conjuring it from his subconscious—the Romanian village only materializes after he’s, well, nodded off. Implying that the very film we’re watching is the projection of a historical bogeyman (and a charismatic, confident one at that) is a brilliant tweak of convention. We’re not waiting for the monster to jump from the shadows; it’s already in plain sight. And what could possibly be worse? Read the rest of Keith Uhlich’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.

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