Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: FIST OF THE REICH (2012)

(Germany/Croatia - 2010; US release 2012)

Directed by Uwe Boll.  Written by Timo Berndt.  Cast: Henry Maske, Heino Ferch, Suzanne Wuest, Vladimir Weigl, Yoan Pablo Hernandez, Arved Birnbaum, Arthur Abraham, Enad Licina. (Unrated, 123 mins)

Absurdly retitled FIST OF THE REICH for its straight-to-DVD US release, MAX SCHMELING was a longtime pet project of bad movie icon Uwe Boll, long mocked for his awful video game film adaptations (ALONE IN THE DARK, etc) and various attention-seeking publicity stunts (shit-talking his actors on commentary tracks, challenging his detractors to boxing matches) that border on performance art.  After going several years without the German tax shelter loopholes that enabled him to spend large amounts of money to hire slumming name actors like Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, and Burt Reynolds (IN THE NAME OF THE KING) and Ben Kingsley (BLOODRAYNE), there's been a marked decline in not just the "entertainment" value of Boll's films, but also his budgets.  Lately, Boll's idea of a big name is getting Edward Furlong or Michael Pare.  These lower budgets inspired Boll for a while--1968 TUNNEL RATS and POSTAL were alright and the grim prison drama STOIC was actually, dare I say it, good.  But lately, Boll hasn't even been trying:  BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH was awful and the simultaneously-shot BLUBBERELLA was his career nadir, which for Uwe Boll, is really saying something.  A couple of years ago, Boll got a co-production deal with a Croatian company and shot at least four films back-to-back on the same trip to Zagreb:  MAX SCHMELING was his priority, but he also got BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH and BLUBBERELLA done next, and his still-unreleased-in-the-US Holocaust drama AUSCHWITZ was shot right after.

Yoan Pablo Hernandez as Joe Louis,
fighting Max Schmeling (Henry Maske)

Boll is delusional enough that he probably thought MAX SCHMELING was the kind of sincere, reverent biopic that would put him in the same league as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.  Schmeling (1905-2005) is arguably the most famous boxer in German history, one who became a major celebrity in early 1930s Germany due to his own success as well as his marriage to popular Czech-born German movie star Anny Ondra.  Schmeling came to America and fought (and befriended) the great Joe Louis (their friendship was the subject of the 2002 film JOE AND MAX) and other American boxers (Jack Sharkey, Max Baer) before retiring from boxing and serving as a paratrooper in the Luftwaffe during WWII, though he never supported Hitler or the Nazis.  He attempted a comeback after WWII (when he was already over 40), but it was short-lived and after leaving boxing for good, became an executive with Coca-Cola's German office and lived out his years as boxing royalty before he died in 2005 at the age of 99.

Schmeling's life is a fascinating one and deserves more than the tired, cliche-filled treatment it gets from Boll.  In a move straight out of a Bad Idea Jeans ad, Boll cast boxer and 1988 Summer Olympics East German gold medalist Henry Maske as Schmeling, which would've worked if Maske was an actor.  For the sake of a film, it's probably easier to have an actor pretend to be a boxer than it is for a boxer to pretend to be an actor.  Though Maske tries, he's hopelessly wooden, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression for much of the film.  All of the boxers in the film are played by actual boxers, which should theoretically make the boxing sequences exciting, right?  Wrong.  The ring scenes in MAX SCHMELING are badly choreographed and completely inept in their execution.  They're staged horribly and they're performed even worse.  And these are real boxers!

Suzanne Wuest as Max's actress wife Anny Ondra
Even worse are the cheap sets for the major bouts.  Regardless of where a match is taking place--Cleveland, Madison Square Garden, or Yankee Stadium--it's all obviously the same set and looks like a ring just put up in a gym somewhere.  And later in the film, when Max attempts his post-war comeback, it's amazing how all of the rinky-dink venues in which he's boxing all look like--you guessed it--"Madison Square Garden" and "Yankee Stadium," which I hate to break to Dr. Boll, was never an indoor stadium.  Also a distraction:  the film is in German with English subtitles (the DVD has a badly-dubbed English audio track), and it's never NOT in German with English subtitles.  Was Boll trying to go for a genuine 1930s feel here, where every nationality spoke the same language in movies?  If you want to make a believable story, don't have the Yankee Stadium ring announcer speaking German.  Why is Joe Louis speaking German?  Why are American boxers and their trainers speaking German to one another?   Now, I'm sure one could say the same thing about, say, Tom Cruise and a bunch of British actors speaking English while playing Nazi offers in VALKYRIE, but for some reason, it just seems very silly for Yankee Stadium officials to be speaking German in MAX SCHMELING.

Heino Ferch as trainer Max Manoch
No one in the cast really fares all that well (Vladimir Weigl as Max's cigar-chomping Jewish manager is a total boxing movie cliche, and you can't miss Boll's stick-poking by portraying this character as constantly broke, making a production out of patting his pockets when the check arrives, and waiting for Max to pay the bill).  The one bright spot is provided by veteran German actor Heino Ferch (DOWNFALL, THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX) as Max's trainer Max Manoch.  He not only brings some warmth and humanity to the film but he also makes a valiant effort to help the non-actor Maske.  He doesn't succeed, but you can see Ferch is trying and giving this film a lot more than he's going to get in return.  You can almost sense him giving up during the climax when Schmeling announces his retirement--in the middle of a bout, no less--and the script requires Ferch to lead the arena in--wait for it!--the slow clap!

Not the one used in the film, but another pic
of the real Max Schmeling, with Henry Maske.
Maybe Boll was sincere with what he wanted to accomplish with MAX SCHMELING, but it's just too predictable, too bullet-pointed in its plot structure (screenwriter Timo Berndt's research seems to have been limited to checking out Schmeling's Wikipedia page), and just too embarrassingly hokey and creaky.  It's hard to pull off making an "old" movie in today's cinematic world.  Spielberg did a great job of it with WAR HORSE.  But Uwe Boll is Uwe Boll.  And for this being such a long-planned dream project of his, is there any reasonable explanation for his bailing on the commentary 72 minutes in?  I didn't listen to all of it, but the film concludes with its best shot--a poignant and moving undated photo of an aged Schmeling in conversation with none other than Maske, probably sometime in late 1980s or early 1990s.  I switched over to the commentary to hear what Boll had to say about this photo.  Nothing.  He's not talking.  I kept toggling back through the chapters.  I finally heard his voice around the 60-minute mark, and after a few minutes of some typically self-aggrandizing comments about his IMDb critics, and how "I've made some really good movies!" he just says he's done and bids farewell. 

What the hell?  Who leaves the commentary track of their pet project just over halfway through the film?   Sure, this is a guy who regularly answers his cell phone and eats cheeseburgers during commentary tracks, but this is an ostensibly serious film.  Boll doesn't give a shit.  Why should we?  I guess we should just be thankful that he resisted the urge and waited until BLUBBERELLA to cast himself as Hitler.

"Here's what I think of sticking around for the whole commentary!"

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