Frankenstein’s Army combines genres that have business with each other: a World War 2 thriller and a found footage horror film. Director Richard Raaphorst begins with a group of Russian soldiers who are in charge of reconnaissance. Crucially, one of the soldiers has a camera (a brief prologue explains he’s a student of cinematography, and he’s filming them for posterity). The group finds some disquieting things alone the countryside: there is a pile of burned nuns, and another corpse looks like a steam-punk nightmare. Before long, the soldiers realize that the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein (yes, that Dr. Frankenstein) is creating Nazi super-soldiers, one with simplistic yet brutal weapons attached to their bodies.
The creatures are wholly convincing. A memorable one has a swastika emblazoned on its forehead, and a giant drill bit for a mouth. Their killing methods are gleefully disgusting: one soldier has his head squeezed until his brain literally pops out of his head. It’s gross and fun, yet Frankenstein’s Army falters with its flat characters and disorienting visual style. The actors accents are inconsistent, and the camerawork is deliberately sloppy so that when the mayhem begins, we cannot fully comprehend their terror. Raaphorst has a perfect premise – demented Nazi monsters are irresistible to horror fans – yet his execution cannot match his imagination. By the time Dr. Frankenstein reveals his true intentions to his final victim, there’s no serious engagement with this kind of material, so this horror film amounts to little more than a highly specific, bloody playground.
Early in Michael H. Profession: Director, the Austrian director patiently explains how he respects his audience. This respect, he reasons, is why he’s able to challenge them (all his films are disturbing, and usually on multiple levels). This documentary looks at his films, going in reverse chronological order. Director Yves Montmayeur, who worked with Haneke throughout his career, gets uncommon access to the work behind the scenes. We see how he works with actors – he pantomimes what he wants them to do – and how demanding he can be. There are also interviews with Haneke, and he (wisely) avoids talking about what his films mean. Method and intent are far more interesting.
Unlike most documentaries about famous artists, you absolutely need to be familiar with Haneke’s film to take anything about from this. Montmayeur assumes the audience has seen all of them: they never discuss plot, and instead go into greater depth about Haneke’s formal instincts, and how they tie to grander themes. In the discussion of Cache, for example, Haneke describes how he intends to deconstruct the audience’s typical notions of objectivity. It’s intellectually challenging stuff, but rewarding since Haneke is brilliant and, like all great directors, can easily articulate what he wants (a film director is the last job where someone can command dictatorial power). Any fan will admire this highlight reel of his career, but if multiple interviews with Isabelle Huppert do not pique your interest, neither will this documentary.
Whereas the Haneke documentary takes a traditional approach, Matt Wolf’s Teenage is riskier. The only imagery is stock footage from the early twentieth century, and well-known character actors (Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw) provide an impressionistic, melancholy voiceover. Based on a book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945,” Teenage describes how the West’s idea of youth and young people evolved. In the early twentieth century, the transition from childhood to adulthood was seamless: young men would abandon school for factory work, and soon create families of their own. That all changed with World War I. Soldiers were celebrated as heroes and this renewed an emphasis on youth. Trends grew popular in the post-war years – including swing and “Bright Young Things – although this shift in culture took a darker turn in Germany.
Wolf lays out his thesis early. Young people feel a need to assert themselves, and the establishment’s attempts to quash their voices will only make them more defiant. The problem with Teenage is how it lays its cards on the table too quickly: Whishaw, Malone, and the others repeat the same argument without elaborating. Editing and music are the documentary’s saving grace: the score by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox establishes a couple themes, all rooted in post-punk, and music guides us through all the emotional cues. This type of montage is effective – many music videos use the same technique – and it’s surprising to see how Wolf uses it for a feature-length film. Teenage is not a historical record of adolescence, but it does succeed in giving an idea what it felt like to be a kid back then, which is precisely what the kids wanted all along.