At the crux of the Nazi occupation of Romania in 1941, an abandoned citadel in a beautiful village is is holding prisoner something unspeakable. This stunning fortress, which seems almost to disobey Euclidean geometry, is never seen in its entirety – always sprawling off camera, a looming backdrop to the drama that unfolds. It is invaded by German soldiers who unwittingly release a malevolent entity whilst looting the keep. Soldiers begin to disappear one by one, and SS Einsatzkommandos are called in to fight against what is assumed to be a Romanian resistance.
The blurred morality and epic battle between two opposing, godlike forces was explored more recently by JJ Abrams in Lost, which was surely influenced by this obscure cult classic. What is the creature? The anthropomorphic personification of war? The Golem of Jewish myth? Is an anti-fascist German soldier a baddy or a goody?
In his introduction, Cigarette Burns host Josh Saco encouraged us to look out for the smoke and light effects used by cinematographer Alex Thomson, who had painted Arthurian legend in electric blue and sodium orange for EXCALIBUR two years earlier. His backlighting, along with the dry ice and slomo set THE KEEP firmly in the eighties, but it’s no cheesy slasher.
Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen, then unknown in America, add gravitas to this German Expressionist mood piece – although Mann’s elliptical approach to narrative is more Impressionist, a mythical and theatrical style echoed in his later work MANHUNTER. An inexperienced filmmaker, Mann’s haphazard approach was exacerbated by Paramount’s clumsy post-production, but his passion and honesty shine through every scene.
Catch the next Cigarette Burns screening, DEATHLINE (on 35mm) on 8 March at the Phoenix Cinema in London at 11pm. Book here now!