Reviews

Dare to Hope, But Never Trust a Nazi: 'Voyage of the Damned'

Katherine Ross as Mira in Voyage of the Damned (1976)

This dramatic and ambitious historical film is wonderfully acted by its all-star cast and worth the royal Blu-Ray treatment, but this 2013 release is sparse on the bonus features.


Voyage of the Damned

Subtitle: English
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Laura Gemser, Lee Grant, Oskar Werner
Length: 155 minutes
Studio: ITC Entertainment
Year: 1976
Distributor: Shout! Factory / Timeless Media
MPAA Rating: PG
US Release date: 2013-09-24
Website

I recently reviewed for PopMatters a classic French Film Noir called The Damned (1947), about a group of Nazi war criminals escaping liberated France on a long voyage to South America. Almost 30 years later, another film told almost the complete inversion of this, with a group of Jews being sent by the Nazis to their freedom in the United States (by way of Cuba) as part of a 1939 propaganda stunt.

The film is called Voyage of the Damned (1976) and it sports an impressive all-star cast as well as the direction of Stuart Rosenberg, known for such remarkably diverse films as Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) and Let's Get Harry (1986) (on which his directing credit was removed in favor of the sad pseudonym, “Alan Smithee”).

Voyage of the Damned is unique among period pieces of this kind in that a very strong line is drawn between “Nazi” and “German”. Sure, many World War II films feature the token sympathetic Nazi who helps a Jewish escapee or an iconic savior like Oskar Schindler, but Voyage of the Damned allows for a much greater amount of grey areas in its characters, without the obvious black-and-white morality that many films of this kind demonstrate (and, considering the subject matter, are wise to do so).

Accordingly we meet Captain Schroeder (Max von Sydow in a typically excellent performance), skipper of the MS St. Louis who deplores the Nazi party and refuses to allow the party’s propaganda representative on his boat. On the flip side is Egon Kreisler, a Jewish physician who takes his Hippocratic Oath so seriously that he counted Nazi officers among his patients before being selected for the title voyage. This is appalling to Sam Wanamaker’s Carl Rosen, who sees this as nothing short of genetic treason.

We also meet young German (and, indeed, “Arian”) men like Max Gunter (Malcolm McDowell), who are more interested in love and romance than politics or separation of races, even if, in their present situation, they can’t fully grasp what these refugees have been through. Max stands in direct contrast to Helmut Griem’s Otto Schiendick, an equally Arian young German who is so similar to Max, one might get them confused, even though Max is a legitimate ship’s mate while Otto was sent by the Nazi party to carry out any of the more horrific orders they may have planned.

This is, of course, the core of the film, as anyone who knows the true story or the book written by by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts can tell you (which is, for you spoiler-hounds, much less than the movie’s trailer will tell you or even the title might imply). Even as Rosenberg and screenwriters David Butler and Steve Shagan allow grey areas and great diversity in both their German and Jewish characters, there is no sugarcoating or humanizing of the Nazis. Voyage of the Damned is far from a “war movie”, but the cold and ominous Nazi threat looms over virtually every moment in the film to the point that they sympathetic Germans and the defiant Jews begin to blur together into one collective of victims, especially when the plot we thought we knew begins to fall apart.

Voyage of the Damned is also not afraid to portray outrage from the characters concerning the horrors of this era. A young Jonathan Pryce is brilliant as the once intimidated former prisoner Joseph Manasse whose fear turns to anger. Pryce’s supporting role is so commonly silent and passive that his fury becomes a well-acted shock point in the film. There is always an air of detachment to his character as if any chance at life is too good to be true, but when he sees dreams turn to nightmares again, he is a completely different (yet seamlessly presented) character.

Other standouts in the cast include Katharine Ross, as Mira Hauser, the daughter of two of the voyagers, and Lynne Frederick as Anna, whose (natural) biggest fear is the concentration camps. Orson Welles is also noteworthy as the Cuban national whose sympathies for the plight of the voyagers make his job getting them on solid ground no easier.

Max von Sydow as the Captain

However, the dynamic and chemistry between the brilliant actresses Faye Dunaway and Lee Grant steals the show and stops all action in the film for some of the best drama in the entire picture. Initially at odds, Dunaway and Grant’s characters share a certain understanding that brings them together, at least for the smallest (yet most poignant) film moments. The conflict seen on the face of von Sydow, the shift in the character of Pryce and the scenes between Frederick and McDowell are the only dramatic moments that are quite as impactful as Grant and Dunaway’s exchanges.

Otherwise, the film is paced such that it can often fall into the category of “slow”, and this is most assuredly not a film for audiences looking for an action and adventure yarn. There is no Indiana Jones to save the day and no pat Hollywood ending to revise history. Voyage of the Damned is unquestionably a serious drama and treats its subject matter with the dignity that it should. To this end, the all-star cast does a remarkable job of selling this fact-based story, as does the beautiful and expansive cinematography of Billy Williams.

Voyage of the Damned looks and sounds great on Blu-Ray and fans of the film will appreciate the transfer, which maintains the inner decks’ darkness as much as it drinks in the sunlight of Cuba. However, as extras go, Voyage of the Damned amounts to a damned shame. This important movie isn’t given a commentary or any documentaries or interviews with the surviving cast and crew. Instead, only a photo gallery and movie trailer are included. With such subject matter, one might hope for a more ambitious release, but perhaps the market isn’t demanding that release yet.

This is a beautiful and well-done (if very depressing and occasionally too-slow) film, well worth the royal treatment. Perhaps its next release will grant just that.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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