White, Red and Topkapi

Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story, Michael Haneke, 2009)

Topkapi (Julius Dassin, 1964)

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018)

The White Ribbon has the same slightly frustrating and unnerving feel as Happy End, this time set in Germany (or possibly Austria) in the year leading up to World War One. An unnamed teacher (played by Christian Friedel) narrates (Ernst Jacobi) his memory of a time in a small village, where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) fills the children with fears of sin and damnation, forcing the guilty parties (including his own children) to wear white ribbons as a symbol of wrongdoing. This seems to invite wrongdoing — an attempt to kill the doctor, vandalism, masturbation, violent revenge — and presumably is building a narrative that will lead to the Second World War. The right people aren’t necessarily punished.

Meanwhile, Topkapi is a much lighter confection — for which Peter Ustinov won his second Academy Award. Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) hatch a plan to steal a treasure from a museum in Istanbul. Simpson (Ustinov) is meant to be a patsy, but gets recruited into the scheme. There’s some odd fourth wall breaking, especially at the beginning, and Mercouri, presumbaly not acting in her own language, can’t quite carry the film. Schell, meanwhile, is handsome in a way I’d never noticed before, knowing him better for The Black Hole (1979). But Ustinov steals every scene he is in and the whole thing is almost a dry run for The Italian Job, with a less clever ending. I really ought to read Eric Ambler one of these days.

I watched Topkapi knowing nothing about it — it popped up on BBC iPlayer. This led me to Red Joan, which takes the real story of the exposure of an old woman, Melita Norwood, as a Soviet spy. Here she is Joan Smith (Judi Dench), initially defended by her son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles, who I keep confusing with Ben Miller), arrested for sixty years earlier leaking of atomic secrets and occasionally has to look like she has indigestion so we can flashback to 1949 and Sophie Cookson being Young Joan. The politics is frankly botched and the sexism of the the 1940s is a little underplayed. Dench is always worth watching — and Iris did a more interesting double casting and flashback (although Kate Winslet was still less interesting). 

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