Based on the 1945 novel by Glenway Wescott, first-time director/co-writer (along with Luca de Benedittis and Heidrun Schleef) Ruggero Dipaola has done a thoughtful job of bringing this story of an unwanted roomer turning a family’s life inside out and upside down forever to the screen..
A Nazi captain (played initially with just the right mix of icy steel by and artistic sensibility by Richard Sammel as Kalter, only to fall just a hair short of brilliance—in the same vein as Bruno Ganz, cross-reference below—during the cataclysmic crisis scene: less is always more) chooses to insinuate himself in the “close to the office” apartment of the Helianos clan.
Nikolas—previously a successful publisher of children’s textbooks before the occupation—must kowtow to the career bully in order to protect his family from horrors that go far beyond housing, feeding and tending to the “enemy’s” every whim and desire. His stoic, still alluring wife (after three children, one of whom has already left the planet prematurely thanks to collateral damage) soon becomes appalled as she witnesses—spying from the wardrobe—the gradual friendship that appears to take hold of the oppressor and oppressed alike. Their glue? Why, the arts, of course. Above all else, Kalter savours music (the libretto for Wagner’s Ring cycle adorns his desk). Once his unbending authority is established over the household, he begins looking to Nikolas as a soulmate even as his own considerable losses back home in Hamburg douse the fire in his belly for the grand scheme of ruling the world.
The remaining children, necessarily, have skipped the joys of childhood and become adults far ahead of their time. Leda is just becoming a woman and with hormones raging begins to find the father figure in uniform ruling her roost not a brutish tyrant but possibly the man of her pubescent dreams. Younger brother Alex sees through everything and everyone becoming the rebel with a cause, frustrated as well that his dad seems to be a wimp and that his dead sibling, Kimon, finds more love in the hillside grave than Alex does in his occupied home. An early scene where Kalter hands his wide leather belt to Nikolas to mete out once-removed punishment to his hot-head son is one of the chilliest demonstrations of compliance (cross-reference below) yet seen in these pages.
There is a marked difference in the pompous captain (now major) after he returns from a sudden two-week sojourn back to Germany (the Helianos’ shared delight for this temporary respite—replete with a bounty of Greek music—is one of the few moments of unadulterated joy in this ever-darkening tale).
Moody and depressed, Kalter looks to his host more and more to share a glass of warm wine, read books and generally contemplate the unhappy state of the planet. (“If Germany loses, we’ll just start another war,” explains the brandy loosened soldier, causing many knowing shudders from this screening’s attentive crowd.)
Everything points to a happy ending—especially when the notion of enduring pain to improve man is intellectually arm-wrestled by the budding chums, using examples of Oedipus and lines from Nietzsche for point counterpoint across the Greek-German divide.
But any hope for a real meeting of the disparate minds is forever dashed when the Führer and Il Duce are thrown up by Nikolas as the cause of needless deaths of innocent Greeks and doing-their-duty Germans. The two grieving fathers fall out with—at first—completely unimaginable consequences. Had much more understatement been employed rather than instant, unsupported rage, this film could take its place amongst the precious few war stories that completely understand both sides of the lingering effects of the irrational quest for political/cultural domination at all costs. Nonetheless, a viewing can’t but help to add to the still desperately needed conversation as to why we (and most especially our masters of all stripes) continue to espouse one noble course of action and then do exactly what we’d already decided to do in the first place. JWR