By Philip Newton (England)
Michael Mann’s The Keep gave me many mixed emotions when watching it, on the one hand it is highly flawed in terms of its narrative structure, which is quite thin and doesn’t make much sense. Its acting is often quite bad with dialogue which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, hell even some of the special effects look dated today.
However, despite all of this I ultimately enjoyed the experience, as the film pulls you in visually, into its mythical and mystical world. Michael Mann creates an environment that is truly spectacular to behold and composers Tangerine Dream score the film wonderfully, giving the film a sense of gravitas which offsets its many flaws creating a unique cinematic experience.
The story which was adapted from the novel by F. Paul Wilson is based in German occupied Romania in 1943, where Nazi soldiers led by Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) take command of a small village there and are introduced to the Keep, a large fortress from which no one enters and leaves. Soon soldiers begin to die, to which Woermann believes is connected to whatever force lies deep inside the Keep. They are replaced by a new leader Major Kampffer (Gabriel Byrne) who is not so convinced however enlists the help of a Jewish doctor (Ian Mckellen) who can translate cryptic writings written near a soldier’s body.
The doctor soon comes face to face with the resident force of the Keep, a creature who with the doctor’s help will destroy Hitler’s armies. However, a strange enigmatic traveller (Scott Glenn) arrives at the Keep and befriends the doctors daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) claiming that the Keep’s intentions are not for good, and must destroy its inhabitants before it threatens all of humanity.
The Keep’s plot sounds ridiculous, and it is ridiculous in many respects, however, what makes it such an immersive experience is the way it pulls you into its visual majesty, everything feels like a dream or a state of hypnosis. We don’t really understand what is going on, but we are under its spell much like Ian Mckellen is under the Keeps spell, Michael Mann has us as an audience hooked on his visual feast.
The most effective part of the film is the last twenty minutes where there is very little dialogue and the story is pretty much told visually, which ironically is much more coherent than the first half of the film where the acting and dialogue bog everything down. The story gets lost, what really is the connection of the Nazi’s and inhabitants of the Keep? This is not really explained and what begins as a heavy focus on the Nazi’s gets lost during the film, with a script which is muddled and lacking focus.
The acting as well is often quite uninspired with actors shouting lines to each other, however with no real purpose or believability. It is as though the actors felt no real emotion to this story and for me it certainly came across this way.
The only character which has any real impact is Scott Glenn’s traveller character, which although was badly acted somehow works because he is distant, and almost robotic in his actions. His scenes such as the love making scene were more about visual impact and this can be said for much of The Keep, it seems to come alive and has much more convincing storytelling when it is images and music and fortunately the final act understood that idea.
The final act is quite well put together and has a power which, I dare to say can make up for its shortcomings earlier on. I feel these scenes are a joint collaboration between Mann and composers Tangerine Dream who have scored several eighties films I have admired from Mann’s earlier film Thief to Risky Business, and both help create this unique experience.
I will not reveal the details of the outcome; however it’s in these scenes where we get a much stronger idea of the power of the Keep, with shots full of smoke creating an eerie atmosphere with lots of symbolic imagery from fantastic sets to mythical weapons.
Tangerine Dream’s score heightens the emotions with music that is pulsating, and somehow seems to build in intensity to where at the end I was spellbound by its magical power. Without their presence this would have made the whole affair much more routine and seem less important.
This is a film I would recommend, and although it is no masterpiece, there is still something to be admired. The Keep is a tale about a mystical force and the battle between good and evil and stripped down to its barest elements, when I finished watching I was convinced of The Keep’s majesty and wonder.