The Keep

UK Release Date 1983
Director Michael Mann
Starring Scott Glenn
Runtime 96 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 8th January 2014

During the Nuremberg War Trials Captain Douglas Kelley was responsible for judging if the Nazi defendants were psychologically and physically fit enough to answer for their crimes against humanity. Kelley developed complex relationships with the leading Nazis in captivity, most notably with Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring and studied whether or not there was a psychiatric illness that could explain their atrocities. Kelley discovered through his research that no such illness existed and that by and large his charges were relatively normal men.

If there were no recognisable symptoms for the Nazi disease then what triggered their industrial evil? Michael Mann’s forgotten second film The Keep attempts to find some answers. Mann said, "There is a moment in time when the unconscious is externalized. In the case of the 20th Century, this time was the fall of 1941. What Hitler promised in the beer gardens had actually come true. The greater German Reich was at its apogee: it controlled all Europe. And the dark psychotic appeal underlying the slogans and rationalizations was making itself manifest".

Mann was enraptured with Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales where the author psychoanalyzed fairy tales. Bettelheim believed that tales like Hansel and Gretel and Snow White enabled children to confront their darkest fears in symbolic ways and prepare themselves socially for adulthood. The Keep based upon the best selling novel by F. Paul Wilson was Mann’s attempt at crafting a modern fairy tale that would enable his audience to confront the nature of evil as manifest by German soldiers occupying a Romanian keep just before Operation Typhoon failed at Moscow’s gates.

Captain Woermann, a jaded good German, leads his men into the keep ignoring the warnings of the local villagers. Blighted by battle Woermann tells them, “The real nightmares man has made upon other men in this war. The bad dreams of your keep are nursery rhymes by comparison.” Sooner rather than later the German troops unleash a supernatural force that begins killing Woermann’s men one by one. Suspecting partisans the S.S. led by the repellent Major Koempffer soon descend on the keep, a tide of Black Death ready to drown any resistance to the Reich. As Koempffer’s brutality fails to render results the Germans resort to forcing a Jewish scholar Dr. Cuza and his daughter Eva to help unravel the mystery.

The Keep’s initial set up strikes some powerful imagery, the nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Cross of Iron welded to Steven Spielberg’s comic strip Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Mann excels with a brand of dry-ice expressionism that wouldn’t be out of place in a Duran Duran video. The milieu is jarring and unsettling way before we became accustomed to undead Nazi savagery in films like The Bunker, Outpost and Dead Snow. But Mann’s film presents itself as a serious attempt to unlock the allure of Hitler’s Reich as an evil unleashed by men - not a video game knock off. Woermann remarks, “What monstrosity has been released in this keep? Who are you meeting, Kaempffer, in the granite corridors of this keep? …Yourself.”

The problem with The Keep is that it’s half formed and incorporeal like the murderous entity Molasar. Universal didn’t like what they saw and rushed a version into the cinemas to try and salvage some money. This cut running little over 90 minutes eradicates any sense of tension or fear and fails utterly to scare the audience. The enigmatic Glaeken dispatched from Greece when Molasar awakes drifts into the story like a stranger from another film. On his arrival he engages in tantric sex with Eva almost immediately before engaging in a light show with his nemesis. Similarly Cuze is seduced by Molasar’s insidious power in what seems like the blink of an eye, undermining any existential conflict he may feel in combating evil with evil.

Mann’s fabled 3-hour cut is an intriguing prospect but for all its infuriating faults, The Keep at 90 minutes has a dreamlike fluidity that is strangely poetic. Tangerine Dream’s anachronistic score adds an opiate flavour to the cinematography and the imposing set-design. Make no mistake; The Keep is a failure for Michael Mann but one that stars Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen in a prototype Magneto role as Dr. Cuza. And the real answer to Captain Kelley’s question is even more terrifying than an unstoppable demon-the prospect that ordinary men are capable of extraordinary acts of evil.

Check out the trailer here.

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