VOD film review: Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983)
Mark Harrison | On 29, Aug 2015
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow
Even if the last decade hasn’t been his best ever, Michael Mann is still rightfully considered to be one of the great working directors in Hollywood. Over the years, he’s turned out a number of modern classics, largely in the crime genre, but his second directorial effort, 1983’s curiously undefinable World War II fairytale The Keep, remains sorely overlooked.
Adapted from F. Paul Wilson’s novel of the same name, the film is about a supernatural entity that is killing off Nazi soldiers stationed in the titular Keep, high in Romania’s Carpathian mountains. When the SS arrive as back-up and threaten to execute civilians in the nearby village, an ailing Jewish scholar, Dr. Cuza, (Ian McKellen), is summoned from his incarceration in a concentration camp to get to the bottom of it.
The sadistic Sturmbannführer Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) gives Cuza three days to solve the mystery, while the professor hatches a plan to escape the soldiers with his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) before his deadline arrives. However, when he has a close encounter with the entity, which calls itself Molasar, Cuza realises that he can unleash it on the Nazis and wipe them off the face of the earth.
Meanwhile, a stranger known as Glaeken (Scott Glenn) makes his way to the Keep with the goal of preventing Molasar’s escape. The Keep is constructed not to deter enemies from outside, but to hold the malevolent entity hostage. The philosophical through-line of the film is that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend, especially when the enemy of your enemy would lay waste to all of humankind.
The cut of the film that’s currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime is very much the truncated masterpiece that was met with critical and commercial disdain on its original release. The production was beset with difficulties, including the death of visionary effects artist Wally Veevers a day after principal photography wrapped.
According to Glenn in an interview with the AV Club, this left Mann with unfinished visual effects shots that baffled Veevers’ successors. When they were told who did it, they said, “Well, that’s like bringing us a theorem on atomic energy that Einstein was trying to figure out when he died. We don’t know what Veevers was going to do with it!”
On top of this, Paramount ordered Mann to trim his original 210 minute cut of the film down to 96 minutes. Although the available cut shows signs of having been hacked in half, it’s a stretch to call it incoherent. The biggest casualty seems to have been the back-story between Glaeken and Molasar, but in this cut at least, that makes Cuza the protagonist and the film into a more intriguing morality play.
McKellen hams it up with a slightly wonky American accent, but his portrayal of a deeply moral and selfless man, who’s seduced by the notion of turning unfathomable power on his hated oppressors, foreshadows his more intentionally ambiguous portrayal of Magneto in X-Men. Although Mann was apparently more interested in world-building with his original three-hour vision, this aspect of morality, specifically trying to relate absolute power as we know it to something made up of more abstract fantasy concepts, is fascinating and entertaining to watch.
All of the best movies are about Nazis getting destroyed by supernatural forces and perhaps one reason why audiences didn’t respond to the horror element is because we don’t sympathise with the soldiers in the early slasher-movie style scenes inside the Keep. Although Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) is depicted as more compliant than Byrne’s complicit, fanatical monster, it’s still 20 minutes before we get a sniff of a supportable protagonist.
The problem is that Glaeken is ultimately supposed to be the hero of the story, and although Glenn’s travelling watchman appears throughout the film, his importance remains a mystery until the very end – he’s a cipher and his romantic subplot with Eva seems especially tacked on.
Reportedly, this cut of the film has only survived because of the title: Paramount ordered cinemas to destroy the 35mm print, but these instructions were not carried out because the front can read “Keep”. Mann’s original three-hour version is likely lost forever and for that reason, he has disowned the film. It’s a shame, because whether you see it as a resounding failure or an unlikely triumph, it stands as the most singular work of his career.
Certainly, it’s his only foray into high genre fare to date and the impeccable production design makes it visually unique in his filmography. Many have compared its style to music videos of the 1980s, with its moody synth score by Tangerine Dream lending it a more cinematic atmosphere. The opening sequence, with T-Dream’s soundscape bringing mounting dread to a shot of a tank trundling up a mountain, is perhaps the most visually striking scene of Mann’s career.
The film has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray as a result of copyright issues and Mann’s disavowal of the abridged film, which is probably why this has never been considered as more than a mixed bag of a cult classic. Additionally, the pan-and-scan version on US streaming services has excised the score, but the UK version has the correct widescreen aspect ratio and soundtrack (although the latter is a little poorly mixed at times.)
Although forever compromised by the circumstances of its post-production, The Keep remains more interesting than any film Mann has made since Collateral. It’s been kept alive over the years by TV broadcasts and more recently by online streaming and it can still set your imagination racing when you wonder how the director would handle a genre film of this kind nowadays.