Before Winter Comes Film Details
Overview: After World War II, in an Austrian camp for displaced people, an interpreter mediates between the British and the Soviets regarding the fate of various refugees.
Review: I found “Before Winter Comes” to be a slightly uneven film; reflecting perhaps over-literally the contrast between Janovic, the happy-go-lucky racketeer, and Major Burnside, the unwilling and harassed camp commander who cannot allow himself the trap of sentiment. It didn’t even occur to me that the film could be read as a comedy, and I was taken aback afterwards to find it billed as such in the TV guide. Most of the humour comes with fairly dark undertones, and from the start the script, with the luxury of hindsight, foreshadows the coming Cold War; in fact, the times when it falters are when it appears to be brushing over this dark strand for a too-easy volteface ending. It is to the film’s credit — and considerable benefit — that it doesn’t, in the end, adopt this ‘Hollywood’ line that rings so false with the tenor of the rest of events, but the suggestion seems out of place. Anyone expecting Topol in a chirpy comedy might feel distinctly short-changed. What it actually reminded me of most were two WW1-set pictures, “Aces High” and “Dawn Patrol” (in which a young David Niven had actually featured thirty years earlier, alongside friend and co-star Errol Flynn). Both, at heart, deal with questions of duty versus idealism, class versus country, and the temptation to let personal considerations influence decisions. And both are based around the same issue that, it seems to me, lies at the heart of this surprisingly nuanced film — that of a naive youngster judging his seniors against abstract ideals, and running against harsh reality. For by and large the film does go beyond simply-delineated depictions of Right and Wrong. Janovic’s actions are frequently illicit, at best against the rules and at worst cynically self-serving (as when he encourages Maria to seduce young Pilkington on the grounds that he may prove useful), and yet we are clearly encouraged to sympathise with him as an anarchic free spirit. The Russians are depicted as petty-minded and belligerent, but both we and the characters are also reminded that they too are human. Maria, who has lost everything but the inn which is her livelihood, will give her body to any man who can help her to keep it; but she is shown as no cheerful slut but a damaged, war-torn survivor. “After a war,” as she says bitterly in contemplating the young officer’s innocence, “no-one is a virgin.” And Burnside, who is at the centre of the film, is perhaps the most complex character of all. He is initially presented almost as a caricature of the English army officer, proper, correct, intolerant and obsessed with duty and military order to the exclusion of all human frailties; and if this were a Hollywood movie, it would probably be the story of how this repressed Brit learns to Get in Touch with his Feelings and bend the rules. Instead, he is given considerable psychological depth, and is perhaps the nearest thing the film has to a flawed hero. He is not rich, not public-school-bred, and is living with the cost of an earlier error of judgement, but he is dedicated to his job without fear or favour, while honest enough to admit that mistakes can and will be made. The refugee camp must be cleared before winter comes and armed conflict with the Russians avoided, or far more than the lives of individuals will be at stake. Both David Niven and a young John Hurt (as the fresh-faced Pilkington) are outstanding in this conflict of moralities, and the story provides no easy answers; but the jocular Topol doesn’t always seem to be in the same film, with the result that I couldn’t find his activities quite as sunnily endearing as I think they were supposed to be. I kept anticipating inevitable disaster. The upshot is a picture that is neither quite one thing nor the other: neither a “Journey’s End”-style study of conscience in war nor a romp of heart-warming roguery. It’s as if the director hasn’t entirely managed to balance his elements into a harmonious whole. It also helps if the viewer has at least a smattering of both German and Russian at his disposal with which to appreciate the accuracy — and otherwise — of the translations taking place; although obviously we can’t all boast as many languages as Janovic…
Duration: 103 min
Genre: Comedy, Drama, War
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