Image Entertainment // 2007 // 86 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // May 7th, 2009
A Forbidden Romance That Survives the Brutality of War
In the early days of World War II, when Hitler's forces launch their first wave of assaults, one German soldier finds himself sent into Poland as an infiltrator. On a particularly stormy night, his fates change when he rescues a young girl from a winter storm and love swiftly blooms. The young Nazi soldier finds himself torn between duty to his country, and the love of the beautiful girl, who happens to be a Jew. Forced apart by the onrush of the Reich's war, each must find a way to be together, no matter the cost.
Hearts of War tells the story of Nazi officer Oscar Koenig (Jonathan Scarfe), the foppish son of a prominent General in the Nazi Party, and aspiring poet. He's sent to the Polish front as an infiltrator, his mission is to report back to Headquarters with the locations of garrisons and troops. We know Oscar is a jaded character torn between two worlds, because Darryl Hannah (Blade Runner), who plays Oscar's mother, tells us so in the opening scenes. His father is the sort of villainous Nazi general you expect to see in much grander productions, and just feels completely out of place in this much more intimate tale.
On one particularly stormy eve, Oscar comes across the unconscious form of Rachel (Nina Dobrev), and he takes her back to his farmhouse to recuperate. Upon regaining consciousness after what feels like 17 minutes, they declare their undying love for one another. The problem is, y'see, Rachel is a Jew, daughter of a Rabbi no less, and she's engaged to be married. When Oscar's frat-boy squad mates come home and almost catch the lovebirds in flagrante delicto, Oscar quickly sends Rachel back home, telling the party boys she's a gift for his father.
Long story short, Rachel is knocked up, her Jewish fiancé (Zachary Bennett) decides to carry the charade, marry her, and raise the child knowing it's the offspring of a German officer (what a guy!) The two flee in the face of the Nazi war machine towards Russia, while Mr. prominent General and Momma Hannah drop in on little Oscar as he ponders aloud the futility of war. Roy Schieder (Jaws) pops up long enough to spout some words of wisdom and marry the lucky Jewish couple before the Wermacht kick the doors in and he exits stage left, and Colm Feore (Bonne Cop, Bad Cop) makes his prerequisite appearance to let the audience know that they are, in fact, watching a Canadian production.
Hearts of War's best assets are its cast, and almost all of them are completely wasted. Oscar is as clichéd a cliché as any War movie can deliver, and he's about as interesting as a runny nose in January. That's not to say that Scarfe doesn't give it his all, as he acts it pretty well, but there's just no meat on the bones. And when he isn't boring us by being completely uninteresting, he's force-feeding us ham-handed poetry. One of the film's key scenes, where Oscar "meets" Rachel, plays out more like he slipped the girl a rufie and went to work, rather than anything truly tender or romantic and just falls completely flat. Rachel is a cutie, and Mrs. Dobarev is certainly easy on the eyes, but again, the screenplay gives nothing for her to work with. Her character feels shallow and lifeless, not to mention cold as hell towards her poor Jewish husband, and crucial scenes completely fail to engage the viewer. Darryl Hannah is horrible, just painful to watch, and Roy Schieder comes and goes before we can say, "Smile you son of a bitch!"
Even worse than the screenplay are the effects. Several gunfights occur, there are artillery strikes, and more than a handful of bullet hits, but there isn't a single practical element used. Computer generated imagery renders muzzle flashes, explosions, bullet hits, and smoke, and looks hilariously bad. Exit wounds look like little more than photoshop paste-ins. Characters mime the actions of firing machineguns and animated explosions rip through a town with about as much believability as Darryl Hannah's portrayal of an Austrian aristocrat. This is some terrible stuff, I can't recall the last time I've seen such horribly staged action, and such terrible effects. I can't say that I would think that an effects company splashing CG over everything would be any cheaper than some blank rounds and an arms master, but perhaps this was precisely the issue. At any rate, it's the first time I've ever seen such nonsense, and I hope it's the last.
Image Entertainment has done a passable job with the technical side of this particular disc. The image is a little soft, and grain does give way to some compression here and there, but overall the desaturated colors and the overall look of the film is just fine. There is, however, some heavy strobing of bright colors and edge flicker in some scenes, and it's more than enough to distract. Audio is nothing fancy, but the dialogue is crisp and clean, and guns rattle well enough, though at times the Foley work is a little too obvious.
After soldiering through the languid pace of the first two acts of Hearts of War, something happened toward the end. The final third of the film really does its best to become interesting. Gone are the poorly staged scenes of German soldiers slaughtering Jewish civilians and bombing towns, replaced by a more intimate setting in a German camp on the Russian front. Rachel and her husband, Bernard, find themselves in the employ of the Nazis, her as a Cabaret singer, and he as a laborer, with their infant son in tow, and Oscar arrives just in time for stuff to hit the fan. The final bit adds a sense of urgency that had been sorely lacking from the other two thirds of the picture, and while it's not enough to completely redeem the film, I did ultimately find myself satisfied by the closing moments, as long as I didn't think about the other 60 minutes or so.
Hearts of War is also a very pretty looking film, with wonderful use of color timing and filters which goes a long way to covering up what was probably a miniscule production budget. Director Damien Lee (he who gifted us with Abraxus: Guardian of the Universe) also knows how to point and shoot a camera, and for the most part, the technical aspects of the direction are sound.
Hearts of War is a classic case of reach exceeding grasp. The serviceable story could have found its feet, given better talent both behind and in front of the camera, plus the budget pyrotechnics are laughably bad and kill what is otherwise a decent looking film. There are much better films out there that cover similar ground, and Hearts of War is best avoided.
Guilty on all counts. Sentence is obscurity on the bottom shelf.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R