Casting the incomparable John Malkovich in the role of, Abel Tiffauges, an human oddity somewhere between Hasek’s, Good Soldier Schweick and Forrest Gump; is a brilliant choice. To make this role credible requires just such abilities. Of course, Malkovich succeeds all expectations. Volker Schlondorff’s direction and collaboration with writer, Jean-Claude Carriere produces stunning authenticity to detail, both in set design and historical referencing applied to Hermann Goering’s lodge and to Castle Kaltenborn. Volker Spengler as the dissipate Goering, who relaxes by fingering through a punch bowl of precious gems, gives a grand performance. Even his unique self-designed uniform is vested accurately with his special Iron Cross and the Blue Max he won in WWI as a flying ace.
Abel Tiffauges is the guileless and oddly gifted, but hapless, adventurer that things simply happen to. In order to wrest comfort out of his inevitable series of mishaps he has come to believe that fate protects him by administering to him the faculty of being able to wish doom upon others, something like what John Morlar (played by the late great Richard Burton) can do in, The Medusa Touch. This idea comes about through a series of odd coincidences that lead to fulfilling a childhood wish that freed him from a Catholic boy’s academy and its headmaster’s steady rain of punishments inflicted upon him. From then on, however, his own inherent goodness prevents him from trying this “faculty” out on any other, either proving it or disproving it to himself. It simply rests there in the back of his mind as a comforting resort, though with traces of guilt attached. This is important in that virtually the whole film is from his point of view.
It is in his such world that Abel can travel credibly through the scenes that follow, glimpsing as a WWII French POW, so many aspects inside the falling Third Reich. How he can become The Ogre out of a strange sense of acquired fielty to his Teutonic Knights worshiping SS, fetching boys among immediate environs in the belief he’s gathering them for good when in reality they are to be turned into child cannon fodder. But like the owner of the castle that has been conscripted by Hitler’s elite just for such soulless purpose, he comes to the same harsh realizations that the madness the Third Reich persists to its end, will destroy everything, even the children Abel loves.
In the final scene we acquire the ultimate grasp of what Abel’s shaping of his journeys has been, his escape from France and the false charges of child molesting, to Germany (under the most dangerous of circumstances) and its utilization of his service to children…though dubious. But this the viewer will have to see for himself. To find that Abel‘s is a true innocence, in contrast, as well, to the several other times the epithet, ogre, is applied through the film. Yes, this is the reality written histories cannot consider.
A grand movie and a great portrayal of the human spirit under adversity.
Suitable, even prescribed, for everyone.