There are at least three films dealing with Mata Hari on my list. I’ve made my way through one of them, ‘Mata Hari’ (1930) which was a bit of a struggle. That can probably be blamed more on the era it was produced in than on the subject matter. Mata Hari was a name I grew up with. I don’t think I really knew who she was or why she was important but the name was something I was aware of from a young age and as my knowledge of the Great War grew so did my understanding of her.
Fraulein Doktor on the other hand, I’d never heard of and it’s only after watching this film that I’ve learnt some of the basics about her. Not that there’s much to know really. She was a German Spy who did a lot of spy stuff in the Great War, most of which is lost in the mists of time. This is obviously a boon to film makers. A strong female lead character, rooted in reality but without any pesky facts about her life well known enough to get in the way of a decent made up story. The writers therefore have carte blanche to go absolutely bananas and that is what they do with my film today.
‘Fraulein Doktor’ (1969) is a Yugo-Italian production by Dino Laurentiis, with an Ennio Morricone score and a broad spread of European acting talent. It’s English language with a few dodgy accents thrown in for good measure but that’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to pan-European productions, I Suppose. It’s shot in a classical style and looks like it had a bit of money thrown at it. The actors do a solid enough job and the story is well put together if lacking in character development.
It opens with some seriously monged opening credits. There are seriously monged, manipulated and negatived war images in angry colours and there’s some seriously monged screechy music that sets the tone for an horrendous, horrific, horror-filled, horrifying spectacle. It’s then a bit of a shame when it opens into some pretty stock standard early scenes which are heavily influenced by ‘Dr No’ in look and subject matter. Some frogmen, make their way to a rocky seashore by moonlight. There are some soldiers with dogs waiting on the shore, shots are fired, spy stuff blah blah blah.
What we have is your standard spy film. Lots of twists and turns, characters who you don’t know if you can trust, heist scenes, a love interest, all the bells and whistles but it never feels cohesive or…….good. There are occasional moments which help to lift it above itself. There’s a firing squad scene where the prisoner is placed slap bang in the middle of the biggest brick wall you’ve ever seen. You can barely see the dude for the acres of brick above and to either side of him. Then there’s a scene near the end where the camera shoots sideways from a train as it slows to a halt. Blurry images of injured soldiers melt into one continuous bloody, dying mess of humanity then gradually solidifies into the individuals, each with their own idiosyncratic suffering.
The story covers a lot of ground in an hour and forty minutes. There are large lumps of time that the narrative jumps over. The Fraulein is banging some dude (Michael Elphick in his debut film role as it turns out) to learn about the departure time of a boat, then she’s on a beach waving her arms about, then on a sub, then getting a big medal back in Germany. I think that’s partly why I didn’t feel any kind of connection with any of the characters but mainly I think it’s because the character writing isn’t up to much. I never gained any insight into Fraulein Doktor herself other than a brief glimpse of back story that I think was only added for a bit of sauce.
Yes, this is the first Great War Film I’ve watched which features overt lesbianism, the saucy, swinging 60’s style of lesbianism. Does it add anything to the story, no of course not. There are a couple of other cool moments. Some guys lie on a train track and as a train goes over them they grab hold and pull themselves into its interior through a trap door opened by our eponymous hero. One guy misses, catches the last carriage, runs back along the roof of the moving train for another go. Towards the end, before a German gas attack, there’s a wicked flyby camera shot of a trench system loaded with Germans. And then, after the Brits succumb to the gas, their skin falling off them, the Germans advance in full body gas suits, not just the soldiers but also their horses. Visually, for a brief few seconds, the horrors of war are there on the screen.
That’s really all I have to say. It’s pretty stock standard spy thriller stuff with a bit of a love story. The Fraulein is a bit unlikeable and I didn’t feel like I knew her any better by the end of the film than I did at the start. Maybe that was the point. It’s visually pleasing in a few places but not enough to make it a work of genius. The story jumps about all over the place which, again, I suppose is the point but it feels clunky. Ultimately it’s a goodish story that’s wellish told. I guess the biggest thing I take from this film is the knowledge that Fraulein Doktor existed. And I’ve also come across another couple of Great War Films covering her story. One of which is directed by G W Pabst (Westfront 1918) and stars Erich von Stroheim (La Grande Illusion plus some great silent era films and of course Sunset Boulevard).
Would I watch it again? No. Should you watch it? If you’re a bit bored. Do I recommend it? I suppose so. Clicky Clicky to give it a go on the Amazon on demand service. Let me know what you think.