Each year a new swath of Holocaust films is unleashed upon the world—in just the last decade Hollywood churned out The Grey Zone, Uprising, The Pianist, The Singing Forest, Out of Ashes, Downfall, Everything is Illuminated, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Defiance, The Reader, Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds, and now Joshua Newton’s first large-scale directorial effort, Iron Cross. Most are bland, emotionless, lazy husks of cinema—oscar baited to catch a population obsessed with regretting an unfortunate past. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas plays up the death of a single German boy for dramatic effect; Valkyrie portrays a failed German plot to kill Hitler. It’s easier to pry on the public’s sympathies through cartoonish polarities like a child’s innocence or Hitler’s evil than to craft a legitimate, sincere film that brings something new to the table. So how is Iron Cross different?
The movie opens with a mind-boggling montage of planes, trains, and Jewish Post-Traumatic Stress, as we join Joseph (Roy Scheider), an aged Holocaust survivor, on his journey to reconnect with his estranged son, Ronnie (Scott Cohen). The intense orchestral score behind this sequence feels reminiscent of Marathon Man, and appropriately so; shortly after reaching Germany we’re thrust into a quick-paced, clumsy revenge plot as Joseph becomes convinced his son is living below the man who murdered his family during the Holocaust. After a brief argument concerning his neighbor’s identity, Ronnie reconciles with his father (whom he hasn’t spoken to in a decade), and the two set off on a quest to kidnap and murder the eighty year old man. Somewhere between kidnapping and climax we’re doled out several lengthy flashbacks, occassional lapses into psychotic violence, and countless shots of Roy Scheider mindlessly staring at whatever’s tossed in front of him. Don’t be mistaken —Scheider is one of the few pluses this film has going for it—puts his best foot forward with the material he was given. The material just isn’t very good.
In one of the many flashback sequences, young Joseph falls to his knees and yells “WHHHHHHHYYYYYYY” with his head pointed at the sky. I would elaborate, but this moment captures the essence of the film’s plot in more than one way. Why are flashbacks cut in with no attention paid to logical or artistic design? Why does Ronnie forgive his estranged father of ten years at the asinine assertion that his upstairs neighbor is a former Nazi? And why does he allow himself to get swept up in a murder plot targetting a man he barely knows? Why does Newton believe Ronnie’s career as a television cop can be used as a panacea for the film’s logical obstacles, like breaking into apartments, hotwiring cars, or investigating strangers? And why does Scott Cohen portray his character in a constant state of listless apathy?
We’re rarely allowed to enjoy Holocaust films—have been taught WWII cinema is mourned rather than celebrated. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds from earlier this year and (more loosely) John Schlesinger’s 1976 classic, Marathon Man, proves this not only possible but enjoyable. Iron Cross initially offers hope of an entertaining thriller predicated on atrocities committed during the war, but violently mutates into some strange drama-thriller hybrid once the flashback sequences pick up. The action-driven plot of the current scenes clashes violently with the drama of Joseph’s memories, and though one is meant to inform the other, neither feels substantial enough to justify their existence in the film. This coupled with the predictably cornball ending leaves audiences grasping for straws; though we understand the events that occurred, we’re left wondering why we watched them in the first place. Though I want to say Iron Cross is an abyssmal failure, I remember watching American History X as a child and thinking what a brilliantly-crafted film it was. Looking back, American History X was not a brilliantly-crafted film. It’s not even a subtle film. But it is a good gateway for young adults just beginning to love cinema, and that’s what I’d say Iron Cross is. The acting is spotty, writing melodramatically bad, and pacing convoluted, but younger folks will probably enjoy the heavy-handed message about ignorance’s connection with violence and feel intelligent for liking such a “non-traditional” movie. Avoid this one unless you’re in the mood for some half-assed nazi-killing drama. Watch Inglourious Basterds instead.