Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Blockhouse (1973)

The Blockhouse is a 1973 film based on a novel by French author Jean-Paul Clébert which was in turn based on a true story concerning a group of German soldiers discovered in Poland, though the authenticity of this tale has been disputed for many years since.

D-Day, France: a mixed group of forced labourers held by German forces take shelter from the bombardment inside a German bunker, only to find themselves entombed within when the entrances are blocked by the extent of the heavy shelling. Exploring their new surroundings they discover that it is in fact a storehouse, replete with plentiful reserves of food and wine that could last them years. However, the seven men slowly come round to the fact that they are more likely to be trapped down there forever, rather than for years - a realisation that begins to chip away at each man's sanity as the stock of candles begin to run out. 

The Blockhouse is perhaps notable for featuring Peter Sellers in a rare straight dramatic role (I think this and 1960's Never Let Go were Sellers' only true forays into straight acting) alongside French singer Charles Aznavour. A British production, it was filmed on Guernsey in the Channel Islands and was entered into the Berlin Film Festival but, for some reason, the film was subsequently never released in British cinemas. As such, The Blockhouse was something of a rarity for decades until a DVD release around ten years ago. It is currently being screened on the cable channel Movies4Men, which should attract a few more viewers as well as logs on here.

I'm a big Sellers fan but today is the first time I've set eyes on The Blockhouse. I've known about it for years, thanks to Roger Lewis' extensive 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers which dedicated lengthy passages and critiques of all Sellers' movies, including this one. The reason why I haven't sought it out in the years since it has become more commercially available is because it just sounded too bleak and depressing - and guess what? It is very bleak and depressing indeed. 

The film is an utterly claustrophobic and unflinching study of how the eponymous blockhouse turns from the saviour and hiding place of the men to an impregnable and inescapable underground prison, and how such captivity impacts upon their human nature, their mental and physical health, their sexuality and sexual desires, their relationships with one another and ultimately with death itself - both the acceptance and eventuality of this fate. It's the kind of film you need a strong constitution or philosophy for but, as there's certainly a market for these kind of single setting survival/trauma stories, I would argue that it deserves wider recognition amongst audiences for whom this is their cup of tea.

However, it's worth pointing out that I recall Lewis citing that the film was rather unsatisfying and somewhat inept too and I have to say I found myself sympathising with this criticism. It is sadly somewhat fair to say that this isn't exactly proficient filmmaking; shooting almost exclusively in 'the blockhouse' itself makes for poor sound design and lighting/cinematography, and in some places that means it is actually really hard to make out what is being said and who is saying it. The director of The Blockhouse was Clive Rees who despite the limitations clearly has some talent but, given how his film was received - or rather, not received at all - in the UK, it's perhaps unsurprising that his career was pretty sparse after this, with his only other cinematic credit arriving sixteen years later with 1989's When The Whales Came.

The above photo of actor Leon Lissek who played Khozek in the film was taken by Sellers himself and has recently features in a retrospective of Sellers' photographic work. 

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