Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review – The Big Lift

April 10, 2010

The Big Lift – U.S., 1950

It’s difficult to overstate the changes that took place following the Second World War or just how quickly part of the alliance that ended that war crumbled. On August 15, 1945, the day the fighting in Japan officially ended, who would have imagined that the Soviet Union and the United States would be on the brink of the Cold War just three years later or that Berlin would be the site of a Russian blockade? These days, we have the advantage of hindsight, and we can see the signs of tension and distrust that existed between the two most powerful countries in the world at that time. But just what did the war-fatigued men and women of the armed forces make of there being a potential conflict so soon after the end of the war that was supposed to have ended all wars? I imagine they felt the way many of the characters in George Seaton’s 1950 film The Big Lift feel. Those men are unhappy and worried; they make nervous jokes or let slip a few comments that reveal their initial distrust of what the military brass is telling them regarding the length of their deployment. Yet they go. They have received the call to duty, and they will try their utmost to serve with honor.

The Big Lift takes place in 1948 some time after the start of the Russian blockade of Berlin. The roads leading into Berlin have been cut off, and the only way to bring food and supplies into Berlin is by air. It can be said then that the main enemy in The Big Lift is the Soviet Union, for it is their blockade that is further endangering the lives of many Berliners, and it is Soviet fighters that represent the most immediate danger to the men flying in aid to Berlin. And yet for the most part, this “enemy” remains dormant. No fighting breaks out between the two superpowers, and there is really only one moment in the film when East German soldiers have an opportunity to impact the lives of our heroes. I suppose writer and director George Seaton could have made The Big Lift about the political maneuverings of President Truman and Joseph Stalin. That would probably have been interesting. However, Seaton elected to make The Big Lift about the aftermath of war – what the bombs leave in their wake; what people remember about life before the war and what they choose to forget; the lies people tell themselves and the realities that they try their best to hide; the ability to forgive and the inability to move on.

The film centers on Sgt. 1st Class Danny MacCullough (Montgomery Clift), a young flight engineer who sees the people of Germany as innocents in need of assistance. He would like nothing more than to see Berlin for himself. His good friend Henry Kowalsky (Paul Douglas) does not share his positive view of the German people. At one point in the film, Kowalsky looks down at Berlin’s bombed-out infrastructure and laments that more destruction wasn’t caused. “This is where they should have dropped the A-bomb,” he says. The film also includes two female characters that represent another divergence of opinion that existed at the time: whether Germany was worth staying for or whether it was better to abandon it for the greener pastures of a country like the United States.

The Big Lift has one of the oddest structures of any film I’ve ever seen, for the first forty minutes include numerous scenes that have nothing to do with main story. A soldier on his way to Germany says good-bye to Diamond Head Crater, multiple planes take off en route to Germany, pilots go through landing and after landing checklists, members of the Navy and the Air Force engage in a playful sing-off, and there’s a long ceremony marking the completion of the one-hundred thousandth air lift into Berlin, a ceremony that nobody bothers to tell the plane’s three pilots about. It is at that ceremony that MacCullough meets Frederica Burkhardt (Cornell Borchers), a young German widow who MacCullough takes an instant liking to. There’s only one problem – members of the armed forces are not allowed off the base. Fortunately for MacCullough, a reporter asks him if he’ll take part in a human interest story exploring the route and final destination of food aid. This gives MacCullough, as well as Kowalsky, the opportunity to enter Berlin and see Burkhardt again. From this point on, The Big Lift is an interesting and rather compelling film. The problem is that it takes forty minutes for the film to get there.

The bond that develops between MacCullough and Burkhardt is realistic enough, and many of their conversations are incredibly revealing. In one scene, Burkhardt reveals that her father was killed after he spoke against book burnings and that her husband died after he was conscripted into the German army. Kowalsky is skeptical of her story. Everyone was conscripted, he says. No one ever volunteered. Despite Kowalsky’s reservations, MacCullough and Burkhardt soon announce their engagement.

MacCullough and Burkhardt are one of two couples in The Big Lift, for despite Kowalsky’s hostility towards Germans, he is in a relationship with a young German woman named Gerda (Bruni Lobel). Exactly why she is drawn to him is unclear, for he spends much of his time talking down to her and telling her what to do. He even calls her a nickname that she despises. Eventually, though, Kowalsky is shown the error of his ways, and he encourages Gerda to speak her mind. Her first question is a big one: “What is democracy?” Kowalsky spends much of the rest of the picture trying to explain to her what it is. These conversations are probably the reason why The Big Lift is sometimes said to resemble a propaganda film.

The Big Lift was shot in Germany in 1950, and therefore, what you are seeing as you watch it is truly what Germany looked like after the war. This is important to note because it makes us understand MacCulluogh’s character even more. In his eyes, the Germans are in need of a great deal of assistance, and he wants to be of some help. However, the aftermath of the war does not erase the atrocities that occurred during the war, and Kowalsky witnessed these first hand as a German prisoner. His experiences have given him a perspective that MacCullough lacks. We may not be completely comfortable with how strong Kowalsky’s animosity toward Germans is, but we do understand it, especially after a chance encounter with someone from his past.

The Big Lift is not a great film. It’s entirely too loud and too technical, and many of the film’s secondary characters seem to exist for comic purposes only. However, when the film works, it does so wonderfully. It will make viewers reflect upon the Second World War and all that was left in its wake. In the peace that followed, nothing was black-and-white by any means, and determining friend from foe was not easy. I would also like to draw attention to the superb performance of O.E. Hasse, who plays a Russian spy named Stieber. It is Stieber’s responsibility to record information on the U.S. planes that land in Berlin. When MacCullough explains that that information is published in the newspaper, Stieber smiles and explains that no one in his government believes those numbers, so he changes them slightly, and that number, now incorrect, is the one that officials believe. What a truly odd and scary time it was. (on DVD)

3 stars

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