There was a very “important” German language World War I movie released last year by Netflix, that being the latest remake of All Quiet on the Western Front. Those inverted commas in “important” aren’t meant to be cheeky. They’re just an acknowledgement that this movie, which went on to be nominated for nine Oscars, was taken very seriously by everyone – most notably by itself. And indeed, its production values were second-to-none. If you wanted another – yet another, I might say – contemplation on the horrors of war, All Quiet on the Western Front was your movie.
Peter Thorwarth’s Blood & Gold – also a German language war movie released by Netflix, this time World War II – is not “important” in the traditional sense and will doubtless be nominated for zero Oscars. But what a more interesting film it is, containing elements we haven’t already seen two dozen times before. One of those elements? A sense of fun, even though most of the events of the movie are technically horrifying. Fun comes from the liveliness with which a filmmaker engages the tools of cinema, and in making a stylish western set in the week just prior to the Germans’ 1945 surrender, Thorwarth gives us a fun time at the movies indeed.
The gold of the title is a cache of 31 bars housed in a small German town by a Jewish family that was murdered on Kristallnacht. In search of it are an SS team led by the sadistic von Starnfeld (Alexander Scheer) and his even more sadistic sergeant (Roy McCrerey). Which one is the more sadistic may be open to debate. On their way they hang an attempted deserter, Heinrich (Robert Maaser), who has always been against this war, and now that the outcome is abundantly clear, is trying to get home to the daughter he barely knows. Except while dangling from the rope, he’s cut down by a townsperson named Elsa (Marie Hacke), who has had it up to here with the soon-to-be-defeated Nazis.
Elsa lives with her brother Paule (Simon Rupp), who has Down’s Syndrome, on their farm. While she’s nursing Heinrich back to health, the SS unit arrives to find the whereabouts of the gold, and maybe to have their way with Elsa for good measure. Heinrich jumps out of hiding and drives a pitchfork through the nearest SS, and chaos ensues. Scenes of chaos involving creative weapons are this film’s bread and butter, and they are indeed chock full of buttery goodness.
Meanwhile, the town elders are indeed hiding the gold, just waiting out the war to become rich. As in any good western, this town will become the setting for the final two-thirds of the movie, with opposing sides caught in gun battles, heroic attempted rescues, and gold bars repurposed in creative ways.
Thorwarth made a Netflix release two years ago with the similarly genre-blending Blood Red Sky, which might be nicknamed Vampires on a Plane. Creative and engaging though it was, that film was hampered by its very TV look. The director has grown in leaps and bounds between the two projects, as the most appealing thing about Blood & Gold is its look and feel. It’s one of those films where “stylish” is not a backhanded compliment, as it keeps its creativity well on the conservative side of showy. You can be smothered by the style of a movie, or it can just work perfectly in concert with the screenplay to tell a compelling story. This is easily the latter.
There’s no one wearing a cowboy hat in Blood & Gold, but this is unmistakeably working in the western tradition – and if you happened to miss that fact, the distinctly western score by Jessica de Rooij and Hendrik Nolle is there to remind you. Grafting these sensibilities onto a story of Nazis and the good people who resisted them is kind of a masterstroke, the story’s genre elements serving to sand down some of the more serious obligations of any film that deals with Nazis. But because westerns are typically known for their black-and-white moral valences, it’s a genre perfectly suited to a conflict where the evil were so unsalvageable in their vileness.
Stefan Barth’s script makes the most out of the various reversals of fortune, characters held hostage, and strategies to navigate desperate situations that are common to the western genre. In a lesser film, these characters might give big villain speeches and squander their upper hand, but Blood & Gold largely avoids those traps, even as it keeps in clear focus who is wearing the white hats and who is wearing the dark ones. The best accompaniment to all the sharp fight choreography and the script’s general cleverness is that the film respects us as viewers, paying off what it sets up in satisfying fashion.
The only thing that’s a shame about Blood & Gold is that it would play great on the big screen, and its distribution by Netflix meant that was never going to happen. Of course, maybe in the before times it wouldn’t have found an audience at all, and by promoting it heavily, Netflix is ensuring that at least some curious clickers will find their way to it. And if that should fail, you have reviews like this one singing its praises.
Blood & Gold is currently streaming on Netflix.