“Then what draws people out in the middle of a rainy night?”
Michael Mann fans are a passionate bunch. They’ll corner you and extol the virtues of his films until they’re blue in the face. God forbid they’re within earshot of a mention of the topic of cinematic bank robberies. I know this because I count myself among their number. I have personally bored people to death discussing the emotional power of the final shot of Heat as Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of the Waters plays. I may have even teared up at times. And yet, I had never seen The Keep. Despite Mann’s filmography and television work being widely celebrated, The Keep is never more than a footnote, at most discussed in hushed, conspiratorial tones like an admission of seeing Bigfoot or an alien craft. Mann working with a tremendous cast (Scott Glen, Jurgen Prochnow, Sir Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, William Morgan Sheppard), a score by soundtrack and electronic legends Tangerine Dream (who also scored Mann’s magnificent Thief, and most recently, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V) – how can this be anything other than a masterpiece?
Sadly, while the parts and passion there, the film is a nearly incomprehensible mess. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth watching, as despite the problems, there’s much that’s rewarding here. The bones of something excellent were laid out by Mann and the production crew, but it just never comes together. Mann’s script is clearly ambitious, and attempts to delve into the nature of evil and corruption, of the courage of maintaining one’s soul in battle against evil (an attempted meditation on Nietzsche’s now well-worn aphorism, “Beward that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”), and the contrast and comparison of human evil versus a cosmic, universal concept of evil and corruption. Unfortunately, much of the human drama, the dialog, and the motivations don’t entirely work. Mann reaches for the stars, but stumbles along the way and comes up far short.
Mann is nothing if not a stylist, and while proper exercise of a strong style can strengthen a work, The Keep quickly begins to resemble an hour and a half long music video for Tangerine Dream’s synths. With the weakness of the dialog, I wonder if the film would in fact play better without it. If anything, the visuals and the score are the reason to see this film. One of the great pleasures of film are beautiful images, of extended shots that thrill and inspire, and The Keep has more than it’s share of gorgeous, widescreen cinematography – a ship in passage at dawn, a fog-enshrouded Romanian forest, a man crossing a bridge to the monolithic walls of the keep. The sets are beautiful and eerie, particularly the Cyclopean keep itself that suggests a vast history. There are wonderful cinematic moments, like the beautiful introduction of Jurgen Prochnow’s conflicted Nazi Woermann – a pan down through the dark Romanian forest as the Nazi caravan of trucks trundles over muddy roads, cut with Prochnow lighting a cigar (the dim light of the soul he’s kept despite his employ in the Nazi warmachine, perhaps?) and finally, his face through a rain-drenched windshield. There’s also a great zoom-out that shows the vast scale of the keep’s inner recesses. Unfortunately, these moments a good film do not make.
There are rumours of a three hour original cut, and perhaps that version would restore the grand operatic vision that Mann was attempting. There’s a sense, watching this film now, of what could have been. Not only of what could have been had the film been tweaked until it worked, but also of what Mann could accomplish had he done more films in the fantasy and science fiction space. There’s more than a little of Alien in the misted halls of the keep covered in desiccated corpses and ruined war machines. Continuing on the Alien thread, The Keep reminds me a little of Ridley Scott’s theatrical cut of Legend – a choppy, messy film with beautiful images and a tremendous Tangerine Dream score. Like Legend, I can’t help but be enthralled by The Keep despite its flaws (for the record, I think The Keep is much more flawed than Legend).
I can’t recommend The Keep – it’s clumsy, almost laughably so at times (the sex scene that comes out of nowhere with John Glen’s mysterious Glaeken, for example), and it’s nearly unintelligible. Yet, there’s just enough there thematically to provoke thought, and it’s an undeniably fascinating failure. And those images. If you’ve read this far and you think, “Yeah, I think I still want to watch it, ” then it’s probably worth it. You know what you’re getting into. For the rest of you, steer clear. It’s not scary, and it’s far too messy to recommend. A beautiful disaster.