by Charles R. Horgan
In this ongoing series, I will wade through the boxing films available to view on Netflix Streaming and give my honest review for each and every one of them–at least until they take their toll on me and I collapse from the mental beating.
Fist of the Reich, 2010, 122 mins
I’m simultaneously dreading and looking forward to this film. The synopsis on Netflix indicates that this Max Schmeling biopic is directed by Uwe Boll, known in film circles as “The German Ed Wood.” I’m hoping for something hilariously inept, like every one of his previous films. I first came across Uwe Boll back in 2005 or so when I caught his cinematic adaptation of the popular arcade game House of the Dead, a movie where he would literally cut to in-game footage in order to represent the action he was unable to portray via actual filmmaking. His movies only got marginally better from there, rarely straying from the adapted video-game genre.
Somewhere, there is a loophole in the German tax structure or something that allows him to continue to procure financing for his horrible films. And somewhere, the likes of Burt Reynolds, Jason Statham, and Ray Liotta lost bets and were forced to all appear simultaneously in the Boll epic In the Name of the King. Boll is a director so weird that he made two movies simultaneously once: Bloodrayne: The Third Reich, a video game adaptation about a vampire that kills Nazis, and Blubberella, a comedy filmed on the exact same sets about a fat woman who kills Nazis.
There is a possibility that Fist of the Reich will be a secret success, only to be queued up late at night when your friends are drunk, ready to make fun of something horrible.
I am sorry to say that Fist of the Reich does not deliver. I am loathe to say that after 30 movies or so, Uwe Boll has possibly learned something about making movies. There are few glaring mistakes in the film. Special effects are kept to a minimum, shaky-cam is mercifully abandoned about 10 minutes into the film (right before motion sickness kicks in), and the sets, costumes, and props all feel relatively authentic. Actually, this has never been a problem with later Boll films. In fact, it’s always a marvel that he’s able to raise so much money to blow on production value considering his resumé. Where this movie fails, ultimately, is that it is just boring.
Beginning in 1941, during the Battle of Crete, a wounded Max Schmeling (played by real-life German boxer Henry Maske) is escorting a British prisoner to be interrogated. The prisoner, recognizing Schmeling, asks how he wound up fighting in Crete, instead of in the ring. This prompts Schmeling to recall the last decade in bland detail, beginning with his DQ win against Jack Sharkey and ending with his first round loss to Joe Louis in their famous rematch. In between, he falls in love with and marries Anny Ondra, and struggles with his desire to box, his love for his country, and his dislike of the rising Nazi regime.
In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, this could have been a much better movie, but Boll holds his protagonists in such high regard that he seems to be unwilling to deviate from written history in order to add some depth to the characters. Say what you want about the liberties taken with Cinderella Man, but at least the audience connected with Braddock and his family, and feared the cartoonish Max Baer. In Fist of the Reich, news comes that Schmeling’s old manager has passed away and your brain has to change gears trying to figure out who that character even was. After the movie fades to black, we get a few paragraphs telling us about where the characters ended up, and you can’t help but wish that they were given a chance to be characters instead of entries in a wikipedia page.
The biggest sin of the movie is that Schmeling is held in such reverence by Boll (he himself an avid boxing fan and amateur boxer) that Schmeling is never given a chance to act human. He successfully (and rather easily, it seems) woos Anny Ondra. He’s clever, using his fame and status as a German hero to manipulate the Nazi government when needed. He’s charming, wooing and marrying Anny Ondra within a ten minute span. And he’s compassionate, apparently so appalled by war that he never fires his weapon during the confusing opening battle sequence.
If bad things happen to Schmeling, they happen because of outside forces. The Nazis force him into combat after his loss to Joe Louis. Oh, and Joe Louis hits him in the kidneys, never mind his back is turned as he grips the ropes. Never seen are the other real-life interactions with Adolph Hitler, nor do we hear about his loss to Max Baer (a loss that would probably hold some weight within the Nazi regime subplot). Boll, and the vast majority of Germans, rightly hate the Nazis. Still, it’s a shame that Boll’s unwillingness to show a historical and national hero having a personal relationship with Hitler has robbed his movie of an opportunity to portray the betrayal of Schmeling by Hitler himself. It’s a character beat that could have carried a lot of weight, but it’s buried under the slog of bland historical retelling.
As for the boxing action in the movie? Well, it’s okay, I guess. The punches rarely seem to have any weight to them. The fights rarely have any sense of urgency. What the camera is unable to convey to us is made up for with the ever-useful ringside announcer. It would have been nice if Schmeling’s trainer had any sort of personality, especially since he has so much screen time, but perhaps Boll didn’t want to piss his family off with inaccurate portrayals. Instead the trainer gives Schmeling water, runs with him, and wears a flat cap.
Henry Maske is decent. He obviously knows what he’s doing in the ring. There are times when I swear you could close your eyes and imagine that it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking, but probably that’s just me being an American and unable to pick out accents. It’s just that his deep tone in speaking really sounds like him. Maske also seems a bit wooden, but that could be totally the fault of the director and the material he’s given. I can’t help but think that Maske could be more engaging if allowed to even attempt to give Schmeling some personality. It’s just that this movie really wants you to know that Max Schmeling was not a Nazi and was a really nice guy.
I don’t like to give star ratings, or number ratings, because I feel like that dumbs down the reviewing process, but if I had to rate this movie out of five stars, it would probably get two and a half, and that isn’t bad for an Uwe Boll movie. Unfortunately it doesn’t deliver the end-all biopic you’d probably want to watch a few times over, nor does it deliver the epic cinematic failure that would warrant numerous laugh- filled viewings. Instead it just slips quietly from your mind and into obscurity.
Some random notes:
This movie has some images of violence in it, particularly some images of war and violence against the Jewish people in the streets of Berlin, but nothing that would warrant anything above a PG-13 rating.
Also, if you don’t understand German, like me, then be prepared for some poor subtitling at times. They use the word “sensation” seemingly two dozen times within a five-minute span at one point and each time it’s used in a different context. I don’t think the translator quite understands how “sensation” is used.
Oh, and keep an eye out for Arthur Abraham who plays one of Schmeling’s opponents. You’ll see Abraham throw more punches in his fake fight then you will in an entire year of Abraham fights. Maybe he’ll have a career acting in Germany when he’s done acting like he’s still relevant on the boxing scene.
Join me next week when I see how well Eugene Jarecki fares in directing a drama instead of a documentary for The Opponent (2000).