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    Letters from the Dead

    War's the pity

    "Letters from the Dead," making up in simple humanity what it lacks in big special-effects explosions, is an unadorned look at the ordinary German and Italian soldiers in the World War II trenches as the Americans closed in.


    (Reviewed at the Brooklyn Film Festival in 2003. "Letters From the Dead" has been remade and retitled "The Fallen.")

    "People ask me, why do you do it man? They don't understand, it's about the men next to you. That's all it is."

    Sound by: Chiara Figari, Jonathan Jackson.
    Edited by: Caio Ribeiro, Nick Day, Ari Taub.
    Directed by: Ari Taub.
    Produced by: Curtis Mattikow, Dardo Barros.
    Written by: Caio Ribeiro, Nick Day.
    Cast: Thomas Pohn, Dirk Schmidt, Marcus Kirschbaum, Frank Licari, Sergio Leone, Nicola Tranquillino, Fabio Sartor.
    Cinematography: Caio Ribeiro.
    Music by: Sergei Dreznin.
    Sound by: Chiara Figari, Jonathan Jackson.
    Edited by: Caio Ribeiro, Nick Day, Ari Taub.
    In German, Italian and English with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Brooklyn Museum of Art 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. Sat., May 3, 5 p.m.

    Brooklyn International Film Festival 2003
  • Kagami
  • All Night Bodega
  • The Backyard
  • Letters from the Dead

    Previous festivals:
  • Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival 2000
  • Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival 2001

  • Official site
  • Swiss-American Film Festival 2004
    • Overview
    • The Fallen (new version of Letters from the Dead)
    • Strong Shoulders
    • Official site
    This is not a line from "Letters from the Dead." Actually, it's from "Black Hawk Down" and it could just as well be from "Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers" or "We Were Soldiers." In today's less complicated war movie, that's the lowest common moral of the story. It's never about geopolitics or domestic politics, colonialism or oil, it's just about the guy next to you.

    "Letters from the Dead" is about that too — with a difference. These guys are German. And the guys next to them are Italian. And it's disconcerting at first to an American viewer, but whatever you want to say about bravery and camaraderie, tragedy and lunacy in wartime, can be just as true of the enemy soldier as it can of our own. It's an experience very much like the German film "Das Boot," without the boat. These men are hardly fighting for Hitler or Mussolini or racial purity — they're fighting because they're in the infantry and they're doing their job and hoping to survive.

    Letters from the Dead  
    The Italian unit joins up with the Germans and there's immediate friction. The Italians only get half the rations the Germans get, in a sign of who's boss in the occupation, and while the troops brawl over a ladle-full of gruel, the officers worry about whether they'll simply be able to maintain their dignity. Their commanding officer sits with his top noncommissioned man, watching the Germans execute their preparations with proud, un-Italian efficiency.

    "They are so full of themselves. They act like gods," the officer says almost despondently. "What do you think when you look at them?"

    "They have better pants than us," his compatriot answers.

    The film, made on a shoestring in the woods of New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts by American director Ari Taub, is neither pro-war nor anti-war, neither pro-Axis nor pro-Allies as such. It's just a couple days in the life of some troops. The Americans are pressing in nearby, but the biggest run-ins are with the cunning Italian Partisans who seem to get the drop on their conscripted countrymen on a regular basis. You can root for whichever side you want, but the film never roots for or against anyone. It treats all the soldiers with equal humanity.

    Low budget doesn't seem to have meant compromises that show up on the screen. There aren't the kind of fiery explosions and closeups of blood splattering gloriously through the air that grace the films multimillion-dollar Hollywood cousins, but "Letters" is no less convincing. The attention to detail in reproducing uniforms, accents, and living conditions pays off in terms of realism, and the camera's-eye view of primitive tank interiors and mealtimes is convincing. We certainly see the horrifying human cost of combat, but that's just one dimension of a thoroughly believable story that's really about how the soldiers get through their days, thrust together with allies they don't trust against an enemy they vaguely sense is closing in.

      Letters from the Dead
    The demoralization starts to wear on both forces as the Partisans steadily pick them off and doom seems ever nearer. After Partisans catch a patrol and two of the soldiers either surrender or desert to the guerrillas, the German commander darkly needles his Italian counterpart.

    "How many men comprise an Italian squad?"


    "Nine. It has come to my attention that only seven of your men returned."

    "That seems to be the case."

    "If my calculations are correct  —  "

    "Spare me your sarcasm, lieutenant."

    The story is punctuated by letters from the troops home — letters that would not be received back home until after their authors were already dead. Or, if the opening titles are to be believed, letters that were not delivered at all but were found, unsent, among the slain troops' effects. They contribute to the genuine poignancy of these men's stories that also mix grim reality with black humor. It treats them with the respect and compassion that regular soldiers everywhere deserve.

    Filmmaker Taub worked for five years to make "Letters from the Dead" a reality, bringing his cast over from Europe for the production. It's quite possible that Americans won't be ready for a sensitive, beautifully written portrayal of enemy soldiers, or an unorthodox war movie that places emotional issues ahead of hyperreal violence, but Taub and his crew deserve tremendous credit for making an eye-opening film. Few have seen a story like this before and more people should have a chance to see it.

    APRIL 29, 2003

    Reader comments on Letters from the Dead:

  • film review   from Leonor Scliar-Cabral, Apr 30, 2003
  • Re: film review   from Daria, May 4, 2003
  • ja ja, danke danke (unka bunka)   from Anthony, May 9, 2003
  • [no subject]   from Gail Della Rosa, May 9, 2003
  • Letters to the living   from Kamelia, May 13, 2003
  • Nice to see the Italians   from Jim Heddlesten, Mar 10, 2004
  • Re: Nice to see the Italians   from Cox, Aug 1, 2010
  • Loved "Letters From the Dead"   from Joanne Douglas, Apr 13, 2004
  • letters form the dead comment   from Bob, May 24, 2004
  • Re: letters form the dead comment   from Andy, Jul 23, 2004
  • Complaining Re-enactors   from John, Nov 24, 2004
  • The human side of war   from Barbara Ehrentreu, Nov 25, 2004

  • Post a comment on "Letters from the Dead"