Something In The Air
A semi-autobiographical drama from director Olivier Assayas set in 1970s Paris
In Paul Campion's feature debut, a New Zealand commando uncovers a satanic SS plot on the eve of D-Day
"Their leader has long been searching for so-called wonder weapons - magical items with which he will kill your people in multitudes. He already has the Holy Lance. He had within his grasp the Ark of the Covenant. He tried to awaken the Great Old Ones. And now he has within his reach the power to summon Lucifer himself."
These words from The Devil's Rock conjure a whole popular pseudo-history of Hitlerian occultism, as well as alluding to specific plot points from other, bigger-budget productions (the Spear of Destiny from Constantine, the Ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Great Old Ones from Hellboy) that have touched on this theme. Yet while it is common for cinema's Nazis to be demonised at least figuratively, what makes Paul Campion's debut more interesting is its suggestion that in war, where all is hell, every side ends up making a deal with the devil.
It is June 5th, 1944, the eve of the D-Day Invasion. Kiwi commando Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) rows secretly to one of the Channel islands with his sergeant Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater), on a mission to sabotage a German artillery gun. Lured into a concrete fortification by the sounds of screaming, Grogan discovers a scene of total carnage. The only survivors are a well-spoken SS colonel named Klaus Meyer (Matthew Sutherland) who promptly takes Grogan prisoner, and a woman in chains who is the spitting image of Grogan's beloved (but long dead) wife Helena (Gina Varela). As the night draws on, Grogan comes to realise the extent of the devilry at work here, and must fight to save not just himself, but all the Allied Forces.
Best known for his work as a VFX and matte artist, Campion certainly knows how to maximise the claustrophobic atmosphere of his bunker sets, and lays on gore effects which alone were deemed unpleasant enough by the BBFC to earn The Devil's Rock an 18 certificate. Abundant blood and guts are not enough, however, to prevent this satanic tale of horror feeling a little undercooked. The small cast and talky screenplay hardly help to allay this impression, converting what ought to be full-blown pandemonium into an intimate dramatic chamberpiece.
Yet here the devil is in the details. While any moral ambiguity with which Meyer is at first invested will in the end be unequivocally dispelled, what is more striking is just how similar the film's 'hero' Grogan is, or at least becomes, to its villain. Meyer may kill Tane in cold blood, but that is shortly after we have seen Grogan do just the same to an unarmed German soldier asking only for help. Meyer may torture Grogan but, as he expressly states, he is only using a technique that the Germans learnt from the British - and later Grogan will positively relish removing a bullet from Meyer without anaesthetic. "I am just a soldier, like you," Meyer will insist, "we're both in the same shit" - and though Grogan will strenuously deny this, by the end he will, quite literally, take a page right out of Meyer's book in his efforts to beat the Nazi at his own diabolical game.
"How the righteous have fallen!" 'Helena' will declare near the end. Sure enough, Grogan's journey into the fortification's darkened corridors allegorises the moral descent of any 'son of Adam' (as she calls Grogan) engaged in warfare. With the new dawn will come the Normandy invasion, turning the tide of war - and yet we are subtly reminded that, in achieving their victory over tyranny and evil, the Allies too would ultimately resort, at Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to 'wonder weapons' that kill people in multitudes. It is a surprisingly ambitious and complicated subtext for a film set on so small a scale.
For all its gore, The Devil's Rock is an undercooked chiller, but it cleverly uses the conventional tropes of diabolism to comment on the horrors of war.
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