Part 2 of Mann’s films Revisited
Michael Mann’s second film is an oddity, to put it lightly.
With a few small things excluded nothing about this evokes Mann. Tangerine Dream returns for this movie, but Mann never worked with the group again after. The character Captain Klaus Woermann is a Nazi who has a code that differentiates him from fellow Nazis and SS soldier. Aside from that, The Keep is a horror film. It’s not a caper or a revenge thriller. It’s not about the psyche of criminals to the extent that many of his films are. It’s also not about the police trying to catch them.
It’s a claustrophobic haunted house movie with an ancient spirit who represents the cruelty of all mankind. While all Mann movies deal with philosophy on some level, this is his only movie that deals with spirituality.
It’s also an outlier because it’s the movie that Mann had the least control over in the final cut. It’s one of a number of films from the 80’s where a studio took the film away and completely recut it into an unbelievable mess. The tragedy is that unlike say Brazil where you can watch every cut ever. The original THREE HOUR CUT of The Keep is hidden a vault never to be seen.
The Keep is Mann’s worst movie simply on the basis that his name is attached to a movie he had zero control over.
Throwing the baby out when Mann is involved isn’t an option, though. So much of this movie is crazy yet amazing. The cast includes Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, and Scott Glenn – objectively three of the great actors of the last forty years – who along with Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, and Alberta Watson make up the ensemble of this movie.
The design and setting of the movie manage to feel real and fantastic at the same time. The Keep is a giant mausoleum in the middle of a small eastern European village. A mausoleum Captain Woermann so realizes was built to keep something in, not to keep others out.
We are told at the beginning that the soldiers are not to disturb the silver T shapes in the wall. As is usually the case, the enlisted men scolded for this at the beginning do exactly what they are told not to. This leads to the release of a Golem from Jewish mythology that’s the only goal is to be free so it can set the world on fire.
This becomes important when we are introduced to McKellen’s character, an expert in ancient languages from the village who is brought back to translate and catch the killer. Gabriel Byrne, an SS Major is there to investigate the claims. The pressure is put on Ian and his daughter played by Alberta Watson when they learn that Byrne will kill a villager every day the killers or killer isn’t found.
Shortly after Ian is brought there the Golem saves his daughter from gang rape and appears to him with a Faustian bargain. He gives Ian 30 extra years of life, use of his legs and the promise of destroying the entire Nazi army if he helps him be freed.
Ian accepts, of course, not realizing the Golem won’t simply stop with Germany.
Elsewhere Scott Glenn is in bed with a woman. We meet him as he sits straight up in bed after the Golem is released. His story until he eventually gets to the village seems to be him driving on a motorcycle and killing checkpoint officers that get in his way. Once he gets there we eventually learn he’s an Immortal guardian, alive only to keep the Golem locked away – and bang hot Jewish girls who think their father is about to die.
The Keep is such a quick movie at half its original runtime that it rightly feels rushed and undercooked. While it makes some sense- NONE of it works. The closest thing I could compare this to; is if you forced Francis Ford Coppola to cut Apocalypse Now in half. It’s clear so many character motivations and arcs were left out.
It’s apparent that the Robert Prosky character whose presence is forgotten after he’s either possessed or driven crazy was meant to be become crazy gradually. We were meant to see what happens to a man of faith’s soul as the people around him he feels responsible for become lost or die. Culminating in his losing to the darkness in the keep.
Scott Glenn history with Golem as probably cut out because it was either too obtuse or bizarre for the studio to understand. Also, the love story between Glenn and Alberta was probably more than a single sex scene and two scenes of wildly disconnected dialogue.
So much of this movie was wrong, but you can see how it could have gone right. The Keep is worth watching for that reason alone.