The Keep plays as part of a 10-film Michael Mann retrospective at Chicago’s Doc Films on October 5th.
A little fairy tale: wayward German soldiers occupy a cursed, abandoned Romanian fortress in 1941. Something's afoot, so they bring a Jewish scholar to help them figure out the mystery. If above all fairy tales give us images, then that's what Michael Mann intended with The Keep: images, above all. The dialogue, the simple plot — none of these really matter. It's his Beauty and the Beast rather than his Orpheus (if he has one, it's Public Enemies). The Keep could be a Fox Movietone production; the voices are mostly post-synced anyway. What matters isn't what happens, but what is shown: a man aging in reverse, trapdoors that open on to gigantic caverns, figures standing against ruins, beams of light taking shape through fog, a hand crushing a silver cross. The images are gigantic. Horror is usually a question of context; it's the art of making a door opening or a bird flying by terrifying through juxtaposition and some sense of sympathy. Here there is no sympathy, no context; you could cut a shot out and watch it on its own and it'd tell its own sinister tale. Phantasmagoria, in the most old-fashioned sense possible.
The Keep is a lonely film. It has few friends, and Michael Mann's other films seem at best like its estranged step-siblings. It's a mixture of William Blake's paintings (which would return in Manhunter), Murnau's Faust (one of Mann's favorite films), Jung's archetypes and the middle section of Friedkin's Sorceror which, through some alchemical process, are transmuted into an opaque, silvery substance. "The horror film" isn't just one thing, no more than the "comedy" or the "drama" (and many comedies and dramas as horror films in a way), but many directors approach it as a ratio of details to implications, whether the implications are about human behavior and need (as in a John Carpenter or a Neil Marshall movie) or the fact that there are more important things to worry about than fears, which can be conquered in a way the everyday often can't (as in a George Romero movie). That is, the horror in these films is more than the horrifying things presented; a "bloody knife" is more than red paint on metal. But there's also a direct horror, like the abstract terror of the color reel of Ivan the Terrible, Part II or the experience of a Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie, where one doesn't sense the horrifying through characters but through whole images of which the characters are merely elements (Tokyo Sonata operates on these principles as much as Cure). The Keep is not related to either of these approaches. It's a horror shown, not hallucinated, and constructed in exacting yet paradoxically inspecific detail. The human element has been reduced to a murmur, when in every other Mann film it's a shout. More than the "characters" (who aren't characters in the Mann sense, but maybe in way many other directors approach "character"), the film's center is the keep itself, a huge death-trap where seeing the opposite end of a room is like looking down from a balcony or a bridge; it's the opposite of claustrophobia, and in the sheer size of its spaces and the distances between figures in the images created for it (and the images here seem specifically created or constructed, and not captured), The Keep may be the only truly agoraphobic horror film, where terror isn't a question of being locked in, but beeing so visible. The horror is everywhere; it may as well be the sky.
The Keep seems to exist at the edge of Mann, and also at the edge of cinema, in the same sort of netherworld as David Lynch's Dune, Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula or Pál Fejös' Fantômas talkie, some place where edits and dialogue no longer matter, and cinema is a bubbling cauldron out of which rise strange visions in curling smoke. If the film is immediate in its opening, it becomes more mysterious as it goes on, giving neither questions nor answers nor even observations, like a magic lantern show.
is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Michael Mann, running from September 28th
to November 30th
at Chicago's Doc Films