BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is a part of the Michael Mann Blogathon going on over at the Seeti Maar - Diary of a Movie Lover blog. If you get a chance, check it out as there are all kinds of amazing contributions so far.
The Keep (1983) is not a good film. It is, at times, an interesting one that has its inspired moments, but it is a narrative mess with lackluster performances. It is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) – a big budget folly beset by production problems and an uncaring studio that butchered the film before its release. And like Lynch, the experience was so painful for Michael Mann that he has never revisited it since. It’s all George Lucas’ fault. The success of Star Wars (1977) motivated all kinds of directors to dabble in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. For example, in the year The Keep was released, Peter Yates directed Krull, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg tackled Stephen King adaptations with Christine and The Dead Zone, respectively, Tony Scott’s directorial debut was the gothic vampire tale The Hunger, and there was also Something Wicked This Way Comes. These films, however, were overshadowed by the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, which dominated the box office.
After Thief (1981), Mann was offered all kinds of urban crime films. He was not interested in repeating himself and wanted, instead, to do something like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that would allow him to make a film that was “non-realistic and create the reality.” He worked briefly on the screenplay for Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) but left that project to make The Keep, an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel about a mysterious force within a Nazi fortress. The film begins with a transition from a black screen to blue sky and then pans down to the action. Mann would do the exact same thing at the beginning of Manhunter (1986) three years later. As is typical with the beginning of a Mann film, the opening sequence is devoid of dialogue. A convoy of trucks filled with Nazi soldiers drive through desolate countryside. They arrive at a small village in the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Alps in Romania circa 1941. The town’s inhabitants look at these intruders suspiciously. Out of the fog, the convoy arrives at the Keep, which is to be their new base of operations. The commanding officer, Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) proudly proclaims to a subordinate, “Now we are the masters of the world. Doesn’t that enthrall you?” The irony of this statement is that it is said before the Nazis invaded Russia and failed.
The Keep is a massive, imposing structure. Mann used vintage arc lamps from the 1920s and 1930s to get “a certain kind of hard blue shaft of light coming through all the openings in the keep.” The village outside of the Keep was shot with very bright light and in white in order to represent innocence. However, something is not quite right and this is symbolized by the fact that none of the rooftops are symmetrical. In contrast, everything inside the Keep is dark. Mann said, “We exposed for the highlight and let all the shadows go. Instead of a flood or a wash of light, there are very defined shafts of light. It’s only in those shafts that we can see things.”
Father Fanescu (Robert Prosky) is the caretaker of the Keep and warns Woermann that he and his men should not stay inside the structure because bad dreams drive out people who attempt to stay too long. Naturally, Woermann scoffs at such notions. He is an overconfident antagonist like Leo in Thief, Waingro in Heat (1995) and Thomas Sanderford in The Insider (1999). Fanescu also warns them never to touch the many metal crosses embedded in the walls. Of course, two greedy soldiers on night watch try to pry one out, believing that it hides some kind of treasure. In doing so, they uncover the vast interior of the Keep and a powerful force that kills them. They have unknowingly awakened a being known as Molasar (Michael Carter). This even awakens a man by the name of Glaeken (Scott Glenn) who lives in Greece. He quickly packs his things and goes to Romania. This man is a loner, much like other Mann protagonists. He is a man of few words, driven by intensely personal reasons to do what he does.
Gabriel Byrne) who starts killing villagers in retaliation for the mysterious deaths of five soldiers. He finds inscriptions on a wall in a language that none of them can decipher but Fanescu knows of a scholar who can – Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen). He and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are summoned from a concentration camp. When two soldiers try to rape Eva, they are eradicated by Molasar and enveloped by smoke. In comparison to the cold, calculated Kaempffer, Woermann seems much more reasonable. He is smart enough to fear this unknown force and has enough compassion to send Eva to the local inn. Kaempffer is weak of mind, like Freddie Lounds in Manhunter and Van Zandt in Heat. Kaempffer thinks too rationally and deludes himself into believing that he is in control.
For Molasar, the more it kills the more of a physical presence it has. It makes a deal with Dr. Cuza that if he carries out the talisman that keeps it imprisoned in the Keep, Molasar will kill all of the soldiers. However, Glaeken knows that if Molasar is released, it will destroy the world. Glaeken is not just a traveler, as he describes himself, but also watches over the Keep and makes sure that Molasar does not get out.
As the film builds towards its climax, Woermann confronts Kaempffer and tries to appeal to his conscience one more time:
“All that we are is coming out, here in this Keep. And what truth do you see, what are you discovering about yourself, Kaempffer? I murder all these people. Therefore I must be powerful. Smash them down because only that raises you up. It’s a psychotic fantasy to escape the weakness and disease you sense in the core of your soul ... You have released the foulest that dwells in all men’s minds. You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies. And formed millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross.”
This is not only an indictment of the Nazi philosophy but also the godlike mentality alluded to by Hannibal Lecktor to Will Graham in Manhunter. Dr. Cuza has become corrupted by power like those he hates – the Nazis. When Molasar heals him of his diseased state, he loses sight of what is good and evil.
Producers Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr. optioned F. Paul Wilson’s book for Paramount. Not surprisingly, Mann was not interested in a straightforward adaptation. He did not want to make a traditional horror film. As he said in an interview at the time, “What it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional.” Mann admired fairy tales and was drawn to Wilson’s best-selling novel as a way to make a fairy tale movie for adults.
Otto Skorzeny in 1969. Skorzeny was a former member of the S.S. and one of World War II’s most successful commandos. He led the raid that rescued Benito Mussolini from Italy in 1943. At Nuremberg, Skorzeny successfully defended himself and was acquitted. After the war, he ran a mercenary operation out of Spain. Mann was fascinated by Skorzeny’s psychology. Mann said in an interview that “the overt politics interest me less than the states of mind: the specific kinds of aberration that explain why a lower middle-class bourgeois in Munich would be attracted to the Waffen SS in 1933.”
Mann also read The Walter Langdon Report, a document commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services to psychoanalyze Adolph Hitler. Walter Langdon was a New York doctor who had talked to many people that knew the dictator before the war. This portrait of Hitler and how he reflected the psychosis of whole nation fascinated Mann. Another primary influence on the film was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which posits the theory that fairy tales were complex morality fables. Bettelheim argues that myths have clearly defined heroes and usually end in tragedy, while fairy tales were universal with happy endings. It goes on to propose the theory that most enduring children’s stories do not teach moral messages as fables do but deal with action and horror in a way that allows children to deal with real world horror over time.
Mann first scouted locations in Romania but was unable to find a mountain pass of black rock in Pyrenees or the Alps. He then asked experts at a nearby university to use their geology computer to help him find the location he wanted. With the help of production designer John Box, Mann found an abandoned slate quarry in Wales. The quarry was 150 feet deep and a lift or a crane had to take people in and out. Cinematographer Alex Thomson placed his lights on cherry pickers around the edge of the quarry and at one point 80 miles per hour winds threatened to knock the lights in.
Mann first wrote the screenplay and then made additional changes while shooting the film. “Now the words are plastic, flexible,” Mann remarked in an interview at the time. He constantly rewrote dialogue before shooting which frustrated his actors. Two days before a scene was shot the actors would get new pages. Then, a day before they got additional new pages. Mann storyboarded the entire film only to get on the set and realize that the lighting was different and so he threw them out, opting instead to work on a more instinctual level. On the set, Mann listened to the music of Tangerine Dream and Laurie Anderson. He was particularly taken with Anderson’s vocal stylings and wanted Glenn to speak like she does in her songs.
By certain accounts, the shoot was a particularly grueling one. The crew worked 16-18 hour days in cold, rainy weather. In particular, make-up artist Nick Maley remembers that he had to change make-up effects three times in one week. He claimed that Mann did not listen to more experienced crew members and that eight of them suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of the film’s demanding schedule. Maley also claims that he was exhausted a lot of the time from the miscommunication he experienced with Mann over prosthetics for Glaeken. Six weeks into filming, Mann changed the color of Molasar’s final costume, which meant some scenes had to be re-shot.
There was a six-month delay because of the death of special effects expert, Wally Veevers two weeks into post-production, forcing Mann to rethink the film’s effects after the cast and crew had departed. Without Veevers to provide the needed opticals for Molasar, the creature resembled the Michelin Man as opposed to an ominous force of evil. To make matters worse, Veevers had not made any storyboards for his vision of the movie and no one knew his methods. The production went over schedule by 22 weeks and tens of millions of dollars.
When it came to the finale, Mann chose between two different endings. Glaeken versus Molasar in the dark cave of the Keep or on its summit. The director went with the former but was forced to scale it down. Originally, he had wanted a more visually elaborate, ending with Glaeken fighting Molasar with a giant laser coming from the Keep that evolved into something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). After Veever’s death, Paramount did not give Mann enough money to finish the film and he had to abandon certain sequences. French artist Enki Bilal was brought in to help design Molasar. He traveled to Shepperton Studios five or six times and felt that the film was ruined during the editing process. Special effects make-up artist Bob Keen felt that one of the biggest problems was the long, grueling shoot and that by the end of it a lot of the crew members had left.
The current version of the film runs 90 minutes but rumors say that the rough cut ran over two hours. The Keep was released on December 16, 1983 in 508 theaters, grossing $1 million in its opening weekend. It went on to make $4.2 million in the United States and was a commercial and critical failure. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “It boasts some pictures as pretty as any to be seen on a gallery wall, and, in narrative terms, it is a mess.” Vincent Canby, in his review for The New York Times, wrote, “The movie makes no sense as either melodrama or metaphysics, so that its expensive special effects go up in smoke. Literally ... At the screening I saw, the film's soundtrack, as stuffed with talk as with ominous sounds and music by Tangerine Dream, was so sibilant that I longed to stuff cotton in my ears or, at least, to hear a character who lisped.” At the time, Mann felt that The Keep was “emotionally deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way dreams work.” However, after many years had passed, Mann admitted, “The Keep was really hard because I did something I swore I’d never do again. And that is that I went into pre-production without a completed screenplay.”
Also, check out this excellent analysis of the film over at the Wonders in the Dark blog and this comprehensive fan site.