Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Here we bemoan good ideas for movies that somehow went wrong. Savant likes to take advantage of the
review format to check out pictures given a negative rap when new; that's how I found out about
Joe Versus the Volcano, a real gem
disparaged by critics when new.
Shining Through didn't turn out to be a lost deserving wonder film - quite the opposite.
Rather handsomely produced, this WW2 spy thriller has a lot of weaknesses in story and casting.
Much more troublesome is the attitude, wherein the war, Nazis and the persecution
of Jews just serve as a background for an unconvincing glossy romance.
Second-generation Jewish American Linda Voss (Melanie Griffith) gets a government job
despite ethnic bias when it is discovered that she speaks German "like a Berlin butcher's wife."
She easily detects that her lawyer boss Ed Leland (Michael Douglas) is some kind of spy, a hunch confirmed when war
breaks out and he starts wearing dapper Army intelligence uniforms. The OSS desperately needs an
operative in the home of a high-ranking Nazi, and Linda volunteers for the job. Slipped into the
Reich via Switzerland, she connects with spymaster Konrad Friedrichs (John Gielgud) and his
swanky associate, Margarete Von Eberstein (Joely Richardson). Linda is a flop as a replacement cook
for the targeted enemy but is taken in by dinner guest Franz-Otto Dietrich (Liam Neeson), who
needs a nanny for his motherless kids. Her security unsteady, Linda is told to leave by Leland but
insists on remaining to investigate a secret room in Dietrich's basement, and to contact her
beloved cousins still hiding in Alexanderplatz.
Spy movies about WW2 have to walk a pretty thin line; most real stories are noble tales with
bad endings. But moviemakers have never stopped distorting the reality and significance of
espionage. The truth can be found in Leo Marks' nonfiction book Between Silk and Cyanide, an
account of British efforts to keep underground networks going in France and Holland. Marks'
under-prepared spies were often deployed by spymasters using insufficient or faulty information. Agents
were sent to Holland for over a year before anyone realized the network had been compromised and they
were all being captured as they arrived. National heroine Violette Szabo was a fearless operative
until she was caught for no fault of her own and shot. The real stories come
complete with ironies hard to believe. One female agent blithely showed her radio transmitter and code book
to practically everyone she met, yet didn't get picked up.
The English made a stirring movie about Violette Szabo called Carve Her Name With Pride; its
only fault was to exaggerate (probably) Szabo's capture to portray her as an action heroine, slaying
Germans right and left with a machine pistol. That was nothing compared to later films, that
persisted in placing sentimentality or love affairs higher than the deadly logic of these brave
spies. Cannon's Hanna's War spent a tearful hour asking us to be shocked that the Germans
would actually shoot a female Jewish spy who is caught almost immediately after parachuting into
captured territory. Other examples distort the danger and the reality by inventing
escapist love stories wherein determined lovers can always defeat the combined efforts of Hitler's
keenest anti-spy corps. Shining Through is the most flagrant offender of this kind that I've
seen so far.
Shining Through is told as the proud flashback of Melanie Griffith's character, Linda Voss,
leading us to think that this is perhaps a true story. If it is, the image it presents of Nazi
Germany during the war is a very special one. US Army intelligence chief Michael Douglas can enter
Germany at any time just by flying to Switzerland and getting on a train with some faked documents.
Likewise, Linda is allowed to walk the streets of Berlin without so much as a background
check. She gets her instructions from a hokey fishseller (Patrick Winczewski) who crams notes into
the mouths of the fresh catch of the day.
Linda's German was learned from a Grandmother who presumably hadn't been to the old country in decades, but
gets her by without any problems. John Gielgud's high-level double agent is suspected by the Gestapo
but his operatives are able to come and go without detection. The beautiful Margarete
(Wetherby) and Linda run around Berlin like
two galavanting teenagers but attract no attention. Linda becomes an undocumented worker for a top-level
Nazi (the kind that stores secret papers about rocket programs home to his basement) and has an accent that
other Germans have trouble placing. She walks the streets with Liam Neeson's children and nobody
can locate her. Is spying dangerous? I don't think so, judging by this movie. The only reason Linda
is suspected is that she disobeys orders for personal reasons. That, and her 'ally' Margarete shows
her off to her mother, a society pianist who will pop up at an odd time to recognize her under
an incorrect name.
Going to Germany in the middle of a war is also a great fashion opportunity. Linda always looks spiffy in
a variety of outfits, and besides having a nattily-tailored hunk like Michael Douglas worrying about her,
her new boss is also showing interest, to the extent that he takes her to the opera in one of his dead
wife's dresses. 1940s Berlin is represented with lavish sets and masses of spotless costumes, especially
in a parade scene. We realize the
script needed a fact checker when Griffiths and Douglas hear the announcement that Pearl Harbor has been
attacked, in their Sunday morning bed. It was Sunday 8am in Honolulu, and the East Coast wouldn't have
gotten the news until after 2 or 3 in the afternoon, at the earliest. After that we wonder what else might
be grossly inaccurate.
All of this might be alright if Shining Through were hitting on other cylinders. Michael Douglas'
character tries to carry the dramatic weight of the movie by being ridiculously sober at all times. His
character simply isn't written well and is asked to do too many unlikely things, like fake his way though
Germany by claiming to have a neck wound so he can't talk and give himself away. What good would just
pretending to be mute do, if he can't understand what people are telling him?
Finally, this just wasn't good casting for Melanie Griffiths. She's written as intelligent but we never get
the feeling that the lines are anything but memorized - Griffiths just doesn't project the needed level
of cleverness. Also, her thin, whiney voice doesn't sound authoritative in German or English. I'm certainly
not advocating that she should stick to a narrower range of characters, but this one never fits her.
The conclusion is completely baffling. Griffiths is badly shot (but leaks no blood on herself
or Douglas' German uniform) so Douglas carries her into a border-check shack. He somehow manages to stab and shoot
three suspicious soldiers and run with her toward the Swiss side of the border. Guards open fire and hit them
several times, and Douglas manages to shoot one of them from the hip, while carrying his unconscious
sweetheart. It's all far, far too ridiculous. If anything like this happened in real life, I ... I just
wouldn't believe it.
Fox's budget DVD of Shining Through (check that price) has a sterling-quality enhanced widescreen
copy of the movie, so if this one is a big favorite, by all means enjoy. The only extras are some war and
The IMDB reports that the film was released in 70mm in some markets.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shining Through rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson