Based on Michel Tournier's novel, Volker Schlondorff's The Ogre follows Abel (John Malkovich), a Frenchman whose adventures take him from a youth spend in a Catholic orphanage, to pre-war Paris, the army, a German POW camp and a succession of odd jobs with German officers through the war. As civilization crumbles all around him, Abel ignores the calls to battle and busies himself with the care of children and animals. He does this not out of some deep pacifist principle or high-minded love for humanity, but rather because of the sincere alienation he feels from most of human society. For reasons never fully explained, Abel finds only fear and contempt from his fellow adults; as a result, he's stumbles through humanity's greatest catastrophe without a care for patriotism or politics, preferring instead the company of a blind moose, or a young girl, or some decommissioned carrier pigeons.
The Ogre was released in the mid-1990s (though I'd never heard of this film until now), and I suspect its airy detachment might have played better (at least for an American viewer) back then. Its certainly refreshing to see a different take on World War II, particularly after the onslaught of the glum weep-fests of the post-Private Ryan era (I actually admire Saving Private Ryan a great deal, but I loathe the genre its created, in which the heroes of the Greatest Generation get to have a good, manly cry before trotting off to the slaughter - see also We Were Soldiers, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, several others), and I can't deny that this introvert found unexpected resonance in Abel's dogged cluelessness about the situation around him.
Everything's fine here on a technical level; I particularly liked Michael Nymen's score, and Bruno de Keyzer's cinematography is an interesting riff on the typical "WWII look" - colors are earthtone-y and washed out, but still vibrant enough to provide some center of visual interest. The nearly all-male cast is uniformly excellent, with Malkovich using his spaced-out nerd persona to good effect here. Armin Mueller-Stahl has a nice couple of scenes as a disillusioned German aristocrat, but a few special words of praise must be set aside for the great Volker Spengler (as Hermann Goering), who practically runs away with the whole thing in a scary, pathetic and funny performance. Nothing like a bit of that old Fassbinder magic...
Having said all those nice things about it, I must admit that there is something about The Ogre that feels very inessential. Part of it is WWII fatigue on my part, I suppose. There's a certain generation of European filmmaker that seems to be fated to crank out films about the Third Reich, not necessarily in the spirit of condemnation (although that's usually implied) so much as exorcism. That's unavoidable and hardly objectionable per se, but it can get old after a while, particularly if there isn't some kind of new perspective on the war waiting for you at the other end (and at this stage of the game, how could there be?).
The Ogre has a few other problems of its own to contend with. The pace feels a bit slack at times, and the episodic plot can sometimes feel like a journey without a destination. This has as much to do with the source material as anything (and, incidentally, Tournier's novel is well worth your attention, as is his short story collection, The Fetishist), but the film could certainly have grappled with this problem with more success.
The Ogre is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and the video quality overall is perfectly acceptable, capturing the muted color scheme without looking dull. There's a fair amount of grainy-looking visual noise, and it seemed to have particular trouble with close patterns. Still, this isn't distracting - I doubt I would have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it. I wouldn't use this as a test disc, but I wouldn't use it as a coaster either.
The audio is likewise just fine, although a film like this, consisting mostly of dialogues and quiet stretches, doesn't offer too many opportunities to test the extremes of what can be done. I will say that there is some noticeably wretched ADR in this film, which probably has more to do with the original sound mix than anything else.
The Ogre features English and Spanish subtitles.
The Ogre is well worth a look if you're in the mood for a slightly different WWII film. Schlondorff directed a handful of masterpieces back in the 1960s and 70s (The Tin Drum and The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum among them); while this isn't quite up to that gold standard, its a worthy successor, and something you ought to check out if you were wondering what he was up to. Recommended.