Joining the Cult: Investigating The Keep, Michael Mann’s Butchered Nazi Horror Film

Author: Cameron Fairchild

Usually, when someone tells you a Michael Mann movie is bad, they’re wrong. While the 75-year-old filmmaker’s career has taken something of a critical nosedive in the last decade, starting with 2006’s Miami Vice and seen most recently in the backlash to Blackhat, the truth is he’s still essentially the same filmmaker as he was when he made Manhunter or Heat or The Insider. Mann’s filmography is remarkably cohesive in theme and style, usually taking the form of uncommonly detailed examinations of the criminal justice system, individualism, and the artist as both a rebel and a societally determined criminal. Drawing a line from Thief, Mann’s debut film about a gifted safecracker at odds with both organized crime structures and the local police, to Blackhat, his at-the-moment final film about a similarly opposed, gifted computer hacker, suggests that Mann has always been preoccupied with a certain set of questions, and has explored them thoroughly over an almost 40-year long career. All Michael Mann movies, even the critically underperforming ones, are great. Except one.

The Keep, Michael Mann’s publicly disavowed second feature, is weird. Stripped of Mann’s usual hyper-polished presentation and distinctly lacking in the modernity that characterizes his best work, The Keep instead sets itself in WWII, concerns itself with a couple of ancient evils that double as Nazi-hunters, and contains itself largely within the eponymous Keep, a Romanian stronghold taken over by the Nazis. The film’s nominal main character, Scott Glenn’s Glaeken Trismegestus (it’s that kind of movie) doesn’t appear until at least 20 minutes in, and has maybe 20 minutes of screen time as he motorcycles from an unknown and randomly prescribed distance to fight the Nazi-activated Keep monster Radu Molasar (Michael Carter), but not before seducing the daughter (Alberta Watson) of a Jewish historian (Ian McKellen) in a too-long, synth-y 80s sex scene. Most of the screen time goes to Ian McKellen’s character, but neither he or his daughter show up until about a third of the way through the 90-minute film. Molasar at first seems like a good Nazi-killer until it turns out he’s just evil and is going to do… something bad, that Glaeken has to stop. It’s all very confused. It was also originally going to be 3 and a half hours long.

Michael Carter as the wonderfully generic-looking Radu Molasar

The Keep isn’t entirely without virtue. It’s lit really well, with suitably creepy dark blue accents turning the Keep into an ominous, inescapable fortress. As far outside the Mann canon as it might seem at first, it is at least somewhat concerned with dominant power structures and incomplete or faulty oppositional forces, represented by the Nazis and the similarly amoral Molasar, and the concept, if not the execution, of Molasar as an unchecked force is an interesting one. The film, which to its credit kills a lot of Nazis, is set in time specifically at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the doomed Nazi invasion of Russia, which creates an interesting parallel between their self-imposed failure there and the self-imposed destruction they face in the film (it’s the Nazi’s whose desecration of the Keep releases Molasar).

It’s hard to say where the blame for The Keep should be placed. At 90 minutes it’s a hilarious and catastrophically incomprehensible watch, aided by Mann’s hyper-serious philosophizing and goofy monster design, but maybe if Paramount studio hadn’t chopped over half its length, or visual effects supervisor Wally Veveers hadn’t died in the middle of post-production with no recorded or finalized plan for the effects, or Michael Mann himself hadn’t kept trying to turn the Nazi monster movie into a kind of 2001 riff, it could have been something. The Keep was shot over the course of almost half a year, half of that time being spent on reshoots, largely due to Mann’s indecisive rewrites and scattershot decision-making.

As a second time feature director with clearly too much ambition, Mann seemed to be most directly responsible for the thing The Keep became—studio interference with The Keep feels like a mercy killing.               

CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Objectively Correct | KXSU Arts Reporter

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