From Fantastic Films: The Magazine of Imaginative Media #38
(March 1984), pp. 23-25 & 50:
Director Michael Mann Transforms a Tale of Gothic Horror Into a
Surrealistic Fairy Tale for Adults in His Screen Adaptation of Paul F. [sic]
Wilson's Bestselling Novel, The Keep
Article by MICHAEL STEIN
It is Fall, 1941, and Hitler's Third Reich has tightened its
stranglehold on Europe. Undisputed masters of the continent from the
Channel ports to the Black Sea, with Britain desperately trying to
regroup its depleted forces and America not yet in the war, the Nazis
have good reason to believe themselves the Master Race, the war won.
In Rumania, a detachment of the victorious Wehrmacht arrives to
guard a Keep, a mysterious black fortress which broods over a sunny
village in the Carpathian Mountains. The officer in command is Captain
Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) who, though a holder of the Iron Cross, is
regarded as politically suspect by the Nazi hierarchy and has
consequently been assigned to this safe backwater in an occupied
When Captain Woermann and his Wehermacht unit enter the Keep, he
recognizes that the massive structure was not built as a fortification.
"It's backwards," he muses. "All the heavy stones are in the interior
. . . small stones on the outside. This place was not built to keep
anything out. What is this place?" What he is to discover is that the
Keep was built to keep something . . . in.
Bored and anxious for booty, two of his men investigate a strange
T-shape built into the fabric of the Keep and in doing so awaken a
supernatural entity which proceeds to murder and mutilate these
"intruders." Woermann soon finds that even the most stringent military
precautions are useless in the face of such overpowering evil, and
requests permission to withdraw his remaining troops. Nazi authorities,
however, decide to answer Woermann's request by sending a detachment of
S.S. troops under the command of the brutal officer Kaempffer (Gabriel
Byrne) to settle the problem.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Glaeken Trismegustus (Scott
Glenn) is suddenly shocked awake one stormy night. He pulls a strange
case from under his bed and leaves the port where he has spent his
entire existence. He then sets out across the Mediterranean through the
Dardanelles, into the Black Sea and <24> on toward the Keep.
Glaeken is an "immortal," who has waited and watched throughout the
ages in the event that one "accident of fate" might occur. During that
time he has lived close to but never became part of, the world of men.
Now the voyeuristic purgatory he has lived in is coming to an end. What
has been imprisoned within the Keep has now been released. and Glaeken
Trismegustus, The Watchman, has been activated to perform his one
function: to destroy that Evil.
Although the heart of his screenplay (F. Paul Wilson's bestselling
novel "The Keep") is a Gothic horror tale of the supernatural,
director Michael Mann has interpreted something uniquely different: a
dreamlike cinematic fairy tale for grown-ups. The Keep is a
highly stylized, visually expressionistic film which contrasts its
surrealistic images against archetypal realities: fear and power,
lyricism and sensuality, evil and dread.
"There occurs a moment in time," Mann reflected, "when the
unconscious fears of society become externalized reality. In the 20th
Century this time was manifest in the Fall of 1941. What Hitler
promised in the beer-gardens had actually come true. The Greater German
Reich was at its apogee: it controlled all Europe. The war was won.
And the dark psychotic appeal underlying the slogans and
rationalizations was making itself manifest: the camps were being made
ready. That was the setting Paul Wilson selected for his story and it
works very well in the context of of a fairy tale for grown-ups."
Directing The Keep appealed to Mann because it was so
totally different from his previous film, Thief, a high-tech
crime movie which provoked a lot of offers to do another cop picture.
"But the last thing I wanted to do was another street picture," admitted
Mann. "I wanted to do something very stylized both in cinematic and in
narrative form. And fairy tales evoke very strong emotions because they
communicate on an internal level, to our unconscious desires and images,
as opposed to a fable or a myth which approaches us on the level of
conscious behavior. And fairytales have the power of dreams -- only
from the outside. So I decided to stylize the art direction and
photography, but use realistic characterization and dialogue."
In the following interview director Mann goes into more detail
about his previous films, and his personal feelings about The Keep.
FF: You began your film career as a writer, then as a director
for television. Now you write and direct feature films. Do you feel
that network television has declined in quality because many of the best
talents have moved on from TV to do films?
MANN: The real problem with television is "marketing research."
I don't mean to put the networks down, but the mechanics of how they
decide programming is based on the Neilsen ratings. So in other words,
what people watch is what they want to give them, period. By
definition, that kind of programming is going to appeal literally to the
lowest common denominator of taste. That's what American television is,
that's how the ratings are set up. If a show gets high ratings it means
that the center part of that "bell curve" is watching it. That's very
different from the way REI operates in Italy, or ITV and BBC in England,
or TF in France.
For me, television was something to "get into," shoot, and get
through with fast. I wrote the first three episodes of "Starsky &
Hutch", which aired in '75, then I wrote five episodes of "Police
Story", which was a real treat. Writing for television is better
than directing for television. I also wrote one pilot, which eventually
became a series. Then I directed The Jericho Mile for network.
Later I directed Thief for theatrical release.
FF: How did you react to the mixed reception for Thief?
Did you read all the reviews, did you listen to the criticism?
MANN: the first reviews that came in were quite extraordinary and
they were solid rave reviews. Sheila Benson, Michael Shragow, Gene
Siskel and Roger Ebert gave rave reviews. David Anson in
"Newsweek" also gave it a good review. So I started thinking to
myself: "Wait a minute, what's going to happen? These things don't seem
to be affecting me, all these good reviews. What's going to happen when
I get a bad review?" Then I read Pauline Kael's review. Frankly, it
didn't bother me; I don't make movies for reviews.
But there were a couple a people who really hated the picture. <25> But
that's fine: my intent was to make a provocative picture. In
fact, a woman who's an executive in the business called me up the
morning after she saw the picture and said: "Michael, I hated the
movie." I said: "Why?" She said: I woke up at four in the morning
thinking about it. I mean my husband doesn't control his own
life and I like to think I control my life, and then I see the extent to
which he is manipulated and it makes me worry about my life, am I being
manipulated in my life, and it disturbs me." As far as I'm concerned,
that's a terrific response. So you can't go out there, make a
provocative picture and then expect everybody to be kind.
FF: What possessed you to make a movie like The Keep? Is
this something that has been on your mind for many years?
MANN: Nobody likes to do the same thing twice. After I did
Thief a lot of people wanted to know if I was going to do another
"cops and robbers picture." Frankly, that was the last thing I wanted.
What I wanted to do was something much more stylized, something that
told its story in a more enchanting, more expressionistic kind of way.
Like The Mask of Realism by Marquez, or 100 Years of
Solitude. I wanted to go more in that direction. After The
Keep I'm going to do something else that's totally different again.
FF: What made you choose a period movie during W.W. II?
MANN: First of all The Keep is not a "war movie." It
takes place during 1941, but that may be a misimpression. What The
Keep really is, is an adult fairy tale, a fable, a romance and a
horror story. It's very intense.
I've got to go back to Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast which
is a very simple story. The strength of that movie is the fact that it
is a fable. As you analyze and think more about it, more
starts coming out of it.
Why did I get into 1941 and why did I pick that period? All fables
deal with good and evil and so does this one. But obviously, this movie
is not the first one ever to be set during the Second World War. And
it's also not the first movie with elements of the supernatural. So for
me, it had to be like no other movie ever set during W.W. II. It had to
be original and unique, and it had to be like no other movie with
supernatural entities. So what I had to do was to write the screenplay
myself. It's taken from the book by F. Paul Wilson, but it's largely an
adaptation in the sense that I departed from the book substantially.
FF: The book is very powerful, yet you say you changed the
storyline. In what way? Did you change the basic philosophical
MANN: Yes, totally. The book is a very interesting book; when
you pick it up you can't put it down. But what the book does is tell a
Gothic horror story set in 1941 Rumania. When I read the book, I
thought, there's something really fascinating here. But I wasn't
interested in just telling a Gothic horror story; I was interested in
interpreting it as a fable and using the characters to personify very
Fables take emotion, psychology, politics, everything and encode it
into a very simple story. You don't need to explain the origins of
anything supernatural in a fable. For example, if you've got the three
little bears saying: "Who ate my porridge?" no one says: "How come the
bears are speaking English?" You accept the allegorical level of the
fable. Similarly, in The Keep my intent was to personify
mentalities, states of mind which were current in 1941. I don't mean
politics necessarily, but that's part of it. I really mean the
psychological core of what would have made those individuals what they
were. Let's take the case of Kampfer, the S.S. commander: what was
going on in his life? Frustration with trying to make money? Always
feeling there was some impediment in his way? What would have motivated
that man to make such a darkly "romantic" leap and join the S.S., so
that suddenly from being a bank clerk, he was able to become part of an
aristocracy, with an attitude of nobelesse oblige. This was
something that I became very, very interested in.
FF: May I ask what nationality you are?
MANN: My grandfather was in the Russian army and there were
pogroms in his village. He deserted the army, came back to the village,
which was Ovaritch in the Ukraine, killed two policemen, threw them down
a well and came to America in 1910. That's my nationality.
FF: The reason I ask is because the majority of Americans seem to
have cliched ideas about Nazism, Most films on the subject never re-<50>ally
touch on why Hitler was in Europe, or how he turned Germany under his
rule. Does The Keep deal with its subject matter from a
"European" point of view?
MANN: First of all, how do you explain the rise of fascism in
Germany? Nobody has a monopoly on the answer to that question.
It's unanswered. For more insight into the kind of answers this film
deals with I would recommend two books: "Masses and Man" by
George Mossey and "Politics: The Nazi Mind" by Peter Birrick.
The Keep is concerned with that level of mass psychology and mass
culture, not political economics.
And I disagree with the idea that because we are American we're
handicapped from understanding European events. I think that kind of
attitude presupposes an ethnocentricity in which I don't believe. Aside
from my own European roots, which have nothing to do with anything in
relationship to this film, my family could just as well have been in
Oregon for 200 years and it wouldn't make any difference in my trying to
understand a certain mentality, either intellectually or artistically or
in any other way.
FF: Your casting for The Keep is striking, but not "movie
star" oriented. Was this intentional?
MANN: Everybody in the business understands that the "star
system", with a couple of exceptions, doesn't mean much in relationship
to box office any more. Clint Eastwood doing a certain kind of film
guarantees box office. Burt Reynolds doing a certain kind of film
guarantees box office. Other than that, fortunately, we've been
liberated from having to have a movie star. And Paramount believes in
the film; the film is it's own star, which I think is correct. We got
the best actors for the best parts and that's it.
FF: Did you do a great deal of research to construct your
MANN: I was dealing with the biggest evil in the 20th century,
Fascism in Nazi Germany. And I'm not talking about the cliched guys
walking around in S.S. uniforms, saluting. I'm talking about a state of
mind. So I researched the Walter Langdon Report. In 1942 O.S.S.
commissioned Walter Langdon, who was a psychoanalyst in New York, to do
an analysis of Adolph Hitler, of Hitler's mentality. In 1941 and 1942
Langdon was able to talk to people who had been very close to Hitler in
the '20s and '30s, including the Beckstein family. As late as '39 or
'40 Hitler was going to Frau Beckstein's house, putting his head in her
lap, and telling her his problems.
But the Langdon report is not just about the psychosis of Hitler.
It's also about the psychosis of Nazi Germany. That's the "darkside,"
which is personified in the picture as a monster, a physical monster, as
it would be in a fairytale.
But there also is a "light side" to this picture, which in this
case, was a much harder concept to create. Jurgen Prochnow plays a
man named Captain Warman [sic], a member of the SDP (Socialist
Democratic Party) who was against the Hitler regime, and like so many
others, ended up being drafted into the Wehrmacht. Prochnow was
fascinated by the role of Warman because he was not a Nazi, just a
Fascist. During the movie Warman has an argument with Kampfer, the
S.S. Commander (played by Gabriel Byrne, Arthur's father Uther in the
beginning of John Boorman's Excalibur). Kampfer says to him:
"Your liberalism, your sentimental liberalism makes me sick. If you
don't like us slaughtering innocents, if you don't like us slaughtering
children in Poznan, why didn't you shoot the S.S.? Why weren't you in
the Ernst Tellman brigade (a brigade of Germans who were fighting the
Fascists in Spain). Why weren't you in that?" And Warman says; "You're
right . . . I'm only half a man." So Warman is flawed too. What we're
talking about in these psychological characterizations goes way beyond
the cliches seen in most World War II movies. That's what fascinated
Prochow about playing that part.
Ian McKellen plays Dr. Theodore Cuza, a Medieval historian, a man
of the past, a man who looks like he's 70 because he has scleroderma,
but he's really only 46. There's a kind of Faustian cycle that happens
with the character McKellen plays. He starts to lose his disease and
gets younger, it's not done like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If
you've ever seen Ian do his stage presentation of "Romeo and
Juliet", he plays both Romeo and Juliet at the same time. He's a
plastic man, he can do all these things.
FF: How did you deal with the actors' mixed accents?
MANN: First of all I'd decided that since I've got both Germans
and Rumanians, I'll have the Germans speak in standard English with
British accents, and I'll have the Rumanians do some kind of a Central
European or an American accent. The first piece of casting I had was
Ian McKellen, who obviously speaks British; I've got him as a Rumanian,
so I've just broken the rule. The second piece of casting was Jurgen
Prochnow, who's German; I have him playing a German who's supposed to be
speaking with a British accent. Right then the whole concept went out
the window! So I decided not to worry about accents, to just go for
classically trained actors who have a lot of flexibility, to cast for
talent and art and appropriateness for the roles, and then worry about
the accents. The other thing I did was to rewrite the screenplay. I
changed all the dialog of the Germans to German grammar. Putting
independent phrases in front of independent clauses and verbs at end.
Then for the Rumanians I changed the grammar syntax to a Romance
language, or Latin structure, because for anyone who's not Rumanian,
Rumanian is a romance language (if you can speak Italian you can just
about understand Rumanian, except for the Slavic long words). Accents
are a nuisance, because they make no real contribution. But if you
don't have them right, they can hurt, so . . .
FF: Where did you shoot the picture?
MANN: We shot the picture on location for three weeks in Wales
inside a black slate quarry, 100 feet down into the bowels of the earth.
It looks like a season in hell and it's all black slate, with towering
pinnacles. What we did to find the precise location was to program the
geology computer at Runcelow University to find geological conditions
which create black gorges and look a certain way. And so I kept getting
print outs of latitudes and longitudes. Those were the first three
weeks. Then we shot for 10 weeks at Shepperton. It was a 13-week
schedule; we started September 20, 1982.
FF: You looked at locations in Romania, can you tell us some of
your impressions about this country?
MANN: I found Romania fascinating. My preconception about what
Romania was going to be like was all wrong. I expected some kind of
Kafkaesque gray city, but of course since the war never rolled through
there, it's not. It looked like Paris, cafes opened 'till one o'clock
in the morning and people walking around. It's a very lively, vital
kind of place. And with a lot of humor, a lot of really cynical humor.
FF: Have you decided who will be doing your music yet?
MANN: Yes, the same band we worked with on Thief,
"Tangerine Dream," a German electronic group, with some very
interesting electronic effects as well. Music is very important
to me; I like to know what my music is going to be before I shoot. I
don't like to score afterwards. I have half the music cues in mind
before I shoot.
FF: It seems as though The Keep has been a highly personal
project for you with much research and feeling put into the storyline
and characterizations. It also seems as though the fairytale premise
you have constructed is at once both simple and complex, with many
shadings of good and evil worked throughout. Was this the statement you
wanted to make?
MANN: Let me relate a story. In 1969 I met Adolf Scorzini in
Spain. Scorzini was the S.S. man who phonied up the German raid on the
radio station in Poland, which became the excuse for Germany invading
Poland. He's also the man who rescued Mussolini from Italy in '43.
Then he took over the Dutch Underground and ran it for about six weeks,
making the British think that he was the Dutch Underground: "Send
me some secret weapons and send me the new Sten gun." and all of this.
He also was very active in the German defense at the Battle of the
Bulge. He was tried at Nuremburg, conducted his own defense and was
acquitted. After the War he went to Madrid and became partners with a
man named Sterling who set up the S.A.S. Sterling his opponent in the
Second World War, but as lukewarm and kind of paramilitary mentalities,
these guys had a lot of similarities. They set up an agency to run
mercenaries out of Spain and a lot of people think they're responsible
for the Lumumba assassination and a number of other things that happened
in the '60s. So I met this guy in '69. I was a nice Jewish kid from
Chicago, and I'm sitting at a table with a Nazi across from me. But in
talking to him, I perceived this is not a man who burned Jews and
Communists and Catholics and Russians in the camps, he was not one of
the psychopaths at Dachau. Where's the culpability? Should this man
have been convicted at Nuremburg? Under the premises of Nuremburg, no.
By my premises, yes, because this was a rational man who in 1933 joined
the S.S. out of his own psychological motivations. And this fascinates
me. So, to sum it up, yes, The Keep is a culmination of nine or
ten years of a lot of thought. It deals with states of mind personified
through fairytale characters. That is the movie I wanted to make.