Why are the small stones on the outside and the large stones here on the interior? It’s constructed… backwards. This place was not constructed to keep something… out.
This foreshadowy slice of logic pretty well sums up The Keep. A mysterious citadel somewhere on the Romanian side of the Carpathians is infiltrated by a detachment of the German army circa 1942 and, led by Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), they wish to reconnoiter there. A couple of treasure-hungry recruits decide to dig out of the walls what they believe to be a cross made of silver (curiously these appear to be Tau crosses—the top shaved down). They get more than they bargained for. The cross itself is a linchpin that seals off the kind of shaft you’d expect to find in an ancient pyramid; at the end of the shaft a chasm which springs a malevolent fog that quickly kills the men, permeates the fortress and remains poised in the shadows, threatening to destroy the remaining Germans when they least expect it.
Woermann quickly loses control of the situation so the SS sends in their finest (i.e. cruelest), Maj. Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), to take care of business. Kaempffer idiotically believes (Byrne plays a good idiot, but not sold on his sadist) that the deaths are due to partisan activity in the adjacent village. Meanwhile, Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), a Jewish expat scholar, is called upon to decipher the non-latin, non-cyrillic scrawls that have shown up on a wall inside and hopefully solve the mystery at the heart of the story. Oh yeah, a guy apparently named Glaeken Trismegestus (his name is never mentioned on-screen) played by Scott Glenn senses something is awry from his home in Greece and travels by sea and land to the castle to combat the (perhaps) demonic presence.
It’s amazing that the plot synopsis is about 11 times more interesting than the film itself. It has a promising start. The fortress is visually quite daunting, the locations around it rather beautiful. Prochnow coasts dreamily in his auto to haunting, reverb-heavy synth strains, meets the caretaker of the keep, a priest, tours its cross-dappled, gun-grey corridors and, in Das Boot mode, dresses down a few of his men (his big-screen role that precedes this one and another Captain incidentally). The “unleashing” scene is really cool. A German is lowered through the shaft by another with a rifle strap; he pokes his head into the abyssal blackness which briefly aroused for me memories of the sperm-flushing Man in the Planet framing sequence of Eraserhead. His body is tugged out head-and-shoulder-less to the shock and dismay of his buddy who is soon put out of his misery by a devouring laser-light-and-fog show.
This is a mangled film. Like someone took an interesting film and wrung all the life out of it. There are hints of power and beauty. Pulsations. This may be the prettiest thing Mann has ever directed, but unfortunately also the most vapid. It has everything in the world going for it. A handful of beautiful and capable male leads. Part-fantastical and nightmarish landscapes. Nazis. Occultism. The photographic talents of the prolific Alex Thomson. The presence of renowned comic book magician Enki Bilal, who contributes the look of the demon/deity Molasar (though I hope it was the awesome will o’ the wisp incarnation and not the atrocious humanoid it becomes at the end of the film). Scored by the trio of Froese, Franke and Schmölling, otherwise known as Tangerine Dream. Even Joyce James, hairdresser extraordinaire, participates (his/her? credits include Barry Lyndon, Cul-de-sac and Tommy in addition to a what’s what of B-movie classics).
Despite these auspicious pre-production advantages, somehow the finished product turned out like Apocalypse Now sans combat and warmed-over. Mann is clearly going for some kind of cerebral, Stalker-era Tarkovskyan dreamscape, enlisting the tropes of any (pick one) sedentary, holier than thou art film. There’s more slow-motion here than any two John Woo flicks combined. Tangerine Dream’s compositions shine a little brighter than even they’re accustomed to, but they do nothing to mend a narrative that meanders from one potentially beautiful set-piece to the next. Paradoxically, this all seems terribly rushed for such a plodding film. It wastes so much time transitioning from one scene to the next that it’s forced to wrap itself up rather rashly while forgetting character and plot. A decent first half devolves into a good versus evil test of wills, and it strays so far that the climactic confrontation between Cuza and Molasar is unintentionally hilarious. The success of Blade Runner too must have been an inspiration considering the meditative atmosphere-cum-action/thriller structure as well as the inclusion, albeit small, of Bilal who’s comic art inspired much of that film’s aesthetic.
However, the film does have enough to recommend it. Excellent use of widescreen, particularly in the way the keep is framed (it evokes the Cobweb Castle of Throne of Blood for me). And if mattes were used to insert much of its bulk, which seems likely, they are expertly integrated. The environs are very believable. The sense of omnipresent doom in the first half is all there. Particularly thrilling is the rape of Cuza’s daughter by two German soldiers. The camera tracks the light and fog demon down the corridors as it creeps up on them. In the blink of an eye it shatters/melts the debauched baddies and leaves the girl unscathed. The idea of rescuing Cuza from a concentration camp is interesting. It helps flesh out time and place early on without overdoing a historical approach.
Meanwhile, there is stray symbolism everywhere and character psychology that makes little sense which makes it seem like a great deal of this was abridged. Broad Christian allegories remain intact, but without the context that those missing scenes may have provided the gestures available to us seem trite—for instance, the kama-sutra pose that Scott Glenn co-performs with Cuza’s daughter looks like one of those conspicuous Tau crosses made flesh. The Carpathian locale and the life-sucking nature of the demon seem to allude to vampire mythology. The cross carried by Cuza appears to be a ward against the demon throughout, but he passes it on to Woermann who consequently struggles with Kaempffer over it. When Kaempffer rediscovers it in the ashen ruin of the keep, it has partially melted into another Tau shape and he too attempts to ward off Molasar with it, to no avail. These are just a few of many hanging chads (that’s right, 2000 election parlance) that don’t quite register.
Apparently Mann doesn’t look upon this film too favorably which is why he hasn’t gotten on board with a proper DVD release. This could mean one of two things. Or both. Either Mann’s true vision was bowdlerized by Paramount or he regards it as a personal failure, long forgotten. I can’t see a studio cutting out exposition and leaving this tepid mass; if anything studios demand exposition and then some to the point of redundancy. And that’s ultimately what it lacks. Cohesion. All the light effects and fog in the world can’t keep it glued. Though they certainly try. Also the sound editing is conspicuously bad here. The score has way too much volume and the pitch is all over the place on the ambient sounds while every iota of speech is too low in the mix. You’ll have to keep thumb and forefinger near the volume control the entire time. If subtitles are somehow an option, use them.