As near as I can tell, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre (1996) had almost no kind of a U.S. release. It wasn’t submitted for an MPAA rating, and only a handful of critics ever reviewed it. That seems pretty off for a movie by the director of The Tin Drum (1979)—especially one that stars John Malkovich and, despite its German pedigree, is in English. The problem, I suspect, lies in the subject matter. Though it’s less overtly strange than The Tin Drum, it’s probably even more disturbing. And it boasts a lead character—Abel (Malkovich)—who’s actually more unsettling than the kid in the earlier film. Without the distancing fantasy element of a boy who literally doesn’t grow up, the similarly childlike Abel is far creepier. The subtext only adds to this. The Abel character is wrongly branded as a child molester early in the film, and there’s never any question but that he’s innocent of this charge. Yet nearly all of his man-boy logic, which propels the film, is perfectly in keeping with that of a pedophile, which, in effect, is what he turns into over the course of the film—albeit not in the way you might think.
The story is largely set during World War II with Abel, a French P.O.W., being held by the Germans to whom he is strangely drawn. (This is not surprising since they are more sympathetic toward him than his own compatriots). He comes to actually be useful to his captors precisely because of his connection with children. (“Young boys are so bold and courageous. No living creatures are as noble or as beautiful—and yet so heartbreakingly awkward. I love nothing like I love the young boys.”) This connection allows him to “seduce” boys into joining the Hitler Youth movement, recruiting them to a training center in an old castle. He views the whole world in terms of a fairy tale and himself as a magical creature (the latter an outgrowth of a childhood experience). Even when he realizes that he has corrupted—even destroyed—the very thing he loves, he continues to believe in his own innate innocence, even if he achieves it by a kind of osmosis.
The results are dark and deeply unsettling—and flawed. Haunting as the film is, it never feels quite cohesive. Worse, parts of the film are physically so dark that it’s often hard to tell what’s going on. Still, there’s a fascination to it all—helped by a splendid Michael Nyman score—that’s undeniable, making it well worth a look.