Michael Mann Retrospective – The Keep (1983)

The Keep, 1983.

Written and Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Robert Prosky, Morgan Sheppard, Royston Tickner, Michael Carter and Bruce Payne.

The Keep

A detachment of the German army is sent to guard a mysterious and strategically important Romanian citadel. When they start turning up dead, the S.S. is sent in to investigate.

The Keep
Michael Mann briefly left the crime genre for the supernatural thriller The Keep, written by novelist F. Paul Wilson. “I’d just done a street movie, Thief,” explained the acclaimed filmmaker. “A very stylized street movie but nevertheless stylized realism. You can make it wet, you can make it dry, but you’re still on “street.” And I had a big need, a big desire, to do something almost similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where I could deal with something that was non-realistic and create the reality.”

As for classifying the story, Mann responded, “The idea of making this film within the genre of horror films appealed to me not at all. It also did not appeal to Paramount. That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t scary. It’s very scary, very horrifying, and it’s also very erotic in parts. But what it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional. It has the passions that happen in dreams sometimes when you’re grabbed in the middle of the dream, and yanked into places you either want to get out of or you never want to leave.”

Even though the action unfolds during WWII, Michael Mann does not view The Keep as a war movie. “Only about one-fifth of the film is involved with the Wehrmact and the character of the captain played by Jurgen Prochnow,” explained the director. “The film revolves around Glaeken Trismegistus, who wakes up after a deep sleep in a transient, merchant-marine setting some place in Greece in 1941. The movie revolves around him and his conflict, which seems to be fated, with a character named Roderick Molasar. The end of the conflict seems to fate him toward destruction. He may destroy Molasar or Molasar may destroy him, but in either case Glaeken Trismegistus must go to the keep. And in the course of going to the keep to confront Molasar, he has a romance with Eva, whose father is a Mediaeval historian named Dr. Cuza, very quick, very smart. At a moment in history when he is powerless– a Socialist Jew in Fascist Romania– Cuza is offered the potential to ally himself with immense power. For him it’s a deliverance, and as a bonus, he also gets rejuvenated. So he’s seduced into attaching himself to this power in the keep.”

Evil has become a staple of storytelling over the centuries, for a very good reason. “Satan in Paradise Lost is the most exciting character in the book,” stated the moviemaker. “He’s rebellious, he’s independent, he doesn’t like authority. If you think about it, Satan could almost be played by John Wayne. I mean the Reaganite, independent, individualist spirit. It’s all bullshit, but that’s the cultural myth that the appeal taps into.”

The story continues to evolve for the Chicago native even when the final draft of the script is completed. “Once I’ve written the screenplay I’ve finished the movie,” said Mann, “in the sense that I have a complete evocation of it on paper. Then it’s a whole new film again when I start shooting. It doesn’t change that much, but now the words are plastic, flexible. So I’m constantly rewriting bits of dialogue before I shoot, which drives the actors really crazy. Then two days before we shoot it they get new pages. Then the day before, they get more new pages. And then when I get them on stage I say, ‘You know the dialogue– yeah, well, forget it, I want to make a small change.’”

When asked about his hopes for his second feature effort, Mann answered, “If the film works, they’ll come out emotionally exhausted. The film is uplifting in the end, the way it turns out. But then the next day the audience will start thinking about it and say, ‘Whoa!’ The best work in Thief was immediate in that sense, in that people would come out either loving it or hating it. And some loved it and hated it at the same time. A friend of mine called and said, ‘The film was fabulous, I just hated it.’ When I asked why, he said, ‘Because I like to feel that I control my destiny, I control my life, and the film made me think that I don’t.’ As far as I’m concerned, that meant the film just hit a home run with the bases loaded. The Keep is less immediate than that, but emotionally deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way dreams work.”

In regards to handling a collection of actors who have a variety of accents, Michael Mann remarked, “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.”

Even with the international cast of Ian McKellan, Scott Glenn, and Gabriel Byrne, the movie garnered little box office attention.

The Keep trailer:

Mann Handled: A Michael Mann Profile

A Michael Mann Retrospective

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.