Even in Mann’s more-than-urban-noir body of work, which includes a boxer biopic and James Fenimore Cooper adaptation, The Keep (1983) is an outlier, tough to defend with auteurist loyalty. About a supernatural entity wreaking havoc from inside the confines of a World War II-era citadel in Romania, the film is a daffy mess not without its pleasures.
In many ways, The Keep represents Mann at his most elemental. Derided on its initial release and regarded as a film maudit by the director himself, there is no denying that it is a bit of a mess, full of hanging threads and awkward ellipses. But there is a weight to the film, the only one in Mann’s filmography that deals explicitly with myth and religion, that is as grounded in the eponymous cavernous fortress as it is in the characters (both Nazis and Jews) it centers around.
The movie involves Nazis, ancient magic, and moral showdowns but mostly it’s about Mann’s still-nascent style. It’s red eyes, stone walls, slow motion, billowing vapor, blasts of light, and Tangerine Dream’s electronic score. The sustained mood and garish special effects engulf the international cast. They’re lost and wailing in a nightmare of historical fantasy. I hope they all got out OK.