“You can’t stay here…no-one stays here.”
Set in the Carpathian Mountains during the Nazi occupation, The Keep follows the failing fortunes of a German patrol tasked with controlling an ageing military outpost which the outside world seems to have deliberately forgotten. This is a place untouched by time, where the locals still shiver in their beds as the ghosts of those ancient mountain passes howl through that barren and lonely landscape. A heady brew of greed, arrogance and ignorance soon reveals the Keep’s true purpose, and the real reason why its unknown builders constructed that crumbling complex inside out.
By the time the soldiers have accepted the truth it’s far too late, and they find themselves caught between an ancient darkness awakened from its slumber, and a far more recent and recognisable evil. Even the SS discover that they are way out of their league.
Like so many films of this period, Michael Mann’s archetypal tale of an ancient evil released upon the world is a feast of photographic gorgeousness and wonderfully self-indulgent direction. What could easily have been a pretty predictable monster movie is transformed into a visually stimulating story of arrogance, deceit and manipulation, all choreographed to Tangerine Dream’s notable and sought after soundtrack. Some great performances by Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellan and Gabriel Byrne see one of recent history’s most destructive forces staring into the abyss through a far darker and more ancient lens.
As a movie, The Keep’s great strengths are undoubtedly its cinematography and the atmospheric tension that Michael Mann builds into the film, as the conquering army finds itself both controlling and yet lost inside an ancient society governed by arcane rules and opaque tradition. It brilliantly exposes the rifts within the German security machine during that tumultuous period, and lays bare the lengths to which desperate and damned men will go for the merest hope of salvation. Also, this is a movie that doesn’t feel the need to explain everything, which leaves the viewer’s imagination so much more space to move around and explore outside the confines of the screen.
The metaphysical and philosophical message of The Keep is profound, as an ancient, knowing evil is nourished first by ignorance and then later by other, lesser evil-doers. The terror within the walls of the Keep had been powerless for centuries and held in check by the simple faith and acceptance of an unarmed and technologically backward people…but modern society always thinks it knows better.
Seemingly lost and almost forgotten for many years, The Keep has enjoyed something of a recent resurgence, now taking its rightful place alongside the other niche movies of the avid collector. Too low budget to be a blockbusting spectacular and yet too well-crafted to be dismissed as a B-movie, The Keep’s archetypal themes and impressive visual design have aged well, bestowing on the viewer the pleasing experience of watching a retro movie that doesn’t feel a hundred years old.
The Keep was constructed by those who came before us, and we can still shudder at the menace and mystery it exudes.
Watch the trailer here and enjoy another gem crammed with arcane wisdom.