Looking into the Abyss: The Keep (1983)

The Keep is a mesmerizing and incomprehensible arthouse horror film directed by Michael Mann.[i] Set in Romania in 1941, a Germany army unit led by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) occupies a remote village adjacent to a strategic mountain pass. The village is home to an abandoned citadel known as the Keep. The Keep is protected by orthodox priest Father Fonescu (Robert Prosky), who warns Woermann about the consequences of disturbing its inner sanctum. Several German soldiers are killed and mutilated after trying to pry silver crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep. SS Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) arrives to root out suspected partisan activity and evaluate the Keep for a possible future death camp.[ii]

The “Good German” and the “Bad German” debate the nature of evil in The Keep

Unbeknownst to the Germans, the looting and SS probing in the Keep unleashes the millennia old demon Radu Molasar (Michael Carter).  Fonescu urges Woermann and Kaempffer, who clearly despise each other, to rescue a Jewish professor named Theodore Cuza (Ian McClellan) from a concentration camp because only he can decipher the Keep’s mysterious messages. Molasar reveals himself after sucking the essence of two Germans who threaten to rape Eva Cuza (Alberta Watson), the professor’s daughter. Molasar becomes enraged when he learns the Germans are terrorizing his people and disturbing the Keep. Professor Cuza, who is becoming younger and healthier after being touched by Molasar, agrees to acquire a talisman that can liberate Molasar from the Keep. The plan is foiled by the appearance of a stranger with supernatural abilities named Glaecken (Scott Glenn), an enigmatic figure who has a past with Molasar. Glaecken seduces Eva in hopes she will stop her father from helping Molasar.  Meanwhile, Woermann confronts Kaempffer about SS atrocities and claims Molasar is simply a reflection of the evil Germany is spreading across Europe. Kaempffer kills Woermann and flees the Keep, but Molasar finds him and massacres all the Germans in the village. Enraged by Eva’s allegiance to Glaecken, Molasar demands the professor kill his daughter. When Cuza refuses he returns to his withered state. Glaecken steps in and battles Molasar, weakening him enough that he is forced back into the Keep. Glaecken transforms into the Keep’s seal, ensuring Molasar will never return. The film ends with the villagers, now liberated from both the Germans and Molasar, caring for Eva and the decrepit Professor Cuza.

The Keep is an interesting meditation on evil and the moral dilemmas concerning vengeance. The inclusion of a character like Woermann to counteract the stereotypically sadistic Kaempffer demonstrates levels of complicity in the Third Reich without resorting to reductive representations of “good” and “bad” Germans. Woermann is jaded by war and indifferent to ideology, sardonically telling his idealistic young soldiers, “Now we are masters of the world.”  Woermann is a “humane man” in the eyes of the elderly Jewish Professor Cuza. Woermann demonstrates this by savagely ridiculing Kaempffer’s SS fairytales and evil global agenda: “Who are you meeting in the grim corridors of this Keep? Yourself.” Facing Molasar for the first and last time, Kaempffer is transfixed by the creature who will consume him, “Who are you, where are you from?” Molasar stares deep into his eyes, “Where am I from? From you.” If Woermann is not entirely bad, Professor Cuza is not entirely noble. Cuza views Molasar as a possible Golem to avenge the Jews, and like the myth, he is unable to fully control the creature. Father Fonescu accuses Cuza of being a heretic for considering Molasar’s offer, revealing his own religious antisemitism in the process. Cuza shrugs off Fonescu’s rant, “What happens in this world is worse than anything he [Molasar] could do.” As Molasar becomes stronger and the village descends into murderous chaos, Cuza realizes he was reckless and blinded by hate, “You are the same evil outside this place,” he tells Molosar, “You prove yourself to me!”[iii] It took the German army to disturb the Keep and the SS to unleash Molasar’s wrath. As the most reflective character, Woermann instinctively recognized the connection between the ancient, dormant evil and the modern evil sweeping the planet. Molasar assures Professor Cuza he will “consume their [Nazi] lies” upon learning of SS executions in the village. However, as the film implies, deciding to fight evil with evil endangers one’s own humanity in the process.   

[i] Chris Alexander, “In Defense of Michael Mann’s THE KEEP,” Comingsoon.net, October 29, 2015, http://www.comingsoon.net/horror/news/747457-defense-michael-manns-keep [accessed August 22, 2018]. Michael Mann faced numerous production problems and was forced to cut the length of the film in half, factors contributing to the illogical narrative and surreal atmosphere.

[ii] Fernando Gabriel Pagoni Berns, “Strategic Military Reconfiguration in Horror Fiction: The Case of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep and Graham Masterston’s The Devils of D-Day” in Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin van Riper, eds., The Undead on the Battlefield: Horrors of War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 176.

[iii] The Keep, directed by Michael Mann (Paramount Pictures, 1983), DVD.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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