The Keep is a mythic film, perhaps doomed to its reputation as a film maudit by its flawed, incomplete ambitions. Much like David Lynch’s Dune, it is a fantasy/science-fiction film that both directors disowned for various reasons, but unlike Dune, where Lynch’s presence can be felt in many, many sequences, The Keep carries little in the way of Mann’s trademarks. Besides the procedural The Insider, this is Mann’s only non-action film, despite the heavy and vital presence of the Nazi German military, and of course it is the only Mann that is almost entirely divorced from the real world. And yet these differences cannot be taken as weaknesses; though the film does not hang together as well as his other works, Mann uses these differences to craft a film that, at its core, is obsessed with the battle between good and evil, that most universal and iconic of conflicts.
The narrative of The Keep is perhaps unnecessarily convoluted, but it naturally settles around the titular structure, an imposing cavernous environment with only some pools of light to illuminate the shadows. Its look feels utterly alien, a strange mix of the ancient and the modern that mixes all too well with the military equipment that inhabits its spaces, and the “nickel” icons that gleam from the walls appear even more ominous. Aside from the villagers and Eva, all of the characters gradually seem to become a part of this crypt, whether they resist its pull or not. Simply put, the keep is a battleground, where evil lurks and festers, and even the ultimately good are in some way corrupted or as distant from humanity as the other side.
Of course, as in many films so deliberately black-and-white in their morality, the two opposing forces are supernatural in nature. Scott Glenn’s Glaeken may appear human, and he does have a brief romance with Eva (the only aspect I could discern that was significantly cut), but his performance is perhaps even more cold than the clearly inhuman Molasar, who possesses some strange degree of charisma, especially in his interactions with Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellan, in a fiery performance that in the end calls to mind his interpretation of Gandalf). The implicit statement of casting Nazis as the main characters is not lost on Mann, who chooses to separate the group into two factions, with the “good” (relatively speaking, of course) side being led by Jürgen Prochnow’s Captain Woermann. Dr. Cuza may be the ostensible lead of the movie, but Woermann is its heart, bringing to the surface the ideas about religion and elemental power that form the film’s substance.
It may be easy to dismiss The Keep for being a tad too poorly paced or far-fetched, but it is the kind of film that demands consideration, so strong is its sincerity and commitment to this fundamental tale. To borrow Neil Bahadur’s point, I felt like Eva does in the final shot, staring in awe at what had just transpired as the swirling Tangerine Dream score reaches its peak; it is a film that may not necessarily engage the viewer’s emotions, but it has a pull all the same, as nebulous the dark shape at its center.