The reason why such great offense is taken when the Holocaust is invoked regarding any potential inconvenience (re: not injustice) is multi-layered and complex. The folks trying to make the connection are trying to attribute, for example, the wearing of yellow stars or purple triangles to identify either a Jewish or homosexual individual to that of a vaccination card. One was forced to be worn as homes were taken, property was stripped, and all individuality was sacrificed in the name of purity, while the other has been utilized since before polio in order to keep track of medical records (which are kept private). No one in the current pandemic is having their personhood ripped from them when they get the COVID-19 vaccine. No one is being pushed toward a ghetto or a cattle car. To invoke a period of time when people endured the incredible and where too few made it out alive is disgusting. I couldn’t help but think about all of this while watching director Jesse V. Johnson’s (Avengement) new action drama Hell Hath No Fury. The story by Romain Serir (The Girl with Two Faces) and screenplay by Katharine Lee McEwan (Solitary) follows an adaptation of a real woman, Marie DuJardin, and her bid for justice at a time when precious few of it existed. Those seeking big action shall find it given Johnson’s background as a former stuntman, but what is truly unexpected is the way the nuances of the film sucker punch you on the way out.
It’s August 1944 and the second World War is slowly losing steam as France defeats the remaining German powers, sending them packing. In the wake of their defeat, any discovered female Nazi sympathizers are given shaved heads, some others are also adorned with a swastika upon their forehead, so that any who see them will know their treachery to France. Marie (Nina Bergman) is one such woman who, upon finishing a three-year bid in prison, convinces a U.S. officer Major Maitland (Louis Mandylor) to help her recover a small cache of Nazi gold from a cemetery. The two, along with a small support team of three, make their way, unaware that retreating Nazis, as well as members of the French resistance, are headed to the same location. To be freed completely, Marie must lead Maitland and his men to the gold, but there are many ways to define “free” and Marie is not going to let the greed of others get in her way to attain her freedom.
It requires a special kind of balance to tell a story with the violence of the Holocaust as the catalyst and have it (a) not lose its ethical center and (b) capture it realistically without resorting to misogyny. Let’s address the latter first. The bulk of Hell Hath takes place in the present (August 1944) with several flashbacks and perspective shifts to color in details as the story moves forward. From the moment the audience is informed, via what appears to be a newsreel, about the head shaving, Bergman’s Marie wears nothing more than dress slip. In a different writer/director’s hands (::cough cough:: Tarantino), she’d have been belittled, hurt, likely threated with sexual violence, and, even more likely, been shot cinematically in a manner demeaning to the character. In contrast to expectation, the script not only maintains her threat-level without extinguishing her dignity, but she’s never framed in a manner that sexualizes or fetishizes. Though she’s out-numbered and without a weapon, the script and Johnson present Marie (supported by a stalwart performance from Bergman) as playing chess while everyone around her is playing whack-a-mole. Marie is the film’s heart, the executor of the narrative, and the audience never forgets this. This isn’t to imply that Marie isn’t threatened or harmed, she’s in constant danger and any assistance is predicated on either greed or survival, all of which can shift by bullet, knife, or explosive. Maybe it’s that so many stories that feature women in dire straits have a tendency to use the circumstance as an excuse for misogynistic violence that the lack of it is both surprising and refreshing.
The other end of this is the thread that can be easy to lose amid the crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses that occur when gold is the prize. As far as the film is concerned, and it sets this up quickly, Marie was in a relationship with a German officer (played by Daniel Bernhardt (Nobody)) but her desire for the gold outweighed her loyalties to the French resistance or the man she loved. The truth is far more complex than mere greed and it drips out amid the threats and impending danger from incoming Axis forces. It would be easy to sell Hell Hath as a tension-filled thriller with three armies (U.S., French, and German) coming down on a woman intent on out-smarting them all (which the tension within the film most derives from), but it’s the ethical center which elevates it into something more complex and painful. Riches won, riches stolen — it doesn’t matter what you do with it when it’s born from blood. That Marie calls the stashed bars “cursed” is not hyperbolic on her part, but a signifier of from whence they came. That none of the others bother to care, only seeing the gold as a means of elevating themselves, freeing themselves from the bloodshed of war, seeing Marie as nothing more than someone like them, generates a profound pain upon the credits roll. It is, perhaps, too subtle at first, too slow a realization that it gets lost among the chaos of conflict as the three factions make their stand, but once it hits you, the curse of the gold becomes all too real and horrifying.
One thing that was interesting to discover in the research phase before writing this review is that Hell Hath was shot under COVD-19 protocols. Though not discussed in the hyperlinked interview with Bergman, one can’t help but wonder if the blocking in the film is entirely a result of necessity or if the intimacy of the film is a natural extension of the narrative. There are about four main sets, each used with a minimal number of individuals. I found this amplified the strange affinity the characters possessed with one another, allowing for deeper bonds (in some cases) and an increase in emotional ties for the audience. It also made the confrontation at the end of the film far more impactful as it ultimately (and quite naturally) comes down to a small grouping of survivors, each with opposing needs. With the time-jumps and a scene setting up the arrival of the Germans led by Bernhardt’s Von Bruckner, some of the tension in the cemetery is lost, as is the surprise of who is coming for the gold, but what it trades in astonishment it makes up for in emotional turmoil. Have to applaud the choice, if only because it serves the characters more than the audience, something not all films strive to do but something which Johnson almost always puts front and center in his films.
If you weren’t aware of the true story at the heart of Hell Hath No Fury, it ends with a bit of information about Marie and her journey. I’m not sure if Hell Hath is made more impactful with the knowledge of some truth serving as the inspiration for this tale or if it’s powerful enough on its own, but, personally, it doesn’t matter either way. This is an odd occurrence for me as I’ve made my feelings about adaptations of true stories fairly well-known. Perhaps, in this case, it’s because the events and their accuracy are less impactful than the ethics at its core. Nothing about Hell Hath feels exploitive; rather, amid the death and greed, there is an opportunity for exploration. What are you willing to do to make things right when justice is all but unattainable in the wake of horrible tragedy? That’s the hard question that makes Bergman’s Marie a tough nut to crack, but one we’ll root for until the end of the line.
In theaters November 5th, 2021.
Available on digital November 9th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Hell Hath No Fury website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.