Published on August 8th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Shining Through 
Summary: Probably the worst Holocaust movie ever made. This melodramatic spy soap reduces the atrocities down to a romance between two Americans, while the film's style is stuck in the 1940s, bringing nothing fresh to the table. Liam Neeson's performance is the lone bright spot.
R | 132 min.
Director and Screenplay: David Seltzer (based on the novel by Susan Isaacs)
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson
Distribution: 20th Century Fox
U.S. Box Office: $21,633,781 (#58 of 1992)
**NOTE: This film was reviewed after a request from reader Leo Logan. I’m not sure whether to thank him or be pissed off for making me watch this one!**
Legend has it that during the filming of Shining Through, Melanie Griffith earned the nickname “Braniac” because she had no clue the Germans had committed atrocities against Jews during World War II, until reading the script.
At least something good came out of this movie.
Set during the early days of America’s involvement in WWII, Shining Through follows Linda Voss (Griffith), a 20-something mixed-heritage Jewish woman who unwittingly becomes a spy for the Americans. The film’s story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as an older Linda narrates under the guise of answering questions for a British television interview show.
Through her work with U.S. Colonel Ed Leland (Michael Douglas), a love affair unfurls leading to her ultimate assignment in Berlin, Germany. While in Deutschland, Linda has myriad wacky mishaps before landing a nanny job under high-ranking Nazi officer Franz-Otto Dietrich (Liam Neeson, one year before playing a kinder-hearted Nazi in Schindler’s List). While in Berlin, Linda attempts to track down her cousins, fearing they were among the millions shipped to a concentration camp. Eventually, Ed makes the decision to personally pull Linda from her deep cover operation, in fear that her life is in danger.
Shining Through is loaded with melodrama, thanks in equal parts to cinematographer Jan de Bont’s smokey cinematography, Griffith’s high school drama class performance and composer Michael Kamen’s mushy score. In fact, it’s Kamen I blame most for this movie’s utter cheesiness. Honestly, if you could mute the orchestra in several scenes, you’d be left simply with inappropriate drivel — rather than inappropriate drivel that takes itself as seriously as Adolf Hitler.
Griffith’s character Linda, who appears in every damned frame of this picture, has the makings of a femme fatale — which I have to believe is what writer/director David Seltzer wanted. She’s bilingual, attractive, comes from a working-class background and is ambitious at a time when women were supposed to just aid the war effort from their homes … it’s just too bad Griffith sounds like such an airhead whenever she speaks, which is A LOT in Shining Through.
Linda is very difficult to buy as a hard-working Jew with a chip on her shoulder when her narration is so breathy it makes her sound like a giddy schoolgirl. This character comes off as wildly anti-feminist as she’s completely dependent on Douglas’s character in many of her defining moments. Late in the first act, Linda crumbles into a crying mess because of Ed’s romantic dismissal of her. For about the first 30 minutes of Shining Through we see her as a promising example for young women but she’s reduced to another frail onscreen depiction of women in this particular scene.
Seltzer’s screenplay was based on the novel Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. I’ve never read Isaacs’s book but I have to think a story written by a woman would give her gender a bit more credit, so I’m going to blame Seltzer for the adaptation’s backward sexist tone. As a screenwriter, Seltzer was involved in a few solid pictures, including The Omen, Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (which he was uncredited for) and the fun Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn vehicle Bird on a Wire.
One of the fatal missteps of Shining Through is its insistence on ripping off Casablanca. This picture wants so badly to be the ’90s answer to that beloved classic, but simply comes off as an unoriginal, dumbed-down tribute of sorts. Remember when Limp Bizkit covered The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes?” Shining Through is essentially a 133-minute long version of that.
Sure, Casablanca has a weepy score and tendency to lean toward melodrama but the picture was made in 19-fucking-42, at the height of romantic cinema. By comparison, Shining Through hit theaters a year after The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Boyz n the Hood — and it couldn’t have looked more dated.
The lone bright spot of Shining Through comes from 40-year-old Liam Neeson’s performance a year before his breakout role in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic. To play a full-fledged Nazi officer and become the most endearing and likable character in the picture is one hell of an accomplishment but here Neeson pulls it off. The screenplay underwrites his character, assuming the audience will hate him simply because of his Nazi allegiance, but through Neeson’s gentle performance we get the story’s most well-rounded player. He manages to be the only thing subtle about Shining Through.
On the other hand, we’ve got Michael Douglas’s tough guy American colonel. On a personal note, if you asked me to list my all-time favorite actors in movie history, Douglas would be neck and neck with Gary Oldman at the top, so obviously my respect for the guy’s talent is great. He earned an Oscar as Gordon Gekko, one of the most one-dimensional characters in movie history, so he has no issue playing only a single note but the problem is his part here is so boring — and it’s obvious Douglas was on autopilot.
In one early scene at a USO function, a young soldier is dancing with Griffith’s character but Douglas wants to cut in. Douglas leans into the guy’s ear and seems embarrassed to say, “I’ll leave here with your Adam’s apple in my pocket.” Michael Douglas is great at playing a lot of different archetypes but the by-the-books, buttoned-down authority figure is not one of them.
Thankfully there aren’t many sex scenes in Shining Through because when they happen, it’s extremely uncomfortable. When Ed and Linda first make love, the staging is brutally cheesy. Kamen’s soft piano sonata coupled with the flickering candlelight inside the bedroom and rain falling visibly outside the window is rife with clichés.
History tells us 11 million people perished in the Holocaust, but you’d have no clue if this were the only Holocaust-set picture you ever saw. I get that this is supposed to be a romance story and not a war film but to even set it against the backdrop of this era – in Germany with a Jewish lead character no less – and completely gloss over the Nazi atrocities is frankly an insult to anyone who was there.
The plight of Holocaust victims is only mentioned a couple times as a way to make the viewers sympathize with Linda. There is so little danger present in the film that you honestly forget it’s set in wartime behind enemy lines. In one scene, Linda is undercover working as a chef at a function for high-ranking Nazis and when she royally blows her own cover, she’s lightheartedly fired instead of being fully investigated and killed, as likely would have happened in real life. Much of the tension of Shining Through is eliminated right out of the gate by having an older Linda narrate the story, meaning we never wonder if she will make it out alive.
In my review of The Hunt for Red October a few months ago, I criticized the film for dumbing itself down for American audiences by having the Russian characters speak English. Shining Through is guilty of the same thing, using a slightly-clever plot device to depict the Germans as English speakers. The British interviewer asks Linda to “remember it in English,” and voila! I’m not asking for gritty realism in this soapy flick but for a picture that takes itself so seriously in tone, using subtitles wouldn’t have been a stretch.
It probably sounds like I hated Shining Through from its first frame but truthfully, I was suspending disbelief and going along for the ride until one particular scene about an hour in, when the movie’s ghastliness sunk in.
Ed, Linda and her German contact Margrete (Joely Richardson) meet up in a nondescript barn to discuss strategy. Smoky sunlight pours through the slats in the walls as Ed gives Linda “24 hours … And not a moment later,” to make her escape with him over the German border. He expels some dialogue about how he should have never let her go — of course meaning as a lover, not as an agent on a highly-dangerous mission she wasn’t trained for. The film’s small-mindedness is blinding in this scene as we hear the characters pontificate about their lost romance while death camps are being liquidated in all corners of the country outside.
If you can bear to stick with it, the third act of Shining Through is actually much more exciting and thrilling than the rest of the film. It turns into an absolute bloodbath with bullets flying everywhere and one Nazi even getting kicked in the nuts in a close-up shot! By that point though, it’s far too late for the movie to redeem itself.
Shining Through was awarded the 1992 Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture of the year, it’s screenplay was nominated for a similar “honor” but lost out to Sylvester Stallone’s wacky Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. I’m going to give this film an even better distinction though and call it the worst Holocaust movie ever made.
In short, Shining Through makes 1999’s Jakob the Liar look like Night and Fog.