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‘Shining Through’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 31, 1992

There's something patently ridiculous when actors pretend to speak another language by talking in English with a foreign accent. In "Shining Through," set in Nazi Germany, that questionable practice achieves transcendent proportions.

For one thing, you've got Hitler's people speaking the language of their sworn enemy -- with a German accent. For another, American spy Melanie Griffith comes to Berlin posing as a local domestic. She doesn't even bother with the accent. She speaks English with a straightforward American accent. Now that's a cover. It works too. No one even bats an eyelid; no wonder these guys lost the war.

The daughter of a German Jew and an Irishwoman, Bronx gal Griffith speaks fluent German at home. But she keeps it to herself for fear of being mistaken as a German sympathizer or discovered as a Jew. When her linguistic ability becomes known to international lawyer Michael Douglas, he snaps her up immediately as his executive secretary. It turns out he's an undercover OSS colonel who could use a German translator.

A team is born, a very stupid team. This movie could well be the "Havana" of the year: two big stars, one dumb movie.

Just as the inevitable love affair begins, the United States becomes actively involved in the war. Douglas has to dump Griffith to become a full-time spymaster. But they cross paths again. He takes her on again. When she hears an American operative has been killed in Berlin, she persuades Douglas (in the way people do in the movies) that she can take over.

Off she goes, Melanie and her accent. Her job is to infiltrate the Nazis as a cook, then find out about "a bomb that can fly by itself." That's the V-1, not this movie. Griffith has more than just a patriotic stake in all this. She wants to trace three Jewish relatives who were in Berlin at the outbreak of war.

After meeting with contacts John Gielgud and Joely Richardson, she goes to work. In a matter of screen moments she's cooking nosh for the bad guys. Then, quite by chance, she's hired as a nanny by Nazi officer Liam Neeson. He just happens to have all the secrets she needs in his basement. Excellent luck! While she's ushering Neeson's little blond kids around, looking for military plans and trying to locate her family on 99 Kinderstrasse, her accent is busy, busy, busy.

"Heil Hitler!" says a suspicious German officer, his hand raised in rigid salute.

"Haahl Hid-lerr," drawls Griffith, flapping her hand limply.

In all fairness, Griffith shouldn't be lambasted for her incompetent accent. She should be lambasted for her acting too. That baby voice of hers -- what's the deal with that? It's a liability in most of her movies. Here, it's completely ludicrous. She's supposed to be a super-smart, rejoinder-savvy woman who puts tough-nut Douglas in his place and outwits the Germans. Instead, she sounds like a 7-year-old reciting poetry for the delight of grown-ups. It's enough to make you want to turn her in to the Nazis. But they're so unbelievably stupid, you don't even want to bother.

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