I ALWAYS like a good revisionist biopic, and Mongol (Saturday, 7.25pm, World Movies), a Russian epic directed by Sergei Bodrov, is one of the best. At the height of his power, Genghis Khan held sway over more of the earth’s surface than any other single conqueror before or since, ruling most of China and large slabs of what is now Russia, India, Afghanistan and Turkey. His name was synonymous with rape, pillage and plunder. Bodrov’s film portrays him as a visionary leader and social reformer who left behind an enlightened legal code for the Mongol people, set an outstanding example of skilful administration and was also, for good measure, a fantastic lover. He’s played with heroic dignity by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano. For sheer spectacle, Mongol ranks with Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and has apparently been spared the fate of another of Eisenstein’s films, Ivan the Terrible, which was banned by Stalin as a veiled attack on the KGB.
The Lives of Others (Thursday, 8.30pm, World Movies) unfolds during the twilight of communist rule in East Germany. The place is ruled by the Soviet apparatchik Erich Honecker with all the trappings of a modern totalitarian state. Police informers are everywhere, and supposed enemies of the state are rounded up on the lightest suspicion. Anyone who has read Anna Funder’s Stasiland, her chilling account of the workings of the East German secret police, will know what to expect in Florian von Donnersmarck’s film. Or will they? The central figure is a Stasi agent (Ulrich Muhe), an unthinking puppet of the regime who comes to doubt his loyalty. It’s an intricately plotted and deeply satisfying film, charged with suspense and with a clear eye for the horrors of the time.
Those same horrors — human fear and frailty, betrayal, treachery and paranoid suspicion — were the subject of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, in which the evils of McCarthyism were thinly disguised as a parable about the 17th-century witchhunt trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Miller adapted his play for Nicholas Hytner’s film, The Crucible (Thursday, 8.30pm, Showtime Drama), which has memorable performances from Winona Ryder as the hysterical Abigail Williams and Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, personifying the forces of ignorance and repression. The Manchurian Candidate (Thursday, 8.30pm, Showtime Action), another story of warped ambition and political paranoia, has Liev Schreiber as Sergeant Raymond Shaw and Meryl Streep as his monstrous mother, a powerful US senator with dark designs. The villain this time is a sinister multinational corporation instead of the communist cabal in the original story. Anyone with memories of John Frankenheimer’s brilliant 1962 film, with Laurence Harvey, will wonder why the remake was needed.
(M) ★★★★✩ Thursday, 8.30pm, World Movies
(M) ★★★✩✩ Saturday, 7.25pm, World Movies
(M) ★★★ ✩ Thursday, 8.30pm, Showtime Drama