New! Visual Parables Journal for June 2017

LOVE MOVIES? Want to spark discussion with friends? Subscribe to Visual Parables Journal. The June 2017 issue is packed with complete study guides, including: Disturbing the Peace, Wonder Woman, The Circle, Their Finest, The Dinner, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Truman, Norman, Going in Style, Generations, and many more. Visit our Visual Parables store to subscribe.

 

Their Finest (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’  But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

John 10:38-42

Catrin and Tom examine a shot from the film they are writing. (c) STX Entertainment

Being a film lover I have always enjoyed films that deal with the making of movies, such as Barton Fink; Singing in the Rain; Sunset Boulevard or Hail Caesar. Now we have director Lone Scherfig’s World War Two-era tale, adapted by Gaby Chiappe and Lissa Evans from the latter’s novel about a woman scriptwriter working on a propaganda film at the British Ministry of Information Film Division.

It is 1940, the height of the London Blitz when every night Nazi planes fly over the city dropping their bombs as part of Goering’s campaign to beat the British into submission. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is a Welsh writer married to struggling artist Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). Ellis has suffered another turndown of his art because it is too grim and somber, so Catrin has been their mainstay of support. When she applies for a secretarial position at the Ministry of Information and they discover she has been a journalist, they send her to their Film Division to work on their propaganda films, short home front vignettes sandwiched in between the feature films.

The ones that she is shown supposedly record a backyard conversation between two housewives that are dreadfully unreal due to their stilted dialogue. Soon, however she is assigned to travel to the coast to investigate a news article about twin sisters Lily and Rose Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight). They reportedly piloted their father’s small boat by which they had rescued several soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Catrin discovers that the story was overly exaggerated and the sisters anything but interesting, yet nonetheless she pitches their story upon her return to the office. (Actually, the boat had to be towed back to port due to engine failure. The press mistakenly thought they had reached Dunkirk and were returning home.) Thus, is born the dramatic film The Nancy Starling featuring the one-time matinee star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) as the sister’s uncle. Working with male chauvinist co-writers Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Catrin faces an uphill battle in achieving an equal status on the project, due not only to her co-writers, but the Film Division’s labeling the women’s dialogue as “the slop.”

Catrin is like Mary in Luke’s story of the two sisters Martha and Mary, wherein the latter has left the place appointed to her by society (and her sister Martha), the kitchen, to listen to their guest Jesus. Martha is upset that she has left the female world to participate in the male world, that of learning. Nineteen centuries later, when Catrin’s husband is to take a job in another town, he expects his wife to quit her job and follow him, but she refuses. She wants to stay and work at the Film Division, even though it is male dominated. In the cramped scriptwriter’s office, the two male writers’ desks are so arranged that there is little room for her. She squeezes through a narrow passageway to a desk, clears away some of the clutter so she can set up her typewriter, and sets to work. We see her asserting herself later when she shoves one of the men’s desk back so she doesn’t have to squeeze through to reach her desk. This is a minor, private move, as we see her gaining in peer respect by her problem-solving skills with cast, crew, and bureaucrats.

She manages to ward off the egotistical Ambrose when he is about to walk-out in a huff because he cannot get his way. She rolls with the punches when Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of the War Department insists upon an addition to the script. He wants the story to include an American so that the film will do well in the States and arouse support for the Brits. (Isolationism was still strong across the Atlantic, with most Yanks favoring neutrality.) The British have a real-life hero in R.A.F. ace pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a Swedish-American who had come to England to help in their battle against the Nazis. However, as an actor he is so wooden that he in danger of termite infestation. Some scenes can be saved by using voice over narration, but to save those scenes in which Lunbeck must speak, Catrin persuades the reluctant Ambrose to serve as his drama coach.

The film almost grinds to a halt when the higher-ups discover the truth about the sisters never making it to Dunkirk, but again Catrin saves the day. Hers is a commonsense solution: drop the “true story” claim and make a fictional film that shows the truth of what did happen aboard the hundreds of “little ships” that had helped the Royal Navy snatch the 338,000 Allied soldiers from their Nazi attackers. Make the kind of film the public needs to see during these dark hours.

As the filming progresses—and we get to see much of the movie within a movie—co-writer Tom Buckley gains greater respect for her talents, and she for him. They are clearly attracted to each other, but each holds back due to her married status. How this works out includes one development often used in such romantic plots, but then a surprise turn of plot lifts the film several notches higher than the run of the mill love story.

The title, Their Finest, taken from Churchill’s famous speech, applies well to the English in general, taking shelter in bunkers and the Underground each night during the Blitz and then emerging to clean up the rubble and collect the bodies of bomb victims. Of course, it also describes the efforts of the film team, and of the women foremost of whom is Catrin. She is not shown as a fire-eating/spewing feminist. It is one of the female office workers, Rachael Stirling’s

delightful Phyl Moore who actual verbalizes the theme when she explains why the men are so demeaning in their attitude toward women colleagues, “They’re afraid they won’t be able to put us back in the box when this is over, and it makes them belligerent.” Catrin’s femininity tendencies are in her bold acts, not her words.

The cast is excellent, with Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole and Sam Claflin Tom Buckley as the lovers. They have to be good because the better known (to American audiences) Bill Nighy is a great scene stealer as the aging Ambrose Hilliard, who still cannot accept that he is no longer the dashing leading man he once was. It is Phyl Moore who nails his character when she says, “He is an actor. Unless you have reviewed him, had intercourse with him, or done both simultaneously, he won’t remember you.” (Catrin, about to approach him, had asked if he would remember her, their introduction being so brief.) When this vain, egotistical actor decides to walk off the set and quit, it is Catrin who runs after him and skillfully cajoles him into helping the untalented fighter pilot say his lines is a delight.

Another funny scene is the one involving Jeremy Iron’s Secretary of War—I think I am right when I recall that he is the one who quotes from the Crispin’s Day Speech of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

This is a good film to see while waiting for Chris Nolan’s big budget Dunkirk, set for release on July 21. Judging by the trailer (http://www.dunkirkmovie.com/), it approaches history’s greatest military rescue effort from the standpoint of those on the beach, on the sea, and in the air. I loved director Lone Scherfig’s 2002 film Italian for Beginners, and feel the same way about her latest.

This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.

 

The Promise (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running Time: 2 hours 13 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/ Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Ana comforts some of the orphans in her care. (c) Open Road Films

Thanks to director Terry George’s film we now have a second feature film set amidst what some historians have called the 20th Century’s First Holocaust, the mass slaughter of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 during WW 1. There had been numerous pogroms inflicted by their Muslim rulers on the Armenian Christians during the 19th century, but their death tolls mounting into the thousands paled in comparison to the well over a million men, women and children who were murdered a little over a hundred years ago. George and his co-writer Robin Swicord based their script on Austrian Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a talented Austrian writer* whom historians have affirmed, got his facts right. (With Hitler’s rise to power in that year, the book was burned and banned, and the author forced to emigrate when the Germans annexed Austria.)

The film opens in the village of Siroun in 1914 where Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), working in an apothecary, hopes someday to be able to attend medical school. His father arranges a marriage with a wealthy family that includes a large dowry that can pay tuition expenses for medical school in Constantinople. He will be able to live with his uncle during his studies. He assumes that he will fall in love with the woman, Maral (Angela Sarafyan) he has just been introduced to, but because she is not his co-star, we know otherwise.

Sure enough, in Constantinople on his arrival at the uncle’s mansion, he is introduced to Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), just returned from dance school in Paris and currently teaching dance to the two lively young daughters of his uncle. She is currently the love interest of the American AP correspondent Chris Myers (Christian Bale), in the city to report on the growing ethnic tensions in Turkey. Thus, a love triangle develops, with Ana and Mikael drawing every closer as ethnic violence rises in the city and across Turkey. Before fleeing the city, Mikael and Ana barely escape from a street mob of Turks bent on smashing Arminian-owned shops and beating anyone they come across in the streets.

During the course of the story we see round-ups and forced marches of Armenian victims. Chris has hired a car to take him into the countryside where he sees at a distance soldiers shoot a woman who has fallen out of line. When they spot him taking a picture, they chase after him, but fortunately their horses cannot catch up to the speeding car. Mikael is seized and sent to a slave labor camp where the prisoners work laying down tracks for the new railroad. After witnessing many cruelties, he escapes when a fellow prisoner blows himself and his guards up.

Their love story climaxes on the mountain called Musa Dagh where some 5000 Arminian refugees hope to find safety. Having seen the bodies of everyone from his home village piled up just outside the town, Mikael is able to convince the column of refugees and their leaders that their rulers are indeed bent on exterminating all Armenians so that they will have to defend themselves. The mountain offers them a means of setting up a better defense against their pursuers, and a view of the sea from which maybe the French warships patrolling the area might spot their signal fires and come to rescue them.

People of faith will be glad to see that the role of the church is recognized by the filmmakers. There is a fairly long scene of Mikael and his villagers worshiping in their village, all joining in the singing led by the priest. Much later at an orphanage run by Protestant missionaries this beautiful liturgical music comes in on the soundtrack over the French-Canadian song “Alouette” as Ana leads the children’s singing, making for a lovely blend. The head of the orphanage is Pastor Merril (Andrew Tarbet), a missionary dedicated to serving the weakest of the victims. (There was a huge relief project mounted in Europe and the United Sates to bring food, shelter, and safety to Armenians and other groups driven from their homes in Turkey.) Another minister (or priest) is the

Reverend Dikran Antreassian (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), a real-life Armenian who, according to an account I read, was an organizer of the resistance at Mount Moses (Musa Dagh).

Chris had been arrested as a spy and saved from execution  by their Turkish friend Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzaro), who paid for his life for his gallant effort. The journalist now joins the group at the mountain as, with just a few rifles but lots of rocks and sticks, the people dig in and await the arrival of the Turkish troops. After a fierce skirmish, the over-confident Turks are forced to run away, leaving behind many bodies—and rifles and ammunition. The government promptly dispatches from Gallipoli a unit equipped with artillery commanded by a veteran general. However, the ragged band of Armenians prove far tougher than anticipated, this sequence reminding me of the fierce resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the next World War. (For a riveting retelling of this heroic saga see my review of Uprising.)

Although sad and depressing in depictions of the ways that men can drive themselves and their subordinates to mass murder, the film is also inspiring in that it also shows people rising to heights of bravery and compassion. The latter includes a Muslim pair who offer aid at one point, and, of course, the Turkish playboy friend of the three lovers who served as the means for Chris’s escape from death, but at the cost of his own life, And the battle atop the mountain, though it involves a measure of tragedy for our three fictional characters, concludes with a note of triumph which I will leave to you to discover.

The major cast members are excellent, and there is a great cameo by James Cromwell as real life U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who serves as a wonderful example of what a skillful diplomate can achieve. Although some critics are right in judging the love story as “predictable,” this in no wise detracts from the dramatic power of the scenes of persecution and execution spread throughout the film. Other than Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, we have no feature film that brings the horror of that action to public attention. (Hopefully, documentarian Joe Berlinger, who spent much time on the set of this film, will be releasing a non-fiction account of this genocide.) During our time of nationalistic xenophobia and tendency to reject refugees, such a film as this is needed. In a 1939 speech, Hitler** said cynically, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Well, Terry George, director of the powerful film about genocide in Africa Hotel Rwanda, has. Embittered by the murder of his family and neighbors, it is understandable that Mikael wants to get even with the killers. At one point, he says to Ana, “I want revenge.” “Our revenge will be to survive,” replies Ana. Survive some did, and this film is a tribute to them. To this day, the government of Turkey continues to deny that a genocide took place on their soil, but Terry George and Atom Egoyan are two filmmakers who have tried to make the world listen and care.  It behooves us to support and affirm their witness to human depravity and nobility.

*From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide

 This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.

Frantz (2016)

(German/French with English subtitles)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.

Our content ratings  (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief,
my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,[b]
and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:9-10

Adrn&Fam

Pierre is a welcome guest at the Hoffmeister home. (c) Music Box Films

Most of the main characters are in distress in French director François Ozon’s post World War 1 tale set in the small town of Quedlinburg, Germany. Twenty-some Anna (Paula Beer) is the depressed fiancée of Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke), but they will never marry because he was killed in the trenches near the end of the war. She is currently living with his grieving parents, Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stoetzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber). They regard her as a daughter, perhaps more so because Frantz had been their only child. Thus, when the middle-aged patient he is currently examining, known only as Kreutz (Johann von Buelow), reveals his desire to marry Anna, it is from the doctor that he seeks permission to court her. When Kreutz tells her that he can make her forget Frantz, she promptly turns him down, saying that she does not want to forget him.

During her daily pilgrimage to the cemetery where the family has created a symbolic grave (Frantz’s body having been tossed into a mass grave at the front), Anna spies a young man placing roses on it. When she asks around, she is told that he is Adrien Rivoir (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman staying at the local hotel. Later that day he comes to the Hoffmeisters’ to speak with the doctor, but the embittered old man orders him out of the house when his visitor tells him that he is French. Hans would not allow for any explanation. “Every French man is my son’s murderer,” he exclaims, his visitor agreeing that all soldiers are murderers. However, when Pierre returns and speaks with Anna and Magda, they are won over by his claim to have been a good friend of Frantz, the latter such a Francophile that he had become fluent in French, even as he had learned German. Hans, who has been listening in on their conversation, soon joins them.

Over the course of the next few days Pierre brings comfort to the household by recounting their visits to the Louvre where they were drawn to a Manet portrait of a young man with his head thrown back. The two men were also bound together by their love of and performance of music, with Pierre, a violinist in an orchestra in Paris, helping Frantz to improve his violin technique.

A most emotional sequence is the one in which Hans opens his son’s violin case and asks Pierre to play, saying the instrument is a gift to him. Pierre gently declines, but later, with all three Germans together, he does play a lovely melody for them. It looks like he and Anna are destined for each other when she joins in on the piano, their playing perhaps a symbol of the two once warring nations overcoming their old hostility and living together in harmony.

Countering this good feeling is a gnawing suspicion that the relationship between Pierre and Frantz might have been more than brotherly love, this fueled by the somewhat effeminate look of actor Pierre Niney. However, this conjecture is short lived. Pierre discloses something to Anna that is so shocking that she withdraws from him. She does not tell Hans and Magda Pierre’s secret, and soon after this he leaves town.

From Paris Pierre writes to her, but she hesitates to respond, torn so by her emotions. Before his abrupt departure, he had been scheduled to dine with the family. She lies to the couple about him, and this too is so disturbing to her that she confesses to her priest, revealing the terrible secret Pierre had confided to her. The cleric kindly observes that sometimes a lie can be better than telling the truth if the latter would bring only pain, and that there can be forgiveness for this.

By the time Anna replies to Pierre, her letter is returned, marked address unknown. In a turmoil, she does something irrational and deadly, but eventually emerges from her despair with the determination to go to Paris to search for Pierre. Her “parents” strongly support this, they also being very fond of their former enemy.

Besides the issue of telling lies to protect loved ones from pain, the film deals with the dark feelings of anger and resentment that war leaves in its aftermath. While in the village, some of the villagers express their hatred for the visiting Frenchman. Kreutz appears to be the head of a group that meet at the pub to grouse over their defeat in the War and to look toward a day when their country will be strong enough to thrust aside the humiliations forced upon it—we can easily imagine that in a few years they will be wearing Nazi armbands. When Pierre takes Anna to a local dance, Kreutz, upset because Anna had refused his invitation to take her, stirs up the crowd against the Frenchman.

Much later in the film, Hans enters the pub where Kreutz and his gang have been criticizing the doctor for his hospitality toward Pierre. One by one the men turn down Hans offer to buy them a round of drinks. When they attack the French for killing their sons (almost all of them had lost a boy), Hans launches a diatribe that ends with, “Who killed your boys? Who sent them to the front?” he asks accusingly. “We did: their fathers. We are responsible.” In Paris Anna also experiences the narrow, hostile patriotism of the French when at a café, the crowd joins in singing “La Marseillaise.” Ozon probably intends for us to recall the stirring scene in Casablanca when the patrons at Rick’s nightclub sang the anthem as a means of protesting the presence of the Nazi officers. What a difference the context makes, as in this film it is used to show the exclusion of Anna due to the lingering hatred between the two nations.

In the last act of the film the focus is almost entirely upon Anna’s emerging from the protection of and dependency upon the Hoffmeisters during her journey to Paris to find Pierre. She visits the Louvre, seeking out the Manet painting that Pierre had said was so impressive. She is surprised to discover that it is “The Suicide,” a subject as dark as the state of Pierre’s and her soul. Tracking down Pierre to an estate some distance from Paris, ruled over by Pierre’s aristocratic mother (Cyrielle Clair), leads to another unsettling discovery. And yet Anna’s message to the kind Hoffmeisters at the end seem to bear out Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Still, we wonder about her future and the wisdom of lying in order to protect loved ones from the pain of truth.

This is a fascinating film about complex people dealing with emotions that still resonate almost a hundred years later—the hostility between nations and their people. The film is shot mostly in crisp black and white, slowly morphing into color a few times: when we see Frantz and Pierre in France visiting the Louvre and playing their violins; and Anna and Pierre emerging from a dark tunnel in a huge rock overlooking the village and relishing the beautiful view of village and surrounding area; and, especially the film’s closing shot of Anna. Not knowing of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch dramatic film Broken Lullaby upon which Ozon has based his film, I was surprised by Pierre’s revelation that led to his sudden departure from Germany. The film is time specific, but the themes of guilt and grace are not. Even if you are averse to subtitled films, you should see this one.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.

Land of Mine (2015)

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content rating: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

Serg&boys

In his Oscar-nominated film, Danish director/writer Martin Zandvliet gives us a new slant on WW 2, as well as an always needed lesson on human decency. It is May, 1945, and though there is much fighting still ahead in Germany, the five-year-long nightmare of Nazi occupation is over for the people of Denmark. But as we will see, there are two lingering effects of that Nazi occupation—a deeply embedded hatred for their conquerors, and the dangerous land mines that the Germans had planted along the long western coast of the country just in case the Allies might try to come ashore there. Indeed, there are from a little over one million to two million of them.

Just before the title the film begins, we see a long column of German prisoners being marched along a country road. Danish Army Sgt. Rassmussen (Roland Moller) is heading in the opposite direction when he spots a prisoner carrying a Danish flag, obviously intending it as a souvenir. Stopping, he springs out and starts beating and kicking the man. He even hits another German who protests the cruel beating as he cries out that they must, “Get lost!” They do not belong, nor are they welcome here. “This my land,” he says. Thus, the film’s title takes on a double meaning.

Jump to a group of a group of German teenage boys who ae members of the Volkssturm, a German national militia created by the desperate Hitler because there were no more adult men available for fighting.  The gruff-voiced Lt. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is telling them that since Germans planted the mines, it will be Germans who will clear them. He informs them, “Denmark is not your friend. No one wants to see you here.” Their brief training period of defusing the mines ends with each of them entering an enclosed area to defuse a live mine. As each boy nervously unscrews the cap and slowly removes the fuse, tension mounts. The exceeding nervous boy is the one whom we expect to fail, but—.

The remaining boys are given over to the care of Sgt. Rassmussen, who harbors the same hateful hostility toward them exhibited by Ebbe. He harshly addresses them on the section of the beach they are assigned to clear. They must clear 45,000 before they will be allowed to go home. Among the dozen and a half boys are twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oskar Belton), bricklayers who are looking forward to returning to their homeland because there will be so much work for them in restoring its bombed-out buildings. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the cynical malcontent, always seeing the worst side of things. The opposite of Helmut is Wilhelm (Leon Seidel), always looking on the bright side. Emerging as the group’s natural leader is Sebastian (Louis Hofmann), and even he looks like he should be attending high school classes rather dressed in a German uniform.

The boys are set to work, toiling fearfully as they unscrew the mine caps and slowly remove the fuses. The Sergeant drives them relentlessly, herding them before sundown into a shed that he locks by dropping a bar across the door. About a hundred or so yards away a woman (Laura Bro) whose beach side farmstead they’re quartered on often gazes at them with disdain. Her little daughter Elizabeth (Zoe Zandvliet) is too young to know to hate them, so when one of the boys approaches her to talk and bandages the damaged leg of her doll, the girl is all smiles. Their friendly exchange ends abruptly when the mother storms over to them, sternly warning her daughter to stay away from the Germans.

As the days pass, hunger grips the boys. Neither when they arise, nor when they are penned in at night is there any food. At first there are just complaints among the boys about their lack of meals, but as the days go by, they become faint, even sick, with hunger. The latter effect comes about after one of them sneaks out at night and brings back some grain from the woman’s shed. The next day the boys are vomiting. When the angry Rassmussen investigates, the woman explains that there were animal droppings amidst the grain. Sebastian tries to apologize that he did not prevent the boy from sneaking out, but Rassmussen wants no talking from him.

At last, concerned for the slow progress of their work, rather than for the boys’ welfare, Rassmussen takes it upon himself to go and appropriate some food. The next morning the first boy out the door is pleasantly surprised to find loaves of bread and a small pile of vegetables awaiting them. Slowly as the boys make progress Rassmussen’s attitude begins to change toward Sebastian as they begin to talk together.  One night as he is putting the cross bar in place, he drops it, leaving the door unbarred. No doubt an incident from another night hastened him on a new course. He had witnessed Epp and a couple of his men viciously humiliate one of the boys and had hastened to stop the abuse.  Also, Epp had criticized him for sneaking food out for the boys. When the hands of one of the boys are blown off, the Sergeant especially softens. He even joins the group in a spirited game of soccer and cheers them on when they set up foot races on the beach. During a conversation with Sebastian he almost becomes fatherly toward the boy. The film seems to be following the usual path of the curmudgeon coming over to the side of the despised, but then something terrible happens that revives Rassmussen hatred of all things German, and the boys are abruptly worst off than before. By now we have become to care deeply for these boys, so that when one of them breaks under the intolerable strain with tragic consequences, we feel their hurt and despair. What transpires in the last act of the film  lifts our spirits again, reviving our hope in humanity.

This is a film that could not have been produced during the years following the war when everything pointed to the bestiality of the Germans and the nobility of the Allies. Only with the passage of years have filmmakers shown that there is a dark side to all humans, that the Danes, who so nobly saved the lives of so many Jews, were also capable of cruelty toward the enemy. It helps that the filmmaker chose boys as the prisoners rather than hardened older soldiers. It would be almost impossible to arouse in the audience compassion for Nazis guilty of so many atrocities toward peasants and Jews alike. There is no talk of politics among the boys, no indication that any of them had been fanatical members of the Hitler Youth pouring out with uplifted arms their adoration for their  Führer. Only boys expressing their hopes and dreams of returning to their homes. When Epp betrays them (the remnant, that is, who survive a horrendous accident) by sending them to another beach encampment to remove still more mines, instead of to their homeland as promised, we see that he is little better than the Nazis who had driven him so deeply into hatred and prejudice. (As I write this, the end scene of the animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind in which the farm animals, once enslaved to a human, watch their leader, the pig named Napoleon, in the house playing cards with a human and they cannot tell the difference between the two.) Powerless to counter the orders of his superior, Rassmussen is left to decide what he should do in the face of such injustice.

This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.

 

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story (2016)

Documentary. Running time: c. 1 hour. Our star rating: 5

DVDcov

NOTE TO VIEWERS—This thought-provoking documentary is available on DVD via a link to Journey Films, at the end of this review—however, it also will be airing on public television’s WORLD Channel on April 16, 2017. Check your cable listings to see if the channel is available to you. There also is a paperback book, from Eerdmans Publishing and Amazon, that is a companion volume to the documentary.

Film Review:

I always look forward to a new Martin Doblmeier documentary, so many of which, like his Bonhoeffer, first being offered to the public on PBS. His latest is on the American mid-20th century theologian who is still read today, and not just by theologians, but by politicians as well. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were avid readers of his works, and a prominent political analyst, the New York Times writer David Brooks, also appreciates Niebuhr’s keen insights into group and individual behavior and ethics. This is a fine documentary that combines archival stills, news clips, various experts, many of them well-known, commenting upon the man and his writings. By the end of the film the average person who knows Niebuhr only as the author of the famous Serenity Prayer will have a much fuller appreciation of this major influence upon American life ever since he came into prominence in the 1930s.

Through visuals and words, we follow Niebuhr from his birth in the Midwest to his time as a prophetic pastor in an urban Detroit church (which under his leadership grew from under 100 to 700 members) to his call to teach at New York City’s prestigious Union Theological Seminary, despite the fact that he did not possess a Ph. D. This lack created some raised eyebrows and disdain among his faculty peers, but the theology he gained through the experience of working in a city environment was so perceptive that he gained the respect of all who heard or read him, especially when his Moral Man and Immoral Society was published in 1932. Keenly aware of what was going on in Germany, he was responsible for bringing Paul Tillich to Union, and also for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short stay.

Many of those associated with President Roosevelt were influenced by Niebuhr, as well as JFK. Dr. King credits him with leading him out of the naïve liberalism of his seminary days, though disagreeing with him concerning pacifism. His insight from the Scriptures and his experience that an individual person is apt to be more loving than when in a group, and that our goal in society is to bring justice as close to love as possible, still resonates today.

We also learn from the film what a great companion his wife Ursula Kepple-Compton was, herself a scholar and teacher who helped him write several of his books. His brother Helmut Richard Niebuhr also was quite famous, and still is, thanks to his book Christ and Culture. As a result of inter-faith activities Niebuhr became friends with the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, so much so that before his death he asked for him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The widowed Mrs. Heschel is one of those who are interviewed in the film.

The film’s many other contributors include the already mentioned David Brooks, former President Jimmy Carter, theologian Cornel West, civil rights leader Andrew Young, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Ron Stone, Niebuhr’s daughter Elizabeth Sifton, and many scholars and political activists.

Director Doblmeier clearly has done his homework, providing us with a picture of a man living in challenging times who lives on in his important writings and the careers of so many who readily admit their indebtedness to him.

This highly entertaining film would make a for a fine study for an adult church school class. Were I to use it, I would have the group watch the entire film during the first class, and then watch & discuss it in 10 to 15 minute segments for another 3 to 5 class sessions.

The DVD is available for $19.95 from Journey Films (https://journeyfilms.com/) or Amazon.com.

The Red Turtle (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2:18

Man&Trtl

When his raft is destroyed a 3rd time, the man discovers what has been preventing his escape from the island. (c) Sony Picture Classics

British-Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s first feature length animated film takes up the shipwreck starting point of Robinson Caruso and Castaway, but then forges its own path to a conclusion about survival and making a home. Based on their admiration of his widely admired two short films, Japan’s Studio Ghibli invited him to make a feature-length film, however he wanted to. They provided such excellent supporters as the studio’s Isao Takahata* and Hayao Miyazaki. (It would be fascinating to have been present during their interchanges.) This French-Belgian-Japanese production probably will appeal more to adults than children, due to its slow pace and almost total lack of dialogue, but there are enough elements, especially a gang of amusing crabs, that make this a good choice for a family outing.

We plunge into the middle of the action with an un-named mariner tossed about by huge waves, his ship apparently having sunk. He manages to swim to an island on which a forest of bamboo and fruit trees surround a bald mountain gently sloping upwards. Just about everywhere he goes, he is followed by the group of crabs. Indeed, it was one of these crawling up his trouser leg that had awakened him on the beach. They are not anthropomorphized, but they add a touch of whimsy to the proceedings.

Obviously longing for home, he dreams one night of a bridge leading away from the island. Then of a costumed string quartet playing on the beach at low tide. We knew he is Caucasian; now that he must be a European. He discovers edible fruit in the forest, and potable water in a pool located in the center of the island. The man builds a raft from the abundant supply of bamboo, using a small tree with thick foliage as his sail. Setting forth toward the open sea, he feels something from below bumping the vessel, but he is unable to discover what it is. Then with louder thumps, the unseen creature demolishes the raft. He starts over again. Same thing happens. The third time is no charm, but the man does learn what his nemesis is—a large red turtle. Back to shore again.

The mystery as to why the turtle opposes his leaving unfolds slowly. When the creature is washed ashore, the man vengefully flips it on its back, leaving it to slowly die of dehydration. But then it shapeshifts into a lovely red-headed maiden. The man no longer attempts to flee, the pair making do with the resources of the island to make a comfortable life for themselves, and the son they eventually produce. Not that their life is entirely an Eden: the boy falls into the same deep crevice with water at the bottom that the father had years earlier, but also manages to swim through a subterranean tunnel to rejoin his parents. And years later, a tsunami sweeps across the island, leaving us to wonder for a while if all the family members have survived. Many decades after the man had swum ashore the story ends in a bittersweet way, foreign to any Disney film.

The hand-drawn figures are simple, the animators spending more effort on the details of the jungle and sea. Those who delight in walking along a beach, or sitting while the sun rises or sets, will love the colors. The night scenes, of which there are many, are in black and white. In addition to the resplendent visual beauty, composer Laurent Perez Del Mar’s musical score enhances the action and makes one feel the beauty of woods, sky and sea. The effect of the music perhaps is heightened by the lack of any dialogue, the only discernable word being a “Hey,” uttered by the man early on when he is frustrated by his failure to leave the island. One might consider this Oscar-nominated film as a visual meditation of life and loss, ameliorated by unexpected companionship.

*Mr. Takahata directed my favorite anime’ film, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies, about an orphaned Japanese brother and little sister, bombed out and living on the streets of Kobe near the end of WW 2. I see that my review, published in another magazine many years ago has been lost, so I’ll have to rewrite it, this being a wonderful film that should be widely known.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.