Five Came Back (2017)

Rated R. Running time: c. 3 hours.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you…

I John 2a

For those interested in film history and World War Two, Netflix has the perfect documentary, a rare one in that some critics have reversed their usual criticism and said they wished it were longer. Shown as a single feature in theaters to those lucky enough to live in some larger cities, it is being offered as a three-part series on Netflix. It is so good that this film alone justifies taking out a membership if you have not yet joined.

The series is based on Mark Harris’s book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, and though I loved reading it because it contains even more incidents in the lives and careers of the five filmmakers covered, it is while watching clips from their films that one feels especially the power and scope of what they achieved. The filmmakers who volunteered their skills for the war effort are from the top tier of successful Hollywood directors during the Thirties– John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston. There are clips and facts about their pre-War films, as there are also about the films they made after the war. And of course, there are excerpts from the short films they made for troop training and for interpreting to the public the meaning of the war, such as the Why We Fight series.

Veteran documentarian Laurent Bouzereau and writer Mark Harris have joined forces to produce a series that viewers will want to return again and again, so much information is crammed into it. And the great thing here is that Netflix members can easily click back on to do so. The producers made a brilliant decision by inviting five major current directors to comment on the war-time filmmakers and their work– Steven Spielberg talks about William Wyler; Guillermo Del Toro comments upon Frank Capra; Paul Greengrass deals with John Ford; Francis Ford Coppola discusses John Huston; and Lawrence Kasdan analyzes George Stevens.

We learn how they had to fight government and military bureaucracies that were suspicious of their motives and goals. Army Signal Corps filmmakers resented the Hollywood directors as “entertainers,” but the films that they had been making were so boring that audiences welcomed the training and propaganda films made by the newcomers. In fact, some were both so entertaining and informative that President Roosevelt and his staff allowed films intended for the training of troops to be shown to the public.

At the time most people either obtained their news from radio and newspapers, or they went outside the home and saw the weekly newsreels shown along with their movie fare. Some of the films shot during or right after bloody battles brought to the home front the awesomeness of the war and the importance of victory. Along with filmmaker George Stevens they were shocked and horrified by the footage he shot when American troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps.

The film’s various segments are well tied together by the narration written by Mark Harris and read by Meryl Streep. It does not spare some of the flaws of the men—the over indulgence in alcohol of some, the staging of combat scenes at times weeks after the actual battle, rivalries with one another or with a government overseer—but despite their personal flaws, the film instills in us an admiration for these men who gave up comfortable lives and put their careers on hold in order to contribute to the fight against the nation’s dangerous enemies. There were times when their lives were in danger, and several of the cameramen they had assembled did lose their lives during a battle.

Two instances in the series especially stand out for me:

  1. Frank Capra was devastated when he saw how great was the propaganda film made by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. It was so beautifully made and effective in promoting the Nazi cause that Hitler was a god-like being that he wondered how we could possibly match it in the propaganda wars aimed at drawing the uncommitted to one side or the other. Then as he and the others filmed our men and women, he realized we do have the resources to compete. 2. George Stevens was so traumatized by the horror that he filmed at a Dachau extermination camp that after the war he was so haunted by it that he turned from the light material he had filmed before (Penny Serenade and Talk of the Town) to more serious works like Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Ann Frank.

Those interested in social justice will appreciate the concern of some filmmakers and government officials that the Japanese not be too dehumanized so as not to poison the air after the war. Some of the filmmakers were also concerned about the Jim Crow persecution of African American soldiers, and the hypocrisy of branding the enemy oppressive while mistreating our own minorities back home. Supervised by producer Frank Capra, director Stuart Heisler faced the daunting task in The Negro Soldier of convincing skeptical African American audiences that their men should join in the “fight for freedom,” even though theirs was limited in this country.

As an additional bonus Netflix offers most of the documentaries discussed in the series: John Ford’s The Battle of Midway; Frank Capra’s Prelude to War; William Wyler’s The Memphis Belle; John Huston’s San Pietro; and George Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps—and more. Watching these is a great way to see the work produced by these men. What a treasure trove Netflix offers. It’s like having the key to the vault of a film historical society. And so five came back, five of the greatest filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood. Five came back, changed by what they had experienced, and through their engaging films, changed the way we would see the war, and for years afterward, the world as well.

This review with a set of questions will be in the February. 2018 issue of VP.

Dunkirk (2017)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

He reached down from on high, he took me;
he drew me out of mighty waters.

 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
and from those who hated me;
for they were too mighty for me.

Psalm 18:16-17

Soldiers have a long & dangerous wait before their rescue.                (c) Warner Brothers

For the British, French, and Belgian troops stranded on Dunkirk’s beach from May 26- June 04, 1940, the period covered by writer/director Christopher Nolan’s film, the Nazis were indeed “my strong enemy.” Hitler’s blitzkrieg, quickly conquering Holland, Belgium, and most of France, seemed unstoppable. The British Expeditionary Force, along with thousands of soldiers of its allies, had been pushed back into the tiny pocket around the port of Dunkirk—over 400,000 troops seemed on the verge of death or capture. If this happened, the British Isles themselves would become easy prey for Hitler’s army. The encircled port had but one quay to service deep-water ships, and the Brits had just a few Spitfires and Hurricanes to fight against the massive German fleet of planes and U-Boats, and so the situation looked hopeless.

Nolan divides the coverage of his film into three parts, Land, Sea, and Air. On land, we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier fleeing gunfire through the besieged village and out onto the beach, where he teams up with two other men among the thousands of other soldiers standing in long lines. We also see the Royal Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) in charge of the evacuation. Staring across the English Channel, he mutters longingly, “You can practically see it.” “It” is “home.” So close, yet so far away,

In the air a pair of Royal Air Force pilots, Collins and Farrier (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) duel with a number of Nazi fighters and bombers, downing several, to the relief and cheers of the trapped men below. The time of this segment reads “One hour” because that is the length of time that their gasoline allows them to stay aloft.

On the sea, a yachtsman named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sets off with his teenage son George and the latter’s friend toward the distant shore. His is part of a flotilla of over 700 civilian boats called forth to join the war ships. The smaller boats can more easily sail close to the beach than the large ships. The Germans sank many of the boats, and it is a survivor from one such that Dawson rescues. The fearful, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) tries to make Dawson turn back, resulting in tragedy, but not preventing the skipper from sailing on to complete his rescue mission.

The cross-cutting between the many scenes add to the feeling of chaos and suspense, and the huge Imax screen engulfs us so that at times we feel as if we are participants. (This is definitely NOT a film to watch on an iPhone or computer screen!) The suspense is very great—besides the struggle on the yacht with the deranged soldier there is a scene in which a Spitfire pilot ditches into the sea but cannot get his cockpit to open as the water rises. In another, Tommy and some fellow soldiers find refuge in an abandoned boat further up the coast but apparently are spotted by German soldiers (whom we never see), the latter firing random bullets into the hull. This causes so many large holes that when high tide rushes in, the trapped soldiers are in danger of drowning. In still another, German Stukas dive-bomb and strafe the beach, hitting a clearly-marked hospital ship.

Nolan provides just a hint of the evacuation’s big picture, with just a few lines introducing the film reporting the number of men trapped and their danger. By concentrating on the experiences of individuals, Nolan intensifies the feelings of terror and exhilaration felt by the participants. Rescuing over 330,000 soldiers to fight on was very much a “miracle” when considering the array of forces seeking to crush them. One article I’ve read said that this was several times more than the British leaders had dared hope to bring back.

Concluding with one of the Brits reading a newspaper account of PM Churchill’s June 4th “We will fight” speech, the film provides a visual parable of courage and pluck. Although Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam War song “With God on Our Side” cautions us not to claim too much during wartime, I think it is safe to say that God was indeed in 1940 on the side of those brave men waiting on the beach. Often called “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” the evacuation of so many troops could be seen as the British 20th century equivalent to the miracle recorded in Exodus, the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea just ahead of Pharaoh’s army bent on their annihilation. The Brits just got their feet wetter.

 

Note: The recently reviewed Their Finest Hour is worth watching, the fictional film being about a British war-time crew making a propaganda film about the evacuation.

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

The Exception (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47  min.

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

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the Lord: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.

Jeremiah 21:8

Col. von Ilsemann, the ex-Kaiser, & Capt. Brandt follow the advances of Hitler’s armies on the large table-map.         (c) A24

After watching director David Leveaux and screenwriter Simon Burke’s film, its title reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s 2007 The Good German. That earlier film title, set in the immediate post-WW 2 years in Germany, refers to any German who either opposed the Nazis or who served in the government or armed forces but did not know about the Holocaust. In this new film, based on Alan Judd’s novel “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss,” which mixes fictional characters with historical ones, the German Army Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) is at least twice called “the exceptional” in regard to his fellow Nazi officers—for a reason that is slowly revealed as events unfold.

The story begins in 1940 when the Captain is reluctantly in Berlin rather than participating in the fighting because of some “business with the SS in Poland.” He is given the assignment to go to the Netherlands to assume command of the personal bodyguard of the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II, a man whom he had presumed dead. Unhappy with the assignment, he asks how he can do this in another country, and his superior informs him that the Reich forces are at that moment taking over Holland. He is to receive the assignment as an honor, he is told, because the Kaiser is till of “tremendous symbolic importance to the German people.”

The ex-Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) is living on a magnificent country estate outside Utrecht. Thanks to payments by the German government he has not wanted for anything in order to maintain a royal standard of living. The old man is supported by a loyal staff that includes his aide-de-camp Col. von Ilsemann (Ben Daniels), plus his crafty empress, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer). The newest member of his staff is a maid named Mieke de Jong (Lily James), so beautiful that the old man remarks that if here a hundred years younger, he might…

The new movie is an intriguing blend of a small amount of history with an erotic romance. Brandt has no sooner arrived and presented himself at the mansion when, alone with Mieke who has brought a message to his cottage, he orders her to take off her clothes. She meekly complies, but he is unable to perform. However, later, whether out of attraction or pity, she comes and tells him to take off his clothes. Lovers of bodice-busting novels will probably find their romance greatly entertaining.

The history part of the film gives the great actor Christopher Plummer a fine opportunity to show off his talent. His version of the ruler is of an old temperamental man set in a routine of feeding the ducks, chopping wood, hunting, and dreaming of returning to assume the throne again. Like the real Kaiser, his is a man of conflicting opinions—he is anti-Semitic yet deplores Hitler’s brutal treatment of the Jews; despises Hitler yet is happy for the Führer’s military victories. Like his wife, he hopes that Hitler will bring him home to assume his royal title again.

There is intrigue afoot when Brandt, who by now in love with Mieke, and she so much with him that she reveals that she is a Jew, learns that there is an Allied spy in the region. The agent operates a radio somewhere in the region, so a second mobile radio detection van is sent for so that the Germans can triangulate his position. It is no spoiler, I am sure, to reveal that Mieke is bringing the spy news of events of the ex-Kaiser’s household.

When Brandt discovers a pistol hidden in Mieke’s room, he is pulled by his loyalty to his country and to her. At one point he asks if there is a loyalty to something greater than one’s country. His decision grows more difficult when the news arrives that Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), second in command to Hitler, will soon pay a visit. Mieke vows vengeance because her family was destroyed by the butcher.

Our dawning awareness that Capt. Brandt is “the exception” to his fellow SS officers comes be means of some short flashbacks. At first we see a couple of times an overhead shot of a girl, possibly 12 or so, sprawled on the ground. This is repeated, until, from a higher vantage point, we see that the girl is at the edge of what seems to be a cluster of hundreds of dead bodies, all of them civilians. Brandt apparently had not accepted such atrocious tactics and made a protest, hence the rumor voiced by a fellow officer that the man had been in some trouble in Poland, and that if he had not high connections, he would have been executed.

Like the fictional Captain Brandt, I knew nothing of Kaiser Wilhelm’s fate following his abdication and exile, so I found the film fascinating. My usual looking out for “a moment of grace” was rewarded by the scene in which Mieke and Brandt, caught in one of their trysts, is brought by the outraged Empress to her husband out of the expectation that both will be publicly disgraced and banished from the house. Everyone is surprised by what he says and does.

The graciousness of the old man (he was 82 when he died a year later) comes through also in the climax of the film during a flight from the SS, now aware that Mieke is also a spy. I wish the real Kaiser Wilhelm II had been more like Mr. Plummer’s depiction, instead of the temperamental man, subject to scandalous outbursts very like a certain U.S. president.

The romance and adventure are thrilling, but the main reason that I recommend this film is Mr. Plummer’s fine performance—and in every scene together Janet McTeer as the Empress is his equal. Indeed, I agree with the IMDB reviewer who calls her a “Lady Macbeth.”

Beyond its entertainment value, the film also serves as a visual parable dealing with the choice between good and evil.

Note: For information on the real Kaiser see the Wikipedia article at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_II,_German_Emperor

A24

This review with a set of questions will be in the. 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.

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

When I reviewed Schindler’s List in 1994, I used Psalm 22 as the framework for the discussion guide. For this new Holocaust film, I am using Psalm 10, as the framework for the entire review. The film offers people of faith a great opportunity  to study one of Scripture’s greatest protests against oppression and plea for relief.

 Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 6; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star ratig (1-5): 4.5

WithZebras

Antonina involve s herself with every aspect of caring for the animals at the Warsaw Zoo. (c) Focus Features

Psalm 10:1

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

This Holocaust film is directed by Niki Caro, with screenwriter Angela Workman, adapting the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman. In Warsaw during the summer of 1939 Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain), directors of the Warsaw Zoo, are hosting a dinner or cocktail party. One of their prominent guests is the Berlin Zoo’s visiting head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a handsome mustachioed man clearly attracted to the beautiful Antonina. Suddenly the chitchat, which does include worries about a war, is interrupted when the groundskeeper Jerzyk (Michael McElhatton) rushes in with urgent news.

The newborn baby elephant is in serious trouble. Earlier, we had seen Antonina’s intense attachment to all the animals when she sets forth on her morning bicycle ride and affectionately greets the various animals she passes by, and they respond in kind. An exuberant young camel is allowed to run alongside her. (Indeed, one of the first scenes we see in the film is her waking up her young son, and what at first we think sleeping next to him is a large-eared puppy, which turns out to be not one, but two lion cubs!)

Rushing to the elephant pen, she finds the baby lying on the ground and the two troubled elephants standing close by. First calming the mother, she bends down over the little one, as the trunk of the mother keeps caressing the bay and touching her. She presses on the little one to help it’s slackening breathing. Jerzyk helps by coaxing the father into another section of the pen. He clearly understands that it is Antonina, rather than he, whom the mother elephant trusts. Meanwhile, outside the guests have come out to watch, but are kept at a distance so as not to upset the mother any further. After several unsuccessful attempts, Antonina manages to get the little creature breathing properly, and it rises up to join its mother. The people applaud. It is clear that the zookeeper’s wife is second only to Francis of Assisi in love for and empathy with animals.

Psalm 10:2-6

2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5 Their ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.

The screen reads September 1, 1939, and we know immediately what is about to happen. There is the roar of planes massed overhead and the thud and explosion of bombs. Even the zoo is a target for the Nazis, some of the animal habitats suffering hits, with animals screaming, and some lying dead. There is the bizarre sight of escaped animals, including a tiger, roaming the streets, people staring at them out of their windows.

Soon Nazi troops arrive, and despite the protests of Jan and Antonina, shoot any animal running loose. Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) returns to the zoo, this time decked out as a jack-booted Nazi.

Psalm 10:7-9

7 Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9     they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

Heck supervises the shipping of the zoo’s prize specimens off to Germany for his eugenics experiments. The large horned cattle are so large that he conducts his breeding experiments at the zoo in the hope of bringing back the extinct auroch. All over Warsaw the invaders are rounding up Jews and confining them to the large ghetto. Jan and Antonina have already agreed to store the prized insect collection of their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel (Iddo Goldberg) in their basement, so it is not long before they are hiding Jews there as well, with tunnels under the house making it possible to smuggle the people into cars and trucks taking them outside of Warsaw. In the ghetto a bakery employs not only bakers but several forgers producing fake identity papers and passports.

The Zabinskis have been able to stay on at the zoo grounds by coming up with a clever scheme. They propose to set up on the grounds a pig farm. It will provide scarce meat for the German troops and use the garbage from the ghetto for the animals’ food. Jan and their son Ryszard (played first by Timothy Radford, then Val Maloku because the film spans 7 years) travel back and forth in their truck, first their Jewish friends and then others hiding in the garbage bins beneath the garbage.

 Psalm 10:10-13

10 They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12 Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account?

While Jan is driving the garbage truck through the ghetto he spies two burly German soldiers running their fingers through the hair of an adolescent Jewish girl, whom later he will learn is Urzula (Shira Haas). They drag her into an alleyway out of sight. A few minutes later she emerges, her clothes disheveled, cuts and bruises on her body indicating she had struggled against her abuser. Jan takes her back to the zoo with the other young Jews he has hidden in the bins. She is so traumatized that not even Antonina can coax a word from her while soothing her and cleaning her up. She leaves a similarly timid and helpless creature with the girl, the bunny she has been petting. The little rabbit will be her constant companion and help to heal her spirit.

Psalm 10:14-16

But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations shall perish from his land.

As Jan and his son drive through the ghetto they see the daily toll of the Nazi’s starvation policy, bodies lying dead in the street and trucks passing by loaded with bodies stacked like cordwood. At one of the gate a German couple treat it like a tourist attraction y taking a selfie of themselves in front of the activities going on behind themselves.

Taking deadly risks every day would strain anyone’s nerves, and Lutz’s lust for Antonina adds to the burden. Jan had agreed originally that his wife would use the German’s desire for her to get him to go along with their pig farm project. But as he sees the man close to his wife numerous times, his jealously is aroused. One time in particular the German and Antonina are at the door when her keener ears detect a noise caused by the children of a Jewish cowering directly beneath them. Their faces close to each other, she pulls him toward her by grasping (and covering) his ears.

As the years pass, there are many successes, some 300 ghettos escapees being sneaked out of the city via the zoo. There are some failures, and late in the film, Jan joins his friends in the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,* with Jan’s fate unknown to Antonina for some time.

Psalm 10:17-18

17 O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Sadly, this film has not been well received by critics, which is understandable when you use Schindler’s List as the benchmark for judgement. Director Niki Caro’s first film Whale Rider probably is a better film than this one, and yet I found myself deeply moved by numerous scenes, some described above. I was especially glad to see that another real-life ghetto hero appears in several scenes, Dr. Janusz Korczak (Arnost Goldflam). From Jan’s conversations with him in the ghetto we assume they were friends, which is likely in that they both moved in the upper circles of Warsaw society. The doctor was a world renown pediatrician, author of books for children and adults (indeed, Korzcak was his pen name, his real one being Doctor Henryk Goldszmit), and head of an orphanage where he implemented his advanced ideas about child treatment. He and his school of 200 children were removed to the ghetto where he protected and fed them as best he could. Jan apparently was one of several who offered the doctor a chance to escape, but he refused, even at the end when he insisted on boarding with the children on a train that he knew was bound for a death camp. (A review of the wonderful Polish film Korzcak is available on this site.)

For a profile in courage, do not miss this film. It is good that for a change that the rescuer is a woman. Husband Jan is indeed co-responsible for the saving of the 300 Jews credited to the husband and wife, but it is nice that Ms. Caro focuses upon the wife. Our daughters need all the positive role models they can find in a world in which patriarchy is still strong.

*See the review of the TV film Uprising, a good reminder that not all Jews went sheep-like to their deaths.

This review with a set of questions will be in the April 2017 issue of VP. If you find reviews on this site useful, please support us by buying an issue or subscribing for a year. Most of the reviews in the journal come with discussion questions–10 in the case of this film.

 

The People Vs. Fritz Bauer (2015)

(Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5); 5

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;

cease to do evil…

Isaiah 1:16

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,

and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
 those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right…

Isaiah 29:19-21

friends

AG Fritz Bauer & his young assistant Karl Angermann. (c) Cohen Media Group

If ever there was a people needing to “wash” themselves, it was the German people following the defeat of Adolf Hitler and his fellow butcherers in 1945. There were purges of Nazis when the Allies took over (the worst were tried at the famous Nuremburg Trials) but by the Fifties, when democracy returned to the people of West Germany, many of those Nazis had been allowed to return to government and business posts, no questions asked. A new generation was arising that wanted to lay aside the past without dealing with their nation’s guilt. Those who resisted Hitler, such as the martyred Sophie Scholl or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were still regarded as war-time traitors. Even the popular premier Konrad Adenauer included an unrepentant Nazi in his cabinet.

We have been blessed with two excellent German films this year that examine this troubled period. In Labyrinth of Lies a fictitious young prosecuting attorney named Johann Radmann decides to investigate the Nazi past, zeroing in on Dr. Josef Mengele. His immediate superior is opposed to his crusade, but Radmannn has the backing of Attorney General Fritz Bauer, so he continues his investigation. In director/co-writer Lars Kraume just-released The People Vs. Fritz Bauer the Attorney General is the main character, and still another made-up character is one of the prosecutors under him, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), an earnest young man who becomes close to him.

Bauer, a Jew who had been briefly imprisoned by the Nazis, had fled the country when Hitler came to power. He had worked in Denmark, but fled just ahead of the invading Nazis to Sweden, returning after the war to again enter government service. The Attorney General has solid information that the architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann is hiding out in South America. However, the government shows no interest in pursuing the mass murderer. Both Interpol and German intelligence lamely claim they were “not responsible for political crimes.” It seems that a trial of such a high-ranking criminal in Germany would drag in other influential Nazis hiding in plain sight (besides the one in Adenauer’s cabinet, another holds a high post at Mercedes-Benz!). The Allies also, who strongly support Adenauer, do not want to allow anything that might embarrass his government, so they offer no encouragement or support for tracking down the murderers.

Taking Angermann into his confidence, the frustrated Bauer decides to inform the Israelis about Eichmann’s whereabouts. “If we really want to do something for this country, we’ll have to betray it in this case.” Indeed, sharing such information would be considered treason. Nevertheless, Bauer flies to Israel and meets with agents of Mossad. Believing that the fugitive is elsewhere, they tell him that he must obtain one other witness before they devote their limited resources to pursue this lead. When he at last succeeds, and meets again with Mossad, he asks that when they seize Eichmann that they agree to extradite him to Germany so he can be put on trial there.

Bauer’s single-minded pursuit of justice becomes complicated when we learn that he stands in peril not only of being arrested and tried as a traitor, but also outed as a criminal pervert. There are Danish police reports that he had visited male prostitutes while living there. During the Nazi regime Paragraph 175 had been enacted into law, making homosexual behavior a major crime—and it was still on the books.

The filmmakers insert a subplot into the film in which the married Angermann gives in to his own homosexual tendencies, visiting at a gay nightclub a female impersonator. This makes him vulnerable to blackmail by Bauer’s enemies when they confront the young man with incriminating photos taken by a spy camera in the club’s dressing room. Will he betray his boss in the campaign to derail Bauer’s campaign. or risk all for what he believes is the right and just cause?

Despite the fictional additions, this is a first-rate glimpse into post-World War II Germany and the events leading up to the now famous Auschwitz trials held during 1963 in Frankfort. It would be a good film to see before Labyrinth of Lies, both films being profiles in courage.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

 

The Good German (2006)

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

    the faithful have disappeared from humankind.

They utter lies to each other;

    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

   the tongue that makes great boasts,

   those who say, ‘With our tongues we will prevail;

   our lips are our own—who is our master?

               Psalm 12:1-4

Director Steven Soderbergh takes us back to the chaotic era of post-WW 2 Berlin, not only as to the time of his story, but even the style of the film, his cinematographer Peter Andrews shooting the film in black and white, lighted like one of the film noirs just coming into popularity in the mid-Forties. The War is still raging in the Pacific, while in Berlin preparations are in high gear for the Potsdam Conference which will officially end the War in Europe and draw the lines that will affect its people for the next forty years. George Clooney plays Jake Geismer, a correspondent for Collier’s Magazine, on assignment to cover the Conference, but as far as he is concerned, returned to a Berlin he had once known well where he had loved the wife of a German scientist.

Cynically brushing aside any claim of the Germans that they did not know what went on in Hitler’s extermination camps, Jake’s obsession is to find out if his former lover Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) is still alive. In some ways he is like Rick in Casablanca, we almost coming to expect him to say when he does catch up to her, “Well, we had Berlin.” Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire) picks up Jake at the airport, he being the Army driver assigned to squire the correspondent around. We soon see that Tully is one of those crass soldiers that every division has, stealing and selling items on the black market, wheeling and dealing with friend and foe alike, the latter being the Russian officer General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov) to whom he delivers several cases of expensive liquor. To Jake’s surprise Lena show up as the Tully’s mistress.

Jake, of course, is upset with Lena, though he covers with his cynicism. Lena tries to explain that when the Russians stormed into Berlin life became a matter of a constant struggle for survival. Lena also is contending with keeping the whereabouts of her husband a secret from both the Americans and the Russians in the hope of sneaking him out of the Russian zone into the West. The Russians have been stripping the city and country of everything in the way of manufacturing equipment and shipping it east, whereas the Americans have concentrating on finding the Nazi scientists working on the V-2 rocket so that they can enlist them in their own rocket program, regardless of any war crimes guilt. When Lena finally reveals to Jake that her husband is alive and enlists his help in spiriting him out of the city, she contends that her husband is a “Good German,” even though his program involved employing thousands of Jewish slave laborers who were starved and worked to death,

This is not a feel-good film, with an ending that is bittersweet, staying true to the film noir genre. There is, of course, involves a murder, with our protagonist suspected of being the perpetrator, and a lot of plot twists. As a study in human nature the film is well worth your time, reminding us that behind all the noble sounding words during the Cold War that is soon to follow, about defending Democracy against Communism and such, there is a darker side most of us would rather not admit.

This review with a set of discussion questions appears in the Summer 2007 issue of VP, available from the author.