CINEMA AND CULTURE: by Len PhillipsNews Weekly
Re-writing history, Hollywood-style
, March 21, 2009
Three flawed new films, each with World War II themes, are symptomatic of the sinister way Hollywood is seeking to reshape the way we look at the past. Len Phillips reports.This is my third stint at reviewing films for News Weekly, and I thought I would discuss the philosophy that lies behind what I try to do.
But first, what I don't
do: I don't watch a film to let you the reader know whether I think it is worth seeing or not. If you want that, go to your local paper.
What I do instead is look at films as a reflection of the society in which we live. These are stories told to a mass audience. The question I ask myself is, what does the success of a film tell us about us as a community? What does this film say as a reflection of the culture from which it comes and in which it seems to resonate?
Today, I am reviewing three films, one I went to see last week, another I read about but have not gone to see, and a third which has not even been released and will not see the light of day until months from now. But all three are on a similar theme and, taken together, make a quite alarming statement.
|Kate Winslet and |
David Kross in
The film I did see was The Reader
, described quite accurately as Holocaust porn. That is, it is a film that uses the deeply disturbing emotional charge of the mass murder of millions of Jews as the vehicle to give the story its drive.
It pretends to give us some kind of moral instruction from the inane stupidities of the plot, as if the five-second sound bites on the morality of this and that provide anything other than a filler for the film's actual interest.
In fact, quite a surprise for me was that the film is an almost perfect example of the soft porn found in a startling number of Hollywood productions, although this one was somewhat more explicit than most.
It was clear in the way the story developed that the audience is expected to already know that the young 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) will eventually become the lover of the 32-year-old Hanna Schmitz played by Kate Winslet (who recently won the Best Actress Oscar for her role).
The film starts with a perfect tease. Since the audience has come to see the two finally fall into each other's arms, there is some effort made to keep them apart for quite a bit of time at the start.
Opening scene: a boy, young and quite ill, gets off a tram somewhere in 1950s Berlin and sits in a doorway until a woman comes to his aid and takes him up to her apartment before escorting him home. Nothing happens.
Months later, after he has overcome his scarlet fever, he tells his mother about the woman who had helped him. She sends him off to thank her with some flowers. Here he sees her through the door, dressing, and when she notices he is noticing, he runs away. Still nothing happens.
But then he comes back the next day. She sends him down to the basement to bring up some coal, and when he comes back covered in coal dust, she makes him take a bath. He is then seduced, and so begins an affair which seems to run for many months and for about a third of the film.
I might add, but only parenthetically, that the loss of innocence and the harm done to Michael's natural development are never adequately explored in the film. He never gets to develop a relationship with some girl of his own age because he is in the midst of a relationship with a woman twice his age.
Even as an adult, he never quite gets his emotional life fully together, a sub-theme absolutely not developed. Anyway, back to the film.
Years after Michael and Hanna part, she having simply one day pulled up stakes and disappeared, the young lad has become a law student. He and his classmates are attending a trial of a number of Auschwitz guards who had allowed a church filled with Jews to burn down without allowing them to escape.
In an incredible twist of fate, Hanna turns out to have been one of those guards late in the war.
One of the witnesses against the guards is a Jewish woman in her twenties who, as a very young girl, had been in the church but managed to find her way out.
For various plot reasons Hanna ends up being sentenced to 20 years.
Her former lover makes no personal contact until she is about to be released. But, instead of actually going free, she hangs herself in her cell, leaving a will and 7,000 marks to be given to the young woman who had testified against her.
Here I return to my basic philosophy of movie-reviewing. These are stories, not documentaries. They are not true, nor are they supposed to be true. They are constructions that are designed to appeal to an audience mature enough to pay the bills.
They tell us things we do not find uncomfortable to listen to, and feed on our assumptions about how the world works. Their philosophies are shallow and commonplace. Few people really go to the movies to be challenged.
It in fact irritates me to listen to people discuss films as if the characters really did face the dilemmas they are shown to have. They are fictional. They are manipulated by their creators, by those who write the stories and direct the film. This is as true of films supposedly based on fact as it is of tales totally made up from whole cloth.
Films are designed to bring audiences to the cinema. They want to satisfy those who buy the tickets. Hollywood endings are a cliché. They are endings that let everyone go home happy. They are, except on the rarest of occasions, entertainments worth not a moment's serious thought.
So to return to the film. The young boy, now grown up (and played by Ralph Fiennes), takes the 7,000 marks to New York to the Jewish woman (Lena Olin) who had testified at the trial. The story has her living in the most sumptuously luxurious home you have ever seen. It was like a Taj Mahal. It was extraordinary.
Why was she so rich, I asked myself. What part of the plot needed this Jewish woman to be so phenomenally wealthy? This was the cliché of clichés.
Of course, by being so wealthy, she could say that she would not take the 7,000 marks to absolve Hanna of her guilt. But for her to do so was gratuitous and insulting.
A refusal of the sum would have made a point if we were dealing with someone extremely poor who needed the money for an immediate life-saving operation but who nevertheless found the money tainted.
To have survived the Holocaust does not make you rich. Most survivors were not. The plot point of her wealth seemed to be making a statement I found difficult to fathom. I still don't know what it is, other than to contrast the Jewish woman's wealth with Hanna's poverty.
|Claus von Stauffenberg |
|Hitler (David Bamber) |
Let me now turn to the film I have not seen: Valkyrie
. It is about Count Claus von Stauffenberg who had organised the plot to kill Hitler in 1944.
From what I know about the film - and since it stars Tom Cruise, I am sure this is so - the leader of the plot is portrayed as a selfless patriot who could no longer bear to see Hitler in power and was anguished by the shame that Hitler's policies against the Jews was causing Germany.
Here we have another cliché, the good German. There were many such in Germany; but there would have been many, many more who were too much in mortal fear of their lives to have even considered standing in the way of Hitler during the years the Nazis held power.
But von Stauffenberg was neither. He had been an early supporter of Hitler and was a high-ranking soldier, high enough to be admitted to Hitler's war room where the assassination plot took place.
To turn him into some latter day anti-fascist hero is not just a perversion of history; it changes the dynamic of how we understand the Nazi regime. One would have to be just a little suspicious of the motives of someone who waited until the war was obviously lost before trying to kill Hitler.Inglourious Basterds (sic.)
The final film I take note of is Quentin Tarantino's next production, something called Inglourious Basterds
(correct spelling) and expected out in July. It is, according to reports, an extreme and disgusting portrayal of brutality and carnage. The plot is about a bunch of World War II soldiers sent into Germany to go after Nazis.
The relevant dialogue reads, "We will be cruel to the German. And through our cruelty they will know who we are." So far, so ordinary.
But then there is this feature - the soldiers are Jewish. The dismembering, disfiguring and torturing are undertaken by Jews.
Here we have an untrue story about vicious Jewish soldiers, a story which has no basis in fact, being released in the same year that the Israelis who, in trying to preserve their own country against an existential threat, are themselves being accused of waging disproportionate war in Gaza and elsewhere. And here, in this film, Jews are portrayed as having been vicious killers during World War II in just the same way that the Israelis now are claimed to be.
The films, all three, taken separately and together, are reshaping the way we look at the past. Nazi concentration camp guards are portrayed as human. Wehrmacht officers, even those amongst Hitler's inner circle, are shown as anti-fascist heroes. And Jews, the actual victims of the Holocaust, are presented as pathological killers of German soldiers.
Is this how one of the most evil times in history is to be remembered? If so, then we are in the hands of the depraved. It will be a major effort to find our way back from here.- Len Phillips