Ten films about the post-Holocaust experience

From The Counterfeiters and Bent to Schindler’s List and Son of Saul, cinema has approached the Holocaust from almost all of its ghastly facets. This list collates a selection of the relative few that consider not the immediate act of genocide but its pernicious spectre. Some concern the overwhelming emotional impact on survivors, such as Sophie’s Choice and The Pawnbroker, while others, like Hannah Arendt, Labyrinth of Lies and Denial, concern comparative outsiders’ attempts to quantify the event and, in some cases, enact hard-nosed justice.

Remember
The premise of Remember stretches credibility to its limits, beyond it in some cases, yet Atom Egoyan’s film is compulsive viewing thanks to its energetic plotting and Christopher Plummer’s superb central performance as Zev Guttman, an elderly Auschwitz survivor, Alzheimer’s sufferer and recent widow who resides in an American nursing home.

Zev’s Alzheimer’s manifests itself in sudden bouts that can attack at any moment, yet fellow resident and Holocaust survivor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) reminds Zev of what he promised to do when his wife died. In a haze of confusion, Zev agrees to honour his promise, which is to hunt and kill Otto Wallisch, the SS Blockfuhrer who murdered their families before immigrating to America under the name of Rudy Kurlander.

Armed with a Glock handgun hidden in his wash bag, Zev’s mission takes him across North America in what film critic Richard Roeper described as a ‘mash-up of The Terminator, Marathon Man and Memento’. Roeper’s summary makes it seem more ludicrous than it is, though, because the immediate and overarching concern is not the confrontations Zev has to make but the jeopardy of his advanced age, which coils you with unease as he navigates a world that he can barely comprehend. Indeed, Plummer succeeds in distracting you from the implausibilities of the narrative by imbuing his performance with vulnerability and grandfatherly benevolence that invests one in his character and story.

Labyrinth of Lies
Labyrinth of Lies is not an emotionally involving film but as a dramatization of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials it is well considered and illuminating. It follows Johann Radmann, a young, quixotic lawyer whose righteous indignation sees him launch a pointed investigation into those who collaborated with the concentration camp system.

He points out that just 150 people were convicted at Nuremberg, yet this figure seems to be sufficient for the average citizen of Frankfurt for the knowledge of what happened in the camps is seemingly too much to bear. The film’s depiction of the Germans’ willful ignorance of their immediate history is shocking as it is compelling. It reflects the paradigm shift that occurred in Allied foreign policy, which sought to transform their former enemy into a bulwark against the new Red Threat. Once the immediate denazification process was complete, seeking justice for the Holocaust was not a key interest or indeed an interest at all amongst much of the German and NATO establishment. It is in this contentious atmosphere that Radmann pursues the almost insurmountable task of bringing the collaborators to justice, and we see both the nobility and toxic alienation that comes with hard-nosed perseverance against the maddeningly blinkered status quo.

The best exchanges are between Radmann, his journalist ally Thomas Gnielka and Auschwitz survivor Simon Kirsch, who develop some degree of comradeship. Again, though, Labyrinth of Lies does not leave an impression on an emotional level. It focuses instead on period detail, both aesthetically and politically, illustrating the wilful amnesia and eventual reckoning in the formative years of the German Republic.

Hannah Arendt
When the capture of Adolf Eichmann stirred up the collective memory of the Holocaust in 1960, the reaction was one of disgust and incredulity, even amongst the learned circles that Hannah Arendt belonged to. Eichmann was caricatured as an evil monster that was to be confronted with his crimes in a dramatic show trial and then sent to his death once some sort of catharsis had been achieved.

Such emotionally driven responses were understandable but most often crass and unhelpful. Arendt had no time for such simplistic, knee-jerk thinking and instead sought to understand and explain Eichmann’s reasoning and ideology. Her conclusion was the now famous ‘banality of evil’, which posited that Eichmann was not a psychopath but a mere bureaucrat – a normal person with petty careerist aspirations. This thesis alone was a cause for concern amongst friends and colleagues in academic and media circles, but it was her claim that some Jewish leaders acted in a quasi-complicit manner during the Holocaust that triggered a vicious backlash. Arendt became the target of character assassination from the press, her peers and the public, who inundated the New Yorker with angry phone calls and threatening, abusive letters that made the risibly stupid accusation that Arendt was somehow a Nazi sympathiser. Hit pieces were also published in the New York Times and her faculty ‘recommended’ that she resign. It was a despicable act of feeble groupthink that is all too familiar in our age of no-platforming and safe spaces.

To her credit, Arendt remained absolutely steadfast, skewering her hysterical critics with considered argument and barbed wit. Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures Arendt’s conviction brilliantly, both her intellectual conviction as well as the intimate love she has for her husband Heinrich, which is keenly reciprocated. Of course, Arendt was not beyond reproach, no intellectual is, but the controversy depicted in Hannah Arendt was not a sensible dialogue but mob-thinking outrage. The ultimate message of this story is that the bulwark of reason, logic and dialogue should always be upheld, even when faced with the most horrendous circumstances.

Denial
In 2016 British director Mick Jackson returned to form with Denial, which depicts the Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt trial, a landmark event in postwar Holocaust denial. Early in the film, a student of Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) asks a question regarding Holocaust denial to which Lipstadt replies that she does not debate Holocaust deniers. This sentiment would be acceptable for your average Holocaust denier or troll, but David Irving, an historian whose early work has been praised by the likes of John Keegan and Hugh Trevor-Roper, wasn’t and isn’t that.

This is a problem, for the best way to defeat a warped, dishonest argument is with a reasoned, factual one – not indignant dismissal. Weisz’s Lipstadt displays this righteous indignation on several occasions and it is rather unbecoming of a professional historian, Jewish or not. The veracity of Weisz’s performance is unclear, but it felt as if these moments of emotional anger – especially during heated exchanges with her legal team – were written for the purpose of conflict and drama. It would have been better if these passages were replaced with wider dissections of Holocaust denial, chiefly the Leuchter Report. Despite the brevity of the trial scenes and Denial’s rather televisual style, though, it remains a robust drama that captures the stress and weight of the courtroom and serves as a stimulating gateway to the subject of Holocaust denial.

The Reader
The Reader has been described by several critics as ‘middle-brow’, a term that can smack of snobbery yet is appropriately leveled here. Stephen Daldry’s film concerns a whirlwind affair between Michael (David Kross), a bright young man with a flair for reading, and Hannah (Kate Winslet), an intense, aloof woman in her thirties who, in a rather contrived fashion, is revealed to have been a guard at Auschwitz and a separate, smaller camp.

Now the best thing about this somewhat middling film is the erotic candidness of their relationship. Their strange dynamic has real intimacy and a mystique that’s warped and unnerving. More pertinent to this list, though, is how the film depicts Germany’s reaction to the unique ghastliness of their recent history. During Hannah’s trial, there is a strong sense of unwillingness amongst the jury and the gallery to consider the abhorrent details of the Holocaust. They do not want justice, they want catharsis, so they will just convict whoever is accused in an attempt to reach it. This mob-thinking attitude is evident in both the jury and Michael’s university classmate Dieter (Volker Bruch), whose emotionally driven rants are unbecoming of a law student. However, these themes of collective memory and shame are better explored in other entries in this list.

The Pawnbroker
An oft-neglected entry in Sidney Lumet’s remarkable career, The Pawnbroker is a sombre performance piece led by Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman, the titular pawnbroker. Nazerman is a learned man who, before the soldiers came, had a fulfilling life of family and intellectual curiosity. He managed to survive and flee to the United States, but the murder of his family has reduced his psyche to a barren, nihilist wasteland devoid of joy and personality. The burden of his terrible suffering has ground him down until he just cannot function emotionally, so he treats everyone and everything with a distant contempt. It is only when well-intentioned locals impose themselves on him that he is fired up, albeit with the purpose of trenchantly castigating their ingenuous, pedestrian lives.

The arrival of the warm, empathetic Geraldine, a neighborhood social worker, poses a test to the complexities of Nazerman’s granite exterior, but the film provides no easy answers to his trauma or the crime and hardship of the Manhattan slum in which he exists.

Sophie’s Choice
Sophie’s Choice may appear to have that stale ‘prestige drama’ aura that The Reader has, but the titular ‘choice’ of this unusual film is far ghastlier than one can imagine. I entered with foreknowledge of her ‘choice’, but it is preferable that one does not, so it will not be repeated here.

The novel thing about Sophie’s Choice, for better or worse, is how we are told Sophie’s story through the perspective of Stingo, a soft southern writer. Some may make ideologically charged claims of the ‘male gaze’ when discussing Stingo, but he is better described as simply a distraction, an unnecessary narrative device. After all, Sophie’s desperate struggle and Streep’s virtuosic performance are more than enough to steer the narrative.

A justification for Stingo’s character, however, is that he serves as an amiable, grounded perspective in the utterly maniacal relationship between Sophie and Nathan (Kevin Kline), her psychotic partner. We join Stingo in observing the tempestuous dynamic that Nathan steers, which can range from displays of passionate affection to theatrically nasty arguments over the course of just one day.

Kline is excellent, genuinely unhinged; it is a performance that you remember. He takes second place, though, to Meryl Streep, who, with a pitch-perfect accent and masterful dramatic range, utterly becomes the tragic figure of Sophie Zawistowski.

Ida
Ida is firmly within the Eastern European tradition of harsh realism; its brooding tone and stark aesthetic having much in common with films like A Short Film About Killing, Import/Export and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Where Ida differs is its overwhelming reliance on mood to tell it story. It is reserved, perhaps to a fault, but the glumness of the characters, their situation and their surroundings go some way in capturing the zeitgeist of post-war Poland, which had survived the apocalyptic brutality of one enemy only to be occupied by another for four and half decades.

Everything is Illuminated
Adapted from Jonathon Safran Fore’s precocious autobiographical debut novel, Everything is Illuminated is by some measure the most offbeat and unconventional film in this list. It has more than a whiff of Wes Anderson in the visual way it depicts the protagonist’s obsession with mementoes as well as the quirky characters that assist him in his Ukrainian odyssey. Despite this, it avoids poor taste for it eschews sentimentality and does not overbear you with its idiosyncrasies.

Some critics have noted the loss of substance in the transition from page to screen and it is, to be frank, one of the more frivolous entries in this list, more so than even Remember. While ‘frivolous’ is not a word many would like to be associated with this subject, Everything is Illuminated has enough offbeat charm and striking cinematography to find an audience.

Sarah’s Key
The title of this French drama echoes that of Sophie’s Choice and its significance is similarly hateful. The film opens by thrusting the viewer into a cramped apartment in Nazi-occupied Paris; in it is a family of four, gripped with fear as the authorities bang at their door. For thousands of Jews across France, this was the beginning of the end. French complicity in the Holocaust killed some 77,000 people, and Sarah’s Key depicts the frenzy and maddening injustice of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and beyond with visceral energy.

These moments are relayed to us through flashbacks, for the bulk of the film concerns Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris. Having written about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in the past, she becomes deeply curious when her French husband inherits a Parisian flat that his grandparents moved into in August 1942. Convinced that Jews had been evicted the property, she doggedly investigates until the ghastly truth is unraveled for all concerned.

It is an absorbing film, no doubt, and Thomas’s performance has a subtle and affecting emotional range despite her default frostiness. However, the contrast in intensity between the flashbacks and the contemporary story causes one to wonder if Sarah’s Key would have been better if it was solely a period piece, a feeling that is somewhat reinforced by lashings of melodrama towards the end. And yet, despite the distractions of the narrative’s toing and froing, Sarah’s Key manages to thoroughly absorb, intrigue and invest you.

Honourable Mentions

Judgment at Nuremberg
Much like Labyrinth of Lies would do 50 years later, Judgment at Nuremberg depicts the messy, overwhelming task of holding to account the bureaucrats and middle managers of the Nazi regime. Like all good legal dramas there are scathing zingers fired between the prosecution and the defence, but the film’s three-hour commitment to educating its audience despite being merely inspired by the Nuremberg Trials causes one to wish they were watching an actual documentary account of the event rather than a semi-fictional one.

 

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

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The first thing that must be said about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it is a step in the right direction for Martin McDonagh. Everyone loved In Bruges, it was a perfect blend of the dark and the humorous, and it had a lot of heart, too. However, that pathos was lost in his sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, which favoured cineliterate metafiction and frivolous pop-culture gags.

A cursory read of the synopsis will tell you that Three Billboards is more than a return to the dark tragedy of his debut. Indeed, just the title suggests that McDonagh has once again made the location of his story a character in itself, only this time we have the verdant mountains of the Deep South (it was filmed in North Carolina) rather than the spires and canals of medieval Bruges.

This sweeping backdrop is the stage of a vicious yarn about small town America and small town attitudes. In short, it is about Mildred, a tough, belligerent woman who uses a provocative message spread across three billboards with the aim of reigniting the search for her daughter’s murderer(s). Again, Mildred doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but just when you think that there are no cracks in her granite veneer, the textured interplay of McDonagh’s characters start to reveal them. This is especially true of Mildred’s relationship with Sheriff Willoughby, which, despite all the public mud slinging, has an underlying respect and mutual schadenfreude sense of humour. Their chemistry has a particularly poignant depth when Mildred swiftly drops her prickly facade to comfort him in a desperate moment. Scenes like these that are the highlights of Three Billboards.

However, there are several problems with the film, both small and large. Firstly, there’s too much swearing. It may well be an honest depiction of the way these people speak, yet much of the incessantly crude language seem to be played for the laughs, and it didn’t elicit many from me. Secondly, there are several questionable castings, namely Abbie Cornish, who is too young and too Australian to be a credible wife to Sheriff Willoughby. Even more egregious is Samara Weaving’s performance as Penelope, the stupid young girlfriend of Mildred’s white trash ex-husband. Again, she is just not credible; a girl with her kind of wholesome attractiveness just wouldn’t be with a scummy lowlife like Charlie – she needed to be brassier. The worst thing about her character, though, is how flatly written she is. In fact, she’s not a character but a cheap, ditsy punchline delivered with wide-eyed obviousness.

The third and most problematic issue, however, lies with the narrative. There are two important acts of violence in the film, Jason Dixon’s brutal assault of Red, and Mildred’s firebombing of the police station. One can see how these violent set-pieces serve as the nadir of the each character’s tempestuous personality, but the problem is that they go unaccounted for. These are both serious crimes, yet Jason merely loses his job and Mildred is barely even questioned; I’m sorry, but such drastic crimes would have interrupted and overruled whatever was happening beforehand. Some may argue that such narrative matters should be overlooked, but credibility matters.

These flaws prevent Three Billboards from entering great movie territory, but Martin McDonagh’s third effort remains a well-acted and engrossing drama that sometimes hits the same darkly humorous notes of his superb debut.

To read my film diary, visit my Letterboxd.

Stalker (1979)

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Andrei Tarkovsky has something of a personality cult in cinematic circles. He brushes shoulders with the other masters like Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini – the sorts of filmmakers who often feel beyond reproach. To criticise their work would cause frowns to burrow and eyebrows to rise; it may even invite vicious ad-hominem attacks, especially back in the good old days of the IMDb message boards.

Tackling their oeuvres can therefore be a daunting task, particularly when the chosen film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long. This needn’t be a problem, though. Just look at Seven SamuraiLawrence of Arabia and The Godfather – none of these films feel as long as they are, and I don’t even particularly like Seven Samurai. Tarkovsky, however, forces you to endure every doggone minute ofStalker.

Indeed, when Tarkovsky screened the film to producers, they urged him to tighten the film up, which infuriated the auteur so much that he made it even slower. So, when you soporifically consider the meaning of one of Stalker’s many gratuitously slow shots, just remind yourself that it is the result of petty self-indulgence, not ‘genius’.

Read the full article at: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2017/07/it-determinedly-resists-definitive-interpretation-stalker-blu-ray-review/

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

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Hacksaw Ridge spins a crowd-pleasing yarn about a simple man who possessed extraordinary mettle and bravery. Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious cooperator’ from Lynchburg, Virginia, saved approximately 75 wounded men during the Battle of Okinawa.

It was a dreadful battle – the bloodiest of the Pacific Theatre. Some 12,520 US troops died while an estimated 110,000 Japanese perished. Mel Gibson, whose last film Apocalypto displayed his talent for breakneck action sequences, channels that same ferocity into Hacksaw Ridge’s superlative depiction of the landmark battle.

The combat scenes are loud, frenetic and protractedly visceral. Gore explodes from the screen while the excellent sound engineering surrounds you with whizzing bullets and thunderous explosions.

To continue reading, please follow the link: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/reviews/mel-gibsons-epic-hacksaw-ridge-reviewed.html

The Coming War on China (2016)

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John Pilger’s The Coming War on China is an ominous examination of the war games between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Pilger is a venerable Australian journalist who has made 60 documentaries about an impressive range of sociopolitical subjects such as the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide, Indigenous Australians and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is often critical of Western foreign policy, but The Coming War on China is a largely even-handed documentary that will enlighten and perhaps challenge your position on Sino-American relations.

It opens with footage of a devastated Hiroshima and war-torn Vietnam while the pomp and circumstance of the Star Spangled Banner plays in stark contrast. This clear contradiction is a harbinger of what’s to come; both countries are criticised, but the United States’ transgressions are given particular emphasis (well, I’d argue that Hiroshima was not a transgression).

After the brief, foreboding title sequence, we are shown a montage of news clips reporting China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, which is punctuated by some Fox News foghorn saying “we, the US, have to be much more aggressive in dealing with the Chinese government!” One suspects that this pundit is ignorant of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy, which is drastically increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/12/compelling-enlightening-damning-stuff-the-coming-war-on-china-documentary-review/

The Alan Clarke Collection: Disruption

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The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.

The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, andDisruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.

Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.

Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.

As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.

This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘will.i.am’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.

To continue reading, please visit Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/06/an-exhaustively-definitive-tribute-the-alan-clarke-collection-disruption-dvd-boxset-review/

 

The Neon Demon (2016)

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The Neon Demon is the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur best known for his blood-spattered fetishisation of Ryan Gosling. The film’s not released until 8 July, but I was fortunate enough to attend a preview screening and Q&A with Refn, or NWF as he’s now calling himself, at Manchester’s HOME cinema.

Let’s begin by saying that it is a marked improvement on his last work Only God Forgives, the Bangkok-set misfire which strew terrible characters, terrible dialogue and dull Oedipal metaphors over 90 tedious minutes.

For The Neon Demon, Refn has left Thailand and taken us back to Los Angeles, the sprawling city that Newton Thomas Sigel photographed so beautifully inDrive. Sigel hasn’t returned but Natasha Braier, his Argentine replacement known for her work on The Road, provides similarly dazzling visuals, from sweeping shots of the dusky Los Angeles basin to surreal and sparkling strobe-lit sequences.

To continue reading, please follow the link to Vulture Hound: http://vulturehound.co.uk/2016/06/supermodels-necrophilia-cannibalism-and-crude-metaphors-the-neon-demon-film-review/