Saturday, January 31, 2015

Spielberg's List

Of all the people who joined in observance of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, which was also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of the survivors of the Holocaust, Nobel Prize winning novelist Imre Kertész, was probably not so moved by the testimonies of survivors as the others, if past statements of his are to be believed. And he was probably miffed at the conspicuous presence of Steven Spielberg at the Auschwitz ceremony. Kertész takes curious exception to Spielberg's film Schindler's List, which is a matter of opinion. But he also has no use whatever for Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. I addressed the issue six years ago in a post I called Fateless But Fallible, and I repost it below.

Fateless But Fallible

From an informed and intelligent source comes another attack on Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, and his Shoah Foundation. Imre Kertesz, Holocaust survivor and award-winning novelist, wrote the script and apparently had "veto" control over Lajos Koltai's film adaptation of his novel Fateless. In an interview included in the Fateless DVD "special features", Kertesz makes his opinion of Schindler's List, Spielberg, and the Shoah Foundation unapologetically clear:

Kertesz: "Spielberg I dislike very much. Schindler's List is a mistake for a person who knows exactly what happened. Schindler's List is unacceptable for those people. It's unacceptable because all this horror is pictured like it's about the victory of humanity. But humanity will never get over the Holocaust. So it's a totally fake interpretation, it's a lie."

Interviewer: "This is your opinion of Spielberg's Foundation, too?"

Kertesz: "It is. It's not the right way to interview survivors, 500 old ladies who tell the same thing: 'we were deported, put in a wagon, we were thirsty, we were hungry, dogs were barking, there was yelling. . . .' We know that. I respect the survivors, I am one of them too. If somebody wants something to remain in the audience's mind, the stories of 500 survivors is not the way. The story of only one, that's the way, like in [Claude Lanzmann's documentary] Shoah. That's a film. When Muller, survivor of the Sonderkommando, starts to speak, everybody cries, although he himself is not even moved. Just tells the facts. . . . Look, lots of directors tried to reconstruct concentration camps. [In Schindler's List] they are speaking from the Auschwitz camp to Schindler. So they say 'Hello Boss!' through the barbed wire to a civilian passerby. That's ridiculous. But that's not the biggest problem, although it's a problem. The biggest problem is that it's inauthentic, that he has no idea of the whole thing."

This argument is an old one, going back to the first attempts to represent the Holocaust on stage and on film. Whenever a playwright or filmmaker attempted a mimetic approach to the subject - trying to re-create the camps realistically - there were predictable, and quite natural, objections, largely from the survivors themselves. (1) Some of them argued, as Kertesz does, that there cannot possibly be a re-creation of the Holocaust, that the subject is not "reduceable" in any linear, literal way. The only way to touch the subject through art, they argued, is in a non-linear, allusive way, as in Paul Celan's poem "Totesfuge" and in Alain Resnais' film Night and Fog.

But some of Kertesz's comments are disingenuous, as when he attacks the Shoah Foundation for recording the stories of "500 old ladies" and praises Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah for being "the story of only one". Shoah is more than nine hours of the stories of dozens of Holocaust witnesses, in their own words, carefully intertwined by Lanzmann to form a fascinating, comprehensive whole. When Kertesz claims that Filip Muller, survivor of five liquidations of the "special detail" at Auschwitz, "is not even moved" when he speaks, he is simply distorting the truth. If "everyone cries" when Muller speaks, it is because of his highly emotional delivery. In fact, Muller is so "unmoved" that he even breaks down in tears when he relates the moment when he knew that his life had no more meaning. And when Kertesz singles out a specific scene from Schindler's List for attack, he says that it is from "Auschwitz" where prisoners speak to Schindler through the "barbed wire". The scene is actually at Plaszow, not Auschwitz, and it is Stern, Schindler's bookkeeper, who motions to him through the fence. For someone who insists on the importance of getting the facts straight, and who claims that Spielberg got it all wrong, these factual errors are rather sad.

I think that what Kertesz found particularly objectionable in Spielberg's film was what he called the sense of "uplift" at the end, when Schindler has to flee Plaszow as the Russians advance and abandon the Jews that he saved in the camp to their fates. The film ends with what's left of these Jews visiting Schindler's grave, a long line of life streaming past a tombstone. If this is uplift, after all that we have witnessed in the film, then it is uplift by the skin of our teeth.

It is clear that Kertesz is so resentful of Spielberg and of Schindler's List that he was determined to hate them for having the presumption to trespass on a subject that he regards as his private preserve. Kertesz has conveniently forgotten a scene in his novel, and in the film, Fateless, that should be a warning to those who take on the responsibility of caretakers of history. When the war is over and Gyorgy and his compatriots are on their way back to Hungary, he is approached by a man in a railway station where the following exchange occurs:

Man: Did you see the gas chambers?
Gyorgy: We wouldn't be speaking now if I had.
Man: Did they exist?
Gyorgy: It depends. They definitely did in Auschwitz. But I've come from Buchenwald.
Man: From where?
Gyorgy: Buchenwald.
Man: From Buchenwald.
Gyorgy: Yes.
Man: So you heard about the gas chambers, but you didn't see them with your own eyes, right?
Gyorgy: Right.
Man: Thank you, that's all I wanted to know.

No single Holocaust survivor can speak for them all, since no single personal account of the Holocaust (which the film Shoah most definitely is not) can lay claim either to the entirety of the event or to all the ways in which it can be remembered. Kertesz may be a gifted novelist, but his account of his Holocaust is just one of thousands. The whole point of Spielberg's Foundation is that every account, regardless of its consistencies with other accounts (or perhaps because of them) contributes to our understanding of the Holocaust - despite some people's insistence that we cannot hope to understand it. And I have sad news for Kertesz: humanity has already "got over" the Holocaust. And that is the biggest problem.

(1) Bruno Bettelheim attacked Lina Wertmuller's use of a concentration camp in her film Seven Beauties (1976). In the film, an Italian prisoner decides that the only way to survive the camp is to seduce the camp commandant, who is a woman.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Exterminator

I have heard that Albert Schweitzer was such a thoroughgoing pacifist that he extended his "live and let live" philosophy to every level of the animal kingdom. It was said of him that, when he found some ants crawling on his operating table, he would carefully brush them onto the floor. 

I suppose that, if one intended to be a good pacifist, it's probably a good thing to extend it to all living things. I have found, however, that, for many reasons, pacifism is simply impracticable. Aside from the ultimate uselessness of turnIng the other cheek (you'll only get an even harder slap on the other) or laying down your weapons (someone else will pick them up), it hasn't stopped or shortened a single war in our dog eat dog world. Unlike the good doctor, if I notice an insect of any sort is crawling on my table, I will kill them with extreme prejudice.

I live in the Tropics, where insects - because they are cold-blooded - thrive. There are industrial-sized cockroaches and spiders. There are large stinging centipedes. There are disease-spreading mosquitoes. But the most successful and most prevalent insect here is the common ant, in all colors and sizes. In fact, the weight of all the world's ants is comparable to the weight of all the world's people. There are black ants that can colonize anywhere - even a linoleum floor under a cabinet. There are long-legged red tree ants. There are stinging red ants. There are ants that are colorless and so tiny they can only be detected by flashlight.  And there are red ants the size of a pinhead that bite and leave a welt on one's body the size of a quarter.

If one were to sprinkle some sugar on the floor in the middle of a room, within minutes there will be a trail of ants coming from under one's door, or a window, or from a crack in the wall. It will become obvious that ants have undermined one's entire house and live within the walls. Because insects - especially ants - are so ubiquitous in one's habitation, a can of insecticide is an item that I buy monthly and use on a daily basis.

In a house I once occupied in another part of my Philippine island, I had to spray insecticide periodically under the kitchen sink. Then I would wait a few seconds and watch as, one or sometimes two and three at a time, cockroaches would run out of the cabinet. The bug killer must be some kind of nerve agent, because, if you watch the cockroaches you will notice how they behave as if they are in frightful pain, running as fast as their six legs will carry them in every direction, until their legs stop working properly and they end up on their backs, kicking their ineffectual legs in the air.  

On one occasion, however, I had run out of insect killer. It was evening and I was sitting on my bed, about to enjoy my cup of coffee by the light of the television set. But when I put the cup, which had been lying on the floor, to my lips and took a sip, I discovered that a large number of ants - stinging red ants - were in the cup. One of them got in my mouth and stung my tongue. In a rage, I got out of bed and turned on the light to discover hundreds of ants had found the biscuits (crackers) that I kept in a covered basin next to the bed. 

With no insect spray, I set about killing the ants with my feet, stomping on as many of them as I could. I took the basin out onto my terrace and emptied its contents on the cement. I know that I must've killed hundreds within a few minutes. When I returned to my room, all that was left of the invasion force were a few lost ants whom I had overlooked. Normally, I would've traced the ants to their point of entry to the house, but because it was night, I decided I'd killed enough of them to drive home my point.

Since then, a bottle of Baygon Multi-Insect Killer is one of my first purchases at the start of the month. I'll bet that most people aren't aware that the famous Swiss Pharmaceutical company Bayer also makes products like insecticides and rat poison. To me, it makes perfect sense. In the absence of aspirin, nothing will cure my headache better than wiping out an entire colony of ants.

Despite the prevalence of insects here on my tropical island, an exterminator is nowhere to be found. Perhaps it's believed to be a lost cause or a never-ending battle with no ceasefires. I would settle for a Pyrrhic victory.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Book Thief

Last year I met an expat from Germany who was perhaps ten years older than I and somehow, during our conversation, I thought to myself that his father and my father fought on opposing sides in World War II. I then thought that my father had beaten his father and, since this particular German man came across to me as a complete jerk, I took some satisfaction in the thought.

I'm not one of those people who blames all Germans for Hitler and Nazism. Of the millions of killings attributed to Hitler, however, I'm fairly certain that none of them were actually committed by him. Some people, however, do blame all Germans - at least all Germans of the war generation, which makes it difficult for them to accept the tenuous attempts, in the years since the end of the war (sixty-nine years by now), to address the subject in dramatic work both historical and fictional.

Although it hasn't been systematic, and has been shown to have too many blind spots, the handling of the legacy of World War Two by Germans has been remarkable. Compared to Japan, which has turned its back so completely on its war crimes that it refused to even admit to many of them, Germany has at least tried to come to terms with its terrible history. 

A reliable reflection of this coming clean can be found in German films since 1945. Besides the numerous films made elsewhere about the war, there have been remarkably few that have tried to tell the German side of the story. There was Helmut Kautner's The Devil's General (1955), and, four years later, Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge. Since both of these excellent films took a grim view of the German military during the fall of Germany (there has never been a film, that I know of, about their extraordinary victories at the start of the war), their acceptance by audiences was less problematic.

Michael Verhoeven's excellent 1990 film Das Schreckliche Maedchen (stupidly titled The Nasty Girl in the U.S.) told the (true) story of a young German woman who discovers that many of her home town's most prominent citizens were Nazis, and risks her life exposing them. The film showed how, decades after the war, many Germans were reluctant to admit their own guilt. 

Then came the film Stalingrad in 1993, which, by portraying the struggle of doomed German soldiers in the city surrounded by the Russian army, seemed to take on a somewhat tragic air. It was the first time that a German film avoided blame. When it was premiered in New York on the 50th anniversary of the German surrender, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

"The film portrays the (historically unquestionable) courage of the German troops. We can't help wondering about the results if that courage had been rewarded. How much admiration or compassion can we feel for an army whose defeat was crucial to any chance that civilization may still have?" (1)

Since then, several films have tried to tell the history of the war from the perspective of Germans. For example, The Reader (2008), which was based on a best-selling novel, seemed to try to domesticate the subject by pushing one woman's war crimes to the periphery of the film's action. Because one German woman's guilt for her actions in the war (she was a concentration guard) wasn't the central subject of the film, it provoked Ron Rosenbaum to attack it in print. "This is a film," he wrote, "whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution." 

Because The Reader failed to engage audiences with whatever point it was trying to make (its "metaphorical thrust" had much more to do with guilt than with exculpation), Rosenbaum's objections were hard to believe. Those objections, however, seem to be custom made for a more recent film called The Book Thief (2013).    

About an hour into The Book Thief, there is a scene that could serve as the the film's epitome. The heroine, Liesel (played winsomely by the pretty - and Canadian - Sophie Nelisse), attends a night-time Nazi rally (part of Hitler's stagecraft) in which a large pile of books is burned. She stands in her Hitler Youth uniform with a crowd of people in the cold square while some Brownshirts make speeches. When the speech is finished, everyone joins in the Nazi salute and sings "Deutschland Uber alles" (by now, surely the most tedious national anthem we've ever had to sit through). Then everyone is obliged to throw one book into the bonfire. During the scene, Liesel learns that her mother, who gives her away early in the film to another family, was a Communist and that she was imprisoned by the Nazis. Liesel stays until everyone has left the square and approaches the smoldering bonfire. Making sure no one is watching, she extracts one of the books that is still intact from the ashes. When Hans, her adoptive "Papa" (Geoffrey Rush) approaches, she hides the smoking book under her coat, and as they walk away, Liesel starts to cough. "Are you Okay?" Hans asks. They walk a little farther and Liesel coughs some more. "Are you ill?" Hans asks. Finally, Liesel opens her coat and lets the smoking book fall to the cold ground. Hans picks its up and extinguishes the book's burning cover. "Did you steal this?" he asks Liesel. Liesel asks Hans if what she has learned about her mother is true. When he confirms it, she says, "I hate Hitler!"

Of course, Liesel didn't steal the book - she rescued it. As in The Reader (whose German title was Der Vorleser), Liesel reads the various books she "steals" to Max, a young Jewish man who hides in her basement. Liesel's adoptive family is clearly intended to be a microcosm of the German people. They are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth menschen - ordinary decent people who unfortunately have to endure the Nazis and the injustices they carry out all around them. In fact, all of the people in the film, except for the Gestapo and one of Liesel's ultra-Nazi classmates, are scrupulously decent. The film might lead someone with no prior knowledge to conclude that ordinary Germans were as much victims of Nazism as everyone else in Europe. I cannot recall another film since Robert Benigni's Life is Beautiful that tried so hard to misrepresent the events of the war in order to extract an uplifting - and utterly false - message from the war than The Book Thief

Never mind that the film (like the novel by the Australian author Markus Zusak) is narrated by Death, or that the only German spoken by the actors are the words "yes" ("ja") and "no" ("nein")(2), or that all the actors speak, or at least attempt to speak, in broad German accents, or that there isn't the slightest suggestion of sex in the film, despite the interminable toothsomeness of Liesel and her proximity to Max in many of their scenes (whereas The Reader was replete with sex between Hannah [Kate Winslet] and her underage "vorleser"), or that Liesel survives the war and becomes a writer and is finally spirited away by Death in advanced old age.  

But The Book Thief is not simply a bad movie. It is a kind of Anne of Green Gables Goes to War. If Liesel had appeared in one of Grimm's fairy tales, she would certainly have been eaten by a wolf or cooked in an oven by a witch. When the late Robin Williams was asked by a German interviewer why there are no funny people in Germany, he replied, "Because you killed them all!" I don't know how that interviewer or his audience reacted to Williams's riposte. (It would be worth something to have seen it.) But I am not one of those people who hold the Germans entirely responsible for the destruction of Europe and of nearly all European Jews. Perhaps many Germans were unaware, or only learned when it was too late, that they were selling their souls to a half-demented demon. But they sold them all the same. As Primo Levi wrote: "One human German does not whitewash the innumerable inhuman or indifferent ones." In The Book Thief we're confronted with a whole town full of human Germans. Whitewashing wholesale.    

(1) "A Battle," The New Republic, June 5, 1995.
(2) There is also "dummkopf," the pet name given to Liesel by her classmates when she demonstrates to them her inability to read or write.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Presumably, film has an advantage over literature and theater in that it doesn't require translation. Since a film exists mostly in images that are accessible to anyone with eyes, it's logical to assume that a film made in Timbuktu needn't be altered in order to be understood and enjoyed anywhere in the world. Such an assumption, however, is obviously illogical in the United States. Films from abroad have rarely fared well in the U.S. To make them at least approachable to Americans, distributors have resorted to applying subtitles to the films or to dubbing them with English-speaking voices.

I recall watching a television interview with native South African actress Charlize Theron not long ago and I was struck by her perfectly inflected American accent, despite her admission that she had chosen to abandon her native Afrikaner accent in order to find work in Hollywood. She spoke about her problems in casting calls, despite her striking good looks, because of her poor English and her thick accent. What the interviewer didn't pursue was why Theron, who was ostensibly being herself in the interview, wasn't relaxed enough to revert to her natural manner of speaking. She spoke a little Africaner, and pronounced her name the way it's pronounced by South Africans. but she spent the entirety of the rest of the interview speaking in a generic American accent.

In an increasing number of movies lately, Aussies and Brits and Irish and even non-English speakers - particularly Germans - are passing themselves off as Americans. Their presence in America films corresponds, of course, to their absence in Australian or British or German films. While I am not advocating race or gender-specific casting in theater or film, I find this trend objectionable for many reasons.

Never mind the prodigious number of foreign filmmakers who answered Hollywood's call. None of them had to pass themselves off as Americans - even if a few of them have tried to pass themselves off as something else that they weren't. Inside every foreign filmmaker, I'm sorry to say, there's a Cecil B. Schlemiel trying to get out. 

I won't claim that only American actors have the right or the ability to convincingly play Americans.* And I am entirely sympathetic to foreign actors' problems in being cast in leading roles in American productions. In the 1950s and '60s, numerous actors in Europe worked in other countries. French and Italian co-productions frequently cast French actors Alain Delon or Annie Girardot or Jean-Louis Trintignant, while also casting Spanish actors like Francisco Rabal or German actors like Hardy Kruger alongside Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, or Vittorio Gassman.

Previously, in Hollywood films, a foreign accent (unless it was British) almost guaranteed being cast as the villain. Some actors chose to give up their accents and others refused to do so. David Niven never altered his speech in any of his films. Neither has Michael Caine. For some foreign-accented actors with enough talent, it didn't seem to matter. But many others were doomed to type-casting.

A new generation of actors, however, is apparently determined to avoid being limited in their choice of roles by acquiring American speech that is scrupulously devoid of any foreign accent whatever. This doesn't pose a problem in most films, simply because the majority of movie roles aren't meant to be taken seriously in the first place. Who cares what accent Hugh Jackman uses when he plays Wolverine? (Shouldn't Thor have a Swedish - rather than a British - accent?) But what if a role requires an actor to have a regional American accent? When I saw Cold Mountain, for example, I was bemused by the presence of British and Australian actors on the screen in what was supposed to be the American South (but what was really Romania). Renee Zellweger, as one of the few Americans in the film, won an Oscar for her supporting performance, showing, I suppose, that blood is thicker than water. 

Lately, there have even been roles of historical African-Americans, like Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, that have been given to the British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo. These aren't just roles for actors of African descent to play, since history, especially in the case of King, is familiar to everyone. The performances of Ejiofor and Oyelowo have been acclaimed by virtually everyone. So my disappointment that African-American actors, descended from slaves, couldn't be found to play both roles is partially placated. And in the two previous films in which I noticed Oyelowo (The Help and Jack Reacher), I wasn't aware that he was British. But because he was playing a supporting role in those films, it didn't matter. 

African-American playwright August Wilson famously engaged theater director and critic Robert Brustein in a debate over the casting of actors in roles that differ from their ethnicity. Wilson insisted that only black actors should be cast in black roles, Asian actors in Asian roles, Hispanic actors in Hispanic roles, etc., not simply because ignoring it violates the playwright's or screenwriter's intentions but because only a black actor could possibly comprehend the psychology and motivations of a black character. 

I wonder what Wilson thinks about the casting of Afro-British actors, whose parents neither witnessed nor took part in the Civil Rights movement, as African-Americans. 

* After John Wayne was cast as Genghis Khan, Omar Sharif was cast as Doctor Zhivago, and Alec Guiness was cast as Prince Feisal (to pick only a few of the more laughable examples), such an argument gets a little silly.      

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Night at the Crossroads

There have been moments in every war since the beginning of time in which soldiers, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles from home, asked the same question, in every language living or dead, that unites them all in spirit: "What the hell am I doing here?"

In my case it happened when I was in the Army stationed in South Korea. It was January in 1998, and a cold wave had struck the peninsula with freezing rain. My unit, 1/15th Field Artillery, was in the field when the cold weather arrived. We had been there, somewhere near the DMZ (we were never told exactly where), for a week with all of our combat track vehicles, three huge 155mm self-propelled howitzers, known as "Paladins," ammunition vehicles, and two old 577s - Vietnam-era personnel carriers converted to fire-direction centers.

At our designated firing point, we were all preparing for our return to garrison at Camp Casey farther to the south, but the ice on the roads delayed us for two crucial days. Finally, after two days or waiting, we were told that we could move, but we had to wait until after midnight. This was because there were no tank trails anywhere for our track vehicles to travel on, so we had to drive on the available public roads whenthere was a minimum of traffic. 

Five of us were "volunteered" to act as road guards at different intersections through which our convoy would be passing, on the outside chance that anyone would be driving the roads at that hour. So just after midnight, I donned my gortex jacket and gloves, got into "full battle rattle" - kevlar helmet & LBE (load-bearing equipment) - grabbed my M16, and climbed into the back of a waiting humvee. As we drove through the night, at intervals one of us would be deposited on the pavement at an intersection. 

I was the first to climb out of the humvee, and after collecting my gear, I watched the humvee drive out of sight. What struck me immediately was the stillness of the place where I was left standing. The chill in the air meant that I would not even hear the sound of an insect. I turned around and looked at the crossroads I was put there to guard. On one corner stood a two-storey house with a streetlight beside it. Across the road was another light pole and a traffic light was suspended by a cable above the road. There were people living in there, somewhere, but they were evidently fast asleep. They were unaware that an American soldier was standing on their street with an M16. My rifle wasn't loaded, and they hadn't given me any live ammo, so if someone threatened me with a loaded .22 pistol - or even a sharp stick - I would've surrender my M16, or anything else they wanted from me.

On the other corners of the crossroads stood what looked like shops with their metal shutters pulled down. Not wearing a watch, which would only have made the long wait seem that much more interminable, I tried to dole out the time in small measures by counting the number of my steps on the road, with each step equal to one second, from the end of the two-storey house down to the corner opposite the streetlight. The distance was almost exactly sixty steps, so rather than counting steps, all I had to do was count the minutes every time I had to turn around. This exercise of mine grew tedious after ten minutes, so I let my thoughts drift for the rest of the time I waited for the convoy to arrive.

I thought about the moment, the cold January night (I didn't know the exact date), and what I would do when we got back to our motor pool in Camp Casey and I was released in the morning. I stopped when I reached the corner and instead of turning around I walked to the middle of the road and looked into the air above me. So there I was, in the middle of Nowhere, South Korea, wondering with whom - if anyone - I could ever share such an odd moment. The few stars I could see beyond the streetlights would've seemed unfamiliar even I had recognized them - a star that led three wise men least of all. I was 39 years old, not knowing what I would make of the Army, or what it would make of me. Of course, there were plenty of places I'd rather have been, especially on that night. 

My wife, my mother, brother and sister were in Colorado, probably making the most of their freedom to go and do as they pleased. Was I, a soldier armed with an unloaded rifle, standing alone in the middle of a road I couldn't find on a map - even if I had one - really making that freedom possible? Of course, the task I was performing had to be done by someone, so what did it matter if it was performed by me, just another soldier in uniform, rather than someone else? 

After what seemed an eternity, an eternity in which I reminded myself several times that it was taking forever for my unit's convoy to show up, it arrived at the crossroads where I stood, fending off nonexistent traffic, and I quit my post and climbed into the back of a humvee for the long ride back to the motoropool, our barracks, civilian clothes, hot food and cold beer. These 17 years and an overabundance of living later, I think of that cold night and write down these words as if I were telling of an encounter with extraterrestrials. Who would believe me if I told them?