May 31, 2011
Nazis, newspapers and Nuremberg
Once again, the summer season, noted for youth-oriented blockbusters, manages to include some serious fare aimed at more mature, discerning audiences, including several projects dealing with the World War II era and its aftermath.
The filmmakers of “The Debt,” a Nazi-hunter movie slated to open Aug. 31, could not have planned their release any better. The movie, which arrives on the heels of the American assassination of Osama bin Laden, concerns three Mossad agents who become iconic figures for having hunted down and killed a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). The plot cuts back and forth between the 1960s, when the capture and killing is reported to have occurred, and the late 1990s, when the three are confronted by unexpected and unsettling events. “The Debt” is double-cast, with one set of actors playing the Israeli agents during the earlier time period and another set portraying the three some 30 years later. The older version of the central character is played by Helen Mirren, the younger one by Jessica Chastain.
Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) said he was attracted to the material because he felt it had the potential to engage audiences on several levels.
“It has to do with people accounting for sins of the past, as it were — in particular, the pursuit of a Nazi war criminal, and the bringing of that person to justice. So the material is compelling to start with. It’s also an extraordinarily good thriller. It has a great narrative. But, above and beyond that, and this is what’s unusual about it, it has a psychological and emotional complexity, and, indeed, a moral complexity that is unusual to find in contemporary thrillers.”
Madden continued, “It’s about the relationship between present and past, not just in the whole idea of what does it means to bring somebody to justice some period of time after those events have been supposedly committed. … But, the film is also about moral responsibility.”
The moral and legal responsibility of the major Nazi perpetrators was ultimately determined in the precedent-setting war crimes trial at Nuremberg, which was documented in 1948 by Stuart Schulberg in his film “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.” The doc consists of highlights from the trial, including the legendary opening and closing speeches by Justice Robert H. Jackson, and presentations by prosecutors from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The prosecution bolstered its case using footage that Schulberg and his brother, Budd, had helped assemble from the Nazis’ own films and photographs, along with motion pictures taken as the Allies liberated some of the concentration camps, and the documentary interweaves that material with the trial segments.
Although shown in Germany after the war, “Nuremberg” was never released in the United States. Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, spent some five years restoring her father’s film so it could be shown in this country.
“If I were not a professional film producer,” Sandra Schulberg said, “it might never have occurred to me to restore the film and try to get it released in the U.S. But, faced with the facts — the fascinating mystery of what had happened to ‘Nuremberg’ after its German release — this seemed to be my schicksal, my fate. ‘If not I, then who?’ I thought. ‘If not now, when?’ ”
Schulberg also wanted to find out exactly why her late father’s film had been suppressed in this country.
“In the fall of 1949, nearly a year after the German release of the film,” she said, “John Norris, a reporter for The Washington Post, began an investigation. His first story, dated Sept. 19, was headlined: ‘Army Reluctant To Clarify Inaction On Nuremberg Film.’ ”
As part of his article, Norris wrote: “It is known that strong forces in the Army opposed the entire war crimes program from the beginning — or at least after it was decided to try German army chiefs and general staff members. Army Secretary Kenneth Royall and Undersecretary Draper were said to be in this camp and clearly were in favor of rebuilding Germany as a bulwark against communism. Too quickly and with too little regard for a resurgence of Nazism, some said.”
Schulberg explained that Norris’ charges were substantiated by a letter from Secretary Kenneth Royall, addressed to Justice Jackson.
“To my surprise,” she said, “the letter is dated November 1948, almost a year before The Washington Post got on top of the story. Royall writes to Jackson: ‘In this country no general release is under consideration. It is my opinion that the theme is contrary to present policies and aims of the government; therefore it is felt that the picture at this time can be of no significant value to the Army and Nation as a whole.’ ”
Now, more than 60 years after it was made, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today [The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]” is being seen by American audiences for the first time.
The documentary has a one-week exclusive engagement, June 3-9, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, and Sandra Schulberg will appear on June 3 at the 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. screenings; and on June 4 and 5 at the 12:45, 3, 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 screenings.
Another film that involves the Nazi era is the French offering, “Sarah’s Key,” scheduled for a June 3 release. As with “The Debt,” this movie goes back and forth in time. It begins in 1942, during the German occupation of France. Ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is playing with her younger brother Michel (Paul Mercier) when the French police, who are arresting Jews in the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, knock on their door. To protect him from being captured, Sarah locks her brother in a cabinet, tells him not to move until she returns, and keeps the key as she and her parents (Natasha Mashkevich, Arben Bajraktaraj) are taken to a stadium, the Velodrome, where thousands of Jews are held under inhuman conditions. Sarah, desperate to return home and free her brother, is ultimately transported to a camp and housed with other children. She and a friend escape and eventually are given refuge by a couple (Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot ) who live on a farm. When the couple finally takes her back to her old apartment, now occupied by another family, she makes a devastating discovery.
The present-day story centers on Julia Armand (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist, who is in France compiling a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv. In the course of her research she is stunned to discover that the apartment she and her French husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), plan to occupy was once the Starzynskis’ apartment and was obtained by Bertrand’s family shortly after the Starzynskis were arrested. She then goes on a quest to find out what happened to Sarah, who was raised by the French farmers as their daughter. In the course of her search, which ends in Brooklyn, layers of secrets are uncovered.
During an interview with reporter Gaynor Flynn that appeared in the Australian publication The Blurb, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who is Jewish, said that the story had personal meaning for him because he lost some of his family in concentration camps.
But he stressed in the interview that he wanted Sarah to be a symbol of what can happen to any group, not only to Jews, and he pointed out that such a character could easily be from Rwanda or Palestine, so that anybody can connect with the story.
Nazism is also present in the biopic “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” opening Sept. 2, which chronicles the dissolute life of the famous French-Jewish singer/songwriter/musician Serge Gainsbourg.
The character’s chutzpah is evident when, as a youngster during the German occupation, he demands to be the first to get the obligatory yellow star. The story is essentially about the descent of a brilliant talent given to excess as a smoker, drinker and lover. Gainsbourg became a huge success for his music, which encompassed jazz, pop, reggae, funk, calypso and disco, among other genres. He had affairs with a series of beauties, including Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). His third wife was the considerably younger British actress and singer Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) with whom he recorded “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” a highly erotic duet that, in the film, prompts Gainsbourg’s music producer (Claude Chabrol) to warn that the release could land them in jail.
When Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991, at the age of 62, French President Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He elevated the song to the level of art.”
Life in postwar Holland, as indicated by the film “Bride Flight,” was bleak, what with floods, housing shortages and very little opportunity for young people. Consequently, there were waves of emigration. The movie, which opens June 10, covers some 50 years and was inspired by the “Last Great Air Race” of 1953 that began in London and ended in Christchurch, New Zealand. The term “Bride Flight” refers to the young women on the plane who were following their fiancés to New Zealand to begin what they hoped would be a better life.
Though the characters are fictional, the events are based on the actual experiences of women who were interviewed by the script’s writer.
The film revolves around three such women and one man who all become friends on the flight; Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), whose family died in a Japanese prison camp and who is looking for a new beginning; Marjorie (Elise Schaap), who makes a happy marriage but is unable to have children; Ada (Karina Smulders), who gets married because she is pregnant, but whose marriage is marred by her attraction to another man; and Esther (Anna Drijver), a budding fashion designer who remains unmarried but gets pregnant and, as a Jewish woman, is adamant that she doesn’t want a Jewish child. “Esther had terrible experiences during Holland’s occupation by the Germans,” director Ben Sombogaart explained. “Her entire family, including her parents and little brother, were taken away from her and killed in the Nazi camps. Then she decided not to have a Jewish child because she wanted to avoid the same thing happening to him or her.”
The four main characters go their separate ways at first, but their lives continually intersect over the decades, sometimes with catastrophic results. As the women reconnect, late in life, at a funeral, they are able to make peace with their history.
“‘Bride Flight’ is a film about roots, about surviving,” Sombogaart said, “about the power, the strength of people to restart a life in a country where they speak another language, have another culture. It is about realizing and living your dreams. But the movie also tells you that people can’t flee from their past. One day the past will overtake them.”
Opposites attract in “The Names of Love,” opening July 1, a French comedy by filmmaker Michel Leclerc that has profound issues at its core.
Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) is an uptight, 40-ish scientist who investigates communicable animal diseases. During a radio interview, he meets Bahia Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), a seductive, young, free-spirited political extremist who converts men to her radical viewpoint by seducing them and planting her ideas into their minds at opportune moments. She is immediately taken with Arthur, whom she considers a formidable challenge.
They become lovers, both with shadows hovering over their lives. Arthur is the son of a French man and a Jewish woman who was hidden as a child during the Holocaust and never speaks of her past or her ethnicity. Bahia, the daughter of an illegal Arab immigrant from Algeria and a radical French woman who married to make a political statement, was repeatedly molested as a child by her piano teacher.
The film is very much about being the “other,” and deals with such issues as the relations between Arabs and Jews, French attitudes toward foreigners, anti-Semitism and immigration.
Are you reading this article online, or are you holding a hard copy of the paper?
As newspapers are losing readers and advertisers to the Internet, and as many are folding, the lines are being drawn between traditional print media and the so-called “new media.” Questions about the value of unfiltered news posted by “citizen journalists,” as opposed to the work done by vetted reporters with proven credentials, are being widely debated. Director Andrew Rossi got heretofore unavailable access to the inner sanctum of The New York Times, the reputed gold standard of print outlets, which now finds itself struggling in the current media environment. His film, “Page One,” opening June 24, reveals that the tried-and-true methods of authentic journalism are still vibrant at the Times. But, in an interview, Rossi vividly recalled one telling incident.
“I arrived at the Times newsroom to find Brian Stelter, the former blogger who now covers media for the paper, hovering over his computer, watching the video of a U.S. Apache helicopter shooting down two Reuters journalists and several Iraqi civilians. It had just been leaked by WikiLeaks. The talk in the newsroom was all about how the leak was a modern-day version of the Pentagon Papers — and an example of how the Times wasn’t the all-powerful presence it once was.”
Rossi added, “The movie really looks at how the gap between “old” and “new” is closing. In the film, we see David Carr, the Times’ intrepid media columnist, vehemently defending on-the-ground reporting while extolling the value of Twitter in connecting him to a ‘wired collective voice.’ So the Times itself is actually a great example of an institution that’s figuring out this new news environment. The question is, what will be gained and lost as old and new continue to collide and converge?”
From the halls of The New York Times and “all the news that’s fit to print,” we move to the offbeat documentary about the bizarre exploits of former beauty queen Joyce McKinney, who fell desperately in love with a young Mormon man and pursued him relentlessly. Filmmaker Errol Morris interviews McKinney and several of the men who became involved with her story in “Tabloid,” scheduled to open July 15.
During the 1970s, McKinney became enraptured with Kirk Anderson, who suddenly disappeared from her life when he was sent by the Mormon Church to do missionary work in England. She claimed he was abducted by the Church, and she set out for England to “liberate” him. What occurred next is open to dispute.
With the help of her friend, Keith May (K.J.), McKinney took Anderson to a cottage in Devon, where she chained him, spread-eagled, to a bed and had sex with him repeatedly over the next few days. She insisted it was all consensual and that he was able to leave at any time. Once he did get free, he reported to the police that he had been kidnapped, held against his will, chained to the bed and raped. McKinney was arrested and spent three months in a British prison before being released on bail. She and May, her co-defendant, fled the country and returned to the United States. In 1984, she was arrested in Utah for allegedly stalking Anderson, who was married by then, at his work, and, before she could stand trial, she again fled and evaded prosecution. According to the film, McKinney remains a fugitive from justice.
Her escapade in England became fodder for the British tabloid press, which followed McKinney relentlessly, a situation she claims caused her great distress. Morris said the British have a view of tabloid culture that is different from ours.
“I think that both the Brits and the Americans are capable of extremes and excess, maybe just not the same kinds of extremes and excess. It is interesting to me that this was a very newsworthy case in the U.K., but really did not make it to this side of the Atlantic. People were scarcely aware of it over here.”
Reporter Peter Tory of England’s Daily Express, says in “Tabloid” that he filed McKinney’s story as she told it. In contrast, Kent Gavin, a photographer for the Mirror who also appears in the film, says he uncovered pornographic shots of McKinney, along with evidence that she had worked in the sex trade. She denies his allegations and claims that the photos were doctored.
Her odyssey ends with the cloning of her dog after his death, along with her stated goal of writing a book about her “very special love story.”
Referring to the movie as his favorite project, Morris said, “It’s one of the oldest kinds of stories about romance and love. What gives it an unusual character here is that Joyce persisted in this for so many, many, many years. It became, if you like, a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s of interest. But I think it’s an incredibly complex story, an interesting one.”
As to whose version of events is the truth, Morris said, “I don’t know what really happened in that cottage. Did she rape Kirk Anderson? It seems far-fetched. Did she abduct him at gunpoint? Perhaps. Alas, we’re playing with an incomplete deck. Kirk Anderson won’t talk, and K.J. is dead. I don’t think she’s a completely trustworthy narrator, no.”
In the movie, Tory comes to the conclusion that McKinney is “barking mad.” Whether she is, or merely misunderstood, is left for the viewer to decide.
As scandals go, the one surrounding financial fraud Bernie Madoff was a case of epic proportions. So far, there have been a few films centering on Madoff, and more are being planned. Now there is a movie about the whistleblower who spent some 10 years investigating Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and trying in vain to get the regulators, the press and anyone else who would listen, to do something that would stop the swindler. “Chasing Madoff,” opening Aug, 26, is based on the book “No One Would Listen,” by Harry Markopolos, a securities analyst who needed all of five minutes to realize that Madoff Securities was a scam that was fleecing investors out of billions of dollars.
In his preliminary research, director Jeff Prosserman discovered the report titled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund Is A Fraud,” that Markopolos had given, in vain, to the SEC in 2005.
“Why did no one listen to Markopolos?” Prosserman wondered. “Who else was guilty that had yet to be brought to justice? And, most grippingly, what personal tolls did he endure? I was absolutely convinced that this story needed to be revealed to the world.”
The documentary plays like a detective saga as Markopolos and his fellow sleuths uncover the details of the deception, which reached across the globe, along with the complicity of other individuals and organizations.
“Although Madoff is currently serving a 150-year prison sentence, I believe there are hundreds, if not thousands, who aided and abetted the scheme that will evade justice,” Prosserman observed. “Some suggest that the funds that were feeding their client’s money into Madoff were duped, but when you do the research it becomes extremely difficult to buy that argument. These funds were making too much money.”
The director continued, “Many of these people were willfully blind. They were greedy, and with less than a dozen arrests made since the scandal collapsed, they’re still out there.”
But it is the SEC that gets the brunt of the blame. The film includes footage in which members of a Congressional investigating committee excoriate representatives of the regulatory agency for not doing their job.
“You have to wonder,” Prosserman said, “that if the regulators were not able to stop a fraud this large, how will they uncover much smaller frauds in the future? Everyone receives a bank statement every month. We each trust that what that particular institution states is correct. I hope after they see the movie, people are outraged by what they discover. ‘Chasing Madoff’ is a warning. This isn’t over yet.”
As for the summer’s blockbuster, “X-Men: First Class” opens June 3 and is based on the Marvel comic book about mutants who battle threats to the world. The film contains a Jewish character called Magneto, who is a survivor of Auschwitz that rejected his human nature and his religion in favor of identifying as a mutant driven to confront the oppression of his adopted species.