Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo – A Reivew

Citizen 13660
Miné Okubo
University of Washington Press, 2014, pg 219 pages

Cleaning Stable for Bedroom
Cleaning a Stable for a Bedroom

Citizen 13660, originally published in 1946, was one of the first accounts of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It is also one of the first graphic novels. It is a work of both historical and artistic importance, one that gives an early voice to the same of the camps and helps set a new approach for visual narrative.

While comic books had existed in some form or another for at least 10 years, newspaper comics for nearly 50, and there were more serious narrative works from authors like Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel during the 30s, an actual graphic novel that we recognize today did not exist. Okubo’s work is not a true graphic novel either, at least in a modern sense. It is a more transitional work. Like Ward and Masreel, she uses single wordless panels to narrate her work, but unlike them she also includes a textual description below. Where as Ward and Masreel had to use their drawings as narrative, Okubo is free to use her work as something more documentary, which is important because she is more focused on reportage, rather than fictional narrative. As such each image stands alone, as she were a photo-journalist. Many of the drawings don’t need a caption as they explain themselves, but the use of the caption expands the meaning of her drawings and weaves them into a narrative that brings the whole experience together.

Building Furniture
Building Furniture

It is the experience, of course, that is Okubo’s main preoccupation. An experience that she lived. In almost every panel she can be found somewhere. The two in this review show her quite clearly, but even in a great crowd scene she is clearly visible. It is at once autobiographical and a statement of power, as if she were saying, I know this because I was there. The visual approach can become sardonic, as when she shows a Caucasian spying through a peephole while she, in turn, is poking her head around a corner spying on him. It is in these moments she shows not only how the internees survived, but tired to take as much control of their own situation. You can’t stop a spy, but at least you can keep track of him.

Most of the drawings, though, are of daily life, both the indignities of the whole internment process, and the way the internees made the best of what they had to create a new life that put them in degrading and difficult circumstances. Okubo does not avoid any detail, from the way the bathrooms were configured for the women, to how they were forced to sleep in horse stables, whose smell was terrible. After spending several months at horse race track in California, she was sent to Topaz, Utah. Topaz was an inhospitable place, where wind storms blew alkaline sand everywhere and the winters were cold in their tar paper dormitories. Topaz, like Manzanar and other camps, was not placed in an area where anyone would want to live. Yet the internees built the best version of their lives they could. From baseball to sumo wrestling to gardening, they reestablished the culture they knew, both American and Japanese. They organized their own schools to make sure the children did not go without. Okubo was among many of the volunteer teachers.

The book ends with her release from the camp: “My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.” It is an abrupt end, but a fitting one for a work like this, whose power is in looking at the indignities of the internment. Moreover, there is nothing more that she can do in 1946, but bear witness. Certainly, there have been other works on the subject, but in its raw documentary form it is a vital account of the internment disaster.

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris – A Review

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Mark Harris
Penguin Books, 2014, 511 pg

I once proposed you could find in the propaganda films of World War II the answer for the increasing post war militarization of the United States. I spent 120 pages and six months doing it. I have since concluded that’s impossible. However, ever since then I’ve had an abiding love for World War II era films (and for that mater, ephemera) and an interest in their creation. Koppes and Black’s work in the late 80’s and early 90’s covered much of this. While in Five Came Back, Harris focuses on the directors Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens, he also touches on much of the politics that surrounded the five men. In many ways, Five Came Back is a detailed examination of Hollywood during the war that uses the five directors as its focal point. It is a fascinating portrait that is both detailed and critical.

In focusing on the five directors, Harris is trying to tell the story of the men, the war, their art, and the aftermath of the war. That last element is key to the book, as Harris is interested in more than the war, or the politics of it, but the human toll. It is that focus that makes the book more than a history of the war, but a history of the effects of the war. Following the five men, also allows Harris to show all flaws and egos of the men and how that fit into the larger narrative of the war. It is that human element that is often missing from histories of the subject, which is too bad, because given the grandstanding the Ford, Capra, and Huston did makes one wonder how the war was ever won.

Harris definitely admires Wyler and Stevens and I think respects Huston as a solder-film maker. Wyler and Stevens in particular did not grandstand, took their work serious and were effected by the war, Wyler both physically and emotionally, and let that flow into their work. Huston might get that respect, but he was also busy chasing skirts and like Ford and Capra, also very interested in turning the movies they made for the government into their personal projects, ones they could show in theaters and get credit, perhaps even an academy award. Wyler and Stevens, on the other hand, stayed in the military for the duration, risked their lives, especially Wyler when he went out on B17 missions, and did not use their films as a chance for personal glory. The Memphis Belle is perhaps the most emblematic of the war-time documentaries and is perhaps the best. It is about the men and, unlike many of the others that came out at the time, does not use reenactments, something that put Wyler at great risk to create. Eventually, Wyler would lose most of his hearing while flying in Italy.

Ford and Capra come in for some heavy criticism. Both of the men were higher ranking then the other three and definitely interested in personal glory. Ford, for example, took all the footage he shoot during the Battle of Midway and secreted it to the mainland and created his own documentary outside of government channels. He then wanted it released, much like Capra would with his Why We Fight series, to the general public, in part so they would be illegible for an Academy Award. This kind of behavior brought them into conflict with their military superiors, but more importantly with the head of the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) a division of the Office of War Information (OWI). The head of the BMP was a territorial man and the antics of the directors along with his other conflicts with Hollywood caused many problems. The politics of it are complicated, but the self-serving nature of Ford, Capra, and to some extent, Huston, was a source of continual friction.

Although the book makes for fascinating reading, it does help to see the films, especially since Harris describes the creation of many of them in great detail. Many of the films, Harris notes, were completely staged. Most of the film crews of the five directors were behind the front lines. It was the signal corps that often did the front line filming. John Huston’s Battle of San Pietro is a masterwork in recreating supposed war footage. Fortunately the internet makes many of these available and anyone who is interested in the work of the five directors should really see what they created.




La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944 (The Blue Division) by Jorge M. Reverte – A Review

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944/ The Blue Division : Russia, 1941-1944
Jorge M. Reverte
RBA Libros, 2011, pg 589

The División Azul was a Spanish volunteer unit that served on the Russian front during World War II. The division initially consisted of members of the Flange, the ultra fascist party that formed part of Franco’s ruling coalition. (They wore blue shirts as part of their uniform.) It is important to understand that Franco was still consolidating power after the Spanish Civil War and that the Flange wanted to push an agenda that was much more extreme than Franco’s national-Catholicism, itself quite conservative and violent.

In 1941, the leaders of the Flange were looking for a way to push their anti-communist, anti-mason, agenda forward. Franco was not moving fast enough and given the recent German invasion of Russia, the Flange wanted a more active policy, ideally joining with Germany against the Judaeo-Bolshevik threat that the USSR represented. Moreover, in joining the attack against Russia they would be taking revenge for Russia’s meddling in the Civil War. Since Franco would not enter the war, they created a plan where they would create a division of volunteers that would serve in the German army. Franco assented to the creation of the volunteer group for two reasons. First, it would placate German demands for a Spanish entry into the war and might avoid a German invasion of Spain. Second, it could, and eventually would, cut the power of the Flange. If their members were killed during the war they would not be available later to challenge Franco.

The division left Spain in late summer to parades and much excitement. It would be the closest Spain came to joining the war. Once in Spain they swore allegiance to Hitler. This is a key point and one that Reverte will return to over and over. The volunteers were part of the German army and all the bad that includes. One of the cruxes of the book is the question, what did the Spaniards know about the atrocities the German’s were participating in. Reverte details what the Einsatzgruppen were doing in the sectors the division was passing through. The technique definitely suggests the division members must have known something. He is working at a disadvantage since there are few statements from the Flange diehards to support this.

The technique has some draw backs, though. Primarly, Reverte, in attempting to show the conditions the men were fighting in, will search too far afield to show the suffering that the men must have known was happening. As much as I’m interested in Shostakovitch, the writing of his 7th symphony is not particularly central to his subject, even if the division was on the outskirts of Leningrad.  And discussions of Irene Nemirovsky no matter how tragic they were, are not particularly relevant to the division. It is the weakness of the book, and a 100 pg cut of such materials would have helped the book.

The winter of 41/42 was horrendous and took a toll on the division. When new volunteers were needed diehards of the Flange, essentially college students, were no where to be found. The second group would be made up of the poor who wanted a good wage, or soldiers from the army who were voluntold. Moroccan troops were even sent, but were returned to Spain. German race purity had to be maintained.

In either version of the division, the casualties were heavy. Despite the casualties, the Germans were not impressed with the Spanish troops. The Spanish leadership, on the other hand, was happy with the losses. It showed a fighting spirit that only the Spanish fascist could achieve. The Fascist chant at the beginning of the Civil War, vivela muerte, comes to mind here.

Ultimately, Franco, with the allied victories, was able to let the losses and his consolidation of power, decimate the power of the Flange. By war’s end the Flange was not a threat to Franco’s power.

Despite Reverte’s many off topic asides (a writer falling in love with his subject), La División Azul does make a solid case that the soldiers, if they did not participate in the atrocities, must have known and to say otherwise, as many have maintained, is a lie.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon – A Review

My Little War
Louis Paul Boon
Dalkey Archive, 2010 125 pg

This scant book is one of the more interesting ways to write about war I have read. It is also what makes it difficult to capture. My Little War is a series of 1-3 page episodes and little paragraph length moments that are tacked to the end of the episodes without any real relationship. They are just more noise of war. All of it is narrated by a person claiming to be the author. I mention this because while the style is consistent, one has the impression that multiple voices are at work. Nevertheless, each of the episodes describes the chaotic lives of the Flemish during World War II. The stories aren’t related and do not create a narrative arc that ties the lives of the characters together, giving the reader much of a connection to the characters. Boon is not creating great heroic stories of the resistance or of the pathos of the long suffering. Instead, he shows a world that in many ways has always existed and which during the shifting power structures of the war force to the surface. In story after story he shows the Belgians stealing and lying to survive. At other times the fascist sympathizers parade around town, finally powerful, only to change their stripes when the allies come. It’s a vision of pettiness that makes some of the Belgians look anything but heroic. That view is part of his larger point about the war. Those who lived  through it were surviving each day lacking any information of what was going on or any power to control it. It is not a sympathetic view, but it is effective and the voices of the episodes that seem anonymous in their brevity begin to suggest one thing: what was it all for?

But all the poets who wrote so enthusiastically about the Eastern front peeked out cautiously in their socks, back to writing poems about the stars and their solitude and God–God for God’s sake–after having pissed right onto Christ’s loincloth.

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941 – A Review

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1941
Neill Lochery
Public Affairs, 2011, 306 pg

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light will tell you just about everything you will ever need to know about Lisbon and Portugal during World War II. Perhaps, too much depending on you interests. Neill Lochery not only writes about the Salazar government at war, but about the intrigues and, in many ways, the gossip of those who passed through the city. The book is best at laying out Salazar’s plan to stay neutral and how he was able to play the two sides off of each other. As a man without any other goals than staying in power and making Portugal modern, he was able to sell tungsten to Germany without the least scruples in taking German gold (some of which the Bank of Portugal is said to have, Richsbank stamp and all). And with the allies, especially Britain which Portugal had long had alliances, he also sold materials for gold. As long as one side seemed more powerful than the other, he attempted to favor them more, short of joining the war. During the early years of the war he was quite welcoming to Germany, but he didn’t want to join the war, nor did he want Spain to invade. Spain had made several different plans to invade during the war, but Salazar was able to avoid it. He was always cautious, and even in 43 when Germany didn’t look as strong as it had, he delayed granting access to the Azores to the Allies.It is in the context of the scheming man that Lochery notes that any good that came out of Portugal’s neutrality during the war came about because it suited Salazar or he had no control over it. The Jewish refuges are a case and point. While Salazar didn’t kick Jews out of Portugal, he also didn’t want to grant them entry visas. It was his diplomatic officials early in the war who disobeyed orders and were able to allow Jews to escape through Lisbon.

Lisbon itself was a reflection of Salazar. It was full of spies, refugees, and people taking advantage of the situation. With all the refugees and the limited transportation options out of the country many were stranded there and had to do what ever it took to get out. For the rich such as the Gugenhiems, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Hollywood stars like Leslie Howard they stayed in the best hotels and lived a life that had nothing to do with the deprivations of the war. It is here, in the more biographical sections, that the book suffers a bit. Not that it is badly written, it just isn’t that interesting to me. Especially, the part about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At least I know now how self-absorbed he was but other than that I don’t really care. There are definitely some sections one can skip over.

It is an interesting book, but for me only half of the book was interesting. But if you are interested in the history of Portugal during the war you can’t go wrong with this book.

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman – A Review

An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, pg 383

I once proposed in an massive paper of 120 pages written during my third year of college that you could see a causal relationship in American attitudes towards the Cold War and the Military Industrial Complex by looking at the films of World War II. For a third year paper the oversimplification of the thesis is forgivable. But ever since the months of wading through the ins and outs of the Office of War Information and its film unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), I have been interested in the shaping of not only those wartime films with their BMP approved messages, but the post war period where the films reflected not only attitudes that were shaped during the war but also reflect those of the dark period the second great Red Scare. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War investigates just that topic, mixing film history and American history as a method to look not only at the culture of the 1940s and 1950s, but the development of Cold War and how movies and the people who made movies were part of the political intrigues that mark the times.

The book opens with a quick summary of wartime movies and politics which were shaped by new dealers and the necessity to sell Russia as a ally. These two narratives would become create troubles once the war was over. The New Deal had stressed the idea of the common man and many of the movies from the war stressed these themes, usually by highlighting the heterogeneous nature of the soldiers fighting and praising the common soldier. These ideas, straight out of the BMP guidelines, show up in all manner of films, particularly the combat films such as Back to Bataan or Sahara. Films like Mission to Moscow or the North Star, focused on the Russians and painted a sentimental picture of a reliable ally who could be relied on after the war. Many of those involved in the production were either Communist Party members or belonged to the Popular Front, which was an anti-fascist group that was not communist, but had a certain taint as Moscow had directed party members to ally with it starting with the Spanish Civil War. It isn’t the most thorough introduction and one would do well to read Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s Hollywood goes to war : how politics, profits and propaganda shaped Word War II movies. The other issue that will plague the book is his writing style is his strange associative writing style, where he drops seemingly unrelated names and events in the same paragraph without explaining what they are doing together, other than quite often the simple coincidence of taking place on the same day.

Once Hoberman moves into the post war period the book moves a long much better. He describes of the immediate post war period as it became obvious that the Soviets would not be long term allies as one of turmoil. The members of the Hollywood left who expected that the political climate that had taken shape during the New Deal would continue, were slow to see the changes of the coming Red Scare and its often hysterical reaction. For example, the movie Crossfire which dealt with antisemitism was considered suspiciously red, because those involved making the film had left and communist associations, the Daily Worker praised the film, and the film posited a fascist threat from within the US (criticizing fascism was often used as an indicator of communist sympathies ever since the Spanish Civil War). As in the so many cases, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI were suspicious of anything that even slightly criticized the US. With Crossfire it was the suggestion that American soldiers could hate and kill anther soldier because he was Jewish.

Initially, left leaning Hollywood put up a defense with big fundraisers and assemblies, but soon dissent and the weight of the US government lead to the splintering of resolve. Some of those with Communist party links, whether real or not, went to jail, some became friendly witnesses, and others left the country. Those on the right such as John Wayne and Robert Taylor were only to do their part to counter the menace, lending their support to the Republican party. And the studios? They tried to make a fast buck as always and came out with movies like My Son John, I Married a Communist, and The Next Voice You Hear, all of which contrasted the comically evil red conformity against American virtue.

With the coming of communist China and the Korean war Hollywood found itself under even more attack and it turned to the western and the sci-fi movie as allegory. Hooberman is best here, giving a detailed read of the movies Fort Apache, Rio Grande, and High Noon. While they have come down as classics Rio Grande can be read as a fascistic allegory, and High Noon an attack on the cowardice of the American people, which even in its day raised eyebrows and angered John Wayne intensely (he does not come off particularly well in the book). The preoccupation with communism led the studios to create the biblical epics that were so popular in the 50’s. They were partly designed to battle with television, but they were also an attempt by Hollywood to inject romance and adventure into what otherwise might have been tame biblical history. As in so many cases, Hollywood took advantage of what ever cover they could to make entertainment. Which doesn’t mean people like Cecil B. DeMille were not earnest in their faith, attaching written or spoken prologues to their movies to let moviegoers know how important the film was.

It is this kind of detail placed along side the politics of the time that make the book so interesting. However, as I mentioned earlier he tends to drop little facts into the midst of otherwise well written sections. For example, writing about Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments comes the following paragraph.

Even as Hollywood projects Egyptian splendor, wondrous new pleasure domes are under construction. The Nevada desert has already been transformed into an air-conditioned mirage of Babylonian hanging gardens and Roman bathtubs, while in the sleepy town of Anaheim, Walt Disney is building a $17 million wonderland, ballyhooed by Life as the “most Lavish amusement park on earth.”

While that is all true, it breaks up the flow and doesn’t really say anything specific. Is he trying to say Vegas and Disney Land doomed movies? Or did he just find something interesting to tell us? Except for these strange interludes and his occasional switch to present tense, the book is a welcome addition to the film studies.

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War – A Review

Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War
Jean-Louis Cohen
Editions Hazan, Paris (July 26, 2011) 448 pages

This is a beautiful book that tries to examine every aspect of architecture and architects during World War II. With rich photos and drawings it shows the war in a completely different light. The book is at its best in describing the projects that were created specifically for the war, ranging from the great industrial plants of Willow Run that produced a bomber every hour at the height of the war, the design of fortifications, and the how architects worked with the military. For example, architects went to create exact copies German and Japanese homes for the American military so they could perfect an incendiary bomb, which led to the development of napalm. The homes were replicas all the way down to the furniture and the paint. That attention to detail was needed in creating the massive factories that produced war material. And the included photos of the massive plants that filled the Midwest and the West coast of the US show that powerful blend of industry and design. It could also lead to the frivolous as American airplane factories were camouflaged with fake streets and homes on their roofs, while large runways sat just to the side. I’m not sure who they were fooling.

Among the curiosities were the plans for various types of bomb shelters. The Germans had above ground beehive structures that only served to suffocate victims when the firestorms that were the hallmark of heavy bombing consumed all the surrounding oxygen. The British plans for London were equally strange and only when the reality of nightly German bombing raids be came apparent was part of the population given access to the metro system. Interestingly, only about 10% of Londoners used the metros for safety.

Cohen also looks at the roles architects played in the development of German facilities, including slave labor factories and concentration camps. Unsurprisingly, architects many from the best schools, were active participants in the design and construction of the camps. And fitting bureaucratic men were more interested in what traditions of the design of the camp buildings and surrounding facilities would draw on, than who was actually happening in the camps. Albert Speer was the highest profile of such men and Cohen points out they all tried in someway or another to justify such work with the all too common, I didn’t know what was happening.

I would have preferred more about these specific elements, especially how they shaped the war. Unfortunately, he concentrated on elements such as housing for war workers. While probably interesting for architects, non architects will find it a little tedious. The only thing that real stuck out when looking at the designs for workers is just about every example was some form of cul-de-sac, an escape from traditional grid. There was something in the generation that just couldn’t handle a square block.

The biggest draw back of the book for a non architect is he spends so much time talking about architects. One chapter is give to listening dozens of architects and what they did in the war including those who served in uniform. And while Walter Gropius is important (even I know that) his actual impact on the war seems rather small for the amount of ink he receives. It’s as if Cohen wanted to include the activities of every architect even if they didn’t do much during the war. Part of the issue is that many of the buildings described in the book were never built. Either there wasn’t any money, fortunes changed (especially true for Germany), or the military just didn’t see the utility of an initiative.

Despite these draw backs, even for the non architect the photos and the sections directly about initiatives for the war make the book interesting, one of those arcane volumes that can give subtle meaning to even over analyzed events.

Boeing Plant Seattle Camouflaged

The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell – A Review

The Singapore Grip
J.G. Farrell
New York Review Books Classics, 568pg

The Singapore Grip is the third book of J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, a series of books though unrelated in terms of characters, charts the rise and fall of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. The previous books, The Troubles, and the Siege of Kaishpoor, were about Ireland and the uprisings, and British India, respectively. In each, he mixes history with fiction to dive deeper into the Empire, the thoughts of the leaders, people, occasionally the subjects, and doses it with historical research that while not obsessive, can read as history more than fiction.

The action of The Singapore Grip begins in Singapore of the 1930’s and concludes as the Japanese enter the city in February 1942. The novel revolves around the Walter Blackett a rubber baron who is the epitome of the British imperialist, smug about the great civilizing mission of Britain, certain the subject peoples appreciate the British, and too greedy to see any harm in exporting all the profits to Britain. His sole goal is to increase rubber profits and make sure the company he has built continues on. To that end he spends most of the book trying to marry his daughter, Joan, off to the Mathew the son of his late partner. Mathew, though, is an idealist who used to work at the League of Nations promoting peace. He doesn’t know much about his father’s business and Walter tries to lead him into an appreciation of the importance of the rubber trade, but seeing how Singapore is run, and especially spending time with Monty, Walter’s son who is the ultimate imperialist playboy, he turns against the colonial enterprise.

These economic concerns fall to the background after the Japanese begin their invasion—well, for almost everyone, because Walter continues to scheme to increase the price of rubber which the allies need, and at one point even tries to figure out a way to work with the Japanese after the occupation starts. All the other characters, though, turn to war work and goes into great detail about the Japanese offensive, following the battle from both the Japanese and British side. Those who are not solders help in other ways, and Mathew joins the firefighting brigade. Some of Farrell’s best writing follows the fire brigades. While Mathew fights fires he also falls in love with Vera a half Chinese, half Russian woman who his father in the great tradition of British eccentrics used to pay to do naked exercises on his estate.

Farrell uses these elements well to create a society in which the colonials live in imperious privilege, unaware or uninterested in what is happening around them. He is an inventive story teller whose novelistic touches are impressive. His account of the Japanese attack is rich with detail and full of action. The account of the Great World, a pleasure center in Singapore, is quite impressive, with its dingy and smokey atmosphere, the multi-racial mix of clients, and the dark undertones of such mixing in what was a divided city. And in one of his best bits, he shows the history of British occupation in South East Asia through a series of paintings that Walter is all too proud to show first time guests to his mansion. It is these moments that make the book breathe and give life to his large cast of characters.

Yet, even with all those elements,  The Singapore Grip can seem a little uneven, as if Farrell’s interest were taking him in too many directions. The first problem is the novel starts with long internal monologues on the problems of the rubber trade. While it does help characterize Walter, business intrigues and strategies seldom make for fascinating reading at length. His use of the previously mentioned paintings was a much more interesting way to get the history and characterization across. The same applies to Mathew who spends the early part of the novel talking politics and theory. Fortunately, Farrell is a good novelist and often leaves Mathew talking to himself amongst a group of disinterested people, but it still a little tiresome to have the conversations go on for pages. His desire to delve deeply into history leads him to spend many chapters examining General Percival’s thoughts and actions. While interesting, those sections break up those of his characters. The same is true for the Japanese solder he follows for 40 pages during the attack. If this were a pastiche novel, mixing fragments from here and there, it wouldn’t seem so odd. It is a shame, then, that he lets characters he builds up so carefully stay in the background for long sections. But this makes sense when the book is about the Empire.

In the end Singapore, like the British colonial enterprise,  is doomed and all the characters are dispersed to the winds to survive, if they are lucky, the war. Naturally, as be fitting a wealthy man, Walter escapes into the night as the empire collapses, leaving the rest to their fate and him to enjoy his wealth. It is a fitting end for a novel of a lost empire.

Flame and Citron – A Review

World War II is more than the savagery of armies and its layers of inhumanity provides an endless source of stories and meditations on the goodness or its lack in man. It is also a place to celebrate national resistance to such evil, which can have the effect of both celebrating the nation, obscuring the questionable.  Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008)  enters this area with the true story of two assassins in the Danish resistance. They are efficient killers who assassinate Danes who collaborate with the Germans, showing little mercy when they strike. They seem to enjoy the life of the spy and get a rush from it. They are also motivated by a hatred for the Germans and a national pride. In one scene, Flame (the code name of one of the killers) recounts the day the Germans marched into Denmark and how sick he felt watching them march in. Eventually, it all comes to an end as the intrigues become more and more complicated and Flame and Citron do not know who to trust and the members of their group begin to be arrested by the Gestapo.The movie is an excellent thriller, although it is never clear how Flame and Citron could meet with their group in the same bar time after time, nor how they can just take of to Sweden so easily, but those are small quibbles. The film is solid and the tension of the occupied is palpable; in other words, a good World War II film with a web of complexities that go beyond the war.

The more interesting question is what happens after the movie, when the text that explains what happened after the war begins appearing on-screen. It turns out that Flame and Citron were national heroes, they were given a national funeral and buried with honors, and they were even awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in the early 50s. These details are historical, but they are also about national pride. It is a pride that comes from defeating a great evil. Yet at the same time in a war that was, among other things, a war of extreme nationalism, it seems a little off-putting. The film doesn’t celebrate taking a page from the Nazi’s and there isn’t a moral equivalence between the two sides, but there is that hint. But what are war movies for? occasionally testaments, sometimes opposition, but often a source of pride, even in those that were meant to be in the first two camps.

No, Flame and Citron isn’t Danish propaganda; it is a spy movie, complete with shifting allegiances and a femme fatal who out lives everyone, showing the justice, even when one is victorious, is not always served. At its best it is a reminder of war’s brutality, but also its intoxicating effects.

The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal – A Review

The German Mujahid
Boualem Sansal, pg 227

Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid tries to link Islamist violence, the Holocaust, and the Algerian police state into a larger statement about totalitarian regimes and intolerance. In one way it is an ambitious idea: link seemingly disparate historical events like the Holocaust and Islamist violence in Paris suburbs, while creating a narrative that can plausibly hold the elements together. On the other hand, a book with such themes could easily veer into didactic sermonizing about the evils of totalitarian regimes, lumping them all into one group and not exploring what made them so horrible. While The German Mujahid does put together a plausible narrative, it also suffers from the later problem so that at times it seems as if Sansal can’t afford to wait any longer to tell us about how horrible these regimes are and has to shout it. If I lived in Algeria as he does perhaps I would be shouting, too. But as a work of literature it has a few deficiencies that don’t make it a bad book, just one that doesn’t understand subtly.

The German Mujahid is about two brothers, Rachel and his younger brother Malrich. They have lived in France since childhood, but their parents still live in rural Algeria, the Bled. Their mother is Berber but their father is German, a veteran of the Algerian war of independence.  In 1994, in the midst of the Islamist war in Algeria, their parents and several other villagers are murdered. Rachel returns to the village to take care of the estate and he finds a box with his father’s papers, which indicate that he had been, among other things, an SS officer at Auschwitz. It is a damning realization and Rachel sinks into a depression as he slowly untangles his father’s involvement in the Holocaust and then his subsequent flight to Egypt and Algeria. It is too overwhelming and Rachel sizes on the idea that he has to pay for the sins of the father.  Since his father died without atoning or facing justice, he will do it for him, dying in his garage overcome by car exhaust fumes.

Malrich, a petty criminal living in one of the high rise residences on the outskirts of Paris, follows the same investigation as Rachel. Using Rachel’s diary, Malrich also comes to terms with his father’s past. But Malrich, instead of wanting to pay for the sins of the father, internalizes the role of the victim and sees around him in the residence and in Algeria just more Nazis using whatever ideology they can to control and brutalize. Malrich sees the local imam and his thuggish Islamist  toughs as just a new incarnation of the Gestapo. He wants to take them on, fight them before they can start new death camps, which he fears the residences will become. Yet the French government seems unwilling to take on this fight at the end of the book he gives his summation of the state of things.

The Islamists are already here, they’re settled and here we are,  bound hand and foot, caught in the trap. If they don’t exterminate us, they’ll stop us from living. Worse still, they’ll turn us into our own guards, deferential to the emir, merciless to each other. We’ll be Kapos.

It is clear that Sansal sees the Islamist’s goals are not too dissimilar to those of the Nazi’s. He is not subtle about this at all. He also extends his criticism, though, to the government in Algeria, whose socialist state has been repressive from the beginning, only getting worse when it put down the Islamist terror campaign in the 90s.

While equivalency between horrors is wasted math, the totalitarian traits of all the groups is not in question and Sansal is right to make the links. In the context of Arab and Algerian literature, too, the book is important because it addresses topics that have either been avoided, or baned. Sansal it seems is trying to break the Islamist and Algerian issues from their respective religious and nationalistic imperatives, and make a comparison that is outside of the specific grievances that make for easy justifications, and say, look, you are doing the same.

The question, then, is how well does Sansal do this? Does he address the responsibility for guilt? Does he link the themes together adequately? In many ways he doesn’t succeed. The problem is the two brothers are so extreme they become embodiments of an inflexible rhetorical position that seems everything in black and white. Their approach to confronting these issues is to either die or to become paranoid, which could be called a psychic shock as the confront the past, but in reality makes them unable to actually confront the horrors they want to confront. Suicide is a private act that redeems no one and Malrich’s street tough persona doesn’t yet have the ability to organize and confront what he fears. And this is Sansal’s problem: he describes the problem, but doesn’t know what else to do but collapse in desperation.

The sense of desperation is partly from the literary device he uses: each brother writes their own journal entries. The journals are detailed and move the story along quickly, but they also create a myopia that places the individual’s experience at the center of the story and becomes a self reinforcing set of complaints, so that instead of seeing their lives in a larger context (even against the third person description of a street) you only have the one frame. While no writer has to put a story in context, Sansal seems to want to make a larger point, but what he produces is panic. A personal panic set against shadowy terror. Perhaps panic is the emotion you would feels if you were Malrich, but in the book it comes across an author more interested in warning the world than writing literature.

Perhaps given Sansal’s theme that is not a bad thing.

World War II: Now In HD Color – A Review

I wasn’t sure if the History Channel’s World War II in HD was going to be more over the top disaster/war channel material, the kind of thing that celebrates the extreme nature of the subject, rather than a respectful presentation. But two episodes in, the show seems to be in the latter camp. It is an American history, not only in focus, but in vocabulary: the narrator uses we/our often when describing American forces; and the term greatest generation has shown up once. Yet it isn’t jingoistic, just proud; Steven Ambrose had nothing to do with this, fortunately. Seeing combat in color makes the war seem more recent, as if it was an extension of the Vietnam fotage. Distance gives one a chance to apprase the past; closeness blurs the opportunity, and the remaking of the war in color has the ability to make the war seem rosy again, America’s greates monent—in other words, the return of the Greatest Generation dreams. Yet the show also has some of the most graphic images of that or any war and the film makers haven’t refrained from showing the dead nor the wounded, esspecially those undergoing medical treatment. At times it can be disturbing, but those are the rewards of war and considering the sanitization of the last 3 wars, it is a needed reminder.

I don’t know how many times the war needs to be watched, but if you are going to watch the war it is a quality production wrapped in some HD hype.

Inglorious Bastards – A Review

Along with John Woo, Quentin Tarentino made violence chic. Sure there was graphic violence in film, just watch some Peckinpah. The difference is with Tarentino the scenes of violence are dovetailed with the humorous insider jokes, the one who understands that the song playing in the background signifies something and that the composition of the scene is from this movie, all of it more concerned with style. Which is not to say that re-imagining style creates new ways of looking at a genre or an aesthetic. However, with Tarentino style is the aesthetic and violence is the tool. A movie like Kill Bill is the perfect format for such re-imagining because it plays on already generic conventions of the samurai and cowboy. Each genre uses violence as primary element and re-imagining them slightly, but still squarely withing the genre at the same time making fun of the genre and celebrating it.

With Inglorious Bastards, though, Tarentino moves into the war movie genre. Again he attempts to rework a genre but this time his efforts are misplaced because instead of reworking the tropes of war films such as the green solder or the selfless soldier who jumps on the grenade, he injects the sadistic violence of Reservoir Dogs into World War II. Even within the work of Tarentino that kind of violence is not light hearted, but in Inglorious Bastards it is and it lends a certain approval of violence as fun. Granted the targets are Nazis and the perpetrators are Jewish, but even as Tarentino shows in Kill Bill, vengeance is complicated, filled with conflicting emotions. While Tarentino captures the cinematic sense of a group of soldiers, each with his own heterogeneous personality, any complexity he may have shown in Kill Bill is missing. Instead, the film is more like Dusk Till Dawn: pure shock for shock’s sake.  In a zombie movie that doesn’t matter, but in a war film it isn’t enough.

Tarentino brings a righteous indignation to the war against Germany, something that is often missing unless the film focuses on the Holocaust. Yet the complexity of it is lost and instead of looking at the violence in its starkest terms, as one might in looking at the war against Japan with all its savagery, the Nazis are either brilliantly cruel or just willing fools and the American soldiers are more or less untouchable. The result is a film that places the savagery in the hands of the good—the Americans—and places all questions of methods outside review. Tarentino has created a very black and white view of the war, albeit graphic and witty, which has more in common with the Sands of Iwo Jima than Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, two films that show the savagery not as a game, but something troubling.

Ultimately, Inglorious Bastards, with its re-imagining of the end of World War II is  pure Tarentino: style as substance. Inglorious Bastards is more concerned with the fun of vengeance than saying anything that we haven’t already seen in other war films.

The Reader

When working with the Holocaust in a film or book the question that inevitably comes up is, can one make art from the Holocaust? And if so, to what end? The Reader, even its complexities, cannot escape the difficulty of these questions and stumbles even as it seems to try to question how one should approach the Holocaust. The subtleties of the film undercut its overt statements about the subject, and it’s these subtleties that makes The Reader, although excellent and never uneven in terms of acting or story, unable to completely resolve the needs of the story and the questions of suitability.

The Reader tells the story of Michael and Anna who meet in the early 50’s when Michael is 15 or 16 and Anna is in her late 30’s. They begin a passionate affair that is filled with sex and long reading sessions when Michael would read to Anna from his school books. Michael distances himself from his family and his friends as he and Anna spend more time together, finally culminating in a bicycle trip through the country side. Suddenly, though, Anna is offered a promotion where she works and instead of taking it, moves out and says nothing to Michael. Naturally, Michael is devastated but life goes on and the move cuts to show him as a law student in the early 60’s. He is a law student without any particular convictions until his professor takes him to the trial of 6 women SS concentration camp guards. One of the guards turns out to be Anna, and not only is she implicated in the mass killing of prisoners in a fire in a church, but she is said to have been the leader of the guards. Anna seems emotionless and does not deny anything like the other women. Instead, her only defense seems to be is that it was a good job, a better one than the one at Siemens. At one point in the questioning she asks the Judge, what would you done? Implying it was perfectly natural to take the job as a guard. During the trial, though, Michael realizes that she is illiterate and that she could not have written the confession where she takes responsibility for not freeing the prisoners in the burning church. Michael wants to tell her that she shouldn’t take the blame, but he can’t and she is sentenced to the maximum time in prison. Michael forgets about her and marries and has a daughter, but haunted by her he cannot relate to other women and lives a solitary life until, one day, he sees one of his old books and decides to read to her again using cassettes. He reads book after book as he rekindles a forgotten love and she receives the tapes which she listens to at first, but then uses to learn to read. After years of this, she is set to be released, but Michael still wants to keep his distance and the day before leaving the prison hangs herself. She doesn’t explain why she did it, but she does will all her money and possessions to Michael. The movie then cuts to New York sometime latter. Michael goes to meet one of the survivors from the camp who had written the book that implicated Anna. She won’t take Anna’s money, which Michael says Anna wanted to give her. She says nothing good ever came from the camps, yet she does take a little tin tea box that Anna had stored the money in and which looked like one her father had given her when she was a child. This pleases Michael and he returns to Germany satisfied. The closing scene is of Michael and his daughter at Anna’s grave just before he tells her about Anna.

It is clear even from the above that Anna is a difficult charter to understand. It is even more so because the film is not Anna’s story, but Michael’s story about Anna. Yet it is clear that she is either cold and callous or someone who has so compartmentalized her life that her role in the Holocaust has little meaning to her. When she tells the judge, what would you have done, she makes it clear that she does not see much in the way of the moral dimensions of her choice. Her choice has the physical consequences—jail, poverty—but not the moral. It is possible she even believed in the process of murder. Whatever the case, there is no Poe-like Tell Tale Heart to redeem her, only her history. (Is it even possible to believe someone like her has recanted? But that is a different issue.) When she dies she gives her money only to Michael, not to any one else, as the warden makes clear when she says, “she left everything to you (Michael).” Michael, however, says to the survivor in New York that Anna wanted her to have the money. Most likely, since this is Michael’s story, Anna said nothing. Anna did what she did and the greater shame was to admit she couldn’t read—a truly unbalanced view of what is shameful.

If the complexity of the film were to end there, the film would be another addition to the literature of the banality of evil. The story, though, adds two redemptive elements: Anna learns to read; and Michael is able to feel good about her. When Anna learns to read the thing that shamed her most is now gone. She has reached beyond her failures. Yet the triumph in light of her past is not a triumph, but a trick: look she can change. But what has changed? There is no redemption here, just an obfuscation of the past. Could any thing redeem her? The Reader leaves plenty of room to understand that the tendency to see redemption when a character has overcome some hardship is easily misplaced. And Michael’s need to redeem her, too, is a false redemption. He doesn’t want her to be redeemed for her sake, but so that he can feel that his never ending love for her is not the love for a monster. He is the one who insists in giving the money to a Jewish cause; he is the one who insists on seeing the survivor. The redemption for him, then, is a way to redeem himself, to make up for what he couldn’t do for her, for what he has done to his daughter. In short, Michael deludes himself, because delusion is pleasing.

None of these redemptive issues would matter much if the film wasn’t about the Holocaust. The Holocaust, though, adds a further layer, because playing with ideas of redemption while using the history of mas murder can easily diminish the horror. Can the Holocaust be used as a backdrop or as Jacob Heilbrunn recently wrote, “the further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.”  While Heilbrunn’s article doesn’t examine The Reader in depth, it does raise the question, can such huge crimes be the materials for ethical delemas? The reason it is important to ask the question is because The Reader does not stop with the two moments of redemption above. While one could mistake this as a redemptive movie, its complexities do lead to a wider, more nuanced reading. It is when Michael goes to New York the problems start. When Michael talks to the survivor she tells him, “nothing good ever comes of the camps,” and yet when Michael leaves the movie shows her placing the tea tin in a place of honor, as if something great has been recovered. Yet isn’t the tin something good coming of the camps? Moreover, the tin carries another act of redemption: from Anna to Michael to the survivor. A nice tidy ending. It is when Michael makes the visit, the film begins to blur the lines between the complexities of Michael’s reactions and how the Holocaust is perceived and can be contemplated. The survivor says nothing good can come of the camps, and yet one of the last images of the film is something good coming of the story, and by extension, the camps. It is a tricky thing to on the one had show Michael’s delusion, yet not sentimentalize the return of the tin, as if that made everything whole. Unfortunately, The Reader chooses to wrap the film with a tidy resolution that can make one feel good, but resolves nothing.

To return to the question that opened the article: can one make art from the Holocaust? Of course, and Imre Kertez’s Fatelessness is a perfect example, but as The Reader shows, even the best works can easily loose focus and bring resolutions to where there are none, only the longing for the end of a story whose backdrop even 60 years latter is not just a forgotten ruin.