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Posters pushing for a no vote for the French referendum on the EU constitution in Marseille

I am reminded that today is the 10th anniversary of the French referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which resulted in the treaty’s decisive defeat—thereby scuttling it (and with Dutch voters delivering the coup de grâce four days later in the referendum there)—and formally inaugurating the era in which the French electorate became Eurosceptic in its majority. N.B. Euroscepticism here does not signify a rejection of the construction of Europe tout court; just not “this” Europe. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Personally speaking, I was a 100% partisan of a oui vote in the 2005 referendum. The Constitutional Treaty was a good, solid, well-conceived text, put together via a democratic, transparent process, and was quite simply the best treaty the European Union could have possibly come up with in view of the absolute necessity to adapt the institutional architecture to an EU going from 15 to 25 members—with the enlargement of 2004, and an additional two in 2007—and to institutionally tackle the EU’s famous “democratic deficit.” IMO, there were no good arguments against the treaty. None whatever. Those who opposed the treaty either didn’t know what they were talking about—which was the case for leftists who voted non—or were fighting the last war—and one already lost—which was the case for right-wing non voters.

During the referendum campaign in the spring of 2005—to which I was riveted—I attended public events of all four camps:

  • Oui de gauche: A town hall meeting at the Sèvres mairie, with Jack Lang (very good) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (totally excellent), which was intermittently disrupted by two loud-mouthed noniste de gauche hecklers, who, after the longest time, were escorted out.
  • Oui de droite: A packed town hall meeting at a large auditorium in my right-wing banlieue, with the then local UMP deputy (and member of the Raffarin II government) Henri Plagnol (excellent) pedagogically explaining the treaty to the audience of mostly UMP voters.
  • Non de droite: A packed rally of several thousand at the Palais des Sports (Porte de Versailles), with souverainistes Philippe de Villiers and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan the têtes d’affiche, and with speakers from several, mostly northern European Eurosceptic parties, including UKIP’s Nigel Farage (speaking in fluent, albeit heavily accented, French).
  •  Non de gauche: A rally in a meeting hall in Créteil of a couple of hundred people, presided by the commune’s longtime fabusien mayor, Laurent Cathala, and with a panoply of speakers from hard leftist (PCF), extreme leftist (LCR etc), and gauchiste civil society associations.

The arguments of the oui de gauche and oui de droite were similar, which each camp emphasizing different things to address concerns of its voters, e.g. the oui de gauche assuring that the Constitutional Treaty would absolutely not undermine the welfare state, the oui de droite that the treaty in no way paved the way for the entry of Turkey in the EU.

Noteworthy were the arguments of the non camp. In the case of the right-wing souverainistes, they argued for a Gaullist vision of a Europe of Nations, of a return to the Europe of the Treaty of Rome. And on this, they presented their case well (on the level of oratory, de Villiers and Dupont-Aignan, plus the youthful Guillaume Peltier, were excellent, BTW). Their world-view was coherent, with one either buying it or not, but voting oui or non wouldn’t have changed a thing, as, with the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty, the horse had already left the stable, as it were. There was (and is) simply no turning the clock back to the 1960s (and returning to the franc). The hard right-wing, as is its wont, was engaging in the politics of nostalgia.

A note: The oui de droite rally revealed, for me at least, an undercurrent of Germanophobia on the French right (and which is present on the left as well, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has reminded us with his latest pamphlet). All the flags of EU member states were hung from the rafters except for the German. And in the literature tables there were anti-Germany books (by small right-wing publishers) that I had never heard of. And this Germanophobia has become more pronounced in the ensuing decade.

What most struck me was the rally of the non de gauche. It was a horror show. A tissue of lies from beginning to end. In attendance at the Créteil rally was the petit peuple de gauche in all its splendor: working-class public employees, CGT and FO activists, Communist and Trotskyist militants, and other sundry hard leftists, and with each speaker seemingly trying to outdo the other in demagoguery and mendacity. E.g. the insistence that the Constitutional Treaty would threaten abortion rights (bullshit) or laïcité (bullshit times ten), or undermine the sacrosanct French social model (unfounded nonsense). Etc, etc. The hysteria and lies went on and on. But none of the gauchistes’ objections were valid in the least. Not a single one.

As for blogger Etienne Chouard’s arguments, which were a huge hit on the noniste left, I refuted all of them at the time, as did others.

At the end of the day, the failure of the referendum was the fault of Jacques Chirac, who organized it in the first place. He wasn’t obliged to. He could have simply had parliament ratify it with a three-fifths votes and that would have been that. But with the referendum called, Chirac then failed to defend the treaty, unlike François Mitterrand during the Maastricht referendum campaign 13 years prior. And UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy, obsessed with 2007, didn’t lift a finger to do so.

One positive effect of the referendum was that it got the French electorate engaged with Europe in a way it had never been before, save the 1992 campaign. Malheureusement les Français ont mal votés…

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The Law of the Market

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That’s the literal translation of director Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, the market here being the neoliberal market economy (the film’s actual English title is ‘The Measure of a Man’). It was in competition at the Cannes film festival, which ended yesterday and with Vincent Lindon—the only professional actor in the film—winning the best actor award. The film opened in France last week and, as it happens, I saw it yesterday evening, learning about Lindon’s prize in a newsflash some ten minutes after leaving the theater. I can’t say if it was well-deserved, as this is the only one of the nineteen films in competition at the festival I’ve seen—which is logical, as none of the others have opened yet—though he did put in a very good performance, as he always does. Lindon is a fine actor, though his persona, for me at least, tends to overwhelm whatever role he’s playing. He does have range, though is always Vincent Lindon, if that makes sense.

In this, he plays a 51-year-old member of the skilled working class named Thierry, who has been laid off from an enterprise that, as the viewer is informed, was making a profit but with the company home office, for reasons not having to do with its bottom line, deciding to close the plant and send the personnel to Pôle emploi. Collecting unemployment compensation for close to two years, Thierry is taking a mandatory retraining course but which is a waste of time—and he and everyone he has to deal with know it—as, at his age and given the way the system works—and with the unemployment rate in France being what it is—there is almost no chance it will yield anything for him. With a wife in a low salary job, a handicapped teenage son, and unemployment checks down to €500/month—and refusing to consider selling their modest condo, which would compromise their (barely) middle-class status and all that they had worked for—he takes a job as a security guard in a hypermarket in a shopping center (which looks to be in the Paris banlieue, though it could be anywhere), though which mainly involves monitoring the video surveillance cameras, to spot not only shoplifters but also employees—principally cashiers—who may be cutting corners or doing things they shouldn’t. And it is made clear to him that the company is looking to shed staff, so his fellow employees are particular targets of the surveillance and nabbed for transgressions that are, objectively speaking, not a big deal but nonetheless a pretext for getting fired. And in France these days, one knows what it means to suddenly lose one’s job, particularly under such circumstances and if one does not have in-demand skills to begin with. So Thierry, who lost his previous job in a company that was looking to increase its profits—and no doubt executive compensation too—at the expense of its personnel, now finds himself as a peon on the side of le patron, not only getting colleagues fired but nailing shoplifters who, in fact, don’t have the means to pay for the food they’re concealing in their coats or purses, i.e. who are in much the same financial situation he was facing before, out of desperation, he took his minimum wage job.

The pic is an obvious sociopolitical commentary from the opening scene, on the nature of capitalism in our era and the precarious state in which an ever larger portion of the workforce finds itself. Lindon and Brizé—the two collaborating closely in the film’s making—have made this clear in interviews, with Lindon—who does not conceal his gauchiste views—telling the JDD, in regard to film’s story, that “delation makes me want to vomit” and “I am a man angry [at finance capitalism] and, above all, furious at injustice,” and Brizé denouncing to Le Monde the fact that, these days, “people are eliminated for the most minor of infractions.” I thought the film handled its subject with sufficient subtlety—more so than Ken Loach or Robert Guédiguian would—notably the way Lindon’s character dealt with each situation he was confronted with. The film depicts the reality of the working lives for the lower half of French (and American, British, etc.) society more accurately than any other I’ve seen in a while. On this, it’s almost documentary-like. But some—e.g. those whose views on economic questions are informed by The Economist magazine and Wall Street Journal editorial page—may find the pic’s engagé side to be heavy-handed, if not downright agitprop. On this score, there are indeed a couple of sequences, including the ending—no spoilers—, that are borderline. Mais peu importe. It’s a good film. If you are, however, the kind who sees hedge fund managers as wealth creators and “makers”—and who considers the Thierrys of this world to be “moochers” and “takers”—then the movie is definitely not for you. But if your world-view is the opposite of this, then you’ll likely appreciate it. Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes gave it the unreserved thumbs up—here, here, and here—as did those in France, whose reviews are particularly gushing. And people in the media here were positively thrilled at Vincent Lindon winning his prize. He is clearly well-liked by those who’ve met him (I’ve seen him a couple of times in public in the 6th arrondissement; he seems like a cool guy). Trailer is here.

French cinema was a big winner at Cannes, with the Palme d’Or going to Jacques Audiard’s ‘Deephan’ (which opens in August) and Emmanuelle Bercot winning the best actress award ex-æquo for her role in Maïwenn’s ‘Mon roi’ (opens in October). Bercot, it so happens, was also the director of the film ‘La Tête haute’ (Standing Tall), that opened the festival (out of competition) two weeks ago, and which immediately hit the salles here. I’ve seen it. It’s good. Will have a post on it soon. Many good films coming out in France these days. Whoever said French cinema was in decline?

One French film that came out recently and with a very similar theme to the above discussed one, is director Pierre Jolivet’s Jamais de la vie (English title: The Night Watchman). This one is also about a man in his early 50s, here named Franck and played by the Belgian actor—and Dardenne brothers’ favorite—Olivier Gourmet—the similarities with Vincent Lindon are striking—, who, one understands, had a decent working class job—and was as a union delegate—but lost it ten years ago, now works the graveyard shift as a security guard at a hypermarket in a shopping center in a soulless Paris banlieue (sound familiar?), and spends his off hours drinking en suisse in his flat in his cité high rise—he lives in la zone—where he knows and gets along with everyone, including les jeunes. He was clearly a leader during his factory/union days but has had a tough time since, and is looking at a bleak future financially, with the necessity of working till he’s 70—all but impossible in France—to collect a livable pension. The social commentary is pretty obvious, though Franck’s attention is directed not at his employer or finance capitalists but rather criminal elements among his watchmen colleagues. It’s not a bad film—it certainly held my attention—and is carried by Gourmet, who’s in almost every frame. It’s quite a performance on his part. He’s a real screen presence. THR’s review is here. Trailer is here.

jamais de la vie

palmyra isis

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My social media news feeds have been covered the past two days with comments and links from people in extreme distress—and that includes me—over the Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra and the likely consequences for the archaeological treasures there. The fall of Palmyra to IS—or, rather, its abandonment by Bashar al-Assad’s army—has been grist for the mill for those in France—numerous on the right—who have been advocating a rapprochement with the Syrian Ba’athist regime. A high-profile tribune in Le Figaro yesterday, by Hadrien Desuin, an analyst previously unknown to me—he has a military background and is clearly on the souverainiste right—thus asked rhetorically “why such inaction from the [US-led anti-IS] coalition?” in the face of the IS offensive on Palmyra. Answering his own question, he asserted that the coalition preferred to watch Palmyra fall rather than support the Ba’athist army’s effort to fend off IS and save humanity’s historical patrimony. How abject of the coalition—and, ergo, France (i.e. François Hollande) and the US.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, the well-known Middle East specialist and islamologue—and who has been engagé on the Syrian issue—will have none of this. In an interview in Politis (May 20th), he asserted that Bashar al-Assad allowed the jihadists to approach Palmyra, so as to show the world that his regime was on the front line against IS—when, in fact, it has never been before and still wasn’t—, and then quit the city without putting up much of a fight, thereby getting the belles âmes in the West worked up into an even greater tizzy over the IS fanatics, deflecting attention away from Bashar’s crimes, and thereby hoping to neutralize Western opposition to the Ba’athist regime. In other words, the fall of Palmyra was cynically engendered by Bashar al-Assad himself, as it’s only Palmyra after all—and whose loss does not, in fact, increase the threat to Damascus or Homs—and what does Bashar care about archaeological treasures anyway, as his regime, as Filiu reminds us, has also been pillaging and degrading those treasures for years? On all this, Filiu is rather more convincing than is Monsieur Desuin.

As for the IS capture of Ramadi, this has provided the usual suspects (neocons, etc.) another occasion with which to bash President Obama for the apparent failure of his Iraq policy (e.g. the Kagan couple and IDC Herzliya Rubin Center director Jonathan Spyer). Journalist Ann Marlowe, who’s done some good reporting from the Middle East—and has a smart piece in Tablet, dated May 18th, on Libya and why the post-Qadhafi order was not a preordained failure—went so far as to call Obama “the worst president ever” on account of Ramadi’s fall. Ouf, GMAB! Pour mémoire, defending Ramadi was the responsibility of the Iraqi government, not the United States, and the city’s fall reflected a failure in Iraq’s strategy against IS, not that of the Obama administration.

In a column in Slate (May 19th), Fred Kaplan, offering his own not very palatable options to Obama’s policy dilemma, rubbished the armchair warriors in Washington and its punditocracy. Money quote

Those who believe that Obama caused these troubles, or that they can be solved by a few thousand American ground troops, are so naive and shallow that we can only hope that none of them wins the White House or advises the candidate who does. For one thing, “a few thousand ground troops,” in fact, means many more: They would need air support (including transport planes and helicopters), bases, supply convoys, and a headquarters, plus additional troops to protect the troops, bases, convoys, and headquarters.

For another, what are these troops supposed to do? And which would have the larger effect—the additional firepower that they could bring to bear against ISIS or the additional recruits that ISIS could rally to kill Americans in the name of jihad?

In other words, neocons, other right-wingers, and their ilk who are beating up on Obama for losing Ramadi don’t know WTF they’re talking about. They just want to beat up on Obama, that’s all.

I just read journalist Graeme Wood’s article in the March issue of The Atlantic, “What ISIS really wants.” It’s a great piece, long—34 pages printed out—but absolutely worth the read. Two big points: (a) IS is a serious, millenarian Islamic force such as we’ve never seen before and whose ideology and world-view is in no way un-Islamic, and (b) there is, for the US and the West, no military response except for containment and aiding local Muslim actors who oppose IS.

À suivre, certainement.

UPDATE: Nicolas Pelham has a most interesting, must-read report, datelined Baghdad May 6th, in the June 4th issue of the NYRB, “ISIS & the Shia revival in Iraq.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Patrick Symmes, who “cover[s] insurgencies, global environmental problems, travel, and the geopolitical fault lines that underlie them all,” has a compelling op-ed in the NYT (May 23rd) on Palmyra’s “ancient ruins [that] terror can’t destroy.”

3rd UPDATE: Paleocon Patrick Buchanan has a commentary (May 22nd) in TAC on “What the fall of Ramadi means.” Personally speaking, I can find no flaw in what he says. If someone can, please let me know.

4th UPDATE: Journalist Erika Solomon, writing for the FT from Beirut (May 22nd), says that the taking of Palmyra puts “Isis in [a] position to advance on Damascus.” Perhaps. On verra.

5th UPDATE: In an analysis (May 22nd) that would tend to confirm the one above, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov says “First Ramadi, then Palmyra: Isis shows it can storm bastions of Syria and Iraq.” The lede: “Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat.”

6th UPDATE: Hassan Hassan, the sharp analyst at Abu Dhabi’s Delma Institute and co-author of a new book on the Islamic State, has a column in The Guardian (May 24th) on the “Religious teaching that drives Isis to threaten the ancient ruins of Palmyra.” The lede: “Most historical sites under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria remain intact. Palmyra might be different precisely because of western warnings.”

7th UPDATE: CSIS geostrategic specialist Anthony Cordesman, who knows more about Middle Eastern military matters than anyone inside the Beltway (and most outside of it), has an analysis (May 21st), on the CSIS website, on “The defeat in Ramadi,” which he says, in regard to US policy, signals “a time for transparency, integrity, and change.”

8th UPDATE: Dov S. Zakheim, who was a Pentagon official in the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, has a commentary in The National Interest (May 23rd), in which he argues that “The only ISIS strategy left for America [is] containment.”

9th UPDATE: Amos Harel of Haaretz says (May 26th) that “Hezbollah leader’s speech makes [it] clear: Israel may soon be faced with post-Assad Syria.” The lede: “The bigger picture is gradually becoming clear: After almost a year of a relative stalemate, the Assad regime is retreating on multiple fronts.” So it looks like the fall of Palmyra has increased the threat to Damascus, Homs, etc. after all.

10th UPDATE: Beirut-based reporter Kareem Shaheen, writing in The Guardian (May 27th), informs us that “Isis [has] release[ed] footage of Palmyra ruins intact and ‘will not destroy them’.” The lede: “Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area.” If true, that’s a relief. As for the humanitarian crisis, any calls from the belles âmes for a Western military intervention to deal with that?

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Titli

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This is a first-rate film from India I saw the other day, about a lowlife crime family in greater Delhi and their lowlife antics. I’ll let Variety’s Jay Weissberg—who probably knows non-Western cinema better than any other US film critic—describe the pic

The rising profile of Indian indies on the international scene receives another boost with Kanu Behl’s grittily impressive noir debut, “Titli.” Set within the claustrophobic confines of a criminal family in a downtrodden section of Delhi, the film plunges into this pitiless milieu with headstrong assurance, presenting a paternalistic world where corruption seeps into people’s pores and women need backbones of steel to survive. Behl coaxes standout perfs from the largely non-pro cast and captures the volatility of a society where violence lies uneasily just below the surface…

If the recent horrific rapes reported from India have taken much of the globe by surprise, “Titli” seems to be saying, “Look, let me show you where this comes from.” Behl and co-scripter Sharat Katariya make no apologies; nor do they create one-dimensional monsters: They depict a dog-eat-dog culture where feelings of powerlessness engender acts of terrible cruelty. Part of this stewing anger comes from the increasingly independent power of women, creating a backlash and crushing wives unable to maintain their precarious control.

The name Titli translates as “butterfly,” an apt moniker for a character (Shashank Arora) who undergoes a troubling transformation. He’s the youngest of three brothers, living together with their father (Lalit Behl, the helmer’s dad) in a cramped, dingy home off one of Delhi’s countless unpaved streets. Titli dreams of escaping and buying the concession for a newly constructed parking garage, but he’s about $500 short. Once his family is introduced, it’s apparent why Titli is so anxious to get out: Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) is a belligerent tyrant who’s driven his wife to file for divorce, and middle brother Baawla (Amit Sial), through his calm demeanor, enables Vikram’s expansive ruthlessness and their father’s silent control. (…)

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here.

The film paints a bleak portrait of contemporary India in this era of globalization—urban India’s globalized logo consumer culture is declaimed in the opening scene—, neoliberalism, and—how else to put it—modernization and the attendant anomie, with the violence that suffuses social relations, not to mention relations within the family, and the general breakdown of social mores. My grandfather (1903-80) would die a second time if he saw what India has become, where money is all that matters, people have extramarital affairs and get divorced, and you name it. Indian culture is famously family centered, which the film depicts well, except that the families are distinctly Mafia-like—no sentiments, just pecuniary interest—but with the women neither passive nor taking shit from their menfolk. At least some things have changed for the better. The Lunchbox—a most heartwarming film—this is not. And this one no doubt nails a certain reality in India these days more than did Gangs of Wasseypur, which was over-the-top and borderline cartoonish toward the end.

In addition to the backhanded social commentary, the pic is gripping—I didn’t check my watch once, which, for a 2+ hour film, is not bad—and very well acted all around, in particular the comely Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi), the protag Titli’s wife (or “wife”). As for Titli’s name, I thought it odd, as that’s normally a girl’s name (or nickname), but it’s mentioned halfway through that his mother (deceased) so wanted her third (and last) child to be a girl—as her first two sons were destined to be sleazebags from birth, who could blame her?—that she gave him a girl’s name anyway. The film—which has so far opened only in France (it has yet to in India)—contains a warning that some spectateurs may find certain scenes shocking (for the violence), so be ready to avert your eyes (as I did). Reviewers from THR and Screen Daily who saw the pic at Cannes last year give it the thumbs up, as have French critics. Trailer is here.

Titli

the onion v51 i19 05-15-2015

A decades-long opponent of the death penalty, I could not feel satisfaction at the sentence meted out to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday. And my sentiment was shared by many Bostonians, indeed the overwhelming majority according to a Boston Globe poll, “that found little support for the death penalty in general [but] even less when it came to Tsarnaev.” My view was precisely expressed by New York magazine editor Jesse Singal, who wrote

When I saw that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been sentenced to death, a cold, queasy feeling settled in my gut, and I got very sad. From a certain perspective, this doesn’t make much sense — Tsarnaev murdered people in cold blood, and if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s him. And yet I couldn’t — can’t — shake the feeling that the U.S. government is going to commit a barbaric wrong. And I’m far from the only Bostonian who feels this way — most of us don’t want to kill Tsarnaev.

In one of my Boston bomber posts of two years ago, I remarked that the younger Tsarnaev was, at that moment, 19-years-old, the same age as my daughter, and that my daughter was—for me, at least—a kid. 19-year-olds do not hatch terrorist attacks; they are recruited into them, and/or brainwashed into participating. In a trial, this is a manifest attenuating circumstance. Tsarnaev should clearly spend the better part of his life in prison for his participation in the bombing and for the killing and maiming it sowed. But he should not be judicially murdered for it. Nor put in a Super Max prison and/or solitary confinement, both a manifest violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Writing in Slate, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, looking at the jury, pins the responsibility for the verdict on the prosecution, which “framed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, [thus] help[ing] seal his fate.”

Also in Slate, writer Seth Stevenson ponders “[t]he baffling reasoning of the jury that just sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.” In his commentary, Stevenson concludes with a reference to the trial in Harper Lee’s To Kill Mockingbird, of a black man in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. As it so happens, I just finished reading this great American novel (and for the very first time). If any Americans reading this post have not read Harper Lee’s chef d’œuvre, they are strongly encouraged to do so. Not only does the novel offer what is probably the best, most dead-on accurate depiction of life in the Deep South in its era that one will find in a work of fiction, but is also a backhanded argument for abolishing the death penalty, as popular juries should never, ever have a say over the life or death of a man. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

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Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

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SUITE-FRANCAISE

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe—V-E Day—so this seems like a good occasion to mention a few WWII-themed films I’ve seen over the past several months. The most recent one is Suite Française, by English director Saul Dibb, which is, as one may expect, the cinematic adaptation of Irène Némirovsky’s best-selling, unfinished novel, whose rediscovery and 2004 publication in France caused a minor literary sensation. The story begins with the German advance on Paris in June 1940 and the flight of its population, here to the fictive town of Bussy, with the rest of the movie about the protags—the mid 20ish Lucile (Michelle Williams), whose husband is in the army, her widow mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the (cultivated) German lieutenant (Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts) who is billeted in their bourgeois home—and what happens between them and in Bussy more generally. Reviews of the film in the Paris press were good to terrible—averaging out to mediocre—but Allociné spectateurs overall appreciated it far more, as it’s definitely a movie for the masses. As Variety’s critic put it, the pic is a “handsomely crafted, sincerely performed wartime weeper.” And in this vein, Screen Daily’s critic wrote that it “ticks all the right boxes as a classy literary adaptation, favouring a heightened sense of soap opera romance over gritty drama.” A tad schlocky? Maybe, but I side with the masses, as I found it generally well-done and entertaining—if one doesn’t mind seeing a Wehrmacht officer portrayed sympathetically—and with some positive facets, e.g. the decor of the period and depiction of the behavior of the population under occupation—toward the Germans and among themselves—which ran the gamut, from collaboration, anonymous délation, and egotistical chacun pour soi to resistance, passive and active, though with just about everyone hating the Germans for the mere fact that they were there, occupying their country, and because French people, for comprehensible historical reasons, were hard-wired Germanophobes. The German soldiers in the town are shown behaving more or less civilly toward the population, which was indeed the case in the early phase of the occupation, though was short-lived. As for negative aspects of the film, the main one, for me at least, is that it’s in English. I would have preferred to see it in V.F. I haven’t read the novel but know that the film generally adheres to the story, except for the ending, where director and co-screenwriter Dibb took liberties. Cinesnobs will turn their collective nose up at the pic but for everyone else, it may be seen. Trailer is here.

Briefly, on the other films:

Fury, directed by David Ayer, who normally does cop flicks (among them, the very good End of Watch). A Hollywood grand spectacle set in the furious final month of the war in the European theater—of the US Army’s push into Germany’s heartland, where it met fierce resistance—the pic’s story is of a fireteam led by the intrepid, tough-as-nails Sergeant Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), which takes on whole Wehrmacht companies from the top of a Sherman tank. The kill ratio of Sgt Wardaddy and his men looks to be on the order of 80 to 1. It’s a classic war movie and with the whole range of characters: e.g. the Bible-reading nerd (Shia LaBeouf), hillbilly whack-job (Jon Bernthal), and heavy-drinking Chicano (Michael Pena). Not totally original but, as far as war movies go, is pretty good, or so I thought. It may definitely be seen. The reviews by the LAT’s Kenneth Turan and THR’s Todd McCarthy get it right, IMO. Trailer is here.

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Phoenix, by German director Christian Petzold, whose previous film was the excellent 2012 Barbara. I saw this one at Paris’s Festival du Cinéma Allemand last October, where it won the audience coup de cœur award (I voted for another). It’s set in devastated Berlin just after the end of the war, with the protag, Nelly (played by Petzhold’s fetish actress Nina Hoss), a German Jewish survivor of Auschwitz—the only one in her family—whose face was seriously disfigured at the end of her captivity, so underwent plastic surgery, which did not entirely restore her previous looks. Everyone—including her German Aryan husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld)—thinks she’s dead, except for Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) from the Jewish Agency, who is pressing her to emigrate to Palestine. But Nelly, who was a cabaret singer in Berlin until her arrest and deportation, wants her Johnny—a piano player, whom she finds in the Berlin nightclub, called Phoenix, where they had worked together—not only because she still loves him but needs to find out the truth of what he may have known about her denunciation to the Gestapo, which Lene insists to her (as to what happens: no spoilers). But as her face has been altered, he doesn’t recognize her, so she begins a charade with him. It’s film noir-ish and Hitchcockian, as more than one critic has opined. Reviews in the Hollywood press were dithyrambic (here, here, and here), as they were in France, though a few (e.g. here) found the story overly implausible and could not suspend disbelief. Chacun son appréciation. I’m somewhere in between. Trailer is here.

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Wolfskinder, by Rick Ostermann. I also saw this at last October’s German film festival. It’s set in summer 1946 in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, with its subject the little-known tragedy there of the “wolf children”: German children, some 25,000 in number, who were orphaned or separated from their parents at the end of the war, left to fend for themselves in the forests, where they foraged for food (and stole from farms) and lived in permanent fear of Red Army soldiers, who shot them on sight. Many of the children died—of hunger, illness, or exposure—or were killed. Some were taken in and clandestinely adopted by Lithuanian farm families, with the rest eventually deported to orphanages in East Germany (the Soviets entirely cleansing East Prussia of its remaining Germans after the war). The film follows the saga of several children, with the principal characters two brothers, Hans and Fritzchen, age 14 and 11. It’s a well-done film but tough to watch. How adults can be so cruel and devoid of humanity toward children is beyond my comprehension. Reviews by Hollywood critics who saw it at the Venice film festival are here and here. Trailer is here.

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Run Boy Run, by German director Pepe Danquart (en France: Cours sans te retourner). This is another film about children during the war—specifically one child, aged 8 to 10—and the cruelty, when not sadism, of adults. It reenacts the true story of Yoram Israel Friedman (here, here, here, and here)—Srulik in the film, played by the talented Polish child actor Andrzej Tkacz—who was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where his family was killed or later exterminated in Treblinka, and spent two years hiding from the Germans in the forests, seeking food and shelter from Polish farm families—concealing his Jewish identity with his life—who alternately treated him with kindness, circumspection, or meanness. Delivered to the Gestapo by venal Polish peasants, he miraculously managed to escape back into the forest, lost his right arm along the way, but survived the war, after which he was taken by the Jewish Agency to Palestine. The story is almost unbelievable but it did indeed happen. Like ‘Wolfskinder’ it’s a tough film to watch but is gripping and well-done, though Variety’s critic, in a lukewarm review, opined that while “[a] natural for Jewish viewers and older arthouse-goers, ‘Run Boy Run’ feels too old-fashioned and by-the-numbers for a wider audience.” I guess I’m one of those older arthouse-goers. Trailer is here.

lauf Junge lauf_polnische Plakat

In Darkness, by Polish director Agnieszka Holland (en France: Sous la ville). This one, which came out in 2011, I saw last year on DVD. It’s another Holocaust true story, of two dozen Jews in the Lvov ghetto who hid from the Nazis for over a year, in 1943-44, in the sewers of the city, protected by a Polish sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (played by Robert Więckiewicz), who was no philosemite and whose initial motivations were purely monetary gain, but ended up bonding with those whose lives depended on his good will, and at great danger to his own life and that of his family. The heroism of Socha and his wife, Magdalena, earned them Yad Vashem’s status of Righteous Among Nations. It’s a good movie but, like those above—and all Holocaust movies—does not make for enjoyable watching. Again, the reviews by Kenneth Turan and Todd McCarthy are on the mark. Trailer is here.

W ciemności

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