WWII

When Italians Look Back

Ferrara Jewish Ghetto

Our Italianite period continues today with the review of one of the great Italian books of the 20th century.  Now, other than Umberto Eco, I haven’t read that much modern Italian literature but, falling victim to the Folio Society’s beautiful marketing pitch and the fact that their books are utterly wonderful, I decided t purchase The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.

When reading the description, I expected to find a book very similar to Brideshead Revisited, which I loved.  Instead, I found a book with a darker edge and an utter lack of the poetry of elegy.  Of course, that might be down to the translation, but I didn’t feel that Waugh, as a writer and evoker of feelings, has anything to fear from Bassani.

Nevertheless, the book, which starts somewhat slowly, does become engrossing by the end, when things begin to unravel for the protagonists and the relationships between the young characters become a little more muddied.

Of course, we are told on the first page that the story has a sad ending, as it deals with a group of Jewish families on the eve of the Second World War.  The impact was lessened in my case because it became impossible to fall in love with–or even to truly sympathize—with the mercurial Micòl, the narrator’s love interest.  I generally have no problem falling head over heels for this kind of character, and what is basically a Holly Golightly character should, in my opinion, have been much more compelling.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

But if the characters left me a bit cold, the same can’t be said of the setting.  While the city of Ferrara as described by Bassani is unremarkable, the walled home of the titular family becomes a kind of unforgettable wonderland which lives on in memory long after the foibles of the characters are forgotten.

I haven’t seen the film based on the novel, perhaps it is better than the book when it comes to characters–what Micòl lacks in writing can be fixed by any decent casting director (sadly, it wasn’t… just did a google image search)–and I’d love to know what those of you who’ve seen it think.

Anyhow, if you enjoy unforgettable settings or different takes on the Holocaust, this one may be for you.  Others might prefer to read Brideshead Revisited for the elegiac content or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for Micòl done right.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege, a far future science fiction book which explores what it means to be human–and why that definition matters.  Buy it here!

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An Unexpected Classic

We’ve all heard the premise that, if you were to perfect a time machine, the first thing you’d be obligated to do with it would be to go back in time and kill Hitler before he gained power (as always, the XKCD take on this is likely the greatest ever).  But that’s what people think in the 21st century.

But what about in 1939?  We know that a lot of Americans saw Fascism as a great thing, but how about the rest of the world?

Rogue-Male-by-Geoffrey-Household

Well, at least one British novelist was pretty clear on the subject.  In 1939, Geoffrey Household wrote a slim volume entitled Rogue Male which deals with exactly this subject.  It’s the story of a British gentleman hunter who braves the wilds of Europe to attempt to get the most dangerous game of all into his crosshairs: the most well-defended dictator in Europe.

Though Hitler is never named (remember, 1939 was pretty much appeasement-era Britain, and Household probably preferred not to be shot for treason), not much is left to the imagination.  It can’t really be anyone else.

So we have the answer to our question, at least in one very specific case.

The book itself is probably more significant because of the audacious and unsubtle way it deals with the Hitler issue, but otherwise seemed unremarkable to this modern reader.  I suppose, though, that such an iconic stand more than justifies its status as a classic.  And, of course, the fact that it literally starts with a cliffhanger…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me was, that as someone who isn’t an expert on the history of the international thriller (except for The Thirty-Nine Steps), I actually stumbled onto this one.  On the same day that I grabbed The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, I picked up a seventies paperback (see image) with the most lurid pink lettering ever.  Were it not for the cover blurb, I would have been convinced that this one was one of those suburban wife-swapping tales from the decade that taste forgot (“Rogue Male” would have worked rather well as a title for one of those)…  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Recommended for students of the genre, for anyone interested in cultural expressions around WWII unsullied by modern revisionism or just fast-paced thrillers.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a tight thriller that deals with the coming issues of post-humanity.

Taking a Mix of Terrible Ingredients and Turning Them Into Something Brilliant

stairway scen in A Matter of Life and death

When looking at the major elements that went into the creation of classic British film, A Matter of Life and Death(1946), one would never have expected it to be anything but a confusing and incoherent hodgepodge.  Let’s have a look…  Take one part Christian-based afterlife, a drop of true love and its vital importance on earth, one part straight fantasy, a good dollop of melodrama, a court scene, the possibility of brain damage to the main character, and a request from the government to create a propaganda film to foster good relations between the US and England, stir well and stand back.

But I guess one should never underestimate the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger.  The team responsible for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was certain to defy every expectation we had and mix this together in a completely unexpected way.  Accustomed as we are to Hollywood today creating only blockbusters with completely nonsensical (albeit entertaining) plots and predictable, formulaic tear jerkers for those of other sensibilities, watching the films that these guys made is a bit of a jolt.

Essentially, this film deals with the plight of a British aviator who, while he is supposed to be dead, falls in love with an American girl.  Since he’s supposed to be dead but isn’t because of a cock-up by a particular angel, a whole boatload of bureaucracy gets put in motion to get him properly killed off.

In the meantime, a group of people on Earth are moving to save him.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH

It all sounds pretty maudlin, but in practice, the filmmakers manage to pull it off, and then some.  The mixture of black and white and color footage is the best use of this technique since The Wizard of Oz, and the special effects are extremely ambitious for postwar Britain.

Also, David Niven is always worth watching, no matter if he is the romantic lead as in this case, or if he’s playing a hardened commando.

This one is a keeper – even if American audiences will have to look for it under the title Stairway to Heaven (which makes it sound even dumber.  Does anyone else remember the moronic TV show of the same name).  If you haven’t seen it go out and watch it.

The curious incident from this one is that one of the character actors, Bonar Colleano, a man who was well on his way to becoming a superstar when he died, was killed in a sportscar crash returning from a gig in 1958 at the age of 34.  As you all probably know by now, Classically Educated loves all forms of high speed motorsport, the purer the better, so we salute, more than a half-century later, the passing of a fellow enthusiast.

At Least a Favorable Reference to the Devil

Today we present a new excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens monumental work-in-progress about WWII and the events that led to it.  Those of you who’ve been following along at home know that these pieces never fail to deliver – and now we’re reaching the war’s endgame… and one of its most mysterious episodes.

 

May 6th, 1945. London–As his capitol was overrun by the Red Army, Adolf Hitler appears to have sought asylum in the one location from which there can be no extradition. Although reports of a German surrender were only optimistic speculation, news of Hitler’s suicide has been confirmed. He named as his successor neither of the obvious candidates, Himmler or Goering, but the less widely known commander of the German Navy, Admiral Donitz. How the Admiral intends to prosecute the war is unclear. What is clear is that, regardless of the Admiral’s intentions, Germany lacks the means to continue any meaningful opposition to United Nations forces.

If there is no surrender soon, surrender itself will become a moot formality. The Royal Air Force, as well as the US Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, ceased all bombing of Germany two weeks ago for lack of targets. There is no traversable length of railroad still intact, no refinery still operating, no factory able to produce any usable weapons, no aggregation of rubble large enough for a group of desperate soldiers to hide behind.

And there is still no surrender.

Perhaps this reckless determination to fight on is nothing more than a desire to die in combat with a semblance of honor rather than face responsibility for what is increasingly clear. That crimes and atrocities which only one month ago would have been dismissed out of hand as too incredibly heinous be be seriously countenanced have undeniably occurred.

There has never been a military man more even-tempered or fair-minded than General Eisenhower. What he has personally observed at concentration camps in Germany is so far beyond description that it need not be described. It is sufficient to say that it has sickened and angered him to such an extent that every German, in uniform or not, knows better than to anticipate any mercy from their conquerors.

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury

* * *

Bloodstains in Hitlers Bunker

 

The stuffiness of the room had grown more oppressive, and the shrill insistence of the slightly inadequate ventilation fan more penetrating. Or perhaps Eva had nothing better to hold her attention.

“Would you like me to go first, Princess?” Adi asked.

He had never called her Princess before.

“No,” she replied, suddenly overcome with tears. She put her head on his shoulder. Silently, she told herself that she was not afraid, and realized what an abominable lie that was. The truth? She was more afraid of living an hour longer than of dying in another minute. She recovered her nerve. She had to be steady for him. Steely. She lifted her head.

“We agreed,” she resumed. “You should wait to make sure that I am–” Her breath seemed to congeal in her throat. “–safe,” she concluded.

“Do you know, Eva,” Adi suddenly said, “when I was a child, I wanted to be a priest?”

“I’m not surprised by that.”

“No?”

She picked up the brass capsule containing the bit of serious business.

“Hold out your hand,” she said. He did. She unscrewed the capsule and pulled the two pieces apart so that the ampule dropped into his palm. Tossing the shell aside, she opened her mouth, the tip of her tongue resting on the edge of her teeth, just inside of her lower lip.

He smiled, the same shimmering smile he’d displayed so shyly the day they met for the first time. He took the ampule gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Tenderly, he placed it onto her tongue.

One could not but wonder what that moment of transcendence would comprise. Of course, death would not be like anything. There was nothing in life that could serve as a simile for it.

She knew she should repent of this madness, and spit the thing out. Yet she knew just as well that she was able to do this with a clear conscience, because her conscience was improperly formed by years of compromise. Her faith, once white hot, had gone lukewarm and then stone cold, and was now already dead, although still as strong as it had ever been. She and Adi had never been to Mass together. In sixteen years, neither of them had said a single Hail Mary, or even once made the sign of the cross over themselves, and yet, if pressed on the point, each of them would have insisted that they were Catholic.

Smiling at Adi, she bit into the glass. He heard it cracking between her teeth. Then she was translated. She slumped over the arm of the sofa, and he saw the discolouration around her nose. That quickly, sixteen years had passed.

His pistol–the 7.65 mm Walther–was on the table. Like a chalice on the altar, he thought. He remembered the many times as a child when he stood on a chair at the kitchen table, wearing an apron as his vestment, celebrating the Mass.

Fondly recalling his first communion, he knelt at the table, then lifted the pistol to his lips. As his finger settled on the trigger, he was reminded of the delicate silver bells jingling during the Mass, announcing the descent of the Holy Spirit as it settled on the unleavened wafers and they became the resurrected Body of Christ. As an altar boy, he had held those bells, and beckoned to the Holy Spirit with this very finger. Now, as this profligate finger curled more tightly, summoning his own spirit in another direction entirely, he strained to remember the gentle sound of those tiny bells, softly resonating in the hushed stillness of the church, but could not. He only heard the harsh chirping of the distant ventilation fans, and trapped in his ears, echoing in his mind, the brutal cracking of the glass in Eva’s mouth.

The trigger at last succumbed to the pressure of his finger. He felt the action release the firing pin, and heard the shot rushing from the chamber. With it, he received no absolution, but only abrogation[1].

* * *

How does one make sense of Adolf Hitler, a peculiar but heroic soldier who earned the respect and admiration of comrades and commanders alike, then went on to take his country to the brink of annihilation with much of Europe close behind? How do we understand this little boy who wanted to be a priest, but instead became the eponym of evil at its most absolute by leading his nation in their effort to exterminate an entire people?

Millions of words have been written in pursuit of Hitler’s presumed hatred for Jews, with no evidence of his ever being so much as rude to even one Jew, let alone the discovery of a fury intense enough to bring about ten million deaths.

In the early days of the Nazi Party, another Party leader asked Hitler what the Nazis’ program would be. Hitler replied that the program was unimportant, it was only power that mattered. When this same leader argued that power must always be wielded with purpose toward a goal, Hitler dismissed the argument as pointless intellectualism.

Every Jew who met Hitler personally found him to be kind and courteous. Every Jew who knew him was convinced that the anti-semitism he espoused was nothing more than agitprop, palaver poured out to get himself and his party elected and into power, and Hitler is known to have said that everyone in Germany would recognize Jews as a common enemy, if they were arbitrarily selected by the Nazis to serve as a focus for national unity.

But if Hitler’s vaunted anti-semitism were only a ruse, why, then, the final solution?

More so than soldiers of any other nation, Americans were infused with the righteousness of their involvement in the war. From the noble clarity of their goals there followed an expected purity in their actions. They were not engaged in a war of vengeance, but a holy crusade to restore the world to justice. Yet there were occasions when these righteous crusaders would physically abuse or shoot prisoners of war. A disinterested observer could ascribe most of these incidents to anger or frustration in the heat of a few horrible moments. Some justification may be found for excusing these violations of the Geneva Convention. But the fact remains that even the best of soldiers may become murderers when circumstances permit murder.

It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If it seems preposterous to you to suppose that a man might send millions of innocents to their deaths simply for the pleasure of doing so, then you have probably never walked among armed combatants seeking battle, and you have certainly never noticed that every word of the United States Constitution is about restraining the exercise of power.

By the time of the Final Solution, it was clear that the Soviet Union would not be defeated as easily as France had been, and evident that it might never be defeated. When the United States entered into the war, Hitler had little reason to hope that Germany would ever win. Frustrated and angry, he could console himself easily enough by exercising absolute power while it was still his.

This is not to suggest that Hitler’s decision to have eleven million[2] people put to death was made on the spur of the moment, or that the Ka-tsets would have been shut down and all the prisoners inside them released if Germany had won the war. Hitler had written about his proposed Entfernung of Jews as early as 1919.

When speaking of tattoo removal, a German will use the word Entfernung. There can be no doubt what becomes of the tattoo. How could there be any doubt what Hitler intended for the Jews of Europe as early as 1919?

When Bertold Brecht was deported from the United States, German newspapers reported his Entfernung. There could be no doubt that Bertold Brecht was alive and unharmed.

It would be both naive and asinine to assume that Hitler had not carefully chosen that word for its ambiguity. While it cannot be proven that Hitler had begun to plan, as early as 1919, for the extermination of all European Jews, neither can it be denied that this eventuality was among the possibilities he had considered at that time.[3]

* * *

As early as 1937, President Roosevelt had decided that in the event of war with The Empire of Japan, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast would be interned. It was only after this decision was made that the rationale for it was formulated. Internment, it was said, would be necessary to ensure that any disloyal individuals among these people did not escape detection, and in order to protect them from their suspicious white neighbors.

Adolph Hitler claimed that German emigrants remained citizens of his Reich, and that their children and grandchildren were German citizens as well. He insisted that all persons of German ancestry owed their loyalty to him and no one else. He believed that German-Americans were entirely German, and not at all American. The existence of the German-American Bundt would suggest that a number of German-Americans shared his belief.

The FBI, conducting the largest investigation of its kind, determined that there was no similar belief held by the government of Japan or by Japanese immigrants in the United States, or by any of their children or grandchildren. The Japanese government had never made any effort to recruit even a single spy or saboteur from among the Japanese-Americans, nor had any Japanese-American, whether resident alien or United States citizen by birth, ever made any effort to further the interests of Japan to the detriment of the United States, even by peaceful and legal means, let alone through any attempts at espionage of any kind.

Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp

Sociologists engaged by the State Department determined that no immigrant group was more loyal to the United States than the Japanese-Americans, and no group was more truly American. In Japanese culture, emigrants are not merely transplanted into their new country, they are grafted onto it. They will retain a Japanese appearance, and they may retain the Japanese language, but they are not Japanese. Among any other nationality, as many as one-third of immigrants arriving in the United States would, within twenty years, return to live in their native country. Japanese who came to America rarely went back to Japan.

Investigating the question of conflicted loyalties, the State Department learned, as had the FBI, that Imperial Japan had no wish or intention to use Japanese-Americans as spies, recognizing first that they had no loyalty to Japan, and secondarily that they would be of no use, since white Americans would not trust them. Instead, Imperial Japan chose to rely on the already existing German and Italian spy networks.

Although he was fully aware of all these facts, President Roosevelt did not allow himself to be dissuaded by them. In 1942, he ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans, precisely as he had planned to do all along. Today, it is profoundly disturbing to see how easily that order could be given, and to see the docile facility with which it was carried out. Without investigation or probable cause, without trial or arraignment, with no semblance of due process, all persons of Japanese ancestry abiding in California, Oregon or Washington State, whether resident aliens or citizens of the United States, were simply removed in just a few days.

However plausible the justifications for this relocation may sound, whatever explanation one might wish to accept, a single photograph of any white American standing proudly beside his sign–WE DON’T WANT ANY JAPS! EVER!–looking exactly like a German standing beside his sign–JUDEN RAUS!–makes clear that this arbitrary corralling of an ethnic minority by a racially prejudiced government was, in fact, Entfernung.

* * *

Because the internment of Japanese-Americans happened in Twentieth Century America, every fact and detail of it is utterly harrowing. With each paragraph one reads about it, with each story one hears, there is a renewed desire to scream, because it was a heinous injustice perpetrated by Americans against other Americans. Yet there is one inescapable facet of the whole picture that transcends expression, a realization so horrible that one can only see it and turn away.

Of all military construction in the United States during the Second World War, only Los Alamos was more remote than the internment camps. The Manhattan Project was the only war-related activity of their government about which the American public was told less than the internment of Japanese-Americans. While one simply cannot imagine President Roosevelt authorizing a final solution to the Japanese-American problem, one must–if one is honest–recognize from the placement of the camps and the silence surrounding them that this eventuality was among the possibilities considered within the War Department.

 

 

[1] In his movie, Little Nicky, Adam Sandler supposes Hitler gets a pineapple shoved up his ass every day, but that would be letting him off easy. Hell? The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire. Every day, over and over. The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire. He spends the day, every day, alone in the bunker, remembering the face of every young man whom he sent to an early and horrible death, remembering every conversation with Himmler, remembering the footage of unreleased documentaries he watched with Goebbels. Then it’s morning again. The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire.

[2] The Wannsee Conference planned to “involve” eleven million European Jews in the Final Solution, but the precise number of deaths that occurred in the Ka-tsets cannot be known. Although an estimate of twenty million is the largest number which cannot be discredited, it staggers the imagination. The estimate generally considered to be an accurate minimum is ten million. In either case, six million of these are known to be Jewish.

Although Common Criminals and Prostitutes were sent to the Ka-tsets with the expectation that they might die, and Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Politicals were sent with the expectation that they would die, only Jews were sent specifically for the purpose of extermination. The death of a Jew was not merely expected, it was intended.

In the moral sense of the word, each of these deaths–whether of a Jew or a Gentile–was a murder, but in the strictest legal sense of the word, they were not. Pragmatically, the millions of Germans and other European nationals who participated to some degree in every one of these deaths could not all be hanged, so it was held that these deaths occurred within the jurisdiction and under the authority of the German government. Individuals who had given orders were guilty of war crimes; those who obeyed these orders were presumed innocent, and every murder that was committed became only a death which had occurred.

[3] A plausible argument can be made that the Wannsee Protocol, Section Three, Paragraph Seven: “jews should be put to work in the East. . . . Any final remnant that survives… will have to be dealt with appropriately” was a precise enunciation of Hitler’s long-intended Entfernung.

Viewed in retrospect from this conclusion, Hitler’s actions can be generally seen as a series of planned steps moving toward that goal. Militarily, the sole object in this scenario was the conquest of Soviet Russia as a repository for Europe’s Jews, in which they could “be dealt with appropriately.” This conquest required that the bulk of the German army be deployed from Poland. The necessary encirclement of Poland required the occupation of Czechoslovakia, which was itself first encircled through the Anschluss of Austria. That France and England became combatants in opposition to Germany was an inconvenience anticipated and prepared for with the occupation of the Rhineland.

When realization of the expected repository failed, concurrent with the failure of the Soviet Union to be conquered, the Nazis adapted the plan to an accelerated schedule, intending to “involve” as many Jews as they could apprehend before the war ended.

For this argument to be valid, Hitler’s anti-semitism would have to be a profoundly irrational, superstitious variety of prejudice. Precisely that sort of anti-semitism can be found throughout the world, and is particularly virulent in Eastern Europe even today.

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.

Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

romeopencity3-1600x900-c-default

The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

carne-les-enfants-du-paradis-poster

Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

robert-le-vigan

Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.

“Whenever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

 

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury War Correspondent in Italy*

 

Italian Colonial Exposition 1940

Buildings of the 1940 Italian Overseas Exposition before the war

December 26, 1943 With US Army 21st General Hospital, Mostra Fairgrounds, Bagnoli. Italy–Candidates for the Purple Heart in recognition of battlefield wounds in Italy will now pass in review under the eyes of no less famous a figure than Benito Mussolini. His face, substantially larger than life, is prominent in a mural at the Albanian pavilion of his 1940 Colonial Exposition, an extravaganza intended to modestly showcase his glorious achievements as Italy’s leader. The immodest number of bullet holes which mar his likeness manage to render the image pleasant enough for medical personnel to work in view of it in what is now the surgical area of an Army Hospital, and few of the soldiers they attend to take the time to look up at the man who still looks down on them.
Just three weeks ago, as the Third and Forty-fifth Infantry Divisions began crossing the Volturno River, the men and women of this hospital, more than four thousand of them, began crossing the Mediterranean, bringing with them more than three thousand crates of medical supplies and equipment, to set up shop in this new location, right outside of Naples, and only thirty miles from the front lines. This proximity relieves much of the pressure on field hospitals even closer to the front, and allows greater flexibility in determining the best treatment for urgent and critical cases.
This proximity also allows wounded men to be brought directly from the battlefield to what is literally the newest, most modern hospital in the world, And Il Duce allows these men to recover in good humor; the post-op room was originally a memorial to Italy’s brave soldiers, most of whom have now surrendered or simply discarded their uniforms and quietly gone home. No man, regardless of whether he is American, British, or any of the other nationalities now fighting with the allies in Italy, has failed to find this amusing.
Another thing every man has found amusing is discovering what knockouts some of these nurses can be. To free every available doctor for surgery, a number of nurses volunteered to learn how to administer anaesthesia. I found it reassuring to see a man wounded less than an hour earlier ask his anesthetist if she’d go out with him after he recovered. Her only reply was a smile; before she could have spoken a word, he was unconscious.

* * *

There were, of course, a number of things I couldn’t mention in this column without risk of undermining the war effort. I couldn’t say that this man, like many battlefield casualties, was in shock. Nor could I say that, like most battlefield casualties, he had not been told how badly he was wounded. If he’d been wounded before, he might have known how unusual it was for the anaesthesia to be injected into the neck, rather than an arm or a leg. But he no longer had arms and legs. That was something else I couldn’t mention.

And this is only one hospital, Erich Maria Remarque had written. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this… A hospital alone shows what war is.

I remembered that as I typed, but still sent my column.

* * *

Dusk was well upon us by the time I stepped outside. I was nominally billeted in a field hospital nurses tent a few miles away, and wondering if I should try to find a closer place to sleep for the night or hope for a ride when I noticed a jeepload of clean uniforms heading my way. Replacements going somewhere, I supposed, until they stopped in front of me. A Signal Corps Captain looked at my armband, then spoke up.

“We were in San Pietro before anybody,” he said, with the tone of a man in shell shock. “There’d been an attack and a counterattack in the night, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of dead.”

What had he expected to find after a battle, confetti? I didn’t ask, I just stood there listening to the motor of the jeep idling, and glanced at the newsreel cameras on the floor of the jeep.

“Battalion?” the driver asked, a trace of Yiddish to the question, somehow. I pointed and the jeep was moving again.

I don’t know when I finally realized I’d met John Huston that evening. Certainly not by May of 1945, when I saw the Army’s fiercely edited two-reel release of the battlefield documentary Frank Capra had sent him to film.

* * *

On the Road to San Pietro

US Tank destroyed attempting to enter San Pietro

How do you create the cinematic documentation of a battle when you weren’t there until the battle was over, and the first thing you find when you do arrive is hundreds and hundreds of dead? Of course, a critic, particularly if he’s never directed a movie or been anywhere near a battlefield littered with corpses, many of them fragmentary, will say you fabricate the whole thing. Yes, anyone can recognize that John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment, for the most part, with no particular effort made to capture realism in the scenes depicting the battles. Even the men shot in the five-reel original were staging their deaths. The only aspect of the film which was genuine and even in the least candid was the part Huston experienced personally on the first morning of filming. The corpses, even when repositioned for effect, or to keep the grotesquely distorted faces, if they were American, out of view, were absolutely real. They were not extras, they were the stars of the film, and Huston, editing either version, must have calculated how much carnage could be tolerated by the typical audience without blunting their sensitivity to what they were being shown, and how much of this brutal depiction of a brutal reality was necessary to validate his own statement, as the movie approaches its close, “These lives were valuable–valuable to their loved ones, to their country, and to the men themselves.”

* * *

The officers for whom Huston screened his original edit all walked out in quick succession, but George Marshall, who had to concern himself not only with morale, but also with the more difficult issues of desertion and combat fatigue, decided that a shorter edit of Huston’s stark depiction of battle would be an appropriate training film. Marshall was pleased by this version of the film, with a brief introduction by General Mark Clark, and Huston was promoted to Major.

* * *

The wind and snow on Christmas Eve were answers to prayer. Everyone’s prayer. The Germans–those still alive–were glad of something to cover their retreat. And those Americans still alive were glad of the excuse to let them slip away. The battle per se of San Pietro had been over for a week, and the 3rd Infantry was taking up forward positions in relief of what remained of the 36th. There had been a flood of T-patchers in the field hospital, and from those able and willing to talk, I’d pieced together a story that still needed a lot of window dressing and white washing before it could be typed up and cabled home.

Essentially, the Germans had built their own little Maginot Line from Lincoln Logs. A series of fortified foxholes with nearly perfect defilade and concealment, protected by alternating layers of barbed wire and land mines. Further, each of these could only be approached by a single man scraping his short hairs in the mud. Covering fire could be provided, but only carefully; more of his boots and buttocks were exposed to that fire than the whole of the German position. As I said, there were a vast series of these strung along the mountainside, interlocking in a pattern something like the teeth of a circular ripsaw. The flank had to be turned, and the 143rd Regiment had begun doing that in early December, scaling a mountainside in the face of mortar and machine gun fire which could excoriate the landscape without being aimed. The Germans knew the Americans were there. When that mountainside had been secured, and this in a relative sense, the assault itself began, one American at a time, approaching each in this series of small fortifications, until somebody was lucky enough to get a grenade in before another man had to pull him back, wounded or killed. You can imagine that casualties were high, but even I had not imagined how high.

* * *

I’d been to Mass that morning with the 100th Battalion; Japanese Americans from Hawaii, attached to the 36th. From the small number there, I’d assumed that only a few of them were Catholic.

Technically, the 36th was still at the front, but through the good offices of the 3rd Division and cooperation of the momentarily defeated Germans, the front was moving away, allowing the T-patchers to enjoy their Christmas dinner of C-rations on the hood of a jeep, or to gather around an impromptu Christmas tree chosen from among the myriad fragments of trees scattered by two weeks of uninterrupted combat. Their trees were decorated with strips of their C-ration’s foil packaging, usually discarded, but now kept and carefully torn to form tinsel garland.

In the early evening, as darkness became definite, I noticed four candles at the opening of several tents knotted together at the grommets, forming a shelter large enough for half a dozen men to gather. I went to it.

“Are you Jewish, Ma’am?” one of the Texans asked.

“My mother was.”

“Then I guess you are.” He tapped a wooden board, covered by a surprisingly clean white cloth. As I sat where he had indicated, each of the boys pushed a few of their piled M&Ms toward me. Then the one who had greeted me handed me the dreidel.

* * *

“Are you the reporter, Ma’am?” a voice behind me asked. The Jewish soldiers and I had been pushing M&Ms back forth for about an hour.

“Yes,” I said, turning around to see an NCO from Divisional HQ.

“You’ve had clerical experience?”

“Yes,” I said, now getting up. The two of us left, and he led me toward a jeep cleaner than most I’d seen that day. We sat in it.

“A battalion clerk has a problem,” he said. “You might be able to help, if you’re willing.”

“Yes, of course.”

We drove further from the front. Perhaps ten minutes, arriving at a farm building labeled as Bn HQ. He led me inside, where I saw a clerk, his head resting on a typewriter, weeping profusely. I wouldn’t have believed a clerk this far from the front could have combat fatigue, but that’s exactly what it looked like. There were packages piled up, filling nearly three-quarters of the office.

“You need help delivering these?” I asked.

“No Ma’am,” the driver said. “We need you to draw a line through the address of each one, and mark it KIA.”

I was on the floor, sitting, wondering if I’d fainted. Amid the fog, slowly dispersing it, I heard President Roosevelt, his voice crackling on the radio.

“We ask that God receive and cherish those who have given their lives, and that He keep them in honor and in the grateful memory of their countrymen forever. God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve.”

I reached up. The driver handed me a pen.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

I nodded. He left as I grabbed the first package. The clerk was still weeping over his typewriter when I finished, just past dawn, my hand stiff and fingers numb.

* * *

When the 36th Infantry Division returned to the front line in January, 1944, 80% of its men had been in the Division less than two weeks.

 

 

 

*This is actually an excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens amazing WW2 magnum opus, very intimately linked to this post.

An Interesting Duality

After a bit of an early-summer break, Classically Educated returns with an eye-opening look at two incidents that should you think… and not like many of the conclusions, particularly if you’re the kind of person who likes to analyze the karmic link between events…

Most of you will quickly realize that the post below is by our historical expert Stacy Danielle Stephens.  But for those new to the site, please look out for her other, longer pieces!

The weekend of Palm Sunday, 1935

Black Sunday 1935 Storm

On Saturday, April 13th, 1935, nine officers of the LAPD Red Squad[1] attempted to restore order at a student anti-war protest by liberally applying their blackjacks and brass knuckles to seventeen-year-old Flora Turchincsky[2] and nineteen-year-old Esther Kleinman. In response, some of the protesters charged the police, who withdrew in fear while clearing a path to safety with their blackjacks, while other protesters carried the two unconscious girls away. The nine officers sustained widespread abrasions during their escape, inflicting minor injuries on another dozen of the protesters.

That same day, the Chicago Police Red Squad managed to disperse protesters at the University of Chicago with only a single broken nose among the students, and no injuries to themselves. Both protests were part of the second annual National Student Strike Against War[3]. In most cities, protesters were opposed only by other civilians armed with rotten eggs, who considered themselves patriots.

* * *

On the morning of Palm Sunday, April 14th, 1935, a cold front originating in the Dakotas began moving just a few points east of south. It was a storm system desperately seeking humidity, but finding only sustained and unremitting drought conditions. As the dry heat simply pushed it along, it gathered up more dust than it left behind, becoming an increasingly massive and impenetrable column, gradually encompassing the horizon and climbing as high as the atmosphere could carry it. It travelled at sixty-eight miles per hour, reaching Amarillo, Texas by seven O’Clock in the evening. Crossing Kansas, the thing had begun to look like Hell itself moving south; swirling black topsoil with red dakota dust flickering at the upper edges, horrendously backlighted by the declining sun, which could not penetrate the bulk of it. By nightfall, more than three hundred million tons of dust had moved, some of it going as far as a thousand miles before it settled.

The next morning, The Carbondale Free Press[4] reported that “wind drifted the dust like snow,” covering all of Kansas, almost all of Missouri, and most of Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.

[1] As early as 1920, and in many cases, well into the 1970s, the police departments of several US cities had special units within them to deal with “the communist threat”. Although the press and public were generally quite aware of their existence, they were seldom officially acknowledged.

[2] The daughter of Russian immigrants, Flora was born in Minnesota, and graduated from the University of California at Berkley, with honors, in 1938. She would later work in legal research, child welfare, and accounting, and would twice be elected to the Nevada State Legislature. On the Judiciary committee, she fought for prison reform in Nevada. She died in Los Angeles, of cancer, on October 25, 1973.

[3] Organized by communists in 1934, this event, which took place on the anniversary of US entry into The Great War of 1914-1918, later gained widespread support among several liberal and pacifist groups. In 1936, one half-million students would participate nation-wide. Over the following five years, support for the annual even would decline, and 1941 would be its final year.

[4] Many accounts mistakenly attribute this to The New York Times.