WWII

The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

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Hitler’s Last Gamble Brought to Life

Tiger Tank

The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most legendary actions of WW2.  It might not be up there with the D-Day landings, The invasion of Poland, the Siege of Stalingrad or the attack on Pearl Harbor, but it’s definitely in the second tier, and, like all the rest, many misconceptions about it survive.  I know I certainly didn’t know all that much about the details–to me it was always just about German Tiger tanks in a snowy forest demolishing numerically superior allied forces.

The truth is more complicated, of course, so we return to WWII to have a look.  Now, for those who’ve been following this blog over the years, WWII means film and excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excellent novel-in-progress, but today we turn to a nonfiction book that aims to be the definitive record of the Battle of the Bulge.

Ardennes 1944 - The Battle of the Bulge - Anthony Beevor

Now, whenever someone says the phrase “definitive history” in my presence, I’m immediately assaulted by a sense of utter ennui.  Definitive means exhaustive and authoritative, and that usually corresponds to boring.

But Anthony Beevor’s book Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, is anything but boring.  It’s a nonfiction book–an exhaustive, authoritative nonfiction book–that reads like a thriller.  The real people depicted are shown in much the same light, with their strengths and weaknesses, heroism and foibles, as would be the characters in a novel.  The effect it electrifying, and keeps you turning the pages to find out what happened next.

Of course, there is a lot of detail.  Anyone reading this will learn a lot that they never knew–or didn’t remember–about these cold days in 1944.  You’ll also be reminded that war wasn’t just about soldiers prancing around in armored vehicles–civilians were often caught in the crossfire, and played ambiguous roles as well, both as victims of atrocities and willing or unwilling accomplices to one side or the other.

Finally, the book places the battle of the bulge in strategic context with regards to the rest of the war and explains how events on the Eastern Front, as well as in the Pacific Theater created the conditions for a tremendous battle.

It is a complete book – history and entertainment in one convenient package.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  He is the author of Incursion, a novel of interstellar war played out over centuries.  You can see the novel here.

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.

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.

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

From Chancellor to Führer – Part 2

Nuremburg Rally

Today brings the conclusion of our excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ historical novel charting the rise of Adolf Hitler from Chancellor to Führer.  Those who missed Part 1 can read it here.

Near the end of May, 1934, German President Hindenburg returned to his estate at Neudeck, leaving Berlin for what no one doubted would be the last time. Before he left, he remarked to Vice Chancellor von Papen that things were going badly, and asked him to see what he could do about the Nazis.

* * *

Hitler and von Papen

“Only weaklings tolerate no criticism,” Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen said in a speech he gave at the Landgrafenhaus of the University of Marburg on June 17, 1934. Not by coincidence, his speech was highly critical of the Storm Detachment, of the Nazi Party, and of Hitler’s repressive policies. His audience was very much surprised, because it was von Papen who had persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor of the coalition government. His audience was also delighted[1]. If von Papen were no longer supporting Hitler, a new, less repressive, government might be formed. That his speech that day was the last public criticism in Germany of Hitler’s government by anyone in a position of authority for more than ten years indicates how very much mistaken they were.

* * *

On June 21st, 1934, Hitler and General Blomberg, the Defense Minister, met with President Hindenburg, at the president’s request, to discuss the growing friction between the Nazi Storm Detachment and the Reichswehr.

“Your man Roehm,” the President said to Hitler, “says he’s responsible for the defense of the country. Says the Reichswehr is just a training camp.”

“He spoke out of turn, Sir,” Hitler replied. “I’ve set him straight on that.”

“If you had,” the President said, “we wouldn’t be here now. You’ll have to do more than lecture him. Or I’ll have to call for Martial Law.”

“The Reichswehr stands ready to do as you wish, Sir,” General Blomberg replied. How he intended to subdue two million Brownshirts with a force of one hundred thousand men, he did not explain.

“I will do what must be done,” Hitler said, “for the sake of Germany.”

Of course, Hindenburg and Blomberg both knew that Hitler would be unstinting in his efforts to further his own interests; as it happened, civil war would be as hard on him as it would on Germany. He could therefore be depended upon to resolve this crisis decisively and in short order.

Careful inquiries made over the next several days established the understanding that Hitler’s loyalty to the Reischwehr in this crisis would be rewarded with an army oath of loyalty to him; further, the SS, under Heinrich Himmler’s control, would stand with Hitler and the Reichswehr against Ernst Roehm and the Storm Detachment.

On June 25th, the Reichswehr was put on alert.

* * *

In Essen on June 28th, 1934, Ilse Stahl, who had previously been Josef Goebbels’ secretary and mistress, married Gauleiter Josef Terboven. Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler flew in from Berlin to attend the wedding. Goering flew back to Berlin immediately afterwards; Hitler stayed in Essen. On the 29th, he inspected a Reich Labour Camp, then spent the night in Bonn.

Völkischer Beobachter

Also on the 29th, the Völkischer Beobachter[2] published an article by General Blomberg, expressing the Reichswehr’s support for Hitler and the Party. This was a good indicator of which way the wind blew and how soon the ax would fall.

* * *

Early in the morning of June 30th, 1934, Hitler flew to Munich, and shortly after 6 AM, personally placed Ernst, who had just been woken up, under arrest, informing him that he was considered a traitor and instructing him to get dressed at once. Hitler left, and when Ernst had his clothes on, a pair of ordinary police detectives took him to Stadelheim prison.

That afternoon, finally willing to accept the evidence Heinrich had collected and which Hermann had acquainted him with, Hitler uttered the code word, “hummingbird,” to Josef, allowing the purge of Brown Shirt leaders to begin. It would include from one hundred to two hundred men, most of them homosexual.

* * *

By July 2nd, it was complete. That same day, Hitler received a telegram from the German President, which read: From the reports which had been brought to me, I see that by your decisive initiative and by your brave personal activity you have nipped all the treasonable activities in the bud. You have saved the German people from a grave danger. For this I express to you my heart-felt gratitude and my sincere respect. With best greetings, von Hindenburg.

On July 3rd, Chancellor Hitler’s Cabinet met, officially asking the Reichstag to issue retroactive carte blanche; on the 13th, by a unanimous vote, the Reichstag sanctioned these murders (referenced as “events of June 30th, and July 1st and 2nd”), writing them off legally as emergency defense measures undertaken in the best interests of the nation. Officially, seventy-four conspirators had, by an imperative necessity, been summarily brought to justice, but just as officially, it was made known that there would be no accounting, no review, and no further explanation either requested or offered for what had happened in the course of those three hot summer days.

An irrevocable precedent was established on July 13th, 1934. From that date onward, it was clear to everyone that Adolf Hitler now uniquely and absolutely embodied the legitimate and freely elected government of Germany, and that if he felt a certain number of murders were in the best interests of Germany, there would be no questions. Not from the Reichstag. Not from the courts. Not from the public. There would be no questions from any industrialists or bankers, nor from the church in Germany, whether Lutheran or Catholic. Not even if the number of murders were in excess of ten million.

In 1933, no one had asked why a new special detention facility, a Konzentrationslager, or Ka-tset, was needed at Dachau. In 1934, no one asked why three more Ka-tsets, at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen, were also necessary. By the summer of 1934, it was universally understood in Germany that because difficult questions would no longer be asked, they would simply be set aside in these Ka-tsets. What was not understood at that time was that in every Ka-tset, terrible answers would eventually be found.

* * *

On August 2nd, 1934, German President Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler had been waiting for this patiently, but not idly. He’d already made arrangements to combine the offices of Chancellor and President into a single office he would hold, with the title Führer.

[1] Hitler’s popularity was always equivocal. While very few Germans were dissatisfied with HItler’s accomplishments, even fewer were at peace with themselves about the price at which these things were achieved.

[2] People’s Observer; the Munich-based newspaper of the Nazi Party.