It used to be a central tenet of progressivism was working to shorten the work week. Now, even unemployment-soothing innovations like workshare go nowhere, and, as Mother Jones‘s Monika Bauerlein and Claira Jeffrey explain (with handy graphs), we are all victims of the Great Speedup…but not the beneficiaries. “For 90 percent of American workers, incomes have stagnated or fallen for the past three decades, while they’ve ballooned at the top, and exploded at the very tippy-top…In other words, all that extra work you’ve taken on — the late nights, the skipped lunch hours, the missed soccer games — paid off. For them.”
Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.”
Put briefly, and while adding a frisson of Funny Games‘ Aryan youths-gone-wild to the mix, The White Ribbon attempts to do for the rise of the Nazis in Germany what Haneke’s Cache did for the French-Algerian conflict. But, at least for me, lightning didn’t strike twice. Perhaps it’s due to either knowing the trick this time ’round or having a greater familiarity with the history at hand, but I thought the allegorical content of Ribbon started out rather didactically, and only got more obvious and belabored at the movie churned along. And, shorn of its historical musings, the story here doesn’t really hold up on its own — It’s mostly just long, meandering takes of (usually) unfortunate things happening to German peasants.
First, the story. The year is 1913, and in the (fictional) village of Eichwald, a German doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and gravely injured, apparently due to a tripwire someone — one of the Black Hand? — placed across his path. And before this event can even be fully processed, another tragedy takes place: A worker for the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) falls through some rotted boards to her death. Yep, Eichwald is having a frozen run of luck like you read about.
As suspicions and recriminations deepen throughout this hamlet, more troubling events ensue. An aggrieved farmer ruins the harvest festival by slaughtering all the Baron’s cabbages. The Baron’s young son is taken by unknown parties and brutally horsewhipped (for some reason, and as in Doubt, nobody ever thinks to ask the kid who did this to him.) Fires are set, folks disappear (or leave while they still can), birds are mutilated, and, perhaps most frightening, even souls are in peril: For example, the son (Leonard Proxauf) of the local reverend (Burghart Klaubner) puts his eternal salvation in doubt by indulging in a nasty habit of onanism. To be sure, this evil must be beaten out of him, and his siblings, as soon as possible. In other words, we must destroy these children in order to save them.
Narrating this tale throughout (as an old man, years on) is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who, as a relatively young newcomer to the village, stands between its feuding generations. When not courting the Baron’s young nanny (Leonie Benesch), he watches the events unfolding in town with growing unease, and tries to figure out who is responsible for all the incidents driving the citizens of Eichwald mad. The problem is, he’s already tipped what’s actually going on in the very first scene of the movie, when he says something along the lines of “This is not just the story of a random German village, but the story of my nation.” Ooh, really? Allegory time.
Pretty soon thereafter, we are regaled with a scene where the Reverend’s children are taken to the proverbial woodshed and unduly punished for their transgressions, real and imagined. Given both the time I’ve spent on this subject in recent years and the schoolmaster’s “time to play German History Jeopardy!” warning in the first scene, this set off Versailles Conference bells and alarms right away, and especially so once these children are then forced to wear white ribbons as symbols of purity. Hmm…who else in 20th century German history ran around wearing armbands? Let me think on it.
The rest of the story pans out as you might expect. For various reasons, predominant among them the Sins of the Father(s), these kids go terribly wrong, eventually even going so far as to attack a developmentally disabled boy (i.e. the local minority in their midst.) Also, for some reason, the movie is constructed like a mystery, even tho’ — even if you didn’t pick up on all the hints in the last paragraph — one of the kids basically confesses to the schoolteacher what’s going on in the first reel. Uh, can we speed this along? Bitte?
I’d like to say The White Ribbon remains engaging despite all of its allegorical ambitions. But it doesn’t, really. When you’re not playing spot-the-German-history as it goes along — Is the Baron supposed to be Kaiser Wilhelm? Are we gonna get a Beer Hall Putsch? Hey, look, Pius XII! — Ribbon mostly just offers long, intermittently interesting digressions on agrarian village life, like harvest festivals, courting carriage-rides and the cruelest break-up of the German pre-war period. (Some of this plays a bit like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — A period film, told in period (B&W) style, with then-taboo subjects like incest, sexual assault, and the aforementioned onanism now thrown in.)
Simply put, there’s not enough story to sustain interest in this enterprise without the allegorical content that’s driving the movie. And, since this allegory was tipped in the opening half-hour, I pretty much just spent most of The White Ribbon waiting for all the various little Nazi shoes to drop. Without either the ambiguity or the open-endedness of Cache, I found The White Ribbon on the pedantic and stultifying side, and I can’t really recommend it. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is rather long and uninvolving, and I have to think one of the other Foreign Film contenders probably puts on a better show.
We are its leaders. We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s give a trillion. “Mr. Brown, who organized the meeting in a hangarlike conference center in London, said: ‘This is the day the world came together to fight against the global recession. Our message today is clear and certain: we believe that global problems require global solutions.’“
In the meantime, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan applauds the return of real, honest-to-goodness American statecraft in London. “Vast multinational conferences, like the G20 summit…are useful mainly for the ‘bilaterals’ — the one-on-one side-room conversations — and, in these forums, President Barack Obama is living up to high expectations. Which is to say, the United States seems to be returning to diplomatic basics — a development that in the wake of the last eight years is practically revolutionary.“
At the very least, the president’s diplomatic mojo seemed to work on Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. “‘Yesterday I spoke about this with my new comrade President Barack Obama,’ Medvedev told reporters travelling with him to the London summit…’I liked the talks. It is easy to talk to him. He can listen. The start of this relationship is good,’ he said, adding: ‘Today it’s a totally different situation (compared to Bush).’”
Adolf Hitler, meet Keyser Soze. The true story of the failed July 20 Von Stauffenberg plot by German conservatives, nationalists, and military men to kill the Fuhrer before Germany lost the war, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is a moody exercise in historical muckraking, and feels like pretty severe holiday counterprogramming to the likes of Four Christmases and Marley and Me. One part an attempt to help carve a German “usable past” from the Nazi era, two parts sleek suspense thriller, Valkyrie is a well-crafted, decently engaging caper film, as one might expect from Singer (who first made his name with The Usual Suspects, before spending a few years with the X-Men and Superman.) And, yet, for some reason I found it didn’t really resonate much. However riveting the source material, it all ends up feeling a bit like a well-made HBO film or PBS teleplay, such as Conspiracy (which comes to mind for obvious reasons) or Path to War. Now, I’m usually all one for historical-minded edutainment, but for some reason Valkyrie left me cold, and not just because the pall of failure and tragedy hangs over the film like the Ghost of Christmas Past. (Megaspoiler: Hitler wasn’t killed in 1944.) For whatever reason, Valkyrie is a bird one can admire, but it never really takes flight.
In mid-1944, the shadow of failed artist-turned-meglomaniacal psychopath Adolf Hitler still falls heavy across the continent, and, even as the Allies gather in North Africa, Italy, and the coast of Normandy, the Fuhrer maintains an iron grip over the oppressed peoples of Europe. As most everyone remembers from school days, Hitler was able to retain his power base in Germany, even amid the darkening gloom on both fronts, by ruthlessly organizing and consolidating the nation’s elite cadre of disgruntled character actors. Some of these character actors (Kenneth Cranham, Tom Hollander) rejoice in their servitude, and serve their Nazi master with an obsequious relish. Some of them (Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard) just look to keep their head down (for fear of losing it) and basically play go-along-to-get-along. But some character actors resisted. And as the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Terrence Stamp see their various attempts to unseat Hitler fail due to bad luck, poor timing, or compromised plotters, it becomes abundantly clear what they need to achieve their goal of regime change: a lead actor.
Enter Tom Cruise, otherwise known as Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a Catholic aristocrat who’s been shipped off to the now-doomed North African front for his free-thinking transgressions. (The Fuhrer’s resident character actor in charge there is Bernard Hill, a.k.a. Theoden king, and he still can’t run a battle without timely lead actor advice.) Horribly wounded in an Allied bombing raid, Cruise/von Stauffenberg loses an eye, a hand, and several fingers, but — for his service (and his very reputable name) — gains access to the Fuhrer himself, after some machinations by the plotters. As such, leadership of the proposed coup eventually falls out of the hands of the character actor conspiracy and upon him. “I am involved in high treason with all means available to me,” he tells one aide at his job interview, “Can I count you in?” In other words, enough monologuing already! What Germany need now is emoting and stunt work.
If it seems I’m being a bit glib about a story that indirectly involves millions of deaths, untold destruction, and (tho’ it’s only obliquely mentioned at the beginning) systematic genocide, well I apologize. Along with the Titanic-type sensation of continually “waiting for the iceberg” throughout Valkyrie, it’s really hard to sit through the film without recollecting the ubiquitous and consistently funny Bruno Ganz in Downfall meme. (See also the Cowboys, Warcraft, Burning Man, eBay, Wikipedia, Ronaldo, Youtube, etc.) It could be worse, I suppose: For the many citizens out there who see Tom Cruise and now can’t stop thinking “Scientology,” I can safely report that he’s fine in the role — it helps that both he and his character both answer to a higher power (and have a touch of the zealot about them) — and that the accent problem is handled smoothly (a la Hunt for Red October.)
I should say, before this “review” degenerates any further into pop culture musings, that the real historical facts of this story are fascinating. The plotters of this assassination attempt aren’t really visionary idealists or radical bomb-throwers — Hitler had already rounded up or murdered most of them — but the conservative-leaning remnants of the military and aristocratic hierarchies displaced by the Nazi regime. (The 20 July plot is basically crafted by generals and led by Junkers.) And the engine of their coup attempt is ingenious: The plotters almost succeed in converting Operation Valkyrie, Hitler’s last-ditch plan to stay in power should the roof cave in, into the machinery of his demise. Finally, these German patriots get sooo close to their goal that, had any one of several tiny contingencies played out even slightly differently, the history of the war (and its aftermath) would have been irrevocably transformed. As happens surprisingly often, it seems, the fate of the world is a game of inches.
All that being said, I found all of this information equally fascinating while watching the History Channel special after the film, so I’m not sure it really recommends the movie itself in the end. Singer’s Valkyrie is a smart, well-meaning two hours of cinema, and I was reasonably edutained by it, but at best I’d say it’s one for the Netflix queue.
In David Fincher’s Zodiac, well-intentioned cops from different jurisdictions conduct archival sleuthing and the occasional phone trace to track down a cold-blooded killer. But, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s powerful, humanistic The Lives of Others, the second half of my double-feature last Friday, the bureaucratic machinery of the State grinds into gear for a darker purpose. Here, in the final flower of Erich Honecker’s East Germany, the Stasi keep their eyes and ears on those who would threaten the integrity of the German Democratic Republic, which, sadly, counts as just about everyone. I know very little about this subject, so I can’t vouch for how well van Donnersmarck recreates the rigors of East German life in the 1980s. Still, as an Orwellian parable of secrets and surveillance, The Lives of Others is a very worthwhile film, one strong enough to overcome some perhaps overly cliched moments of awakening by various characters along the way.
When we first meet Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), with his sleek dome, thin ties, and retrofuturistic jacket, he’s training young Stasi cadets in the subtler techniques of interrogation and threatening landladies with the ruin of their children’s future — clearly a right rotten bastard of the first order. Still, there’s something undeniably impressive about the ever watchful Wiesler, a man who’s both cognizant of even the slightest emotional shifts in his prey and committed fully to the ideological aspirations of the Party. Wiesler’s skill and fervor is not lost on party flunky Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who assigns him to a career-making case of digging up dirt on the roguishly handsome, go-along-to-get-along playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) for a well-connected romantic rival.
But, something — perhaps the sight of Dreyman’s beautiful actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) on stage, perhaps something else — clicks in Wiesler as he conducts his round-the-clock surveillance. And, from the dismal attic above Dreyman’s apartment, Capt. Wiesler soon begins, despite himself, to commit Thoughtcrime. And as Dreyman begins to associate with known subversives and the investigatory noose tightens, Wiesler finds himself increasingly complicit in the machinations of the artists downstairs, so much so that he soon, if he’s not very, very careful, runs the risk of being the Stasi’s next target.
I can see the criticism that The Lives of Others can occasionally be a bit too pat. The distinctions between Wiesler and Dreyman are perhaps a bit overdrawn (Dreyman’s apartment is always suffused with a warm glow, and he and Sieland are invariably surrounded by friends, music, and the finer things in life; meanwhile, Wiesler scurries about the cold, gray machines upstairs, and basically lives like Eleanor Rigby — get a dog, Captain), and there are definitely a few cliche-ridden scenes along the way (for example, one involving the instantly transformative power of Beethoven — you’ll know what i mean.
Still, The Lives of Others is affecting in the details: Dreyman (“Lazlo”) and Sieland (“CMS”) are reduced to abstractions by the Stasi’s surveillance regime, with all the messy, conflicted, and emotion-ridden qualities that make them human drained away. (“They presumably have intercourse,” comments Wiesler dryly in his report after one tender moment.) Conversely, Wiesler’s attempts to break free of his own self-imposed leash and sound even the feeblest of barbaric yawps are moving in their own way, be it his sneaking out a dog-eared copy of Brecht from Dreyman’s shelf or renegotiating his interrogation strategy on an eight-year-old in his elevator.
The Lives of Others ends with a coda that at first seems too long but ultimately sounds just the right note: As Auden memorably put it, There is no such thing as the State, and no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die. May I, composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.
Berlin, 1945. The war in Europe is over, and, divided into four sectors by the victorious Allies, Germany’s capital is now a sordid morass of blackened buildings and anything-goes. Venturing into the urban decay is former resident Jake Geismer (Clooney), now a TNR correspondent sent to cover the Potsdam Conference (which in its own way feels as improbable as Ocean buddy Matt Damon playing a 45-year-old in The Good Shepherd.) But, not ten minutes back in town, Geismer’s wallet is stolen by his too-friendly-by-half army driver (Tobey Maguire, laughably miscast), who, as it so happens, is a well-connected black marketeer, a despicable lout, and the current boyfriend and pimp of Geismer’s old flame, Lena Brandt (Blanchett). After a body shows up at Potsdam, and after that old flame is rekindled, Geismer finds himself tracking down a story that may or may not involve hidden war crimes, atomic secrets, Russian n’er do wells, German scientists, his old prosecutor buddy (Leland Orser), and of course, Lena, a girl who — like so many residents in her fallen city — has faced unspeakable horrors and kept them under wraps.
All well and good…who doesn’t enjoy a seamy noir? But, The Good German is curiously inert, and never gets off the tarmac. The plot ends up being byzantine in its mechanics, as a decent detective story should be, but German never arouses enough interest to makes the many twists and turns feel earned. Tobey Maguire doesn’t help — A decent actor with the right material (say, as Peter Parker), he’s so woefully bad here that it kills the movie from the start. (Also, a random quibble: Maguire also beats up Clooney at one point, as Clooney’s Geisberg is of the Tom Reagan school of noir heroes: he gets his ass kicked a lot. But, unless this is Golden Age Spiderman or something, it makes very little sense here.) But equally jarring is the disparity between the script and the look in The Good German: The period recreation, however clever at times, ends up distracting from rather than enhancing the tale being told. In all honesty, it just doesn’t work.
If The Good German does offer any distinct pleasures, they’re mostly in the margins. Deadwood‘s Robin Weigert (a.k.a. Calamity Jane) plays pretty far from type — the blunt-spokenness notwithstanding — as Lena’s brash, hooker roommate. And, even despite the general failure here, Soderbergh still has a great eye, and the black-and-white cinematography does pay occasional dividends (despite many of the outdoor scenes having a grainy, washed-out look to them.) Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the highlight of The Good German for me was Soderbergh’s framing of Cate Blanchett as a classic screen siren. True, her femme fatale accent occasionally lapses into something more like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle than Garbo or Dietrich. But, a beautiful woman under any circumstances, Blanchett often looks breathtaking here, what with all the period accoutrements and chiaroscuro lighting at her service. Careful, Jake, it’s Berlintown…and she’s going to play you for a fool, yes it’s true.
“The CIA based its decisions about using former SS men or unreconstructed Nazis solely on operational considerations…Hiring these tainted individuals brought little other than operational problems and moral confusion to our government’s intelligence community.” New documents unearthed by UVa historian Timothy Naftali make clear the Cold War-era CIA had no qualms about using former Nazi assets, and even neglected to flush out infamous war criminal Adolf Eichmann from his hiding place in Argentina after being tipped off about his location. For shame.
Despite inducing peals of laughter with his “ridiculous” doublespeak on Iran, Dubya’s “We’re Team Players” European tour continues to generate mostly good international press for the administration. Along those lines, I particularly liked this gem from the LA Times: “Talk of Bush is often imbued with suspicion. But unlike two years ago, German critics are less likely to compare him to Hitler.” Hey now, that’s progress.
“Auschwitz, great…are the Packers playing?” By all that is good and holy, what was Dick Cheney thinking? It’s the 60th anniversary of liberation from that Hell on Earth, and our veep, as the Post wryly put it, “was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.” Even at occasions where it seems well nigh impossible to make the US role in world affairs look bad, this administration plays the Ugly American to the hilt. For shame.
After two previous losses to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, the US Men’s Basketball team are knocked out of gold medal contention by Argentina (and Manu Ginobli.) I saw some of the earlier games, most notably the US-Germany scrimmage which A.I. won on a buzzer-beater 3, and the team definitely seemed confused. I don’t really see this as the death knell of American basketball it’s being made out to be, though. As many others (including Mark Cuban) have noted, the team was just poorly constructed…it needed less All-Stars and more NBA-level role players in the worst way.
“People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations’ plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies …I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us.” – Dwight Eisenhower
Slate correspondent Daniel Benjamin pokes holes in Condi and Rummy’s recent spurious comparisons between postwar Iraq and Germany. Yep, it’s more revisionist history emanating from Team Dubya. In related news, Jack Beatty laments Dubya’s lack of postwar vision, which now seems ever more constrained to lining the coffers of Halliburton.
What the World Thinks of America, from Gary Kamiya of Salon (premium). A fascinating read.
Germany defeats South Korea 1-0, and will face either Brazil or Turkey (Brazil) in the Final. Ah well, it was a great run for the Koreans.