Friday, March 12, 2010

FILM: Departures

When Sandy brought home a film about a professional cellist who abandoned his musical career to return to his home town and prepare corpses for cremation, I thought who in Hell wants to see a movie like this? To my great surprise, Departures turned out to be one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. First of all, I enjoy movies that reveal a culture that is foreign to me. The movie was a pleasant surprise because it was a mixture of humor, seriousness, tenderness, and a glimpse into a reality that most of us could not even imagine. In Japan, the undertaker is preceded by a nakanshi, a person who prepares a dead body for cremation in the presence of the deceased’s family. The preparation ceremony reminded me of Japanese tea rituals whose roots reach back many centuries. The film had incredible beauty. We never associate the dead with beauty. After seeing Departures, we understand how such an association is possible. There is symbolism in the film as well, and the heart of it is a story of stones …. Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Better to have you rent the film and see for yourself. This movie defies genre. And, the acting is spot-on. The director’s name is Yojiro Takita. Departures won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 2009. Well deserved!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Experience with Health Care in Sweden and France

For a general summary of Swedish health care, go here.

As a Swedish citizen, I benefited from Swedish health care for over 40 years. It was free and served me well. Once I had a serious ski accident, broke my leg into three parts, and got the best treatment you can have for free. Of course, I paid taxes that funded medical care but this seems normal.

For a general summary of French health care, go here.

I moved to France in 1987. Part of my salary went to finance health care. I received excellent health care in France – a government-run program – after breaking an ankle. France actually has the best health care in the world. This has NOTHING to do with socialism. It is a long tradition in Europe, going back to Bismark in Germany.

In Sweden, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, our Left and our Right, all agree on the health care system we have. I do not know one European who would want the American system. In general, Europeans pay half, or less, compared to Americans, for good health care. There is nothing wrong with a government-run program, and it is much cheaper, in fact. In Sweden, you can choose your doctor. Some doctors are more popular than others, and it may be necessary to wait for treatment, but in an emergency, like my accident, I received excellent care immediately. Had I wanted to see a specialist, one was guaranteed within 15 days.

I have had excellent medical treatment in the USA, too, but it has been so very expensive. When I moved here in 1997, my wife and I paid $250/month. That escalated to $1400 this past spring. Hair-raising! Crazy!

A lot of people in Europe and Canada feel offended by the way their countries have been described in this health care debate. Americans would be lucky to escape from the grip of insurance companies. How shameful to deny care to all those people who are uninsured!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wallender on Masterpiece Theater

SANDY: Yesterday night we watched the first episode of WGBH’s new series Wallender. I thought the plot far-fetched but could not find fault with Kenneth Branagh who fell right into the role playing detective Kurt Wallender. Since the detective is a Swede, I thought it would be fun to hear what Sven thought about the show.

SVEN: I started reading Mankell long before he became famous. He belongs in the tradition of Swedish detective writers. The best known is Sjövall-Valö who wrote detective stories in the sixties and seventies, a mixture of criminal stories and social critique, whose work is somewhat like, in this country, Pellocarnos. I like this genre. The first episode of Wallender was based on actual events in Sweden in the seventies and eighties. The Swedish Minister of Justice was involved in prostitution, and members of the elite were buying prostitutes, so the story has a factual background. As a Swede, I liked the way the story was told, and I really enjoying seeing the beautiful landscape from the south of Sweden where I sailed many years ago. I found the screenplay a bit exaggerated, as did Sandy, but the photography and acting were excellent.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Nutty Professor Who Loved Amazons

SANDY: In Paris, Sven drove a marvelous 1965 Volvo Amazon of a gorgeous Bordeaux color, with leather interior, cream-colored, and a dashboard that spoke of old glory. Customized, for fans of old cars. He sold the Amazon when we moved to America. That was a very sad day. That car was spectacular and always turned heads.

SVEN: Last week we had a guest who is also an old Volvo fanatic. His car is a 1968 Amazon wagon called Gannett (pictured above). It looks just like the one I owned in 1985. I understand Geoff's passion and the fact that he gave the car a name. I had a wonderful Amazon in Paris. Actually, it was my second. Let me tell you about my first. I have always been interested in history, so it’s logical that I enjoy renovating old cars. When I was a young man, I moved up to a small mining city in the north of Sweden, above the Arctic Circle, a place called Kiruna, which has become famous thanks to the Ice Hotel. Some people say I’m an adventurer but perhaps I simply seek out new horizons? In any case, the high school in Kiruna also offered technical education. I could find everything I needed to restore old cars in their workshop. After my religion class, every Wednesday, I used to go down to the school basement and do welding. One Wednesday I was under the old Volvo and saw a lot of feet around me. I rolled out and there was my religion class, laughing at seeing their teacher dressed as a car mechanic. After a year of restoration, the car was finished. It had become very beautiful: shiny chrome, cream color, original steering wheel and restored seats. A friend of mine had helped me build a house in Stromstad, on the southwestern coast of Sweden. We worked terribly hard and I didn’t have the money to pay for his month of work, not what it was worth anyway because he was an excellent carpenter, who had studied in Japan, among other places. Once he walked through our parking lot before coming to dinner. He said, "Who on earth owns that beautifully restored Volvo outside?" I said, "You do!" He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I couldn’t pay for the marvelous job you did in Stromstad, so please take the car.” His name is Yngve. He has been here, visiting Cape Cod, with his lovely wife Anne and their daughter Mia, and remains a close friend. I was glad I could give him my wonderful Amazon. I still dream of restoring old cars, but, these days, I find pleasure restoring our old house here at Chez Sven instead!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Follow-up on The Reader

SANDY: Sven will be back with another blog very soon! In the meantime, I wanted to follow up on a recent blog we wrote. Last night Kate Winslet won the Oscar for her role in The Reader. I read The Reader this past week and was interested to see how closely the movie adaptation followed the book. The only thing I did not get in the movie was the idea that the older Hanna neglected hygiene and smelled, one of the reasons Michael was reluctant to take her back into his life after her release from prison, despite the fact that she had been the only love interest in his life other than his daughter. The book contained more philosophical digressions about how the younger generation of Germans dealt with the involvement or lack of involvement of parents with Nazis during the war. In January, I asked a young German lawyer friend his impressions of The Reader and asked why Hanna called Michael "kid" in English. Here's his response:

“I haven't seen The Reader so far, it will come out in Germany only in two weeks. But I did read the book, pretty recently actually. I liked it a lot, you should read it, it is certainly better than any movie (even though I am curious to watch it). In the German version, the woman calls the boy "Buebchen", which is an old fashioned way to say "little boy". It is indeed a very strange way to call him, weird, but that certainly characterizes their relationship somehow, between an adult and a teenager. He admires her, I guess, and she shows him certain things, love e.g. At the same time, she is so un-sophisticated, a kid in many ways too, and he shows her the world of books and culture... The book is written by a law professor from Berlin, who still teaches at the Berlin law school. Funny, isn't it? His books were very successful all over Europe.”

Saturday, December 27, 2008

FILM: The Reader

SANDY: Yesterday we saw one of the movies, which has generated the most end-of-year buzz, a film with a very European feel: Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. The acting was excellent. Kate Winslet has never been so fine. David Kross, as Michael, the fifteen-year-old schoolboy who reads to her, also succeeds in making the story believable. One of my favorite actors, Ralph Fiennes is convincing in the role of Michael as an older man. By now, everyone has seen Kross in the iron bathtub with Winslet, naked. Probably there will have been too much skin for the American public to embrace this movie, but Sven and I feel the erotic relationship between Hanna and Michael needed visualization. We recommend you put The Reader at the top of your holiday list for the complexity of the moral questions it raises.

SVEN: I cannot reveal the whole story, but basically it has to do with good and evil. Maybe good people can do evil things and evil people can do good things? Sometimes the difference between good and evil becomes blurred. When I was a young man, I worked as a lumberjack in the forest. I had a foreman of German origin. He was very respected and worked hard. I knew his son personally. And, since I was curious, I asked, “What did your father do during the war?” He always answered, “Dad was a policeman in Hamburg.” Then, one day, while we were working, an unusual thing happened. Big black cars drove up the road towards our workplace. Policemen in plain clothes got out and arrested the father. This was in the early 1960s. There were a lot of trials going on in Germany at that time in an attempt to apprehend lower echelon war criminals. This man’s trial went on for a while, but he was finally acquitted because of lack of proof.

Many years later, I was working in a school and I met another teacher whose subject was religion. He was also of German origin, a minister. Of course, I asked, “How was it possible that your countrymen could behave in such a way?” He responded, “As for me, I deserted, swimming from Norway, across Oslo Fiord, to Stromstad. So, that tells you my position. But, once a German compatriot took contact with me because he was harassed by his guilt. He had belonged to a police battalion from Hamburg. Most of them were middle-aged men with families, very ordinary people. Once, in a small Baltic town, he was ordered to execute at least 200 Jewish people, which he apparently did. Trying to explain his action, he came up with three reasons. 1. If I had not done it, someone else would. 2. I was afraid of being punished and executed. 3. I was afraid of what would happen to my family.”

I looked at the minister and said, “I know who this man is.”

Indeed, it was the foreman. I never told his son but somehow he found out and it changed his life. His hair turned white. My friend carried his father’s guilt and never got over it.

Later on I read one of the most depressing books I have ever come upon, the memoir of the last commander of Auschwitz. What shocked me was that the people described in the book were ordinary. I remembered the two Germans I knew and asked myself, what would I have done in a very authoritarian society? You follow orders. You do not disobey higher authority, the Lutheran heritage. Well, I thought about it and decided I would have tried to swim the Oslo Fiord, too.

CONCLUSION: The Reader provides an unusual take on what has become a Hollywood staple, the Holocaust story. It would probably be worthwhile to read the novel on which this film was based, now available in translation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Talk: Make Mine Fareed Zakaria

SANDY: There is one television show that my husband never misses: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS with Fareed Zakaria. The show is on at 1 p.m. Sunday. Today the main guest was Al Gore. Then followed a rapid discussion between Thomas Friedman (who needs no introduction at this point), Niall Ferguson of Harvard, and Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton, about whether or not the auto industry should be bailed out and the global economic crisis, in general. I asked Sven why he’s such a fan of Zakaria.

SVEN: Zakaria is a very intelligent man, well informed on the subjects he brings up on his program. His questions are well articulated and pointed. There is a feeling of mutual respect between the interviewer and the interviewee. The guests are always fascinating. There are certain interviewers who are very, very good: Charlie Rose, and Tim Russert, now deceased, for instance. Zakaria is of this same ilk. I think he hosts one of the best talk shows in the country right now. Watching is worthwhile.