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.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Childhood Memories of the Second World War

SANDY: Sven was born in the village of Eksharad, in Warmland, Sweden, a pleasant inland area with evergreens and lakes, plains alternating with rolling countryside. Eksharad sits on a high ridge above the Klaralven River. The main crop is potatoes. Immigrants colonized Warmland. Some were metal workers from Wallonia who brought their craft to their new country. The Eksharad cemetery, across Main Street from Sven’s childhood home, contains many iron crosses of great beauty. Eksharad is not far from the Norwegian border …

SVEN: The world I grew up in was so very different. It seems closer to the 19th century than to the 21st. I was born one year before the war. And, whether my memories are exact or not, I cannot swear, but I know my mother used to bike around with me in the basket in front of her to go shopping. Her friends would go out biking, too. One beautiful day, at the beginning of September 1939, she met some friends, and the first thing one of them said was that war had broken out. For five more years I lived in the shadow of a war that marked society. Sweden never ended up in the war, but it was a close call, many times, especially around 1942-43. The Germans had planned an invasion and were ready to invade, but Stalingrad happened. German airplanes sometimes flew over Sweden. Eksharad was very close to the border of Norway. My mother was the postmistress, and the post office was on the first floor of our house. She was in charge of several employees. As a child, I loved walking barefoot. During the summer of 1940, a hot summer, I remember walking on my heels because the asphalt was so hot. In the distance, I could hear a booming sound. I didn’t understand what it was. There was a real shortage of gasoline. The only cars that had gas belonged to the doctor, the policeman, and a couple of cabdrivers. One cabdriver who did not have gasoline was Viktor. He always had a big wad of snuff in his mouth. People burned coal in a furnace to produce gas which served as fuel. Viktor was working on loading coal into the furnace when I asked, “What is that sound over there?” He responded, “Come on, boy. There’s a war going on.” I did not give it much thought and continued on my way. The winters were terribly cold. That was when Hitler’s soldiers froze to death in Russia, by they way. Here's another memory, confirmed later with my mother, a memory from when I was 3 ½ years old: at the time, there was no automatic alarm system for the town. Instead, a taxi driver, named Erik Carlson, would proceed down Main Street with a siren on his car. When the alarm sounded, everyone in the house, including the tenants and the people in the post office, all ran down to the basement. Some of us sat on the stairs. At first, I found the situation fun, an adventure. But then I looked into the faces of the people sitting around me and saw fear. I became afraid, too ... My first love was the au-pair. We slept together under a warm comforter ... My mother was in charge of several post office employees. She had to handle the mail for 1000 Swedish soldiers, as well as local mail. The soldiers were billeted in the area. There is a photo of me sitting in the lap of one of these soldiers. I remember he had wonderful, warm brown eyes ... There was a bus line from the south of Warmland, all the way up to the Norwegian border. The bus always stopped at the post office. I was playing in the garden when the bus stopped, and three men got out. I had never seen such a horrible sight in my life. Their heads were shaven. The men looked like walking skeletons. Filled with horror, I ran inside to my mother, but she was busy. There was a friendly man named Valfrid who used to tell the ladies in the post office dirty stories. I told him what I had seen. He looked out the window and said, “Don’t be afraid. These are nice people. They are prisoners of war who have escaped from the labor camps in Norway.” ... Since my mother was of Jewish origin, a fact I did not know at that time, she had two rucksacks packed for me and my brother. She said, “If the Germans come, you are to go up to Harald in the deep forest. He is my cousin. He will take care of you.” Many years afterwards, I realized why … On my birthday, June 6, 1944, my mother’s cousin Anders came over with a present. “We have three things to celebrate today,” he said. “Your birthday, Swedish National Day, and the Americans have landed in France: the war will soon be over.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

FILM: The Secret Life of Words

SANDY: Most people have heard of The Secret Life of Bees. Fewer know about The Secret Life of Words, a Canadian release from December, 2006, produced by the Almodovar brothers and directed by Isabel Coixet of Spain. We chose this obscure film due to the participation of Pedro Almodovar, Tim Robbins, and co-star Sarah Polley, director of last year’s sleeper hit Away from Her. The action starts with a fire aboard an oilrig off the coast of Ireland. One man dies and another suffers severe burns. To avoid difficulties with insurance, the decision is made to care for Josef in the infirmary on board. Hanna, a partially deaf and anti-social factory worker, applies for the job as infirmary nurse to avoid compulsory vacation time. The rest of the film revolves around the affection that develops between Josef and Hanna and how their backstories affect their lives. The Secret Life of Words is unusual and compelling, with top-notch performances from all the actors involved.

SVEN: Julie Christie, as the international caseworker in Denmark, sadly tells Josef, “Who remembers the Armenians? Who will remember what happened in Yugoslavia?” In the middle of the movie, we realize the protagonist has been deeply hurt. At the end, we understand she is a survivor of the horrible war in ex-Yugoslavia, and specifically of the ethnic cleansing and mass rapes, which occurred in the early 1990s. Her comment to Josef about the disbelief of the local population gives us insight into what the victims must have endured. The film reminded me of the bewilderment of every European who watched the horrors on television but was unable to react and pressure government to intervene. It is no coincidence that Hanna’s caseworker is Danish. In today's world, the Danes and the Swedes are at the forefront of caring for civilians who have survived war trauma.

CONCLUSION: The Secret Life of Words takes viewers beyond the facts, as reported in history books and newspapers. Fortunately, most of us never have to face such evil and horror. Some people do. Although perhaps physically unharmed, their souls remain tormented by the experience forever. Once you have seen this film, you will remember what happened in Yugoslavia and be one step closer to making sure such atrocity does not reoccur.