July 04, 2009


On 3 April 1940 around 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and professionals were taken to a forest near Smolensk. They were all shot by NKVD agents for the Russian state and their bodies left in a mass grave. The incident at Katyn Forest has become one of the iconographic moments of the second world war, defining the pure evil of the Stalinist Russian state and for many in Poland providing yet another reason, even to this day, to fear Russian intervention in their country. Katyn was denied for years by the Russian state who only admitted what they had done in 1990- even today it is not classified in Russia as an act of genocide nor have the victims been officially rehabilitated within Russia. Katyn in a sense is a symbol, both of the crimes of the Stalinist state during the second world war to other peoples- particularly Eastern Europeans, and of the violence and aggression that Russia participated in as an equal partner with Germany from the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty until the outbreak of war in 1941. Making a film about this moment in history is a brave enterprise- the problem is that the atrocity overshadows almost everything else that you could surround it with.

So how do Andrzej Wajda and his cast do? The answer is mixed. There were times in this film when I thought I was watching a television piece rather than a film- there is something uncinematic about the way that the film is shot which did not convince me. The film mostly concerns itself with the women who were left behind when their menfolk were shot at Katyn- their stories are interesting but are obscured by the central fact of the massacre. In a sense the horror of the massacre drives the story forwrads but also inhibits it. Furthermore with many of the women short scenes with few lines of dialogue mean that they merge into one greiving whole rather than becoming real individuals. The director could have focussed on one character's response and grief but instead chose to encapsulate all types of grief- the defiant, mournful and forgetful and the responses of the next generation- his frequent change of focus leaves you wondering where some characters have gone and makes it hard to relate to others. For example at one point we see a woman berate a Pole who has joined the Russian army after the war- this is when discussion of Katyn is forbidden- for betraying his comrades- we know what happens to him, but we never find out what happens to her. We also see her earlier being intimidated by the Nazi state but we never find out whether she gave in- something that is important to the later scene (how complicit is she in giving in to the temptations of accord with totalitarian powers). Stories are left hanging and one never really identifies with the characters- they appear and disappear- often going through great terrors (how did a Polish woman cross the frontier between Germany and Russia in late 1940 early 1941 without coming to any harm for example) without any explanation.

I sense and this is another major flaw of the film, that this is because Wajda has deliberately set out to make a nationalistic Polish film. He dedicated the film to the Polish Prime Minister for example and the film is filled with discussions of what it is to be Polish and what isn't Polish behaviour. Of course this misses out the fact that Poles were complicit in the oppression of the Nazi and Soviet period- the Polish treatment of Jews during the Holocaust is not a happy episode in that nation's history. Nor was the officer corps entirely beneficent itself- whilst nothing on the scale of its neighbours to the West and East, the Polish government was unpleasant, for instance in the 1930s Jews in Poland were forbidden from receiving welfare benefits and had to sit on special ghetto benches at universities. Russian and German crimes- at Katyn and elsewhere- cannot allow anyone to whitewash the Polish prewar regime. A nationalistic Polish film creates a simple opposition between resistance and compliance- between principle and opportunism- whereas actually Polish attitudes to the Nazis and Soviets were more complex. The Katyn Forest incident was a shocking demonstration of the Soviet disregard for human rights and disarms a certain simplistic understanding of Russian history (promoted by President Putin amongst others) but it must not be fitted into a simplistic portrait of Polish history either.

There are things I liked about this film though- and perhaps it is only because it takes on such an important subject that I hold it to these high standards. I think that the decision to concentrate on the women waiting at home and the people after the war is a very interesting one- perhaps it would have been better to focus either on the women in 1941-5 or the people afterwards but not on both. Its interesting because it shows you how much it is the reverberations of something like Katyn that matter and not simply the incident itself. The Holocaust still affects the grandchildren of those who were killed, the First World War's shadow hangs over 21st Century Britain and the shadow of Katyn hangs over post war Poland, particularly over the Poland that emerged into the Cold War. I liked all of that- but I still felt it was disjointed, still felt getting more intimately engaged with the characters and being less self consciously national about the portrait might have presented a more compelling argument and more interesting film. I should note that others do disagree with me- this for example is a very good and positive review- but I ultimately found something missing in this movie for me.

I would still recomend seeing it for the closing scenes and for a sense of Polish history (an important history that is not as known in the West as it should be)- this may not be the perfect film but it is about a subject that everyone should know about.

July 01, 2009

Thomas and Felix Platter

Thomas Platter was a Swiss peasant boy who learnt how to read and write, became wealthy comparatively, a printer and a teacher in later life. Felix was his son, a doctor in Switzerland as well. What is interesting about both of them is that they left memoirs of their lives- memoirs that have become as vital for the history of early modern Switzerland as the Paston letters are for medieval England. They give a vital and important portrait of the way that the Swiss lived from the early 16th to early 17th Century. But for one moment I think we should halt. Here we have the lives of a son and a father- the latter self made, the former taught and brought up by tutors, a citizen of one of the great cities of Reformation Europe. Amongst the vivid impressions that you can garner from Emannuel Le Roy Ladourie's encounter with the two memoirs is the two different personalities- the encounter is an interesting one and demonstrates the change between generations that a change in fortunes can evoke. To some extent the father's success is demonstrated by the fact that the son cannot understand his legacy.

The first difference between them is in the nature of their memoirs. Thomas's memoir is matter of fact- a catalogue of facts. Felix's more ornate with classical tags and quotations. Thomas was a more religious man flirting with the radical protestantism of the 1520s, Felix was conventionally religious. For Thomas the ladder to success was represented by writing and reading- for Felix writing and reading were things that he learnt quickly, music was where his true love lay and that love was shaped not as Thomas's by need but by a love of the texture of story and song itself. Not all of this is explained by the differences in background- it might well be differences in character as well- differences in the complex ways that humans orientate their lives. Others though are differences created by the different generations. Thomas was a teacher and had sought to be a doctor: his son was able to exercise that option and become a medic. Thomas was comfortable returning to and living in the mountains that he had come from, Felix hated them and was addicted to smooth fashions and a smoother lifestyle.

There may not be anything in these contrasts- but I think they are important and potentially interesting. We remember that these gulfs exist in the modern era- between parents and children who have lived in different worlds as social mobility propells people upwards and downwards- but the truth is that they existed in the medieval world too. One of the segmentations that is easy to forget is the segmentation between the generations in interest and condition of life- it is something that you can see in the distinction between Felix and Thomas. Ultimately Felix's context was completely different from his father's, his outlook was too- the enduring effect of social mobility or even the narrowing or widening of social divisions is the way that people understand and look to their lives, what they like and what they believe is possible to do.

June 29, 2009

North by Northwest

North by Northwest was part of the golden run that Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed through the mid-twentieth century- it is hard to think of a dud that Hitchcock made from Notorious to Psycho and he collaborated with the greatest actors and actresses of Hollywood (Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Mason, Eva Maria Saint, Grace Kelly, Claude Rains and others) in order to make a succession of films that nobody can see without gasping. Because of that it is easy to dismiss some of the features- Vertigo and Rear Window seem to stand the test of any critic's eye, but Rope is dismissed as a parlour game, To Catch a Thief as a light drama and North by Northwest as a silly nonsense. Of course in the hands of Hitchcock it is anything but- and whilst it is entertaining- the film has an argument, a thought behind it about the nature of normality and the ways that human beings behave. North by Northwest is a farce- its a classic tale in which identities are confused- Cary Grant's advertising executive Roger Thornhill is believed to be a US agent- or in which they are secret, James Mason's and Eva Maria Saint's characters retain an elusive nature right through the entire film. But farces make serious points- anyone who knows Shakespeare ought to know that comedies focusing on mistaken identity can become great literature, and even though Hitchcock is now Shakespeare, North by Northwest has considerable virtues.

One of those virtues is its description of the world of spying. Of course the plot resolution is ludicrous and several incidents (Cary Grant chased across the American midwest by a plane) are foolish but the view of the world of spies is not so silly but is deadly serious. Hitchcock unlike the producers of several James Bond movies since demonstrates that the fundemental life of a spy is boring, unglamorous and sad. Cary Grant spends most of his time hiding in Eva Maria Saint's train compartment- the two lovers Saint and Grant cannot consumate their relationship through marriage until they can leave the world of spies- the Professor, a CIA 'boss' is reduced to callousness by the demands of his service- James Mason's character (Grant's double within the film- a point I will move to) exerts his power through being a devious and deviant monster. Spying is a world without friendship- but a world without friendship is a world not worth living in- and never are the characters so happy as when they leave or are not within the world of spying. Spying subverts justice, it has nothing to do with justice, it exposes the ugly side of life to full view. Hitchcock ultimately presents us with a view of spying that may be thrilling but is also deeply antagonising.

What that means is that a film about concealment is actually a film about the pleasures of straightforwardness. Thornhill, and the viewer who inhabits his eyes, is a character who wants to know what is going on- wants to understand- and never really until the last moments of the film does. Thornhill is a charming suave and sophisticated man- played by Grant a tramp would be suave and sophisticated- but the key about him is that he is straightforward. Oppose him to the doppleganger he confronts. James Mason's character is suave and sophisticated- as mannered and polite as Grant and as intelligent but Mason, unlike Grant, hides depths of duplicity and depravity within that exterior. His mistress becomes convinced of that after she sees miscellanious photographs of his deviancies- we can have no doubt that Grant has no such photographs in his attic. If Thornhill's character comes from the world of Romantic Comedy and movies like His Girl Friday, then Mason's emerges out of the slime that gave birth to Harry Lime- they may be brothers under the cravat, but they are estranged by their different moral characters.

Grant and Mason have two distinct and important characters who rule the film as part of a triumvirate- between them is one of the most interesting actresses of the fifties, Eva Maria Saint. Saint's role in North by Northwest is interesting- but in order to discuss it I must warn you that spoilers lie ahead. She is a spy, working for the American government. She is Mason's mistress- a good time girl that he picked up at a party and yet she turns out to be intelligent and skilled, patriotic and virtuous. In a sense she is Ingrid Bergman's character from Notorious, had she met Grant's years after and Rains been the villain of that film. Saint's choice we have discussed above- but her fundemental character is that of a woman who is thoroughly in charge of her emotions. In a sense to reverse the gender roles, Grant's Thornhill is a blundering innocent, dangerously putting lives at risk in a hysterical way: Saint's Eve Kendall is cool, calm under pressure, virtuous and willing to sacrafice herself even unto death for the greater good. Saint is the warrior, Grant is the civilian. Saint is sexually aggressive, Grant is responsive. Hitchcock leaves us in no doubt though that Saint like Grant shares a sincerity- neither character lies to the other in the entire film. Like Mason they artfully talk and flirt, unlike Mason behind talk lies truth, behind flirtation might lie love.

And here lies what I think is an interesting Hitchcock twist for he leaves us in doubt over whether the good time girl and the three times divorced Grant are telling each other the truth. THe sincerity that they express is the sincerity of a moment- both are afterall practitioners through advertising and spying of different kinds of acting. What Hitchcock though wants us to reflect on is the kind of acting that they embody, both of them act the truth- and whilst Mason's act is an act, their act is a temporary truth.

June 28, 2009

The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair, a novel by Graham Greene, written in the shadow of the Blitz and the devastation of war, is a private drama about the lives of three individuals- Maurice, Henry and Sarah- who are bound together by ties of love and religion. Henry is a civil servant working in a senior capacity within the wartime government. His life is his work- filled with plans for pensions and provisions. Sarah is his wife- a woman who married young and who has no children, but retains her glamour- a beauty that has not faded since she married. Maurice is a writer, still unsuccessful enough to be literary but gradually beggining to emerge from the seraphical sphere that snobs look to. He had an affair with Sarah and the novel begins about two years after that moment. She walked out on him in the midst of a missile attack by the Germans and never returned again. The novel in a sense is a long explanation of that moment, she did not hate him indeed at that moment she loved him as much as she loved him before. Maurice's jealous love cannot believe it but slowly as he sets a private detective on her trail, slowly as he meets Henry in pubs on Clapham Common and surveys the wonderland of Oxford Street, he works towards that realisation.

In a sense the novel is bound up in that moment- so it is worth considering what moment that is when she leaves him. A missile, a V2, crashes into the house in which the lovers are lying in bed. It submerges Maurice's body under wreckage but Sarah survives- she survives and takes from that moment a lesson that since she prayed Maurice should survive and vowed to God that she would give up Maurice should he survive, and he does survive, that God exists and binds her to her vow. Sarah comes in that sense to the crisis of her life- she faces the alternatives that the man she loves should not exist or that the man she loves should exist but not with her and chooses. Her choice rules the fates of both Maurice and Henry. But it goes further than that for her choice is a choice to beleive- it is the invisible line that Julia speaks of in Brideshead revisited that is being reeled in, the Catholic returning to the choir. In a sense Greene's novel therefore is the otherside of Brideshead, whereas that novel is about the recall of tradition and the power of the church, the priests that appear here are pathetic but it is war that recalls a generation to the fundementals of Catholicism and to the wisdom in the traditions of Rome.

Make no mistake, this is a book about Catholicism. All of the characters are one might say afflicted with Protestant problems- with the issue of individual conscience and the desire for rationalistic explanation. Sarah who finally rises out of that, rises out of it by learning to relent her conscience, to disclaim her ability to understand and to enjoy the pain that authority- God- inflicts. In a sense this is the religion of sado-psychology- seeing in suffering the end of human nature and fufilment the idea of separation. Maurice's character in this sense is both the least and most resistant- for unlike Henry, whose suffering seems outside himself, unlike Sarah whose interior we only infrequently see, Maurice's suffering and guilt we see always. His guilt and suffering are related to her but by the end of the book we are beggining to see that he is progressing along a Platonic line, from hate of a woman to love of a woman, from disbelief in God to hatred of God to love of God. This is the progression that Greene marks out for the atheist- the end of the affair might well be titled the stairway to heaven and that would not give away its argument.

The psychology is believable because the guilt that all the main characters feel is beleivable- that guilt is directed to each other for obvious reasons. The interesting way that Greene makes it feel natural that this guilt then becomes directed to a fourth person God is really the centre of the book and the most thought provoking thing about it. The only criticism I have of the book is that- and it is fundemental- I wondered reading it whether it preached to the converted more than to those who were not converted. The Platonic stairway ultimately seems constructed- I can see the balustrades and steps- it all seems too logical and theological- and the novel in a sense becomes as it turns religious an examination rather than a portrait.