Friday, April 24, 2015

Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter - a review

clockwise from far left: Viktor, Wilhelm, Charly
Friedhelm, Greta
A friend called to my attention the other day the German three-part television miniseries called Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) from two years ago.  It’s now out as a two-part film, available with English subtitles, under the clumsy English title, Generation War.   I saw it the other night on Netflix streaming.

I see no way to write a review of the film without taking into account the critical reviews I have read on Rotten Tomatoes and in Netflix commentaries and wondering how broadly their views are shared by the general American moviegoer.  So let me start with that.

It’s not surprising that when Germans make a movie about the Second World War a lot of people are going to sit up and take notice.  But what is surprising is how many people seem to question their right to do so at all, or at least to do so without starting and ending with shame and contrition. Despite the fact that most Germans living today were born after war’s end and have no personal responsibility for the direction it took, much of the negative criticism of the film centers around the decision to make it about German victims of the war instead of making it about the Holocaust. 

The warning is clear.  If you’re going to do history, you’d better do it from the victor’s perspective.  Otherwise you are bound to raise some shackles.  In a black-and-white world of good guys and bad guys, some folks appear to find it insulting to be presented with a nuanced view of Germans as something other than one giant collective of bad guys.  The least they could do, apparently, is to show them as good guys who enabled very bad things to happen.

The movie is about the kind of college-age students who get into trouble because they listen to swing, knowing full well the Nazi state has declared the music decadent.  They are not Nazi thugs, in other words, but people you imagine your mothers and fathers might well have been.

At the center of this group of five close friends who have grown up together are two brothers.  One of them, Friedhelm, is mistreated by his father because he is a “soft” mother’s boy.  Wilhelm, Friedhelm’s older brother and the narrator of the tale, is made to promise by his mother that he will bring his little brother home alive and by his father that he will bring honor to the family. Wilhelm is a dutiful son and takes his responsibilities to the Fatherland seriously at first.  Then there is Charlotte, who is in love with Wilhelm but afraid to let him know it.  “Charly” as she is called, volunteers enthusiastically “to represent the German woman” as a nurse at the front.  At one point, she learns a Ukrainian nurse she has hired is a Jew and turns her in.  The last two of the fivesome are a couple in love with each other, Greta and Victor.  Victor is a Jew, and Greta ends up is sleeping with a Gestapo officer to get papers to get Victor out of Germany.  These are people who buy into the cause at the start of the war.  The one pacifist in the bunch becomes a hardened killer, even of innocent civilians.  These are not pawns, as critics suggest, and this is most assuredly not a whitewash.  In fact, Generation War goes further than many treatments of the war have gone in portraying the extent to which the Wehrmacht, the regular German army (and not just the SS or the Gestapo), committed acts in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.

Critics who suggest the movie should have centered on the holocaust might consider what Alice Walker said when criticized for her negative portrayal of black men in The Color Purple at a time when many in the struggle for black liberation thought she should have presented a common front against white racism.  “You tell your story,” she said, “and I’ll tell mine.” 

Here’s a sample of the kind of criticism I’m taking issue with:

Peter Keough of the Boston Globe sneers, “All sides of the German side in ‘Generation War…’”
as if the film fails because it is not an objective textbook analysis of the war.  It’s a fictionalized imagining of what some people’s mothers and fathers went through.  A tale told in a German cultural space, not a litany of German transgressions. 

Robert Denerstein puts into words what I think is on the minds of many.  “There are those,” he says, “who have insisted that the movie’s separation of characters into good and bad Germans tends to encourage a form of national absolution. Those voices shouldn’t be ignored.”  Maybe so.  But does this mean Denerstein thinks there were no “good Germans?”  And did he miss the fact that the characters we come to feel some sympathy for (i.e., the good Germans) include Charly, who betrays a Jewish colleague?  And Friedhelm, who shoots innocents when commanded to do so?  Their crimes don't make them Gestapo agents, but no one can dismiss them as "good Germans" tout court, either. They are complex human beings caught up in morally challenging times, and and they don't come off completely clean.

The notion that if you’re German you have one task: to take on full collective responsibility for the war, or keep your mouth shut, is sophomoric and unworthy.   While evading responsibility by blaming the war on circumstance and the bad guys is also unworthy, there is no legitimate reason to deny the right of people swept up in Führer mania and war frenzy to cry out in pain when it becomes clear what price they are going to have to pay for their naïveté and for their inability to go against the tide.  

Michael Philips acknowledges there is “occasional nuance” and some good acting, but he sees those merits lost in an “overall sea of whitewash.” 

Not all critics take this stance, of course.  Ken Hanke, for example, disagrees with the notion the film is a whitewash.  “To me,” he says, “it has less to do with making the Germans look good than it’s about the perils of nationalism for its own sake, self-delusion, disillusionment and just plain getting sucked into something over which you have no control.”

But then there's Marc Mohan, writing in The Oregonian, back on the same critical theme.  “While it's an effective memoriam for the well-meaning Germans whose lives were ruined by Hitler's mad dream,” he claims,  “the refusal of "Generation War" to focus on any other sort of German makes it both dramatically and historically suspect.”  There it is.  You don’t get to tell your story unless it’s my story.  

Farran Smith Nehme,  freelance movie reviewer for the New York Post and blogger, characterizes the film as “Nazi Germany lite,” and suggests that the idea that a group of five friends might include a Jew, not one of whose pals was a true Hitler worshipper was “statistically unlikely,” leaving one to wonder if she actually thinks there were no well-integrated Jews living in Germany before Hitler, or if only majorities have the right to have their stories told. 

Matt Prigge, of Metro, calls Generation War a “useless epic” about Nazi Germany which “spends four-and-a-half hours excusing the German populace for falling to Nazi rule.”  He, like other critics, objects to what he sees as a good German/bad German dichotomy:

One commandant is introduced calmly shooting a Jewish girl in the back of the head. We know he’ll get his, and we will cheer when he does. But it’s a reassuring falsehood: We are trained as viewers to focus all our hatred on him while forgiving our lead characters, who are portrayed as mere pawns.

Pawns.  Whitewash.  Did none of these guys actually sit and watch the film?

Granted, virtually everyone who grew up with the Second World War and the Holocaust has struggled with the question of how civilized people could have sunk into the barbarity that Germany inflicted on the world under the Third Reich.  The question will never go away.  There will always be (at least I hope there will always be) someone demanding a critical new look at American slavery and the genocidal killing of the North American Indian, or of Pol Pot, or the war in Kosovo, or the slaughter in Rwanda.  Each time a new generation faces the fact that there is an ugly side to humanity that may stay buried for long periods of time but which can reveal itself anew, given the right kind of external pressures.  To this day, the Turks refuse to recognize the part they played in the wholesale slaughter of Armenians a hundred years ago, and the world’s apathy toward that even gave Hitler courage.  “Who remembers Armenia,” he famously asked, when starting out on his killing spree.

I do not mean to suggest that the only culprit is war itself, or the human lust for war.  I still believe with the Simon Wiesenthals of the world that one should seek out and punish individual perpetrators of crimes against humanity.  Germans, Turks, Americans, Serbians – any individuals who have engaged in aggressive war – should be held responsible for their deeds.  But I also believe Germans, even those whose parents (or, more accurately, grandparents) were not totally innocent of complicity for the evils done in their name, get to imagine how these parents may have suffered as the war and the evil that goes with war eventually swept over them.  And imagine them not as monsters, but as people living at a terrible time.

Which brings us, finally, to the standard film review question, “How well was the story told?”

I, for one, found the tales of the paths traveled by these five young people to be totally engrossing.  I thought the acting was superb, the settings and the costumes first rate, the war scenes credible, the pacing just right, considering its length, and the tension at a high pitch.  Some have argued that since you know how the war is going to end, this makes the film predictable, but in fact, there are five separate narratives on display and you don't know how they will each turn out.  

The only serious weakness I found was the sheer number of coincidences that had to be contrived to keep the five friends in touch with one another.  That pushed the story in the direction of soap opera and stretched credibility, although it also enabled a memorable final scene.

Another possible weakness was the portrayal of Polish partisans as ardent anti-Semites.  I can’t be sure they weren’t, and in fact, there seems to be considerable evidence that Jews actually had as much or more to fear from the Polish Home Army (the Armia Krajowa) than they did from the Nazis. The problem, of course, is it does raise the question of whether this isn’t the pot calling the kettle black.

There were a few minor flaws – a soldier given up for dead gets saved because a nurse gets a doctor to operate, and he’s up and about in no time; the Jewish Ukrainian nurse who is betrayed comes back as a deus ex machina.  All a bit too pat.

Because I don’t like war movies, don’t like the violence and the focus on blood and guts, I’m not likely to want to see it again too soon.  But there is enough substance to the twists and turns of lost innocence that I expect I will come back for another viewing one day.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Please Replace Archbishop Cordileone

Many years ago I got into a discussion with a gay friend who said to me, “You are so lucky you live in San Francisco.  There are so many gay people there that you don’t have to worry about the kinds of things we have to worry about.  It's like when Jews like to live with other Jews.  One needs one’s own kind around for protection.”

That got me thinking about the Jewish inclination to live in urban areas.  The stock explanation is that Jews need a minyan to have a religious service – a quorum of ten men.  But that is only a small part of the story.  It’s an understatement that birds flock together and there is safety in numbers.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized we were missing the woods for the trees.  The reason San Francisco is a safe place for gays (and Jews and black people married to Chinese people) is that the straight people who live here tend to be welcoming.  It’s the straight people who make San Francisco a gay mecca.  It’s not just the fact that all the gay people from Kansas, Texas and Alabama running from the homophobes had reached the ocean and had no choice but to put down stakes; it’s that people moved over, took them in and made them feel at home.

I came to San Francisco in 1965, a full half century ago come June, in time for the flower children revolution, smoked some pot, marched in anti-Vietnam war parades, and learned over and over that when I came out as gay to my straight friends their response would be, “Of course you are!”  End of story.

Ad in San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, April 16, 2015
(for a readable version, click here)
You can imagine my pride in this city when I opened this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle to find a full page appeal to the pope to get rid of the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone.  108 signatures (if I have counted them accurately) on a document which ends with, “The City of Saint Francis deserves an Archbishop true to our values and to your teachings.”

I’ve watched this struggle within the Roman Catholic Church between the hierarchy and the folks in the pews up close for years.  It matches the political split in the United States, where one party represents the interests of corporate America and the wealthy classes and the other concerns itself, at least slightly more, with social welfare, fighting poverty and racism, voting rights, and social equity.  The Catholic Church took a big step away from its traditional focus on control and the accumulation of wealth and power centered in the hierarchy with Vatican II.  It’s worth noting that this appeal to the pope begins, “We are committed Catholics inspired by Vatican II.”

Vatican I, remember, was the time when the pope of the day, Pius IX in 1868, frustrated over the loss of the Papal States, decided against great opposition to declare himself infallible.  It made the pope central to the faith, a curse the church has had to live with since.  (Another concern of Vatican I was to point out the dangers of rationalism.) To this day, however, folks who stress Vatican II over Vatican I believe "the church" should not be centered on the men in silks and satins who live in palaces but on the pastoral work of its ordinary clergy, with full participation by all of the followers of Christ, women as well as men. These "folks in the pews" have not stopped trying to pull the church back to its humble origins and center it on a man known for urging compassion and forgiveness.  You know.  The guy who once declared “Blessed are the Poor.”

The self-identified Vatican II Christian signatories to this letter to the pope make my point for me that San Francisco is a welcoming place.  They specifically single out two pet projects of Cordileone's conservative wing of the Church as reasons why they no longer want this man as their spiritual leader – keeping women out of power positions and rejecting gay and lesbian people as people whose natural behavior it characterizes as “gravely evil.”

How often, in the old days, when I had more fire to flame-throw at the Church for its homophobia, did I hear its defenders say, “But all those schools, all those hospitals – it isn’t all bad!”  And all I could think of was the number of children abused by the catholic message that they are born with sin, hate Jesus when they masturbate, can be gay as long as they give up sex for life, accept a patriarchal tradition as the will of God, and ought to pray for the conversion of their Jewish friends.  I still think it is a very sick institution.  And as a non-Catholic I deeply resent the obvious move by the official church to send here into the Bay Area, a traditionally warm and welcoming place to people outside the mold of the communities they come from, one arch conservative after another.  Cordileone is only the latest in a long list.  But he is a new low among those who unabashedly use the power of their faith community to affect the lives of non-Catholic Americans.   I can't begin to tell you how bitterly I resent that.  Cordileone intends to rally folks in Washington next week to urge the Supreme Court to reject the right of same-sex couples to marry - just before they meet to decide the issue on April 28.

Make no mistake.  This letter is a red flag before the eyes of a bull.  The battle is engaged.  These people are not going away, as a Chronicle editorial reminds us    But neither is the archdiocese likely to cave.  It immediately responded by releasing a statement saying the ad was

a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching, a misrepresentation of the nature of the teacher contract, and a misrepresentation of the spirit of the archbishop. The greatest misrepresentation of all is that the signers presume to speak for ‘the Catholic Community of San Francisco. They do not.”

That’s the thing with religious communities.  There’s inevitably a squabble over who gets to be the voice of the people.  Is ISIS the voice of Islam?  - they cite chapter and verse from the Qur’an to justify their actions.  And all Cordileone was doing with his warning to the teachers at four Catholic High Schools – one of the primary motivators for these 108 signatories – was reminding them what was in the official Catholic catechism – the rule book for believers.

If you are raised in one of those religious communities governed by harsh doctrines going back to the bronze age, you always have the option of using your eyes and your ears and your heart to form the kind of practical morality that comes from living side by side with people outside your faith.  San Franciscans know gay people – some of whom are Catholics themselves – and they know there is something foul in the doctrine that would teach them to internalize the view that their God-given sexual natures are “gravely evil.”

My guess is the church will realize Cordileone’s power to win friends and influence people has waned enough to make him more trouble than he is worth, and will replace him, once enough time has passed so it will look like it’s simply time for a transfer.  The Church is much better at looking good than at actually being good.   I’m not Catholic, and I watch these goings-on from outside.  But I do appreciate the good Catholic folk of the San Francisco Diocese for having the courage to put their money where their mouth is – this full-page ad can’t be cheap.  And I’m sure plenty of Bay Area atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Chinese women married to black men, transgendered people and lovers of life in all its rich potential will join me in saying to them, “So glad you’re here, you Roman Catholic people.  Have a seat next to us.  There is plenty of room.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cuatro Lunas - a review

Fito and Leo
It is sad that the great majority of gay-themed films that come my way fall in the space between disappointing and just plain wretched.  It’s obvious gays are hungry to see themselves represented on the screen and will watch paint dry, as long as they are convinced there is a gay theme in there somewhere.  How else can one explain the run of gay films that come down the pike, one more amateurish, maudlin and trite than the next?  Click on the gay and lesbian category in Netflix, if you don’t believe me, and just look how many of them have a one or a two-star rating.

All the more reason to celebrate when the occasional gem shows up.  A friend had just come across a Mexican film called Cuatro Lunas (Four  Moons), and urged me to have a look.  It made my day.

Cuatro Lunas, strictly speaking, refers to four phases of the moon: the new moon, moon waxing (rising), full moon, and moon waning (falling).  Each phase is used to characterize one of four gay relationships in the film.    The new moon is Mauricio, an eleven-year-old boy discovering sexual desire for a male cousin who rejects him and later bullies him.    Moon rising is the story of Fito and Leo, two old friends from a small town who find each other in Mexico City, discover a sexual attraction for each other, and have to contend with the difference in the pace of each other’s coming out.  Moon waning is a couple, Hugo and Andrés, who have been together for ten years, and are challenged when one of them begins to stray.  And the full moon is the story of Joaquín, an elderly family man of considerable social standing, a poet and university professor who finds himself attracted to Gilberto, a male prostitute. 

The four stories do not overlap, but they are narrated simultaneously, allowing for some tension to build as the scene shifts from one to the other.  Collectively, they lay out four distinct faces of the experience of being same-sex attracted in Mexico today.  Each character is fighting homophobia, sometimes external and harsh, sometimes internal and even harsher.  The stories are told not from a sociological perspective, however.  Each one is a very personal narrative and it is a testament to the writing of Sergio Tovar Velarde, who also directed the film, that you quickly find yourself rooting for each character in turn.  Their stories are told with warmth and a gentle touch and, despite some ugly reality, you are left with the sense that things will work out.

Cuatro Lunas is Tovar Velarde’s second feature film.  Although it was not immediately picked up in Mexico, it made it to the screen ultimately with the aid of American and Canadian (Quebec) support and has already begun the rounds of gay film festivals, at Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego. The film will open the Latin and Queer Art and Film Festival in Los Angeles, this Friday, April 17th. One reviewer described Tovar Velarde’s work as “an outstanding analysis of the human soul of his generation, a sublime compendium of the new laws of desire of the 21st century.” 

There are missteps in the plot line.  Problems are resolved a bit too quickly to be believable.  And Andrés’ tears get a bit too close for comfort to soap opera.  But the film has so much heart you are inclined to forgive those sins and much more.  And, ultimately, it's the honesty of the story-telling that makes you sit up at times in astonishment.  Some moments are agonizing, as when Mauricio takes his eleven-year-old homosexuality to a priest in confession only to be dismissed out of hand.  And some are downright hilarious, like watching two straight men learning how to “do the gay thing.”

Another feature of the film which lifts it out of the amateur category, besides the honest story-telling and some very credible acting, is the theme music provided by two Argentine musicians and their now quite successful group called the Paté de Fuá (as in foie gras), which they formed after emigrating to Mexico.   Their music is a mix of  tarantelas, Dixieland, tango and jazz.  Their theme song, Cuatro Lunas, is available here, on YouTube, the words to which follow:

No sé si he de mirar al firmamento;
yo vivo entre la tierra y las estrellas.
No sé cómo escapar de lo que siento,
mi amor,
no sé cómo dejar atrás tu huella.
Me quema el corazón a fuego lento
la triste realidad de no tenerte.
Paté de Fuá
Lucho con la culpa y el tormento al pensar
que moriré queriéndote amar.
Luna de pena,
nueva y creciente.
Luna valiente,
menguante y llena.
Cuatro lunas,
cuatro lunas.
No habrá una noche igual,
no habrá ninguna.
Será que de vivir mirando al cielo
mi corazón se pierde en lo lejano.
Será que cada noche en mi desvelo,
mi amor,
me alejo para no soltar tu mano
“Dibújame un cordero”, me dijiste
haciendome cosquillas en la boca.
Tus labios me provocan otra forma de ser.
Ya no seré el amado de ayer.
Luna de pena
nueva y creciente
Luna valiente
Menguante y llena
Cuatro lunas
Cuatro lunas
No habrá una noche igual
no habrá ninguna.

An interview with Sergio Tovar Velarde, Alejandro Belmonte and Cesar Ramos (in Spanish) is available here.    And an interview with Gustavo Egelhaaf (Leo) (in Spanish) is available here.  

And if you get hooked on Paté de Fuá, as I did, try these, as well:

and you'll find many more on YouTube.

picture credits:

1. Fito and Leo (César Ramos and Gustavo Egelhaaf) from YouTube video trailer 
2. Paté de Fuá poster also from a YouTube video

"Te amo, chiquillo" - "I love you, kiddo!"