Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Masaryk Case: the Murder of Democracy in Czechoslovakia * * * *

Jan Masaryk in exile Jan 1 1938World War II altered forever Americans "world-view" and how we view international conflicts and war. Though easily forgotten, Americans themselves were of an "isolationist" view before WWII. A poll in Dec. 25, 1938 found Americans 6 to 1 against sending troops to Europe; "It's not our business!" was the universal view. Munich 1938 was the beginning of a change[2] -- because it was such a terrible betrayal and because of Jan Masaryk's eloquent writings and speeches on his country's plight. Today few outside the Czech Republic and Slovakia would recognize the name of Jan Masaryk, but in 1938 and during WWII, he was a well-known diplomat and radio voice in America and Britain. A BBC radio address by Jan Masaryk on August 27, 1939 as Germany threatens to invade Poland:

Czech Ambassador In London On Poland Situation – 1939-08-27 BBC

After WWII, Jan Masaryk returned to Czechoslovakia to help save democracy in his country and prevent takeover by the communist party and imposition of a totalitarian government. On March 10, 1948, Jan Masaryk was murdered[1] and the communist party took over the government.

Written by an American journalist, this book tells the story of the events of those tumultuous years and the events and people surrounding his death. The interviews and research for the book took place during the summer and autumn of 1968 -- a rare window during which a Western journalist could travel and talk with people in Czechoslovakia. During the 1950s, the Iron Curtain was an Iron Wall for people outside the communist bloc. Travel into the communist bloc from the West was difficult and once inside, speaking with people was next to impossible because the consequences for speaking with a Westerner were harsh. No one spoke freely except to their closest and most trusted friends. It was a cold gray never ending winter. But then in the summer of 1968, a miraculous thawing, the Prague Spring, occurred in Czechoslovakia. Restrictions on speech were lifted and for a brief few months the Czechoslovaks were free to speak out. During that summer of 1968, an American journalist went to Czechoslovakia to investigate one of this great intrigues of end of World War II, the death of Jan Masaryk. Her book, "The Masaryk Case", is about what she discovered during her investigations and interviews, but much more than that, it is a rare glimpse into the communist bloc during the middle of the Cold War.

The central character, Jan Masaryk was the son of Tomas Masaryk. Tomas Masaryk founded the Czechoslovak democracy after WWI and was the first Czechoslovak president. At the time, that is during WWI in the 1920s, Czechoslovakia was in some ways the adopted child of the United States. The U.S. was instrumental in helping guide Czechoslovakia to democracy after WWI, and the first Czechoslovak constitution was signed in New York City. The Masaryk family had a number of connections to America including close relatives there. During the 1940s, the time during which much of the story in this takes place, Tomas Masaryk was already revered as a great statesman and leader. To the Czechoslovaks, he was (and still is) revered like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are revered in the U.S.

His son, Jan, however was an incorrigible playboy with seemingly none of the talents of his great father. In Jan's late teens, he was sent by his family to America to make his own way in life -- and presumably teach him a few lessons. Jan lived 10 years in America, working in menial clerk jobs. In his late 20s, Jan returned home and was promptly drafted into WWI and served in Austria. After the war, Jan continued his playboy ways but began to assume some of the responsibilities foisted upon him by his lineage as the son of a national hero. He took a position as a diplomat in the government of Benes, the 2nd Czechoslovak president. Jan perhaps would have remained just the playboy son of Tomas Masaryk in the Czechoslovak national memory if it were not for Munich 1938 and its aftermath. As it was, he became the embodiment of the tragedy of Czechoslovakia in WWII, and his death/murder became an allegory for the murder and betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

Munich 1938. In one of the 20th century's great betrayals, William Chamberlain -- the prime minister of Britain at the time -- sacrificed Britain's ally, Czechoslovakia, to Hitler in an attempt to appease Hitler and preserve peace. Czechoslovakia's defenses along her western border were handed over to Germany and the Czechoslovaks were ordered not to resist. Once it became clear that Czechoslovakia's allies (those with whom she had mutual military assistance treaties), England, France and Russia, would not come to her aid, she was quickly dismembered by her neighbors. Four months after Munich, she was an occupied country. Her resources were sent to Germany, her industry was serving Germany, and her population was enslaved to serve the Reich. One of the most industrialized countries before the war, she would go on to become the arms factory for Germany during the war.

Jan Masaryk's was serving as a diplomat in London at the time, and he became the voice of Czechoslovakia's tragedy. He spoke English fluently and without accent, and gave many radio speeches during that time. From one of his radio addresses after Munich:

Text of the radio address in the video above: “You will see things happening in my little country diametrically opposed to everything my father stood for and I humbly but proudly stand for today. And I beg of you to understand it. My people were terribly hurt. They were suddenly told, with very little ceremony, that they must shut up and give up. Otherwise – it was a terrible otherwise… This is another job for the historians. I am not really complaining. I am just trying to explain in simple words what went on in the heart of the simple Czech and Slovak, man and woman, who trusted their allies and their friends and quite suddenly found themselves alone, bereft and destitute in a blizzard of harshness.”

This book was fascinating to me because it told about the life of Jan Masaryk and the crucial pre- and post-WWII years involving Czechoslovakia. But it also tells a fascinating story about the Czechoslovak mindset in the late 1960s and about how people processed the war and the post-war betrayals and upheavals. The thing that comes up repeatedly is how Czechoslovaks who lived through the war and post-war period were trying deal with their own feelings of complicity in their downfall. The people she interviews have a sense that the Czechoslovaks did not really resist the Germans. In the sense that there was no great partisan movement as in some other Slavic countries, e.g. Poland and Belarus. This is not to say there weren't partisans and that there are not examples of courageous resistance, but the Czechs feel that they tended to take the easier (and less lethal) ways out. Upon invasion, the government quickly aligned with Germany--true the alternative was terrible. Later it aligned with Russia--again the alternative was terrible.

But they Czechs she interviews express a lurking sense that their country and they themselves were always making a Faustian bargain with some devil or another. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only German-annexed country that did not provide troops for the Reich Army. Every other annexed country did: Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Poland. The Czechoslovaks that the journalists interviews bring this up themselves and are obviously trying to process all these conflicting views of themselves. They seem large unsuccessful in this attempt.

--EEH, May 19, 2010

Radio Prague article about the 60th anniversary

Radio broadcasts

[1] Change in the official verdict: murder

[2] A sea change in public opinion about strict neutrality (including no arms shipments to England) occurred after the Munich agreement. This change in public opinion is reviewed from the perspective of late 1939 in the article:
Influences of World Events on U.S. "Neutrality" Opinion, Philip E. Jacob, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), pp. 48-65. In a short period of 8 weeks public opinion switched from high levels of support for complete neutrality to the opinion that the US should support England and ship weapons to England and France to resist Germany. This change in public opinion did not however extend to sending troops. Resistance to sending troops remained very high--ca. 95% against and ca 80% against EVEN if England and France looked like they would lose. After Munich, this erodes a bit to 84% and 54% (if E and F are losing). But by the end of 1939, opinion switched back to extremely high resistance to sending troops (unless the US is attacked). However, the change in public opinion concerning arm shipments to England did have an effect. The arms embargo that prevented weapons from being sold to England was lifted on November 4, 1939 (via modification of the Neutrality Act). For reference, Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939 and England declared war on Germany on Sept 3, 1939.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

History of the German Freikorps * * *

History of the German Freikorps
A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis (at Amazon)
The book begins at the end of WWI as civil unrest is spreading within Germany
due to widespread dissatisfaction with the war among the civilians and the soldiers. During this time, there was a strong communist/revolutionary movement within the naval soldiers and within the working class. As with the Russian communist revolution, the German communist revolution-that-wasn't started with mutinies aboard naval ships. Towards the end of WWI, losing the war seemed inevitable and naval soldiers began to balk at dying for a lost cause. The first large mutiny occurred at Kiel on October 29, 1918 when the navy ordered a last, and at that point suicidal, battle against the British blockade. The 'Red' soldiers took over the ships and the port. This revolt was put down by the Kaiser but unrest continued to spread -- until the Kaiser was forced into exile on November 9, 1919 and the monarchy was replaced by a fragile republic, the Wiemar Republic.
Out of this chaos, the Friekorps were born.

Spartacist in BerlinThe young republic was facing multiple uprising from various revolutionary groups: the communists, the Spartacists, the Red naval soldiers and the Workers' parties. These groups were engaging in mass revolts in Berlin and were taking over government offices. The regular army was ineffective and riddled with 'Red' sympathizers. Instead ex-military officers formed their own scratch militia, called Freikorps or Free Corps. These were made up of young, hard men who had been tempered in the trenches of WWI. These newly minted Freikorps were sent to quell the civil unrest -- with a heavy hand. The Freikorps became famous for their violence and independence -- and their virulent disdain for the Wiemar Republic government. At their height in 1920, there were about half a million Freikorps soldiers in militia of various sizes up to battalion strength. Some of these only lasted a few months, while others lasted to the Versailles Treaty after which they were eventually absorbed into the regular Army.

"A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis: How the Freikorps Blazed a Trail for Hitler" tell sthe history of the Friekorps from their inception in 1919 to their official dissolution in 1920 by the Versailles Treaty through their change to illegal political terrorist militia in the 1920s and then to their final end in the summer of 1934 when the Nazis carried out a purge known as the Night of Long Knives. The first half of the book is mostly about their various military actions up to 1920: from their military action in Poland to mercilessly putting down the Ruhr Red revolts in the spring of 1920. The second half of the book concerns the post-Versailles Treaty period. The Versailles Treaty strictly limited the number of soldiers that Germany was allowed to maintain, and the Wiemar government was certainly not inclined to turn a blind eye to the Freikorps. The Friekorps were a threat to the government, and had been involved in multiple putz attempts to overthrown the republican government and replace it with a fascist government.

By the early 1920s, the majority of the Freikorps had been disbanded or integrated into the Wehrmacht. However, many Freikorps evolved into illegal anti-republican groups and some of these were terrorist right-wing groups that that assassinated republican officials. These illegal Friekorps groups were important to the nascent National Socialist Party (Nazis). Specifically, the Bavarian Freikorps were critical in the Munich Beerhaus putz in 1923 when Adolf Hitler attempted to seize power by force. After this failed, and Hitler sent to prison, Hitler decided to seek power within the political system and distanced himself from the more unruly elements of the Freikorps. Nonetheless many Freikorps officers went on to become leaders in the Nazi party and of the SS.

This book was a real eye-opener for me. I was not aware of the extent of civil unrest in Germany at the end of WWI or of the communist revolts that occurred in 1919 and the early 1920s. The history of these revolts gave me a very different image of pre-WWII Germans than I had before. In Berlin Diary, the memoir of a US journalist, we see only the stereotypical view of German citizens fawning over Hitler in mass assemblies and there is certainly no evidence of widespread resistance. The history of the Freikorps shows a completely different German citizenry. For example, in March 1920 in what is known as the Kapp Putz, a Freikorps militia tried to overthrow the republican government by force and succeeded in taking over the government headquarters in Berlin and sending the leadership running. However, they were faced with massive passive resistance by government employees who stalled in carrying out their orders. Then a Berlin-wide strike was called and the city was shut down. After a few days of civilian resistance, the putz leaders were forced to leave. On the other hand, the image we see of the Freikorps is striking similar to that seen later in the Nazi party and SS. Lieutenant Mann, an officer of the Freikorps leading the failed Kapp Putz, said afterwards "If we had only shot more people [meaning civilians], everything would have been alright." It was a lesson they put to use in quelling the Ruhr revolt a few weeks later and one that the Nazis took to heart also.



Sunday, June 01, 2008

Hanover Street *

Hanover Street (DVD on Amazon)
What can I say? I was overcome with Indy nostalgia. Last week, I went to see the new Indy IV movie and so thoroughly enjoyed it that I decided to re-watch Indy I. Alas, as I expected, the local video store was out of it. Thus I found myself poking around on Netflix Instant Viewing for a Harrison Ford movie to watch. My choices were Air Force 1 (seen it and hate it), Devil's Own (seen it and hate it), or Hanover Street, a 1979 movie WWII romance movie with Harrison Ford and Christopher Plummer. That sounded kind of interesting. Reviews suggested it was lite-romance fluff but entertaining to people who like that sort of stuff. I wasn't sure if I was the sort of movie viewer who likes that sort of stuff, but I decided to find out.

Wow. This was unbelievable horrible. The sets and costumes were great, but the the two leads (Ford and some woman) delivered their lines like they were reading them. There was negative charisma between them and they were supposed to be madly in love. And the plot...ok, I can't criticize the plot. Inane, sappy plots are part of the lite-romance genre. That said, the plot was inane and sappy. Christopher Plummer was alright, or at least not painful to watch, but one wonders why he would have taken such a role in 1979, after blockbuster roles such as in Sound of Music and Pink Panther.

So really avoid this one. There are many other entertaining mindless romance movies for you to enjoy -- no need to revisit the late-1970s for that. Only see this if you are curious if you can see a glimmer of Han Solo (1977) two years later. Answer: No. Oh wait, there is a reason to see this. I've watched many of Ford's movies over the years (even the terrible ones like this), and this one has the best snogging scene I know of. He gets into it -- unlike later films where he fakes it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985) * * * * *

Come and See filmCome and See (link to DVD on Amazon)
Ethnic cleansing of the Slavs living in the Eastern European lands including Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, Czechoslovakia and western Russian (to the Urals) was outlined in Hilter's Generalplan Ost as part of his long-term plan for creation of Lebensraum for Greater Germany. This plan involved removal of 70-90% of the existing Slavic population in these areas. Much of this was to be carried out after the war (after Germany's presumed victory) but pacification and elimination of certain areas was to be carried out during the war, in particular in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.

Belarus (was Belarussia) has the sad distinction of being the country where the Generalplan Ost and the genocide of Slavs was most effectively implemented during WWII. 25-33% of the population of Belarus was killed in the war (about 2.2 million killed), the Belarus intelligentsia and Jewish segments of society were entirely eliminated, every city was devastated and large portions of Belarus were laid waste in a scorched earth policy (Belarus official website on the genocide). In some of the worst war crimes committed in WWII, in628 villages across Belarus SS troops rounded up and burned alive every inhabitant as punishment for partisan actions. Another 4667 villages were burnt to the ground with less than 100% of their inhabitants killed. The website on the Khatyn memorial even has archival video taken by SS troops of the plan in action: Plan Ost.

image from Come and See, Russian WWII film
Come and See (1985) is a movie about WWII as experienced in Belarus. It follows a teenage boy who joins the partisans. It shows the horror of the SS annihilation of villages through the eyes of this naive boy. As you might expect, there is a fairly well developed partisan-mythology in Belarus (Robin Hood with a gun). However although Come and See is sympathetic to the partisans, this is not your typical air-brushed film of the heroic partisans saving the day from the evil Germans. Come and See tries to paint a realistic picture of war, without any romance. In that sense, it is has a documentary quality almost, and like all "realistic" war films, it is decidedly anti-war. There is nothing, nothing remotely romantic about being a partisan in this movie because war itself is horror. During the course of the 2 days covered by the movie, we watch as Florya ages physically before our eyes. With each new horror -- the death of someone next to him, watching villagers rounded up and burned, the loss of his family, the gang rape of young girl -- his face becomes distraught, then crazed and finally wooden.

Come and See is one of the most famous modern movies about the Eastern Front. It is very well done and the cinematography and acting is excellent. But I had been warned by Kaja that Come and See is a disturbing movie. It was, however, not as distressing as I was bracing for. I was expecting to be forced to watch people burning alive, children getting their heads split open with rifle butts, or the gang rape of young girls. We see the after effect of these things and we see dead bodies, but the film doesn't actually show these horrors happening. I never needed to hit the "stop" button on the remote in order to avoid any really distressing scenes. That is a real accomplishment because the temptation would be to want to 'rub people's faces' in the horror: "look, look, LOOK!" But it is more powerful, I think, because instead it focuses on how Florya reacts and copes (or not) to seeing these horrors.

Overall this a must-see movie for those interested in the Eastern Front and the effect of WWII on Eastern Europe, along with Stalingrad, Mein Kreig, and Shoah.


Generalplan Ost
Hilter's Generalplan Ost
Online documents and transcripts about Generalplan Ost
Except from Janusz Gumkowkski and Kazimierz Leszczynski's POLAND UNDER NAZI OCCUPATION
Belarus : a partisan reality show
The Khatyn massacre website

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pupendo * * *

image from from Pupendo, Czech film Pupendo (link to DVD on Amazon)
"One day a little tapeworm poked her head out of an anus, looked around at the big wide world. She popped back in and raced to find her mother. 'Oh, mommy tapeworm what is that great and lovely blueness that is all around outside?' 'That my darling is the sky.' 'Oh mommy tapeworm, what is that beautiful yellow orb in the sky?' 'That my darling is the sun.' 'But why mommy, why do we live here, here in the dark?' 'Oh my darling, because this, this is our HOME...yes, my darling, up someone's ass.' -- a joke told by an insurance appraiser from the movie Pupendo.

image from from Pupendo, Czech film
This movie is a comedy-drama about the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, and that little joke sums up the Czech perspective pretty well. Yes, we're living in crap, but nonetheless it's home. The story follows a talented Prague artist, Bedrich Mara, who in the heady years around the 1968 Prague Spring was one of the top artists in the country with his work shown in the west. But he refused to make the necessary compromises (join the communist party presumably) and has fallen out of favor with the authorities. He loses his job, is ostracized from the art community, and barely brings home enough for his family by making kitschy clay things, like a money bank that looks like a butt. The movie tells the story of a summer in which on a bit of a lark, he brings home a bum. The bum turns out to be an art historian caught at a particularly low point. And through a bitter-sweet series of events, he helps Bedrich return to the international art world -- although at costs that have a certain black humor to them.

Pupendo is by the same director that made Pelisky, and it feels like a follow-up. Pelisky was a comedic-drama about life in the summer of 1968, while Pupendo is a drama-comedy about life in the 80s. But I think one reason Pelisky was more successful was that Pelisky combined funny with a very obvious tragedy -- the 1968 invasion. In Pupendo, the juxtaposition of funny and serious is not as effective -- perhaps because the tragedy of the 1970s and 1980s, the post-1968 period of "Normalization", is difficult to capture on film unlike tanks rolling down streets. "Normalization" is an Orwellian term because it refers to squelching the "abnormal" ideas of freedom of speech and civil liberty that dominated the the attempt at humanizing Czech communism (Jan-Aug 1968). I once heard a Czech describe the difference between the Stalinist oppression in the 1950s versus the Normalization oppression in the 1970s. In the 1950s, you were executed but there was a certain logic and predictability to what activities would get you killed. In the 1970s, you were ostracized rather than executed, but punishment was completely capricious. You think you are fine, and then some innocuous comment, or forgetting to put up a flag, gets you on the blacklist.

For this reason, I think the film probably has mainly home-market appeal, unlike Pelisky which is likely to be quite funny and tragic to non-Czechs also. Also Pelisky has Miroslav Donutil, one of the most famous Czech comedic actors, who is hilarious in the movie.

image from from Pupendo, Czech film Pupendo refers to a Czech "game" in which a heavy coin -- in this case a 5kc piece which is about like a Sacajawea or Loonie -- is thrown swiftly down onto the bare belly of the "recipient". If done correctly, the coin lands flat and gives a frightful sting. Video of pupendo being played. Why this movie-vignette about life in the 1980s in Czechoslovakia is named after this slightly sadomasochist game is unclear. Presumably it is meant as some kind of metaphor, but I couldn't quite get it.

I purchased the DVD in the Czech Republic where it is widely available in video stores. Purchasing or renting it outside of CZ is difficult, but in the U.S. you can try searching on; you'll sometimes find it for sale there.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress * * *

DVD cover from Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressBalzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (DVD on Amazon)
Not wanting to sleep the other night, I flipped through Netflix instant viewing and saw that "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" was available. The book is excellent -- a real page-turner. It tells the autobiographical story of two young men (about 19 yrs old) who are sent to a remote village in the mountains to be "re-educated" in the early 1970s. This was part of Mao's Cultural Revolution during which time he waged an all out assault on anyone with higher education, i.e. doctors, lawyers, musicians, engineers, writers, etc. They were labeled as "reactionaries" or "black elements". Their houses confiscated and property destroyed. They were forced into menial labor and all aspects of their lives constrained. In the late 1960s, Mao instituted the "Up to the mountains and down to the villages" policy. The children of the intelligentsia were sent away to be work in the countryside and not allowed to study. This period lasted 10 yrs and effectively exiled a entire generation.

image from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress This film only touches briefly on the horror and degradation inflicted upon people by the Cultural Revolution -- during a scene in which one of the boys breaks down and cries. Instead it is a coming of age story about two boys, well young men. Luo, the son of a dentist, is handsome and witty. Ma, the son of a surgeon, is quiet and an excellent violinist (who later escapes to France and becomes a violinist in real life). One funny scene occurs in the beginning when the villagers are examining the boys stuff. They find the violin and are about to burn it, when Luo saves it and offers that Ma will play Mozart for them. "Hmm, Mozart, that sounds reactionary", says the village chief. "No, the song is 'Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao'".

The film follows about a year of their four years in the mountains. During this time, they are saved from the intellectual poverty of village life by a suitcase full of illegal Western novels -- Stendhal, Kipling, Dostoevsky, and ... Balzac. Such books were destroyed by the communists so were very hard to come by and obviously would be a one-way ticket to jail if discovered. They boys acquire the suitcase by stealing it from another boy, the son of a poet, who is being re-educated in a nearby village. These books change their lives -- and the life of a young woman, the granddaughter of the local tailor. The boys fall in love with her and decide to educate her by reading the books to her. This has a series of unexpected consequences and one of the themes of the book and film is the power of education to change a person. Although in this case, it is not education per se, but rather opening one's eyes to the existence of a wider world.

The film follows the book quite closely, but diverges at the end by telling us what happened to the boys. Ma leaves China and emigrates to France where he becomes a somewhat successful violinist. Luo becomes a dentist like his father. The little seamstress left for the city and eventually emigrated to Hong Kong. This adds nice closure that the film was missing.

Overall I found the film entertaining. I had not intended to watch the whole thing in one sitting (it was after midnight when I started watching), but I ended up doing so as I was so engaged.

Watched on Netflix instant viewing. Subtitled.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)* * * *

Judgment at Nuremberg, Spencer TraceyJudgment at Nuremberg (DVD at Amazon)
It took me a really long time to watch this film, even though it was an Oscar winning film on a topic I'm fascinated by, namely the Nuremberg trials. It's 3 1/2 hours long and basically the whole thing is filmed in the courtroom. I just didn't see how it would not bore me to tears. But Kaja was visiting and was interested to have seen it too. Neither of us wanted to see it; we wanted to have seen it as part of our filmatic education. So with a partner to bolster our courage in the face of boredom, a six-pack and a big bowl of popcorn, we decided to work our way through it over three nights and set the DVD rolling at 11pm one night. We were transfixed through whole film and ended up watching it straight through, not finishing until after 2am.

Why is this such a good movie? Gosh, it's really hard to put your finger on. The acting is great. Spencer Tracy is very believable as a well meaning and thoughtful small-town judge, who is really trying to understand the German people and is trying to not pre-judge them. The German lawyer is played by Maximilian Schell, an Austrian-born actor. He is magnetic in the film, and he won an Oscar fo r Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. The screenplay is also thoughtful and doesn't make any cheap shots (unlike the abysmal Taking Sides, which was on a similar topic). The screenplay also garnered an Oscar.

Oh, yes, the plot. There is a trial of three Nazi judges who are being charged with going along with the Nazis and thereby allowing the Nazis to pervert justice so that instead of communists, jews, disabled, etc being just summarily locked away, their persecution was given the patina of a proper and fair legal hearing. Two of the main cases being discussed have to do with forced sterilization. Mainly we (the viewer) are sitting in on the court cases and listening to the arguments by each side. There are a few scenes in prison with the three men on trial, a few scenes of parties, but by and large it's in a courtroom. But it is riveting commentary on the moral culpability of professionals within a terrible system.

I didn't feel like the film tried to tell me what to think and how to judge the men on trial. In the end, I sympathized with many of the arguments of the German lawyer, and I felt the American judge took a moral high-ground that is a bit unrealistic*. I think that was one of the points of the film, to make one think about these issues and show that it is not so cut-and-dried. The path to moral corruption is walked one little step at a time and at each turn, you may even be making what you think is the most moral choice in that situation. So in fact, when you finally do become an active participant in the actions of a corrupt State, it can be almost by surprise and without you ever really making a conscious choice to be such a participant.

*Kaja's comment: This was mostly likely requisite for the era in which it was released. It was a time where the US stood as an ultimate moral compass and empowered to pass judgment by being the victors. If we think about the how the nature of our politics and public has changed from then to now, I think that we would see our protagonist judge in a 2008 film tested and succumb to the human sympathies that we extend to other individuals in the middle of personal dilemmas.

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Derzu Uzala (1975)* * *

Dersu Uzala (link to DVD on Amazon)
Derzu Uzala (1975) is a film by the great Japenese director, Akira Kurosawa, that is set right around the turn of the century (1902 to 1910) in eastern Siberia. It is the story of a Russian surveyor who is mapping the far east and north and is based on the memoirs of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev. During one expedition, the surveying group runs into a native hunter, Derzu, who becomes their guide. He is a gentle soul who has known hardship--his wife, son and daughter died from smallpox years ago. Since then he has become a hunter/trapper.

The movie follows the surveyor and Derzu through a series of trips and adventures through the wild Russian landscape--though dense dark forests, wild rivers, and the endless northern tundra. I watched it on a very small screen which was a shame; the landscapes deserve to be seen on a big screen. Derzu is quite old and after a number of years, he loses his keen eyesight and can no longer hunt. The surveyor takes him into his home with his wife and son in a the city, but Derzu is like a trapped bird in the city. Eventually he must return to the woods.

To my eyes, the movie was mainly about grand nature and the smallness of man within it. The part of the film where Derzu and Arsenyev are in the tundra and get caught out after dark especially plays on this theme. The turn of the century was a time of enormous change in Russia--just before the 1914 revolution and the start of the industrial period. The death of Derzu can be seen as a metaphor for the death of nature that occurred at this time. That this is a surveyor team can also be seen as a metaphor--nature's mysteries are reduced to lines on a piece of paper.

Most of the outdoor filming occurs in the Russian far east (just west of Japan) in the Primorsky Kray region. This is interesting to see. Filming also occurs in Siberia, although I could not find out exactly where. Kurosawa really captures the vastness of Siberian tundra.

Why 3 stars? This is considered a classic film by a great director. However, my own take was that the cinematography was super but the acting and story was nothing special. I would watch it again but this time with a projector so I could enjoy the shots of the vast Russian landscape.

This clip from the film will give you a sense of the film:

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