‘1945’

1945Absorbing in its telling, 1945 quietly explores the dark underbelly of humanity and the corrosive nature of fascism and anti-Semitism.

The war in Europe has ended as two male orthodox Jews step off a train at a remote Hungarian station. As they walk behind a horse and cart to the local village, the news of their arrival puts the residents into a complete tail spin.

Choosing to shoot in stark black and white, director Ferenc Torok (Moscow Square, Eastern Sugar) looks to memorable imagery as the preparations for the wedding of the Town Clerk’s son are disrupted by the men’s arrival. The smug satisfaction of the town is upended in just a few short hours.

It’s haunting, hypnotic, with its power coming from its subtleties.

Rating: 84%

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‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston

Mybrotherjack_1A vivid and sincere telling of what is a semi-autobiographical novel (the first in a series of three), My Brother Jack talks of life in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars. Chronicling the story of bookish, nerdy (in contemporary parlance) David Meredith and his older brother, Jack, My Brother Jack is a commentary on interwar Australian society and dull, mundane suburban existence.

A violent father, a sapper in the First World War deeply affected psychologically by his experiences, and a mother who became something of a hero in the same war as nurse and matron: both returned to the anticlimactic lifestyle of a too-crowded, rundown weatherboard home behind a picket fence in Melbourne. Jack, three years older than David, is a lad-about-town larrikin, supportive but disappointed in his younger brother.

Mundane life with a potential mundane future as, established by an unimaginative, brutish father, David is signed up for a seven-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Yet he falls in with the Bohemian 1920s crowd and a new life unfolds. Over time, David becomes a successful journalist and war correspondent.

A seminal novel of mid-twentieth century Australian life, My Brother Jack is a candid portrayal of changing values and the vacuous suburban dream of the time. Although rarely present in the physical sense (particularly in the second half of the novel), it is Jack who is the marker for Johnston’s reflections.

It’s an allegory of old-style versus new – Jack is the true Okker, physically strong with a word and smile for anyone and everyone: it is he who tries to smooth over ruffled feathers, sees the positive in everything, even if his injury at boot-camp keeps him from seeing any action at the onset of World War II. Three kids (the third, much to Jack’s relief, is the boy he so desperately wanted) and a happy, faithful marriage: Jack is presented as optimism personified (although inevitably always disappointed).

David, meanwhile, marries ‘well’ and the social climbing, steered by the stylish and beautiful Helen, begins immediately – a perfectly manicured home in an anodyne new suburb along with carefully selected friends. It’s ultimately not the world for David – and his petty cruelty and rejection of his wife’s values and interests are honestly (if unpleasantly) portrayed.

Stylistically, the novel reflects the semi-autobiographical, journalistic background of the writer – along with the time it was written (1964). Straightforward prose, prone occasionally to err on overly long descriptive tedium, Johnston sets out to tell his story. And he does it well, painting a vivid picture of life behind the closed doors of the family weatherboard or the sterile dinner parties that accompany married life.

A little editing would have helped (occasionally there’s too much detail!) although, ironically, Johnston speeds through his time as a war correspondent and his travels across the world. But that’s the point. My Brother Jack is the travails of living and surviving in Australia in those post war years. It is the sequel – Clean Straw For Nothing – that Johnston explores life as an expatriate.

My Brother Jack was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 (as was the sequel five years later).

‘Darkest Hour’

darkest-hour-australian-movie-posterA provocative historical drama as Winston Churchill, in the early days of his prime ministership, is confronted with a possible invasion of Britain from Nazi forces. Virtually the entire British army is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unpopular within his own Conservative party, a war-mongering Churchill (a career-defining performance from Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) is at odds with his appeasement-seeking colleagues. War in the corridors of power and on the Continent forces Churchill to decide whether to sue for peace or fight on against incredible odds.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) focuses on the claustrophobic machinations of parliament and underground war rooms. The result is the fiery determination and irascible wit of Churchill at the forefront of a wordy, manipulative  narrative that has no intention of being subtle in the telling of its stirring story.

Rating: 71%

(A perfect complement to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk)

Best of Year (2017) – Film

moonlight-poster-lgA very good year but not quite vintage. There were quite a few films that fell into the 70-80% bracket (including the best Australian film, Lion, and best animated feature, Loving Vincent) but 12 films comfortably headed the list, with the top three significantly clear of the rest of the field.

My top 10 films of the year (God’s Own Country and the best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, just missed out) are:

10: Detroit
9: The Salesman
8: The King’s Choice
7: Land of Mine
6: Baby Driver
5: Blade Runner 2049
4: Insyriated
3: Manchester by the Sea
2: Dunkirk
1: Moonlight

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a distressing powerhouse, an immersive experience of police brutality and racism during the 1967 riots. The film boasted an excellent ensemble cast although I singled out Will Poulter as the police officer in charge in my top five male performances of the year.

The second film by director Asghar Fahardi to win the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (the first was the magnificent A Separation), The Salesman is a surprisingly quiet narrative as a teacher looks to discover the identity of the person who assaulted his wife in their new home.

Based on historical fact, King Haakon VII of Norway is forced to make a decision that will impact on his country and millions of lives. It’s April 1940 and Nazi Germany has invaded under the pretext of protection from aggressive Allied Forces. The King’s Choice is whether to accept their protection – or declare war.

2017 was a good year for Scandinavian films – the Danish Land of Mine also features in the top 10 as young German POWs are forced to clear the land mines from the beaches immediately following the end of World War II.

An unexpectedly huge box-office hit, Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort as the ubercool getaway driver, is entertaining with a capital ‘e’ with a blast of a soundtrack. But following accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, Baby Driver could well be the last time we see Kevin Spacey on the big screen.

The original was one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Thirty years later a sequel was finally released – and its one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Blade Runner 2049 – thanks to its director Denis Villeneuve and the superb cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins – is a cerebral spectacle and makes my top five films of the year.

The shattering Lebanese/Belgian Insyriated is in fourth. My pick of films seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, headed by Hiam Abbass (the female performance of the year), the claustrophobic drama finds a middle-class Syrian family (and a couple of neighbours) holed up in their Damascus apartment as civil war rages around the streets.

Casey Affleck may well have won all the awards (including my vote for best actor of the year), but the cast and creatives of Manchester by the Sea certainly picked up their own accolades. Emotionally destroyed by tragedy, Affleck returns to his hometown following the death of his older brother where he needs to face his demons to find closure.

Visually stunning, Dunkirk is a film of few words with its emotional sweep and visceral beauty and a jigsaw of narratives, separate but creating a cohesive whole as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers are rescued from the beaches of northern France.

But top of my list – and Oscar winner for best film – is Moonlight. Yet another indie ensemble piece (it was a good year!), small in scale, ambitious in scope, Moonlight is a minor masterpiece, pure melancholic poetry. What a turn up for the books when it beat La La Land to best film!

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).

 

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

Atonement_(novel)A young girl’s imagination and a momentary lapse of judgement contribute to a momentous change of lives.

The hottest day of the summer of 1935 and, as Europe slips closer and closer to war, so Briony witnesses a series of events in the family home that, as a sheltered 13 year-old, she does not understand. By adding two and two to make five, she sets in motion a series of events that by the end of the day sees the unravelling of her privileged world and the arrest of young Robbie Turner, gardener and unofficially adopted member of the Tallis family.

Ian McEwan’s masterpiece is an enthralling yet devastating read as Turner, set for a medical career via study at Edinburgh University (paid for by Tallis senior) instead finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, is also a victim as she leaves home appalled by her family’s unquestioning acceptance of Robbie’s guilt.

Atonement is the story of a girl emotionally trapped between childhood and womanhood who spends her lifetime shamed by that one day’s interpretation of what she saw. Not allowed to question her certainty by adults once she has set the train of events in motion, it takes several years for Briony, with all the main characters long dead, to fully come to terms with her actions and achieve a degree of atonement.

As a child, Briony needed to be in control – “… she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” She needs to stamp her version of events on the gathered adults, to be unquestioning in the telling of who and what she saw. Accusing Robbie in the way she does leads the reader to judge her and her interpretation. But she is still only a child: an innocent abroad in an adult world where events are beyond her full comprehension. It’s this world that takes over, allowing Briony no possible respite or real reflection – or to understand the repercussions.

But Atonement is also the story of love, country, class and war – the England of old where everyone and everything had its place. For some members of the family, Robbie was guilty by default and who was, according to the matriarch, no more than a ‘hobby’ of Mr Tallis. His fall from grace is pretty swift once accused – he may be incorporated into the family, but he’s still a low-born outsider. Emily Tallis had likely deduced a great deal more of the events of the tragic night but chose to remain silent, involving as it did the wealthy guest, Paul Marshall. Even Cecilia, without any evidence, places blame on the handyman’s son.

Parts two and three move the story into the early months of the war and, specifically for Robbie, having enlisted, the retreat across northern France to the Dunkirk beaches (in itself, part two is an extraordinary achievement). Cecilia, a nurse, has cut herself off from her family. Briony is following in her sister’s footsteps and is in training in London. It is only now Briony can recognise events for what they were – but the damage has been done.

There are more twists to the story – and the atonement at the end is unexpected. But it is, to my mind, the weakness of McEwan’s deeply moving novel. The desperate loneliness and separation of Robbie from Cecilia, the practicalities of his survival in spite of his injuries in France, the sadness and deep shame pervading everything Briony undertakes along with the ‘English country house’ part one which captures so much of privilege and carefree existence of a world about to radically change.

Atonement, regarded as McEwan’s best, was nominated for the 2001 Booker Prize but lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

 

 

 

‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally

268302“Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.” So spoke Poldek Pfefferbeg, a surviving Schindlerjuden and the man responsible for introducing Thomas Keneally to the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler.

As a result of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, many are already familiar with how Schindler saved some 1200 Polish Jews from the Auschwitz and Gross Rosen extermination camps in southern Poland during World War II.

A Sudeten German and industrialist, originally a member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Schindler was a hard-drinking womaniser who exuded charm and influence. It was opportunism and profit rather than anything significantly humanitarian that initially motivated him. With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he acquired Emalia, the enamelware factory in Krakow that was to save the lives of so many. Using contacts and bribes, he built up the factory to include the making of armaments – a financial windfall but also key to its protection as the war dragged on.

Initially disillusioned, progressively more and more angered and disgusted with the inhumanity of Nazi policies towards the Krakow Jews, Schindler established, at great personal expense, protective factory policies for his ‘highly skilled workforce.’ He witnessed the cleansing of the Krakow ghetto and treatment of men, women and children alike. Thousands were murdered whilst those with the all-important work card were transferred to the Krakow-Plaszow work camp under the control of the monster, SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (“When you saw Göth, you saw death.”).

Availability of land, diamonds and a great deal of luxury black market foodstuffs facilitated Schindler in the building of a camp for his inmates separate from Plaszow – with no SS guards allowed on the premises. At a time when starvation rations were doled out (Goth sold much of the camp supplies on the black market), Schindler purchased bread and chickens for his workforce.

He repeated the building of a camp at Brunnlitz, close to his birthplace of Zwittau, when, in July 1944 and with the threat of the Red Army, the Germans began to retreat west. Instead of incineration or the long death marches of the Final Solution, the Schindlerjuden found themselves in a second work camp in the Sudetenland foothills. The workforce survived, liberated by the Russians in 1945. As a member of the Nazi Party and Abwehr, Schindler risked execution but had already fled west.

Keneally’s novel, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, is a desperately moving testament to the horrors of Hitler’s attempted genocide of European and north African Jewry. The horrors of action are almost unimaginable – thousands of people killed daily, thousands others barely alive. But in telling Schindler’s story, Keneally focuses on the memories of the survivors and the fragility of that survival.

It’s a true story, a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Schindler wasn’t perfect – Schindler’s Ark is a reality of a man who was neither ”good” nor ”virtuous”. But he was humane, principled, charming and a chancer – for years he managed to make Göth believe they were friends, plying him with alcohol, cigars, foodstuffs to ensure the possible survival of a secretary or maid.

It’s a hard story to read. And not just emotionally of the mostly harrowing individual stories. In documenting the eye-witnesses accounts, there’s a great deal of detail which is important to the validity of the story but unfamiliar to German military titles, for example, can get very confusing (Oberführer, Oberstgrüppenführer, Hauptsturmführer, Standartenführer and more).

But, at its core, Schindler’s Ark, whilst diluted in impact 35 years after its writing, is an extraordinary achievement. It was awarded the 1982 Booker Prize.

‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer

9780349139005-uk-300“I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life.” So states modernist German architect Rainer von Abt to the recently married Landauers, a wealthy couple living in the recently independent Czechoslovakia.

The minimalist Landauer house of glass and concrete causes a sensation in the tessellated, crenellated decorative tastes of the former Habsburg Empire. And for ten years, Viktor and Liesel enjoy von Abt’s promise: scintillating conversation along with the attention and company of artists, writers, musicians (both Czech and German). With its lack of ornamental detraction, Abt’s vision provides the growing family with an uninterrupted view to the world beyond. But, with rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, it’s not a view Viktor welcomes.

Seeing the writing on the wall and ignoring the ‘it’ll soon blow over’ opinions around him, Viktor, as a Jew, transfers the bulk of his wealth and flees (with his family) firstly to neutral Switzerland before heading to the States via Cuba. He is one of the lucky ones.

But Simon Mawer’s novel is, ultimately, not the story of the Landauer family nor is it a telling of the Holocaust. The star of this particular tale is the building itself, a building sitting imperiously on a (large) suburban block with views over the unnamed Město (Czech for ‘town’) and its medieval castle.

As the Landauers depart, so German research scientists move in: post war under the Communist regime it’s a children physiotherapy gymnasium until, finally, it becomes a museum. Turning full circle, an ageing Liesel Landor (with an Americanised surname) returns, in 1968, to attend the official launch. The house is much changed having been damaged during the war along with general neglect. But Liesl, in spite of her blindness, knows every inch of her former beloved home.

In 1929, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned renowned German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build them a home in the wealthy neighbourhood of Černá Pole in Brno in then Czechoslovakia. Today, it is regarded as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture and, after many uses, was repaired and opened as a museum in 2012. It had ceased to be a family home following the departure of the Tugendhats as a result of the Munich Accord in 1938.

Simon Mawer’s fascinating story is a fictional account of a house inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. Characters come and go but Liesel, her best friend Hana and the caretaker, Lanik, remain constant. It is they who hold the human narrative of the house through the 60 years of the novel. Yet all the characters interact with and within the house itself – with its oversized plate glass windows, history takes place inside the glass room not outside.

Like its architecture, The Glass Room loses the artifice of the time – Viktor is a proponent of innovation and progress. Yet he struggles with the thoroughly modern Hana and her outspoken sexual frankness and flirtatiousness – as does her wartime lover, Hauptsturmführer Stahl, the head scientist at the Landauer House.

The Glass Room is, in the first instance, the story of an evolving marriage – that of Viktor and Liesel. But it’s also about relationships over the different time zones and events – Liesel and Hana, Viktor and Katalin, Hana and Stahl, Hana and Zdenka, Zdenka and Tomas (the latter two taking place in the Communist-era 1960s). And centre stage is that house, a symbol of the new world post World War 1 but which falls into decay with liberation from German control by the Russian army.

Towards the end, it does become a little ‘safe’ and comfortable – and Mawer’s narrative relies a little too much on coincidence and chance. But these are minor caveats. The Glass Room is a beautifully written novel of considerable power about human frailty and strength.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, The Glass Room had the misfortune of competing against the unstoppable Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

‘The King’s Choice’

987069A riveting historical drama as the King of Norway must decide whether to sign the accord with Hitler and the invading German army – or risk war and civilian deaths.

The burden of responsibility is carried by King Haakon VII (superbly played by Jesper Christensen – Casino Royale, Melancholia) over three eventful days as the Germans search for the King in the snowy countryside north of Oslo. The fate of his country and family hang in the balance as Haakon confronts his moral dilemma.

Measured yet immersive, director Erik Poppe (1,000 Times Goodnight, Troubled Water) avoids overtly emotional scenes or cliches, looking instead to reasoned arguments and discussions to determine the final choice for the king.

Rating: 82%

‘Dunkirk’

dunkirk-posterOh, oh, oh. It’s visceral magnificence on screen. Grand gestures aplenty but the minutiae of wartime claustrophobia, fear and defeat balance this superb, emotional sweep of a film.

Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) tells the true story of the rescue of 300,000 British, Belgian and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by an advancing German army. It’s the flotilla of weekend sailors and fishermen (and women) who save the day as the navy destroyers are picked off by the German air force.

A true ensemble piece – Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy along with newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are just a few – that is a jigsaw of narratives of few words and which makes up the whole,  building to a rousing crescendo. Exhausting!

Rating: 89%