Jakob the Liar (1999)

Movies based on books are often problematic. Even more so when the book is a masterpiece. Jurek Becker’s wonderful novel Jakob der Lügner aka Jakob the Liar is a masterpiece. It’s a touching and very unique account of life in a Polish ghetto. Becker was a German writer of Polish-Jewish origin. He was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. A lot of what he has experienced went into his novel. Despite telling a fictitious story, it’s a realistic account of ghetto life, never corny, free of sentimentality. I had a feeling that adopting a novel like his to the screen would be challenging.

Jakob the Liar starring Robin Williams in the role of Jacob Heym, is the second movie based on Becker’s novel. The first, called Jacob the Liar (with a c) was an Eastern German-Czechoslovakian co-production. I have only seen the American movie.

Choosing Robin Williams as main character does pretty much indicate what type of movie we can expect. Something slightly sentimental. And, yes, Jacob the Liar is quite sentimental but so is Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella. When you try to introduce humour and hope in a movie about life in a Polish ghetto or in a concentration camp, you’re bound to be sentimental as hope and humour were most certainly absent from both places. Compared to La vita è bella, Jacob the Liar is not a bad movie at all. Compared to the novel, it’s not that good but still decent. I’m not going to bore you again with my aversion to fake accents but, yes, it’s another really bad case of fake Jewish accents. Still, as I’m fond of the story of the novel, I managed to enjoy the movie.

Jakob Heym is arrested by the Gestapo on his way home one evening. It looks as if he was out after curfew. They call him into their offices and while they decide what’s going to happen to him, he gets a chance to listen to the radio in which the advance of the Russian troops is mentioned. With some imagination one could interpret this as if the war was going to end soon.

After being released Jakob tentatively tells the one or the other person what he has heard. Soon there is a rumor in the ghetto. They say that Jakob Heym managed to hide a radio and has heard that the Russians are on their way.

Radios are forbidden in the ghetto. To have one and be caught with it would mean certain death. Jakob realizes that his lie is extremely dangerous and since he is at the same time hiding an orphaned girl, he is worried and wants the others to believe that he doesn’t have a radio after all. Unfortunately nobody wants to hear the truth. The people need to believe this lie, they need to be updated with fake news. It’s the only way to prevent that more and more people commit suicide, to help them to keep going, to keep their hope alive.

I liked this story ever since I’ve read the book. It’s touching and profound and manages to say a lot about truth and hope and the power of storytelling. The movie may not be a masterpiece but it’s very watchable.  Jacob the Liar is one of those movies that is ideal if you want to introduce children to the Holocaust. Even though it shows the horror of life in the ghetto, it’s not too gruesome and the humorous parts and the ending carry a message of hope.

Advertisements

First Light (2010 TV) A TV Movie Based on the Memoir of a Spitfire Pilot

Geoffrey Wellum was only 18 when he joined the 92 squadron of the RAF in May 1940. He was one of the youngest pilots. He flew over 50 missions during 18 months, all through the Battle of Britain and beyond. After a forced break of several months he flew again but finally had a nervous breakdown and stopped for good. A while back he published his memoirs First Light on which this TV movie is based.

First Light is a treat for everyone interested in Spitfires, their pilots and the Battle of Britain. In between scenes we see and hear Wellum talk about his experiences. I think that hardly any pilot flew over such a long period and this many missions as he did. The strain and  stress of being a Spitfire pilot is really palpable.

When he arrived at the base no one thought he would make it as far more experienced pilots were shot down. The other pilots were a bit reluctant at first to accept him as he was so young. The RAF was in desperate need of pilots and couldn’t really be too choosy. Soon the other pilots realized that he was a good pilot and a fine man and they accepted him. During the day they flew their missions, sometimes even in the pouring rain, in the evenings they came together to sing, drink and dance with girls.

There are many moments typical for air combat movies. The moment when they fly back to the base and everyone is anxious to see if anyone is missing. The love stories, the drinking, the friendships. The older men who feel protective of the younger ones. The sadness when one of their friends dies.

Maybe First Light wouldn’t be so special as a movie if we didn’t know that it ‘s a true story. But the fact that it is a true story and the presence of Wellum himself make this worth watching.

Instead of a trailer I attached a mini-documentary. Hope you will like it.

Filmgenres Kriegsfilm (2006) A Very Good German Book on War Movies

I know this is not of great importance to the majority of my readers who might not read German, still I feel it is important for those few who do to inform them about this book that is one of the best books on war movies that I have.

Each chapter is written by another author and most of them are very good. The authors  review and analyse in chronological order some 65 war movies.  As just said, the book does not only contain reviews like you find them in many other books but an in-depth analysis of every movie is provided as well.

What I appreciate most is that it includes movies from many different countries.

The choice is very convincing as well. Sure, there are some movies missing that I would have liked to see included but that is always the case. Be it books or lists.

A further asset is the introduction in which the editors (Klein, Stiglegger, Traber) try to define the genre and name topics and themes.

Highly recommended reading.

Filmgenres Kriegsfilm bei amazon.de

The Truce aka La tregua (1997) or Primo Levi´s Odyssey from Auschwitz back home

The late Italian writer Primo Levi was one of 650 Italian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. He was one of only five to survive.

All of his life he suffered of survivor´s guilt and feelings of shame remembering how much they were degraded. In 1987 he very probably committed suicide. I say probably since it was not 100% established but everything points to it.

He wrote two famous books about the Holocaust.  If this is a man aka Se questo è un uomo about his time in Auschwitz and  The Truce aka La tregua about his odyssey back home from Auschwitz to Italy.

Francesco Rosi’s movie The truce aka La tregua is based on the second of those books.

Did you ever wonder what happened to the prisoners of Auschwitz after they had been freed by the Red Army? Being free was one thing but getting back home another one altogether.

Levi´s odyssey brought him first farther away from his home country Italy, to Minsk.  You could not just board a train at leisure. The railway lines had mostly been destroyd. And what about food without money in countries whose populations were starving? It takes Primo months until he gets back.  He finally arrives after stressful moments of a long and complicated journey, mishaps, dangers but also of  joy and rediscovering the beauty of life.

I knew John Turturro from his movies with the Coen brothers where he plays mostly a comical character. This is a very different role but it felt as if it had been created for him. He plays this sad, pensive and gentle intellectual in a very endearing manner.

The last scene shows Primo writing. That’s what he will do from now on, that and working as a chemist. And he will leave two of the most accurate and painful accounts of Auschwitz and the journey home that we have.

People who read the book La tregua criticize the movie relentlessly but I think we should also see it as a homage to a man who had the courage to testify but never really got over the fact to have been one of a very few to survive.

I liked this movie, I really did, probably thanks to Turturro´s soulful acting.

During the last scene of the movie, when we see Primo Levi writing, we hear a voice in the off reading his poem If  This is a Man aka Se questo è un uomo.

Please, take a few minutes and read it.

Voi che vivete sicuri You who live safe
Nelle vostre tiepide case In your warm houses,
voi che trovate tornando a sera You who find warm food
Il cibo caldo e visi amici And friendly faces when you return home.
Considerate se questo è un uomo Consider if this is a man
Che lavora nel fango Who works in mud,
Che non conosce pace Who knows no peace,
Che lotta per mezzo pane Who fights for a crust of bread,
Che muore per un sì o per un no. Who dies by a yes or a no.
Considerate se questa è una donna Consider if this is a woman
Senza capelli e senza nome Without hair, without name,
Senza più forza di ricordare Without the strength to remember,
Vuoti gli occhi e freddo il grembo Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Come una rana d’inverno. Like a frog in winter.
Meditate che questo è stato Never forget that this has happened.
Vi comando queste parole. Remember these words.
Scolpitele nel vostro cuore Engrave them in your hearts,
Stando in casa andando per via When at home or in the street,
Coricandovi alzandovi When lying down, when getting up.
Ripetetele ai vostri figli. Repeat them to your children.
O vi si sfaccia la casa Or may your houses be destroyed,
La malattia vi impedisca May illness strike you down,
I vostri nati torcano il viso da voi May your offspring turn their faces from you.

Quote from Joseph Kessel´s Account of the French Resistance L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows

The following short quotes are taken from the introduction to Joseph Kessel´s book on the French Resistance L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows. The  introduction written by the author himself in 1943 is a testimony to the difficulty of writing this book. He wanted to stay true to the facts which he had experienced himself during his years in the Resistance and also protect those who appear in these pages.

Jean-Pierre Melville based his beautiful movie L´armée des ombres aka Army of Shadows on Kessel´s account. Seldom has a movie been so true to the haunting atmosphere created by a book.

This book contains no propaganda and it is no work of fiction either. No detail has been forced and none has been invented. (…)

France has no more bread, no more wine, no more fire. But above all she has no more laws. Civil disobedience, individual or organised rebellion have become duties towards the home country. (…)

Never has France been engaged in a more noble or beautiful war than in the one that is fought in cellars where her free newspapers are printed, in the nocturnal terrains and secret rocky coves where she receives her free friends and from where her free children swarm out, in the torture chambers where despite the pliers, the needles reddened by fire and the broken bones, the French die as free men.

Everything you may read in this account has been experienced by French people.

(Translated from the original French by allaboutwarmovies)

Film review and trailer will follow tomorrow.

To Remake or Not to Remake: e.g. All Quiet on the Western Front, Psycho, Dangerous Liaisons

We have been flooded by a recent wave of remakes (Fame, Predators, …) some of which seem redundant to say the least. I do not think it does make any sense to remake a movie that is fairly recent and to re-do it just the way it was, only exchanging the actors to attract a younger crowd of spectators.

However, some movies  like theater plays (e.g. Hamlet, hence the title of this post) make interesting material for reinterpretation.

I remember that when I heard Hitchcock´s Psycho had been remade by Gus Van Sant I thought it was pointless but when I saw it  I found that it had its charm. Adding color and playing with this gave it a totally new feel. If you want to get a bit of an impression watch this YouTube movie someone did to compare both versions.

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of those movies that can do with a remake. I know it is a classic and one of the most important war movies of all times and many a reader will think it hateful to encourage such a thing. Still I believe it would benefit from it. (I know that it has already been done for TV).  All Quiet on the Western Front is really old. We are talking 1930. The acting has still the feel of  the silent movie era that only just ended in 1927. The acting is over dramatic. A lot of  the facial expressions are exaggerated (not as bad as in the real silent movies more like on the stage).  The whole pictorial language of the acting, so to speak, is hard for us to understand. To enjoy a movie like this nowadays you have to know a lot about film history and be interested in it.

What works very well in the original All Quiet on the Western Front is the depiction of the atrocities of war. Whenever the focus is not on the actors it is fabulous. Hands that are gripping barbed wire but are no longer attached to a body… Those very nuanced shots in black and white accentuate the horror and give a more realistic impression. Black blood looks somehow more like the real blood than overly red blood does.

All this will be a challenge for the film director of the upcoming 2012 version.

Furthermore let´s not forget that the movie is also already a reinterpretation since it is based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque.  And like with plays where no one takes offense when another director takes it up again, one could claim that this is not really a remake of the movie but a reinterpretation of the book. (I can think of another literary phenomenon that has been turned into a movie at least three times and all of the versions I have seen are extremely interesting and well done. I´m thinking of Les liaisons dangereuses aka Dangerous liaisons the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. First there was the French movie by Vadim (1959), then the Stephen Frear´s remake (1988) with Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close and John Malkovich and last but not least Cruel Intentions (1999) with Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

I have uttered my reservations as to the cast of the new All Quiet on the Western Front (see my post on My Boy Jack and Daniel Radcliffe) but apart from that I´m curious to see if they will do the book (and not so much the film) justice.

Remarques´s book is one of the best anti-war books of all times. It is so good that when I had finished  it and read that it had been translated into 50 languages and sold over 20 million times I could not believe that anyone anywhere in this world could have ever wanted to start a war again.

Unfortunately literature is not as powerful as that.

Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, edited by Jay Slater (2009)

Under Fire is simply a must-have for people seriously interested in war movies or even movies in general.

It contains a collection of essays on all sorts of topics regarding war movies, from WWI to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many different people have contributed to this very dense work. Well-known film critics and academics alike.

This is really something to sink your teeth into. Quite demanding reading but extremely insightful.

For example did you know how important YouTube´s influence was on contemporary Iraq movies (yes, I even started to understand Redacted)? Or how Vietnam changed the war movies? Do you know a lot about British propaganda movies of WWII? Did you consider to interpret Starship Troopers as WWII and Nazi satire?

These are only a few topics of many that are analysed in these very thoroughly researched essays.

Sure, this is no movie guide as such. It is not recommending or rating anything. Under Fire provides criticism and analysis for those who like to interpret not only the apparent but also the subtext.

This book is really worth having and I am quite excited about this find that manages so well to show the variety, the depth and the virtuosity of war movies.

Here you find the link to the publishing house. It contains an interview with the editor and interesting additional chapters.

Barnes and Noble

amazon.com

amazon co.uk