Testament of Youth (2014)

testament-of-youth

Two years ago, I read and reviewed Vera Brittain’s collection of letters Letters from a Lost Generation. It was one of the saddest, most harrowing books I’ve ever read. After finishing it, I read Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir, which was equally moving. Needless to say, I was interested in watching the movie Testament of Youth.

Vera Brittain’s story is really one of the saddest imaginable. Not only did she loose her fiancé, but also her brother and their two closest friends. After the war, she met the writer Winifred Holtby – we see her very briefly in this movie – and they became very close friends until Holtby died at the age of thirty-seven. Besides being a testament to the friendships between Vera and her friends and brother, the books give great insight into the life of a nurse during WWI. Like the men, she joined up early and stayed a nurse until the end of the war.

The movie takes a long time to show us the idyllic pre-war years. Vera has a close relationship with her brother, Edward, who introduces her to his friends Roland, later Vera’s fiancé, Victor and Geoffrey. It is 1914 and Vera, who at eighteen is the youngest, tells her parents she intends to go to Oxford. The parents are shocked and oppose her. They don’t want her to become a blue-stocking. and minimise her chances to find a husband. Thanks to her brother she’s allowed to go to the exams and is accepted. As happy as she is to be allowed a higher education, when the war breaks out and her brother, fiancé, and friends sing up, she becomes a nurse.

The movie shows a few scenes of her as a nurse but it makes it look like she didn’t really do it for a very long time. Nor that she was moving from England  to different front lines in France and Malta. It rather focusses on the death of her fiancé and her brother. We then get to see her briefly after the war and how she meets Winifred Holtby. It’s a very short scene as well.

The movie tries to capture the mood of the era and manages more or less.

I guess, the tone of my review, tells you that I was disappointed. The movie’s neither fish nor fowl. Not a real love story, nor the story of the friendships or her years as a nurse and not very insightful about the war as such. The director tried to cram to much into a short film. It would have been much better if this had been a mini-series. More moving, more realistic. The way it is, it’s not very successful. It’s not dreadful, it’s beautifully filmed, well acted but not very engaging and stays at the surface. This is possibly also due to the rather large cast. It’s impossible to care for so many people in an average length movie.

You can watch it but you don’t have to. Read the books instead. They are some of the best books on WWI.

Advertisements

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.

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.