Homeland (2011- ) US TV Series starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis

I’ve finally got a chance to watch the first few episodes of The US TV series Homeland.

Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) went missing in Iraq eight years ago, one of his friends who was there with him was found dead. His return causes quite a commotion. Not only among the public, journalists and the CIA but also in his family. He left a young wife and two small children behind when he went missing. His wife is having an affair with a friend and superior, the children are almost teenagers and estranged. And then there is Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an intense CIA officer who thinks that he has been turned by his captors and is plotting a terrorist attack on America.

Mathison made a lot of mistakes in the past and the CIA would like to get rid of her. Nobody believes her suspicions at first, she doesn’t get funding and decides to act on her own, breaking one federal law after the other, installing surveillance cameras in Brody’s home, following his each and every move, trying to catch him making contact.

The series kicks of well, it’s gripping and suspenseful, the premise, a US soldier who may only have survived captivity because he was turned, is interesting. Still, I had a few reservations. I wonder whether it is that realistic, to free someone from an eight year captivity and to push him right away to face journalists, politicians, CIA and the masses. The other problem I had, was the character Claire Danes played. She is driven and ambitious and a bit of a lunatic. On top of that she pops pills. We learn later that it is clonazepam – in other words a benzo – a heavy antipsychotic which is often used for unspecific or atypical psychosis. Hmmm…. Not sure what to think about that. Usually I have problems with the depiction of mental illness in movies and books. But I haven’t seen enough yet, so maybe they will get it right. It’s obvious that they want to make us doubt the character. It’s not an easy role, whether it will be believable in the end or not, and I think, Claire Danes does a great job.

Carrie is also tracking one of the most important terrorists, Abu Nazir. When she interrogates Brody she asks him whether he has met him during his captivity and he lies and says no.

As said, it starts quite good, quite intense but I couldn’t tell yet where it is going or whether I will really like it or not. But it’s certainly worth trying.

The Battle of Algiers – La battaglia di Algeri (1966)

People often think that Gillo Pontecorvo’s movie The Battle of Algiers or La battaglia di Algeri is a French movie but the movie is Italian/Algerian, spoken in French and Arabic. It has been commissioned by the Algerian government. The topic – the war in Algeria – is still controversial in France. While it is meanwhile called “a war” and not only a “pacification intervention” – or whatever euphemism was chosen at the time – many of the aspects of the war are still not spoken about openly. One of them being the “interrogation techniques”. Another euphemism. I suppose this was one of the reasons why Pontecorvo’s movie has not been shown in France until recently. Another one may be that it pretends to be very impartial and realistic  and has also said to be exactly that while I feel it is entirely anti-French and one of the most tendentious movies I’ve ever seen. I think it is important to say the truth but it’s equally important to capture complexities.

Many critics think Battle of Algiers is one of the best war movies ever made. It received many prizes and is almost always mentioned on lists. I agree with some of this but I still think it’s a highly problematic and polemic movie.

The movie starts in 1957 with the end of a torture scene. A man has given away information and is now taken along to the hideout of four members of the FLN. From there the movie goes back to 1954 and we see how a young Algerian man Ali La Pointe is arrested. France has been occupying Algeria for far over hundred years now and oppressed the population. Algiers is a divided city with two parts. The Casbah, narrow labyrinthine streets in which the Muslim population lives, and the rest of city in which the French live. Racism and social injustice are habitual.

When Ali gets out of prison he joins the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) – The National Liberation Front. They are organised in small groups whose identity is unknown to the members. There are only two or three people who know each other.

They start their uprising or revolution with small terrorist acts, shooting individual police men. When the French police start to close off the Casbah with barbed wire and search all the people who enter or exit the perimeter, the tensions rise and new tactics and recruiting methods have to be found. Civilian places like cafés, bars and restaurants are bombed. That’s the time when even women and children join the FLN and plant bombs.

Clearly the police do not have the power to fight the terrorists and that’s when the French Army sends a special unit of paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu, fresh from Indochina. Mathieu knows that he has to cut off the head of the organisation but since there are only a very few people who know very few others it’s not an easy undertaking. A special “interrogation method” has to be applied. This method consists in torturing systematically every member of the FLN who has been arrested. And probably many others.

At the end of the first wave of uprising, the order is restored but unrest will break out again a few years later until Algeria will be granted independence in 1962.

The movie shows this in gritty black and white pictures which make it look like a documentary. There is no likable character in this whole movie, there is no side that isn’t shown in all of its determined ugliness. Still I found it tendentious because it leaves out that there were a lot of pro-French Algerians in the country, al lot of Algerians in the French army and a lot of pro-Algerian French as well. The so-called pieds noirs, French people, like the writer Camus, born in Algeria, loved their country and were about to lose it. Furthermore by depicting the battle in Algiers only, the film makers avoided to show what was happening in the mountains where all the French soldiers captured by Algerians were tortured and mutilated, Christian nuns were found nailed to crosses and other atrocities were committed.

Now why is this movie considered to be so great? I would say there are two reasons. I was reminded of Rome, Open City when I watched it as it is very close to Italian neo-realism. The way it is filmed is outstanding, We really think we see a documentary and original footage. The faces of the actors are expressive, the torture scenes are very powerful, notably when we see the faces of the men after they have been tortured and see the mixed emotions and shame. The opening scene illustrates this eloquently. What also contributes to the realism is the use of music and sound. Music is used sparingly, we hear drums and ululating sounds made by women which convey a sense of authenticity.

Another reason why I think this movie is so highly rated, especially by US critics, is the topic. I don’t think all that many non-French people are familiar with the war in Algeria. The fact that we see something in this movie with which the US has been confronted on a regular basis since 9/11 may have contributed to the movies’ appreciation. How uncanny to see a movie made in 1966 showing war taking place inside of houses and narrow city streets. An enemy who is hidden among the normal people who uses the attire of religious women, hides guns and bombs under veils. An enemy who recruits even young children and indoctrinates them from an early age on. That’s why the movie has been shown regularly by the Pentagon to officers and experts of the war against terrorism since 2003.

In 2004 a restored version of the movie was shown in US cinema’s and met with a new success. It’s only after this screening that it was also finally shown in France where it was now equally successful. It seems it was never officially forbidden in France but didn’t receive an authorisation to be shown until 1970 and then, through acts of intimidation, cinema owners were kept from showing it.

While the filming reminded me of Rome, Open City, I had to compare it to two much later movies as well. One being Black Hawk Down, the other one Battle for Haditha. I’m sure I will write more about this movie in the future, looking at parallels to other movies and influences.

I think Battle of Algiers is an explosive, topical and very important movie. It’s a must see for people interested in war movies and cinema history. It clearly shows the ugly face of colonialism; the French interrogation techniques which were a breach of Human Rights, as well as the acts of terrorism of the FLN against innocent civilians. Still, I find it’s a biased movie. It had to be, I suppose.

While considered by many to be great, others think that nowadays it’s thought to be great because it can be instrumentalized and used by both parties, terrorists and the army alike.

Just a final word on my ambivalent feelings towards this movie. I am not saying that I think the presence of France in Algeria was justified. I think that colonialism is a plague, an atrocity for which we still pay and will keep on paying. But I think that once a country has been present in another country for many generations it’s not as simple as good versus bad anymore. It’s much more complex than that and those of colonialist origin born in those countries will suffer too, not only the indigenous people. I think this side of the human drama has been left out as well as the human drama of the drafted French soldiers who had to fight in Algeria. Colonel Mathieu who is based on a real life officer, General Jacques Massu was one side of the medal, a right-wing General whose only aim was to keep French territory at any cost. There were many others dragged into this conflict against their will.

For these reason I still think when it comes to the war in Algeria L’ennemi intime aka Intimate enemies is by far more balanced. If you are going to watch it, pair it with Days of Glory – Indigènes, they go together very well.

For those interested here are a few names of Pieds-Noirs celebrities.

Albert Camus, Claudia Cardinale, Daniel Auteuil, Yves St.Laurent, Jacques Derrida and many more.

If you understand French, here’s an interesting mini-documentary on the history of The Battle of Algiers.

Omagh (2004) Irish TV Movie on the Omagh Bomb

I have seen a few movies on the Troubles. Some were good, a few were outstanding. Omagh, I’m afraid, isn’t one of them. I’m not saying it isn’t sort of interesting as it explores, more than anything else, the reactions of the people affected by the “Omagh bomb”, namely the families of the victims, the support groups, the police and the politicians. But interesting doesn’t necessarily equal well done. I don’t mind TV productions but I’m not keen on shaky handheld camera, weirdly cut images and pseudo-documentary style. Blood Sunday (here is my review) has a very similar approach but was much better, I thought. Still, I didn’t mind watching it as I have always been interested in Irish history.

Omagh is a little town in Northern Ireland. On Saturday  15 August 1998, a car bomb went off in the town center, killing 29 people and injuring another 220. The beginning of the movie, focusing on one young man, Aiden Gallagher, and his family is very powerful. We know what is going to happen and to see them before the tragedy and knowing one of them is doomed, is quite uncanny. Also the anxious moments after the family hears that there was a bomb and their son and bother doesn’t return are very well done.

The responsible people for the Omagh bomb were the so-called Real IRA, a splinter group of the Provisional IRA whose members were opposed to the peace treaty. The Troubles are such a complicated chapter in Irish history and as much as the movie tries to capture this, for the outsider it stays quite confusing.

That the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Sinn Féin leaders condemned the attack didn’t help the families much. What follows Aiden’s burial, is a close examination of the aftermath of the bombing. Aiden’s father tries to get the help from anyone he can. Politicians and police alike. He joins a support group and together with their members they try to find out who is responsible for the bombing. They look for the individual names. After a while Michael is contacted by a man who was an informant and spying on the Real IRA. He provides him with a list of names. He pretends having given information on the bombing to an intelligence service way before it happened.

Michael tries to pursue this and investigates on his own, confronting the police but to no avail. After a few months he is so down that he has to let go and try to overcome the grief for his son.

Some months later the support group is summoned by the police. An ombudsman tells them that not only did they find proof that the informant told the people in charge about the bomb threat but that the intelligence service had also tried to cover it up. In doing so, evidence that could have led to arrests was lost.

“Bad management and lack of judgment of a senior intelligence officer” was the final verdict of the ombudsman. Sadly there were no consequences.

It makes me feel a bit bad to say that I didn’t like this film. It seems as if I was saying the incident wasn’t horrible. I’d like to emphasize, that this isn’t the case at all. What happened in Omagh is horrible but the way it has been filmed was just not convincing.

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex aka The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

The Baader Meinhof Complex is another movie on the border between war and terrorism. It takes a close look at Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) or Rote Armee Fraktion, one of the earliest terrorist groups that made terrorism their profession. They were responsible for robbings, killings, kidnappings in the late 60s and early 70s. What the movie doesn’t show is the fact that there were different waves. The Baader Meinhof group was the first wave of the RAF. Their initial aim was never to kill people but once that started and got out of hands, more radical groups followed, like the one led by Brigitte Mohnhaupt (portrayed by Nadja Uhl) also called Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn).

Not everything is as it should be in Germany in the 1970s. The children of the Nazi generation are afraid that nothing has changed in Germany. Many of the old National Socialist party got away and are in prominent positions in the government. A group around the enigmatic figures of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and Gudrun Ensslin (Martina Wokalek) are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism: American imperialism supported by the German establishment.

At first they bomb empty buildings, but get more and more violent in the process. One of their two main enemies are the Axel Springer Verlag and the American bases in Germany. They try to fight the war in Vietnam and bomb an American base which costs the lives of soldiers.

The ideas behind their doings were far from wrong. They wanted to build a new society where there was no room for fascism and totalitarianism. Despite the violence, the support in the German population was huge and the whole nation followed how they were hunted down and captured.

Once the heads were arrested they were isolated and held under inhumane conditions which they fought. But even inside of prison, they still organized terrorist acts  and their collective suicide must be seen as a last attempt to right the wrong.

The Baader Meinhof group is highly interesting. This was the birth of terrorism. Nothing like this has been seen before. They went to training camps in Jordan and fought together with the Palestinians against Israel that was considered to be an enemy like the US.

These were not mindless people, they were students and intellectuals, Ulrike Meinhof was a well-known journalist.

Although I cannot approve of their methods, there were too many killings and kidnappings, I can’t help thinking that they changed the fate of Germany for the good. The German society after WWII was still highly infected by Nazism. Many Nazis got away and played important roles in Germany. The Baader-Meinhof did denounce and unmask this. Without them, who knows what Germany would look like today?

The cast of this movie is excellent. The hunted are well chose and so are the hunters. The head of the police force is played by Bruno GanzHeino Ferch stars as his assistant.

The heads of the first wave all died. Meinhof, Ensslin, Baader and Raspe committed suicide in prison. It was rumoured that it was murder but nothing could ever be proven.

The second wave, among them Brigitte Mohnhaupt, left prison a while back (2007), after 25 years of incarceration.

Intimate enemies aka L´ennemi intime (2007) or France, Algeria and the War that was no War

This was one of the hardest movies to watch for me for very personal reasons. All those who have read the About page on this blog, know why. For everyone else here´s a quick explanation. My father fought in this war for almost three years after having been drafted barely aged 18. His stories were as much part of my childhood as were his brooding silences and constant nightmares. I may say that this war is as much part of my life as it is of his. More so due to the nature of it. This is no war to be proud of – most are not but this one especially not. France didn´t even call this a war, they said it was an attempt to reestablish order. But there was a good reason to not call this a war since  Algeria was an integrate part of France, although not with the same rights. There was no real enemy to be fought since the Algerians were French, hence this movie´s title Intimate enemies, meaning the enemy within.

This created an extremely complex situation as this movie attempts to illustrate.

After the war had been won from a military point of view it was lost from a political point of view. De Gaulle decided to let Algeria go. What a waste of lives. In future years it was silenced. One was not to speak about it which weighed heavily on the returning soldiers. No one to turn to, no one to listen. As a psychiatrist once told me, it was the general tragedy for men returning from a war before Vietnam, that they had no one to turn to. Not even psychologists or psychiatrists. Post-traumatic stress was just not cured at the time. Ok, this is not totally correct, it was treated but only insofar as the soldier was meant to go back to fight (one of the major themes of Behind the Lines aka Regeneration) but those for whom the fighting was over were meant to knuckle down and shut it.

Considering that an apparently (haven´t seen it yet) very outspoken movie like The Battle of Algiers aka La Battaglia di Algeri (1966) was banned in France until 1971 we can imagine what it was like for soldiers having participated in a war that a) was no war b) wasn´t to be spoken about and c) didn´t officially happen… And absolutely no one to thank them when they came home.

The whole complexity of the situation is shown in Intimate enemies. Algerians who had already fought during WWII sided with the FLN, the Liberation movement to fight France. Others fought on the side of the French. During the war many changed sides both ways. (The highly acclaimed Days of Glory tells the story of four Algerians who fought during WWII).

One very horrible trait of this war was the intelligence´s use of torture. Funny enough, many of those soldiers who tortured were by far the most traumatized upon returning to France. Since my father was just a simple private he did not have to do it but apparently his brother, some years older and a lieutenant was part of the intelligence unit. I never liked the guy so I never bothered talking to him. Just heard he´s been under medication since the late 80ies on account of serious problems with his conscience.

Does this serve him right? There is an interesting scene in the movie where lieutenant Terrien talks to the intelligence Sgt. and is being told that he will come around and understand these methods.

However not only the French used torture, the Algerians did as well. And terrorism. And cruelty. I remember my father telling me of a march through the desert when they started to see something in the distance and thought it was a Fata Morgana that looked like  dancing crosses. Upon their coming closer to that place they discovered that it was a whole convent of nuns having been tortured, killed and nailed on wooden crosses. There would be other things I could add here but this is not the place to do so.

The main theme of the movie is a somewhat Platoon-like juxtaposition of a very humane, just and friendly lieutenant and some hardened old-time officers and soldiers. Lt. Terrien fights cruelty whenever he can. He refuses to torture or execute. When someone explains that torture has been ordered he says that you shouldn´t follow an order when it is morally unacceptable. What is usually not much spoken about either is the use of napalm during that war. Terrien questions the use of napalm, and unmasks the contradiction of this non-war by quoting the officials who state that napalm is only to be used during a war. “This is no war”, says Sgt Dougnac, ” and we don´t use napalm.”

All in all: a war with a very ugly face.

Now back to the movie. It is  well done and absolutely worth watching. It will definitely broaden the horizon of any war movie aficionado used to mainly watch movies of WWI, WWII and Vietnam. On a scale from 1 to 5 I would easily give it a 4.5.

One of its most outstanding achievements is to show neither side as being worse than the other. And it wants to make us understand that often diplomacy could save us from going to war.

All the Algerians wanted was the same rights as the French. And their independence of course. Is that too much to ask for?

The war ended in 1962 but only in 1999 the French government officially admitted that it had taken place. 2 000 000 mostly young French soldiers had to participate in this war.  I´m sorry for all of them and for their Algerian counter parts. I had the opportunity to see what it does to soldiers.

My father returned to France in 1959. To this day his nightmares haven´t stopped.

What is the worst thing you dream about I asked him once: “All those dead men”, he says “They all come back and haunt me.”