Monday, August 16, 2010

Escape From Totalitarianism

As computer technology and globalization continue to make nations more interdependent, it becomes increasingly difficult for any one nation to stand on its own. The free flow of trade combined with the rapidity of wireless communication means that news travels faster than ever before.

It's hard to keep secrets in an age of cell-phone journalism. Just as video of natural disasters and horrific news events can be captured and quickly uploaded to the blogosphere, economic markets can be manipulated, elections rigged, and oil spills trivialized with callous disregard for public opinion.

Despite all our complaints about the tiny injustices in our lives, few people have been forced to live under the kind of totalitarianism that crippled populations during Germany's Third Reich or Pol Pot's  reign of terror in Cambodia (where his attempt to "cleanse the population" led to nearly 2.5 million deaths).

During the 20th century, Communist dictatorships in Russia and China crushed political dissent. If you were not loyal to the party in power, your life could be transformed into a living hell (or you could simply be "eliminated"). The following video clip shows part of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech in Berlin on June 26, 1963, in which he criticized the crushing injustice of Communism.

Three films recently seen examine the toll taken on people's lives when they are forced to live under totalitarian regimes. The first two (seen at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) deal with the oppressive nature of Hitler's forces. Although one is fictional and the other falls into the category of truth that is actually stranger than fiction, these two films leave no doubt about the impact of a despotic regime on the human soul.
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Marek Najbrt's new film, Protektor, takes place in 1938 in Prague, just before Hitler opted to invade and annex Czechoslovakia. Hana Vrbatova (Jana Plodkova) is a a young Jewish actress who has just finished shooting her first feature film. Fantl (Jiri Ornest) is the film's lead actor, an elderly Jew who cautions Hana that the Nazis will never let their movie be seen. He warns her that she should leave the country while she still has a chance. Refusing to believe the rumors of Hitler's impending invasion, Hana tosses the forged passport given to her by  Fantl into the trash.

Although Hana is Jewish, her husband Emil (Marek Daniel) is not. A journalist by trade, Emil likes to row a scull down the Vitava River. After being drafted by Nazi sympathizers to work at a radio station in Prague -- an offer he knows he cannot refuse --  he soon becomes the on-air personality for a program entitled "Voices Of Our Home." This positions him even closer inside Hitler's propaganda.machine (one of the reasons Emil remains at this job is the station manager's promise that, as long as he works there, Hana will be safe from the Nazis).

Poster art for Protektor
Forced to remain alone in their apartment, Hana becomes increasingly restless, resentful, and rebellious. When a desperate Fantl (who never managed to leave the country) shows up, begging for a chance to take a bath after escaping one of Hitler's death convoys, Emil throws him out into the street. Refusing to understand the seriousness of their situation, Hana puts on the blonde wig that made her famous and starts going out to the cinema.

Unfortunately, Hana and Emil aren't particularly sympathetic characters. Both are extremely narcissistic. Hana had grown used to getting lots of attention as a budding movie star. The jealous Emil, newly flattered by women who recognize his voice, finds ways to compensate for his failing marriage. As their relationship becomes more strained, husband and wife stop talking to each other and start sleeping around.

Emil (Marek Daniel) and  Vera (Klara Meliskova)
Soon, Hana is posing for provocative photographs taken by Petr (Tomas Mechacek), a movie projectionist who is constantly shooting up morphine. When Hana crashes the wedding of Emil's boss (a Nazi sympathizer) while wearing her blonde wig, events start to spin out of control.

Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich is assassinated by Czech partisans. After the Nazis search their apartment, looking for a bicycle ridden by one of the killers, Hana realizes that she has no future and turns herself in to the authorities. When Emil is ordered to read a loyalty oath on the air, he realizes that he, too, has no future and tries to martyr himself by standing in the way of soldiers rounding up a group of Jewish women (including Hana).

I found Protektor to be a rather schizophrenic movie (much like its protagonists). There are moments when the direction and cinematography become a little too artsy for comfort. At other times, the lack of communication in Hana and Emil's marriage makes the plot seem a bit ridiculous. By the end of the film, Emil has realized that he still loves his wife. Knowing what lies ahead for them, I'm not sure the audience cares by that point. Here's the trailer:

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There are many instances in which truth seems stranger than fiction. But in the case of John Keith Wasson's astonishing documentary, Surviving Hitler: A Love Story, the truth really does boggle the mind.

Poster art for Surviving Hitler: A Love Story
Wasson's documentary relates the story of how a young German teenager joined the German resistance.soon after discovering that she would not be allowed to attend university because her mother was Jewish. It didn't take long for the pretty Jutta to fall in love with a handsome injured soldier named Helmuth Cords. Their relationship during wartime would be a powerful enough story on its own.  But Helmuth became one of the conspirators behind 1944's Operation Valkyrie (the infamous plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler).

Jutta in her 80s

What makes Wasson's documentary so touching is that Helmuth was an amateur filmmaker whose 8-mm home movies (including footage from the German home front) survived Germany's destruction under Hitler's rule. Whether shooting footage of Jutta in a bathing suit, sipping coffee, or reading a book, his 8-mm films glow with the strength and optimism of young people in love.

Wasson's film relates the tale of the Jewish political refugee given shelter in Jutta's home, her incredible courage in confronting Nazi officers after her parents had been arrested, and her harrowing separation from Helmuth following the failed attempt on Hitler's life. Even though Jutta and Helmuth's history unravels like the pages of a thriller, this is one of the rare films about Jews in wartime Germany that has a happy ending. One month after Germany's surrender to Allied forces, Helmuth and Jutta were the first couple to be married in Berlin.

Surviving Hitler: A Love Story is a fascinating film that will educate and entertain, often leaving its viewers shocked and awed by Jutta and Helmuth's courage, pluck, and phenomenal luck. This documentary packs more into 66 minutes than some filmmakers put into movies that are twice as long. Here's the trailer:

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When ballet fans think about dancers who have defected to the West in order to enjoy greater artistic freedom, the first names that usually come to mind are Russian superstars Rudolf Nureyev (who defected in1961), Natalia Makarova (who defected in 1970), and Mikhail Baryshnikov (who defected in 1974). Li Cunxin's defection from Communist China in 1981 became a focal point of the dancer's deeply moving 2003 autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer (now in its 32nd printing), in which he described a childhood filled with hunger and crushing poverty. One day, the 11-year-old Li was plucked out of a cold classroom and, in an unbelievable twist of fate, recruited to study at Madame Mao's rigorous Beijing Dance Academy.

Chengwu Guo as the teenage Li Cunxin in Mao's Last Dancer
Cunxin's beautifully written autobiography (a wonderful reading experience)  has been transformed into a movie of immense appeal by director Bruce Beresford. As it heads into theatres, Mao's Last Dancer does a beautiful job of depicting the culture shock experienced by a young dancer who, after studying and performing with the Houston Ballet, realized that the authorities in China had been lying to him about America.

In many ways, his sense of wonder is similar to that of basketball superstar Yao Ming, whose story was captured in a thrilling 2004 documentary entitled Year of the Yao.The big difference in the two men's stories is that, in the two decades between their births, China underwent a major transformation that has turned the world's most populous country into a modern superpower.
Poster art for Mao's Last Dancer
Cunxin was first discovered by Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet.who was part of the first American cultural delegation to tour Communist China. Stevenson managed to negotiate a cultural exchange for Li, which led to the young dancer becoming a beloved star of the Houston arts scene.

The story of Li's artistic growth, the political firestorm caused by his defection, and his eventual reunion with his parents (who had been shamed by his defection under the previous regime, but were allowed to travel to Houston to see him perform as China's diplomatic relations with the United States improved) will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. While dance fans may be closely monitoring the performances by the Australian Ballet's Chengwuo Guo as the teenage Li, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Chi Cao as the adult Li, as well as San Francisco Ballet's Amanda Schull as Li's first wife (Elizabeth Mackey) and Camilla Vergotis as his second wife, Mary McKendry, this is the kind of film that requires several handkerchiefs.

Chi Cao as Li Cunxin and Camilla Vergotis as Mary McKendry in Mao's Last Dancer
While Cunxin (who is now a financial planner and motivational speaker living in Melbourne, Australia) could certainly pitch his life story as a rags-to-riches tale, Mao's Last Dancer has much more to do with an artist's need to have the freedom to express himself, develop his craft, and grow into his identity. As the director, Bruce Beresford, explains:
"You could describe the film as another rags to riches story (and there have been lots of them in the history of movies). But, in this case, the rags were somewhat more extreme because Li Cunxin came from a background of incredible deprivation in a totalitarian country. To try and get out of that background and achieve world fame as a dancer is monstrously difficult. But he achieved it against the most staggering odds.
The village that Li Cunxin came from was a difficult location to find because when we went to where he really grew up, it had now been absorbed by the city of Tsingtao. The little houses had all been demolished and everyone had been rehoused in apartment blocks. Then we found a village about 100 kilometers or so outside of Beijing in the mountains, which was very picturesque. It, too, was more or less abandoned, but it was exactly what we needed for the film. With a few additions via the art department, it served for the home village." 
Mao's Last Dancer also benefits from a solid cast of supporting actors, including Bruce Greenwood as Ben Stevenson, Kyle McLachlan as Li's attorney, Ben Foster, Joan Chen as Li's mother, Wang Shuang bao as his father, Gang Jiao as Teacher Gao, and Penne Hackforth Jones as ballet patron Cynthia Dodds. Here's the trailer:

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