Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hell on Earth

First published in 1823 (and subsequently attributed to Clement Clarke Moore), A Visit From St. Nicholas claimed that "The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads....."  Not only has Christmas come and gone, all those sets and costumes for December's annual Nutcracker productions are now safely back in storage.

That leaves us facing hell on earth.
Orthodox Jewish children demonstrating on New Year's Eve in Jerusalem's
Mea Shearim neighborhood  (Photo by: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

With so much genuine pain in the world, it's always interesting to see how hell is portrayed by various segments of the entertainment industry. First, let's look at Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds performing the Devil's Funhouse sequence from 1955's Hit The Deck.

Next, there is the often-omitted Walpurgis Nacht ballet sequence from Charles Gounod's opera, Faust (seen here in a production from the Royal Opera).

While Christian evangelicals, intoxicated by the possibility of gaining political power, don't hesitate to suggest how they would make others obey their puritan standards, South Park's iconoclastic creative team suggests that instead of there being hell to pay, Satan might be pining for a kinder, gentler lifestyle.

Even though the San Francisco drag personality who billed himself as "Jesus Christ Satan, Crown Prince of Arcadia," has disappeared from sight, Satan has always had a fondness for Baghdad by the Bay. In this clip from the San Francisco Opera's 1989 production of Arrigo Boito's only opera, Mefistofele, Sam Ramey sings "Ecco il mondo" to pump some life into another orgy in hell.

People are not born hateful, nor does hatred come to them naturally. Prejudice is a learned behavior frequently used to rationalize the evil deeds performed in the name of religion ("My god is bigger than your god"), nationalism, or warped perceptions of elitism.  Unfortunately, it doesn't take much for partisan passions to foment to the point of pathology.
If money is indeed the root of all evil, then it's easy to understand why the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread so rapidly throughout the nation. In the following two clips from his documentary entitled Koch Brothers Exposed, Robert Greenwald shows exactly how corrupt businesses and billionaires have purchased political clout.

The old adage that "hell is other people" never loses its relevance. The idea that a person's health and well being may be compromised by arbitrary decisions made by people far removed from their situation has plagued generations from the Jews in ancient Egypt to the 100,000-plus innocent civilians who perished during the Iraq War.

This concept especially holds true for the cinematic genre known as Holocaust films. Two gut-wrenching films screened during the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are perfect examples.

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Even as you luxuriate in Piotr Śliskowski's gorgeous cinematography, Joanna will break your heart. Written and directed by Feliks Falk, the film is set in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II.

Joanna is the embodiment of the old adage that "no good deed goes unpunished." Falk's masterpiece of suspense begins as a young woman (Joanna Gryga) is nervously treating her seven-year-old daughter to a piece of cake in a restaurant one afternoon. Concerned by the prying questions from a man seated at a nearby table, she tells her child to go wait for her in the church across the street.

No sooner has the child stepped into the street than German troops raid the restaurant as part of a round up of Jews. The next morning, when Joanna (Urszula Grabowska) goes to church, she discovers Roza (Sara Knothe) hiding under one of the pews.

Recognizing the little girl (and realizing that Roza's mother is never coming back), Joanna must make a snap decision. Does she turn the child over to the Nazis or try to hide Roza in her apartment? Is she willing to risk her own life to save another?

Urszula Grabowski and Sara Knothe in Joanna

It's not like Joanna doesn't have problems of her own.
  • Her boyfriend, who left several years ago to become a soldier, has never returned. 
  • With the restaurant closed following the Nazi round up, she is struggling to find work.
  • Without being able to identify Roza's mother (who the child only knew as "Maman"), it's difficult for Joanna to help the young girl.
  • Joanna's landlady, Kaminska (Stanisława Celińska) is a nosy old bitch who relentlessly monitors the stairway in their building.
  • Although she does her best to keep Roza hidden, a Nazi officer (Joachim Paul Assböck) discovers Joanna's secret and forces her to become his mistress in exchange for protection.
  • When Joanna's parents (Halina Łabonarska and Leszek Piskorz) and her friends in the Polish underground resistance learn that she has been sleeping with the enemy, she is branded as a prostitute -- which gives Joanna's landlady the perfect opportunity to throw her out onto the streets.
Urszula Grabowska and Sara Knothe in Joanna

One of the Polish film directors who specializes in “The Cinema of Moral Anxiety,” Falk’s experience as a painter and a theater director are evident throughout Joanna. With a magnificent score by Bartłomiej Gliniak, this could easily become a favorite Holocaust film.

The good news is that you can watch Joanna in its entirety on YouTube. The bad news is that it is acted entirely in Polish, with no subtitles. But if you take 15 minutes to watch the first section of Joanna, you'll get a sense of how beautifully this film has been framed by its director, cinematographer, and composer  (you won't need to speak any Polish to understand what's happening).

Urszula Grabowska gives a riveting performance as the protagonist who, following her split second decision to help the abandoned Roza, cannot prevent her life from crumbling into ruin. Although Warsaw in winter looks dark and foreboding, Joanna glows with a terrified, desperate humanity that can't fail to touch your heart.

It may be a while before a DVD of Joanna with English subtitles gets an American distributor. In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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Last year's release of Sarah's Key brought a new focus on France's Vel' d'Hiv Roundup (in which more than 13,000 Parisian Jews were arrested on July 16-17, 1942 and forced to spend several days in the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium before being transported to the Drancy internment camp and, from there, to die in Auschwitz). A tremendous source of shame for France, the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup was largely made possible by Nazi sympathizers who were more than willing to facilitate the removal of French Jews in order to save their own hides.

Surprisingly, there are many factors that make The Round Up an even more compelling film than Sarah's Key. The most crucial one is that writer/director Roselyne Bosch (a former investigative journalist) was able to build her story on the memories of two Holocaust survivors: Jo Weisman and Annette Monod (the Red Cross nurse portrayed by Mélanie Laurent).

Poster art for The Round Up

As the film begins, the Jews living in Montmartre are seen going about their daily lives as they cope with anti-Semitic insults from strangers. Even though they are forced to wear yellow badges, they don't hesitate to mock Adolf Hitler.

In the Weismann family's apartment, young Jo (Hugo Leverdez) and his sister Rachel (Rebecca Marder) are helping their mother, Sura (Raphäelle Agogué) with household chores. Their father, Schumel (Gad Elmaleh), is an artist who works in his studio downstairs.

A young Jewish boy is seen playing in Montmartre
in the early moments of The Round Up

When the raids begin, sympathetic gentiles in the neighborhood do their best to alert their Jewish friends. Tati, the building manager (Catherine Allegret), has some especially poignant moments as panic grips the community.

The confusion, fear, and terror is palpable as Jews are taken from their homes and deposited in an  enclosed stadium whose bathroom facilities are crumbling. The scenes in the velodrome range from small moments of heroism to suicides as people begin to grasp the fate that awaits them. Some children try to pass the time in play; others become desperately ill. In her director's statement, Bosch writes:
"On the morning of the Round Up, 12,000 people disappeared by magic. In an occupied country they could only hide at their neighbors.  For my part, the fact that no images of the Round Up existed (aside from one picture of empty buses taken in front of the Vel’ d’Hiv’) upset me. The French railroads sent invoices to Berlin stating the cost of each Jewish person transported to the German frontier. Very young kids were found alongside the railroad tracks who were small enough to have been thrown out by their desperate parents -- but too small to remember their identities.  They were called the Children of the Ballast. 
Bicultural children who might have been persecuted…the children, I believe, made me look at the Second World War and the Holocaust from a different perspective. The Holocaust is precisely what makes the Second World War a very different war. For the first time adults specifically chose to harm children with one objective in mind: destroying them. It is unique in history on such a scale -- 1.5 million of them perished. It is one of the reasons I agreed to make this movie, wanting to do it from the children’s point of view.
I decided that my characters would never be passive. We have already seen too many times long lines of passive and accepting deportees. I wanted the public to understand throughout that one cannot revolt when guns are pointed at your own children."

Upon their arrival at Beaune-La-Rolande in Loiret, the Jews are methodically stripped of any dignity and systematically separated from their spouses and children. The anguish of the scenes (the film used 9,000 extras) is undeniable, especially when acts of cruelty are seen through young eyes that recognize the unfairness of the situation. No matter how much one of the Jewish doctors at Drancy (Jean Reno) tries to warn Annette not to become too close to the children, her level of denial is too high to understand what is being done to the Jews.

Bosch has gotten exceptionally fine performances from Mélanie Laurent and Jean Reno as the medical personnel trying, against all odds, to help the Jews. The two twins who portray Noe Zygler (Mathieu and Romain Di Concetto) are guaranteed to steal hearts with their child-like innocence. The faces of Hugo Leverdez (as the immensely appealing and precocious Jo Weismann) and French-Moroccan stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh (as his father) will haunt you long after the film's credits have left the screen.

Mr. Weismann (Gad Elmalah) is separated from his family
at the Drancy internment camp in The Round Up

Considering that only 25 of the 13,000 people sent to the camps in the July 1942 raids survived, the final moments of The Round Up are guaranteed to drain a viewer's tear ducts. Here's the trailer:

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