Monday, August 14, 2017

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

In his 1726 satire entitled Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift described the Yahoos as "being filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver, who finds the calm and rational society of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms, greatly preferable." According to Wikipedia, "The Yahoos are primitive creatures obsessed with 'pretty stones' they find by digging in mud, thus representing the distasteful materialism and ignorant elitism Swift encountered in Britain. Hence the term 'yahoo' has come to mean 'a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person.'

With white supremacists foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs and anti-Semitism on the rise in the United States, it's hard to find a decent human being who can honestly claim to occupy high moral ground. The angry confrontations that flood the news all seem modeled on the hijinks one expects to witness at a televised professional wrestling event. The tragic confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia drew the following response from actor Michael Rapaport.

For those seeking solace as these disgusting events unravel (and will most likely continue), let me recommend three essays recently posted online.
Nearly ten years have passed since Chris Crocker uploaded his famous "Leave Britney Alone" video in September 2007. In case it's been crowded out of your memory by a certain orange-skinned celebrity (who hoped to be cast as the President of the United States in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!), take a good hard look at Crocker's video and ask yourself: With white supremacists proudly marching in demonstrations meant to intimidate and terrorize their fellow Americans -- and the elected President of the United States threatening to start a nuclear war with North Korea on Twitter -- can we all just take a moment to scream "Leave Burning Man alone!"

That's right. Leave Burning Man alone -- unless you can point to some people who, under the most trying circumstances, did what they considered to be "the right thing." People who risked their lives so that others might live. People who acted bravely without any thoughts of becoming a profile in courage.

* * * * * * * * *
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened the world premiere of a restored version of 1926's Silence, which had been produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian. As board member Robert Byrne relates:
“For decades, Silence was considered lost until last year, when a 35mm nitrate print surfaced in the collection of the Cinémathèque Française. It initially appeared complete, however, there was a significant difference between the length of the original American release (8 reels, 7,518 feet) and the surviving French version (6 reels, 5,033 feet). We found no definitive records such as the original film script or cutting continuity, but we did locate an original cue sheet for the music, censorship records, film reviews, and trade press synopses, as well as the 1924 play on which the film is based. All these sources indicate that the excised portion, from early in the film, involves a subplot of the saloon keeper, Mollie Burke, blackmailing thief Jim Warren into marrying her instead of Norma, the woman he loves. The entire episode is conveniently papered over in the French print by the single intertitle, 'Jim Warren spent six years abroad. When he returned ….' For ethical as well as practical considerations, this restored print does not attempt to explain the excised portion and represents the version distributed in France.”
Poster art for 1926's Silence

Max Marcin's play, Silence, premiered on November 12, 1924 at the National Theatre which, years later, would house the world premieres of Grand Hotel (1930), The Little Foxes (1939), Inherit the Wind (1955), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) as well as such popular musicals as Rent (1996), Newsies (2012), and War Paint (2017). The plot of Silence revolves around the mysterious past of Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) who, although sentenced to hang, has remained so stoic about his situation that his lawyer remains convinced of Warren's innocence.

Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) runs into his former blackmailer,
Millie Burke (Virginia Pearson), in a scene from 1926's Silence

The complicated plot involves a flaw in the marriage papers for Jim Warren and his first wife, Norma. When the money he gives her is stolen, Norma is tried as an accomplice and sent to jail. In order to free her, Jim must marry another woman. Convinced that she has been deserted by her husband, Norma succumbs to the overtures of the wealthy Phil Powers (Rockliffe Fellowes) and marries him. Years pass and, after Jim meets his biological daughter (also named Norma), the younger woman shoots the blackmailer who has been threatening to ruin her marriage. In order to protect her, Jim takes the blame and goes to jail in her place.

Jim Warren (H.B. Warner) comforts Norma Powers
(Vera Reynolds) in a scene from 1926's Silence

It takes awhile for the audience to grasp that Vera Reynolds plays both Norma Drake (Jim's first wife) and Norma Powers (their daughter). What's even more surprising is that Marcin's melodrama has a happy ending. In his program essay, David Kiehn explains that:
“The best plays of the theatrical stage in the 1910s and 1920s were adapted for movies. Anyone associated with the theater, famous or not, found that films could be their economic salvation. Cecil B. DeMille was one of the many struggling unknowns of the stage, overshadowed by his older brother (William) and parents (Henry and Beatrice), all successful playwrights. In 1924, DeMille struck out on his own, and looked to the theater to supply him with stories. Among them was Marcin’s Silence, about a career criminal refusing to speak of the murder he’s blamed for even as he awaits the hangman’s noose. The play was still touring on the theatrical circuit when DeMille bought the rights in May 1925 and signed Rupert Julian (who directed 1925's The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney) to direct Silence.”
Poster art for 1926's Silence

With the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanying the screening at the restored film at the Castro Theatre, Silence made a well-deserved comeback.

* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Sam Gabarski (who wrote his film's screenplay in collaboration with Michel Bergmann), Bye Bye Germany is set in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt. A small group of Holocaust survivors who desperately want to leave Germany in order to start their lives anew in America choose David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) to be their leader.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) and two friends conspire
to sell "French linens" in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Bermann grew up in a family of peddlers who taught him how to charm potential clients and build relationships that could lead to repeat sales. When Jews were forced out of business by the Nazis, the Bermann family ended up abandoning their elegant department store. However, unlike his siblings who had gone into the family business, David became an entertainer whose ability to tell jokes helped him to survive in a concentration camp.

Poster art for Bye Bye Germany

Like many Jews, David's sarcastic sense of humor proved to be one of his strongest survival skills. Whether telling an American that "We need the lies because life is otherwise unbearable" or reminding his friends that "Hitler is dead, but we're still alive!" he faces each day with the knowledge that, if nothing else, he is loved by a homely three-legged mutt that keeps following him around.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) is comforted by a
three-legged dog in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

While his close-knit group of friends are eager to make enough money to book passage across the Atlantic and leave Germany forever, David faces a peculiar challenge. For some inexplicable reason, his application for a business license has been rejected. After convincing one of his friends to apply for the license, David starts training his gang in the basics of peddling; teaching them how to sell linens that have been "made in Paris" to German housewives while pocketing a huge profit.

David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) shows his friend the finer
points of peddling linens in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Meanwhile, he has been meeting with a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 and has now returned to help process Holocaust survivors. Special agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) has reason to suspect David of being a Nazi collaborator, but has no knowledge how he earned that reputation. David's bizarre and closely-held secret is that, at one point, he was hired by an SS officer at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to teach Hitler the art of telling jokes in preparation for the Fuhrer's upcoming meeting with Benito Mussolini. As David explains: "This is a true story. And what is not quite true is true anyway."

David's gang of friends help to load linens into
their delivery truck in a scene from Bye Bye Germany

Not merry enough to be a caper film and not sober enough to seem like a documentary, Bye Bye Germany benefits immensely from Virginie Saint-Martin's cinematography, Veronique Sacrez's production design, and a musical score by Renaud Garcia-Fons. As each member of Bermann's group struggles to escape his past, some succumb to psychological pressures. Surprisingly, Bermann elects to remain in Germany for reasons he explains at the end of the film.

Bye Bye Germany is meant to entertain with biting humor rather than send audiences into a tailspin. Its success is due largely to Gabarski's direction and a cast filled with strong character actors. Here's the trailer:

No comments: