“CLIMAX”— A Hell of a Dance Party


A Hell of a Dance Party

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” starts with an intimation of a bygone horror. Lou (Souheila Yacoub) walks through snow, hugging her bloodied midsection until she falls. She seems to be a dedication, and brings to mind a child in utero. The film brigs together ecstasy and agony as we understand that she died while miscarrying.

Lou desperately proclaims her innocence after it’s discovered that a member of her dance troupe  who spiked their communal sangria with LSD. Inside a building in the middle of nowhere, this racially and sexually diverse crew of dancers and others gather to rehearse a routine that attests to the possibility of a new social order. The choreography of their first rehearsal reflects the structure of the music.

The film arrives at a message about how all incivility isn’t equal—how biases in eye of the beholder. As these young men and women increasingly lose themselves to the effects of LSD, the camera anchors itself capturing everything.

The camera itself feels as if it’s slowly experiencing the effects of a drug. Early on, Noé happily cedes the stage to his characters, shooting them from above as they take turns plying their signature moves before capping the spectacle with a montage of the names of the dancers, as well as the musicians on the soundtrack. And then the camera becomes increasingly one with the dancers and the music, as in the film’s most extraordinary sequence, which locks on to the group’s de facto leader, Selva (Sofia Boutella), as if in a trance, following her as she submits to the throes of a Possession-inspired freak-out, and all the way to her collecting herself and walking past Taylor (Taylor Kastle) as he contorts his body into what seems like an optical illusion. The ultimate gag—no, masterstroke—of Noé’s career may be this perfect communion between his art and that of these bodies: a thrilling expression of the fear that to stop moving is to undo the social fabric of the world.

“Climax” is as much a full-on party as it is a piece of cinema. Depicting a group of dancers having a celebration that descends into full-on chaos, this is the cinematic equivalent of a drug experience.

It begins in the mid-90s, and a group of dancers have just finished a long few days of rehearsals ahead of their big trip to America. With the exception of one Russian and one German girl — the latter ironically here to get away from the Berlin drug scene — everyone else is French.

There are a lot of characters, and they fade into one other in one of the opening scenes, a fantastic one-take dance rehearsal that becomes the start of the party. To distinguish each from one another, we are introduced to these people via VHS audition. \ Despite working hard all day, most of the group are still full of energy. We observe them talking about who they want to have sex with, and how they want to have that sex. It looks like the movie might just be an orgy, but things start to go terribly wrong once it becomes evident someone slipped drugs into the sangria. 

“Climax” is effortlessly enjoyable and has moments of brutal comic value. It portraysa descent into a hellish state after its divinely physical first half. With boundary-pushing sex-and-drugs fixation and a vital presentation of wildly exuberant dance and movement, the film is seductive in its rhythms and bold visualization of the young dancers. There is a lot of dance that is filmed in ways that mesmerize — straight on and from above in bold and mobile compositions, fresh and colorful and expressive of the often extreme positions and exertions of the performers.

The throbbing techno music is lulling and addictive and a lot of choreography looks like it started out as dance party moves.  The first 45 minutes end with a bang and sense of aesthetic fulfillment. Then, many of the dancers seem to spiral to an unnaturally achieved low. The good vibes are gone, something is off. They are mostly women, suffering miserably, writhing around in great pain. There’s a lot of finger-pointing about someone having spiked the drinks and victims seem like they would rather die than keep enduring the pain. The heaven of the film’s first half becomes hell in the second.

Noe gives us an artful picture of an earthly creative paradise followed by a fall into physical torment. His way of doing this is bold, visceral and simple. The fluid, flowing camerawork and nuanced musical choices play major roles in achieving the film’s goals.

This is controversial brio film-making, perhaps admirable in its way. It is very strong stuff, with disturbing content involving a combination of drug use, violent behavior and strong sexuality, as well as strong language and some graphic nudity.

“Hail Satan?”— Taking Down the Media

“Hail Satan?”

Taking Down the Media

Amos Lassen

 “Hail Satan?”, the documentary directed by Penny Lane, shows how media savvy can turn a fledgling protest into an international cause célèbre. It proves that a grassroots movement founded with an oppositional mindset can be both optimistic and politically productive. Through original, borrowed, and archival news footage, the film looks at the Satanic Temple, beginning  comedically as Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, orchestrates a protest outside the Florida state capitol in 2013. A member calls the media to promote the event (“The Satanic Temple. S, as in Sam.”), someone in a grim reaper outfit passes by and walks up a staircase. Irony continues at the scantly attended rally, where a hired actor representing the group repeatedly yells “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott,” referring to the Florida governor who was then supporting a bill allowing schoolchildren to share messages promoting their faith during assemblies.

The protest has a large impact in the media and in local politics, a theme that Lane hits repeatedly and with restraint. After the rally, Greaves fires his fake spokesman and reluctantly becomes the face of the Satanic Temple; though he claims that he didn’t want to be the face of the group but he was needed to be its voice. In “supporting” a bill intended to bolster the place of Christianity in public life, Greaves asserts his freedom of religion to support the devil.

This terrifies the religious right enough to force them to backtrack legislation that would serve to blur the separation between church and state. This is, for Greaves and his group, a remarkable feat of activism and rhetoric, and Greaves’s calm, clearly argued statements anger the media and attract tens of thousands of followers. Some are disillusioned Jews and Christians, others are just happy unaffiliated  people, and others are drawn to the Satanic Temple’s broader efforts to promote religious pluralism and combat other strains of extremism.

Lane documents the temple’s growth with talking-head interviews (a few, amusingly, feature horn-wearing members blacked out in silhouette to preserve their anonymity) and visits to local chapters around the country. Most provocative is the Detroit church, led by Jex Blackmore, who takes the group’s adversarial nature to feminist extremes. Greaves isn’t above bold activities, gaining attention by setting up a protest of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps wherein same-sex couples make out over the grave of Phelps’s dead mother. However, as the group’s membership grows, such activities become more cautious.

One of the problems here, however, is that he innerworkings of the Satanic Temple are unfortunately a bit oblique, and the film too often feels like an ad for the group. Late in the film, Blackmore is excommunicated from the temple after calling for the assassination of Donald Trump. Lane uses this to show how many large movements must moderate to preserve their popularity. We do not see any of the Satanic Temple’s debates or learn how the group is financed.

During the second-half of the film, we see a a single, factory-issued right-wing public representative, Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert. As Rapert tries to install a monument of the Ten Commandments on capitol grounds, Greaves and his followers propose an accompanying statue of their patron saint Baphomet, a winged goat sitting on a throne. The film shows how both provocateurs play to the media’s appetite for extreme imagery and debate but we hear this over and over.

The film also looks at the group itself, its beginnings, its desire for more political action than its predecessors, and what exactly Satanists believe in. This is something of a portrait of a rising cultural phenomenon that is fun, subversive, and dares to look head-on at American Christian culture and point out its hypocrisy and deceptions.

The United States constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and so the group takes their activism to the courts, fighting local and state governments when they seek to impose Christian theocracy, either through prayers in the legislature, or the 10 Commandments on government property. The group is diverse; made up of all races, gender identities, socio-economic classes. Some are from atheist backgrounds, others were devote Christians.

The Satanic Temple is about  political activism, the creation and maintenance of a community, and patriotism. Supposedly, the Satanic Temple is dedicated to the preservation of secular humanist values, most definitely including the separation of church and state.

At times this documentary risks becoming too obvious while at others, it looks for the mistakes people make in assuming things to be obvious and this is what makes it work.

TARGET: PHILADELPHIA”— A Look at Inequality


A Look at Inequality

Amos Lassen

In 1985, the MOVE bombing by Philadelphia police, in which cops killed five black children, we saw the rise of police militarization in the parallel context of black nationalism. “Target Philadelphia” sheds light on structural inequality as it pertains to the African American experience. The film clarifies and contrasts the inherent differences between what is held as the collective American immigrant perception of history with African American history, an inescapably alternative perspective on our nation as a whole that fundamentally questions the veracity of American exceptionalism.

We see the rise of police militarization within the parallel contexts of Black nationalism and the systemic disenfranchisement that brings about movements such as Black Lives Matter. The veracity of American exceptionalism is examined from a targeted perspective. In just 56 minutes, we see “an inflammatory, violent and somewhat forgotten moment in American history.” 

This is a must-see documentary for any advocate of social justice.


“THANKS TO HANK”— An Unsung Hero of the AIDS Epidemic


An Unsung Hero of the AIDS Epidemic

Amos Lassen

Director, writer and producer Bob Ostertag’s “Thanks to Hank” is the inspirational story of a true unsung hero of the gay liberation movement and the AIDS epidemic that followed—Hank Wilson. Wilson is unknown to many, but beloved by those whose lives he touched. He Hank was a behind-the-scenes activist who, with uncompromising zeal and pathos, radically altered LGBTQ+ life and rights in the Bay Area especially for queer youth in the early days of AIDS.

Through archival footage, animation, and interviews with collaborators and friends (Tom Ammiano, Lea DeLaria, Donna Lisa Stewart, Gerry Kirby, and Blackberri to name a few), we see the impacts of Hank’s efforts that we still feel today in AIDS service and queer youth organizations, cultural outlets, and local politics.

The documentary spans forty years of Hank’s work that was focused on the most marginalized in the community. We learn about Hank’s legacy and come to love his nature. He was a “selfless man…who neither judged nor discriminated. He helped, he made a difference… he took on everything, whether it was housing, support, respect, respite, remembrance…or, holding a hand when the last breath leaves. He did it. He did it all…and, now, his friends, pay their respects.”

Lea DeLaria tells us that during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, “the gay community let the gay community down…people turned their backs. Hank Wilson didn’t.”

“FACING FEAR”— An Unlikely Partnership


An Unlikely Partnership

Amos Lassen

American filmmaker Jason Cohen’s documentary is the story of the unlikely partnership between former neo Nazi Tim Zaal and Matthew Boger, who Zaal and his friends had badly beaten when the teenaged Boger was living on the streets of Hollywood. Because Boger was gay, he had been thrown out of his family by his religious mother. Now in their 40s, they have made an accidental re-meeting and their horrific past connection into a lesson for others about the possibility of forgiveness, and a warning about how difficult it can be to escape one’s past. As these men tell their painful stories, it is chilling, powerful and profound.

“Facing Fear” is also exploitative, but it’s a knowing and aware exploitation in a sense of the word that’s neutral in terms of value: Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal know that they have a story that may change people’s lives for the better. In the early 1980s, Zaal was a neo-Nazi punk who nearly beat Boger to death, only to meet twenty-odd years later while both worked in the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles  and they exploit it. Cohen interviews the pair separately and showing the joint talks they give at museum and he also integrates other material.

It’s a great story. Boger and Zaal are both engaging people, and Cohen balances the short film .However, we never really absorb the details of his story, and Cohen’s decision to shoot the two separately (for the most part) means that there are mixed messages about what sort of friendship they have now.

While this is an inspiring story, to be sure, it’s held back by a “very special episode” sensibility. The movie always makes it absolutely clear how the viewer is supposed to feel, no matter how strong the material is on its own.

Thiscould have been an interesting exploration on the power of forgiveness but the two men’s interview segments seem overly rehearsed.

“EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: THE STORY OF FIRE SAGA”— A Very Funny Crash Course on Eurovision


A Very Funny Crash Course on Eurovision

Amos Lassen

Lars (Will Farrell) is from Iceland and has been obsessed with Eurovision since he was a little boy. (For those of you who do not know since we do not have Eurovision in this country: it’s an annual international song competition, held every year since 1956, with participants from many of the 50 eligible countries (confusingly, some eligible countries are not European, and one is not even a country). Like the Olympics, each country holds internal trials and sends their best delegation to the competition, where an original song is to be performed on live TV and radio. Then people vote on their favorite. Countries cannot vote for themselves; each country awards two sets of points, one set decided by a panel of music industry experts, and the second decided by viewers voting by phone and text. Occasionally the winner achieves success outside of the broadcast area; in 1974 Abba won for Sweden. Celine Dion won for Switzerland. You don’t have to be from the country you’re representing. Some people compete multiple times by singing for different countries. There are a lot of politics. Russia won’t vote for queer performers and China won’t even show them. Jordan won’t show Israeli entries because they don’t recognize it as a country, and neither does Lebanon. Neighboring countries tend to vote for each other; geographical and even political alliances pop up, and reciprocal votes are exchanged. There is a lot of finagling of votes. 2020 was to be the show’s 65th anniversary, with this film’s release set to coincide with it. However, COVID had other plans, and for the first time, the contest was cancelled.

Lars who fell in love with Eurovision the day he first heard Abba sing “Waterloo” and win the contest. Now, many years later, Lars is now a middle-aged man and dreams of participating in and winning the contest. is the same. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has never approved of his obsession and still does not and is even more critical of his son’s “wasted life.” But his Fire Saga bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) has more than enough enthusiasm and encouragement and in their own heads, they’re already stars even though many do not agree. They’ll never get sent to compete on Eurovision on their own merits, but luckily something happens to tie up literally every other singer-songwriter in the country.

They go to the contest in Scotland they go where they really do not fit and there are several bizarre on-stage theatrics (which apparently are also a real thing – it’s a visual medium, and performers do their utmost to stand out). Iceland becomes basically the laughing stock of Eurovision.

I, personally, love Eurovision with all of its stchick and camp. When I lived in Israel, the country literally shut down when Eurovision was on television and often family feuds erupted as people took sides for their favorites. It was kind of like Oscar Night or the Superbowl in America.

Lars not dreams of Eurovision succession but also of  the approval of his father and obstacles create the story. I don’t remember when Iceland joined Eurovision, but the eastward expansion of the Eurovision broadcast group (today there’s more to Eurovision than the Song Contest…) changed the politics markedly.

The film is entertaining, sublime and ridiculous. It is genuine fun but you must suspend belief. While the film isn’t quite a substitute for the real thing, you will find yourself having a good time watching it.

Lars and Sigrit representing Iceland in the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest are awful. They are, of course, dreadful – – so they should fit right in and their way is blocked by the immensely talented Katiana (Demi Lovato). Now you must understand that the Eurovision Song Contest is so crazy that it is almost impossible to spoof. Nonetheless writers Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele do a great job as does director David Dobkin

 Rachel McAdams is wonderful as a comic lead. So is Dan Stevens as Lemtov,  a Russian ‘Tom Jones’-like contestant singing “Lion of Love” (“Let’s get together; I’m a lion lover; And I hunt for love!“). There are also several wonderful cameo performances

The film makers really do a wonderful job making the music so fitting. Some of the tracks make you think  that there are songs you might vote for. This is a comedy that makes us laughwith humor that isconsistently amusing.

Every number on and off the stage is a filled with sequins, pyrotechnics, and death-defying props, and every song is ridiculously upbeat. This is no place for ballads. The fondness for the competition translates to laughs with, rather than at, its biggest acts and fans. Not everything makes sense but  inaccuracies do not affect the overall enjoyment.

“Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South” by Sue Eisenfeld— Nine Southern States

Eisenfeld, Sue. “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South”,  Mad Creek Books, 2020.

Nine Southern States

Amos Lassen

Having been born and raised Jewish in the South, I have always been curious to read others’ experiences so I was very anxious to read Sue Eisenfeld’s “Wandering Dixie”. To write her book, Eisenfeld traveled to nine states to uncover the history of Jewish southerners and how it deals with the South’s complex, conflicted present. She discovered the unexpected ways that race, religion, and hidden histories intertwine. Sheexplores the small towns where Jewish people once lived and thrived including the site of her distant cousin and civil rights activist Andrew Goodman’s murder during 1964’s Freedom Summer. She spoke with the only Jews remaining in some of the “lost” places, from Selma to the Mississippi Delta to Natchitoches and visited areas where these is no Jewish community left. She followed her curiosity about Jewish Confederates and looked at early southern Jews’ participation in slavery. Her journey became one of revelation about this country’s fraught history as well as a personal reckoning with the true nature of America.

For many,the idea of ​“south­ern Jews” was almost an oxy­moron, and the idea that Jews could bemembers of the Confederacy was something beyond the realm of thought. Jews were left­ists, refugee immi­grants to the north­east in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. If they went to the South, it was to participate in civ­il rights march­es or vot­er reg­is­tra­tion drives.

But when Eisen­feld later moved from her native Philadel­phia to Vir­ginia, she began attending Civ­il War reen­act­ments, muse­ums, and old ceme­ter­ies (out of her love for history) and  she found grave­stones for ante­bel­lum Jews. She learned that Jewsindeed lived in the South, and had done so for a very long time. Since so much of Judaism is based on the con­cept of social jus­tice, why would a Jew live in a region that was filled with injustice of all kinds.

Looking for answers, she embarked on a journey of a series of road trips to a vari­ety of his­toric sites in the South. She went to Rosen­wald schools, peanut fac­to­ries, build­ings that used to be syn­a­gogues or Jew­ish-owned busi­ness­es. She visited ceme­ter­ies and noticed how they were often divid­ed into white, Black, and Jew­ish sec­tions and  whether or not non-Jew­ish spous­es were buried along­side their Jew­ish part­ners showed a mea­sure of assim­i­la­tion. Eisen­feld shows that con­form­ing to the dom­i­nant cul­ture meant sur­vival and pros­per­i­ty for south­ern Jews. She saw that Jews ate  and served shrimp and ham sta­ples and that the tem­ple in Hele­na, Arkansas served a big lun­cheon on Yom Kippur.

In Sel­ma, Alabama Eisen­feld found Jews who did not care for the inter­fer­ence of north­ern Jews, since this could threat­en their sense of secu­ri­ty. The famous Sel­ma march was joined by rab­bis from all over the coun­try but not from the  South. Eisen­feld toured the man­sions of Jew­ish Charleston plan­ta­tion own­ers, ask­ing, how many Jews owned slaves adjoined the Con­fed­er­ate Army and fought for the South’s right to own slaves. She was curious to learn where do south­ern Jews stand on the cur­rent debate about Con­fed­er­ate monuments.

She listened and she heard well even when what was said disturbed her.  She attempted to be non-judg­men­tal when she asked ques­tions or writes about his­to­ry that peo­ple shouldn’t need to be remind­ed about but unfortunately she is not always successful. It is very difficult to be objective about Southern Jewry unless you are a Southern Jew.

Eisen­feld’s journey changed her and she started reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers where she lives and dri­ving peo­ple to the polls. She adapted a social jus­tice Hag­gadah for her family’s Seder— just as my family did and she certainly could have found Jewish Southern families who engaged heavily in social justice had she looked further. She proves that more study is necessary before blanked statements can be made. I believe that her dependence on personal reflection influenced her writing to the point that in some cases, subjectivity was thrown out. This is where a scholar could have done some real work. Unfortunately, I did not find “a beautifully nuanced and moving portrait of acceptance and accountability” that another reviewer found. While her“stories provide many revealing tidbits for those who enjoy self-reflective historical writing”, this is not scholarship but personal opinion.

Indeed the prose is beautiful and highly readable but I found the reckoning to be unsatisfactory and too colored by the author’s own past and her having been raised as a non-observant Jew. I believe it is necessary to understand all aspects of Judaism before attempting to describe it to others.

What really bothered me and I state emphatically that I have nothing but ill-feelings for the President of this country is that the author used her book on Southern Jewry to express her dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with the present administration. Here was a chance to do something new and interesting and it is a pity that Ms. Eisenfeld lost that edge because of personal rant.

By the way, The Jewish South is not lost and is alive and thriving. In the interest of  BLM, it might be an idea to replace the word “Dixie” in the title.

“The Drive” by Yair Assulin— To the Breaking Point

Assulin, Yair. “The Drive”, New Vessel Press; Reprint edition, 2020.

To The Breaking Point

Amos Lassen

Originally published in Israel in 2011 in Hebrew, Yair Assulin’s “The Drive” (translated by Jessica Cohen) is the story of the journey of a young Israeli soldier  who is at the breaking point and unable to continue carrying out his military service. He is terrified of the consequences of leaving the army. As the soldier and his father drive to meet with a military psychiatrist, the author penetrates the torn world of the hero. His journey is not just that of a young man facing a crucial dilemma, but we are taken on a tour of the soul and depths of Israeli society and of those everywhere who resist regimentation and violence. The soldier is tired of being forced to be part of a larger collective, yet does not know if he is can fulfill a yearning for an existence free of politics, the news cycle and the imperative of perpetual battle-readiness―without risking the respect of those he loves most. This is a story of an urgent personal quest to reconcile duty, expectations and individual instinct.

Since the publication in Israel, Yair Assulin, has become a con­se­quen­tial voice in Israel through his reg­u­lar col­umn in the lib­er­al news­pa­per “Haaretz”. “The Drive” is an intense work that gives a point of view on Israeli life that is unfa­mil­iar and sur­pris­ing to non-Israelis.

The soldier/nar­ra­tor is an unnamed young man doing his required ser­vice in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is tor­tured internally and deeply dis­sat­is­fied with his assign­ment in an army intel­li­gence unit and is impelled almost to the point of self-harm. His requests for a change of assign­ment have been reject­ed by his supe­ri­or offi­cers. The nov­el traces his thoughts as he dri­ves with his father from Haifa to Tel Hashomer Hos­pi­tal in order to see a men­tal health offi­cer who he hopes will pro­vide him with a way out.

The story gives us a ver­sion of the eter­nal con­flict between the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety. Israel requires its young to serve in a mil­i­tary that val­ues con­for­mi­ty just at the same time when they wish for inde­pen­dence, and the nar­ra­tor gives a harsh indict­ment of what is usu­al­ly regard­ed as one of Israel’s crown­ing achieve­ments: a demo­c­ra­t­ic and egal­i­tar­i­an nation­al ser­vice. Beyond the ide­al­is­tic pro­pa­gan­da that the soldier feels is a soul-crush­ing expe­ri­ence. He rejects the val­ues of mil­i­tary ser­vice as ​“a big show,” and finds ​“all the talk about pro­tect­ing the home­land and giv­ing back to the coun­try to be the emp­ty rhetoric of peo­ple seek­ing respect”. He remembersthe lieu­tenant colonel in his unit  from years earlier as a piti­fully poor sub­sti­tute teacher. He is also crit­i­cal of the role of the army in what Israelis refer to as the sit­u­a­tion” that was brought about by Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Pales­tini­ans’ resis­tance. The sense of futil­i­ty evoked by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this is seen by his main assign­ment in his unit: lam­i­nat­ing maps of West Bank towns.

We wonder if he is moti­vat­ed by gen­uine feel­ings of dis­gust at a cor­rupt sys­tem or is he, like many peo­ple his age, react­ing vis­cer­al­ly to hyp­ocrites and fakes?  The soldier sees him­self as a lone truth-teller while every­one else exploits the sys­tem to inflate their ego or to gain some advan­tage. He is also some­what of an odd­ball in his unit because he is reli­gious­ly obser­vant. We question whether the pro­tag­o­nist is a reli­able nar­ra­tor or, whether he is, as his loy­al and long-suf­fer­ing father com­ments toward the end of the nov­el, ​“real­ly … a bit of a narcissist.”

These two pos­si­bil­i­ties are held in ten­sion through the short novel, and it is difficult to decide where is the truth here.  The novel reveals facets of mod­ern Israeli cul­ture not usu­al­ly known out­side of Israel. The story also speaks to the ongoing short comings of the mental health industry. The soldier’s reaction is puzzling unless there are pre-existing mental health issues. Some will see this story as military service being primary over mental health He, himself is not a sympathetic character in that he petulant, self-absorbed, and immature. Going into a military setting is not going to be good for someone with his personality. He doesn’t do well with authority or with change and he’s completely unable to explain or express himself in a way that others can understand. Sometimes I believed him, other times I felt it was dishonest.

However, at the mental health office, the story rings true. Everyone tried to talk him out of it, (including his parents), and point out the life-long stigma attached to this choice. How he’s treated when he finally gets there is horrible.

Having served in the Israeli Defense Forces and often doing menial jobs, I can understand his displeasure.  His mental conflict feels like what we are going through now. Can we take a break from the news cycle, from being perpetually battle-ready, from speaking, writing, reacting and just spend a morning reading good literature?

The soldier’s feelings of unease and the irreconcilable space between soldier and commander hit home for me more than once in this unexpected story of resistance to military life. But the most important part of this book may be in its exploration of how impossible the mentally healthy find it to participate in the journey of the mentally ill. All in all this is a powerful and compelling look inside the mind of a young man as “he struggles to find his way in life and balance the expectations of his family, romantic partner, and country with his own troubled sense of who he is.”

“THE TOBACCONIST” (“DER TRAFIKANT”)— Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II


Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II

Amos Lassen

“The Tobacconist” stunningly recreates the late 1930s in Vienna as it captures the tensions in the Austrian capital on the eve of Hitler’s takeover. It is also a coming-of-age story and an intriguing portrayal of Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz).

The film opens far from Vienna, in the beautiful lakeside community of Attersee where we see a spectacular lightning storm. The scene is surreal. Franz (Simon Morze), happens upon his mother and her latest lover having passionate sex outdoors as the storm threatens. When her lover is struck by lightning, Franz’s mother sends Franz to Vienna to get a job with a tobacconist, who happens to be another of her former lovers. The boy starts working as an apprentice to Otto (Johannes Krisch) who is a cynical but generous man. He lost a leg in the First World War and is welcoming to all customers, including Communists and Jews. One of his favored patrons is Dr. Sigmund Freud who loved cigars..

Franz eventually seeks out Freud for advice on his love life. Franz is intensely attracted to Anezka (Emma Drogunova), a woman who just may be a prostitute but certainly has numerous lovers. The Freudian underpinnings of this romance are obvious; Franz is clearly attracted to a woman who reminds him of his promiscuous mother. Franz approaches the good doctor for romantic counsel. Freud is supportive but has other more pressing concerns with the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna.

The film balances the personal and political stories. There are powerful scenes depicting the growing violence in Vienna, especially after the Nazis take over the city and arrest Otto. Franz’s personal story includes imaginatively rendered nightmares. The characterizations and performances are strong with Morze is vibrant as Franz, and Krisch just right as the uncompromising tobacconist. Ganz’s Freud is wise and vulnerable at the same time.

Cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer and production designer Bertram Reiter bring time and place alive. The film is based on Robert Seethaler’s best-selling novel of the same name. Director Nikolaus Leytner gives us a coming-of-age historical drama set in Nazi-occupied Vienna that follows teenager Franz as apprentice of Otto at his shop. As he settles into the community, he falls in love with dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova) and befriends Freud (Bruno Ganz) who gives him words of wisdom as Franz experiences vivid dreams.

Each of Franz’s friendships are depicted with great resonance, creating compelling pockets of intimacy that develop within the overarching political landscape of a country on the eve of World War II.

 While Freud isn’t at the center of the  story, but he is pivotal in the film’s thematic exploration of psychoanalysis. Director  Leytner achieves an unusually understated tone for a project that spans a multitude of complex topics.  The ‘smoking all hours’ cigar shop environment is almost microcosmic of a snapshot of history that’s captured so masterfully, and the film lures us into a satisfyingly cinematic Freudian thought. The film isimpressive in its exploration of European history, its depiction of human relationships and coming of age, and its visual style.

“The Arrest” by Jonathan Lethem— When It’s Over

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Arrest: A Novel”. Ecco, 2020.

When It’s All Over

Amos Lassen

What happens when all that we have taken for granted no longer works? This is the basic idea behind Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, “The Arrest”. Before the Arrest, Sandy Duplessis had a good life as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.  An old college friend and writing partner, the Peter Todbaum, had become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. But now, post-Arrest, nothing is what it was. Sandy, who calls himself Journeyman, is in rural Maine where he assists the butcher and delivers the food grown by his sister, Maddy, at her organic farm.

Surprisingly, Todbaum shows up in an extraordinary vehicle: a retrofitted tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor. We learn Todbaum has spent the Arrest crossing the fragmented country and has now come back to the brother and sister with unclear motives.  In the world, everything has stopped and even though we do not know why, it is really not important. What is important is that this is not the world we knew. Nonetheless, the past lives in memories even if we do not want it to do so.The timid and introverted Journeyman is always one step behind, and not in control of his own destiny. He has a problem with Peter Todbaum who is bothersome and manipulative with whom h shares a strange relationship. Peter’s presence in the Journeyman’s life threatens to turn his post-apocalyptic paradise into a show.

With Todbaum’s return, we wonder if everything has “re-begun”. He seems to be something of a ticking bomb. We don’t know much more than that something happened to turn off all electrical equipment and break almost all appliances. Sandy Duplessis’s life has changed from being  a script doctor to a butcher’s assistant/delivery person living in his sister’s commune-like town in rural Maine. We move back and forth from his present circumstances to his life in Hollywood working for Peter Todbaum. They began as colleagues but then Peter made it huge and Sandy just worked for him. Now Todbaum shows up in town with a nuclear powered impossible super car and things happen.

Lethem is an amazing character developer. He has created the kind of characters that are unforgettable. He has also created a world that surprisingly, people want to live in even though it is not a happy place.

This is a strange but fascinating read. Whatever happened is of no real importance and we really only care about the thoughts of the characters. The plot moves quickly as we read aboutunbalanced relationships as we await to learn about true intentions and what happens next.