Category Archives: Film

“OLYMPIC PRIDE, AMERICAN PREJUDICE”— 1936 The Olympic Games

olympic-pride

“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice”

1936— The Olympic Games

Amos Lassen

Politics have always been a part of the Olympics and we certainly see that in the games of 1936 when the games were held in Berlin. At that time, Hitler tried to use the games to flatter the Third Reich. The United States sought to thwart him from doing so by having Black athletes as part of this country’s delegation. This is the basic idea of Deborah Riley Draper’s fascinating documentary, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice”. In 1936, racial politics played a major role, both domestically and abroad. There were efforts by the N.A.A.C.P. and New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York called for a boycott of the Games. Both the hurdler, Tidye Pickett, and the sprinter, Louise Stokes, had already endured prejudice at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Ralph Metcalfe Jr., the son of the 1932 and ’36 Olympian Ralph Metcalfe, says that the attitude that prevailed was, “Let’s get over there and dust those Germans, who think they’re better than us.”

oly1

The 18 black athletes were celebrities at the Games in Berlin and brought home eight gold medals, four alone for the runner Jesse Owens yet they found no celebrity status in the United States. In fact, one of the athletes could only get a job here as a street cleaner. Avery Brundage, the United States Olympic Association president, trusted the Nazis’ vow to include a Jew on their team (they reneged on this) and this country excluded the American Jews that were on the team right before a tack event at which Hitler was present.

oly3

 

History has forgotten our Black athletes save one. In 1936 America was racially divided and torn between boycotting Hitler’s Olympics or participating in the Third Reich’s grandest affair. The documentary follows 16 men and two women before, during and after their heroic experiences at the Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. These athletes represented a country that considered them second-class citizens and competed in a country that rolled out the red carpet in spite of an undercurrent of Aryan superiority and anti-Semitism.

oly2

The film uses newsreel material, newspaper articles, photographs, personal interviews and never-before-seen footage as well as resources from the personal archival collections of Olympians and organizations in both the U.S. and Germany. We feel the emotions brought about by the subjects and images displayed on the screen. Narrator Blair Underwood, however, shows a range of vocal emotions but I would have preferred that the story seemed came to us without a narrator as he seemed distracting.

oly4

 

Director Draper tells the story with family members, historians and athletes as talking heads. We realize how much history is not in the history books by watching this. Many things we’re purposely not taught about the achievements of great men & women of color in America.

oly5

I had no idea about the lows and triumphs of those who traveled to Germany to represent the United States and to make history for themselves. There is an interview with an elderly German woman now living in Brooklyn, who was a Jewish track and field star and barred from competition by Hitler. We learn of the controversy surrounding the relay race in which Owens and Metcalf replaced two Jewish athletes at the last minute, and then won a gold medal. The message of the documentary, however, is hopeful and by understanding what happened, we can eliminate prejudice and treat each other with respect in a world of social equality.

“THE CREEPING GARDEN”— Plasmodial Slime

the-creeping-garden

“The Creeping Garden”

Plasmodial Slime

Amos Lassen

“The Creeping Garden” examines the ground and a creeping world “beneath our feet where time and space are magnified and intelligence is redefined”. It explores the world of plasmodial slime mould as seen through the eyes of the fringe scientists, mycologists and artists who work with them. Biologists have overlooked plasmodial slime in the past but recently it has become the focus of research due to biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing and robot engineering. This research borders on the world of science fiction. This documentary takes us from the laboratory into its natural habitat and shows us these otherworldly life forms through time-lapse macro-cinematography that reveals hidden facets of the world around us.

creeping1

Artist and filmmaker Tim Grabham and author and film critic Jasper Sharp co-directed this film that is a unique exploration into the worlds of the observers and the observed. This plasmodial slime is a peculiar and obscure life form. We learn about it not only through the naturalist format, but also in the realms of science and art. Slime molds are forms of life that do not neatly fit into the animal or the plant kingdoms. It grows beneath our feet in the undergrowth of forests and we see that it resembles varieties of fungus that move around in search of food. We see scientists and science artists who are obsessed with that movement who follow the paths that the slime takes and we also go through the woods and research archives that show the wide range of shapes and colors slime molds can take. (At least 1,000 species have been identified.) “The Creeping Garden” quickly takes us into computing science and the arts, where researchers who use human-like robot head to visualize a mold’s health; we hear music generated by their activities and we see how mold’s growth patterns can be used to predict the growth of roadways between a nation’s major cities.

creeping3

 

As I watched this I could not help but ask myself why I was watching a movie about slime (something that most certainly not on my bucket list). The answer is obvious now—this is a fascinating film.

We meet Mary Field and F. Percy Smith, whose 1931 short “Magic Myxies” presents the evolution of slime molds through groundbreaking time-lapses. This adds some historical context and perspective to the film’s time-lapse photography of slime molds as they ripple, crawl and expand into bright yellow, gelatinous, membrane-like networks resembling blood vessels.

Artist Heather Barnett uses the “Physarum polycephalum” species to create wallpaper patterns and interactive art installations. She uses volunteers among visitors to the “Biodesign” exhibition at the New Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to simulate behaviors of slime molds. They connect to one another using yellow ropes and a kind of shackles.

creeping4

Eduardo Miranda, a computer music professor at Plymouth University in Britain, hooks up a Petri dish containing slime mold cultures to a piano to compose music. Klaus-Peter Zauner, a physical sciences and engineering researcher at the University of Southampton in Britain, allows slime molds to operate a circuit board on wheels. Ella Gale, a researcher at the University of the West of England in Bristol, uses data generated by slime molds to assign facial expressions to a disembodied robotic head. While many of the experiments seen seem to be supercilious, they are fun to watch.

Because of the mold’s eerie and almost otherworldly qualities, the film takes on the aura of an atmospheric sci-fi flick (through intricate sonic textures and cinematic lighting and compositions). This is what makes it more than a conventional nature documentary.

However, there are moments when it all feels gloomy like in the sequences featuring amateur scientist Mark Pragnell searching a forest for the organism. Pragnell just discusses personal thoughts and anecdotes on his obsession but he comes across as a man with a hobby. I see this as a science-fiction film that doesn’t contain an ounce of fiction.

creeping5

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

 

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original 2.0 audio (uncompressed on the Blu-ray)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Audio commentary by directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp
  • Biocomputer Music, a short film by Grabham on the first biocomputer music system, allowing a two-way musical dialogue between man and slime mould
  • Return to the Fungarium, a featurette revealing further treasures of the fungarium at Kew Gardens
  • Feeding Habits of Physarum, a featurette on the feeding preferences and dislikes of slime moulds
  • Three cinema iloobia short films: Milk (2009), Rotten (2012) and Paramusical Ensemble (2015)
  • Angela Mele’s animated slime moulds
  • Gallery
  • US theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two pieces of original artwork

THE CREEPING GARDEN SOUNDTRACK [Limited Edition Exclusive]

Bonus CD containing the rearranged soundtrack to The Creeping Garden by legendary producer and musician Jim O’Rourke

PLUS… FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the film by Jasper Sharp

“CINEMA PARADISO”— Youth, Friendship and the Movies

cinema-paradiso-poster

“Cinema Paradiso”

Youth, Friendship and the Movies

Amos Lassen

“Cinema Paradiso” has been quite an award winner— Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, five BAFTA Awards including Best Actor, Original Screenplay and Score, the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival and many more.

cinema1

The film is Giuseppe Tornatore’s homage to the cinema as seen through the story of Salvatore, a successful film director who comes home for the funeral of Alfredo, his old friend who was the projectionist at the local cinema throughout his childhood. His visit brings back memories of his first love affair with the beautiful Elena and all the high and lows that shaped his life come return as Salvatore reconnects with the community he left 30 years earlier.

This new edition from Arrow Films includes the original award-winning cut and the expanded Director’s Cut incorporating more of Salvatore’s back-story. It has been newly restored from the original negatives.

cinema2

The movie is presented as a memory piece. Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), now an internationally lauded film director, looks back on his childhood in postwar Sicily, where his life revolved around the local movie house, the Paradiso. We meet Salvatore as a child; see him in adolescence when he experiences first love with a local girl named Elena (Agnese Nano). Later, we see him in his early 50s when he comes back to Sicily returning home after many years to attend the funeral of the gruff old projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a father figure whose counsel changed his life.

The original “Cinema Paradiso” shows us a sense of nostalgia that director Tornatore brought to the film. There is a village priest in “Cinema Paradiso” who is the local cinema’s most faithful client. He comes to the Paradiso every week like to censor the films. As the old projectionist shows the movies to his audience of one, the priest sits with his hand poised over a bell and at every sign of carnal excess (which to the priest means a kiss) he rings the bell, the movie stops and the projectionist snips the offending footage out of the film. The lifeless strips of celluloid pile up and become an anthology of kisses and one that no one in the village will ever see.

cinema3

The film is set in the final years before television and has two main characters— Alfredo who rules the projection booth, and young Salvatore who makes the booth his home away from an indifferent home. As the patrons line up faithfully every night (to see “kissless films”) Salvatore watches in fascination and wonder as Alfredo struggles with the projector. At first Alfredo tries to chase Salvatore away, but he eventually allows him to stay in the booth and thinks of him almost as his own son. Salvatore certainly considers Alfredo as his father and the movies as his mother.

We meet some of the regular customers at the theater and they are a noisy group of rude critics who shout suggestions at the screen and become upset that their advice is not taken. In the dark of the theater, romances are begun, friendships are built, wine is drunk and cigarettes are smoked, babies nursed, feet stomp, victories are cheered and celebrated, sissies are whistled at. We can only wonder how they would react if they actually saw a kiss on the screen.

cinema4

Told in flashback, the movie begins with Salvatore (here played by Jacques Perrin) in Rome and hearing that Alfredo has died. As he returns to Sicily for the funeral, we go back to his younger self (Marco Leonard becomes Salvatore). There is magic in the film during the early parts but his rites of passage are predictable (as they are most everywhere).

We understand that the power of the screen can compensate for a deprived life and that young Salvatore is not apprenticing himself to a projectionist, but rather to the movies. With that, the film begins to reach for its effects, and there is one scene in particular that shows desperation. In another scene Alfredo discovers that he can reflect the movie out of the window in his booth and out across the town square so that the images can float on a wall and above the heads of those that are out. The movie shows is the tragedy that the big screen has been replaced by the little one.

cinema5

In the director’s cut, most of the restored footage is in the last section, which now feels like a film in itself. It tells the story of how Salvatore has been pining for his first sweetheart all his life. We are expected to believe that he has wasted the past 30 years because he was unable to have a meaningful connection with any woman because one girl left him and this adds 51 minutes to the original turning it into something of a silly soap opera. The restored minutes, were cut before the film’s successful premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 but they throw the movie’s balance off. In the original movie, the most important relationship was that of the boy and Alfredo. The restored version makes Elena the pivotal person in his life and for whatever reason, we don’t like this. What was originally heartfelt becomes silly.

cinema6

“Cinema Paradiso” in the original cut is a wonderful film with great direction and faultless acting. The script, the cinematography, the editing and the musical score are truly great. Salvatore Cascio, who plays the boyhood Salvatore is a treasure on the screen. His love for cinema is infectious, his nascent friendship with Alfredo is uplifting. He’s sweet and he’s funny.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS 

  • Restored from the original camera negative and presented in two versions – the 124 minute Cannes Festival theatrical version and the 174 minute Director’s Cut
  • Uncompressed original stereo 2.0 Audio and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Audio commentary with director Giuseppe Tornatore and Italian cinema expert critic Millicent Marcus
  • A Dream of Sicily – A 52-minute documentary profile of Giuseppe Tornatore featuring interviews with director and extracts from his early home movies as well as interviews with director Francesco Rosi and painter Peppino Ducato, set to music by the legendary Ennio Morricone.
  • A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise – A 27-minute documentary on the genesis of Cinema Paradiso, the characters of Toto and Alfredo, featuring interviews with the actors who play them, Philippe Noiret and Salvatore Cascio as well as Tornatore
  • The Kissing Sequence – Giuseppe Tornatore discusses the origins of the kissing scenes with full clips identifying each scene
  • Original Director’s Cut Theatrical Trailer and 25th Anniversary Re-Release Trailer
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet by Pasquale Iannone illustrated with archive stills, behind-the-scenes images and posters

“JACKIE”— An Intimate Portrait

jackie

“Jackie”

An Intimate Portrait

Amos Lassen

Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” is set in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 and explores how the now ex-First Lady created the JFK legend and legacy. It’s a portrait of a woman who paradoxically assumes authority at the very moment when she loses everything: her husband, her status, and her home.

jackie2

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy received the sympathy of the world as the assassination plunged her into the depths of grief. A week after the Kennedy funeral in November 1963, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) met with a journalist, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) from Life magazine to describe her feelings, insisting and receiving editorial privileges to disallow the writer from publishing what she considered to be a violation of her privacy.  Portman, like others in “Jackie,” resembles the person she portrays, and better yet has the ex-First Lady’s speech down to a T, even her distinctive Marilyn Monroe’s whisper.

 

As the journalist takes notes, Jackie speaks, sometimes through tears, of events at about the time of the funeral.  Larrain mixes fake black-and-white archival footage such as Ms. Portman’s portrayal of Jackie giving a tour of the White House for the TV audience.  

jackie3

 

We see Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) as offering a protective arm around Mrs. Kennedy who at first wanted a reasonably sedate memorial service, changes her mind and opts for a grand on-foot procession down Constitution Avenue.  In the film’s most private moment, Mrs. Kennedy confers with her priest (John Hurt) about her despair, speaks about her contemplation of suicide or a desire to expose herself to gunshots such as her husband faced.  The priest, without delivering a conventional talk about how suicide is forbidden, nonetheless provides a philosophy that eases her into comprehending and dealing with her tragic loss.

Jackie’s purpose was to get the legend in print, and she was extraordinarily successful in that regard, establishing the glamorous Camelot mystique that still clings to the Kennedy era. Flashbacks put us on Air Force One both before and after the shooting, in the White House as Jackie overrules security concerns and maps out a memorial procession modeled on Lincoln’s, and earlier, on the famous occasion when she invited TV viewers into “the nation’s home”. This became a landmark development in television’s hold on the American consciousness.

jackie4

We do not get a definitive Jackie, but a Jackie with several variations: controlled, stunned, angry, resourceful, arrogant and uncertain; wife, mother, widow and keeper of the flame. Because each of these demand different kinds of strength, we can understand the movie as a critique of the circumscriptions that kept women in their place in the early 1960s, even if that place was the White House. Natalie Portman  suggests a tasteful, sensitive enigma, schooled in comportment – always impeccably coiffed and elegant – who appears to have welcomed the public eye almost as an escape from introspection. She understands social decorum, and how to wield it to her advantage. We see Jackie as a former debutante who job was to be a trophy on her husband’s arm and to embellish his home who is abandoned to her own devices in the cruelest circumstances. In some of the most vivid sequences Jackie wanders through the corridors of the White House dazed and alone and we see her inner turmoil.

jackie1

We watch as Jackie transitions from shock and anguish to resolve. Jackie feels disappointingly small-scaled and emotionally remote. “Jackie” is a reminder that for a period of time, she was bigger than any star. She was the Widow — an embodiment of grief, symbol of strength, tower of dignity and, crucially, architect of brilliant political theater. “Jackie” doesn’t try to complete that impossible, the never-ending epic known as “The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and What It Means to History.” Instead, set largely after his death, we see the intersection of the private and the public while looking at the transformation of the past into myth. She created the myth of “Camelot” that is still with us today.

“DOWN BY LOVE”— A True Love Story and a National Scandal

DBL-POSTER INTERNATIONAL.indd

“Down by Love”

A True Love Story and a National Scandal

Amos Lassen

We meet Anna (Adele Exarchopoulos) when she arrives at a Versailles prison to await her trial. Anna’s crime is never revealed but it was obviously serious and her guilt is never truly in question. Jean (Guillaume Gallienne) is an ambitious, relatively young, and married Prison Director. Following a shot interview with Anna, he realizes that he feels something for her. He gives her the job of keeping the books for the commissary and has her do her work in a conveniently private room to boot. In did not take long for an affair between the two to begin. an affair ignites between the two. 

down-by-love1

Pierre Godeau directed this story of love and forbidden passion. The film is based on an actual event that took place in 2011. Jean runs the penitentiary with a combination of ambition, discipline and psychological insight. When Anna arrives, having been transferred from another where she has already served four years, a spark is ignited in him. We never quite understand why he falls so hard for Anna yet Jean abuses his power to have sex with an inmate half his age and we wonder if Anna uses her body to get special favors from him.

down5

Jean boldly on his sexual impulses putting at risk his hard-earned position and career as well as an ordinary domestic life with his wife and young daughter. Is it coincidental that Anna studies “Phedre” in her prison French class? The film comes across to me as a lesson in “wrong love”, to me at least.

down6

Exarchopoulos as Anna is intense as is Gallienne as Jean yet their lovemaking scenes are not as “hot” as we have seen in other French films. I wanted to understand so much more about the two characters but was never given that opportunity.

“VLADIVOSTOK VACATION”— The Mumiy Troll Story

vladivostok

“Vladivostok Vacation”

The Mumiy Troll Story

Amos Lassen

An interesting fact about the fall of Russian communism is that it heralded the rise of rock and roll. The number one rock and roll band in Russia, Mumiy Troll was known all over the region but never left Russia until recently. They have been given the chance to not just keep their popularity high in Russia but also in the Western world. The band has a simple strategy—be on a boat to somewhere, create an album and make friends. It is the band’s goal to be widely known in America but the members of the band had no idea how difficult it is to become famous.

In this documentary is about the band, we see their latest show at SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. This is a film about dreams, ocean, and music and it brings together rare archival footage and fascinating animation. It is said to be “a realistic setting for the fantasies every rock group has”.

vlad1

It all begins at the Russian far eastern Vladivostok seaport. The band’s front man dreams about worldwide fame, but then realizes that reality is in front of him and so he forgets about his dreams and takes a job as a sailor on a ship. This gave the entire band a chance to embark on a journey across the globe and discover the places ‘where people love rock’n’roll’.

Directed by Danny Drysdale, “Vladivostok Vacation,” follows on Ilya Lagutenko and his band, Russian sensation and US cult favorite Mumiy Troll on a global tour.

The story begins in Russia’s Far East where one of the band members is dreaming of worldwide fame but decides instead to become a sailor even though he his band plan a journey across the world so that can see the places where other rock and roll heroes are. The documentary is something of a love letter to the band and it is filled with wonderful cinematography and great music. So you will not be confused this film is also known as “SOS to a Sailor”.

“BRAZIL”— Trying for a Second Time

brazil-poster

“Brazil”

Trying for a Second Time

Amos Lassen

Miguel Soares (Tito Guizar) is a South American songwriter who has had a bit of success with his song, “Brazil,” but now he is struggling to write a follow-up hit but nothing happens.  Just then he also tries to convince Nicky (Virginia Bruce) his new girlfriend that he is a “Latin lover”. She just wrote a book that destroys the myth of Latin macho men.

Nicky is in Brazil to get the information she needs to write “Why Marry a Latin?” She is fine with her research, etc until she meets Miguel who decides to prove her thesis wrong by showing her that Latins aren’t such lousy lovers. As he does, he falls in love with her.

“Brazil” has sumptuous sets and singing, dancing and composing talents but the plot is somewhat boring. There is very little plot aside from the love affair between the two stars. There is a wonderful dance scene with Veloz and Yolanda who were known as the King and Queen of the Tango.

Soares has a confidant played by Edward Everett Horton but it is the music and the dancing that make this a film to see.

“THE DAUGHTER”— An Adaptation of Ibsen

the-daughter

“THE DAUGHTER”

An Adaptation of Ibsen

Amos Lassen

Simon Stone’s “The Daughter” is a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and stars Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto, and Sam Neill. It will open at the AMC Empire 25 in New York on January 27, and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on February 3rd with a national release will follow.

the-daughter1

After a fifteen-year absence, Christian (Paul Schneider) comes home to rural New South Wales for the marriage of his father, Henry (Geoffrey Rush). Henry is the wealthy owner of the local mill that’s been the economic basis of the community for several generations. Christian gets reacquainted with his old friend Oliver (Ewen Leslie) and finds himself drawn to Oliver’s family, which includes wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto), daughter Hedvig (Odessa Young), and father-in-law Walter (Sam Neill).  Christian discovers a secret that could tear Oliver’s family apart, and when Henry announces that he is planning to close the mill in the coming days, the community is shocked and upset. Christian goes about trying to right the wrongs of the past but what he does could very much run the lives of those he left behind years before.

the-daughter5

The film takes place during one week during which memories that resurface become the heartbeat of the drama, and time starts to implode for the characters as they try to understand what their past means. In the middle of this is a teenage girl who is just starting to learn what life might mean and she is truly vulnerable to the mess that the adults around her are making. This is a film about people who try to be good, loving and failing and who become the victims of weakness as they struggle to survive. It’s about how the events of the past are inescapable and how the truth isn’t for a single person to decide, but for a community to share in all of its complications.

the-daughter2

The themes of the haunted past blow up in the present and there are splits in class and gender. Oliver’s father, Walter was once Henry’s business partners and Henry went on to spend time in prison for some unspecified fiduciary breach, is unconcerned. Meanwhile, in preparation for his marriage to his much younger former housekeeper Anna (Anna Torv), Henry has called for his estranged son, Christian to come from America and to be his best man. Christian resents his father and we see just how much as he reconnects with Oliver. Christian learns that Charlotte once worked in his father’s house and that his mother committed suicide around this time. The inevitable revelation of a long-suppressed family secret, and Christian’s fundamentally profound misunderstanding of it, lead to a major shift in family dynamics.

The early scenes meander and it is not until we get to scenes of confrontation that the movie picks up steam. We focus on Hedvig as she navigates her way around adolescence, spending time with her grandfather, Walter in his individually crafted home for injured animals. He also has a dark past and it has to do with the time he spent in the company of Henry.

the-daughter4

As we pay attention to Hedvig’s perspective, we get a sense of freshness and purity. Hedvig is a young girl in a changing environment and as secrets are revealed, she loses some of her innocence. With Henry’s announcement to close his factory, he dooms the town as it was the only source for jobs.

This is an ensemble drama and all of the performances are wonderful. They are provide a sense of mystery and foreboding to Stone’s screenplay. Tension builds up calmly and quietly and as things begin to unravel, se realize that something is not good. Drama escalates quickly and soon rests upon big soap opera style twists and revelations. It’s a calm and tense family dinner exploding into arguments, but with everybody screaming all at once and overreacting to the extreme.

“STEALING THE FIRE”— The Centrifuge Scandal

stealing-poster

“STEALING THE FIRE”

The Centrifuge Scandal

Amos Lassen

In 1996, German nuclear engineer Karl-Heinz Schaab was accused of selling secret information about a nuclear centrifuge to Iraq. With this stolen data, Saddam Hussein was able to obtain indispensable information on the production of nuclear arms. What we do not know is if Schaab was only a shrewd traitor or a simple pawn in a much more extensive network. 

Directors John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler use Schaab’s trial over the centrifuge scandal as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and to decipher grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations.

Through the use of archival footage and interviews with scientists, historians and prosecutors, Friedman and Nadler discover the centrifuge scandal’s incredible chain of events. The roots of the scandal began in Nazi laboratories and the centrifuge cylinder got to the Soviet Union via German prisoners of war but first made a brief two-year stopover in the U.S. and finally wound up as the property of Degussa, a German company that supplied concentration camps with Zyklon-B. 

Karl-Heinz Schaab is a deceptively drab German technocrat with one discernable character trait and that is his love of bad wigs. discernable character trait is a weakness for bad wigs. He says little and reveals less. In a Munich court in 1999 he was convicted of selling German nuclear technology to Iraq: appropriating the secret plans for an array of centrifuges used to produce weapons-grade uranium.

The filmmakers have attempted to follow Schaab’s trail in Iraq, where he met with Khidhir Hamza, the former director of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear project (now defected) and in Brazil, where, the filmmakers say, he was involved in a plan to build a Brazilian nuclear submarine.

Most of Mr. Schaab’s story is told through his defense lawyers. The film moves among Rio de Janeiro, Munich and Baghdad (with several side trips) and it comes across as an espionage thriller. It is interesting to note that the centrifuge technology was first developed by scientists working for the Third Reich’s atomic bomb project. Several of those scientists went on to work for the Soviets, the Americans or both during the cold war. The Nazis’ corporate partner in their atom program was Degussa, a multinational corporation that continues to try to sell atomic technology to governments like those of Iraq and Pakistan. We are told here that Degussa’s corporate history includes a contract with the SS to process the gold and silver fillings taken from the death camp inmates, as well to manufacture Zyklon B, the gas used to murder many of them.

Questions about the reasons for have become more complex at the same time that they have become urgent. Ever since the efficiencies of the industrial revolution were used to service of the globe’s most powerful war machines, many have seen the ever-growing refinements of warfare as leading, inevitably, to the end of civilization. Yet, for whatever reason, this hasn’t made war rare or brought about the enduring peace many scientists and humanists expected after the devastation of World War II. This video documentary uses Schaab’s trial as a starting point to investigate the nuclear weapons trade and questions why warfare has continued to endure despite the consequences.

Our collective best hope is not to worship wars but to eradicate them by discovering why they are fought, and do so the sooner the better. We know that While mainstream media, the press, and the government are collaborating to create a simplistic fantasy of good vs. evil in America’s New World Order, there is a contrary, terrifying global reality that is quietly taking shape, one in which uncontrollable nuclear weapons proliferation, combined with growing inequity in the distribution of the world’s resources, will lead to wars without clear moral purpose.

Schaab’s trial for treason—which led to an astonishingly lenient 100,000 deutsche-mark fine and 5 years’ probation. It is the frame for the film and it would be easy to blame Schaab for the predicament that now supposedly confronts the free world: a Saddam Hussein armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

To understand why wars are fought, it helps to understand the system that victimized Schaab, the same system that makes criminality of the sort he practiced so lucrative. His trial is shown to be a waste of time, and the film concludes that if Western leaders seek peace as they claim to, they will eventually desist from their misguided strategy of ferreting out and prosecuting corrupt individuals, or bombing them into oblivion. Instead, the industrial complex that sustains and rewards this corruption must be examined and reformed.

The trade in war materials—convoluted, interconnected, plagued with shifting alliances and ethical lapses—is seen here mostly through the German firm Degussa, and Leybold, a Degussa subsidiary. Degussa helped to manufacture Zyklon-B, by processing metals taken from concentration camp victims, and by aiding in the Third Reich’s atomic program. This story is told partly in the testimony of Erna Spiewack, who was a lab technician for Degussa in 1941. She was horrified about the bloodstained dental fillings that were shipped to Degussa to be smelted and refined. But, she also says that she was young and had no idea where they came from. Even if she had known, there was nothing she could do. This type of question comes up fairly often. What is the relevance of individual agency in such vast systems as the Nazi war machine or the post-war global arms trade? Time and again, individuals can easily contribute to these systems but rarely can individuals oppose them.

A particular individual contribution to Degussa’s war effort, that of Gernot Zippe who was known as the “father of the centrifuge” made contributions to Degussa’s war effort and after the war was over, the Russians captured him to help them develop the atomic bomb. Shortly following his return to Germany in 1956, Zippe was snapped up by the CIA to work on U.S. centrifuge technology. We, therefore understand, that through a convoluted trail involving meetings of nuclear scientists in Amsterdam, Austrian bank accounts, and contacts with Iraqi and Egyptian diplomats, there existed a variant of the sophisticated uranium centrifuge technology Zippe had created and it turned up in an Iraqi weapons site in 1996.

In trying to deciphering grand-scale relations among national governments and multinational corporations, only one thing can be known for sure and that is that weapons are of great value.

Thus Degussa is spared the defendant’s chair at Nuremberg because of the firm’s association with American companies such as the DuPont Corporation, and NASA sells rocket technology, much of it lifted from the Nazis after World War II, to the Egyptian government in the 1960s, only to see the rockets used against Israel in the Middle East wars of 1967 and ‘73. NASA’s and Degussa’s technologies are later combined for nuclear missile plans found in Iraqi possession following the Persian Gulf War. All of this leads Nir Amit, a former head of Israeli intelligence, to call the targeting of civilians in Tel Aviv by Egyptian and Iraqi missiles a “continuation of the Holocaust.” And in that he has a point.

Institutional problems can be neither attributed to nations nor solved by individuals. They can only be addressed through fiercely collective intellectual work and ethical contemplation.

“Stealing the Fire” conveys the price of war for U.S. audiences by intercutting footage of the World Trade Center collapse with the testimony of a civilian who suffered under the state of war in Tel Aviv. “Either we collectively learn to manage the global industrial weapons network, no matter its intricacies, or we will eventually learn, as individuals, a lesson of brute simplicity: what these weapons do.

“LAND AND SHADE”— Returning Home

land-and-shade

“Land and Shade” ( “La Tierra y la Sombra”)

Returning Home

Amos Lassen

“Land and Shade” (Tierra y Sombra) was the 2015 winner of the prestigious Cannes Camera d’or prize. It is a simple movie that manages to find its way to the hearts and minds of viewers. The story revolves around a low-income family in the Valle de Cauca region in Colombia. The matriarch Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) and her daughter-in-law, Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) work in a sugar plantation in a brutal environment for very low wages. The son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) has become ill with of some sort of respiratory problem and is confined to bed and can, of course, no lon ger work on the plantation. Gerardo’s wife takes his place while taking care of him and their 6-year-old son. Alfonso (Haimer Leal), Geraldo’s estranged father suddenly comes home and enters the constrained family dynamic.

land1

Gerardo’s respiratory ailment is caused by working at the sugar plantation where workers are treated inhumanely. His wife wishes they would move away but Gerardo refuses because his aging mother is so strictly attached to her house and land. Alfonso, who has been away for 17 years away, wants to take care of his son but his former wife has only disdain for him. She warns him to stay away and not to feel like that is his home. We understand that there is deep history between them and we see this through long silences and the charged atmosphere of the film.

Writer-director Cesar Augusto Acevedo shows us the horrible conditions that farmers face in Colombia.  We see scenes of abusive treatment that include withholding pay from workers and in the desperation in the workers’ faces. The family here shows the tip of the iceberg. From 2013 to 2014 massive national strikes included peasants and workers who were met with repression and violence from the government. The helplessness of Colombian workers is reflected through the lives of this family.

land2

We see the inequality and corruption when Alfonso, fed up with seeing his ill son becoming weaker, takes him to the doctor. At the visit, the doctor offers no advice other than to prescribe more medication. Alfonso his quiet loses his otherwise somber and quiet demeanor and starts to shout saying that he will not take his son back to the house because he will die. His gradual demise becomes an apotheosis to show every fracture and every possibility for redemption for this family.

At the core of the family conflict is Alicia’s attachment to her house and her land, which presumably was built and sustained through much sacrifice. Gerardo’s wife believes that the poor environmental conditions are killing him and wants to move away— there are no other jobs there but at the sugar plantation. She feels that leaving with Alfonso would be a fresh start for the young family, but Gerardo cannot break away from his mother.

land3

There is a lot of tenderness between the family and a deep love and this makes choices even more difficult. Silences in the film are filled with mixed emotions that take the audience into the family’s desperate and perilous situation. While the film is very quiet at times, director Acevedo shows us a great deal about love and family.

The film is one of dualities and doubts. On one hand it is sad and vitalizing (as we see in the indoor scenes) while some outdoor scenes, regardless the real circumstances, are often filled with light and non-family activity. There is a balance between the agony, sacrifice, and misery of this broken family that is united by an imminent death and solidarity, humanity, and forgiveness by the love they share.

land4

This is a film of uncommon restraint and compassion. We get a seemingly helpless situation that focuses on, fleeting moments of regret, resentment, reconciliation, hope, loyalty and love within and between these characters.

The film’s conflict is primarily about the impossibility of prioritizing connections. How can a man decide between his roles as a son, to a mother who already has been abandoned and who relies upon him for the necessities of living, and as a husband, to a wife who wants to leave her husband’s childhood home because she is convinced there is nothing there for her own family? Is a woman able to choose between staying with her sick husband and leaving him to die in order to provide her son with a better chance at life?