“The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem” edited by Marie Luise Knott— Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Knott, Marie Luise (editor). “The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Germany, Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

“Few people have thought as deeply or incisively about Germany, Jewish identity, and the Holocaust as Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem”. The letters included in this book (which I have been waiting for) shows that much of that thinking was developed in dialogue, through more than twenty years of correspondence.

Arendt and Scholem first met in 1932 in Berlin and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for and friendship with Walter Benjamin. They began exchanging letters in 1939 and their correspondence continued until 1963, when Scholem vehemently disagreed with Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the book that she wrote about it, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Their disagreement continued until Arendt’s death a dozen years later. The years of their friendship were filled with a remarkably rich bounty of letters in which they try to come to terms with being both German and Jewish, the place and legacy of Germany before and after the Holocaust, the question of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, and more. Almost hovering above the correspondence was Walter Benjamin whose life and tragic death show the very questions that preoccupied the pair.

This are letters and while many are valuable to the world of academia, there are also lighter moments contained within them and these include travel accounts of travels, gossipy dinner parties, and the details that make up life even in the shadow of war and loss.

In today’s world where we continue to struggle with questions of nationalism, identity, and difference, Arendt and Scholem are still regarded as crucial thinkers and their give us a way to see them, and the development of their thought from a different perspective. The book is due out in October, 2017.

 

“The Holocaust: A New History”— History’s Greatest Crime

Rees, Laurence. “The Holocaust: A New History”, Public Affairs, 2016.

History’s Greatest Crime

Amos Lassen

Laurence Rees has spent twenty-five years meeting the survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich and the Holocaust and has written this sweeping history that combines this testimony with the latest academic research to investigate how history’s greatest crime was possible. Rees maintains that while hatred of the Jews was at the epicenter of Nazi thinking, it is impossible to fully understand the Holocaust without considering Nazi plans to kill millions of non-Jews as well. He shows that there was no single overarching blueprint for the Holocaust but that rather a series of escalations compounded into the horror. “Though Hitler was most responsible for what happened, the blame is widespread, Rees reminds us, and the effects are enduring”.

Presented chronologically this is an authoritative account of that while being extremely readable. This was history’s darkest moment.

The Nazis ultimately wanted every Jew to die and they were a racist regime that believed that some human beings simply did not deserve to live–not because of what they had done, but because of who they were. I can hear some of you saying that what do we need another history of the Holocaust and I join you in that question. Rees show us why in his presentation that is built on new scholarship and interviews giving us a compelling, highly readable explanation of how and why the Holocaust happened, drawing on recent scholarship and impressively incorporating moving and harrowing interviews with victims as well as chilling accounts by the perpetrators. Rees wonderfully explains the origins and grotesque mentality of the Holocaust as how it developed.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Rees is his “relentless juxtaposing of the ostensibly civilized, educated, and self-avowed ethical men deciding what they deem best for their country with the ineffable suffering they inflict on those they perceive as their ideological and racial enemies”. I quickly discovered that this is not just another book about the Holocaust since it literally raises the dead historically. It the interviews of those who survived, we also hear the voices of those who did not and it is to them that the book is addressed. What we really see is the thin line between a civilized world and a genocidal one. In only five years, the Nazis went from some 3% percent electoral support to becoming Germany’s largest party. Rees shows that the logistics of murdering millions of innocent people were worked out by highly educated party officials in calm and amiable atmosphere over lunch and cognac. To me that makes it all the more horrible.

If we think about a Holocaust today and combine what was with destructive power nuclear weapons, “recrudescence of nativism, and proliferation of ‘alternative facts’ we [will] realize why “The Holocaust: A New History” is such an important and timely book”.

“HIDE AND GO SHRIEK”— A Campy Slasher Film

“Hide and Go Shriek” (“Close Your Eyes and Pray”)

A Campy Slasher Film

Amos Lassen

Released in 1988, “Hide and Go Shriek” is a campy slasher movie in which a group of teenagers spends the night in a furniture store for a graduation while a psychotic killer with a taste for cross-dressing starts to hunt them down and kill them off.

This is director Skip Schoolnik’s only film and it is outrageously tacky and ugly. In the prologue, a man wearing makeup attacks a prostitute and we then meet eight teenagers bound for an overnight graduation party at a big furniture store. The father of one of the kids owns the business, which makes it a prime location for some illicit boozing and making out with a little game of hide and seek. They do not know that there is a maniac on the premises who decides to bump them off one by one with the added gimmick of dressing up in each victim’s clothing after each kill. Then is not a lot of gore but there are some really nasty moments.

The opening shots of graffiti-covered back streets in a gloomy American city set a very grim tone for what is to follow. The killer spends most of the time in the shadows and the only real development of his persona is his mad cackling after each murder. He then steals the clothes of each victim after they’re dead (both male and female) and cons his next target in to the false sense of security that he’s actually their friend. He then leads them to secluded corners and brutally murders them using various creative methods. The slaughter scenes are gruesome, if not graphically outstanding and we get a great decapitation. of all time late on in the feature. There are moments at the end where things get quite tense and Schoolnik does keep the pace very high.

When the teenagers realize that they’re trapped inside with a maniac, they run to the storefront to scream for help and are relieved to see a Police car parked directly outside the front door. They bang on the double-glazed glass to try and get the attention of their only chance of safety, but look on in horror as their cries go unheard and the patrolman drives off in to the night. This was a great way to their desperation, isolation and sense of impeding doom and this is what really keeps the momentum running.

The teens have just graduated from high school and talk about what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. Some talk about career paths, others talk about possibly getting married and some are more concerned with having a little fun before having to face the realities of the real world. We get to see a little bit into the characters and who they are but this is a slasher film and naturally we want to see some slashings.

Since the film takes place in a large furniture store, with multiple floors, there are plenty of places for the killer to hide. The killer also wears the clothes of not only the various mannequins placed throughout the store, but his victims in order to heighten the confusion. The setting also allows the killer to murder characters without other characters knowing and just the idea of the killer hiding in plain sight is an interesting idea as well. However, there is a bit of a problem in that the film doesn’t generate much tension or suspense from any of its good ideas.

Eventually, things fall apart when the characters discover that a killer is in their midst. Not even half of the cast has been disposed of and with a number of the main characters still alive the killer is simply outmatched. What’s left is to watch as a group of characters running around and screaming as they try to figure a way out and this quickly becomes repetitive.  Yet there are two aspects of this film that are unique— the selection of who lives and who doesn’t and the identity of the killer. It’s too bad that more thought was not taken in how to handle this. Unfortunately, the killer’s dialogue and motive come across as unintentionally funny. The film seems to continue working really well up until the climax and then…

We can see what the filmmakers were trying to do, but instead of being scandalous, the conclusion is distasteful, thoughtlessly delivered and very peculiar. Somehow the film is in its ambition somewhat. The cast seems to have been picked as eye candy and we get silly late-eighties carryings-on and campy fun before the terror starts.

A poorly handled conclusion doesn’t subtract too much from the rest of the feature and we are entertained. So why is this listed as an LGBT film? There is a bizarre gay twist— the killer is a gay cross-dresser who is obsessed with his former prison lover. Also, the film pays as much attention to the guys as the girls and there are a few hunky young dudes in their underwear as they are done away with.

The “kills” are cheesy and fun. One of the teens is impaled with a spare set of mannequin arms and another is decapitated by elevator doors.

“THE AXE MURDERS OF VILLISCA”— Three Friends

“The Axe Murders of Villisca”

Three Friends

Amos Lassen

 On a June night in 1912, there was a terrible crime in the peaceful town of Villisca. Eight people — a mother, father, their four children, and two guests were brutally murdered by an axe-wielding killer in a case that remains unsolved to this day. Now, a century later, Caleb (Robert Adamson) and gay best friend and secret admirer Denny (Jarrett Sleeper) share an interest in ghost hunting. They sneak into the house where the crime occurred. When Caleb invites Jess (Alex Frnka) to come along with them, Denny becomes extremely jealous.

First-time feature filmmaker, Tony E. Valenzuela’s “The Axe Murders of Villisca” derives its name from an Iowa town whose macabre claim to fame involves an infamous ax murder. In the century since the crime, the site has been turned into a tourist stop offering overnight stays for ghost hunters and the generally curious. 

Someone who knows the story well is Iowan teen Denny, one-half of the Maryville Paranormal Institute.  The other half is Caleb, and their “institute” is actually just a YouTube video blog dedicated to amateur ghost hunting. Denny harbors a secret crush on Caleb.  Caleb has eyes for new girl Jessica.  Recently transplanted from Chicago, Jess already has quite a reputation at school because of a video taken while she was drunk with resident bad boy Connor.

“Villisca” builds the foundation of its high school drama back-stories with considerate care that makes it all believable as the story unfolds.Denny, Caleb, and Jess use dousing rods to conduct their after hours séance in the Villisca murder house.  Stirring up spirits is only one-half of the trio’s trouble however, as bully Connor and his toadie Rob soon arrive to drum up a little danger of their own.

While the world may never know the truth about what happened that summer night, “The Axe Murders of Villisca” seeks to fill in the blanks and offer up its own supernatural explanation. Unfortunately, the true story from which this film draws its inspiration is much more interesting than this film. “The Axe Murders of Villisca” is a movie with promise and even though it tries hard, it does not deliver.

The story begins with troubled teen Caleb is given a ride to his last day of high school by his best friend Denny. When they get there, they are immediately accosted by high school bullies Conner (Riley Bodenstab) and Rob (Khellan Rhude) but before a confrontation can happen the school’s principal, (Conchata Ferrell), saves the day. It is then that we are introduced to the third member of their prospective ghost hunting trio, Jess who is hiding out in a bathroom stall to escape because of a video that is circulating online of her having sex with Conner. Later, while standing at his locker, Caleb sees the other bully, Rob harassing Jess and as she swiftly walks away Caleb smashes Rob’s face into a locker.

The trio then makes their way to the house and gets a tour by Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). Their tour is cut short when Jess steps over one of the velvet ropes and is accosted by screaming old woman who comes out of nowhere and since they didn’t get the full tour they decide to wait until dark to sneak back in and look around as ghostly events follow.

Of course the bullies find out where the three are and show up to torment them. There are creepy ghost kids offering up cryptic ghostly warnings. No one as we might have thought actually dies on screen to an axe, even in the flashbacks of the axe murders the house is known for. I am not sure how a film with such a plot could turn out to be so plebian. The plot is derivative, the title is misleading, the dialogue is about as banal as you can get and the interplay between the leads is forced and stiff. But the film looks great and there is potential here. I am still baffled by the ending.

Would I recommend this film? Yes, I would because it is fun. I also like that we have a thoughtful gay subplot, something that is rare in horror films. I am not going to say anymore except that I am curious as to how you see this.

“FRANTZ’— A Mysterious Frenchman and the Wounds of War

“Frantz”

A Mysterious Frenchman and the Wounds of War

Amos Lassen

Francois Ozun’s “Frantz” is set predominately in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919, not long after the end of the First World War, we learn of Frantz who served as a German soldier and lost his life. Anna lives in a perpetual state of mourning with Frantz’s parents, Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), and they routinely visit Frantz’s grave (which we learn contains no actual body, as the particulars of his death are impossible to sort out among a battlefield riddled with destruction and carnage). One day, Anna sees a Frenchman paying his respects to Frantz’s grave. What makes this interesting is the bitterness and hostility that exists between France and Germany after the war. Anna meets this man, who reveals himself to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), a soldier who fought for France and who claims to have inexplicably had bonded with Frantz and a strong friendship ensued.

The film is inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby” and is a black and white period piece that explores how people wrestle with conflicting feelings including survivor’s guilt, anger, desire, happiness, and the longing for sexual, romantic and familial attachments. While this not a gay themed film, it has a subtitle homoerotic undercurrent that we sense on the relationship between the two soldiers. We face the question of whether lies heal the emotional wounds of war. I cannot divulge the lie that moves the plot forward for to do so would spoil the viewing experience. What I can say is that this lie was invented to comfort those in pain especially when the war seemed to overtake the sanity of the world causing chaos.

What is surprising here is that this is a very low-key anti-war movie and the worst we see are simply quick images of ruined cities and wounded soldiers. There is a distinct mood of bitterness, despair and exhaustion prevails and we even see the cultural similarity of two warring nations who are geographical neighbors and who appreciated the same music and art. Parallel scenes show Germans and Frenchmen singing patriotic anthems even after the Armistice was signed.

Frantz (Anton von Lucke) is only seen in flashback and he is a handsome German in his 20s who died in the trenches and is memorialized throughout the movie. We feel his parents’ anguish as well as that of his fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), who lives with them. Another mourner, unknown to them, is his French friend Adrien (Pierre Niney). Adrien is a thin and mustached French soldier with a timid manner who traveled from Paris to Germany and is first seen by Anna when he is placing flowers at Frantz’s grave.

As Adrien and Anna speak, he recalls a close friendship that began in Paris before the war, in which the two often visited the Louvre. Both played the violin and there is the possibility of romantic attraction making us wonder if they were lovers.

The film brings to mind the mourning periods that follow great national tragedies as seen through the eyes of the war’s “lost generation.” Anna is so touched by Adrien that she brings him home to meet the Hoffmeisters, but Hans resists accepting him and says that every Frenchman is guilty of murdering his son but he later softens when Adrien tells him about his and Frantz’s long walks and museum visits, their shared pacifism and tastes in music and poetry. Hans relents, and as time passes, Adrien becomes a surrogate son whose recollections bring the couple a sense of consolation.

In its early scenes, we have a mood of a solemn, romantic period piece whose melancholy is accentuated by Philippe Rombi’s Mahler-influenced soundtrack. There are moments when this mostly black-and-white film changes into color. By the time Adrien returns to Paris, he and Anna have developed a deep unvoiced attraction. However, after one of Anna’s letters to Adrien is returned without a forwarding address, she goes by train to Paris, hoping to find him. It is then we are taken into a world of secrets, lies and moral uncertainty that eventually leads her to consult a priest for advice on how to proceed. What we see asks profound questions about honesty and the possibility for redemption if the truth is withheld.

Looking at today’s ambiguous moral climate that is filled with terms like alternative facts and fake news, we come to understand that humans really cannot deal with the truth of reality.

When we first meet Anna, she’s is morose and quiet and mourning the love of her life to war. We see flashbacks of Adrien’s time spent with Frantz in Paris as well as a beautiful scene that of Anna and Adrien growing closer over the course of a long hike in the mountains.

The Hoffmeisters are happy with what was developing between Adrien and Anna but not everyone in the town feels this way. Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who has been pressing Anna hard to marry him despite her utter lack of interest is upset by this and he is shocked by the prospect of losing her hand to anyone else, let alone a Frenchman. It is only a matter of time before Adrien abruptly returns to France after revealing some shocking news. Anna then finds herself trying to discover whether she sees Adrien as just a substitute for her dead Frantz or as the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Ozun has attempted to shift the focus of the story from antiwar sentiments in order to emphasize the romantic elements. The emphasis of the story shifts to be centered on Anna and her inner turmoil rather than on the relationship between her and Adrien but for whatever reason it does not work, as it should. For one thing, Adrien demonstrates more genuine on-screen chemistry with Frantz than he does with Anna. This shift also means that Frantz’s parents disappear from the second half of the film and we really feel that. Nonetheless, I feel in love with the film.

“LIKE FOAM”— Searching for Sex/Love

“Like Foam” (“Como la espuma”)

Searching for Sex/Love

Amos Lassen

Gus (Nacho San Jose) is determined to find the right gift for his best friend Milo’s (Carlo D’Ursi) birthday and he thinks that would be someone to have sex with. Milo seems to have everything. He lives in a mansion and is very handsome but he feels sorry for himself in that he is now confined to a wheelchair (the result of a serious accident) and his very angry that the love of his life, Mario (Daniel Muriel) walked out on him. This happened over ten years ago

 Gus gets in touch with Carla (Javier Ballesteros), a trans girlfriend and asks her to help plan a party for Milo. He wants to make sure that it will become an orgy. Carla immediately begins inviting people and they invite their friends. The party begins and soon becomes quite full of naked and semi-naked bodies. As the party continues, stories are told that expose dark and intimate secrets and fears. Mario is not happy at what the party has turned into and feels that people only pretend to be having a good time and that something is missing from the guests’ lives.

 When Milo sees that Mario is one of the partygoers, he doesn’t know to react and is torn between feelings of contempt and feelings of love that he still has for him. The orgy and the naked bodies are discreetly filmed and while not everyone at the party is gay, it is the story of Milo and Mario that keeps us interested. The cast is excellent all around.

Roberto Perez Toledo both wrote and directed this charming comedy that shows us that not everything is what it seems to be. 

“THE GIRL FROM THE BROTHEL”— Child Exploitation

“THE GIRL FROM THE BROTHEL”

Child Exploitation

Amos Lassen

Mia (Llaria Borrelli, who is also the director and co-screenwriter) is a French photographer who is suffering from boredom and her life in the middle class of Parisian society and decides to surprise her husband, Xavier (Philippe Caroit), by flying to Cambodia where he is working. She has an ulterior motive and that is to talk him into beginning a family, something she has always wanted. After arriving, she sees her husband in a brothel having sex with Srey (Setha Moniroth), an eleven-year-old girl.

Mia immediately decides that has to rescue Srey and take her back to her village from where she was abducted. She comes to terms with Sanan (Sen Somnag), the owner of the brothel and it is “a repulsive bargain”, in which allows herself to be used as a sex object to a governmental official in exchange for the freedom of Srey. She and Srey then set out for the Srey’s village. What she does not know is that Srey has smuggled out two other young girls (Daa and Malin) and that they stole money from Sanan. Mia realizes that their situation is quite dangerous and that she and the girls will be haunted down. Yet, Mia does not stop and with the additional responsibility, she continues on with the hope of returning the three young girls to their Cambodian villages. As they get closer to freedom, they realize that life should be and can be a celebration.

When Mia saw her husband with the child in the brothel she is shocked that she passes out and when she regains her senses, she walks around the Cambodian slums in a state of shock, both about her husband and about the exploitation of children of both genders. She is determined to get Srey out and back home but does not have enough money to purchase her freedom from Sanan. The only alternative that she has is to submit to prostituting herself and this brings her into using cocaine (once a terrible habit of hers).

Once that is over she and Srey are on their way to the village when she discovers the other two youngsters and instead of stopping, she assumes responsibility for the girls but she is now forced to travel only on back roads. Her husband is concerned that he cannot make contact with her and has no idea that Mia saw him with Srey. He knows she is Cambodia and he certainly knows that she once had a problem with cocaine so he contacts the police to report that she is missing. Sanan is notified by the police as well but he has connections there and informs Munny (Vanyoth Lay), a corrupt policeman, that the other girls were missing and so Munny sets out to find her.

As they travel Daa becomes ill and Mia manages to get her to her mother in her village where she dies of septicemia. At the funeral, Munny finds Mia and arrests her but when he realizes that she is helping the children, he lets her go and she continues on traveling by canoe and going into the jungle up to Malin’s village and becoming excited Malin calls out to her mother who refuses to take her back causing the boat to turn away.

They finally get to Srey’s village but Mia weakens and suffers from cocaine withdrawal and exhaustion and now adult and child must draw on the other’s strength. Reaching the village, they find Sanan waiting for them.

This is a rough film especially for those of us who have never had to face something like this. I was stunned by what I saw her and the sheer intensity of the film made me glad to live in a country where something like this does not happen on a large scale. Yet the cinematography is gorgeous and the acting is fine all around. I do not think that anyone can watch this film and not be affected by it. This is what moviemaking should be all about.

“Timber” by Dale Lazarov and Player— A Sticky Graphic Novel

Lazarov, Dale and  Player. “Timber”, Bruno Gmunder, 2017.

A Sticky Graphic Novel

Amos Lassen

‘In “Timber”, a third wheel bachelor goes on a lonely hike after his partnered friends disturb his sleep by having early morning sex in the campgrounds.  After completely losing his way in a magical forest, he meets an uncannily-masculine threesome of lumberjacks who take him to their cabin for rescue of a different kind … and reveal their true, devastatingly hot natures in bed’.

“The PrEP Diaries: A Safe(r) Sex Memoir”— Coming of Age and Thinking About Sexual Safety

Peterson, Evan J. “The PrEP Diaries: A Safe(r) Sex Memoir”, Lethe, 2017.

Coming of Age and Thinking About Sexual Safety

Amos Lassen

For those of you who are not yet aware, the term PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) has become part of our lives and dialogues with not only personal physicians but also with friends and lovers. Truvada is the first daily pill prescribed to HIV-negative people that prevents transmission of the virus. Author Evan J. Peterson wrote about PrEP back in 2014 and since then he has been following his own life and his experiences with the drug. He does so cleverly and a bit sarcastically in this his diary which includes stories about sex, intimacy and gay life in general.
He shares not only personal thoughts but also how he goes about sexually these days as he faces

homophobia, internalized shame, and fear of infection that all of us who grew up in the years of the AIDS epidemic an afterwards. Evan J. Peterson is fine writer and has great wit. While on a basic level, this is a book about PrEP, it is more than that. I see it as a challenge to confront our fears and societal taboos and live healthy sexual lives.

 

“BAYOU GHOST STORY”— A Paranormal Mystery

“Bayou Ghost Story”

A Paranormal Mystery

Amos Lassen

Having grown up in Louisiana, I was quite eager to see this film. Te bayous of the state are a great setting for a ghost story and I remember visiting them and sensing a kind of weird strangeness there.

A paranormal investigator travels to the South to research a series of deaths connected to a supernatural curse haunting an old Louisiana family.

Written and directed by Armand Petri, “Bayou Ghost Story” is about a paranormal investigator who travels to Louisiana to “research a series of deaths connected to a supernatural curse haunting an old Louisiana family”. Petri mixes traditional cinematography with documentary style. Simply because of the nature of the plot and the genre of the film, there is nothing that I can say that would not spoil the viewing experience.