Monthly Archives: November 2018

Grading Historical Movies: Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The eleventh film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” (2008).

 

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By Alison Perelman

Grade:  A

“A Woman in Berlin” (2008), based on an anonymously published diary, tells the story of a woman hiding with other women when the Soviet Red Army invades Germany at the end of World War II. The women must endure war-torn living conditions and the soldiers’ sexual advances, wondering when it will end.

The film is an effective representation of the largely untold stories of mass rape committed by Soviet soldiers against German women, as well as of the more general position of different people in wartime. Due to its source material, the film is accurate in its portrayal of setting, events, and behavioral reactions. It also conveys a lot of emotional truth because of the nature of the film’s focus.

The pacing of scenes, lighting, and costuming do well in setting the tone of the film and showing time passing. When the Red Army arrives, there is chaos that then subsides into routine. It is bleak and repetitive. Though the narrative may not always be exciting, it is accurate to what life was like in that situation. Several scenes are uncomfortable to watch — obviously because of the content, but even more so as a result of the camera angles used for perspective.

It’s often said that history is told by the victors; however, “A Woman in Berlin” is the opposite — told by and about German women. It offers a significantly different narrative of victimhood. While the Germans were the aggressors in World War II, their civilians suffered unjust treatment and casualties as well. And yet, there is also an important portrayal of strength through the main character. She is a victim, but uses intelligence and what little autonomy she has to make hard decisions to survive.

The film doesn’t forget the role of men and soldiers, even the Germans. “A Woman in Berlin” is most effective in depicting the nuances of both sides. War crimes committed by Germans against the Soviets are recognized via dialogue, and members of the Red Army are shown engaging in heinous acts too. Meanwhile, characters from both nations are humanized. The range of behavior is (sometimes unfortunately) accurate, and conveys the complicated reactions to such uncertain situations.

Review Two

By Madeline Phaby

Grade:  A+

A Woman in Berlin is a 2008 German film adaptation of an anonymous woman’s diary from the closing days of World War II.  The film gives a hauntingly honest account of the widespread rape committed by the Soviet Army against the women in Berlin, as well as the difficult decisions made by the protagonist in order to survive. Although the movie is incredibly brutal to watch at certain points, much of its immense historical merit lies in its ability to humanize both the Nazi sympathizers in Berlin and the Soviet Red Army. The viewer is made to feel sympathy towards both sides and conflicted as to who was “right” and who was “wrong” in their actions, which is precisely what makes it such a thought-provoking film.

When the Red Army first arrives in Berlin, all hell breaks loose. Soldiers begin to rape women indiscriminately, and the protagonist is not spared from this widespread pandemonium. After being violated by numerous men and harassed by just as many, she decides she’s had enough and begs the commanding officer for protection from his soldiers in exchange for total control over her body. The major eventually falls for her due to her beauty and sophistication, and she and the other women therefore are protected against the other men. Although the protagonist’s situation of being completely at the major’s disposal is far from ideal, it is certainly better than being passed from soldier to soldier. However, the major is transferred after refusing to kill the protagonist when it is discovered that she had been hiding German soldiers in her apartment. Shortly after, her husband returns from war, but is extremely cold towards her because he viewed her as ‘soiled’ due to being raped by Soviets. The narrative ends with the protagonist wondering how she is to go on without the major, a fittingly ambiguous ending to a morally ambiguous film.

The protagonist’s pragmatic approach to the unfortunate circumstances she is trapped in makes her a very brave and admirable character, which is a bit difficult for viewers to grapple with since it is strongly insinuated that she is a supporter of Hitler and his fascist regime. For example, she states at the beginning of her narration that she returned to Germany at the end of the war after traveling abroad because she “wanted to be a part of it”. While the viewer is clearly meant to feel sympathy towards the protagonist and the other German women being raped – since simply supporting an ideology certainly does not warrant being raped – it is also almost impossible for us to vilify the entire Red Army. Certain characters, namely the major and the Mongolian, are generally portrayed as good-natured, and another soldier describes how the children in his village were tortured and killed by the Germans. Because of the atrocities committed by both sides featured in the film, the only definitive conclusion that can be made is that in war, all are victims and perpetrators just the same.

Review Three

By Blake Mullenix

Grade:  A

A Woman in Berlin is unique in its approach to World War II, especially in regards to
German victimhood and its portrayal of Soviet soldiers. This film presents a complex story that
may make audiences feel conflicted about certain groups by the end.

A Woman in Berlin shows a range of Soviet soldiers. There are more stereotypical, beast-like Soviets who violently rape German women during their occupation in Berlin. Alternatively, there are
characters such as the Major who are more compassionate towards the Berliners. Interestingly
enough, the film breaks down the idea that soldiers always see their opponents as subhuman
through the Major, too. It is revealed that the Major’s wife was hung by Nazis, and whereas
usually this would make a soldier revengeful, the Major is different in that he protects the
anonymous main character. He even appears to love her at points in the film.

This film also looks at the complex nature of victimhood and being a victimizer.
Throughout this film, Anonymous, the main character, and other German women are repeatedly
raped, as was the case during the Soviet occupation. This undoubtedly makes audiences
empathize with these women are they are victims of war crimes. While the film does make these
German women out to be victims, it does not, however, shy away from pointing out their
complicity in the war crimes committed by Nazis at this time. At the beginning of the film,
Anonymous mentions how she came back to Germany because she wanted to be a part of it, in
reference to the then popular Nazi party. Later in the film, Anonymous admits to knowing about
atrocities that Wehrmacht abroad were committing, thus furthering her (and others) complicity
within the Nazi system. This film presents the idea that people can both be victims and
victimizers.

Furthermore, A Woman in Berlin helps one understand that someone can be a victim
without their victimizing be excused or absolved. Anonymous even acknowledges the
complexities presented by saying that if the Soviets had done to the Germans what the Germans
had done to the Soviets, then they (being Berliners) would have been killed during the Red
Army’s occupation. Whereas many films will take a clear stance on who are the “good guys” and
who are the “bad guys,” A Woman in Berlin portrays both good and bad within each side. A
Woman in Berlin offers no concrete answers and leaves audiences to ponder over what it means
to be a victim and if being a victim absolves one from their victimizing.

 

Grading Historical Movies: Joseph Vilsmaier’s “Stalingrad” (1993)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The tenth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 Stalingrad.

Overall grade from 45 students:  B

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade:  B-

Stalingrad, a 1993 film by director Joseph Vilsmaier, is a well-executed film about the battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern front that presents a muddy, simplified truth of the German Wehrmacht and the war. Its depiction of urban combat is brutal and gritty, but the sympathetic light it portrays the protagonists (and by extension, the Wehrmacht) makes for troublesome history.

The film follows a few members of a platoon in a Wehrmacht combat engineer company as they finish their leave in Italy, meet their new platoon commander, and are shipped to the 6th Army on the Eastern front to attack the city of Stalingrad in 1942. Some of the soldiers, Rollo and Reiser, are cynical hardened veterans from the unit’s combat in North Africa. Their new Lieutenant von Witzland is from a military family, hopeful and full of purpose at the start. As the situation for the 6th Army deteriorates, the men are reduced to desperate, cold husks by the bloody urban combat and the cold.

One of the big issues with Stalingrad comes from the attitudes of the characters: while they exhibit the various behaviors of soldiers, not one of them (aside from Indiana Jones-esque Captain Haller) ever espouses belief in the Nazi system. Von Witzland and his men are complicit in war crimes and are certainly no angels, but by this time in the war Nazi ideals and beliefs were certainly widespread within the Wehrmacht, entrenched by the brutality of combat in the East. The film (while not overtly) asserts that lower ranks of the Wehrmacht were victims of the Nazis and were not gladly pulling the trigger when told to execute civilians accused of being saboteurs, and that it was a war led by Nazis that led to their destruction at Stalingrad. It tries to contribute to the belief that Wehrmacht soldiers in the East were there fighting for their fatherland. It humanizes the characters and viewers feel sympathetic for Rollo, Reiser, and von Witzland, but it simplifies and muddies the truth of the war of extermination that was being waged in the East.

Stalingrad is a good movie, but not good history.

Review Two

By Megan Drown

Grade:  B-

A terrific manifestation of German apologetics, Stalingrad (1993) proffers a nationalist interpretation of World War II, embracing the arguments about a “clean Wehrmacht” made by Andreas Hillgruber and other German historians during the so-called Historikerstreit (Historian’s Debate) of 1986. The film is a grotesque portrayal of the Battle of Stalingrad in which Wehrmacht troops and the Red Army violently clash during the winter of 1942-43. However, with the onset of the unforgiving Russian winter, both forces face a greater adversary in the weather than in each other as many soldiers struggle to survive the intense cold, let alone fight in combat under such brutal conditions. A romanticized story of brotherhood amidst the grief and misery of war, Joseph Vilsmaier’s film perpetuates a historical and political myth about German moral culpability during WWII, particularly on the Eastern Front, in its separation of Germanness from Nazism.

The presentation of the great moral dilemma is rendered through dialogue between German soldiers and their commanding officers. One scene that is exemplary of this provocative moral dilemma is the interaction between a corporal named Otto and his captain. Otto presses the question on his captain in the face of impending tragedy, “We don’t have a chance. Why not surrender?” to which the captain responds, “You know what would happen if we did.” Otto, clearly perturbed by his captain’s disregard for his troops’ lives poses a greater question: “Do we deserve better?” The captain, failing to accept his culpability for the treachery that will ensue asserts “I’m not a Nazi, Otto.” In one fell swoop, Otto defines the commendable, if not mythical, moral character of him and his comrades, one that is separate from the complicitous behavior of high-ranking officers: “No you’re worse, you lousy officers. You went along even though you knew who was in charge. I told you what would happen.”

Otto’s haughtiness is ironic. Had he no less autonomy over his own complicity in human tragedy if he had predicted the repercussions of Hitler’s Nazi regime? No doubt, Otto is an impeccable portrayal of a patriotic soldier who fights for his country, but his righteousness is absurd. In fact, culpability in the war and in the Holocaust, which is completely ignored in this film, is not dichotomous. Even the lowliest soldier, especially one who opposes the Nazi regime, falls on the gradient of German complicity in genocide, particularly given the revelations about the Wehrmacht’s participation in the war crimes of the Eastern Front. Even the aristocratic soldier who arrogantly removes himself from Nazi ideology, while fighting their war, is complicit. Even the most ambitious soldier, who fights the war selfishly to gain rank and file, is complicit. The argument that high-ranking officials in the Wehrmacht somehow had more self-agency to oppose Hitler and his goals than common soldiers is null when those soldiers are just as instrumental in achieving Nazi aims as the officers who command them. If somehow, there is historic truth in these soldiers’ moral wrestling, their cowardice is greater than that of the Nazis, who actually believe their perverse ideology is furthering a cause.

Complicity in war is a gradient. Did these soldiers have some moral bearings? Sure. Could this have, perhaps, been an accurate depiction of Wehrmacht soldiers on the Eastern Front? No doubt. Is it even legitimate to assert that these soldiers did not partake in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front? Not probable, but it is, indeed, possible. However, Hillgruber’s and later Vilsmaier’s argument that Germany should honor the patriotism of soldiers on the Eastern Front is deeply problematic. There probably is truth to the movie in the nuance and afflictions of the soldiers’ characters, but a belief in their moral rectitude is wrong, even if they, themselves, believe they are innocent. No part of a Wehrmacht soldier’s gradient of complicity is unstained.

Though the greatest discomfort for the audience rests in the fact that there may be some historic truth to Stalingrad, and in the assertion that the Wehrmacht soldiers’ complicity in genocide on the Eastern Front is not dichotomous. The pain of the Nazis’ role in molding German history was the root for the Historikerstreit. One can sympathize with historians’ desire to insert patriotism back into German history; however, the polemic disposition of German historians should be understood with caution as it is enticing to excuse the actions of, seemingly, valiant soldiers, who remain culpable for Nazi brutalities in war. Perhaps the best way students of German history should seek to understand the historicization of National Socialism and its formative role in molding German identity is through Saul Friedlander’s thesis of differentiation and nuance. Friedlander advocated for a critical historical understanding of the Nazi era bereft of the taboos that thematically plague historical analysis of the epoch (1933-1945); however, he argued that while the historicization of National Socialism should shift the static paradigm of this epoch, the normality and relativism of the epoch should still be defined under the criminal system which existed. In other words, Martin Broszat’s thesis that the Nazi epoch should be treated like any other in German history is null; rather Broszat’s was an argument that could easily divulge into apologetics.

To quote Friedlander:  “Indeed, normal life with the knowledge of ongoing massive crimes committed by one’s own nation and one’s own society is not so normal after all.” To close Otto’s rhetorical question, no, him and his troops do not deserve better. This was something of which Otto’s fictional character was already aware in his swift and final act to end his own life. There is no redemption in the face of one’s own complicity in horror.

Review Three

By Steven Waurio

Grade:  B

Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier in 1993, Stalingrad skillfully presents a sympathetic view towards lower-rank German soldiers in World War II that isn’t often given, although it conveniently avoids important historical events in doing so.  By following a single military unit during the German offensive into the city of Stalingrad, Vilsmaier is able to create a narrative surrounding several German patriots with very human and understandable flaws.  Though these characters are forced at times to made awful decisions and to commit terrible crimes, the audience is made to understand that these soldiers struggle to cope with the emotional pain brought about by the decisions they’ve made.  The audience doesn’t see a cast of Nazi zealots who accept orders to brutalize or murder civilians with glee.  Instead, the audience is shown how these characters would try to push back against such terrible orders, or how they find themselves unable to live with their actions after they’re forced to carry out these crimes of war.

The film certainly doesn’t suggest that the German frontline soldiers were innocent.  There are no morally perfect characters in the film.  It does, however, direct the vast majority of blame onto the higher-ranking officers.  These officers, rather than the Russian enemy, are the true antagonists for nearly the entirety of the film.  While the Russians, who, for the most part, are just faceless combatants, are depicted as simply providing resistance against the German offensive, the higher-ranking officers seem to act against the very survival of the men under their own command.  It isn’t until the final words of the film that the Russian impact is driven home.  On-screen text states that the Russians surrounded 261,000 Germans, of whom they only captured 90,000, of whom only 6,000 eventually made it back to Germany.  After trying to grasp these numbers, it’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with the German soldier, or at least the frontline German soldier as they’re depicted in the film.

The only counter to this sympathetic reaction is the fact that the film ignores the first year of the German offensive into Russia, and the fact that the war crimes committed by German soldiers, or even just the war crimes in which German soldiers were directly implicated, were among the most appalling in the world’s history.  By purposefully excluding this history, the film creates a sympathetic view towards German soldiers.  But the fact that it does so takes away from its historical impact.

Grading Historical Movies: Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants” (1987)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The ninth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical 1987 film Au revoir les enfants.

Overall grade from 45 students:  A

 

Review One

By C.J. Carney

Grade:  A+

Au Revoir les Enfants reveals how French collaboration with the Nazis contributed to the pointless deaths of Jewish civilians in occupied France. Yet the messages in the film contribute to a more significant truth. The main message of the film is about prejudice; however, it’s also about finding friendship in dark places, the destruction of childhood, pointless death, guilt, and how one unthinking action can change a life forever. These messages illustrate a timeless truth in the film, which is that society needs to overcome prejudice and hate in order to thrive.

Au Revoir les Enfants is an autobiographical film based on the childhood events of its director, Louis Malle. As an 11-year old kid, he attended a Carmelite Roman Catholic boarding school where he witnessed three Jewish students and a priest being rounded up by the Gestapo and later deported to Auschwitz. The story follows Julien Quentin, Louis Malle’s proxy character, and a Jewish boy named Jean Kippelstein, who is under the alias Jean Bonnet, as they attend a Roman Catholic boarding school during the war and secrets about Jean’s past are revealed.

At the start of the new semester Jean Bonnet and two other Jewish boys are enrolled at the school, under new identities to keep them hidden from the Nazis. Julien is initially hostile toward Bonnet as he is just smart as him and is jealous of his ability to play the piano. Julien comes to the realization later in the film that Bonnet is Jewish when he is praying in Hebrew and wearing a Kippah while the rest of the children are asleep. After Julien realizes that Bonnet is Jewish the hostility between the two fades. They end up becoming close friends as they study together, play piano together, and bond over their love for literature. This conveys the message that true friendship can be found despite living in a dark reality and being different. Malle illustrates that difference shouldn’t matter, and that despite different economic and religious backgrounds two people can still become friends. This reflects the truth about how prejudice and hate need to end because they just cause suffering, which can be seen at the end of film as the friendship between Julien and Jean is taken away.

All these events occur amidst the horrors of World War II that Julien doesn’t really realize until the ending of the film. Joseph, the former kitchen helper, informs the Gestapo of the children hidden at the school after he is fired. This part of the film is the most significant highlight of the historical truth of French collaborators being responsible for the deportations and deaths of many Jewish civilians. As the Gestapo searches Julien’s class for Jean Kippelstein, Julien, unthinking, glances at his friend and later watches him be taken away. This goes to show how one unthinking moment can change a life forever and result in guilt for the rest of one’s life. Jean Bonnet ends up dying a pointless death just because of who he was, not for a crime like Joseph committed. As a result, Julien’s childhood ends forever with the interference adult world. The film illustrates a painful memory in which Julien discovers the horrifying reality that hate and evil do exist in the world. This discovery results in the loss of childhood and eternal trauma, not only for the character of Julien but for Louis Malle.

Au Revoir les Enfants is a heartbreaking narrative, which documents a very painful memory in the life of child. The sense of knowing that the ending is very bleak for Bonnet is utilized from his first appearance up to the wave goodbye at the end of the film. The rocky relationship that emerges into a friendship makes the reality of the world at the time even more real and the ending all the more heartbreaking. It also made it very easy to connect to Julien emotionally as the audience is placed in his shoes. Au Revoir les Enfants is a film that people can learn a lot from, not just about a historical truth, as there are definite lessons portrayed that can be applied in today’s society. The truth about society needing to overcome prejudice and hate is perhaps the most significant lesson of the entire film.

Review Two

By Paige Ross

Grade:  A

Au Revoir les Enfants, set in the winter of 1943-44 in Nazi-occupied France follows the story of Julien Quentin, a young student at a Carmelite boarding school, and his unlikely friendship with Jean Kippelstein, a Jewish student taking refuge at the school under a false surname. The film portrays the climate of occupied France subtly by utilizing interpersonal relationships and human connections to supersede the stereotypical notions and narratives of French life under the Nazis. Julien’s tentative and cautious friendship with Jean illustrates the fear on both sides to try to understand the other and the powerful ability of humanity to overcome fear and prejudice. The raw “truth” presented in Au Revoir les Enfants is that of people and their inherent natures, and perhaps even, the inherent goodness of people. The film is riddled with instances of people’s goodness and charity: Father Jean taking in the three Jewish students at immense personal risk in order to try to save their lives, Julien learning to accept and understand Jean, despite the fact that their lives have been radically different, the Quentin family taking Jean to dinner, and the attempt by some of those in the school to hide one of the Jewish students from the German soldiers, to name just four instances.

In addition to providing subtle truths about the nature of Nazi-occupied France, Au Revoir les Enfants illustrates the conflicts pertaining to class, religion, and the inherent innocence/naivety of children caught up in the issues of World War II. Against a backdrop of washed out colors and muted tones of grey and blue, the film depicts the sheltered and posh life of the wealthy students at the boarding school, as well as the place of God and religion in the context of war, fear, death, and the bleak unknown. Religion is an omnipresent force in Au Revoir les Enfants, and religious statues and symbols are present in a majority of the film’s shots. This element of the film speaks to French Catholicism and the role of God and virtues in everyday life. Lastly, the story presents the innocence of children and their inherent inability to understand hatred and prejudice. One of the most engaging verbal exchanges occurs early in the film between Julien and his older brother Francois wherein Julien cannot comprehend why such a vehement dislike of Jewish people exists (especially among his wealthy classmates). Julien asks his brother, “What have people got against them [Jews]?” To which Francois replies that they are smarter and crucified Jesus. On its base level, Au Revoir les Enfants is a story of friendship and understanding, a narrative about stepping into another’s shoes and walking around in them for a while. It is a story about the humanness of all people, and power of acceptance.

Review Three

By Adam Ring

Grade:  A+

The time period Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants was set in provides context for the entire mood of what is shown: this was an era filled with prejudice, anti-Semitism, and intense hatred. Director Louis Malle shows that not even young children are immune to these effects and does this by casting a set of young boys at a boarding school which doubles as an asylum for Jews. The movie masterfully invites the audience to ponder questions related to morality, faith loyalty, and blame. Through the eyes of initially naïve and innocent children, Malle shows them going about their everyday life until new boys arrive in the school, and then everything begins to change.

The first part of this film is rather uneventful: the audience is introduced to Julien Quentin, a young French Catholic boy from a rich family, who is returning to boarding school after winter break. Quentin is largely all talk, no action, and acts tough around the other boys. When “Bonnet” arrives, Quentin takes a peculiar interest in him, and the audience begins to see the signs of a little boy trying to figure out a puzzle that doesn’t quite add up.

While Bonnet never directly expresses fear in being caught, his demeanor reveals him as a quiet boy with much to hide. Quentin obviously knows something is up, and plays detective, slowly coming closer to the truth. Why does any of this matter? Mainly because it shows children trying to make sense of the unknown. This form of childhood innocence reflects an overall sense of French ignorance into just how stressful life was like being a Jew during this time. As shown in the scene at the fancy restaurant, French milice officers have no problem trying to remove a Jewish man from dining there…simply because he is Jewish. This raises so many red flags it is not even funny—France’s own military was actively involved in rounding up Jewish people. This invites the following question: were some of the French just as complicit in Jewish genocide as the Germans? Arguably so.

Meanwhile, Père Jean gives an incredible Homily to the students and parents during a Mass; he directly acknowledges this is a time of incredible hatred, and wealth and fear are causing French Catholics (supposedly holy and pious people) to murder and betray each other. It doesn’t take much to read into this to see Father Jean is referring to people of his own country treating Jews with disgust and contempt. Wealth and corruption are rampant: in the scene at the restaurant, Quentin’s mother comments that the Jewish man being harassed was “very proper”—which emphasizes his class before his personhood. In another scene, Père Jean refuses to expel the boys caught stealing food in fear of offending their wealthy parents. Finally, during the Homily, one man is apparently so offended at being called out that he makes a statement and leaves the Church.

The single saddest and lowest moment in the entire film comes when Joseph, the fired assistant-cook, betrays children, and alerts the Gestapo that the boarding school is housing three Jewish boys. Scenes like these reflect some of the lowest points in humanity: a grown man is willing to destroy the lives of children because he is bitter over getting fired. The fear, paranoia, hatred, and hypocrisy displayed here is overwhelming, and calls into question the role France had in the destruction of Jews.

The world often likes to think that Germans, and in particular, the Nazis, were the ones solely responsible for the mass Jewish genocide. While they definitely shoulder most of the blame, the fact remains that many other groups were not as innocent as many would imagine. Frenchmen were willing to betray their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters just to save their own skin, and this film did an excellent job pushing this message across. It features authentic characters, a realistic and meaningful plot, and manages to raise some serious questions about who is to blame in the mission to eradicate Jewish people from the face of the Earth.

Review Four

By Jill Titelbaum

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a quasi coming-of-age story that beautifully illustrates the indifference and inequality during WWII in France. The director, Louis Malle, uses a child’s perspective and timing to achieve this. The story is shown from the perspective of preteen Julien Quentin. Julien hails from a wealthy French family and he and his older brother, Francois, attend a Catholic boarding school in rural France. The headmaster, Father Jean, smuggles in three Jewish boys and gives them fake identities. One of the Jews, Jean Bonnet, is placed in Julien’s class. The audience joins Julien as he explores the world around him and makes a new friend. His childlike curiosity serves to progress the plot.

 

Throughout the movie, Julien observes inequality, however he struggles to understand it. There are numerous close-up shots of Julien that show his inquisitive eyes. He also asks many questions. In one instance, he doesn’t understand why Jews are discriminated against so he asks his brother, “Francois, what’s a yid?.” He is not completely satisfied with Francois’ response and he studies Jean for more answers. In doing so, he realizes they’re more alike than not. In another scene, Joseph the poor kitchen assistant is caught stealing. Despite several students’ involvement, only Joseph is punished. Father Jean explicitly says they would’ve been expelled if it weren’t for their wealthy parents. Joseph calls out the injustice, but he is still fired.

 

Inequality goes hand in hand with indifference. Indifference is exposed through careful timing in the movie. Many scenes transition into scenes which emphasize the previous one. For instance, on Parent’s Day, Father Jean gives a harsh sermon condemning indifference and selfish privilege. The next scene is Julien, his family, and Jean dining in a fancy restaurant. At the restaurant, a Jewish patron, Mr. Meyer, is confronted by French police. The other patrons don’t protest until there is a commotion. A German officer finally sends the police out. The wealthy diners only acted when their peaceful meals were interrupted. They didn’t intervene to stop Jewish discrimination, suggesting that the wealthy strove only to maintain the status quo and were indifferent to people in need.

 

The closing scene powerfully utilizes both techniques. When the boys are lined up outside, the Gestapo asserts, “You must help us rid France of foreigners and Jews.” Just then the three Jewish students and Father Jean are lead out through the courtyard. Julien and Jean make eye contact and Julien gives a somber wave. The closing narration drives home the trauma of that experience: “Bonnet, Negus and Dupre died at Auschwitz; Father Jean at Mauthausen. […] More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”

 

Overall, Julien tries to make sense of his world. As a result, he witnesses the indifference and inequality which culminate with forsaken Joseph ratting out the Jews to the Gestapo. They are ultimately imprisoned and killed Au Revoir Les Enfants illustrates one of the many tragic consequences of indifference and inequality during WWII.

Review Five

By Bryce Hendrickson

Grade:  A

Au Revoir Les Enfants is a sobering reminder to French citizens of their complicity in the Holocaust. It functions both as a loose chronicle of Louis Malle’s childhood in occupied France, and an important vehicle for Malle’s conclusions about France and World War II. As we follow the protagonist, a young student named Julien at the academy, we feel some of the guilt, and confusion Malle feels about his own time under occupation. His fond memories of boarding school life are intertwined with the complications of race and class relations in France. After having 40 years of further perspective, Malle is able to choose certain memories and vignettes, some probably more factually truthful than others, to highlight certain aspects of French culture and emotions regarding the Vichy system and German occupation. Regardless of how genuine each of these memories are, they still communicate important emotional and metaphorical truths.

Through the eyes of a child we see the best and worst of French culture at the time.  Father Jean and other workers at the monastery risk their lives to protect three Jewish boys from persecution by the Nazis as well as their French collaborator. Meanwhile the other French adults actively hunt out French Jews or are completely apathetic to the fate of their Jewish citizens. Malle uses Father Jean to preach his message to the French people he feels didn’t do enough during the war. He accuses them of allowing wealth and power to blind them to the suffering and fear imposed on such a large group of their fellow men. Father Jean does this both through his sermon to the wealthy families of the students and through his reaction to the kitchen employee Joseph’s black market operation. Jean identifies that the war is a symptom of wealthy peoples’ lust for power and fear of speaking out against a system that has made them rich and comfortable. The film postulates that man has created a game of wealth and power for himself. That those in power will stay silent in order to maintain that power, and those who have no power will betray their fellow man the first chance they get if they are in a desperate enough situation.

These two polarized positions are exemplified by Julien’s mother, the Parisian socialite and Joseph, the poor kitchen worker at the monastery. Julien’s mother seems to be opposed to the war and the mistreatment of the Jews at least when they look like “fine enough gentlemen,” but she is unwilling to speak up against this kind of destruction even though she has the power and wealth to affect change. Joseph on the other hand has nothing. He is forced into a situation where he can either work outside the system in order to survive stealing from those who try to help him, or collaborate with the evil system to exploiting the heroes of the story just to stay alive. When we create divides in our society between the haves and have nots we allow evil to persist because people are either too afraid to give up their status to speak up, or they are so desperate to change status that they will betray their fellow man.

Grading Historical Movies: John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” (1987)

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s HST/FST 252, History at the Movies, are grading historical films and offering reviews on how assigned films render the past.  The eighth film assigned in this Fall 2018 version of the course, which focuses on European films about World War II, was John Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory.

Overall grade from 45 students:  B+

 

Review One

By Stephan Koclejda

Grade: A

Hope and Glory (1987) is a spectacular British comedy about family, boyhood, and the Blitz. Drawing from the personal experiences of director John Boorman, the film captures the Second World War and subverts its myths through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy living in London during the Blitz.

The film follows Billy Rohan and his family, as the war pushes them into the new ways of life on the British home front. His family deals with the occasional German bombing of their street as he goes to school, his teenage sister Dawn sneaks out to party, his dad enlists to recapture his glory days, and his mom left behind to take care of them all. For the Rohans the war soon becomes just another facet of life, tertiary to their lives, as such was the experience for the United Kingdom throughout the course of the war. The British had a vastly different experience than the rest of Europe, and Hope and Glory is refreshing in its capture of it.

Throughout the film the various British myths and propaganda are debunked with comedic flair. The concept of family as a binding agent for society is subverted: while the Rohans are together and closer at the end of the film, it has its disfunctions and isn’t magically cohesive. Dawn has a sexual relationship with a Canadian soldier who eventually impregnates her and marries her (she’s 16, by the way). Billy’s mom doesn’t miss her husband very much while he’s working for the army and is able to share her true feelings with the family friend Mac who feels the same for her. The concept of family is shown in a real way that doesn’t hold true to propaganda.

In the context of Billy’s childhood, war is a grand time. Bombed out buildings provide a playground for him and the neighborhood boys, complete with semi-destroyed clubhouse and plenty of things to go and smash. Unlike Forbidden Games, Ivan’s Childhood, Germany, Pale Mother, or Come and See, innocence is never lost or ripped away by the war – it’s still fun and games for Billy. He sees destruction of his neighbors’ homes, sure, but an 8-year-old cannot fully understand why it’s not nice to go ask the girl down the street whose house was just bombed that night if her mom died in the blast (she did). Hope and Glory presents a child’s truth of war, one perhaps more real than the mythic one of the great British empire, with “everyone doing their bit”. Instead we are meant to rethink the British mythos of World War II, and even mock it a little bit.

Review Two

By Natalie Davis

Grade:  B

Hope & Glory may seem initially like overly patriotic British propaganda. However, upon taking a closer look, it becomes a self-aware satirical view on British imperialism.  This story follows one family: a husband who fights briefly in the war; a mother who is not in love with her husband, but with his best friend; a daughter who has a love affair with a Canadian soldier, a young boy fascinated by war, and a very small daughter.  The main character in this film, Billy, is a young schoolboy who sees the war around him as something exciting, not scary.  Throughout the war, Billy’s life does not change dramatically, but instead ends up helping him in small ways: he makes new friends, he grows closer with his father and grandfather, and last but not least his school gets burnt down so he doesn’t have to go to class.

This film seems patriotic upon first glance; in the end the family is stronger than ever and the main character is happier than he has ever been.  However, after breaking down the movie, it holds a much deeper and meaningful portrayal of British citizens during World War II.  Hope and Glory contrasts Billy’s innocence and naivety about the war by including older, more ambiguous characters.  These characters, such as Billy’s grandfather and Billy’s teacher, are more knowledgeable about the war and support the growth of the British Empire.  The film comically depicts these older characters as idiotic adults who are stuck in their own beliefs and cannot see the greater truth.  These adult characters follow tradition British values: they do their ‘bit’ in war and assume others to do the same.  On the other hand, the Billy and most of his family do not do their ‘bit’, they make selfish choices in the war and they are ultimately the happiest.  Hope and Glory supports the notion that being a good, supportive citizen to your country is not necessary.  Instead of regurgitating the government’s ideals, one should look at everything through a child’s eyes.  People should see the world innocently, logically, and do what they fell is right.  Hope and Glory is ultimately quite an ironic name for this movie, because it is does not support typical British ideals.

Review Three

By Jill Teitelbaum

Grade:  C

Released in 1987, Hope and Glory portrays an imperfect British family whose seemingly ridiculous experience of WWII successfully serves as a critique of the increasingly obsolete and hypocritical old imperialist Britain as well as the myth of a united and austere war effort. The story is told through the lens of a naive British boy, Billy. He lives with his ungrateful mother, daft father, promiscuous older sister and unnoteworthy baby sister.

The opening scene of the movie sets the tone when it shows school children running around chaotically while an official government message warns about the imminent war. Their attention is only regained when the Western film that had been interrupted for the message resumes. According to Billy, when the war was finally declared, “everyone said ‘Fancy starting a war on such a beautiful day.’” Shortly thereafter, Billy’s father is deployed and throughout the film the family dynamic shifts as the war progresses. His mother is unfazed by her husband’s absence and we later learn that she still has feelings for her former flame, Mac. Her happy marriage, like many other things in the movie, turns out to be more of an act than anything. The community enjoys the idea of British patriotism more than living it. Everyone was expected to do their part to support the war effort and defend the “pink bits,” however they were less keen on making the necessary sacrifices. Instead, they went through the motions of being patriotic without internalizing genuine austerity and selflessness.

Billy’s urban middle-class neighborhood is bombed, burned and even visited by an ejected German soldier. Despite the serious implications of these events, the neighborhood continues to foster an unbothered and self-interested lifestyle. For example, Grace has a romantic picnic on the beach with Mac. With anti-watercraft obstacles and barbed wire in the background, the two of them reminisce about their past. The contrast between their environment and their conversation is comical. There were many examples of this frivolous attitude throughout the movie. Billy’s older sister is only concerned about having a good time. She sneaks out to party and initially rejects a marriage proposal from her Canadian lover claiming she doesn’t want to wait around for him. When Billy and his family leave the city to stay with his maternal grandparents, we meet his imperialist grandfather. The grandfather bemoans having had four daughters. His only perceived use for them was forming a string quartet. The grandfather also accuses his daughters of marrying deadbeats, meanwhile, he plays cricket and boats along the scenic river while other men are dying for their country. His hypocrisy and outdated beliefs represent the old British empire.

Overall, the adults in the movie are incapable of taking the war effort seriously and putting their country’s interests before their own. Similarly, the children struggle to grasp the gravity of the war. For example, at the very beginning, Billy laments, “I’m going to miss the whole war, and it’s all your fault!” This attitude was apparently unaffected by the experience of the war. In one of the final scenes, Billy’s school is bombed. In reaction to this, his schoolmate looks skyward and joyfully shouts, “Thank you, Adolf!” This tone-deaf remark captures the shared naivete and superficial patriotism of the Brits in this movie.