Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Moving Pictures: Truth, Fantasy, and Lies

Overseas flights go a lot more smoothly when you’ve got one of those seatback video screens to keep you company. Typically, they offer a wide range of movies, both old and new. It’s the ultimate couch-potato experience, except instead of sprawling comfortably on a sofa you’re strapped into a tiny seat with your knees approaching your chin. And bathroom breaks are tricky indeed. But I digress.

Since I never manage to conk out on airlines, I spent the long hours between Newark and the Middle East in movieland. First up was the Michael Jackson documentary film, This Is It. The shock here, of course, was the realization that Jackson, who appears so vital in the filmed dress rehearsals for his upcoming concert tour, would soon be dead. Pictures don’t lie? This Is It gives no glimpse of the tortured insomniac we all learned about in the news media following Jackson’s too-soon demise.

Next I watched, back-to-back, two of my favorite British comedies, A Fish Called Wanda and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The surprising discovery here had to do with the British response to American females. Though Wanda is an outrageous farce and Four Weddings a rom com, both feature American heroines (Jamie Lee Curtis and Andie MacDowell) who are smart, bold, and sexually assertive. In their presence, meek British males turn to jelly. Nice to see that Henry James’ late nineteenth-century view of the naïve American overwhelmed by the far-more-sophisticated European has been so thoroughly upended. On the other hand, the classic 1968 musical Funny Girl keeps to the older view in its portrayal of Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) as a sheltered American innocent who’s putty in the hands of the suave, accented Nicky Arnstein (played by a handsome but unlikely Omar Shariff). As seduction loomed, the lyric that stuck in my head was Brice’s panicked “Would a convent take a Jewish girl?” They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, I was thinking as my plane landed in Tel Aviv.

Coming home by way of Prague, I resumed my coach-potato ways, catching up on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (beautiful, slow, and excellent for catnaps) and the thoroughly engaging Friends with Benefits. But the man ahead of me was watching a segment of Band of Brothers that incorporated actual Holocaust-era footage of emaciated bodies being bulldozed into a common grave. A glimpse of these horrors sent my mind reeling. In Jerusalem, I’d visited Yad Vashem, where the methodical Nazi slaughter of Jews is chronicled in excruciating detail. And outside of Prague is Terezin, also known by its German name, Theresienstadt. Inside this ancient fortress, Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population was sequestered by the Nazis in what was billed as a model community. In fact it was the first of the Nazi concentration camps, where residents quickly succumbed to starvation and rampant disease.

When the International Red Cross came to check on the Jews’ fate, the Nazis were one step ahead of them. They hid the sick and dying, and trotted forth new arrivals who were still in relatively good health. The carefully-coached Jewish inmates cheered each other on the soccer field, and the visitors were guests of honor at a charming soiree featuring a children’s opera group. The Red Cross folks went off, satisfied. The Germans also shot propaganda footage of the “happy” Theresienstadt inhabitants. Bits of it, often referred to as The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, can still be viewed. But not by the film’s stars, who were soon on their way to Auschwitz. Who says pictures don’t lie?


  1. This one took a turn I wasn't expecting! I do love John Cleese. He's in one of my absolute favorite episodes of CHEERS spouting off line after line of that patently sardonic wit. Oh, and who could forget him in FAWLTY TOWERS! It took me a few episodes to warm up to it, but once that show got going, it was hilarious.

    A somber way to end the post, Beverly, but an enlightening one just the same. Have you read Iris Chang's NY Times Bestseller The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of WW2, by chance? It's definitely one of those books you can't put down.

  2. I haven't read it, but I know a little about the subject. Yes, it's urgent that all these genocidal acts be brought to light. Especially while there are still survivors around to tell their story. I was impressed to hear on the radio that survivors of the recent genocide in Rwanda were in L.A. visiting the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation established by Steven Spielberg, to learn how to document their own horror stories for future study.

  3. A very sobering post, Ms. Gray. And through a deft segue from the comic lunacy of John Cleese and A Fish Called Wanda to concentration camp propaganda films. We (my friends and family) were just debating the old "if you travelled back in time and came upon Hitler as a child, what would you do?" Although some answers at the most dire end of the spectrum were given, the final decision that allowed the conversation to end to everyone's satisfaction is that the best option was to simply snatch child Hitler forward to the present day - and raise him better. Kind of a hopeful idea, compared to the other options.