Tag Archives: Ethics

The Book Thief

bookthiefThe Book Thief (2013) is a beautiful if flawed adaptation of the 2005 young adult novel with the same title. It looks at life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of a young German girl. Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) has lost her mother as the film begins; her mother is a communist, presumably taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel is adopted by the working-class Hubermanns (played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who become progressively poorer as the war drags on. Her adopted father, Hans, is in trouble for not joining the Nazi Party, and he has a penchant for sticking up for the underdog. Rosa, his wife, appears to be a stingier sort of person, but shows her true colors when the son of an old friend of Hans’, a Jew, appears starving at their door.

The film follows this threesome through the war, and it surprises in ways that I will not spoil with this commentary. There is nothing in the film I would not show a middle-schooler. (For more about the film’s suitability for children, see its entry at www.kids-in-mind.com.)

The book and film take their name from Liesel, who takes a book she cannot even read at the beginning of the film, and who continually acquires books through questionable or dangerous means.

Commentary

The Book Thief offers us a chance to ponder what was going on with ordinary Germans during the Holocaust years. It takes us inside the home of a couple who feel sympathy for communists and Jews, but who are poorly equipped to take a heroic stand against Nazism. It takes us into the schoolyard, where young Liesel faces the full range of her neighbors’ loyalties and inclinations, from Franz, an enthusiastic Nazi and bully, to Rudy, who idolizes Jesse Owens and cannot understand why he must keep that enthusiasm quiet. It introduces us to the neighbors, some who disapprove of the Hubermanns’ unwillingness to join the Nazi Party and others who seem to silently agree with them that the world has lost its mind.

In this setting, every small act may have outsize consequences. I understand that some reviewers found the film “boring,” but I found the film to have a growing, needling tension. First there is the ordinary calm of a schoolroom, but with Nazi flags and Hitler’s photo, there’s an edge to it. Then with each plot development the Hubermann family seems more vulnerable, between Han’s penchant for showing his humanity at the wrong moment to Liesel’s dangerous book acquisitions. Since I had not read the book, I was on the edge of my seat every moment, afraid that they were about to be exposed.

I understand that the role of Max, the Jew in the basement, is much smaller in the film than in the book. He is still a compelling figure, a gifted teacher who encourages Liesel’s passion for words while trapped in a cold, damp basement.

The Book Thief is a film about transcendence: the power of love to transcend a horrible situation and about the power of a good narrative to transcend an ugly present.  In bare outline, Liesel’s childhood was horrible, one terrible loss after another. As told in the film, however, she is very much a loved child and able to survive her losses partly because of her passion for a good story.

Questions for Discussion

1. Given her motivation (and just what was that motivation?) what did you think of Liesel’s borrowing or stealing books from the Bürgermeister’s house? What was she risking by taking the books? Was it worth it?

2. What was your initial impression of Rosa? Did your impression change, and if so, at what point in the story? Why?

3. What books would you be willing to steal, if it were the only way to get them? Under what circumstances would you consider it justifiable to steal books?

4. In this film, a number of “ordinary people” face ethical challenges. What would you do (or have you done) in these situations:

  • Someone hungry and desperate asks you for help. You fear they may bring disaster on your home.
  • You desperately want something that belongs to someone else.
  • Someone you believe to be innocent is handled violently by police.
  • Someone you love has a secret, and they won’t tell you what it is.

5. Is it true that love can transcend even a situation like Liesel’s, or is this film ultimately foolish and sentimental for suggesting it?

 

 

Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)

I’ve never written a post about two films at once before, but today I am writing about two films that cry out for that treatment.  Casino Jack (feature film, 2010) and Casino Jack and the United States of Money (documentary, 2010) cover much the same territory, and each of them is incomplete.  Together, however, they offer a disgusting but nevertheless fascinating trip into the world of Washington politics and the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Abramoff was a former College Republican who dabbled in screenwriting and movie production until he discovered the calling that would make him infamous:  he became a Washington lobbyist.  In 2004 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee began to investigate his dealings on behalf of several American Indian tribes and casinos, and a sordid tale involving gambling, tribes, offshore sweatshops, lots and lots of money, murder, the Mob, and figures close to the Bush White House unravelled before the horrified members of Congress, many of whom had benefitted from Abramoff’s largesse.

Convicted in 2008 of trading meals, pricey gifts, and travel in exchange for political favors, Jack Abramoff made yet another trade in exchange for a prison sentence of only four years:  he agreed to cooperate with a massive bribery investigation of lawmakers, their staff, and figures in the Bush Administration.  Ultimately 21 people either plead guilty or were convicted in the subsequent trials.

The documentary, written and produced by Alex Gibney, is a meticulous account of l’affaire Abramoff, including interviews with all the players in that drama.  It lacks only one essential thing for real understanding:  Abramoff himself refused to be interviewed. His motives, and his reflections after the fact remain a question.  We are left to wonder why a person who initially had high ideals and remarkable gifts of persuasion chose to invest his gifts in a con.

The feature film, made at the same time as the documentary, looks precisely at that question:  what possessed the man?  It was directed by George Hickenlooper  a filmmaker whose greatest credits were his documentaries (he won an Emmy in 1992 for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse about the making of Apocalypse Now.)  Casino Jack sometimes has the feel of a documentary, especially in scenes like the Senate hearing, in which Kevin Spacey‘s performance  as Abramoff is intercut with real footage of the Senate hearing and the real John McCain.  However, in that scene, the film seques into a dream sequence in which Abramoff confronts the members of the panel with their own misdeeds (in the real hearing, he plead the fifth again and again and again.)

The weakness of the feature is that it attempts to stuff the voluminous details of a complicated political episode into 108 minutes of entertainment film.  Critics didn’t like it, and neither did the public, so the film appeared at the box office and faded from view almost immediately.  That’s a shame, really, because the story itself is an important one.

Commentary

The feature film left me with the impression that Abramoff did what he did because he got caught up in the game of finding ways to persuade people to give him their money.  He may also have been looking for validation of his own worth in money and in the respect or fear of important men.  Spacey’s performance gave me an impression of a vain, silly man who was good at intimidating others and impressing himself, but who was at heart an empty shell.

Abramoff justified his actions with his philanthropy, and his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. His view of himself as a virtuous man completely blinded him to his despicable acts. An interview since his release from prison in 2010 suggests that perhaps he now understands that studying Torah does not make up for a failure to live Torah.

One key to his side into criminal behavior is mentioned in the documentary:  during his years with the College Republicans, there was a belief that since they were on the side of right, any behavior on its behalf was therefore right.  “Politics is war,” and the winners would write history.  Abramoff was rewarded as a young man for winning at all costs, and so it never occurred to him to ask uncomfortable questions later, when “winning” had become defined by his bank account.

Taken together, these films provide a deeply disturbing picture of Washington.  They are also a description of how a well-meaning, idealistic man could go so horribly wrong.


Munich

Munich (2005) is a fictionalized account of real events following the brutal murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.   Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the assasination of 11 surviving men who had been involved in the murders, members of the Black September militant group.  Secret squads of  agents were assembled for the task.   The film, which producer/director Steven Spielberg describes as “historical fiction” simplifies the account considerably, telling the story of the assasinations mostly from the point of view of the leader of one of the squads, Avner, played by Eric Bana.  The film received good reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner & Eric Roth), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn) and Best Original Score (Composed by John Williams).

The screenplay is based on the book,  Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by journalist George Jonas, which in turn was based on the story of Yuval Aviv, who claims to have been a Mossad agent.

The film begins as a conventional thriller but moves steadily into an examination of questions about justice, revenge, and the human costs of each.  Each of the men on the squad is changed by his experiences carrying out the orders.  Several of them eventually question the morality of the orders.  The film also includes several discussions Avner has concerning the nature of home and family:  with his fellows, with a young Palestinian leader about his own age, and with the father of the mysterious French informant who sells them the whereabouts of their quarry.

There were two sets of controversy surrounding the film’s content.  Some critics, including Zionist organizations and Leon Weiseltier of the New Republic, felt that the film erred in presenting terrorism and anti-terrorism as morally equivalent activities.  Other critics wrote that no such equivalency was made, rather that the film raises the issue of the toll that this sort of activity exacts on the individuals who carry it out and on the nation that sponsors it.

Other critics have argued that the film did not depict the events accurately enough, leaving out essential parts of the true story such as the Lillehammer Affair (in which an innocent man was assassinated in a case of mistaken identity.)  Israeli sources have suggested that the film’s depiction of the questioning and soul-searching of the agents is mere fiction and seriously misleading.

Note:  this film is extremely violent and not suitable for children or the sensitive.

Commentary

The film raises some of the complex questions that  bedevil the subject of a proper response to terrorism.  Tthe rabbis of old were very clear that the lex talonis (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) was not to be taken literally, and that justice is something that happens in a court, not by private revenge.   Civilized people seek justice under the law rather than revenge.  However, in 1972 the Israeli leaders believed that it was essential to retaliate for the murders of its athletes because the rest of the world seemed uninterested in pursuing justice in this case.  The Games continued, and in many parts of Europe, the Black Septemberists were portrayed as heroes, not as murderers.

I remember vividly watching the events of Munich unfold on our family TV when I was a teenager.  I recall being shocked that the Games simply continued after a mass murder, and that the Germans, indeed the world, seemed to feel that since many of the terrorists were dead, there was nothing for the police to do. I confess that I was glad later when I learned that the Israeli government decided to take action, although this film makes me wonder at the methods and the cost.   I believe it is important both to ask this sort of question and to remind myself, and my reader, that this film is a work of fiction.  The truth is I do not know how truthfully it depicts the decisions and actions of the real people.  It is useful for theoretical speculation, but it is not useful for passing judgment either on Golda Meir or, for that matter, on Yuval Aviv, the man upon whom the fictional character Avner is supposedly based.  For that, we need facts, not fiction.

At the end of the film, Avner says to Ephraim, his Mossad handler, “What did we accomplish?” pointing out that everyone they killed had been replaced by someone even more brutal.  Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush, gives a reply indicating that he thinks Avner’s question is naive. The question is left in the viewer’s lap:  is this necessary?  Is it right?  Is it really the best option?

One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is the question raised by one of Avner’s team:  why didn’t they capture those guys, take them back to Israel, and put them on trial like Eichmann?  In Golda Meir’s speech early in the film there is a suggestion that the proper response to terror is more terror:  scare them so they won’t do this again.  Another reason given early in the film is that it is much easier to kill them than to kidnap them.

Has anyone ever come up with a truly effective response to terrorism, one that does not simply breed more terrorists?

Questions for Discussion

1.  Has a work of fiction ever shaped your understanding of a historical event?  Is it responsible for a filmmaker or novelist to “fictionalize” an account of a historical event?  Does the artist have any responsibility to let viewers  know which parts of the film or novel are fiction?  Does the viewer or reader have any responsibility to search out the facts?

2.  What do you think the Israeli government should have done in response to the murder of the Olympic team?  Why?

3.  What is the difference between justice and revenge?  Which term would you use to describe the events in this film?

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is one of Woody Allen‘s best films, a thriller in which, as the film critic Roger Ebert wrote, the suspense is not about what will happen to people, but what decisions they will make.  The film consists of two stories, which meet only at the end.  In the first, a drama, a successful opthalmologist played by Martin Landau lives a charmed life:  he has financial success, a beautiful family, a happy marriage, and the esteem of his community.   He chooses to have an affair with a flight attendant, (Anjelica Huston) and when he decides to break off the affair, she becomes furious, threatening every good thing in his life.  He seeks advice about what to do:  from a patient who is a rabbi, and from his brother, a ne’er-do-well with Mob connections.  Each offers him his best suggestion, but the doctor has to choose.    In a parallel story, a comedy, a documentary filmmaker accepts a job making a film about his brother-in-law, a successful Hollywood producer (Alan Alda), in order to raise money for a film he is making about a philosopher.  The filmmaker is in a failing marriage, and he becomes infatuated with the associate producer, played by Mia Farrow.  He chooses to try to initiate an affair with her.

All the decisions of all the characters are played out by the end of the film.  We are left to consider the nature of good and of evil, of faith and skepticism, of love and hate.

Commentary

(NOTE:  there are spoilers in the commentary and questions.  Stop here if you do not want to know what choices the men make.) If I were to interview Woody Allen myself, there is one question I would love to ask him:  Did he write Crimes and Misdemeanors with Psalm 94 consciously in mind?  The question in this film is precisely that of the Psalmist when he asks, in Psalms 94:3 “How long will the wicked, Adonai, how long will the wicked be jubilant?”  I might be inclined to say no, this is just the eternal cry against the unjustness of life, except for verse 7, which says: “They say, ‘Adonai does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.'”  Again and again in the movie, the murdering opthalmologist quotes his father, who said, “God sees everything.”  And yet, by the end of the film, despite that, nothing bad has happened to the murderer.  Apparently there there will be no divine retribution for the sin of killing an inconvenient lover.

Allen’s vision of the world is utterly bleak.  He sees the bad guys getting away with their crimes, and the better man getting nothing.  However, the better man isn’t without his own sins:  he is simply an ineffectual bad guy.  As for the man of faith, the only truly good man in the film, he goes blind.

Questions

This is a great Jewish film because it engages with serious Jewish questions:  why be righteous?  What is the meaning of law?  Who sees most clearly, the blind rabbi or the guy who insists on “seeing the world as it really is”?  Is faith valuable, or is it merely self-deception?  Does faith make us stronger, or weaker?  What is Woody Allen saying in answer to these questions?  Do you agree or disagree with him?

Many of the characters in the film have an immature approach to faith; they go to childhood memories for their ideas about God.   The two exceptions — adults with mature approaches to faith —  are the philosopher and the rabbi, neither of which is a fully drawn character.  One of them dies a suicide, the other loses his eyesight.   What effect does this have on the discussion of the questions in the film?

Schindler’s List

schindlers-list-DVDcoverSchindler’s List (1993) is the most successful and famous of Holocaust films.  It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, an Austrian Catholic businessman who preserved the lives of over 1,000 Jews by putting them to work in his factory and then using his influence and his fortune to keep them from the death camps.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally, and the film was directed by Steven Spielberg.  It is meticulously researched and produced, and the end product is a searing film that merits its “R” rating.  Liam Neeson stars as Schindler, Ben Kinglsey as Yitzhak Stern, his bookkeeper, and Ralph Fiennes portrays Amon Goeth, one of the most reprehensible and terrifying figures in film.  This is not a film for children, but it is a truly great film.  It won 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations in 1994.

Commentary

This film has been the beginning of a Holocaust education for many people around the world, simply because of its availability and popularity.  It is an excellent source, but I would approach it with some caution:  it is NOT suitable for children, or for someone who gets nightmares from upsetting films, and while it is a good beginning of a Holocaust education, it should not be the end of anyone’s education.

I have been told by more than one survivor that Spielberg put on film what audiences would stand:  the real historical events were more horrible than anything that should be available on film.  Moreover, while narrative tells us a great deal, we also need to talk about the circumstances that came together to create the events we call “the Holocaust.”  Good as it is, the film does not say enough about the events it covers to be the final word on the subject.

All of that said, I would have tagged this film a “Must see!” were it not for the difficult content.  See it if you can, and discuss it with others.

Double Feature

For a non-fiction treatment of the topic, and especially of the details of the death camps, the 9.5 hours of Shoah are incomparable but horrific.   (I am not suggesting that one watch these two films as an actual double feature, in one sitting — I fear  that it might lead to suicidal depression and despair!  “Double Feature” is just a way of signifying in this blog that two films are related.)