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Tiananmen’s Individualist

Tiananmen individualistWhatever his identity, the lone individual who stood against the state 25 years ago this Thursday (June 5) remains a man of inspiration.

The sight of one man standing alone against the tyranny of dictatorship – in this case Communist China – came to symbolize the crusade for freedom in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall would come down and millions of people would be liberated from slavery.

Sadly, as I suspected at the time, it was an interlude before new forms of totalitarianism would rise, spread and strike and destroy civilization across the globe. But this image of a single act of heroism, which took place during an uprising at Tiananmen Square in Beijing and to some extent took root in China, moves me still. Such heroes who stand alone against the state march on. Edward Snowden comes to mind. Though the West is, in its impending collapse, choosing to punish heroes as traitors, and celebrate, create (and, yesterday, release) anti-heroes instead, men like the one pictured here are exactly what the world needs now.

Movie Review: The Last Sentence

TLS posterThe setting of the 2012 Swedish movie The Last Sentence (which opens in limited U.S. engagement on June 20) is Goteborg, Sweden. The story occurs just as Adolf Hitler is rising to Nazi power in Germany and soon Sweden must decide its future and choose – or not choose – between the Nazi dictatorship and Soviet dictatorship as both menaces converge on Scandinavia. Torgny Segerstedt, an academic who writes for the city’s newspaper, hates Hitler but he loves, or in any case fixates upon, dogs, women and, most of all, his mother, who is dead, though he sees her in various youthful apparitions.

Oscar-nominated director Jan Troell (who wrote the screenplay) unfolds this strange, evocatively photographed biopic with as much sense of purpose as one can have for such a thematically mixed plot. As Swedish intellectuals vacillate between ignorance and acquiescence and migrate toward their leaders’ true philosophy of appeasement, Torgny (Danish Jesper Christensen) dares to speak out against the Nazis in biting words for his newspaper column. Of course, the married Torgny and Jewish Maja (Pernilla August), wife of his newspaper’s publisher, carry on an affair which may complicate his later attempts to defend his right to speak and write freely in a nation known for quieter causes.

This black and white epic, The Last Sentence, is curiously engaging for the prospect of a drama about the lone journalist against his own country. The trailer exploits this expectation. But it’s Torgny’s affair, and how it entraps two married couples in complicated lives, that dominates for the first hour or so, as slowly, glacially, Nazi Germany casts a cloud over Europe and Sweden. The columnist, never far from his three dogs, is bitter and cruel to his mentally unstable wife, who still grieves for their dead child, and as he beds the energetic Jewess Maja with abandon, he writes up a strong if singular voice of dissent to the gathering fascist storm.

Sounds timely and irresistible, doesn’t it? With a confiscation of printing presses, Swedes who choose to see nothing and hear nothing and an application of strychnine that recalls an awful scene from Cabaret, The Last Sentence in certain segments almost is.

But it isn’t and here’s why: Christensen’s Torgny, whether from Troell’s direction or script or at the actor’s own discretion, is too sour to be either effectively plausible as an intellectual influence or sufficiently sympathetic as an exceptional man with exceptional sexual needs. Mrs. Segerstedt can be cruel, too, and it is easy to see how these two drifted apart toward an angry marital state, but with a semi-permanent sneer as his facial expression and an uncomplicated proclivity for his mother, Torgny’s tortured existence tears the life out of the character and the fight out of the film.

What’s left unexamined is his inner life as an intellectual, apparently a scholar of comparative religions, how he came to defy the stubbornly non-confrontational ethos of his country and what relevance of any significance this has to do with his mommy issues. When one writer takes on the rise of Nazis in a nation where many look down on Jews and even the king would rather kneel before stormtroopers, the movie should be ripe with dramatic tension. But when the prime minister in an excellent scene finally tells Torgny over a meal: “You endanger national security with your writings”, I found myself coming up empty of empathy for Sweden’s most prominent anti-Nazi. Any movie with a main character opposing Nazis that expresses unrelated mental torment in the same character undermines both subplots.

As it is, the real Torgny Segerstedt may have been a true champion and utterly in turmoil at the same time but as it plays in the picture the two are really disconnected and it has the effect of dramatizing the theme that the only happy Swede is the Swede who plods along without much serious thought, not unlike the three dogs in The Last Sentence, content to look upon the oddly conflicted crusader getting all worked up about Hitler and the Nazis. That said, in the later and final scenes, there are beautiful shots and touches and great lines, including a reference to the Icelandic saga Havamal, the appearance of a child near the skull and crossbones and scenes of Nazis with their German shepherds symbolizing the real dogs of war. Torgny, ending up with three women in his life (not including the Freudian mother) and three dogs, with an overwrought reference to Don Quixote with a horse and lance, culminates with an insular, diluted, remote charge against injustice.

TV and DVD Review: Escape from Sobibor

EFS87CBSGerman SS and Nazis constructed the top secret death camp Sobibor in the spring of 1942 along a railway line in a remote, wooded region of Poland. The gassing of Jews arriving by boxcars began in May 1942, according to historians. The Holocaust Museum writes that “Nazi Germans ordered the Jews into the barracks and forced them to undress and run through the “tube,” which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. The women’s hair was shorn in a special barracks inside the “tube.” Once the gas chamber doors were sealed, in an adjacent room guards started an engine which piped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was repeated with the next freight cars.”

But on October 14, 1943, Jews fought back, waging all-out attack on the slavemasters and ghouls by carrying out a bold, impossible and vicious revolt in which many escaped to freedom. Before he died, writer, teacher and historian John David Lewis recommended a British movie (read the full interview here) about the daring death camp rebellion, Escape From Sobibor, which was televised on CBS in 1987.

Nazis and their allies killed at least 167,000 people at Sobibor. Those who organized the resistance group in the late spring of 1943 meticulously planned their counterstrike, plotting to surreptitiously eradicate key SS officials and start an uprising. The 2-hour film is a gripping dramatization of their heroic story. With a teleplay by Reginald Rose, based on the book by Richard Rashke and other source material including an unpublished manuscript, and directed by Jack Gold, Escape From Sobibor is must-see viewing for Jews and all people who are persecuted, oppressed and longing to live in freedom. It is the anti-Schindler’s List. This is because the Jews portrayed here are depicted fundamentally as individuals – not as a tribe – who fight and run for their lives. In fact, the most tradition-bound and faith-based among the prisoners are depicted without casting aspersions as passive and ready to die.

The opening takes place on a bright day with flowers and sunshine and innocent people painting what might be one’s home. But soon the camera comes to a cold, gray pole that rises and rises until one sees that this is a flagpole upon which the hoisted flag bears the mark of the swastika and the innocents are slaves who are marked for duty to the Aryan race and National Socialist state. After a failed escape, men are shot. Leon (Alan Arkin) flinches at the sound of a gunshot. Certain Jews are spared the gas chambers if they work a trade in order to serve those who commit the mass murder. Some Jews known as kapos do so willingly and some are better than others. Leon, who has lost his wife and children, leads them into what for some may become the great escape.

Getting off the boxcars, families are separated. Property is abandoned, to be seized by the state. A single old Jew disembarking from the train walks up and strikes a Nazi in the face and instantly it is clear that this death camp is different; here, Jews are not all passive, compliant pacifists who take obedience on faith. Some are exceptionally spirited in spite of the black smoke and what they sense or know it means. That they shudder in the shadows of mass death is proof of life. Some grasp this fact and a band of men, women and children bond. A few speak up to lead. A resistance forms.

“The better your behavior, the easier your stay here,” they are told by the Nazi government types, who order the Jews to obey, get in line and just follow orders. But quickly the individuals are introduced as individuals: Luka, Samuel, Yitzhak, Shlomo, Tolvi, others. Later, a blond Soviet Jew named Sasha (Rutger Hauer in one of his best performances) is imprisoned here with other Russian Jews. Arkin’s Leon eventually recruits eager, steely Luka (pitch perfect Joanna Pacula) with the deep set eyes to provide cover as they scheme to create an impossible liberation. But first there is the nonstop agony, grayness and death as kapos carry a whip, killer dogs bark at night and Leon breaks it to newcomer Yitzhak that “the fire is the funeral” and the black smoke signals death. As the men talk, grope and plan, Luka looks out the window at the cluster of huddled Jews and begins to understand.

Escape From Sobibor is distinctly British, not Hollywood, and its production is made for television. This means that action is earned, as in a miniseries, and resistance grows in each individual character slowly, in time, as men and women seek to better grasp what is reality, how to know, who to trust, how to feel, where to speak freely, why they bond and when to fight back. When some Jews rightly spew anger at kapos who get favored treatment and the Nazi-favored Jews spew back, Leon, the death camp’s moral and life force, steps in to enunciate the picture’s theme. Breaking up the conflict, he asks: “why do we fight amongst ourselves? If we have energy to spend, let us spend it against those who have reduced us to this.”

This is the tale of how they do.

For their part, the Nazis are as small and sadistic, and, surprisingly realistic, as such monsters have to be, commanding Jewish prisoners by force to imprint a snake in gold and tearing at each other with petty little hatreds such as whether it is permissible to use Jews for sex before they are gassed. “How many Jews did you gas today?” One of the fat, disgusting bastards asks one of the more efficient, punctual Germans, trying to put him in his cowardly place. But there are merely rungs of hell in Sobibor and the movie inches toward the moment they are about to burn.

“The best revenge is for you to survive,” one Jew tells another, as yet another failed escape leads to a doubling in executions with a diabolical twist that sparks the story’s shocking and honest solution to the problem of being “chosen” as Jews in this context. In this dank place near the river, Jews did not wait for God, prayers, traditions or fate, luck or a good German to get them out and when a good-looking Jewish man in love says “yes I can” and his beloved steps forward not to object to his risking death but to offer a superior weapon with which to kill, Escape takes on an urgent and unyielding suspense that can only be described as utterly absorbing. “My name is Herschel Zuckerman and don’t you forget it,” one Jew says as he does what must be done. In slow, small steps and segments and unplanned events that intervene with this impossible attempt to flee totalitarianism for freedom, the chosen that choose to resist, fight and kill use ladders, axes, guns, knives and anything within reach to disembody the death camp apparatus by disabling its brains foremost. Bloodied but unbowed, cutting through wires in front of wires and braving mines that blow their comrades apart, man, woman and child thrust, kill and run for their lives in an unforgettable Holocaust drama that should be seen by everyone so they know these heroes were real and once existed in a world now dominated by zombies and pod people.

Together, kapos and Jews run into the woods, valiant unsung fighters of Sobibor who have been overshadowed by topically and thematically inferior cinematic works of pain, misery, tradition, collectivism and playing for time. Escape From Sobibor finishes with a powerful narration by the late ABC News journalist Howard K. Smith, who began with a newsman’s introduction to this dark part of history and the words “this is that story…” and ends with tales of Jews who lived their lives in Connecticut, Israel and Santa Barbara (also, the Soviet Union, which is another, much worse horror story). The telefilm, brought to my attention by a passionate and inspiring war and history scholar who evoked the mythical 300 spartans, concludes as it commences, putting the rousing classical music set to enslavement and death in its proper, rightful context: liberation and life.

Rediscovering Christopher Columbus

CCSMCashing in on the promise of what one man staked his life and fortune upon over 500 years ago, remnants of an old discovery ship may have been found in what was once known as the New World.

According to news reports, Barry Clifford, an underwater explorer who in his early career worked in sea-based oil, construction, salvage and rescue operations for profit, discovered what he reportedly thinks may be the historic Santa Maria, pictured here with its captain Christopher Columbus in a painting. Clifford’s historic work includes recovery of artifacts from the Boston Tea Party. The undersea archaeologist has worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Discovery Channel and National Geographic Society and is president of the Provincetown, Massachusetts-based charity Center for Historic Shipwreck Preservation.

If Clifford’s discovery is confirmed, the find is a major historical achievement. The Santa Maria was flagship of the great voyage of Christopher Columbus, who discovered America and the West in 1492. Santa Maria, which is believed to have struck a reef off the coast of Haiti on Christmas Day, 1492, was the largest of three ships (the other two were the Nina and the Pinta). Scholars and experts say that the Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic Ocean without major trouble and was crucial to the historic voyage sponsored by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, which set sail from Spain in August 1492.

As Clifford told CNN: “This is the ship that changed the course of human history.”

Yes it is and apparently the Santa Maria has been found in the exact area where Columbus said the ship came to an end off Haiti’s northern coast. The purpose of Columbus’ voyage was to find a westward route to China, India and what used to be called the Far East to find gold, riches and spices. In October of 1492, his sailors spotted an island in the Caribbean Sea and thus essentially discovered the West. When Santa Maria ran aground on the reef in shallow waters – Clifford’s shipwreck discovery is apparently in 10 to 15 feet of water – the great captain ordered that the ship be stripped of timber and that Santa Maria’s planks and provisions be used at a fort the men built in Haiti, where the Santa Maria’s anchor is on museum display.

According to CNN, the underwater discoverer Clifford, fittingly an enterprising seaman who seeks to profit like Christopher Columbus, says a lombard cannon is key to his realization – and Clifford like Columbus relied on his own judgment – that the wreck that lies underneath the surface is what’s left of the Santa Maria. Also appropriately, perfectly so in the 21st century, much of what Columbus left there has been looted.

As Old and New Worlds wait for confirmation, I look forward to learning new facts and knowledge about this flagship and its grand voyage and unconquerable captain and explorer.


Essay on Los Angeles Riots (1992)

LA Riots book coverMy 2012 essay, “Remembering the 1992 Los Angeles Riots,” is reprinted with my permission in Cengage Learning’s Greenhaven Press textbook, The 1992 Los Angeles Riots (April 2014). Read the essay, originally published on Capitalism Magazine, here. The book is part of Cengage’s Perspectives on Modern World History educational series.

According to the publisher, each volume in the series opens with background information — including primary source material — covering periods leading up to, during and after the event. Then, each volume offers an in-depth perspective on the controversies surrounding the event and the current implications or long-lasting effects. Each volume concludes with first-person narratives from people who lived through or were directly impacted by the event.  Cengage says that essays are compiled from a variety of sources and included to provide context for readers unfamiliar with the historical event. I worked with Cengage and approved the reprinted essay and pull quotes. My thesis is that the riots were fundamentally caused by President George H.W. Bush. A slightly longer version of the essay, which included a personal account of how I escaped an attack by rioters, was posted on my Web site. Cengage says that Perspectives on Modern World History exists to foster critical thinking skills, support student debate assignments, increase global awareness and enhance understanding.

Features of each volume include annotated table of contents, introduction to the topic, a world map, three chapters that contain essays focusing on general background information, multinational perspectives and first-person narratives, full-color photographs, charts, maps and other illustrations, sidebars highlighting related topics, a glossary of key terms, chronology, bibliography of books, periodicals and Web sites and an index. I wrote the essay in conjunction with the riots’ 20th anniversary.