Tag Archives: Jew

Compassion – Hanna(h)s and the Holocaust

I revisited The Reader, the film that finally saw Kate Winslet get her Oscar – as Ricky Gervais predicted, it was about the holocaust. There’s been other such observations (such as in new film The Congress) that this most sensitive subject, often cited as the greatest horror of this or any time, garners recognition.

I shared my initial thoughts on Bernhard Schlink’s tale – five years on, I stand by them all. I had further thoughts on the writing, which in neither case (book nor script) was perfect, but that’s not the focus of this post. You can see them on my Amazon reviews.

The impression that left me with was the assumption that awfulness and shame is the only response that Germans leave themselves for the events of and around World War II; that it is beyond forgiveness, and to attempt it is offensive to Jews – and I again point out that they were one of at least 4 groups (gay, gypsy, disabled too) who were targeted.

There is nothing to be learned, says the daughter who was in the fire and in concentration camps. In the film, Hanna Schmidt says it after her 20 years in prison, before taking her life. Neither party is allowed to grow; the whole story is about stagnant people, in victimhood and guilt. Although I am aware that what holocaust victims endured is something many of us have no idea of, I think all of us have experienced suffering and therefore am not unqualified to suggest that it is those darkest times especially where we see growth.

The Reader is about a court case of six SS guards. My response drifted from the legal response to – what would a counsellor or a minister say to these guards? Their business is not justice in the philosophical sense of logical wranglings, but of the heart.

Hannah Arendt is a film about a very similar subject – the 1960s trial of SS workers. This time, the trial is real and there is only one employee in the dock – an infamous senior one, and whose actions make far more sense to bring to court. (One of my criticisms of The Reader is that the church on fire was a case of manslaughter/Samaritan Law, not a war crime – the things the guards did which might have been weren’t the focus of the trial, thus weakening the premise). In both stories, the defendants are a synecdoche, standing for the vast army of SS workers during Nazi Germany, and the persons are made to represent a historic moment rather than the deeds of the individual.

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew who was captured in the war, and yet her attendance at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem yields more generous results than the immature fictional Michael Berg who was not implicated or involved in the camps – he wasn’t even born.

Both stories involve a defendant who seems to have lost their moral compass, and can only think in terms of their duty and orders. They cannot grasp their part in sending people to their death; it is a conveyor belt, and once they have done their part on the assembly line, they do not think about the next.

Hannah Arendt’s summation was that Eichmann’s lack of thinking was what made the atrocities he masterminded possible. It is true of Hanna Schmidt, the imaginary guard and lover of Michael in The Reader. Hanna doesn’t just not think, she can’t read; in learning, she faces some of her past by reading about the Holocaust, including Hannah Arendt’s. This hugely important point was left out of the film and Hanna is given even less scope for anything positive than in the book.

What most made me angry was that Kate Winslet, who I admire, said that if viewers sympathised with Hanna whom she played, they would (or should) feel morally compromised.

Wrong. You are never morally compromised for feeling compassion.

That means, to feel with: it is not about endorsing, just listening and empathy.

I again bring up my therapist and pastor, whose business it is not to condemn, but to facilitate a way back to wholeness. I again note how The Reader uses theological terms, which are actually from the legal – redeem, atone, justification, propitiation, expiation. They are ugly in pulpit and court; the two shouldn’t be conjoined.

What scares me most, what makes these stories relevant, is not perpetuating the suffering of the groups who were killed and the now remorseful perpetrators of the last world war. It is that the mindset that made that Nazi movement possible is still with us.

It starts with the milder things, with something that seems reasonable.

But I warn against creating enemies and unquestioning allegiances.

You are never just doing your job – you are never excused from thinking, or your conscience. Conscience is knowing with, and that is not a matter for only thought – it is a feeling, and intuition.

If your role takes away liberties, crushes, oppresses; if you are afraid to stand up to your employer – than something is gravely wrong and needs to be stopped. No contract should ever ask personal principles to come second to work.

It can be in smaller ways – random searches, taking or demanding money that causes poverty and fear; refusing an appeal. Many of us have opportunities and powers in this way. Thinking of them as papers or stats to clear, not as real people, is the first step. That’s how the army gets its staff to kill – targets are other, they are not like you. But this can be true of judges, police and enforcement, customs staff, welfare. Belle is the story of a judge who used his power well.

In small ways, we can begin that change: to refuse to act out of suspicion and prejudice, to break the chain of command which puts pressure on the next person, which uses fear to coerce. We can choose not to believe hype that would justify such actions.

If we never lose sight that the other person isn’t other, they’re a person, we could halt the fear and aggression and ensure dictatorships never again rise.

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Hannah and Diana

Two films in three days, both about real controversial but remarkable 20th century women whose actions in the media caused them strife.

But these women have little else in common. The greatest difference is my relationship with them. Hannah Arendt was known to me as a university seminar name, a face on my women philosophers display in a bookshop that I made when I ran that section. I’d forgotten that face so I do not know (I am going to peek shortly) if Barbara Sukowa who played Hannah in the film resembled the real Hannah. She was not yet real to me.

And there was the other great difference – I do not know Hannah’s story so I could take the film as it came. I noted, despite the German hand in both films, the English language biopic flavour, and it wasn’t a welcome observation. I felt Hannah Arendt tried too hard to taunt and attract an American audience with clichéd quips about the nation that annoy me as much as stiff upper lips and tea drinking. It is in German and English, which may encourage non subtitle watchers to get over that barrier.

Despite the labouredness of the brash ignorant Americans, I very much enjoyed this film. I liked it best for putting philosophy into a drama without making it clunky – an art to learn. It’s relevant to a paper I am preparing where I’ll reference Hannah’s thoughts about how evil can only be done with the cooperation, or at least non resistance of good people – a statement she made about her fellow Jews and the holocaust which caused an outrage.

The Diana film also had a quote along similar lines: that evil can only happen when good people stand by and do nothing. But the contexts are different and I could go into a discourse about whether evil is absolute or a perspective, and whether military intervention is ever justified. I’ll save most of that for elsewhere, but just to remark here that it’s possible for the perpetrators of evil to believe they are following the honour code of duty and have therefore done nothing wrong, as Hannah thought of Nazi leader Eichmann. His banality or not is not something I’ll discuss here. But personality (or its lack) does bring me back to what I’d like to say on both films.

Hannah’s personality is a strong one, though the critique of her being arrogant and unfeeling is fired at her in the film. Yet she is seen as sympathetic and charismatic and caring to her friends and devoted to her husband. But Naomi Watt’s Diana seems to lack that personality, and unlike Hannah, I know Diana well.

Well, what I mean of course, is that I know lots about her. I am one of the many who admired her but didn’t meet her and my opinions are coming from third hand information – something abhorrent to me as a historian. The books about Diana that you might think methodologically are most reliable are the most dubious – those written by former ‘special friends’. I think that if one is really close to a famous person, that you protect and respect their confidences. I am very likely to return one source to the charity shop from whence it came, for the shallow tabloid mentality at its worst, aggrandising the author whilst decrying other special friends. Whenever you read, “Source close to…. says”, you know that they’re not real friends – or won’t remain so.

So I wonder where this new Diana film gains its source, as her lover Hasnat Khan was a private man and this was a mostly secret affair, so how do we know what happened between them? My dubious book, by a special healer friend,  does corroborate most of the film’s story.

Unlike other reviewers, I won’t make personal remarks on an actor’s ability or looks or predict where their career will go because of a performance. But I will say that I don’t think Naomi Watts has captured Diana. I’m half annoyed at actor of another nationality depicting our English Rose. I excused the Aussie in Elizabeth, my favourite film, because Cate Blanchett was magnificent. But Naomi did not convey the presence that I suspect Diana must have had, which went beyond face touching and hand holding. The Mail – my least favourite newspaper – showed a contrasting picture of Naomi doing the Bashir Panorama interview and the real Diana. French and Saunder’s makeup department were more accurate than this in their many take offs. Diana’s trademark immaculately thick swept hair was part of the glamour that earned Diana her celebrity status. Although Naomi says her role was not mimicry but interpretation, her performance was not enough of either, and she hasn’t got the twinkling warmth or downcast eyes right.

I also did not warm to Hasnat Khan’s portrayal. I am aware that he is alive, and can be hurt by comments, and by a stranger who does not know the real person. But I will say that the arrogance of a high ranking surgeon who chain smokes but assumes his right as doctor to lecture patients on health, who constantly speaks of ‘my work’ like a scratched disk, who freaks about publicity though he encounters so little compared to Diana and her other lovers… I could break off to do a rant on experiences of allopathic doctors who assume that their intrusive, dangerous methods are the only right ones, and that when Hasnat asks for permission to do another operation, the “of course” of the next of kin is assumed, as so often is the case.

Perhaps the real Hasnat is (now) very different – I hope so. I do know he experimented on sheep and killed them, which ought to be treated as a crime. I did not feel, as Diana in the film says, that he performs with focus and love, or that there was something remarkable about him when we first see him. But as we often don’t hear the internal monologue of characters in film, sometimes it’s very hard to get that sense of an intense emotion and reaction. This wasn’t a physically charged love at first sight but something else that we only learn about too long after to fully convince us of their love. Naveen Andrews does not resemble Hasnat and implied to me that standard good looks is the only type of face that Diana would have fallen for. Perhaps Hasnat’s real qualities are somewhat different. I liked the little he is on record for saying, and his discretion could teach much to certain butlers and therapists.

We’re not allowed to know Dodi – is that for fear of upsetting his father, or is the film saying that this was a playboy ruse to amuse Diana and to taunt Hasnat for breaking up with her? It’s not set up as a story of 2 lovers, but of one love and mistaken attention given to the wrong man at the end of her life. My sympathies were with Diana for ending it with this Hasnat who put his family and his work first and seemed not to really understand who Diana was, who had an angry temper, and who I was happy to see her let go of.

I felt both films were respectful and sympathetic to their titular heroines and those close to them, and aimed at a wide audience. After assembling my own view, I found out that Diana has come under criticism. I’d like to highlight the paucity of the Independent review, whose opening slag-off uses inaccurate similes such as “as flat and wet as Norfolk” (it undulates and it’s less wet than the West of Britain). The Independent review gropes for other comparisons, supposedly witty, acerbic and comic, but gives little substance to the review nor engages with the film. His review was not the only one that’s true of.

I enjoyed Diana, which started off artily but became one of the British stable of crowd pleasing biopics. But then I didn’t like The King’s Speech or The Queen for just that reason.

As a story, Diana arcs and bookmarks well with the intrusive cameras of that Parisian hotel and sessions with a healer (not the book writing one) where Diana has transformed her recurring dream from falling into one of flying; yet I didn’t feel this Diana had made the metamorphosis that the real one seemed to. The final spoken words reflect a romantic poem already referenced in the film, implying a posthumous recognition of Hasnat and Diana’s love. And the final words, a title card, remind us of the best of Diana’s charity work achievements, whilst tying up Hasnat’s life simply and without judgement, implying his good work also continues (unless you’re a sheep).

The film was too focussed on Hasnat’s relationship and eerily quiet about others, and portrayed Paul Burrell in the same mould as his predecessor. It’s made me think of Diana again, but I’m come away with a sense of disappointment. But it did push her landmine victories, and that rightly is something to leave us with as an enduring memory.

And as for Hannah Arendt – I chose to watch this two more times, and enjoyed it more, whilst being less annoyed. This is profound, quality film making, a long lasting love story against public outrage with characters not made to look supposedly more glamorous in film. I have not had further thoughts or inclination towards Diana the movie.

Hannah Arendt screened at the Cambridge Film Festival and was released in the UK in October 2013. Diana was released  in the UK at the end of September.

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