Posts Tagged ‘review’

Swimming in Auschwitz, PBS America, review: ‘harrowing’

July 9th, 2014

The antithesis of any notion of care was explored in Swimming in Auschwitz (PBS America) in which six women, all teenagers at the time, spoke of their experiences there. I am glad to say it was more harrowing than the suspiciously jaunty title suggested. (It referred to a hot summer day when one of the women in the camp on the way to her labour jumped into a deserted outdoor pool used by the Nazi guards, without being caught.) I don’t mean that Jon Kean’s film belonged to the horror-voyeuristic genre of concentration camp documentaries. It is simply that there should be no understating the black evil behind the picture built up by the mosaic of the six women’s testimonies. After watching it, my night was broken by a nightmare. It is a film anyone who can should see, but no one should be forced to.

I won’t heap up details – the three-day journey during which children died in a cattle truck with no food, water or lavatories, the lice, the shaven heads, the nakedness, the starvation, the cruelty, the experimentation, the constant fear. With what could these young women resist? Something human was all they could seek, some “purpose”. “To live for my mother,” one said. “That I will tell after,” said another.

Dehumanisation was a word used several times: they had been left numb and friendless. It is hard to be good in a hellish place. “I’m not saying we were angels,” one of the women, Erika Jakoby, said, “but I wouldn’t steal anybody’s food.” This plain statement actually reflects a degree of goodness that I couldn’t imagine emulating.

When another of the survivors spoke briefly of a man who secretly gave her three raw potatoes, I shed tears. Those are the kind of tears that some feel-good film could invite. But other tears welled up too, I found: tears of anguish at the things done there. They were definitely feel-bad. Perhaps it is human to feel very bad about our fellow humans too, sometimes.

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Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead, review: ‘riven with complexity’

July 7th, 2014

Before the war, the area had grown as a hikers’ resort in summer months; in the winter, snow made it almost inaccessible. This meant there were lots of guesthouses, hotels, schools and spare rooms. Pastor Andre Trocme, Eduoard Theis, an Englishwoman called Gladys Maber and many others began taking in Jewish children. There is the story of the Bloch family, who arrived later in the war, having been forced to leave an increasingly oppressive and menacing Lyon. The two Bloch boys loved the adventure of this new landscape. They were sometimes challenged by German soldiers, who demanded to know if they were Jewish. They replied that they were Protestant. Almost 50 years later, Pierre Bloch thanked the village “for my happy childhood as a little Jew during the Holocaust”. But it was still a nerve-shredding existence. All families on this high plateau – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – were subject to aggressive police visits; children would frequently have to be hidden in barns, in cupboards, out in the snowy woods. And there were many heart-in-mouth efforts to get groups of refugees across the heavily guarded border to Switzerland. The daily suspense grew more intense with the opening of a convalescent home for wounded German soldiers. Then there were the arrests and interrogations of community leaders.

Moorehead analyses the web of relations between villagers and local Vichy officials and even Wehrmacht officers who seemed intriguingly ambiguous. But she widens this investigation across the region, drawing in stories of astoundingly brave resistance, contrasted with the SS’s steadily more psychopathic behaviour as the Allies closed in.

Her book is also about ownership of history. Moorehead analyses how, in recent years, the story of Chambon-sur-Lignon has been fluffed up as a sort of national comfort blanket – a beacon of redemptive light in Vichy darkness – at the expense of other people and communities who defended Jewish fugitives. And at the expense of difficult truths. Some farmers who took in Jewish children, for instance, didn’t always treat them kindly. Equally, one German officer who wanted to hold a Jewish child on his lap at the circus was – that boy realised later – actually desperately missing his own boy.

If anything, Moorehead’s pacy, headlong narrative, zigzagging across the war years and different territories with so many piercing vignettes and close detail, packs too much in and the structure suffers. A longer book would have given more room for reflection, especially on the years that came after the war, the aftershocks of trauma for so many.

Having said that, stories of this weight could occupy several volumes and would still disorientate with all the possibilities – both altruistic and malevolent – of human nature.

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

356pp, Chatto & Windus, Telegraph offer price: £18 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £11.99). Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

READ: Best books of 2014

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The Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown, BBC Two, review

June 1st, 2014

There are war stories, and then there are War Stories. The subject of Britain’s Greatest Pilot: the Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown (BBC Two) was a Zelig of the Second World War and beyond, making cameo appearances in everything from the Nuremberg Rallies to the Battle of Britain, from the liberation of Belsen

to the trial of Hermann Goering. Eric “Winkle” Brown’s encounter with the latter was recalled with mesmerising precision – typical of a chipper 95 year-old with a memory to match. He was well served by Simon Winchcombe’s restrained, respectful film, introduced and overseen by historian James Holland. If it held few surprises in its presentation, at its heart lay a tale which needed scant embellishment.

What window-dressing there was came in the form of newsreel footage. Some of it was frivolous (juxtaposing the Austro-German Anschluss with The Lambeth Walk), much of it intensely serious. Brown looked haunted as he talked of Belsen concentration camp: seeing these “dying zombies” shattered his long-held admiration for the German people. These responses to death offered the deepest insights into the man. The dogfights above the Atlantic convoys were adventures, full of derring-do and excitement. Until, that is, his ship was sunk and he was left roped together with 23 survivors in the water. Only two of them made it through the night – “a very nasty business”.

His story was littered with such understatement. He was “a bit piqued” about being imprisoned by the SS at the outbreak of the war; and his response to getting through a test flight which had already claimed lives by the skin of his teeth? “I was pretty pleased about it.” Upper lips don’t come much stiffer, although the sober manner in which he recounted his record-breaking feats – 487 different aircraft flown, 2,407 aircraft carrier landings achieved – was usually matched by a twinkle in the eye.

Such extraordinary commitment to excellence – Brown himself called it an “obsession” – must have taken a terrible toll on his personal life and, barring a brief acknowledgement at the film’s close, there was a disappointing lack of curiosity about this: we only found out that he was married when he mentioned his wife’s concussion after a V1 missile attack. Getting inside the minds of pioneers is a fascinating pursuit, and this felt like a missed opportunity. No matter. His achievements were remarkable; this was a man who, while not quite changing the course of history, certainly gave it a gentle nudge in the right direction. A life very well lived.


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Generation War, episode 1, BBC Two, review: ‘never less than compelling’

April 29th, 2014

I’m possibly not alone in having groaned a little at the prospect of Generation War (BBC Two). Acclaimed as this German drama was in its homeland – described in Der Spiegel as “a turning point in German television” – I was pretty much all warred out already by the BBC’s commemorative First World War season. Did I really want to sit in with something just as bloody and depressing about the Nazis and the Second World War?

Well, yes, in many ways. Generation War was certainly well made and never less than compelling. Its theme lay in the title: an examination, by their heirs, of the morals and motives of the previous generation of Germans who followed Hitler and did his bidding. We started out simply enough meeting the main players – five young Berliners full of life and enthusiasm in July, 1941.

That they were quite so brimming with optimism seemed a mite unlikely given that two of them, Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and his brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling), were soldiers heading off to serve in a war Germany had been fighting for two years already. Charlotte (Miriam Stein) was preparing to serve as a behind-the-lines nurse, while Greta (Katharina Schüttler) had hopes of being the next Marlene Dietrich. Even less likely was that their pal Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) was a Jew, and openly so, long after associating with Jews became unacceptable under Hitler.

Sure enough, over the next six months their worlds were brutally shattered. On the Russian Front Wilhelm committed acts that betrayed his ideals of German superiority. Charlotte gave up a Jewish doctor to the SS. Friedhelm sacrificed the lives of civilians to save his own. Greta betrayed her great love Viktor not only to save his life but to progress her career; while he was forced to accept her help knowing the nature of her betrayal.

That it was not just war but the Nazi regime as a whole that debased everyone involved is a fair, if obvious, point. But there was much missing from Generation War. Chiefly any sense of responsibility on the part of its characters for the existence of that regime in the first place. This is a question always argued about the Holocaust: how much did ordinary Germans know? Here the sense of general ignorance seemed to cover every aspect of life under the Nazis. Not excuse-making as such, but certainly there were times in this opening episode at least – for all the excellence of the drama being enacted – when it felt as if the central, most difficult question was still being dodged.

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