Return to Zabriskie Point

April 25, 2016

For reasons that are not at all clear, there has been a distinct revival in the film “Zabriskie Point” in recent years.  Directed by Italian Michelangelo Antonioni – his only US film – this film was widely regarded as a major commercial and critical failure upon its theatrical release in February 1970.  This was the man who made the haunting “Blowup” (1966).  After spending some $7 million (US) on the production, filming in the California and Arizona desert, the film only returned some $1 million in its theatrical box office.  My $2.50 was part of that $1 million, and the film has haunted me to this day.

Not because the film is great;  I never thought it was.  But because the film captures a certain sense, a resonance of that period, that time of student protests (think Kent State University) and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.  The plot:  “Mark” (Mark Frechette) is arrested after a student demonstration and later goes “on the run”, stealing a small plane and flying to the desert.  He meets up with “Daria” (Daria Halprin, daughter of the San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and the dancer Anna Halprin), “a sweet, pot-smoking post-teenybopper of decent inclinations” who is driving through the desert.

It’s a convoluted plot, fantastical in many places, and ends with one of the more memorable screen images, the blowing up (real or imagined) of a lonely wealthy desert house in the Arizona desert.  Symbolic?  Deeply. A commentary of American materialism?  Definitely.  And what else?  Who knows.

“Zabriskie Point” made a big impact on me; it was that time of life when you’re young and things make a difference.  So then, so seven years later, I was thrilled to do an environmental planning workshop at Sea Ranch, on the northern Sonoma Coast of California, led by Lawrence Halprin along with Daria Halprin.  My first real “movie star” contact (in retrospect, not true:  see my reflections on Meryl Streep), a magical ten days of 1970s San Francisco-style creativity.

Want to know more?  Quinn Martin’s May 2010 blog post tells you everything you ever wanted to know about “Zabriskie Point”, including the eventual life outcomes of its stars:  Daria and Mark lived together for a time in a “hippie commune”, and Daria now runs a dance workshop in San Francisco.  Mark was killed in jail in 1975 after robbing a bank.  Life turns in very strange ways.

Other resources: The Rolling Stone 1985 article entitled “Where Are They Now: Daria Halprin” by Ira Robbins, and Emma Hope Allwood’s “Three Things You Didn’t Know About Zabriskie Point” (2015).

(image below: a still from the final scene of the movie)

Zabriskie Point

Vedantam and Solnit on Swimming with the Tide

April 20, 2016

From the March 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine – Rebecca Solnit’s article entitled “Bird in a Cage”:

There are two things I think about nearly every time I row out into San Francisco Bay. One is a passage from Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain, in which he talks about a swim he once took. A decent swimmer in his own estimate, Vedantam went out into the sea one day and discovered that he had become superb and powerful; he was instantly proud of his new abilities. Far from shore, he realized he had been riding a current and was going to have to fight it all the way back to shore. “Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent,” Vedantam writes. “Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Film review of Labyrinth of Lies

April 3, 2016

(This film review of “Labyrinth of Lies” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 31 March 2016.)

Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli; written by Giulio Ricciarelli and Elisabeth Bartel; starring Alexander Fehling and André Szymanski

As incredible as it may now seem, more than 70 years after the end of the Holocaust – and with Germany leading the way in continental European recognition of the horrors of the Nazi genocide – not until the early 1960s did Germans first widely understand what had happened in Auschwitz and other camps.

A key historical event that helped to create this consciousness was the “Frankfurt Auschwitz trials”, which took place from December 1963 to August 1965. While only 22 of the more than 7,000 surviving SS members involved in Auschwitz camp administration were charged during these trials (with more than 700 eventually sentenced), the events marked an important milestone. German prosecutors acted under German law in Germany, unlike the Allied military tribunals in Nuremberg in late 1945 and 1946.

This almost forgotten slice of German history provides the background to the fictional feature German film, “Labyrinth of Lies” (Im Labyrinth des Schweigens), which illustrates the dramatic events of that time. Following this film’s Australian premiere at last year’s Festival of Jewish Film, it is opening nationally in a limited number of cinemas, enabling a wider audience.

Hunky German actor Alexander Fehling plays Johann Radmann, an idealistic and naïve assistant prosecutor who decides to pursue the legal case against the former SS guards, spurred on by a passionate and crusading journalist Thomas Gnielka (André Szymanski), who also brings Johann into a bohemian world previously unknown to the young lawyer. Fehling is familiar to non-German audiences for his roles in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and as Claire Danes’ boyfriend in the “Homeland” TV series.

Radmann is supported by the Attorney-General Fritz Bauer (played by Kurt Voss), which is the actual name of the real German chief prosecutor at the time, and the true hero of the Frankfurt trials. Bauer’s history – mostly hinted at in this film – is worthy of its own feature, and is the story I really wanted to watch. Born in Germany to Jewish parents, after incarceration in the Heuberg concentration camp with his friend Karl Schumacher (a leader of German Social Democratic Party), Bauer fled to Denmark and then Sweden, returning to Germany after the war to resume his legal career as a prosecutor and judge.

“Labyrinth of Lies” fictionalises the stories, humanising the narrative by presenting the events through Radmann’s eyes, with his growing commitment, enthusiasm and identification with the victims of Nazi terror. He faces all of the usual barriers – people who don’t want to know (especially those in authority), and a society-wide willingness to “forget” and get on with life.

As Holocaust dramas go, “Labyrinth of Lies” receives a B+, notable because of some strong performances (Fehling, Voss and others) and its willingness to illustrate a forgotten moment of Holocaust aftermath. The film also touches on the role that Bauer played with helping to track down Eichmann and working with the Mossad. With a slow start, an often predictable plotline, and an unfortunate tendency to present Holocaust survivors as stereotyped two-dimensional damaged characters, “Labyrinth of Lies” finally proves its worth by illustrating what we all now know, but may forget: the Nazi war machine ran because of the willing participation of a large percentage of the German population, not just a select few.

Alexander Fehling (Rolle: Johann Radmann)

(Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in “Labyrinth of Lies”)