Never Look Away film review

June 30, 2019

(This film review of “Never Look Away” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 June 2019.)

Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; starring Tom Schilling, Sebastian Koch, Paula Beer and Saskia Rosendahl

*****

This opening of the German language film “Never Look Away” is a major event, bringing a sweeping historical view of German life scanning a three decade period from the late 1930s to the 1960s.

“Never Look Away” is a loose dramatisation of the life of contemporary German visual artist Gerhard Richter (1932-) – named Kurt Barnert in the film, acted by Tom Schilling (“Oh Boy”, “Before the Fall”). But German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) has much higher goals than a simple biopic for his massive and epic (188 minute) film: he wants to illustrate many of the profound events of this tumultuous period of German history: the Nazi racial exclusion laws and eugenics, the Second World War and subsequent life in a Germany divided between east and west.

Using the refracted experience of an artist provides a personal – and highly visual – scope to what could otherwise be a mundane retelling of events. The film opens in Dresden with a brilliant scene that recreates the traveling art exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”), in which the Nazi regime attempted to ridicule German modernist art on the grounds of it being “un-German”, Jewish or Communist. A wide-eyed five year old Kurt attends the exhibition with his eccentric and creative aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl, star of Cate Shortland’s film “Lore”), and is impressed.

As the Nazi grip on power tightens, Elisabeth is diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalised and eventually euthanised under the orders of gynaecology professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), a loyal member of the Nazi SS medical corps. The scenes in Professor Seeband’s hospital are harrowing, and his confrontation with Elisabeth a devastating illustration of Nazi cruelty to its own citizens. The cunning Seeband survives both the war and incarceration by the occupying Russian army, while remaining secretly loyal to his Nazi principles. Chillingly, Seeband later returns to the film’s story through a set of coincidences also based on real life.

The war devastates much of Kurt’s family, but he slowly makes his way in the post-war East German art world, producing made-to-order socialist realist murals of industrial workers. He also meets and weds the beautiful fashion student Ellie (Paula Beer), despite the serious misgivings of her parents. Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany just as the Berlin Wall goes up, and Kurt lands a position at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he is taught by an enigmatic professor clearly based on the famous German sculptor, installation artist and art theoretician Joseph Beuys. Director von Donnersmarck neatly captures the artistic, cultural and political differences between the two German states, giving the film an extraordinary depth of insight into that period.

“Never Look Away” has received many plaudits, including two nominations at the most recent Academy Awards – for best foreign language film and best cinematography – along with strong audience support at this month’s Sydney Film Festival, a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival and an audience award at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

The film is not perfect: a gas chamber scene in which aunt Elisabeth is murdered jars with its brightly lit explicit presentation – how many films have included similar scenes, and how little the scene actually tells us (have a look at The Son of Saul for a better use of these images). But few recent films have included such an historic – and spectacularly well-presented – epic sweep of modern history. Almost no current dramatic films have the courage to tackle so much, and to give the audience such rich questions to ponder: what is the place of art in society, how do we find the hidden meaning of art, what is the true meaning of ideology, how do we survive during ages of political upheaval and – neatly and fully believably – how can love and affection triumph over adversity.


Film review of Where Hands Touch

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Where Hands Touch” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 28 March 2019.)

Directed and written by Amma Asante; starring Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Eccleston and Tom Sweet

*****

Few film directors specialise in portraying inter-racial couples in historic contexts.  British filmmaker Amma Asante – who is black and born in Ghana – has, first with the award-winning “Belle” (2013), which told the true story of an 18th century enslaved West Indian woman who married a British navy officer and entered high society. Asante followed with “United Kingdom” (2016), another true story of an inter-racial couple in the immediate post Second World War period: an heir to the throne of African country Bechuanaland meets and marries a white British woman.

In “Where Hands Touch” – Asante’s third inter-racial romantic outing – the director turns her attention away from her home territory of British race relations to one far more fraught: Germany in the last years of the Second World War. She has chosen a small but fascinating part of history: children of colour who were born and raised in Nazi Germany, counter-posing the story to the Holocaust and persecution of Jews.

The film is ambitious, well-produced, earnest, well-meaning and attempts a high degree of sensitivity to its subject. Location shooting in Belgium and the Ile of Man capture mid-20th century Germany. However, screening the Holocaust – even as a tangential theme – is fraught even when film-makers are steeped in knowledge, which Asante is not.

The film starts in 1944 Nazi Germany: 15 year old Leyna Shlegel (Amandla Stenberg, from “The Hate You Give”) has a German mother, Kerstin, played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Candy”, “Somersault”). Her absent black African father was a French soldier, and Leyna has grown up – uncomfortably – in Germany with dark skin. Kerstin decides to move the family (including her fully German younger son) from their Rhineland provincial city to Berlin, thinking it will be easier for her bi-racial daughter.

Bad move. Berlin – as the headquarters of the German state – is, if anything worse, and Leyna is systematically excluded from school and almost all aspects of public life. Using family connections, Kerstin tries to ensure that Leyna is not jailed or sterilised (or both): the Nazi state has some awareness of not wanting to offend the German parents of “non Aryans”, but it’s not much.

Leyna is forced to start factory work with her mother. Through a series of coincidences, Leyna meets – and yes – falls in love with Lutz (British actor George MacKay), an active and rising member of the Hitler youth corps, whose father is a rising Nazi administrator. What future for these two young lovers?

To its credit, “Where Hands Touch” shows the ultimate destination of minorities in Nazi Germany: Leyna does end up in a concentration camp, dehumanised and abused. Director Asante has countered criticism of her film and been at pains to state that she has not tried to diminish the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but to illustrate the experience of Romani people, disabled people and other outcasts under Nazi rule. In that purpose she achieves some success. The film tries to raise the questions: what exactly is identity, national and racial, and where do they cross over?

Historically, parts of “Where Hands Touch” don’t add up: it’s unlikely – as this film depicts – that Jews were still wandering around openly in Berlin in 1944 wearing yellow stars. The plot contains too many coincidences, and there’s an element of emotional “clunkiness” to how the story unfolds.

Dramatic acting – particularly by Stenberg and Cornish – is strong, but not enough to overcome an over-ambitious and underwritten film.


Film review of Transit

June 9, 2019

(This film review of “Transit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 11 April 2019.)

Directed and written by Christian Petzold, based on the novel by Anna Seghers; starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Maryam Zaree and Ronald Kukulies

Part of our ongoing fascination with the Holocaust on screen is the rich diversity of stories. Relatively few English-speakers may recognise the name Anna Seghers (the pen name of Netty Reiling), a German-Jewish Communist whose autobiographical 1944 novel “In Transit” is the basis for the new German language film “Transit”, directed by Christian Petzold.

Petzold is part of a new generation of German experimental film-makers, and is best known in the Jewish community for directing “Phoenix” (2014), a noir-ish drama set in immediate post-war Berlin, where a disfigured German-Jewish Holocaust survivor tries to recover her life, raising important questions of personal identity, collaboration and betrayal.

In “Transit”, Petzold again turns to a Jewish story, based on Seghers’ escape from Nazi-occupied France via Marseille in 1940. In the film, the lead character “Georg” (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee in France seeking to flee the country as the “fascists” close in on him. Here is where Petzold’s film takes a creative and extraordinary turn: although his film is firmly a World War Two story of refugees and attempted escape, he has transplanted it to the present day, taking place in a fully recognisable modern France where everything appears contemporary, with exception of an absence of the internet and mobile phones.

In his journey of escape, Georg takes on the identity of Weidel, a German writer who has committed suicide in Paris and whose transit papers Georg has picked up. Weidel was a Communist and the Americans pointedly do not want him, although the Mexicans do; in his political naiveté, Georg travels through these scenes as a damaged innocent abroad. Georg is in fact damaged: actor Franz Rogowski speaks with a pronounced lisp, the result of an operation on a cleft palate in his youth – giving him great similarity to Joaquin Phoenix.

Georg spends his time with other increasingly desperate refugees (some of them Jewish) in a dreary and washed-out Marseille. They visit consulates looking for letters of transit, sullenly wait in endless queues and avoid confrontations with the authorities. Georg befriends an immigrant family, acting as a surrogate father to a young boy, and falls in love with Marie (Paula Beer), the wife of the dead writer whose identity he has appropriated; she in turn is living with a noble doctor who assists the poor and is also planning to leave. Marie thinks her husband Weidel is still alive and wandering Marseille, because people keep telling her that he has been there: the truth is that it’s really Georg.

The film comes across as a twisted form of “Casablanca”, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart film set in wartime French Morocco, with Georg as Rick, and Marie as Ilsa, the doctor as Victor Laszlo. But this is no homage to that film: blurring the time periods results in a mind-bending, time-crunching movie of displacement and deeply uncomfortable resonances to the present day of refugees and an apparent turn to nationalist, “keep them out” governments in Europe and elsewhere.

The Anna Seghers (Netty Reiling) “back story” provides important context for both her book and Petzold’s film adaptation: Born in Mainz on the Rhine in 1900, despite her Communist activities, she maintained a strong Jewish identity, writing her doctorate thesis in art history (University of Heidelberg, 1924) on “Jews and Judaism in the Work of Rembrandt”. Following the rise of the Nazis, she was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo, and fled Germany in 1932, moving to Zurich and then Paris. There she wrote the acclaimed novel “The Seventh Cross” – later a movie starring Spencer Tracy – about seven men attempting to escape a Nazi concentration camp, one of very few movies during the war to depict Nazi camps. When the Germans invaded France, she left via Marseille in 1940 for Mexico with her husband, Hungarian László Radványi. After the war, she returned to Germany, living in East Berlin until her death in 1983 and became one of the most famous East German writers.

 


Film review of The Reports on Sarah and Saleem

June 9, 2019

This film review of “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23 May 2019 (Melbourne edition) and 30 May 2019 (Sydney edition).

Directed by Muayad Alayan; written by Rami Alayan; starring Adeeb Safadi, Sivane Kretchner, Ishai Golan and Maisa Abd Elhadi

Following last year’s premiere at the Jewish International Film Festival, “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” opens this week in Australia, one of the few places in the world where the film is screening. This strong thriller-drama is a cracker, and deepens the range of films that show how the Israeli-Palestinian social, economic and political divide is often not a divide at all, but more of a porous and shifting blur.

This first feature from Palestinian director Muayad Alayan and his screenwriter brother Rami Alayan illustrates a tragic sequence of events arising from an illicit affair between Saleem (Adeeb Safadi), an East Jerusalem delivery driver, and Sarah (Sivane Kretchner), the owner of a West Jerusalem café. She’s married to an up-and-coming army officer (Ishai Golan) – who is about to be transferred to the south – with whom she has a bright and articulate daughter, and he to an attractive pregnant woman (Maisa Abd Elhadi).

Their romance – one night a week, mostly in the back of Saleem’s delivery van – is fuelled by the passionate risk-taking each one goes through. Sarah’s family can afford a nanny/helper, but Saleem’s struggles financially. That motivates Saleem to moonlight at night as a delivery person, no questions asked, dropping off “whatever people ask for”.

One night Saleem is sent to Bethlehem for a delivery, and takes Sarah with him, convincing her to go out for drinks “because nobody knows us”. Just speak English, he says, and everyone will assume you are a foreigner. An incident in a bar leads to Saleem’s entanglement with Palestinian secret police, where he is forced to pretend that he was recruiting Sarah for espionage (“the reports”) so that he can escape punishment and detention. Once the Israelis catch on, the plot becomes “thicker”, and Sarah and Saleem are caught in a web of deceit, power and conflict.

The director/writer Alayan brothers both studied in the USA, and grew up in East Jerusalem, experiencing their teenage years during the second Intifada. They put to good use the adage of “write what you know”. The experience of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem and the interactions between the characters are naturalistic with an unforced realism that imbues every scene with power. For comparison you would need to cast back to Martin Scorsese’s early “Mean Streets”; the directing and editing is spare (although the film runs a full two hours), with a coiled energy getting ready to strike.

There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” in “The Reports on Sarah and Saleem”. The film feels astonishingly straightforward and objective in its political approach to the characters and their situations. Many of the scenes are claustrophobic, but that’s part of the film-making style. I would have liked more “back story” – more detail as to how Sarah and Saleem arrived at where they are – but the Alayan brothers take a European approach and just start the action. The result is a mature and accomplished narrative by film-makers who are likely go on to tell much bigger stories in the future.


Reading Writing Hotline 25th Anniversary speech

June 9, 2019

I spoke at 25th Anniversary celebration of the Reading Writing Hotline in Sydney on 15 April 2019. Other speakers included Vanessa Iles, Hotline Manager; Lyn Wilson, TAFE NSW; and David Riordan, Director of City Operations for the City of Sydney (see photo at end of this post).

The speech

I am greatly honoured to be here today and have been asked to speak. Because in many ways the Reading Writing Hotline embodies some of the best moments of my professional life, from 1994 to the present in 2019.

Let me go back and give you some history. I first developed my commitment and concern for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities while studying one summer as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. I took a course by a young – older than me, but still young – lecturer in politics from Carleton College in Minnesota. He was built like a wrestler – indeed he was a former American college wrestler – and stood only five feet six inches tall. He shared with us, his students, his passion for social and economic justice. I was moved, in a way I had not been during my then tender 19 years of life.

That man was Paul Wellstone, later to become a Democratic Senator from the State of Minnesota and a major force in US progressive politics. He died tragically in a plane crash in 2002.

In parts of the USA, his name still invokes awe. Last month, a Minnesota newspaper wrote that “the legacy of Senator Paul Wellstone is palpable in the 2020 presidential campaign”, with at least three presidential candidates citing him as an inspiration, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

I too count the late Senator Wellstone, my former teacher, as an inspiration. So when I found myself working as an educational policy manager in ABC Television in the late 1980s under a different inspirational leader – that was David Hill – one who was eager to make a difference, I was given the job of spearheading the ABC’s activities in adult literacy. It’s not like there was any competition for the role. The journalists had no interest, but I knew from my years of work as a social planner in Western Sydney and northern New South Wales of the potential power of mass education and what ABC TV and ABC Radio could do to assist International Literacy Year in 1990.

The time was ripe to convince the ABC Board and Managing Director that the ABC had a role in promoting and teaching adult literacy. We based our activities on the BBC, which had completed a successful TV series and campaign in the mid-1970s called “On the Move”. We considered the questions: were we trying to teach via TV and radio, or just motivate students to seek assistance? We tried both.

We worked closely with the Adult Literacy Information Office – known as ALIO – the predecessor organisation to the Reading Writing Hotline, whose 25th anniversary we are celebrating today. In 1993 and 1994 we produced our major adult literacy TV series: “The Reading Writing Roadshow”, a 20-part drama and teaching series that remains one of my proudest achievements.

I didn’t produce the series, but I found the money from the Commonwealth Government and from inside the ABC, and I played the role of liaison between TAFE and the ABC. Imagine getting two big behemoth organisations to work together – both of them, by the way, much larger than they are now.

It was a challenge, but the result, I believe, was worthwhile – one, dare I say, worthwhile repeating. Yes, that’s right, harnessing the efforts of the national broadcaster and Australia’s largest VET provider to produce and disseminate high-quality reading writing teaching materials, and then encouraging people to seek help.

So if any national politicians are listening: here’s my call to the next Government of Australia. Please start a national educational campaign, and not just awareness, but genuine educational delivery, using our national broadcasters, the structure of the Reading Writing Hotline and the network of adult literacy providers – including the valuable not-for-profit community sector – to tackle Australia’s literacy challenges head-on.

I don’t want to take undue credit for the ABC’s activities in that period of the early 1990s, as a number of ABC and TAFE NSW staff were instrumental, in the two major co-productions undertaken with TAFE.

After my time in the ABC, my professional life toured through other literacies – digital literacy and later financial literacy with ASIC’s MoneySmart program.

And now I find myself back in the same space, some 25 years later – the same 25 years that this august organisation, the Reading Writing Hotline, has been in existence.

As the CEO of Community Colleges Australia, I represent, I advocate for and I look after Australia’s not-for-profit adult and community education providers. Most of the people in this room know what our sector’s areas of expertise are – reaching Australia’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners – especially through what is now called “foundation skills”, but which I still call adult literacy and numeracy.

Australia’s not-for-profit community providers over-perform when it comes to reaching the most disadvantaged through Australians vocational education and training: people from lower incomes, Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, and learners over age 45.

But there’s one area where the not-for-profit sector towers over all other providers, and that is in reaching regional and rural Australians.

While only one third of New South Wales population lives outside of metropolitan Sydney, the not-for-profit community sector delivers two thirds of its government-funded VET outside of Sydney – much of it lower level VET, including foundation skills.

Why does this matter?

  • Because the further you travel from Australia’s capital cities like Sydney – to inner regional, outer regional, remote and very remote communities – the rates of literacy, of all sorts of literacy, decrease.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the lower the formal educational attainment rates are.
  • Because the further you travel from Sydney, the fewer people study at university and the more people study VET. And when they study VET, it is in the lower level certificates and packages.

This is one of the most powerful reasons for the existence of the Reading Writing Hotline, because regional and rural Australians simply don’t have the same access to education as their city cousins do. And a national, quality-controlled, hotline is an essential part of ensuring that access.

For these reasons Community Colleges Australia proposed last year to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) that they commence a study on adult literacy and community providers in regional and rural Australia. The NCVER has resourced and commenced this study, which starts reporting results at its July national conference in Adelaide.

So I have come full circle in my professional life. The social planner, policy analyst and adult educator inside me have all merged in my advocacy for adult literacy.

It is with a great deal of pride that I participate in the management advisory committee of the Reading Writing Hotline, and in this celebration.

With a great deal of hope I put it to the next Government of Australia that there has never been a better time to resurrect a national adult literacy education program, using broadcast TV, radio, podcasts, the Internet, actual paper-based books, our diverse literacy providers and our valuable Reading Writing Hotline.

May the Hotline live for another 25 years.

With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, may Australia have no need for the Hotline after that.

It’s in our hands.

Thank you.

(Photo below from left to right: Vanessa Iles, Lyn Wilson, David Riordan & Don Perlgut)

(Photo below: Don Perlgut speaks)