Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Road to Hell

"And all the roads jam up with credit
But there's nothing you can do
It's all just bits of paper
Flying away from you
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell"

Chris Rea called it right - way back in 1989.

Now we are told that the recession will hit the UK harder than other developed countries. I am sure Gordon and his crowd will react with concerned faces, and repeat their mantra that - under 'prudent' Gordon's guidance - we are best placed to get out of this predicament. We just need to restore consumer confidence, get everyone spending again, and all will be well.

Now, I don't claim to understand economics - I not sure even those that claim to understand economics actually understand economics, but that's another story - but I have a problem with the logic of this 'rescue plan'. After all, wasn't it excessive credit and wanton spending that got us into this mess? So, now they are telling us that the banks should start lending again and that we should spend our way out of trouble??

If you'll forgive the rather tenuous historical link, this sounds to me a bit like Hitler's exhortations to the German to 'fight on' until the 'final victory' is secured. The thoughtful Germans amongst them might have reasoned that it was the fighting that had got them into the mess they were in - fighting on was surely NOT what was required.

Anyhow. It strikes me that it should come as no surprise that the UK will suffer more than most - after all, for the last decade or so, the two major props of the British economy have been 'financial services' and conspicuous consumer consumption. We don't really "make" anything any more, as the brutal logic of the marketplace holds that Chinese peasants and Indian child labourers can make whatever it is cheaper, so its not economically viable for us to bother. So, if those two pillars of the British economy are removed - the first hideously discredited, the second finally shown up for its utter unsustainability - then there is precious little left.

And yet - our esteemed leaders are urging us simply to carry on as if the financial world had not just imploded, and everything will be fine. "Imagine its 2007, Britons, and all will be well again."

I beg to differ. I think this should be a watershed. We need to appreciate - once and for all - that our socio-economic system cannot be predicated on some spurious notion of perpetual growth; that the 'global market' is not infallible, that the earth's resources are most-definitely finite, and that the economic model that we have lived with in Britain for the last decade at least has been thoroughly discredited. More of the same, and we really will be on the Road to Hell.

I don't know how it is to be done - but, Capitalism itself needs to be reinvented.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

"Valkyrie" - A Historian's Review

"Valkyrie", Tom Cruise, History vs Entertainment...

Well, the drama surrounding the film has finally come to an end. We can stop speculating, the media can stop their petty sniping, and the talking heads can stop their carping - the film is out and we can all go and see it and make our own minds up.

I have to say it was with some trepidation that I walked into a press screening of "Valkyrie" last week. Though I dearly wanted the film to be good, I was prepared for it to be less than that.

Yet, as I watched, I kept waiting for the moment when my historian's sensibilities would be mortally offended; when I would see history being traduced for the sake of 'entertainment', when I would involuntarily 'tut', shake my head disappointedly and make for the door. Except it didn't come...

From a strict historian's point of view, at least, the film has little to complain about. The story has not been slaughtered on the altar of cinema, sacrificed to dumbed-down film-making... Whisper it quietly - but historically-speaking - "Valkyrie" is pretty good.

Sure, there are some mistakes - the SS HQ in the film was preposterous, what's wrong with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, anyway!? - and it was Schlabrendorff who retrieved the brandy-bottle bomb, not Tresckow - and there was some inevitable straigtening of the complex narrative for the sake of simplicity - but overall, there was really nothing much for this historian to get upset about.

Surprisingly, though, the film's shortcomings lay rather in the story-telling, the characterisation and the suspense - indeed, in the very things that most people would have assumed would have been the strong suits from a team such as Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer.

In my opinion, Stauffenberg's character was far too one-dimensional, without much explanation of the development of his 'treason' or his motives for it. His vacillating co-conspirators were much better portrayed - mostly by a cohort of British actors; Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy - but they sadly could not infect Cruise with any of their depth, nuance or characterisation.

Also, the film sagged a bit in the middle sections - not only in the run up to the attempt, but also in the rather overlong period thereafter, which was (understandably perhaps) squeezed for every bit of dramatic tension, but fundamentally failed to deliver. Stauffenberg's 'love interest', too - the exquisite Carice van Houten as Nina - was rather a cul-de-sac, a side-story tagged on perhaps to dilute the overwhelming whiff of cordite, treachery and testosterone.

On the whole, "Valkyrie" is a solid 3 stars; its worth a watch, and is good entertainment, but maybe not quite good enough to silence the critics. It is also surprising, perhaps, to conclude that history was not the primary casualty of this particular assassination attempt, rather it was the film-makers art that proved to be the weakest link ... the malfunctioning fuse ... the oak table leg...

By the way - if you want some further reading on this subject, I would suggest, my book, "Killing Hitler" -

And the new book by my friend and colleague, Nigel Jones, "Countdown to Valkyrie" -

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

"Defiance" - a historian's review

"Defiance" - "Our revenge is to live"

I had the honour of attending the European Premiere of "Defiance" last night in London's Leicester Square.

Daniel Craig's new film casts him as a fugitive Jew in 1941-42 in the forests of Byelorussia - the eldest of the famed Bielski brothers.

Alongside Tuvia Bielski (Craig), are the sullen and combative Jus (Liev Schreiber), the wide-eyed Asoel (Jamie Bell) and the young Aron (George MacKay). The four brothers leave their village after their family farm is ransacked and their parents are murdered by Byelorussian auxiliaries of the Nazis. Fleeing to the nearby forest, they embark on an odyssey in which many hundreds of Jews would be saved from the grim fate that Hitler had in store for them. It is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable stories of the Holocaust.
Hollywood has an uneasy relationship with history. Of course, historical dramas such as this make up much of its primary material, and the magic words "based on a true story", bestow instant kudos on many a film. Yet, the needs of the film-maker - clear moral messages, simple narratives, defined heroes and villains - are not always congruent with the complex and often messy and confusing realities of history.
One of my most common gripes with Hollywood representations of history, therefore, is that many film-makers feel that they need to dumb down to reach their audience, what you might call "lowest-common denominator film making". In the process, complex narratives are simplified beyond all recognition, characters are rendered two-dimensional, and foreign accents and (worst of all) subtitles are avoided like the plague. In such examples History - far from being the inspiration and the guiding light - becomes a whore to be used, abused and discarded when inconvenient.
I am delighted to say that "Defiance" does NOT fall into this category.
Though I have seen online that the film has come in for some occasionally vicious criticism - primarily from the afficionados of "whizz-Bang" film-making - for its supposed lack of 'action', I thought the film supremely well made. It was well-paced, well-told, and well-acted. Daniel Craig, sure, is a bit of a brooding one-trick-pony, but he played the lead tolerably well. Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, was a revelation, bringing just the right amount of menace and cussedness to his role as the bloodthirsty Jus.
Also, the predicament of the Bielskis was well drawn. Stuck between the horror of the Nazis and the equally repugnant (and anti-Semitic) forces of the Soviet partisan movement, the Bielskis were truly stuck between a murderous rock and an at best indifferent hard place.
In this regard, there is a whiff of historical controversy about the film - surrounding the alleged complicity of the Bielskis in the massacre of Polish peasants at Naliboki. This subject, naturally, is not dealt with in the film. Moreover, one criticism would be that the whole issue of the difficult relationship between the Bielskis and the local peasantry was rather skated over, being dealt with in one scene and not revisited. In fact, the Bielskis were almost entirely dependant on the local peasants for their food, and did not stop short of terrorising them - and even murdering them - into compliance.
Beyond that complaint - the film ticked all the necessary boxes. The cinematography, for example, was excellent. The opening scene where the grainy contemporary footage segued into grainy movie footage, and then into colour was inspired. And the later segment where the Jewish wedding of Asael was juxtaposed with Jus's attack on a German patrol was brilliantly handled.
Most of all however, I applaud the 'feel' of the film. I doesn't manipulate emotions with too much soaring score, and most importantly it does not baby the viewer. Germans speak German, Poles speak Polish, Russians speak Russian. That is how it was - there are subtitles - get over it. Moreover, though Craig's linguistic abilities were a little suspect, those of the remainder of the cast were excellent - especially Schreiber - and one has to consider that the two leads were required to speak Polish and Russian in many scenes. When one bears this in mind, the speech coaches employed on the movie deserve Oscars of their own.
All in all - 4 stars out of 5 - and the best WW2 film that I have seen since "The Pianist". If the forthcoming "Valkyrie" is anywhere near as good, I shall be delighted and a little surprised.