Saturday, June 30, 2007

World War ll

“Army of Shadows” Director: Jean-Pierre Melville 1969
“Sophie Scholl: The Final Days” Director: Marc Rothemund 2005
“The Train” Director: John Frankenheimer 1964
“Restless” by William Boyd 2006
“The One From the Other” by Philip Kerr 2006
“The Night of the Generals” by Hans Hellmut Kirst 1962

Unplanned, I recently watched three movies dealing with various resistance movements during the war, while also reading three novels in which the war—and its aftermath—play major parts.
Unlike many Hollywood portrayals of the resistance, in which the heroes blow things up and kill a lot of Nazis, Melville’s “Army of Shadows” is a grim, realistic take. His resistance fighters are on the run, constantly looking over their shoulders for the Gestapo or wondering who among is a traitor. This is a movie that raises disturbing questions about morality in a time of war, and there are no easy answers.
“Sophie Scholl,” the story of a young German woman arrested by the Nazis for distributing anti- Hitler propaganda, is equally harrowing, all the more so because it is based on a real events. Hewing closely to those last days in Sophie’s life, including verbatim dialogue from her show trial, this film also asks tough questions, most notably: what would you do in similar circumstances?
“The Train” is a Hollywood movie, although one shot on location and with a foreign film sensibility. There is much derring-do with a machine-gun toting Burt Lancaster running around the French countryside, harassing a Nazi train packed with French masterpieces. But there is an intelligence at work, thanks to Frankenheimer, a gifted director who knew how to stage great action scenes (here the crash of a locomotive). There are dark moments, too. The good guys suffer major casualties. And in the end, you wonder if their sacrifices were worth the rescue of the art.
William Boyd is a terrific writer who deserves a wider audience here (he’s English). A previous novel, “Any Human Heart” is a can’t-put-down look at one man’s event-filled life through much of the 20th century. “Restless” follows a young woman who becomes a spy for the British Secret Service, and crosscuts between her war adventures and her life decades later. Just out in paperback.
“The One From the Other” is Philip Kerr’s fourth novel starring Bernie Gunther, a German private eye. The first three were collected years ago by Penguin under the rubric “Berlin Noir Trilogy.” These are wonderful evocations of German life during the rise of the Nazis, and solid hardboiled mysteries. In his latest, Kerr, who’s also English, returns to Bernie after the war. Bernie is a complex guy, not unlike Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, and he’s trying to get his life back. Bernie was not part of the resistance. He’s a survivor. And in “The One From the Other,” plagued by guilt, he continues to do his best to survive—and track a killer. Like the previous books, this one captures a dark world, here the vanquished Germany of the late 1940s. There is a “Third Man” feel, a high compliment.
I’d always wanted to read “The Night of the Generals,” a huge, international bestseller from the 1960s. Kirst’s story follows the serial killings of prostitutes during the war—and ten years later. Although a thriller, Kirst casts a satirist’s eye on the German Army, Nazi functionaries and the national character. As a thriller, this is far more interesting than the crap that populates that NYT’s fiction bestseller list, a commentary, perhaps, on what’s happened to the sophistication of readers over the last 45 years.


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