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Mike's Pith & Wind (cont.)
.. to end.
One interesting result of this run of biographical movies has been the intersection of the various historical characters’ lives. For instance, the first of the biographical movies we came across was an English-speaking German production called The Last Station about Leo Tolstoy and focusing on his later years and his troubled relationship with his wife, Countess Sofya Tolstaya , (played by Christopher Plummer and by Helen Mirren respectively). I knew absolutely nothing about Tolstoy, apart from the fact that he wrote War & Peace and Anna Karenina and that he remains the most revered Russian author of all time. It’s perhaps scandalous that I’ve seen at least one movie and one TV series based on War & Peace, but of his books I’ve read not a word. Incidentally, the station in the title refers to the Astapovo train station where Sofya is permitted by their daughter to see Tolstoy just moments before his death in a scene that I might’ve been expected to shed a tear, but instead I could only marvel at Helen Mirren’s masterly performance, one that could’ve so easily descended into hysterical farce one but she somehow manages to imbue some human dignity.
This was followed closely by a French production about the Russian short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov called Anton Tchekhov 1890 during which we discovered that Tolstoy and Chekhov not only admired each other’s work but actually met in person at one stage. (It was interesting to get a slightly different take on Tolstoy too). Again, my acquaintance with the works of Chekhov is miserly and although I seem to remember studying The Cherry Orchard at school there’s been little else since until a film about a duel probably on World Movies late last century. *
Chekhov’s psychological approach to writing plays was ground-breaking as I recall and his critique of the cast of his play The Seagull in the movie should be mandatory viewing for any amateur production (of anything) today. The film generously covers most of his adult life, both as a doctor dabbling in writing and then the reverse. The journey he undertook on behalf of his late brother to document the lives of prisoners on Sakhalin Island (quite surprisingly an island north of Japan) was a turning point where Chekhov decided he could actually achieve something more for mankind with his writing than he could as a doctor. A convincingly nuanced movie and M and I thoroughly enjoyed it – and learned a lot as well.
Encouraged we then we watched a film from the On Demand Biographical trove called The People vs Fritz Bauer, a German production about a German-Jewish prosecutor in the time of the Adenauer government in the ‘60s trying to bring Adolph Eichmann from wherever he was hiding to face trial in Frankfurt. He was constantly thwarted by a clique of former Nazis in the government but succeeded in helping Mossad kidnap Eichmann in Argentina (considered to be treasonous by his enemies in government) and taken to Israel for trial.
Coincidentally just about the very next movie we watched was yet another historical-biographical called Hannah Arendt, who was another German-born Jew but this time a philosopher/writer/lecturer living in New York who is commissioned by the New Yorker to cover the same Adolph Eichmann trial in Israel. She upsets the New York Jewish diaspora mightily by questioning the presumption that Eichmann was some sort of monster and wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil from her serialised New Yorker correspondence. The defence she makes of her controversial opinions to a roomful of her students is spirited and reasoned and I wonder if it’s exactly what she said, a quote for her book or paraphrased. Either way it’s quite brilliant.
The next movie, again vaguely intersecting with The People vs Fritz Bauer, was a Czechoslovak movie called A Prominent Patient. Jan Masaryk, the son of the late founder of the recently established state of Czechoslovakia becomes the substance-abusing saxophone-playing Czech ambassador to the UK in between 1937-39 before the Second World War. (I can remember studying Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland at school and I personally will never allow a German dictator to annexe my borders so I guess it was worth all those school fees, Mum).
Anyway, the process of diplomatically sucking up to the dithering Western powers in Europe and ending up with the appeasement of the Munich Agreement was so painful to our protagonist that he flees to the United States and checks into a sanatorium where he is eventually thrust back into a role with Czech free radio in London by his Jewish (I think) doctor who has himself fled to the States from Germany.
So, back we go to Germany, but this time to East Germany or the DDR in the ‘80s (a little after Bill and I were there in 1983 with WHY) for In Times of Fading Light, a reflective piece on the collapse of the East German Communist bloc with Swiss+ actor Bruno Ganz (who played Hitler in Downfall) playing a leading role very effectively - again. Very well observed and painstakingly assembled, it finishes in a bit of a rush and an inevitable sense of disappointment (for me anyway), probably much as the sudden fall of the Wall disappointed the remaining hard-line German Communists.
Jimi – All is by my Side sounds like it should be about Jimi Hendrix – and it is, albeit a very narrow sliver of Jimi between 1966-67. Apparently Jimi’s Estate wouldn’t cooperate with any permissions, which would normally discourage any director from proceeding, but John Ridley’s not any director and he pushed on with none of Jimi’s music at his disposal, none of him playing any music at all, in fact, and concentrating on events in the period just before he becomes famous at the Monterey Festival.
It doesn’t sound like it could possibly be interesting or revealing, but it somehow manages to be both, although I concede it would hardly satisfy Hendrix nuts.
For our penance M and I are currently watching a biopic on the sculptor Rodin’s former lover, Camille Claudel, whom Maria tells me was an original and talented sculpting talent in her own right. At the behest of her family she was incarcerated in a French asylum in 1915, some twenty years after her association with Rodin ended.
We’re about half way through it and we feel like we’ve been locked up for some time in an asylum ourselves. In fact, it’s going to take a bit of courage for us to re-engage with it. A bit like the over-wrought SBS annual event, the Eurovision Song Contest in that respect.

• I checked – and it exists. Rather clumsily titled Anton Chekov’s The Duel. I remember it as being rather good, both in Chekhov’s writing and the adaption to film
+ Thanks Stuart Beatty...
M I K E R U D D B I L L P U T T . C O MM M I K E R U D D B I L L P U T T . C O MM M I K E R U D D B I L L P U T T . C O MM M I K E R U D D