|.. 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
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
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...