Sons wrestle with their past in What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy

B+ Documentary

Written by Philippe Sands

Directed by David Evans

How do you go through life with the knowledge that your father, arguably your loving father, was a mass murderer? This unsettling documentary offers two reactions: You can denounce your father for the monster that he was, or you can live in denial. This troubling documentary shows us both approaches.

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and eventually became Governor-General of occupied Poland. Guilty of millions of murders, he was tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg. His son Niklas grew to hate and condemn his father. He almost feels as if he must do penance for his father’s sins.

Otto von Wächter wasn’t as successful a Nazi as Hans Frank, but he did well for himself. Working under Frank, he administered Kraków and Galicia. Hundreds if not thousands were killed by people under his command. After the war, he eluded capture and died of natural causes in 1949. His son Horst insists that he had nothing to do with the Holocaust or any other crimes–despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Over the years, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter got to know each other and become friends. But their relationship was always marred by their very different approaches to their similar family histories.

Philippe Sands’ grandfather was the only survivor of a large family of Galicia Jews. Yes, that Galicia–both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter were complicit in the slaughter of his family. The British-born Sands is the film’s author, interviewer, and narrator.

Sands’ interviews with both Niklas and Horst comprise the bulk of What Our Fathers Did (I’m using the subjects’ first names to not confuse them with their horrible fathers). They’re interviewed in their current homes, their childhood homes, in front of a live audience in England, and in the locations of their fathers’ crimes. The interviews are all conducted in English; luckily, both subjects are fluent in the language.

These various locations keep the film visually interesting. So does the archival footage, which includes home movies, family photos, and what I assume are Nazi-filmed moviesfrom the Warsaw or Krakow ghetto–some of it in color (yes, the Germans had color film). These films were shot before things got too bad, and it’s strange to see these very skinny people putting up the face of a normal life, and even smiling and waving at the camera. They don’t yet know what’s in store.

And then there’s the story of Niklas’ mother going “shopping” in the ghetto. It was a great way to go bargain hunting.

As the film continues, Horst becomes less and less likeable. Nothing will get him to admit that his father was guilty of mass murder. For every piece of evidence, he finds an excuse. At his lowest point, he says that no one ever accused his father of a crime “except a few Jews, because of the Holocaust.” By the end, Niklas is calling Horst a Nazi and is re-evaluating their friendship.

The film’s most shocking sequence happens in Galicia. Some local Ukrainians take part in a ceremony honoring the fallen German soldiers. Many wear Nazi uniforms and swastika jewelry. When they’re told that the son of Otto von Wächter is in their presence, they treat him like a returning hero. Horst just beams.

These days, it’s hard to find a fresh documentary approach to the Holocaust. But in the stories of Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands and director David Evans found a strong one.

Truth tells the story of a disastrous hoax

B Recent historical drama

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning it into a scandal about the press attacking the president, giving Bush the boost he needed for re-election. It also destroyed several careers, including that of the biggest and most respected news anchor of the time, Dan Rather.

Writer/director James Vanderbilt uses this story to give us a slick, entertaining, and educational movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. The picture is well-made, but unexceptional. It has one very big casting flaw. But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

That story is told through the eyes of Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett. And as we’ve come to expect, Blanchett is wonderful. Whether she’s struggling, enjoying her very satisfying work, or throwing biting sarcasm, she hits every note perfectly. I don’t know what the real Mary Mapes looks like, and I don’t care. Cate Blanchett looks and acts absolutely right for the Mary Mapes of this movie.

Not so with Robert Redford as Dan Rather. If you grew up watching broadcast TV news, you know what Dan Rather looks like. And he doesn’t look at all like Robert Redford–even today’s elderly Robert Redford. I did not believe for a moment that Redford was Dan Rather.

The film indulges in some very heavy sentimentality on the evening of Rather’s last broadcast. After he signs out and the broadcast is over, the movie actually switches to slow motion as his loyal staff cheers him on and the music swells.

Despite such silly touches, the film sticks reasonably close to the original facts–at least as I remember them. Mapes led a team to research rumors that Bush had shirked his Vietnam-era military duty. Using family connections, the future president got into the Texas National Guard to avoid going into actual combat–all the while publically supporting the war. But a lot of evidence, arguably incidental, suggested that Bush shirked even that light responsibility; he even went AWOL for months and was never punished for it. Keep in mind that Republicans were building Bush up as a war hero, while attacking the military record of his opponent, John Kerry, who had actually served in combat and was awarded several medals.

While researching these allegations, Mape found what appeared to be the smoking gun: two memos from Bush’s superior, complaining about his behavior. Almost immediately after the report was aired, evidence turned up proving that the memos were forged. Bush’s behavior ceased being the story and everyone was attacking CBS. To this day, we don’t know who forged those memos.

The last section of the film has Mape trying to justify her work to a panel of lawyers that behave like a kangaroo court. She has to make a choice between justifying her actions and holding onto her job. The movie clearly wants us to hope that she’ll succeed in both.

But here’s the problem: Although I am in complete agreement with Mape’s politics, and I believe that Bush’s behavior should have been an issue, I can’t help feeling that both Mapes and Rather should have been fired for this error. They put out a big story based on very faulty evidence. They didn’t know where their source got the memos. They only had copies, which made it impossible to test their age. The text was in a proportional font–possible but very unlikely for a typed memo before the computer age.

The film catches the look of 2004 very well, and it’s amazing how much things have changed in the last 11 years. The computers in this film all have CRT monitors, and most of the TVs are 4×3 standard definition. A few people have wide-screen TVs, and they’re all set wrong–cropping or spreading the old-shaped image to fit the new-shaped TV. Most people with widescreen TVs back then didn’t know how to set them up properly.

Truth reminds us of an important part of recent history, shows how network TV worked in the recent past, and does it all entertainingly. Despite some serious flaws, it’s well worth catching.

Searching for the root of all evil: My review of Experimenter

A- Biopic

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda

Why do so many people do what they’re told, even when the orders given to them are manifestly immoral? That’s what social phycologist Stanley Milgram set out to discover in the early 1960s. His testing methods were controversial, but his results could not be ignored. Michael Almereyda’s engaging biopic uses realism and whimsical expressionism to bring us into these tests, show us how they were done, and reveal how their resulting notoriety effected the rest of his life.

Even if you don’t recognize Milgram’s name, you’ve probably heard about his experiments. Under the ruse of testing how punishment effects learning, Milgram and his assistants would have one person “punish” another with increasingly greater electric shocks. The “victim” was in on the ruse, and would scream in agony while remaining perfectly comfortable. The real idea was to see how many people would continue to torture a fellow human because an authority figure insisted on it.

Most people continued to torture.

The test results became controversial as soon as they were published. Many objected to what Milgram put his subjects through, making them believe that they were hurting someone. Milgram wrote a book on the subject and continued as a college professor, but his academic career was hurt by the controversy.

I don’t know enough about Milgram to have an opinion on the debate, but Almereyda unquestionably takes Milgram’s side. He tells us cinematically that no one was hurt, and that the people who thought they were torturers were let down as easily as possible.

Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) was an American Jew, working under the shadow of the then-recent Holocaust. The big question–why did so many people follow such horrible orders–was a big one at the time. The Holocaust, and Milgram’s ethnicity (there’s no hint that he’s in any way religious) come up again and again in the story.

While the film concentrates on his career, it spends time on his private life. Winona Ryder plays the love of his life, and it’s wonderful to see her again after all these years. She plays the conventional loving and supporting wife, but with an intelligence that suggests that she understands her husband’s work and easily becomes part of it.

Almereyda takes some unusual directions in telling Milgram’s story. Sarsgaard narrates the story as Milgram, addressing the camera directly ala Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Twice, he narrates while walking through a college hallway, with an elephant inexplicitly following him. (Why? Your guess is as good as mine.) A few scenes are set against obviously, and I have to assume intentionally, fake backdrops.

Almost all of the characters in the film are actual people, and they seldom looked like the men and women they were playing. This was only a problem in a couple of scenes involving famous celebrities. Tom Bateman does not look like Dick Cavett, and Kellan Lutz most definitely does not match William Shatner. The short scenes with them felt jarring.

Which is too bad, because the scene with Shatner (and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis) was the funniest in the film. Here Milgram, working as a paid but powerless consultant, has to watch the creation of a very bad TV movie loosely based on his work.

I’m so glad we now have a good movie on the subject.

Pride, decency, nationalism, and the Bridge of Spies (also the Mill Valley Film Festival screening in Corte Madera)

A- Espionage drama

Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Two superpowers, each hating and fearing the other as a military and ideological enemy, face each other off. Neither wants to back down. Neither wants to give an inch. But both know full well that if their cold war ever got hot, it would be the end of both of them–and probably the end of civilization.

Such is the setting of Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama, Bridge of Spies. Note that I said drama, not thriller. There’s very little conventional suspense or action in this picture. The film concentrates on court rooms and international negotiations. Some minor characters face imprisonment or execution, but the protagonist is only briefly in danger.

That protagonist is a New York lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). As the film begins in 1957, he’s asked to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s not particularly happy about defending a “commie,” but he realizes that everyone deserves a fair trial. In fact, he seems to be the only person in America who realizes that.

Rylance, Spielberg, and his screenwriters (who include the Coen Brothers) turn this spy into a very nice, and even admirable guy. Quiet, self-effacing, and resigned, he spends his time painting cityscapes and self-portraits. When arrested, he refuses to become a turncoat and help the American government–the exact response we’d hope to get from an American spy. Donovan respects Abel’s courage and the two begin an uneasy friendship.

But the film isn’t really about Abel’s trial, or even about the way that trial turns Donovan into one of the most hated men in America. The bulk of the story concerns Donovan’s trip to Berlin in the early 1960s to arrange a spy swap: Abel for Gary Powers–an American spy-plane pilot whose plane was shot down by the Russians.

Meanwhile, the East Germans are holding an American student, and Donovan decides to free him, as well. The East Germans have their own agenda–they want to be seen in the West as a real country, not a Russian puppet.

A handful of scenes are in German. Unfortunately, those scenes lack subtitles. I don’t know why. I’m hoping it was a problem with the pre-release DCP.

A title card at the very beginning tells us that the picture is “inspired by a true story.” I don’t know how much of it is truth, and how much is inspiration, but I like that word inspired. Too many narrative films based on actual events claim that they stick close to the facts. Sometimes they even do what they claim, which usually results in a bad movie.

Bridge of Spies takes you into the early Mad Men era, but without the glamourous clothes. It captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. much of it is dark and unsettling, especially in Berlin.

Tom Hanks plays his patented decent American guy (yeah, I know, James Steward actually owns the patent). His Donovan appears to be a reasonably good lawyer who turns, through experience, into a great negotiator. But he has little faith in his own abilities. In his own eyes, he’s a lost American with no overcoat and a bad cold, stumbling in the dark as he faces more skilled adversaries. Hanks doesn’t give us a great performance, but he gives us everything we need, including a star that we’re used to rooting for.

For most of the film, Spielberg avoids the smooth camera movements, the Spielberg Face, and the other tricks that tend to drown many of his films in sentimentality. But when Donovan comes home to his loving family, the sentimentality is laid on thick. There’s even an absurdly convenient TV news broadcast. The movie would have ended much better if it had ended ten minutes sooner. (Maybe five minutes sooner, but it felt like ten.)

I saw the film Tuesday at a Mill Valley Film Festival screening at the Corte Madera Century Cinema. None of the filmmakers were in attendance, and there was no Q&A.

The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Amongst the films I saw there in first run were The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home–all in 70mm. (Bridge of Spies isn’t particularly immersive, and didn’t really need that screen.)

The Sociopath in the Machine: My review of Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs documentary

Biographical documentary

Directed by Alex Gibney

There’s no doubt about it. Steve Jobs changed the world. Even if you don’t own a single Apple product, your computer, tablet, and smartphone were influenced by Job’s work and inspiration.

But Jobs the man was a first-class jerk. At the start of his career, he cheated his friend and partner, Steve Wozniak, out of nearly $3,000. As his personal worth jumped from $10 million to $200 million, he lied and fought in court to not pay childcare for his daughter (the mother, his former girlfriend, was on welfare at the time). Able-bodied, he liked to park his silver sports car in handicap parking spaces.

He could get away with it. He was Steve Jobs.

Director Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts this multifaceted documentary with a question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died?

He was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He could rethink the human-machine interface, hire the best designers and engineers and push them to create his vision, then step out on stage and make everyone in the audience desperately want to buy his latest toy. He built a cult around Apple and around himself.

Many of those designers and engineers learned to hate him. He worked them relentlessly and drove them with anger and insults. Few stayed with him long. One member of the original Macintosh team, interviewed for the film, tells us that he lost his wife and his children in the years he worked for Jobs.

Gibney can’t cover Jobs’ entire life in two hours, but he covers quite a bit. We learn about his interest in Zen–which seemed to be very shallow, and discover he was, like me, a vegetarian and a Bob Dylan fan (Dylan’s songs dominate the soundtrack). We discover how he bullied reporters and editors to control his and his company’s public image.

We also learn how he did everything he could to keep his immense fortune to himself. Unlike Bill Gates (only mentioned once in the film), he didn’t believe in helping others. When he returned to Apple in the late 90s, he killed policies that encouraged employee philanthropy.

The last section of the film, of course, deals with his long and largely secret struggle with cancer.

Whether you worship Jobs, despise him, or couldn’t care less, he changed the world that you live in. And Gibney–one of the best documentarians working today–has created an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a brilliant man utterly lacking in empathy.

Oh, and about that original question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn so deeply when he died? My answer: Because they never met him.

The Actor’s Voice: My review of Listen to Me Marlon

A documentary

  • Directed by directed by Stevan Riley

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this Marlon Brando biography. By using Brando’s own audio recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration, it takes us into his head. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

To anyone who loves motion pictures, Marlon Brando is both a giant of the art and a disappointing enigma. His method-based, down-to-earth, realistic acting style made him one of the most, if not the most, influential actor in the history of the medium. Only Lillian Gish comes close in the way she changed acting. He was, in the 1950s, huge. His films made big box office. His talent was universally praised. Women swooned over him.

But then, in the sixties, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker on the set. He had a comeback in the early 70s with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. But he soon gave up on being a great actor. He only took parts that paid huge amounts of money but required very little effort. He became a joke.

Some people write diaries. Brando spoke his. He recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life. When he died in 2004, he left behind hundreds of hours of these tapes. Director Stevan Riley used these recordings as the backbone to Listen to Me Marlon. We hear him talking about his alcoholic and abusive parents, the characters he played, the tragedies that ruined his children’s lives, and his sexual promiscuity. He gives his side of the story about the famously troubled productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Apocalypse Now. He explains the difficulties he had finding his character for The Godfather, and how he realized the Don Corleone sees himself not as a monster, but as a loving, gentle patriarch.

Riley supplements the talking with music–much of it haunting–interviews, and scenes from his movies. We have a huge photographic record of Marlon Brando’s life and an even larger one of his work. Riley uses both to illustrate what’s being said on the soundtrack.

Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t show us all that much about what Marlon Brando did. It us tells what he thought. And when you come right down to it, that’s the more fascinating story.

Subject to Debate: My review of Best of Enemies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Today’s so-called culture wars burst into existence in 1968, with clashes over Vietnam, racism, and a new sexual freedom. By concentrating on a series of television debates between erudite, east-coast intellectuals, this breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible explanation of how our current world came to be.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were intelligent, influential, and successful, and both were exceptionally skilled debaters. And their world views were as different as they could get. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, was an extreme right-wing reactionary Christian, as determined to stop sexual promiscuity as he was to destroy the safety net for the poor. Vidal, a very successful novelist, was politically progressive, a defender of both the downtrodden and the new "free love." He was gay, and barely inside the closet.

They hated each other.


In that tumultuous year, the ABC television network–desperate for better news ratings–decided on something outrageous. They hired Buckley and Vidal to debate ten times over the course of the Republican and Democratic conventions. It was an interesting year to use that approach; riots broke out in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention.

Best of Enemies argues–and many historians agree–that Buckley played a major role in setting America on its current course. He helped turn Ronald Reagan into a popular national figure, and created an intellectual foundation for today’s anti-government, pro-war, elitist, and repressively Christian Republican party.

Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon make another assertion which I hadn’t heard before: That these debates changed television news, taking it from a fact-reporting medium to an opinion-based one, built around argument. Within a decade, televised commentator debates were so common that Saturday Night Live regularly satirized the formula ("Jane, you ignorant slut").

And as you watch the debates (which take up well under half of the film’s 87-minute runtime), you can see the political atmosphere devolving. Here are two brilliant men taking quotes out of context and throwing insults at each other. Being who I am, I was rooting for Vidal. But even though he tended to win the debates, he disappointed me by attacking Buckley’s character, not his views.

Most of the film puts the debates into a historical context, with biographical sketches, news footage of the times, funny stories about ABC’s amateurish convention coverage (their lighting structure literally collapsed), and interviews with people involved.

Oddly for a documentary covering the uprisings of 1968, Best of Enemies avoids the popular songs of the era. That was the right decision, and not only because it avoided a cliché. We generally think of the clashes of ’68 as a generational divide, but Buckley and Vidal were of the same age (both born in the fall of 1925), and way too old for the rock and roll generation.

If you’re at all interested in recent American history, you should see this film.

The version I screened back in April was described as a "working copy." What you see may be slightly different.


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