Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nolan, Dunkirk and the Madness of Diversity

For religious reasons, I couldn’t get to see “Dunkirk” on its debut week. In the interim, I tantalized myself reading every review of the blessed film. Soon, I noticed an ongoing trend. Reviews did not dwell on historical accuracy or cinematic merits, they were all about Christopher Nolan’s omissions regarding multiculturality. It has been said that the film is “too white” and that it fails to comprehend all the nationalities present on that beach. Apparently, Chris Baby, you did manage to wake the dragon. Bad Boy! But would  “Dunkirk” have been historically correct if the director-producer-scriptwriter had played the diversity card? Did Nolan have the time and space to tackle every minority’s experience on that chaotic but amazing evacuation?

I am not a Nolan fan. His films meet with my utmost indifference, but I am a Second World War buff and I feel the Battle of Dunkirk (and the evacuation scheme known as “Operation Dynamo”) has got  little coverage in historical fiction.  The arrival of this mega films to local theaters had me enthused and grateful for a chance to see my favorite baby boar, Tom Hardy, in a Spitfire cockpit.

I first heard about the Battle of Dunkirk, there on that South American outpost known as Chile, when I was eight years old. My dad, a bigger WWII buff than me, subscribed to a history of the war published, in installments, by Espasa-Calpe. I still recall the cover of that thin pamphlet called El Milagro de Dunquerque (The Miracle of Dunkirk) and the very sad picture of those flat helmets worn by the British army, strewn on the abandoned beach. It was so touching to see that last glimpse of the helmets in Nolan’s film.
(Daily Mail) 

And so, in second grade I knew all about the British Expeditionary Force, besieged by Nazi Germany’s army, and wondrously hauled home by a last-minute mass departure that got over 300.000 men out of that beach. Although valuable equipment had to be left behind, the rescued troops saved the Allied cause. Otherwise, there would have been no soldiers to defend Britain or to continue the war on other shores. In its day,  Dunkirk was hailed both as a success and a miracle, but nowadays most average millennials know nothing about such a pivotal historical event.

The truth is that Dunkirk, as momentous as it was, is not properly covered in history texts. Historians have not yet come to terms as to whether to consider it a terrible defeat (it was) or a triumph of the spirit (in propaganda terms, it was an absolute victory).  And when it comes to films, so few have been done.

Two years after the mega evacuation, Walter Pidgeon, playing the husband of that heroic “Mrs. Miniver,” took his sloop to sea to rescue Allied soldiers. Thus, Hollywood incorporated Dunkirk to its repertoire. Alas! It was a one-night show, because Tinseltown has never again touched the subject.

Oddly enough, neither were the British very much into commemorating Dynamo on film. After 1945, the English film industry would annually bring out a batch of war flicks, but  it took eighteen years for it to develop something about Dunkirk. Properly called “Dunkirk,” it covered Operation Dynamo through the eyes of a journalist (Bernard Lee), a profiteer turned heroic rescuer (Lord Richard Attenborough), and Sir John Mills playing the quintessential Tommy. Even though “Dunkirk” was a total hit, it would take almost sixty years, before anybody, in the English-speaking world, dared to film the epic retreat again.

In 1964, The French tried their hand in the Battle of Dunkirk.  Professor Robert Merle had won the 1949 Goncourt Prix with Weekend a Zuydcoote, a novel based on his own experiences on that fateful beach. He was one of those soldiers who didn’t make it to England and ended up in a German Stalag. He writes then not about Operation Dynamo, but about doomed men stranded in a town that is slowly being destroyed. Henri Verneuil adapted the book in 1964 with Jean Paul Belmondo (the hottest actor in France then) playing the lead, Sergeant Julien.

It was common for Dunkirk to resurface on film adaptation of novels, but as a passing event in the lives of the protagonists. One example is Paul Gallico’s tear-jerker The Snow Goose which is subtitled A Story of Dunkirk. In 1971, Jenny Agutter (decades before becoming sweet Mother Julienne in “Call the Midwife”) won a BAFTA, playing Fritha,  an Essex country girl. Thanks to the title goose, she befriends Philip (Sir Richard “Dumbledore” Harris), a reclusive hunchbacked artist. When war breaks, Philip is rejected by the army. He proves his valor precisely by taking his boat to Dunkirk and rescuing several hundred men before getting killed.

Thanks to Ian McEwan, Millennials got to hear about Dunkirk when the most famous soldier to trample its beaches, Robbie Turner, took them there in Atonement. James McEvoy played Robbie in the film adaptation.  There are two things I liked about the film, Keira’s green dress and the inclusion of the Battle of Dunkirk.

When criticizing Nolan’s merits, one should bear in mind then that there is almost no precedent for his film. In “Dunkirk, ” he strives to cram as much as he can for the viewer to leave the theater with at least an idea of what happened on those Northern France’s beaches. Nolan divides his film in three settings (the Army on the beach, the Navy and the Little Ships on the sea, and the RAF on the air) each within its own timeframe.  That is a lot to cover in an hour and forty-seven minutes. Nolan himself has said that this is neither a documentary not your conventional war movie. He describes “Dunkirk” as a work about “the mechanics of survival.”

As I said, before seeing the movie, I tried to get an idea of what I would encounter. More than reviews, I found disparagement. Few technical reproaches, plenty on content. On The Vulture, where the film was ripped apart, one of their complaints was about Nolan’s glorification of the Little Ships (and the Little People too). “Little Ships” refers to an armada of over 800 vessels (some of them private and manned by civilian crews) that took part in Operation Dynamo.

It is true, we can’t say their contribution saved the day. Obviously, the bulk of the evacuation rested on larger ships, but people such as the character played by Sir Mark Rylance  on “Dunkirk” or like Gallico’s hunchback,  inspired the nation with their courage (they did risk their lives), their patriotism and their altruism. Moreover, and due to shallow tides, large craft were unable to reach the beaches.  By getting close to land and ferrying soldiers to the bigger vessels, the Little Ships were instrumental in hastening, easing and upgrading the rescue process.

But the main condemnation that has fallen on Nolan’s work isabout  his lack of cultural diversity. It started with a standard (in our era of Political Correctness) warning made by Brian Truitt  in his USA Today review: “the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.” Of course, the conservative press, on both sides of the Atlantic, had a field day laughing at what they deemed liberal crap, or the inability to understand that the clashing armies of Dunkirk were monochromatic.  That incorrigible James Delingbone had me on stitches.
Also, it would have added a new dimension had James Earl Jones been cast as the salty old Royal Naval officer called out of retirement for one last trip across the English Channel, or if Ice T and Snoop Dogg had been given the role of two aging rappers who parachute from a Dakota to administer weed to the desperate troops, or if Oprah appeared in a cameo as Queen Mary welcoming the returning troops after their desperate voyage.
But it wouldn’t have been historically authentic.

Delingbone is better at sarcasm than Lyanna Mormont, but he is missing a point.  The British Army was not entirely white. In 1939, four Royal Indian Army companies arrived in France. Known as K6, they were mostly Muslim Punjabis and Pathans from what is now Pakistan.  They were present in Dunkirk, Indian officers were decorated, mules had to be left behind, three Indian contingents were evacuated, one fell into German hands.
Two Indian soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk (Getty Images)

The Times of India was the first medium to blow the whistle in Nolan’s oversight. Others followed suit. I do mind the omission, but I can understand the film’s limitations. However, Indian soldiers have appeared in British war films since the Rank’s gong days. I remember as a pre-adolescent (in my “drooling over Dirk Bogarde” stage) watching Indian soldiers fight the Japanese in “The Wind Cannot Read.” And the Indian military effort has been celebrated on screen from “The Jewel in the Crown” to “The English Patient”.
Naveen Andrews as sapper Kip Singh in "The English Patient"

Now, Nolan can’t be blamed for this specific lapse since he has overlooked so many other nationalities. This was a world war, and although no British colonial forces were present at Dunkirk, we do get to glimpse a black man in a French uniform on the film. The French colonial army was anything but white and their contribution was enormous.

Contingents of Moroccan troops were among those forces that held the Germans at bay, propitiating the retreat.  But the French are not complaining about the race issue, they find the film offensive because their contribution and their presence are so minimized. I find this nitpicking exhausting. Imagine if other “white” nationalities would echo this bickering?
Soldiers from the Colonial French Army on their way to Dunkirk

Although, at some point Harry Styles and his Merry Men do bump into a Dutch soldier, “Dunkirk” does not talk about the Dutch and Belgian evacuees (ships from the Low Countries also joined the trop ferrying effort). There were Free Poles on that beach, and thanks to “Home Fires,” I learned there were also Free Czechs.  None of them are mentioned in the film.  Master Nolan, you are slipping, Sir!
Czech Captain Novotny came from Dunkirk to bring joy to poor,  plain and abused Pat.

Truth be told, most Eastern European troops were evacuated in a joint effort known as Operation Ariel that went on a couple of weeks after the Dunkirk exodus was over. It continued throughout June from the main French ports on the Atlantic, and rescued French, British, Polish, and Czech soldiers as well as British nurses and some equipment.

Nolan’s film has made France unhappy. Her media complains about  French troops being ignored in the storyline. Surprising, since the film is brutally honest about the British attitude towards their allies.  The success of Dynamo was possible thanks to 30, 000 French soldiers that remained behind fighting off the Germans (The Indian contingent fought along them). As the film shows us, British Navy personnel felt their priority should be their Tommies, so the French were put on hold. It was only Churchill’s demands that made it possible to evacuate almost 100, 000 French troops. But they were the last to leave, as exemplified in the film by Commander Bolton’s final remark:” I’m staying for the French.”

At Le Monde, Jacques Mandelbaum calls Nolan’s omission impolite. He describes the film as “une histoire purement anglaise.” He says the film only gives a dozen of minutes to his countrymen. Geoffroy Caillet writing for Le Figaro is much more offensive. He claims that Operation Dynamo was a betrayal of the French since it ruined Le Plan Weygand and helped pave France’s debacle. WTF? You idiotic Frog (and I can use the word. My paternal grandmother hailed from La Gascogne just like D’Artagnan).  That is pure Vichy propaganda! Sorry, Mes petits, I will mourn for the slighted, forgotten French in Dunkirk, but raise my middle finger to those who use such false arguments.

When I was young, we had a neighbor, Monsieur Daniel G, he was a Communist and a former resistant. He also claimed to have fled Dunkirk. He said that on noticing that the French soldiers were lagging, he went, found himself a boat,  and rowed towards one of the British destroyers. They couldn’t turn him away and so he got to England.  I never knew if the story was apocryphal or not. But it could have happened.
French soldiers are hauled from water after their ship has been bombed off Dunkirk shore (BBC)

In Mandelbaum’s critic, he also mentions that we never get to see the Dunkirk civilians, and they had a tough time too. Well, this is an odd film, since the idea is to show civilians (ergo British) coming to rescue the soldiers, but it is true we don’t get to see the town or its inhabitants. In fact, Dunkirk was far from deserted. Its population expanded thanks to a constant reflux of Belgian refugees, most of them Jewish.

And hey! Now that every minority is demanding a pound of Nolan’s flesh, it’s time for me to join in. How come nobody mentions Jews in this film?  There were Jewish refugees on Dunkirk, and Jewish crews manning both the British vessels and the Little Ships. There were Jews in the British and French armies. Historian Marc Bloch, then a captain in the French Army, was evacuated in the Daffodil. There is no mention of the Jewish army doctors that were taken away by the SS and were never heard again. Only one of them reappeared, Isadore Scherer,  a South African medical officer, who ended up in Colditz Castle.

Some have complained that Nolan does not show the fate of those who fell in German hands. In fact, at the end of the film, when Farrier (Tom Hardy) hands himself over to the Germans, we just shrug. Tom Hardy managed to escape from “Colditz” in 2005, he can do it again. The truth is that a prisoner’s lot was not a  good one. Officers got to go to Stalags, other ranks became forced laborers. Those were the lucky ones .
Tom Hardy after escaping from "Colditz"

Several hundred of British soldiers of all ranks were massacred by the SS at Le Paradis. Dunkirk survivors don’t have a happier story to tell, deprived of food, water and medical aid, they were also beaten and mocked by the Germans. In a way, I’m glad that Nolan forgot to include their plight.  The movie is harrowing enough as it is.

In my next blog, I’ll go on detail about Nolan’s last faux-pas and how it has enraged the denizens of faux-feminism. Poor man, he just can’t seem to do right by minorities!

Poor Nolan! Now he is a Zionist agent

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Good German, The Jewish Girl and The Cuddly Kaiser: The Exception

I postponed my watching of “The Exception,” fearing I wouldn’t like it. It looked like another cliché-ridden flick with a storyline that had fallen prey to the usual historical fiction mistakes:  lack of credibility, the impossibility of a happy ending, or the implausibility of such ending if it happened at all.  In the end, my fears proved unfounded. I liked the movie a lot, but for all the wrong reasons. I applauded the deviations from the book, totally bought the romance, adored the Kaiser, and the new ending enthralled me. I’m afraid they made the film for those like me (I leave it up to you to define me) in the sense that it maintains a high-level of romantic suspense while remaining as faithful to true events as possible.

“The Exception” is based on former soldier-diplomat Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Published in 2003, the book came out at a time when interest in World War II fiction was dwindling. Back then, I was heavily involved in the writing of my own war tale, so I kept an eye on the American publishing market. Everything indicated the subject was not in vogue, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

In the last two years, the market has changed, which may account for the novel’s adaptation finally hitting the screen.  In 2017, The New York Times Bestsellers List has included several novels about Europeans’ plight during the conflict (Lilac Girls, The Nightingale, All the Light We Cannot See). The BBC keeps on making shows about Britain during the war; “Home Fires,” “The Halcyon” and “My Mother and Other Strangers.” The film industry follows suit. “Allies” has been Hollywood’s attempt to come up with a Third Millennium “Casablanca.” Since 2016, two films have been made about Churchill and two films about Heydrich’s assassination; “The Zookeeper’s Wife” introduced us to another courageous rescuer of Jews; and this summer we got to experience “Dunkirk.”  “The Exception” fits into its times and fashions.

With “The Exception,” theater producer David Levaux has gone the whole hog into the feminization of this period drama. The main (very odd) couple is gorgeous, they have red-hot sex but are so in love, and Kaiser Wilhelm II is a fuzzy-cuddly teddy bear who lives in a magnificent palace, surrounded by beautiful things and lovely-looking people. When Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan, who is becoming a fine character actor) drops by to visit, he stands out like a porcupine in a swan pond. You can tell he represents all that is ugly and evil in the world.

Changes have been made to the original plot, starting with the names. Martin has become “Stefan Brand,” and Akki is now “Mieke de Jong.” I have yet to understand the reason behind this modification. In the book, Martin is an enthusiastic SS officer, full of pride for his uniform and the power that comes with it. And yet in the middle of babysitting Kaiser Wilhelm in Holland, he falls in love with a Jewish spy. Critics and readers alike doubted the probability of such romance between an SS and a Jew. I shared those doubts, although we have a precedent:  SS Auschwitz guard Franz Wunsch fell in love with Jewish Helena Citronova and saved her life and her sister’s. But as I said, Martin and Akki’s liaison did not ring true to me. Not that early in the war, not in that milieu, so I could see the need to modify the storyline.
Helena and Wunsch

Stefan Brand, the new protagonist, is a Wehrmacht officer and his mission to protect the Kaiser is a punishment. He has run afoul the SS in Poland and only his connections (he is “distantly” related to the Ludendorff Family) have kept him from a court martial. His crime? Beating up an SS officer who was conducting one of those daily massacres of civilians that would characterize German occupation of Poland.

Stefan is asked to guard the Kaiser’s life with his own, but also to watch him. There is a rumor that a British agent is lurking near Huis Doorn (Wilhelm’s country state) who may want to contact the former Emperor of Germany. The Germans fear the Allied wish to use the Kaiser as a propaganda figure. This is a fact. At the start of the German invasion, both Hitler and Churchill sent messages to Wilhelm offering him asylum in their respective countries. The Kaiser refused both offers.

In real life, Churchill’s message was relayed to the former Emperor by the Mayor of Utrecht. In the book/film such errand is placed in the hands of the woman who will catch the eye of both Brand and the Kaiser. Such attraction will turn them into “The Good German” archetype. When Mieke tells her lover, “the Nazis are the rule, but you are the exception,” she is reaffirming the idea that not everybody in the Fatherland was a Nazi, and those who did not carry the Nazi Party card were good Germans.

 I don’t abide by such simplicity. “Good Germans” came in all shapes and sizes. Count von Stauffenberg was Wehrmacht, but he was not a party member. Oskar Schindler was the quintessential Good German and yet he carried his card. Hans Munch, nicknamed “The Good Man of Auschwitz,” was an SS doctor who refused to kill Jews. Heinz Dissel rejected Nazism, joined the Wehrmacht, helped his parent’s hide Jews and eventually married Marianne, a Jewish girl he saved from suicide.  Werner Vetter was a good party member; however, he did get false papers for Jewish Edith Hahn so he could marry her. Throughout the war he managed to keep her (and their child) safe. So, Captain Brand is in good company.
The Nazi Officer's Wife, Edith Hahn and her husband, Werner Vetter.

Nevertheless, at the film’s beginning, Brand may dislike the SS and the Gestapo but he is not about to topple Nazi hierarchy, betray his oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer, and certainly, he is not one of those monarchists who yearn for the Kaiser’s return. Although he comes from a long line of Prussian officers and his mother was a member of the landed gentry, he belongs to that generation (that gave rise to Nazism) that felt betrayed by the Kaiser. As we are to find out, the Kaiser feels betrayed by his subjects.

At his first dinner with His Royal Highness, Brand summarizes his life. His officer father was killed in the Battle of the Somme. During the chaotic postwar period, his refined mother was forced to hire herself as a housecleaner, and eventually died of tuberculosis. This confession provokes one of Wilhelm’s famous mood swings. He explodes in a tirade declining the guilt the world and Germans assign him for causing the war and the following debacle.

The Great War and its consequences are an ongoing peeve in the Kaiser’s mind. After all, he was considered a war criminal and Holland fought hard to resist French pressure to extradite him. Throughout the film, Wilhelm makes half-hearted attempts to eschew responsibilities. He blames the war on his entourage, on Moltke, Ludendorff and others of that ilk. Nobody really believes him, least of all war-orphan Brandt. But being objective, it is hard to assign blames for starting the conflict. Germany was militaristic but not less than Serbia or Russia. And certainly not more enthusiastic to enter war than France was.
British anti-Kaiser propaganda.

Christopher Plummer may be 88 years old but his histrionic power is that of a young man. His prowess is to turn Kaiser Wilhelm into a sympathetic character. He manages to convey a man who is both charming but tactless, perceptive as well as imperious. The real Kaiser was all that and more.

Wilhelm as a young boy

Although the offspring of two lovely people, Wilhelm was an unhappy child: sickly, born with a deformed arm, half-deaf, and an emotional wreck. The insecurities brought by his less than perfect body made him volatile and aggressive. He was Queen Victoria’s favorite grandson (the old queen died in his arms) and through his grandmother, he grew to love the lifestyle and mores of the British aristocracy. He was a modern ruler who fought and eventually fired Bismarck because the chancellor stood on his way when Wilhelm tried to successfully bring social reforms and progress to Germany. But of course, all that vanished compared to the carnage that he provoked in 1914.
Queen Vicky and young Willy

Critics have written odes over Plummer’s flamboyant performance, and odes he deserves, but the cast is top notch too. Australian hunk Jai Courtenay (“Divergent”) may belong to the Tom Hardy school of acting but at least he talks, he doesn’t grunt. He is convincingly brooding and his chemistry with Lily James is flawless.

I’m so glad that despite her blundering acting in that mishmash “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Lily James successfully continues her campaign to occupy Keira Knightley’s throne as the Period Piece Queen. She’s lovely as brunette Mieke even if her role does place her in that category of  ”Jewish girl surviving in Holland while doing a bit of spying on the side.” She does remind me of similar actresses in that role from Lana Turner in “Betrayed” to Carice van Houten in “The Black Book.” She also does a bit of Mata Hari when, on delivering the Kaiser’s invitation to Brand, barges into the officer’s room getting a quickie and managing to intrigue him further.

There are those who have resented the amount of sex in the film. I’m one to speak out against gratuitous sex scenes, but there is none of those here. We get a lot of bedroom sights with the couple in different stages of undress, but that is because they are clandestine lovers. Secret post-coital trysts are their only chance to talk about what matters. There are two graphic sex scenes. Both actors bare it all and we finally get to see some masculine frontal nudity, but it’s all necessary and tastefully done.

Nonetheless, I felt Mieke to be the least developed character in a story that, despite its action and suspense, is chiefly character-oriented. We know so little of Mieke except that she carries a gun, reads Nietzsche and (as the Kaiser notices) possesses far too delicate hands for a chambermaid.  

At some point, she tells the pastor who heads her underground movement that the Germans killed her husband and father. How? Were they in the doomed Dutch Army? Were they in Rotterdam when the Luftwaffe bombed that city?  Germans didn’t kill Dutch Jews until February 1941. Of course, the killing could have taken place somewhere else. Mieke may not be Dutch. That would explain her working for the British so early in the war. In the book, she tells Martin she “volunteered” for this mission. It means she had to undergo some training prior to her domestic service at Huis Doorn.

The movie has some chronological problems. I hear the novel takes place over a year period, ending sometimes in 1941, right after the invasion of the USSR. However, the film starts after Holland surrenders, and takes place over a couple of weeks making events move too fast for credibility. Such short time for British-trained agents to be posted in the village, and all to deliver a message to the Kaiser?

Does “The Exception” fail on other historical aspects? When I was a little girl, I asked my father, what had the Kaiser done after his abdication.  “He went to Holland to chop wood” was his scornful answer. I thought he was pulling my leg. During the Great War, my grandfather had been a sergeant in the Belgian Army. He had handed down his (well-earned) hatred for Germans to my dad. Eventually, I learned that the exiled Kaiser, who until 1932 enjoyed a splendid health, did indulge in constant wood-cutting that led to massive deforestation in the area around Huis Doorn.

Aside from being a lumberjack, the Emperor planted roses (his rosarium are still to be seen), took long walks, went on archeological digs, wrote articles, entertained lavishly, and kept up with the news, reading the eight leading German papers every day. He cared to know about German politics because real Wilhelm and his movie version shared the same dream, they wanted their throne back.

The film shows us the Kaiser feeding ducks, chopping wood and following war progress. Unlike in real life, where the Kaiser exulted over the Nazi Army’s advances, Plummer’s character seems to find no pleasure in it. “This is not my army,” he mumbles at some point.  The real Kaiser resented Hitler and his crew considering them a bunch of vulgar parvenus. He detested their methods which to him were not different from those of the Bolsheviks.  But the Nazis were a necessary evil. Their aid was vital for Wilhelm’s return to Germany.

In the film, His Majesty over and over displays his contempt for Nazis. He scoffs at Hitler pretending to have invented the swastika; refers to “Fat Goering” as an uncouth oaf, one that the Kaiser’s old regiment would have thrown to the dogs; and when the Empress tells him they’re about to entertain Himmler, Wilhelm’s contemptuous answer is “count the silver.”

There is one doubt the film planted on me. The plot explains the Kaiserine’s fawning over the Nazis not only because she dreams of a Hitler-supported restoration, but also because the German government has granted a generous allowance to the Royal Family. I was under the impression that the Kaiser had left Germany carrying most of his personal fortune and that those funds had enabled him to live in style in the Netherlands. Did Hitler solvent the Kaiser’s magnificent lifestyle?
Huis Doorn, residence of the Kaiser during his exile.

To review the historical aspects of “The Exception” one can’t eschew two real characters that shared the Kaiser’s exile and play important roles in the movie. The first is Princess Hermine, Wilhelm’s second wife. After playing Clementine Churchill and Jaquetta of Luxembourg, Janet McTree adds a new character to her gallery of noble ladies. With darker hair and marvelous facial expressiveness, McTree grants Princess “Hermo” the moral ambiguity, the determination, and the gullibility that characterized the real item.

The Kaiser was overcome with grief when his lifetime companion, Empress Augusta, died shortly after their arrival in Holland. On his first birthday as a widower, the Emperor received a particularly moving greeting from a young boy, Prince George-Wilhelm of Shonaich-Carolath. Touched by the letter, Wilhelm asked the prince to visit him. The boy traveled with his mother, the recently widow Princess Hermine (nee Princess von Reuss).

 The Kaiser was instantly smitten by Hermine’s curvaceous body and dusky exotic looks. Finding her attractive and intelligent, he proposed almost immediately. Their marriage came as a shock to both German monarchists and the Kaiser’s children who never accepted their stepmother.  Being more than thirty years younger than her husband, Hermine was thought to have married for all the wrong reasons. Although she came from a princely family, everyone perceived her as just a social climber bent on being the new Kaiserin.
The Kaiser and Princess Hermine

Hermine was scheming and ambitious indeed, but history tells us she loved her husband (and Wilhelm was a difficult man) and made his ambitions her own. Throughout her marriage, she strived to get his throne back. As she could travel back and forth between Germany and Huis Doorn, she contacted every monarchist association available, and to her eternal shame, toadied to the Nazis brazenly. She even bribed Goering (as she does Himmler on the film).
The loving couple, Wilhelm and his new Kaiserin

When Wilhelm left Germany, he was accompanied by his young aide de campe, Colonel Sigurd von Ilsemann. Although part of a small and new nobility, von Ilsemann was totally devoted to his master, yet he was not blind to the Kaiser’s flaws. Throughout his years of service, he kept a diary that was published shortly after his death in 1952. There, von Ilsemann writes frankly about the difficulties of living with the Kaiser and the schemes of Princess Hermo (the diarist did not like her).

Even the servants resented the new Empress and did their best not to obey her. The scene where Wilhelm, in front of the staff, dismisses Hermo’s desire of firing Mieke (after learning of her “fornication” with Brandt), probably was a constant event in that house. And yet, the movie recreates Hermo’s love for her husband, her naïve illusions of getting him back into power, and her shock at the Nazi’s villainy and cruelty.

Devaux has turned von Ilsemann (played by Ben Daniels) into another “Good German.” He could very well have been Fool to the Kaiser’s Lear, but he ends up being Jiminy Cricket, the voice of conscience in a world without conscience. This becomes evident during the plot’s pivotal twist, Heinrich Himmler’s impromptu visit to Huis Doorn.

Although Goering did visit the Kaiser prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Himmler never came. It matters little, since this historical license provides that catalectic moment all characters seem to long for. Mieke wants to kill the head of the Gestapo; Brand discovers she is a spy who may have been using him; Wilhelm learns the Nazis want him in Berlin, and Princess Hermo begins to plan how she ‘ll make her mean sisters bow to her once her husband is back in power.

Alas, this is all a trap. Only von Ilsemann can see through it. He tries to warn his Kaiserin. He reminds her of the worthy aristocratic people the Nazis have killed, including Chancellor von Schleicher, murdered with his wife during the Long Knives Night. Hermine remains stubbornly unmoved, and yet she’s about to be surprised by these picturesque Nazis whom she thinks she can so easily manipulate.

Reichsfuher Himmler’s arrival is disastrous. The Kaiser makes him wait a long time under a gray sky. Nobody but the head of the local Gestapo answers Himmler’s Nazi salute, and Princess Hermine delivers a clumsy welcoming speech punctuated with remarks about the sad absence of Frau Himmler. Did nobody bother to tell the Empress that the woman in furs next to Himmler was Hedwig Popthast, his secretary-mistress?The Kaiserin learns this fact when she drops by Himmler’s bedroom (carrying her bribe in an envelope) and finds the secretary wearing only a lace garter belt.

 Hermine is about to face further shocks at a dinner party where ugly truths are laid on her napkin. In response to Wilhelm’s diatribe against the Jews, Himmler begins to spread the Third Reich’s plans for those who have no right to exist in such a paradisiacal land. Von Isleman courageously brings up the patriotic Jewish contribution during the Great War, but his words are ignored. The Nazis have no regard for those decorated soldiers, no more that Wilhelm does.

Undaunted, von Ilsemann continues in his efforts to make his master see his guest’s immorality. When Himmler speaks candidly about the extermination of the Untermenchen, the equerry retorts “and their children too.” This provokes a horrific tale, made more horrific because Himmler is unaware that this is not a subject for dinner conversation. He speaks of a doctor that has found a fast method of murdering children: injecting carbolic acid to their heats. “The children love him! “exclaims the elated Reichsfuhrer.

For a second, the audience wonders if the ceiling will cave in, if brimstone and fire will fall upon these corrupt crowd, but nothing happens. Instead we are subject of an impeccable camera work. First, we get a close-up of Hermo who is rolling eyes and swallowing hard, trying to digest what she has just heard, then the camera pans to her husband’s face. Wilhelm has become a marble statue, you can’t even feel him breath. Finally, the camera focus on Mieke’s visage as she silently passes judgement on the present company.

The most appalling detail about Himmler’s anecdote is that, aside from being true, he is talking about Aryan children. In Nazi Germany, euthanasia was applied to the terminally ill, to the elderly and to anybody who displayed deviant behavior. The mercy killing of children was done for the most arbitrary reasons: from severe mental retardation to bedwetting, from manic suicidal tendencies to teenage girls’ despondency.

The following morning, the Empress accuses von Ilsemann of having lead Himmler into that coarse conversation, but we sense she has been shaken from her comfort zone. When von Ilsemann is told that they are returning to Berlin, he’s visible moved but whispers his hopes that the Kaiser’s return to his homeland will restrain Nazi cruelty. But the offer is nothing but a ruse designed to flush out the monarchist elements in Germany. The Nazis consider them enemies of the state as much as Jews are. Over a shot of schnapps, Himmler confesses this truth to Brand who is now in a wider quandary. Should he save Mieke? Should he help the Kaiser and the monarchists? What can he do when his oath to a ruthless regime clashes with his honor as a true German soldier?

Brand needs a mentor/father figure. He doesn’t confide in Himmler, not the Kaiser, but he goes to a man whose honor he recognizes. “What could be more important than the love of one’s country?” is Brand’s question. Von Iselmann’s answer is chillingly poignant:” One must ask, what is my country and does it even still exist?” That is all Brand needs to know. With a bit of help from the Kaiser, he manages to do the right thing while retaining his honor and patriotism.

“The Exception” confronts us with a historical question. Would the Kaiser have been as decent as the film and Plummer portray him?  For that we must go back to history and explore the touchy subject of his anti-Semitism and his relationship with the fair sex.

Much has been written about the Kaiser’s alleged bisexuality. None of it is very convincing. He did have homosexual friends and had an annoying habit of slapping aide’s bottoms (poor von Ilsemann gets his butt smacked in the film), but overall, he seems to have gone for women. In the movie, he tells Mieke about his first love, Princes Elizabeth von Hesse (now a saint in the Russian Orthodox iconography). That is a historical fact, Princess Ella broke young Wilhelm’s heart when she married “a Romanov!” as the Kaiser scoffs.

When confronted with the evidence of Brand-Mieke’s affair, the Kaiser decides to become their Cupid and confides he has fathered two children out of wedlock, one with a countess another with a prostitute. You would not find such information in his biographies, but there is a family in Norway that claims to descend from the Kaiser’s offspring with a local woman. Then, in Sydney there is another family that believes to stem from a love child begotten by Wilhelm and Princess Elisa Radziwill.

Book and film stress the fact that Wilhelm has a tremendous crush on his little maid. He tells von Ilsemann “If I was a hundred years younger…”so it would be possible for him to care for MIeke’s welfare. But the point remains. Mieke is Jewish and the Kaiser hates the Jews.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kaiser Wilhelm was a cultural anti-Semite. He also loathed the Slavs, despised Catholics, and feared the Yellow Peril.  He was wise enough to keep his views on the Jews within his intimate circle, while openly embracing the liberal views and tolerant attitudes of an enlightened monarch. At that embarrassing dinner at Huis Doorn, one of Himmler’s men accuses the Kaiser of having cultivated Jewish friends in his reigning days. Indeed, I could provide him with a small list:  Albert Sommer, the Kaiser’s school chum; his adviser, banker Max Warburg; shipping magnate Albert Ballin who committed suicide on the day of Wilhelm’s abdication; and Walther Rathenau, first president of Republican Germany, murdered by the Nazis on 1923.
The Kaiser and his friend Albert Balling at the launch of the Bismarck (1914)

Things changed after his exile. Like Hitler, the Kaiser blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and grew to believe in the existence of a Jewish conspiracy. He spoke about it and wrote about it, and yet he did not like the Nazis methods. Kristallnacht horrified him forcing him to declare:  “For the first time, I’m ashamed to be German.” When his son, and ardent Nazi, Prince Awi tried to explain why the wreckage had been necessary, Wilhelm disowned him.

This is not a surprising stance considering it had a precedent. Just like his British family, Wilhelm had been pro-Dreyfuss. He wrote to his grandmother (who called Captain Dreyfuss a “poor martyr”) that the affair was giving rise to French anti-Semitism. Oddly, the Kaiser did not see himself as part of an anti-Semitic coterie. Why should he when his government was much more tolerant of the Jews than other European countries? Emperor Franz -Joseph could publicly praise the domestic virtue of Orthodox Jews, but Orthodox Jews were segregated and murdered throughout his empire. Tsar Nicholas II, Wilhelm’s first cousin, considered himself a liberal man, but in his Russia,  Jews were mistreated, expelled and massacred.
French drawing protesting the Kishinev Pogrom.

There is a marvelous line in “Schindler’s List”: “this is not old-fashioned Jew-hating. This is policy.” It’s the difference between disliking Jews and exterminating them. It doesn’t mean, that under the right circumstances, the Jew-hater would not become an exterminator, but luckily it didn’t happen often. It is extraordinary how people who didn’t care for Jews helped them in Nazi Europe. The merit of rescuers lies on the fact that few of them were philo-Semites.

Cultural anti-Semites tend to focus on different negative images attached to Jews throughout their history: Christ-killers; devil-worshippers; well- poisoners; plague-bringers, corrupt bankers, Bolshevik commissars, muckraking journalists, lewd Hollywood moguls, atheist professors, gun-toting Israeli soldiers, etc. A pretty, refined damsel-in- distress is not one of those stereotypes. So, it’s possible that the Kaiser cared enough for Mieke to aid her.

All and all, I enjoyed “The Exception” and particularly loved its ending. Although I would have preferred to see Brand, Mieke and Kaiser fleeing the Nazis and ending up on a Broadway stage singing “Edelweiss” together.

Monday, July 10, 2017

History and Midwifery: Six Seasons of Call the Midwife

Based on true stories, and set in the late Fifties, “Call the Midwife” deserves to be described as a period piece. The classification became evident on its sixth season, when the BBC series moved into more realistic settings while tapping actual events that affected 1962 midwives and people in general. The time has come to consider the staff of St. Raymond Nonnatus House and its patients as part of the historical fiction realm.

Based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, “Call the Midwife” follows the life and times of a group of midwives centered around St. Raymond Nonnatus House, a religious nursing order located in London’s East End. On the first season, we met upper-middle class Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) who, in 1957, leaves behind her world of Parisian trips and cocktail parties to work in Poplar, a low-income neighborhood near the docks. Jenny’ slumming expedition is propelled by an urgency to flee the married man she’s been involved with.  The show’s first three seasons describes the experiences of Jenny and her colleagues which include secular nurses as well as midwife nuns. Jessica Raine left before the fourth season but the series has managed to continue without her.
Jenny's arrival at Poplar

Working in Poplar puts the Nonnatus personnel in contact with patients afflicted by poverty, disease, and mistreatment. The show familiarizes its audiences with the immigrants that turned the East End into a melting pot. We have seen mothers coming from India, China and the West Indies. On several occasions, the midwives have clashed with cultural mores that affect a patient’s health. On Season 6, Val (Jennifer Kirby), new midwife and former military nurse, had to help a Somalian suffering from a perilous infection due to sexual mutilation. And yet, despite the nurse’s effort, the patient insisted on her eldest daughter going through a ritual that seemed to be a point of pride among the women of her culture.

Cultural struggle is an everyday thing in a diverse world as Poplar is. It’s usually presented as a battle between old ways and progress.  On its sixth season, the show posed the dilemma of an Asian girl conflicted between her modern lifestyle and the traditional ways of her mainland China mother-in-law. 

We also witnessed the poignant case of a Holocaust survivor that since her release from the camps had been suffering from agoraphobia. She finally discarded her fear and ventured into the world to meet her grandchild.

“Call the Midwife” is steadfast in its denunciation of racism. It began with the case of a young Jamaican mother’s introduction to bigotry; then in a piquant moral tale of an adulteress whose black baby tells of her indiscretion. This past year we got to see how interracial marriages affect their offspring. Fleeing his chums’ prejudiced taunting, the son of a black father and a white mother was accidentally run over by Nurse Crane (how lovely to see Linda Basset from “Larkrise to Candleford,” again).
Nurse Crane in shock after running over a little boy.

This is a wholesome show that doesn’t shy away from social criticism. From bad housing conditions to work accidents due to an employer’s negligence, all sorts of issues are exposed. The series frankly describes how the authorities are not always on the side of the weak and the innocent. Babies are taken away from whoever the authorities consider unfit mothers, whether they are teen prostitutes or Down’s Syndrome patients. This past season showed the law siding with a wife-beater instead of helping his abused wife and children.
Fleeing from an unjust law.
Sixties Britain is a changing world and nuns and nurses adapt to it. In the early twentieth century, when Sister Monica- Joan (Judy Parfitt) took the veil, her aristocratic family disowned her. In the late 1950s, Lady Browne (Cheryl Campbell) may disapprove of her daughter marrying a policeman or pursuing a career in midwifery, but she can’t stop Chummy (Miranda Hurt) from following her call. The Honorable Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne is friends with Princess Margaret, but also feels at home with the East End mothers she looks after.
Chummy's wedding

Many viewers may stay away from “Call the Midwife” fearing it will be full of religious preachiness. Quite the contrary. Faith plays an important part in the nun’s lives, but religion does not become a divisive issue. The nuns display an extremely open mind and so does Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton), the young parish vicar, who at the end of this last season married nurse Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie).  Weddings have become a traditional way of giving closure to seasons, a detail that helps identify “Call the Midwife” as a historical romance.
Barbara's wedding

 With all its traps, romance has been a constant presence in the show. As the prettiest of the bunch, Jenny and Trixie (Helen George) almost compete on who has the most beaus. Their mutual attraction for the parish priest taxes the friendship between Trixie and Barbara. Love comes to the oldest and the plainest. Fred (Cliff Parisi), Nonnatus’ handyman, ends his loneliness when he marries Violet (Anabelle Apsion), the local store owner. Even Phyllis, tall and plain, gets a suitor who is hiding away a demented wife, just like in gothic romances. And Chummy, Nonnatus’ Brienne of Tarth, found herself a husband in the local constabulary.

Not even the nuns are free from Cupid’s arrows. On Season 3, we discovered that proper and saintly Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) had a lover in the days when she was just  “Louise.”  Nonnatus most daring romance was that of Sister Bernadette (Laura Main), Sister Julienne’s right hand. A no- nonsense, pious nun, she suddenly became rebellious, despondent and longing for things that apparently could not be found in contemplative life. The source of Sister Bernadette’s problems had first and last names: Dr. Patrick Turner (Stephen McGann) who headed the neighbor’s infirmary. After surviving a bout of TBC, the nun decided to be plain “Shelagh” and wear the doctor’s ring. Their engagement closed Season 2 and their wedding took place on the Christmas Special.

All these contacts with love pangs have prepared the midwives, with or without wimples, to face passion’s consequences, which usually lead to wanted and unwanted pregnancies. Over the years, “Call the Midwife” has been a Ripley’s Believe or Not, when it comes to strange romantic liaisons. For example, the elderly couple who were in fact brother and sister, or the twin sisters that shared the same husband.

On the first episode, Jennie attended a Spanish war bride’s labor. Her husband, a former member of the International Brigades, had brought her over in ‘39’and since then she had been delivering a baby per year. Extraordinarily, the active baby-making had been conducted with none of the partners speaking each other’s language. The nuns reminisced that when Conchita had arrived in London she couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old. What today would have been construed as child abuse had no repercussions in an era when the age of consent was much younger than now. In fact, in Spain it still is fourteen.
Conchita's children

The darker side of sex is also present, Trixie was almost date-raped once and on the docks, a sexual predator attacked young Sister Mary Cynthia (Bryony Hannah). Twice the midwives had to deal with pregnant young prostitutes, and of course there is the love that dares not say its name. In those days, homosexuality was a crime punished by law. A fact the audience learned, after meeting a young father arrested on those grounds. Trixie’s disapproval was based more on his hreating on his pregnant wife than on his sexual preferences. But prejudices will play their part when Nonnatus finds out that the order have been harboring a couple of lesbians under its roof. Although, British law was concerned only with sodomy, lesbianism was socially frowned upon. Exposed gay women lost their jobs. It’s fortunate that so far, only Phyllis Crane knows about the Patsy-Delia romance.

Their slow awareness that their affection ran deeper than friendship made Patsy (Emerald Fennell) and Delia (Kate Lamb) conscious that they will have to dare much to live their love. This season had Patsy in the Far East, caring for her dying father, so the girls have been apart. Delia’s longing for the absent Patsy, and the ultra-romantic reunion on the season’s finale, hit a nerve on me. Although heterosexual, I do know what it feels to have a lover on the other side of the continent.

“Call the Midwife” is full of allusions to English history and a lost world. There are those in Poplar old enough to remember the Victorian workhouse. The midwives haven attended labors on ancient itinerant communities like the Irish Tinkers and the Thames barge-dwellers. But as any 50s story would have, the most memorable recent historical event is the Second World War. Its presence is felt on bombed out sites all over the docks. The old Nonnatus house perished due to an UXB hidden inside its premises which exploded a decade after the Germans dropped it there. Both Violet and Fred lost their spouses in the war, as did Dr. Turner who almost lost his mind due to his traumatic experiences as a military doctor.

Lady Browne may look down on her son-in-law for being just a police constable, but Peter Noakes (Ben Caplan) is also a highly decorated military hero. We saw the darkest side of the war with the young Holocaust mother and with Patsy, another victim, the survivor of a Japanese camp where her mother and youngest sister died. However, WWIII was not the last conflict the world was to see. After all, “Call the Midwife” is set during the Cold War.  We met a father who was suffering from battle trauma after serving in the Korean War; on its fourth season, the midwives went through preparation for a possible nuclear attack, and this last season brought us the terror lived throughout the world during the1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

A well-researched historical aspect are the differences between being pregnant then and now. Having babies at home with a midwife/nurse in constant attendance may seem like a desired luxury, but the truth is that even in hospitals, childbirth was a dangerous affair. In those decades eclampsia could kill a mother as syphilis killed babies. Although abortion was then a crime, we learned that the law allowed the termination of the pregnancy of a diabetic teenager. In those days, diabetic mothers and their babies had little chances for survival.
Diabetes made Paulette a candidate for a legal abortion

Pregnancy is not the only female ailment that the personnel must deal with. We’ve seen them treating women who suffered miscarriages; women who had illegal abortions; women experiencing venereal disease, and Sister Evangelina had to undergo a hysterectomy before she passed away due to cardiac failure. On this season, Violet endured the annoying effects of “The Change”, a 50s euphemism for menopause.

This last season has brought us close to two factors that played an important part in the life of women of childbearing age of that era. The first dealt with the horrors brought on by the thalidomide. We, of the twentieth-first century, are not familiar with the name of drug that is still in use for leprosy. Developed in 1953 by the German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal (notorious for harboring Nazi doctors after the war) thalidomide was marketed in 1957 as a “wonder drug” that successfully fought morning sickness. In 1959, and under the name “Distival,” it hit the British market. Soon, it spread all over the world. Doctors were happy to prescribe it, until a 1961 Australian study linked its usage to a wave of malformed babies. It is estimated that 100.000 mothers were affected by the wonder-drug, and about 10.000 of the Thalidomide babies reached adulthood, despite their deformities.

At the end of Season 4, we saw Dr. Turner prescribe the drug to his patients. Season 5 brought us the birth of the Thalidomide babies. By the end of the season, Dr. Turner received news that related the wonder drug to an increase of births of deformed children. In Season 6, we were witnesses to Dr. Turner battling his guilt issue while struggling to find help for the afflicted children and their bereaved parents.
Susan a thalidomide baby

The 60s saw the rise of other drugs, those that would impede pregnancy. St Raymond Nonnatus has entered the Birth Control Era not without some problems. Usually progressive Sister Julianne was overcome with fear that The Pill would lead to libertine orgies in Poplar. She wasn’t convinced even when Nurse Crane, in her most naturalistic language, explained that men were not into condoms so it was up to women to look after themselves. It was hilarious when Sister Julienne sought Reverend Hereward’s support, but her colleague, who had just been involved into some heavy hanky-panky with Barbara, wasn’t much help there either.
Reverend Hareward flirts with sin.

This year, a family planning clinic was set up at Dr.  Turner’s infirmary. And yet, while everyone else was thrilled at the possibility of free and  accessible diaphragms and The Pill, birth control has its side effects. I was shocked to see a woman die, in the show, of an embolism provoked by the Pill. I had given up on the Pill years ago since it made me nauseous and caused me to gain weight, but I didn’t know it could kill you. So, I guess, we are all learning something with “Call the Midwife” that after all qualifies as medical drama.

Because the secular midwives are also registered nurses they are bound to face all sorts of illnesses, and we get to see how those were treated back then. Throughout six seasons we have seen the Nonnatus staff fight dysentery, polio, tuberculosis and diphtheria. Although the series tend to be modern and open-minded, little details reveal a world that lacked knowledge of what today we take for granted. It’s curious that for women so involved in obstetrics, the term “post-partum depression” was still unknown. Whatever affected the mind of mothers after labor was then terribly misunderstood. It was labeled madness just like other deviant behavior.  Thus, homosexuals were forced to choose between jail sentences or painful and useless treatments (hormone shots and electric shocks).
Trixie and her friendly glass.

On the other hand, Trixie was lucky to live at a time where at least Alcoholic Anonymous saw her alcoholism as an illness and not as a vice. Madness, and the term covered several maladies, was a stigma. When time came for Dr. Turner to adopt a child, his past as a mental institution patient came to work against him and his plans.

This year we caught a glimpse of how bleak madhouses were, like Linchmere Hospital, where Sister Mary Cynthia was confined after her breakdown. Nowadays, there are special therapies to cure rape trauma. The young postulant only got electroshock sessions. Fortunately, a more humane and progressive sanatorium was found for her. Nonnatus staff discovered Cynthia’s whereabouts while searching for a place to put Reggie, a young man affected by Down’s Syndrome. In the Fifties and Sixties mental retardation was part of a long list of mental illness, and Down’s Syndrome patients were locked together with other asylum inmates. Luckily, Reggie found lodgings at a specialized and modern facility where he could learn a trade and interact with others like him.
Fred and Violet sort of adopted Reggie

On reviewing the show's portrayal of the mentally ill, one can’t bypass Sister Monica- Joan. Delightful as she is, the oldest midwife in residence is clearly experiencing some form of senility. And yet, as someone who has been dealing on daily bases with dementia patients, I could not describe her as a representative case. She is too sensible, too sensitive, too conscious of right and wrong. But she has a habit of babbling nonsense and losing her grip with reality when confronted with stressful situations.

I don’t think her case is an idealization of senectitude or an unrealistic portrayal of dementia. My conclusion is that Sister Monica- Joan is on an early stage of her illness. Her frailty remains under control because the nun is in a familiar environment surrounded by loving, caring people. She also keeps a certain degree of independence and still feels useful. After all, she was the only person Sister Mary Cynthia allowed near her after her assault.

“Call the Midwife” is a good example of how a TV show may tackle serious and somber issues while keeping a cheerful attitude and not falling into dark realism. These stories are full of sad moments, the constant presence of death, and problems that sometimes don’t have immediate solutions, but the final message is always uplifting. At least in my case, I always end the program feeling happy and hopeful.