The Accountant of Auschwitz

The Accountant of Auschwitz,
Directed by Matthew Shoychet

The Nuremberg Trials, which put many Nazis in the court for crimes against humanity, took place some three quarters of a century ago now, but the echoes of those trials, of the legal precedents they tried to establish (that those who committed horrendous crimes like genocide would be held accountable) and the vile deeds they sought to punish have echoed down through the twentieth and twenty-first century, as we’ve seen more and more genocidal slaughters such as Rwanda or the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia (and the trials in the Hague that followed years later). When it comes to the almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust though, we are very nearly out of the range of living memory, fewer and fewer who were there (survivors or perpetrators) are with us each year.

As such it becomes all the more important that we have documentaries like the Accountant of Auschwitz, which records events around what may well be one of the last such trials of a Nazi for crimes committed during the Second World War, in this case a seemingly normal, frail old man, Oskar Gröning, the eponymous accountant. Looking at footage of this 94-year old man it is hard to picture him as the young man he once was, more than seventy years ago, let alone as a black-garbed officer of the SS working in one of the notorious death camps (one commentator noted seeing such a frail old man enter the court she felt sympathy. But then she recalled what he and his comrades had done, and that sympathy evaporated). But he did, and after a long, long time, justice finally reached out for Gröning.

Hate is a powerful weapon. And it was in the Second World War and it is today.”

Rainer Höss, anti-fascist activist and grandson of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz told the film-makers, adding that the trial was important, not just to try and enact even belated justice, but to remind the newer generations of the horrors that went before and can happen again far too easily (we only need to look at the appalling rise in hate crimes in many countries to see how easily we can start down that road again). Höss also remarked that Gröning’s trial was important because it heard a lot of testimony not just from survivors of the camps, but from the perpetrator. When we have groups who wilfully ignore the huge amount of evidence and still try to claim there was no Holocaust, or that it was exaggerated, the importance of this becomes clear, and some credit must be given to Gröning himself who makes clear that yes, these things did happen, he was there in his SS uniform. And if he says that it is just that bit harder for the modern neo-Nazis to continue their Holocaust denial.

The film doesn’t just focus on this one trial, however, it attempts to place the proceedings into a much longer sequence of events, from the post-war Nuremberg trials to the quite shameful blind eye the new, post-war West German government turned to the many former Nazis who were allowed to go free and live a good life (indeed many ended up in charge of government, industry, the judiciary, so became the class that sets the rules and laws for such investigations and trials), and how the way the law was worded only allowed for very specific, hard to prove charges to be brought (such as a specific act of a specific person killing another during the Holocaust), which allowed many to escape any consequences for their actions.

There was also some element of collective guilt – how many fathers, uncles and grandfathers took part in these events? How much guilt by association does that create for the rest of the country trying to move on and rebuild? The few trials that did happen in Germany rarely convicted and those that did often gave remarkably lenient sentences (a soldier responsible for putting the Zyklon B gas into the fake shower rooms to gas victims to death got only three years). The Demjanjuk case, which some of you may remember from the news some years ago, helped to bring a change in the attitude in Germany. He was found guilty in an Israeli court where witnesses were sure he was “Ivan the Terrible”, but records found after the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed that he was not (although it transpired he had much other guilt, which he pretended ill-health to try and avoid answering for). Laws were altered to allow for trials that relied on more data and less on witness testimony (which had proven so unreliable in his case), and for those who may not have killed personally but were there supporting the whole process to also be held liable (such as Gröning, who rifled the belongings of those marked for death for valuables).

D-Day veteran Benjamin Ferencz is also interviewed – Ferencz was one of the chief prosecutors of the notorious Einsatzgruppen at the Nuremberg trials. They knew they could never hold every single person who contributed to the death camps to account – they numbered in the tens and hundreds of thousands, they would still be holding trials today, as Ferencz put it. Instead his idea was that they would set a legal precedent with the trials, to show that any country that committed such horrible acts would, sooner or later, be brought to justice and individuals responsible would face trial and judgement. The idea was not just to punish these vile crimes but to put fear into future evil-doers that they would always, sooner or later, be brought to account for their disgusting, inhuman actions (think of the vile Ratko Mladić finally brought to trial in the Hague).

Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm, by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity.

Ferencz spoke these words at the opening of the Nuremberg trials, and the film-makers cut between this now frail, elderly but still strongly motivated man discussing his role and starting to recite his opening speech, which cuts to the archive footage of him in the courtroom in the 1940s, a nice touch. Alan Dershowitz, a former special prosecutor at the US Department of Justice who was involved in modern trials of historic war criminals, also gives some legal, historical and moral context to the trial of Gröning.

The trial itself is fascinating but also, as you can imagine, disturbing – some testimony is beyond comprehension, such as the cold-blooded murder of an infant in front of the mother, something Gröning witnessed a comrade do. I imagine most viewers will realise this horrific details is unavoidable, given the subject matter, but as with the powerful Night Will Fall documentary a couple of years ago (reviewed here), despite that I still commend viewing to people, because, dammit, we’re still seeing the sort of raw hatred of those judged to be “different” and where it leads, and we really, really need to be reminded of it, to learn from it.

The testimony of those who were there, whose ranks thin further each year, is vital, but also the film’s placing the events and their impact into legal and moral context for modern society, and, importantly, for future generations (and possible future perpetrators of such horrors) is extremely important, not only in making sense of it all, but in reminding us that we all, collectively, have to try to learn, to be better, and if and when some of us fail that others can and will deliver justice on them.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is released on DVD and Digital by Signature Entertainment from Monday 15th April

Where no-one has gone before – The Farthest

The Farthest,

Directed by Emer Reynolds

Another of my slate of screenings at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival was this gem of a science documentary from Irish director Emer Reynolds, on one of the greatest feats of exploration – the Voyager missions. I’ve been a space geek for as long as I’ve been a science fiction fan, the two interests often cross-feeding one another (the great Arthur C Clarke incorporated new knowledge gleaned from Voyager and other missions into some of his science fiction writing). And I grew up with Voyager, launched in 1977 when I was just a kid, I followed the missions, in those long ago, pre-internet days through the old fashioned media of documentaries on the BBC, the Sky at Night and journals like New Scientist, right through to my teens and early adulthood as this long, long mission progressed, taking us on a “grand tour” of the outer planets and showing sights no human had ever seen before.

The history and the science will be familiar to many who have an interest in space exploration, but this is a story that is well worth revisiting, because it is a magnificent triumph of ideas made real by clever engineering, and that human urge to explore pushing us further than ever before; our ancestors, be they European seaman or the great Polynesian navigators on wood and reed rafts, sailed vast oceans of the Earth, exploring, and with Voyager we sailed a sea of stars to the distant planets… And then beyond.

The two Voyagers took in giant worlds, including a couple we didn’t even know existed until a couple of centuries ago and revealed more complexity and wonder than anyone dared hope for, from the searing radiation around mighty Jupiter and its moons, those wonderful rings around Saturn, those cold, remote outer giants of Neptune and Uranus. It showed us volcanic eruptions on a world other than our own for the first time, and these probes traveled billions of miles from our home, reprogrammed from the increasingly distant Earth for each mission, clever maths taking them on a course not just to worlds, but using the gravity of those worlds to “slingshot” onto their next trajectory (receiving a speed boost into the process). Kepler and Newtown would have approved. All this with 1970s technology…

NASA and JPL opened their archives to the film-makers, and while anyone with an interest will have seen some of this, there is much here that has rarely, or never, been shown. A small amount of CG compliments the real Voyager footage to give us views of the craft themselves, but the images Voyagers 1 and 2 brought us are the main visual focus here; a beautiful scene shows a time-lapse montage of a planetary approach by Voyager, from its perspective, from distant disc to close-up details, even clouds. The clouds scudding across the skies of another world. Astonishing.

But the real heart here – as with The Last Man on the Moon, which I reviewed here last year – is the human element. The people who worked on Voyager. The engineers who designed them, the scientists who worked on the missions, the people who conceived of and executed the famous Gold Disc both craft carry, with two hours of music from different eras and cultures on Earth, and greetings in many languages, including one by a young Nick Sagan, Carl Sagan’s wee boy: “hello from the children of Planet Earth”. A message in a bottle, afloat on a galactic sea. Coming through all of this film, Emer Reynolds draws out the science team, and brings genuine emotion to the film. There’s huge pride at what they accomplished, taking advantage of a rare alignment of the planets for this astounding mission, and how they made new discoveries and saw things for the very first time that no human had even known about, let alone seen.

There’s even a lovely bit of archive footage of a party after the final fly-by, when a special guest arrives to play music to the team – Chuck Berry. Of course he played Johnny B Goode, which is on the Gold Disc, and there among the celebrating science team is dear Carl Sagan, dancing happily to Chuck Berry. It’s unlikely any alien intelligence will ever find Voyager and get to play that disc, but as one scientist noted, it’s not impossible. And the very inclusion of it was a mark of enormous optimism, a reaching out, here we are, we’re just learning our first steps out of the cradle, but look what we have achieved already, please contact us. If it isn’t discovered by some other species in the future, the craft will continue on, possibly outlasting the Earth itself, a slice of human culture preserved among the stars.

And as the film notes, these remarkable wee craft are still working, forty years after launch. Their last encounter with the planets was long ago, but they still send daily data back home – one engineer commented that when they were launched back in 1977 the technology to receive signals from such a distant source didn’t exist, they made it while the probes flew on, to listen into a whisper in the cosmos. After the remarkable planetary encounters there was still science and wonder to be had, from the Sagan-inspired “family portrait” of the solar system (when he argued for turning the cameras back towards Earth, now not even a pixel wide to Voyager’s lenses, the “pale blue dot”), to seeking out the heliopause, the point where the influence of our sun ends, marking the boundary of the solar system. In 2012 Voyager 1, the fastest moving of the pair, finally detected the end of this influence; it officially crossed the boundary, leaving our solar system, the first human-created object into interstellar deep space. No wonder those scientists were so proud of what they accomplished.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017 - The Farthest 02
(director Emer Reynolds and editor Tony Cranstoun talking about The Farthest at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

And one day, when the power finally fades, and those last reports dwindle into static, Voyagers will still have one mission as they continue on to the stars: the gold disc, humanity’s message in a bottle, that wonderful optimism that permeated the Voyager missions, that Reynolds brings out in her interviews with the science team in the film, will power that final mission, perhaps forever. This is a remarkable documentary, celebrating the ingenuity, the science, glorying in the wonders discovered, but above all it is about the people behind it, who built a dream and sailed it across the worlds. For anyone interested in science and space exploration this is unmissable.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog; The Farthest will be released in Irish cinemas on July 28th

Tatsumi

I penned this film review originally for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Tatsumi

Directed by Eric Khoo

Zhao Wei Films/The Match Factory

Singaporean director and former comic creator Eric Khoo debuted his homage to legendary Japanese comics creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last spring, an animated feature which draws largely on Tatsumi’s much-acclaimed A Drifting Life (published in English by the good folks at Drawn & Quarterly). It’s an interesting work exploring the life and career of the godfather of the gekiga form of manga, which helped establish the comics form in Japan as a medium which could also appeal to an adult audience and not just child readers, combined with animating some of Tatsumi’s own short comic stories such as Occupied (our young artist works so hard on his children’s strips he makes himself ill, only to find new inspiration in an unlikely spot), Hell (an army reporter is sent to document the devastation of Hiroshima after the atomic blast), Good-Bye (a prostitute daughter and estranged drunken father struggle with their relationship and to survive in American occupied post-war Japan) and more.

It’s an interesting approach to documenting one of the most influential creators from the Japanese comics scene, taking us from his childhood, growing up in post-war Japan, being influenced by his big brother’s drawing, the work of manga godfather Tezuka (who he still respectfully refers to as Mister Tezuka), his first success as a boy winning newspaper comics competitions and getting a break when one of those newspapers decides to do a report on his success in the manga competitions, helping lead the way for him to work on his own children’s strips to appear regularly. This encouraging early success is diluted, however, by problems at home – his brother is often forced to stay in bed with a serious illness and slowly comes to resent his younger brother being able to go out and about while he remains an invalid. His drawing during his enforced convalescence had inspired Tatsumi but now his younger brother’s growing success fed his brother’s resentment and the fact that Tatsumi’s competition success meant he earned money which he gave to his mother to help the family finances because his father was less than efficient at looking after them made it worse.

(In Hell a young man is dispatched to document the dreadful aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing)

The film criss-crosses between animated adaptations of Tatsumi’s own short manga tales, mostly in black and white like the comics, and autobiographical sections which are in colour. The level of animation in both strands is fairly simple, it has to be said, but given the low budget that isn’t surprising. Besides which I suspect the fairly simple animation methods is a deliberate stylistic choice by Khoo and he would have stuck with it even if he had the budget for the much more expensive and time consuming forms of animation. And he would have been right to stick with the simpler version because it takes Tatsumi’s own iconic visuals, which themselves were often influenced by imagery from films and simply adapt them to the moving form of animated film, maintaining Tatsumi’s clear style effectively, something fans of his books will appreciate (and if you are new to his work then it is a good introduction to his style).

The adaptations of the short manga tales is simple but effective, although for anyone who has read the original comics (which would, I imagine, be a lot of the potential audience for the film, surely?) they don’t really offer anything new. Personally I found Hell the most effective, following a young man sent to Hiroshima, taking photographs of the nuclear devastation, including a shadow of a mother and child burnt into a wall by the blast. Years later he takes this picture to the newspapers and in the 50s it becomes an emblem of the growing anti nuclear weapon movement, leading to an international campaign, fame for the photographer (who feels guilt at making a living from documenting suffering) and yet it may all be built on an unintentional false assumption…

(young Tatsumi tells the newspaper reporters of his love for the work of Tezuka)

For myself I found the autobiographical segments to be far more fascinating, not least because Tatsumi himself was not only involved in the making of the film, especially those sections, but because he himself lends his voice to it, giving those parts an air of authenticity, the artist’s own stamp of approval, and it is quite fascinating to hear Tatsumi in his own words speaking about his life. There’s much there to fascinate anyone interested in the comics medium, regardless of their level of knowledge of the Japanese scene – some elements are pretty universal, such as having to move to the big city (leaving Osaka for Tokyo) to pursue work opportunities, struggling to find your own creative voice and style, build a reputation, secure regular work and more that I think any comics creator today, in any country or language, would still identify with.

I was particularly fascinated by sections where young Tatsumi is sharing an apartment with fellow cartoonists, all trying to make their mark. Determined to show that manga can be aimed squarely at an adult readership and deal with mature themes he becomes frustrated with the virulent reaction these new gekiga strips and the ‘concerned’ parents and teachers who attack it for being a bad influence on younger readers. It’s not for younger readers, it’s for adults, he rails, so how can it be a bad influence. Ah, his friend comments, but in the manga rental stores (where readers can borrow several comics in one go for a handful of Yen) our work is shelved right alongside the main ranks of kid’s manga, you see… It’s a problem that has beset the comics medium around the world, irrespective or language or culture – those who don’t read them often assume they are aimed only at children, so are horrified if they then see comics which pursue serious, adult storylines, not realising that they are not meant for younger eyes. The struggle to have readers accept that the medium can deal with mature themes and storylines and not just child-like jolly romps has been going on for decades, and continues still. Likewise the claims, usually by those who haven’t actually read the books but decide to pronounce judgement on them anyway (for the ‘greater good’ of course), that comics exert some svengali like evil influence to corrupt the innocent is something that’s been going on for decades in all countries, and indeed is still a problem today, and it is remarkable to think of Tatsumi nailing his gekiga manifesto the mast and dealing with these problems decades ago.

The autobiographical sections also include happier moments, not the least of which two important meetings in his life, one as an adult, meeting the woman who would be his wife, one as a young boy being introduced to the great Osamu Tezuka himself, a remarkable moment for a young boy, hugely influenced by him, just at the very start of his artistic career and being taken to meet his great hero who greets him warmly. As I said I think I found the autobiographical chapters to be the most interesting, but the comics adaptations laced throughout are also with merit and for those in the audience who haven’t read much Tatsumi they function as a good introduction to some of his themes and styles. And as with Tatsumi’s work itself the film shows that the manga world is far broader than a cursory glance at ranks of multi-volume younger reader series might suggest to those who haven’t dabbled in it much (I include myself in those ranks, recent Indy and underground manga translations by D&Q (including Tatsumi’s work), Fantagraphics and Top Shelf have been a great eye-opener to the diversity of adult manga work), and that certain problems are pretty much universal to comics creators everywhere. The film is getting a release on the arthouse cinema circuit in the UK at the moment – I spotted it due this month in Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, so check your own local Indy/arthouse cinemas to keep an eye out for it, it’s certainly well worth your time, if you are already a fan of Tatsumi or new to his work, it’s of huge interest to anyone with a love of the comics medium.

From Belle Epoque Parsian adventures to a Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch up on three different films in three different Edinburgh cinemas, starting with Luc Besson’s French-language movie adaptation of the great French comics artist Jacques Tardi’s wonderful Adele Blanc-Sec graphic albums, sitting in the Art Deco delights of the lovely Cameo, sipping beer (as the auditorium is licensed and you can take in your drink from the bar, very civilised). It is a fab adaptation of Tardi’s work, taking the plot of two of his graphic novels (a magically revived pterodactyl from le Jardin de Plantes) and Adele’s quest to find and bring back a mummy who was supposed to be an especially gifted doctor to help her critically injured sister) and very effectively interweaving them into a hugely enjoyable adventure romp split between Egyptian tombs and the beauties of Belle Epoque Paris. I loved the comics (now being translated into English by Fantagraphics), they give a cracking adventure yarn much like Herge’s immortal Tintin, except aimed at an adult audience. Highly recommended and hopefully there will be another – certainly they seemed to set it up so there might be another and there are plenty of the comics to borrow plots from. Oh and I did like the ancient Egyptian’s joke about pyramids and the Louvre.

On the holiday Monday I went to catch Ken Branagh’s big screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor – as one of my comics chums remarked Thor is a character who could so easily end up being ridiculous cheese if not handled correctly. And a number of folks wondered at a director best known for highly regarded Shakespearean works helming a major summer action/comics hero movie. But in truth Brannagh handles it perfectly – he understands myth and how important that is (remember Thor isn’t just a superhero in a cape, he is a god) and also borrows from Joseph Campbell’s idea of the journey of the hero. Add in some romance, some good character development, some enjoyable action and some humour, not to mention some spectacular visuals (not least Asgard and the rainbow bridge). A smart, well made comics flick for grown ups and a good start to a summer season of cinema that is heavy with comics related releases.

The stand out for me, however, was a visit to my beloved Filmhouse, long my second home in Edinburgh, for the budget matinee afteroon. I went to see the latest film from acclaimed (and often decliamed, I suppose!) director Werner Herzog, a documentary on the Chuavet Cave in southern France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave was only found in 1994, sealed for millennia after landslides covered up the original, large entrance used in paleolithic times. Within the explorers found a beautiful cave of exquisite stalactites and stalagmites, mineral deposits that had taken thousands of years to form… And the earliest human artworks… Beautiful art painted deep inside the cave system, some 32, 000 years old. When prehistoric humans first started painting here the great ice sheets covered most of Europe beyond; there was no English channel and you could walk from Paris to London (if they existed) with dry feet; now extinct animals roamed the land like wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos and cave bears and there were two distinct species of humans in Europe. Only one of which made intricate artwork – not the neanderthals, but the homo sapiens. Our direct ancestors.

Some of the artwork is breathtakingly beautiful – and so well executed and so well preserved there were suspicions it may be an incredibly elborate hoax, but carbon dating plus the mineral build up over some artworks has proven their authenticity (although some still argue over precise dates). The ancient artists were astonishing – not only working in a dark cave with only firelight to see by, but cleverly using the cave itself, using the curves and protrusions of the walls and outcrops, suiting their animal depictions to the contours to give the maximum effect of animals