Issue 250 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Holocaust Memorial, Vienna|
On a January Sunday in Vienna, Judenplatz seems quiet and sedate as you approach by one of the seven or more streets that feed into it. They are all narrow, so that the square seems to close behind you as you walk in. The buildings are quietly elegant. The first impact of Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust Memorial jars like a cymbal crashing in the head. Around the square the lines of the buildings are soft and curved, the surfaces smoothly plastered. But the monument is square and harsh, its concrete surfaces brutal and unfinished. What you see at first is a square box on a plinth--the corners are sharp, the roof flat and unforgiving. There are two doors--but their windows are concrete too.
It is as if this uncomfortable, roughly finished box had been dropped onto the cobbles from somewhere above the roofs. As you walk towards it, you realise that these walls are the pages of books, but they are locked into the wall, pressed between the weight of roof and floor. The explanation is inside this case from another world--but there is no access. The names on the plinth around the structure are familiar enough--Dachau, Belsen, Buchenwald...
The dissonance between the surrounding buildings and the box, between their polished surfaces and this uneven, unfinished and dangerous line is almost painful. And the monument gives no relief. Whatever explanations there are, are hidden and inaccessible--like the titles of the books, or the knowledge trapped within them. Whiteread's work until now had done the opposite of this: House gave volume and dimension to the inner space of a now-demolished London terrace, Ghost made memory tangible. The Memorial denies access, removes the means of understanding, as if that were the price of guilt and complicity. Perhaps that is why it is extraordinarily powerful--because it excludes the spectator.
For me, it was a doubly powerful moment. My mother had fled Vienna in 1938. For her, Israel meant very little. For me, standing there as Ariel Sharon was beginning his presidential campaign, Zionism was a grotesque caricature of the enlightened freedom trapped somewhere inside that concrete box. The Freedom Party in the parliament house just two metro stops away held high the banner of xenophobia, racism and oppression--just as their predecessors had done after the defeat of the heroic working class resistance to fascism in 1934.
I asked myself what feelings Whiteread had evoked. Certainly despair and a terrible sadness, but I wanted anger, too, and the strength that it brings with it. I felt the monument denied me that--the blank stare the walls threw back at me was chilling, but somehow it disarmed us all. We were outside, in some kind of moral and historial limbo. But I knew that wasn't so, that before this there had been struggle and resistance, and that not so long ago tens of thousands of Austrians had denounced the new fascists not far from here. Ironically, it was the catalogue of the Judenplatz Museum that gave a partial answer: the captions underneath the photographs of the tortured and the murdered said, time and again, 'revolutionary socialist', 'organised resistance', 'joined the underground'.
It wasn't that I wanted somehow to minimise the horror, only to find a thread through history that led not to the violent revenge wreaked against the Palestinians by the state of Israel, but to a history of struggle and resistance represented so powerfully, and paradoxically, by the Palestinians themselves.
Driving back to the airport, the taxi driver asked why I had come to Vienna. I explained that I had come to see where my mother had spent her childhood. 'It's a terrible tragedy,' he said, 'I am a Yugoslav. I came away with my wife in 1990.' There was a pause. 'It must never happen again.' Just as he spoke the words I realised that we were driving past another monument, much less aesthetically powerful than Whiteread's. It is a rough pile of stones, standing where the Gestapo headquarters used to be. Carved into the top stone are the words 'Niemals wieder'--'Never again'.
Henry IV Parts I and II
by William Shakespeare
Barbican Theatre, London
The sons and daughters of the rich and famous often live a 'wild' life in their youth in which they eat and drink (and even engage in more dangerous pleasures) to excess. Such dalliance causes their parents much distress, but is usually forgiven when the wayward youngsters return to the fold. This is the theme of Shakespeare's plays about Henry Bolingbroke, who in 1399 became Henry IV, and his son Harry, who in 1413 became Henry V and later won the Battle of Agincourt. Henry IV was weighed down with guilt and self pity about the way, in the best tradition of a Middle Ages English monarch, he had tricked and murdered his predecessor, Richard II. But in Henry IV Part I he is haunted more by the future than the past. His young son has fallen in with 'bad company' in the shape of the jovial and irresistible old knight Sir Jack Falstaff, and a band of friendly rogues and 'loose women' in Eastcheap. So deeply has the young prince fallen for this jolly crowd that the king and his advisers fear for the future.
For Henry IV the past with all its lies and hypocrisies, and the present with the threats of rebellion from Wales and the north, are bad enough. But the future, with its rightful heir to the throne poisoned by strong drink, sex, subversive jokes and pranks, is even worse. Moreover, mere rebuke will not restore the young prince to the Christian and military role cut out for him. A mixture of paternal argument, challenge and adventure holds out the only hope for his salvation.
William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist of all time, spotted the dramatic potential in this story, not least the clash of hypocrisies between the Falstaff crowd on the one hand, with its relatively harmless inanities, and the menacing deceit, hypocrisy and violence represented by the king and his adversaries. The king fears young Harry Hotspur from Northumberland, but at the same time wishes that the young man's bravery in the field and rashness in council were qualities he could recognise in his own son and heir.
Many socialists (though not Karl Marx, who understood and enjoyed Shakespeare as well as anyone else these last 400 years) like to pretend that the playwright held similar views to their own.
Shakespeare was not a revolutionary--if anything the opposite. But his keen ear picked up the revolutionary rumblings of his own times (the Henry IV plays were written in 1598).
Shakespeare the man probably wanted to see the wastrel Harry freed from the influence of Falstaff and properly equipped to become a conquering English king. But Shakespeare the playwright observed the prince's dilemma--caught between the anti-political satire of Fat Old Jack and the insufferable duplicities of the court. He resolved the dilemma by putting the prince back where he belonged, but the resulting rejection of Falstaff at the end of the second play ('I know thee not, old man') is one of the most moving moments in all literature.
The Henry IV plays are expertly represented at the Barbican in the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production. Desmond Barrit fashions a wonderful Falstaff, and the whole production moves at great pace. No one overacts. If you can only get to one play, choose Part I, where the drama is more sustained and more consistent, and in which Hotspur delivers the delicious riposte to the garrulous Welsh general Kinnock--excuse me, Glendower:
The Playboy of the Western World
by JM Synge
Cottesloe Theatre, London
|Playboy of the Western World: hero or villain?|
The first production of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World erupted in a riot. Today it is recognised as one of the masterpieces of Irish theatre.
The riot was occasioned by Synge's use of the word 'shift'--an undergarment in contact with a woman's body. That overstepped the bounds of acceptability for the middle class Dublin audience. For Irish cultural nationalists, sexual correctness was a supreme requirement, to the extreme of hardly admitting that a women had a body at all.
Another quaint outcome of Irish history concerns the plot. A young man walks into a 'licensed establishment for the consumption of alcohol' in a western Irish village and tells the assembled customers and publican's family that he has killed his father with a single blow of his loy (a spade for digging turf), as he had attempted to force him into an unwanted arranged marriage. The result, in the eyes of an English audience, is remarkable. He is feted by the publican's daughter and other girls of the village and showered with gifts for his courage. The idea of turning him over to 'the peelers' (the police) is unthinkable. As Synge explains elsewhere, 'The impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west [of Ireland]. It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated jurisdiction.' Indeed there has been a traditional cult of those felons and outlaws who stood out against the colonial order, and the killing of the father might well have been construed as a blow against colonial patriarchy.
Another break with Irish tradition is Synge's portrayal of the publican's daughter, Pegeen Mike, as a spirited, independent woman, who loved passionately and hated likewise. WG Foy, who directed and acted with his brother Frank in the first production in 1907, remarked, 'Frank and I begged him to make Pegeen a decent likeable country girl, which she might easily have been without injury to the play...Frank and I might as well have saved our breath. We might as well have tried to move the Hill of Howth as move Synge.'
There are many other points, large and small, in which Synge breaks with the decorous tradition of the then Irish theatre. This enhances the interest and the richness of the piece.
The play is presented in the broad dialect of Ireland's western world, which is not too easy to follow. Despite that the language is marvellously rich and colourful. Synge remarked, 'In a good play every speech should be as fully flavoured as a nut or apple,' and indeed it is.
The play feels absolutely authentic in its time and place--unlike some imitations like the recent The Weir which was unsuccessfully contrived and boring. The Playboy of the Western World holds your attention from beginning to end, and language, plot and characterisation keep you wholly absorbed.
by Conor McPherson
New Ambassadors Theatre, London
The stage is sparse. There is no furniture, no props, just three Dublin men of different generations who separately tell their stories to the audience. Yet Port Authority, the new play by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is captivating.
Each of McPherson's characters has experienced a different Ireland. Kevin is leaving home for the first time to move into the kind of shared house any of us who've ever been students will be familiar with. His Dublin is one of pub gigs with tuneless punk bands, 'which came a bit late' in Dublin, drinking binges, out of control parties and unrequited lust.
Dermot is a middle aged, self confessed loser, who finds himself working for a concert promoter, a job for which he has no qualifications. His attempts to impress his boss and the ostentatious new businessmen of the Celtic Tiger are hilarious.
And Joe, brilliantly played by Jim Norton, is from the Ireland of the past, a pensioner living in a Catholic home for the elderly. He was brought up in the Ireland of strict morality and rigid gender roles, where everyone knew their place. 'There was none of this everyone's on valium because they don't know who they are. We didn't ask questions,' he says.
McPherson's characters are men who've fouled up their lives in some way, who've missed their opportunities in love and life. Yet McPherson's writing is never sentimental or maudlin.
There are several connections between the characters, but the main one is that none of them really know how to relate to women. It is refreshing to see a play that portrays men not as untamed brutes or self assured sexists, but as confused individuals, trying to deal with their feelings and, at times, totally pathetic.
The men's experiences show how Ireland has been transformed in recent decades, and at the end I wished there had been some interaction, tension and conflict between the characters.
That said, each of the monologues was totally gripping--a tribute to the fine acting and Conor McPherson's skill in capturing the right expressions to sum up each of the men's experience. Definitely worth seeing.
Dir: Lasse Hallstrom
This acclaimed film is based on a best selling novel by Joanne Harris--and like the book it exudes charm, humour and a sense of magic.
It is set in a small French village in the 1960s whose inhabits are dominated by the observance of tradition and routine, the kind of place where a widow's mourning can last a lifetime. It is a village where those who fail to live up to strict moral codes (or at least the appearance of them) are stigmatised and marginalised. Until, that is, the north wind blows Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk, into town.
Vianne is a free spirit, the embodiment of tolerance and humanism (and an atheist and single mum to boot). She opens a chocolate shop and demonstrates her talent at guessing customers' favourite sweets, a metaphor for identifying the problems in their lives. She and her confectioneries soon reveal their magical powers to restore passion, love and hope to those who have lost them. She unlocks the possibility of change, of escaping from misery and of winning love. Thus Josephine, a woman driven almost mad by cruelty and abuse, gradually becomes a vivacious, beautiful woman, while grouchy, sickly Armande, played by Judi Dench, finds one last chance at reconciliation and fulfilment.
Vianne's sensual awakening of the villagers is not unopposed. Soon ranged against her are the Comte de Reynould, the aristocratic patriarch of the village, and his cronies. He considers it to be his duty to secure the morals of the village, judging righteousness according to levels of abstinence and self denial. He wages a war of sermons against Vianne and her subversive chocs. Their conflict takes on a universal dimension--tradition, piety and control against love, imagination and freedom.
Into this little cauldron of bubbling emotions comes the 'river rats', who are despised as boat-bound Gypsies. The Comte begins a campaign against their presence--some of the villagers treat them as animals, except, of course, for Vianne and Anouk (who sees them as pirates, the stuff of bedtime stories). Thus the values of tolerance and sympathy confront ugly bigotry and prejudice with explosive results. Vianne finds her own destiny, to wander with the north wind solving others' problems, making friends of more strangers, challenged by her own relationship with a traveller, played by Johnny Depp (complete with a weird Irish accent). She gives the people in the village faith in themselves, but in turn they give her courage and confidence to shape her own destiny.
The happiness of the ending is never really in doubt. The film is a sugary-sweet exploration of the liberating potential of pleasure. Juliette Binoche is a perfect Vianne, but the real star of the film is the mythical, magical chocolate.
Chocolat is a mouthwatering fable that appeals for tolerance--of sensual desires, but also of human weakness and differences. See this film to indulge yourself (but don't forget to take some munchies).
Songs From the Second Floor
Dir: Roy Andersson
|Down the tube in Songs from the Second Floor|
Swedish director Roy Andersson creates a bleak and apocalyptic vision in Songs From the Second Floor. He draws inspiration from the 1930s Expressionists Otto Dix and Georg Grosz who depicted capitalist greed and excess in time of economic depression.
It is the story of an unspecified European city's collapse into madness due to an unexplained economic meltdown. The ensuing disintegration is played out mainly in public, on the streets. Mass demonstrations of grey-suited businessmen flagellate themselves as they march, there is an endless traffic jam that people vacantly discuss but never explain, while financiers sitting in a boardroom do nothing but pass around a crystal ball. 'Life is a market, it's as simple as that,' is a refrain that is repeated throughout the film.
All camera shots are static, the sets hospital green, and the dialogue has the same economical sterility--nothing is worth explaining any more. The only scenes which differ are the ones with Thomas, son of Kalle the furniture dealer who has torched his business to claim the insurance. Thomas is in a mental hospital. 'He wrote poetry until he went nuts,' his father repeats endlessly.
Through the fate of the characters the priorities of capitalism are not simply questioned, but condemned without pity.
The bankruptcy of both church and state is a strand running through the whole film. Kalle goes to see a priest to offload his troubles. All he gets in response is, I can't sell my house either--'It's the markets.' But more devastating still is the retired police commander's 100th birthday commemoration. He sits in a metal cot in the middle of the room. After the speech the senile commander raises his hand in the Nazi salute and says, 'Give my regards to Goering.'
A room full of bankers interview a young girl, Anna, and tell her they have read everything, and therefore they know everything. But they also say it is experience which counts. Towards the end Anna is sacrificed, pushed off a cliff in a bizarre ceremony led by a woman banker, and watched by countless priests and financiers.
Critics have likened the dark humour in this film to Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital, because of the biting social satire of the ruling class. I'd definitely recommend it.
Dir: Roger Donaldson
|Prepared to kill|
Thirteen Days is interesting. Sometimes it's gripping. It's also a nasty piece of work that argues in favour of evil.
It is about the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. What happened then was this. In 1959 there was a revolution in Cuba. Nationalist guerillas led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara came down from the hills and drove out a corrupt dictatorship with strong links to the Mafia and the US government. The guerillas at this point were not Communists, but they did want to control their own economy. They nationalised some US businesses and drove out organised crime. The US government, under the new president, John F Kennedy, organised an invasion of Cuba in 1961 by an army of supporters of the old dictatorship. That army was defeated as it landed at the aptly named Bay of Pigs, because the great majority of the Cuban people rallied to Castro against a US-backed invasion.
Castro turned to the Soviet Union for economic support and announced that he had always secretly been a Communist. To cement that alliance, the Russian government moved long-range nuclear missiles into Cuba.
Cuba is 90 miles from Florida. These missiles threatened the US directly. More important to the White House, the example of the Cuban Revolution was enormously heartening to people all over Latin America. Finally, somebody had stood up to the Yankees and got away with it. The film does not explain this story, but starts at the point when Washington discovered the missiles were being installed. It is based on the tapes the Kennedy administration secretly made of their own people in meetings, like the tapes Nixon made later. It covers the 13 days when the Kennedy government threatened Russia with global nuclear war unless it withdrew the missiles.
There are three possible political positions on this crisis. One holds that a global nuclear holocaust killing at least 100 million and perhaps destroying the planet is always a bad idea. We should never do it, and perhaps we should even get rid of nuclear weapons. Nobody in the film supports this position, although we do see some demonstrators who carry signs but never talk.
The second position is that the holocaust would be tragic, but sometimes, for instance if the Russians get too uppity, you have to threaten it. And for the threat to work, you have to really mean it. So sometimes you might have to commit mass murder on a scale that would dwarf Adolf Hitler. This is the position Kennedy held, and the one the film supports.
The third position is that war with Russia would be a good thing now. This, with qualifications, is the position that some in the US government, particularly the Pentagon, held. The film says this is wrong. In fact both the Kennedy and Pentagon positions are deeply evil. It's important to emphasise this, because the film poses as liberal.
What makes it interesting is that it does show the arguments that happened in the White House, often using the words they used. Some of the arguments between the characters are riveting. And it's worth seeing just because it shows you, in detail, that yes, they were prepared to kill us all if they had to.
It's a well made film. The acting is variable, the camera is very good. But two political weaknesses become artistic weaknesses. Because the film is trying to be liberal, it does not show the Kennedy people for what they were. The fact that these men enjoyed all the details of power, that they were intelligent and subtle connoisseurs of conflict, is absent.
The larger weakness is that the American people, and for that matter the Russians and Cubans, cannot be shown. One aspect of the obscenity depicted in the film is that the decisions about whether or not to end the world were made totally undemocratically, in secret, by a body set up outside the constitution of the US. This is shown, but not commented on.
Another aspect is that many Americans, probably the majority, were very very afraid in those days. Americans by and large do know about their own ruling class, and they believed the White House might well kill them all. They also felt utterly helpless. This cannot be shown, for it would expose Kennedy for what he was. The contrast between helpless terror and government brinksmanship would have made a really exciting, dramatic, complex movie. Kevin Costner, and the people who made Thirteen Days with him, could not tolerate that.
I'll give away the ending. World War Three doesn't happen.
Love In A Cold Climate
|The Mitfords: Hitler lovers|