Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

A German officer and patriot recalls his service — loyal and otherwise — in the World War II memoir ‘Valkyrie’

August 27, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 27, 2019

Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, born in 1917, was the fourth of eight children of a prominent and monied German Roman Catholic family. He served as a cavalry officer during World War II and was part of an Army cabal that unsuccessfully attempted at least twice to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator. Boeselager died on May 1, 2008, almost eight months before the release of a Tom Cruise movie about the conspiracy, Valkyrie.

Nearly a year to the day after the former cavalryman’s death, his wartime memoir, also titled Valkyrie, was published in English. The book is subtitled “The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member,” but this turns out to be somewhat misleading: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist passed away in 2013 at age 90. (In fairness to the publishers, I found at least two Boeselager obituaries calling him the last or “almost certainly the last” surviving plotter.)

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Suffering out of time: Billy Pilgrim doesn’t quite float above it all in Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

March 15, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 15, 2018

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the great antiwar novels of all time. First published during the Vietnam War, it revolves around the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, near the end of World War II, a controversial two-day offensive that claimed more than 25,000 lives in a city some thought devoid of military or strategic significance.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is a hapless chaplain’s assistant captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Along with other Americans, he’s shipped first to a prisoner-of-war camp and then to Dresden, where the detainees are pressed into involuntary servitude. They survive the bombing because their bomb shelter — a meat locker beneath the titular Slaughterhouse-Five, which is being used as a barracks in part because of livestock shortages — happened to have been dug farther down than nearly all of the city’s other refuges.

Pilgrim’s experiences before, during and after the bombing map closely to those of Vonnegut’s. The novel, published in 1969, is semi-autobiographical: Vonnegut himself makes cameos during a few of the POW scenes and dictates the first chapter, which is really a preface that happens to be presented as the book’s first chapter.

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Robert Zemeckis’s thrilling ‘Allied’ tells the story of two married World War II spies who may not have managed to come in from the cold

February 27, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 27, 2018

Robert Zemeckis’s 2016 World War II movie, Allied, is a terrific thriller starring Brad Pitt as a Royal Air Force spy who learns that his wife may be a Nazi mole.

The film begins in 1942 in an isolated stretch of desert outside Casablanca as Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes in to rendezvous with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a Frenchwoman who’s laid the groundwork for a plot to assassinate Germany’s ambassador to Morocco. (Why would doing so offer the Allies any advantage whatsoever in the war? Unclear, I confess.)

When the pair both manage to survive the dangerous mission, Max’s bosses in the British intelligence bureaucracy give him permission to bring Marianne to England and marry her. Within months, if not weeks, of Marianne’s arrival, the duo are joined in matrimony, and she is pregnant with their daughter.

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Historical drama ‘Darkest Hour’ is marred by unmotivated character choices

December 29, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 29, 2017

Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s new historical drama about Winston Churchill’s becoming leader of Britain during the outbreak of World War II, has almost all the ingredients of a great movie.

The cast, led by a prosthesis-covered Gary Oldman as a then-untested prime minister elevated as German forces threaten to engulf all of Europe, is uniformly excellent. Director Joe Wright (AtonementPride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) have well-regarded previous works. The sets, props and costumes seem authentic. The problem, I fear, is that McCarten’s script strives for an effect that it fails to earn.

The story begins on May 9, 1940, as an opposition party member speaking before a raucous Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) after his policy of appeasement has proven ineffective at containing Nazi aggression. In a meeting, Chamberlain and other Conservative party leaders agree to designate Churchill as his replacement.

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An intriguing tale of World War II atrocities unspools in Ronald Balson’s uneven ‘Once We Were Brothers’

August 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Aug. 21, 2015

Once We Were Brothers, the 2013 novel by Chicago lawyer Ronald Balson, regularly shifts its narrative between the present-day Windy City and World War II Poland. But the heart of this book is clearly in the events of the 1940s, which Holocaust survivor Ben Solomon recreates over a period of several weeks as he tries to provide his attorney with evidence that Chicago’s most prominent philanthropist was in fact his stepbrother, who went on to become a Nazi war criminal.

Solomon’s counsel, corporate lawyer Catherine Lockhart, initially believes her client to be a seriously disturbed crank. But she quickly becomes enraptured by Solomon’s story, and who could blame her? It’s a story of strong-willed men and women whose lives become irreversibly warped as the continent around them succumbs to a tyrant and his anti-semitic obsession. By the time Solomon brings his account to its conclusion, most of the characters — not to mention millions of Jews and their countless communities — have been exterminated by a vicious genocide.

By contrast, all the drama in Once We Were Brothers’ present-day narrative seems entirely trivial. Will Lockhart’s career — already derailed by a personal meltdown triggered by her duplicitous former husband — be permanently impaired as Solomon increasingly distracts her from her obligations to her corporate clients? Will Lockhart and Liam Taggart, the handsome, savvy private investigator who has loved her since they were children, recognize their mutual passion for one another? These are all low-stakes matters in the grand scheme of things.

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‘Woman in Gold’ movingly portrays the quixotic quest by a World War II refugee and her attorney to correct a Nazi injustice

April 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
April 21, 2015

The new feature film Woman in Gold poignantly tells the true story of a World War II refugee and her lawyer who sue to recover a famous portrait of her aunt decades after it was confiscated by Nazis.

The woman at the heart of the story is Maria Altmann, the daughter of a prominent Austrian Jewish family. Simon Curtis and Alexi Kaye Campbell — it’s the second full-length movie feature directing credit for Curtis, following My Week with Marilyn and numerous TV movies, and the first writing credit of any kind for Campbell — intertwine scenes from Altmann’s earlier life in Vienna with those of Altmann and her attorney, new father Randy Schoenberg.

The titular woman in gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, whom famed artist Gustav Klimt painted in 1907 in what became an iconic work. As we learn, even this apt and seemingly innocuous title has political implications. (Klimt, incidentally, also painted a second portrait of Adele as well as additional works for the Bloch-Bauers.) The legal battle begins in 1998 when, after the death of Maria’s older sister, Luise, the younger woman finds letters from the late 1940s that her sibling had exchanged with an Austrian lawyer in a futile attempt to recover stolen family property.

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A motley shipwrecked crew struggles to survive in Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’

March 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 2, 2015

In the first shot of Lifeboat, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 war drama, we see the smokestack of a freighter framed by an infinite expanse of ocean. The opening credits — actually, all of the credits — appear over this image as melodramatic minor chords from a score composed by Hugo Friedhofer play ominously.

After about a minute, with all (all!) the credits having been shown, the camera pulls back slightly. We see that the smokestack is not just framed by the waves — it is sticking out of them, all that protrudes above the surface of a ship that has been torpedoed. Within seconds, the groaning smokestack submerges, and the frame turns almost entirely white as the turbulent water fizzes and churns.

Hitchcock’s camera pans across a carefully curated selection of flotsam. There’s a wooden supply crate, which is labeled as having been shipped from New York. A copy of The New Yorker bobs gently, face up, displaying a seemingly timeless image of Eustace Tilley, the magazine’s top-hatted, monocled mascot. A bag floats quietly, along with some kind of diploma or certificate (one that perhaps bears a six-pointed Star of David), as does an evidently lifeless sailor who wears an flotation vest bearing the insignia of Nazi Germany.

Eventually, the camera lands on Constance Porter sitting alone in a lifeboat. Tallulah Bankhead’s well-to-do journalist could hardly seem more out of place: Draped in a fur coat, Connie calmly smokes a cigarette and grimaces at some imperceptible flaw in her fingernails or her shoe polish or her stocking.

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Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ was honored by the 2015 Academy Awards

February 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 25, 2015

The 87th Academy Award ceremony, which took place Sunday night, turned out to be rather political. Patricia Arquette, who won best supporting actress for her role as the mother in Boyhood, used her acceptance speech to call for gender wage equality.

When “Glory,” the theme from the wonderful civil rights film Selma, was chosen for best song, musician John Legend said, “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now.”

Legend had more to say in his acceptance speech, adding: “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” (Legend co-wrote “Glory” with Lonnie Lynn. That musician and actor, who performs under the name Common, appears in Selma as the skullcap- and denim-wearing Rev. John Bevel.)

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Turing’s tests: ‘The Imitation Game’ is a superior but tragic biopic about a brilliant but lonely intellectual

December 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 31, 2014

What makes life worth living? Why should society — why should anyone — value a man’s existence and accomplishments?

Those are some of the questions Norwegian director Morten Tyldum poses with his new feature, The Imitation Game, which examines the life and work of pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing.

The movie has three interwoven narratives. The shortest, but arguably the most heart-wrenching, shows a roughly 15-year-old Turing at boarding school in the 1920s. Turing, played with touching vulnerability by Alex Lawther, is bullied mercilessly by his classmates — all but one, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who shows appreciation for Turing’s quirky personality as well as his impressive intellect.

The grown-up Turing whom we see throughout the rest of the movie is less vulnerable — at least superficially. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s ongoing 21st-century update of the character and Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness) portrays the main character as he first strives to crack Nazi German cryptography in World War II and then, in the early 1950s, tries to deflect the inquiries of an overenthusiastic Manchester detective who suspects Turing of spying for the Soviet Union. (To avoid spoilers, I’ll confine most of my commentary to the movie’s World War II narrative.)

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A bloody birthright: Why I support Israel’s right to exist

July 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 29, 2014

The reasons why I support Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish homeland are rooted in the mortal perils that Jews have faced over the millennia. However, the heart of the matter is and will always be the bloody history of the 20th century.

No serious discussion of the subject can overlook the impetus for Israel’s establishment in 1948. That was only a few years after the end of World War II, which went hand in hand with the widespread realization that Adolf Hitler had conducted a massive, horrifying campaign to exterminate Jews and other so-called undesirables.

The Nazi Germany genocide — Raphael Lemkin coined that word in 1944 to describe what we today call the Holocaust — racked up a staggering death toll. The numbers vary from account to account, but according to one tally published by The Telegraph, between five million and six million Jews were killed.

Jews were hardly the Nazis’ only victims; four million Soviet, Polish and Yugoslav civilians died in the German camps, along with three million Soviet prisoners of war, 70,000 individuals with mental and physical disabilities, more than 200,000 Roma and an “unknown number of political prisoners, resistance fighters, homosexuals and deportees.”

Entire Jewish neighborhoods were wiped off the map; Nazis and locals appropriated their property. (There are a few brief but poignant nods to this in The Monuments Men, and this morbid history forms the dark heart of the brilliant Polish movie Ida — although Germans were only indirectly responsible for the killings and theft in the latter film.)

Poland’s Jewish community was hardest-hit, dropping from more than three million in 1933 to about 45,000 in 1950, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Here, as elsewhere in Europe, most of the reduction was caused by the Nazi slaughter, although some was due to postwar migration.)

The devastation elsewhere in Europe was comparable: Germany’s Jewish population fell from 565,000 to 37,000 over the same time period; Czechoslovakia’s, from 357,000 to 17,000; Austria’s, from 250,000 to 18,000; Greece’s, from 100,000 to 7,000. And this is only part of the grim census of genocide.

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A young woman hunts for the truth in the understated, powerful ‘Ida’

June 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
June 13, 2014

Ida, the 2013 film which director Pawel Pawlikowski wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is the powerful story of a young woman who must grapple with her family’s shadowed past and the fallout of the previous generation’s war.

The movie, which is set in Poland in the mid-1960s, revolves around Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who is poised to become a nun at the rural convent where she has apparently been raised since infancy. Days before Anna is scheduled to take her vows, her mother superior tells her that the convent had repeatedly written to her aunt, asking her to pick up the girl; the aunt, her only living family member, declined to do so. The nun vaguely but firmly instructs the Anna to travel to her relative’s city apartment. She tells the young woman to stay there as she needs.

The aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), is a stern, trim figure who initially has little use for any echoes of her past. But she soon reverses course, welcoming Anna into her home and introducing the girl to some of their shared history. Wanda, a lifelong city dweller whose sister was Anna’s mother, agrees to drive the young woman to the small town where her parents were farmers before the Nazi invasion.

Anna’s parents — who, unbeknownst to her, were Jews — are dead, but no one knows where they are buried. The two women decide to find the grave, visiting the people who took over the property that once belonged to Anna’s family and tracking down the ailing elderly man who had once protected them from the crematoria of the Holocaust.

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George Clooney’s arty party can’t quite come together in tale of ‘The Monuments Men’ of World War II

February 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Feb. 8, 2014

A sequence in The Monuments Men captures the key problem with the new feature directed, co-written by and starring George Clooney.

As sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) are questioning a clergyman about the fate of historic artwork stolen by the Nazis, a sniper begins shooting at them. Garfield and Clermont comically argue about which of them will provide suppressive fire and which will attempt to infiltrate the structure where the gunman is located. After that matter is settled, Clermont races toward a gutted building as Garfield covers him.

Once the Frenchman is inside, his fate comes down to whether he can outfox — and outshoot — the sniper. Clermont advances to the second floor, hugs a door frame and pivots, rifle-muzzle-first, into the space that he thinks contains the shooter. It’s empty.

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Oskar Schindler, a slick and self-indulging saint, spares lives amidst Nazi atrocities

April 9, 2013

In 1980, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally went shopping for a briefcase in a Beverly Hills, Calif., luggage store. The store’s owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, was one of about 1,300 mainly Polish Jews whose lives had been spared during World War II by the heroic efforts of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler.

It was a fateful meeting: After years of attempting to interest a writer in doing a full-length treatment of Schindler’s story, Pfefferberg finally found a receptive ear.

Keneally went on to interview 50 Schindlerjuden in America, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel and West Germany. With Pfefferberg, he visited European locations frequented by Schindler and the people protected during the war. Keneally’s researches and other efforts went on to inform the 1982 book Schindler’s Ark, which was published in American under a title well known to moviegoers: Schindler’s List.

The book is categorized by its author as a novel, and Keneally admits to having made “reasonable constructs of conversations of which Oskar and others have left only the briefest record.“ However, it reads as a work as journalism, with speculation and extrapolation on certain matters clearly labeled as such by Keneally.

I recently read an American volume of Schindler’s List and found it to be an incredibly moving tale. (This was no surprise; Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation of Keneally, which I watched last summer, had a similar effect upon me.)

A paradox lies at the heart of this book. In his inimitable fashion, Schindler merrily wined, dined and bribed Nazis as part of a determined effort to spare the lives of about 1,300 workers and their families at his kitchenware and munitions plants in the ancient Polish city of Cracow and, later, the rural Czechoslovakian outpost of Brinnlitz. To find this story inspiring, as I do, is simultaneously to embrace and to deny the backdrop to this feat: The six million European Jews cruelly murdered by Hitler and his armies.
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