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Tag Archive: World War II


Review by C.J. Bunce

From an educational standpoint and an historian’s eye, the Holocaust is the most important subject of study for anyone to understand why humans look to the past for answers.  Every aspect of historical scholarship can be found in studies of the subject, understanding politics, religion, power, discrimination, survival, and the worst potential of mankind.  A powerful new documentary takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandson and great-granddaughter of one artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), whose vivid, stunning expressionist and minimalist paintings document a broad look at life, tradition, and culture in Jewish Poland prior to World War II.  Produced, directed, and written by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing Portraits illustrates the competing challenges in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as it also pulls in issues of borders, the distance of time, and the critical importance of studying art history.

Once you get past the first minutes, which seem to be filmed on an old camcorder, this amateur documentary steps up into a compelling journey, thanks in part to a musical score that ties it all together, by Matthias Zimmerman.  The German Nazis murdered Moshe Rynecki in a concentration camp in Warsaw in 1943.  Many of his more than 800 paintings and some of his sculptures and carvings were smuggled out.  Hundreds were taken out by his son and her wife, who escaped Warsaw with their young boy, the documentarian’s father.  Other works fall into the categories of gifts, works purchased legally, and works that may have been stolen and resold.  Elizabeth Rynecki first meets with her father in her documentary, whose house walls are lined with his grandfather’s paintings.  She also points to a closet where several works are rather haphazardly stacked, no doubt viewed only by few people over the past 70 years.  In one moment her father replaces a framed piece that falls to the side with a thunk.  This becomes a key scene–although it’s not clear that the director realizes it–as she does not circle back to it later.  It’s key because she begins a journey of discovery that takes her from the U.S. to Poland and Jerusalem, inside major museums and private collections, in part to reclaim what she believes are paintings that rightfully belong to her family today.  By the end of the film she acknowledges that tens of millions of visitors have admired her great-grandfather’s works in the museums, and she interviews museum directors that have clearly given the paintings the care any curator would give to his/her collections.

The question for the viewer becomes one of moral rights and legal rights–the debate over repatriation of cultural and artistic works.  And the crux of the debate over where these cultural works belong today–to descendants in private collections or on display in national museums as educational tools for a vastly wider audience.  Eventually Ms. Rynecki files a claim for three works held by a private person in Jerusalem, whose method of acquiring the works is questioned.  But ultimately she retracts the claim.  Along the way she interviews her father, who says he clearly would prefer to forget his memories of Poland during the war.  Yet he complies with his daughter’s requests to document his memories, until it becomes too much for him emotionally and physically.  Clearly there is importance to the works, to his experience, and to sharing both with future generations, and Ms. Rynecki encounters numerous crises of conscience as she takes each step forward in her pursuit.  How far should she go?  How far is enough?  Her time travel to the past explores these questions and much more.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

If there was a Sergeant York or Audie Murphy on the Russian side of the fight in World War II and the soldier was a woman, you’d have the lead character in Sara, a new six-part graphic novel from TKO Studios, a new publisher for 2019 (more on that below).  In Nazi-occupied Russia, the Russian forces are losing.  A small band of skilled Russians snipers is making headway one kill at a time.  The undisputed best of the bunch is Sara, an ex-college recruit reputed to have 300 kills.  She soon becomes the target of Nazi Germany’s own best special military forces.  From Eisner Award winning writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, War Stories and Battlefields, Fury) and artist Steve Epting (Velvet, Batwoman, The Winter Soldier, The Avengers), with color by Eisner and Harvey nominated artist Elizabeth Breitweiser and letters by Rob Steen, the gritty realism, badass protagonist, and top-level artistry is sure to make Sara a contender come award season.

If you’re a fan of Russia or Soviet-era stories like Doctor Zhivago, From Russia with Love, and The Hunt for Red October, or graphic novels Nevsky: A Hero of the People, Red Son, and The Death of Stalin, there’s something in the Sara graphic novel that you’re going to like.  But that’s just the setting.  The real fun will be the callbacks readers will experience along the way.  With a Russian twist, expect the same kind of war experience from watching movie classics like Stalag 17, Sands of Iwo Jima, Memphis Belle, To Hell and Back, and Sergeant York.  Ennis’s historicity and Epting’s adherence to detail anchors the story in a way that will have you feeling like you’re right there in the forest among the soldiers.  This is the story many of us were hoping for when we heard of the Russian espionage movie Red Sparrow.  

As with all new TKO Studios releases, the story is available as a graphic novel in a digital or print edition, or as six issues in a collectible box.  The six issue/chapter shifts are well plotted: an introduction of key characters in the middle of activity and flashbacks to Sara’s military training are all nicely paced to a vintage 1940s war movie style, and the battlefield threat increases gradually culminating in a nicely planned cliffhanger, followed by a satisfying payoff–it has all the beats in the right places.

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George Clooney;Bill Murray;Bob Balaban

Review by C.J. Bunce

It could have been a more serious film for fans of Ocean’s Eleven.  It could have been The Dirty Dozen.  Unfortunately, writer/director George Clooney missed plenty of opportunities to place The Monuments Men alongside the shelves of great World War II movies of years past.  With a cast including Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Matt Damon (along with Clooney) this should have been an easy victory.  So where’s the miss?  Clooney couldn’t decide which movie he wanted to make: a World War II biopic or a comedy.  The blend of both results in a merely watchable film, but comes in below the cast’s past works.

If you’ve seen any documentaries on the actual events that inspired the film, you already understand the guiding principle of the story:  It is absolutely worth fighting and dying for to preserve those artifacts that define your culture.  The Monuments Men is the story of a handful of art experts turned soldiers at the end of WWII who tried to assemble and return to their owners–repatriate–prized works of art, some religious, some by renowned art masters, some paintings, some sculptures, and other cultural artifacts, despite the Nazi efforts to squirrel away and often destroy vast cashes of these looted spoils of war.

Blanchett and Damon in The Monuments Men

The best element of the real-life story is not about any particular Monument’s man, but the actual account of Rose Valland, a French art scholar who covertly kept a log book of where the Nazis in France shipped stolen art.  She allowed The Monuments Men to fulfill their mission of returning so much art to rightful owners after war’s end.   Like the Valland-inspired Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett in the movie, Valland worked in the Jeu De Paume museum in Paris during the Nazi occupation, which was used as the German base of operations for hoarding Europe’s art treasures. Unknown to the Nazis, Valland spoke German, and used this to chronicle the details of the Nazi’s operation.  Unfortunately, Valland’s story becomes only a secondary plot to the men of The Monuments Men, and her account is never as exciting as the real-life Valland.  In fact, the foreign language intrigue of Valland’s story is completely ignored in the film.

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Wind Rises clip

Hayao Miyazaki, along with becoming the well-established premier creator of Japanese animation, has brought Japanese art and culture to American audiences in past decades like no one before him.  His films have expanded what audiences expect when they see animated films, challenging viewers with a balance of the dramatic and the humorous and at the same time offering films that can entertain children as well as adults.  Miyazaki recently announced he was no longer making full-length feature films and his last film, The Wind Rises, comes to theaters in the U.S. in February 2014.

Although most of his work has passed muster with both the box office and critics, Miyazaki has veered from the type of controversial films you might find in other major international directors, using myth and magic as tools to express ideas about relationships and the importance of the natural world.  His new film appears to verge from the norm, as he documents the life of real-life Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi from boyhood to adulthood.  Based on a short story by Japanese poet Hori Tatsuo, The Wind Rises follows Jiro through pre-World War II Japan, the country’s devastating 1923 earthquake, a tuberculosis epidemic, and hard economic times that preceded the war, as Jiro comes to be the creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane.  The Zero was one of Japan’s most well-known tools of the war, used in kamikaze operations and its most successful fighting plane, having a kill ratio of 12 to 1 at the height of Japan’s brief period of air superiority.

Wind Rises Jiro Zero

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Bill Murray not in Stripes

It’s not a title that, by itself, will draw crowds to the theater.  But how often does a movie have much more than one reason to get you into the theater to see it?  Maybe its an actor you love, a genre, the fact it is based on a book or property you’re interested in.  The Monuments Men, with its first trailer released this past week, has almost too many reasons to see it to count.  “In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.”  Yep, it’s not about Mount Rushmore.  So let’s take a quick look at what this movie has to offer, to bring in viewers for different reasons.

Everyone is always trying to make a war movie that’s not a war movie, add some twist to the genre to make it slightly different to entice new crowds to give war movies a try.  Saving Private Ryan tried it, making a war movie into more of a kidnapping film with the modern trend toward challenging the components of war vs the old Frank Capra-type pro-nationalism films.  And how unique was Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds?  In fact, if Brad Pitt hadn’t starred in that movie, you’d think he’d have been a shoo-in for The Monuments Men.  Why?  Because with George Clooney and Matt Damon in pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal, this looks like Ocean’s Eleven all over again.

John Goodman Monuments Men

And speaking of impossible goals, this also looks like The Dirty Dozen, although the trailer tells us there’s eight soldiers engaged in this mission.  Who isn’t ready for another movie of the Dirty Dozen variety?  Remember how good the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger was with Tommy Lee Jones as a general in the World War II recruitment scenes?  Or go back to Bridge on the River Kwai and recruiting William Holden to go back to the battle.  Of course these are all plays on the original Western recruiting warriors film, Seven Samurai.  And just look who gets recruited for this new mission.

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Wagner & Me poster

Wagner & Me is a documentary about a fanboy and fandom, and about whether you can separate an artist from his art.  It features the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry as he investigates his favorite musician, the 19th century German composer of the famous Ring Cycle, Richard Wagner.  What you may or may not know is that history has documented Wagner as an anti-Semite, and that Fry is Jewish.  Why does this matter?  To some Wagner is the greatest composer of his day, if not of all-time.  Yet as we learn in Wagner & Me, his works of good vs evil took on their own life under the reign of Adolf Hitler.  Hitler would whistle Wagner amongst his friends and troops and the very rousing works of Wagner were often played to inspire his men.

Stephen Fry is one of the best actors in England.  In his comedic career he often partnered with actor Hugh Laurie of later House, M.D. fame, and is known in the UK from his many series, such as a A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and various Blackadder series.  He is well known as a good guy, an intelligent thinker, a philanthropist, and friends with actresses Emma Thompson and Carrie Fisher.  Fans in the States know him best from his movies.  His first film was a bit part in Chariots of Fire and from there he went on to act in A Fish Called Wanda, Peter’s Friends, I.Q., A Civil Action, Gosford Park, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he voiced the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, and narrated Harry Potter video games.  He also has a recurring role on the TV series Bones.  Most recently he played Mycroft Holmes opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and later this year he stars as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  He may be most famous to genre fans for his superb performance as a rebel hoarder of banned works opposite Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

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The UK publication the Daily Mail published a story about a Dutch historian and her photo project this week.  Ghosts of History is a photo essay made by Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse that show pictures of the past combined with pictures of the present.  The story and initial photos in her project have spread around the globe and the project even has its own Facebook page growing in popularity.  Using photos of soldiers in France in World War II, Teeuwisse revisited locations around Cherbourg, France and other locations, found among 300 negatives, that were still standing or recognizable.  Using Photoshop she then assembled the photos to reveal some eerily ghostly images.  The seriousness of war aside, the results are very cool, and may evoke some other ghostly images from sci-fi and fantasy–notably for me the Army of the Dead from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

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