The Jewish Question: 'The Debt' vs. 'Dear Uncle Adolf'

Two very different films. Two very different views of the Holocaust... both before and after.

The Debt

Director: John Madden
Cast: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Ciarán Hinds
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-08-31 (General release)
UK date: 2011-09-30 (General release)

Dear Uncle Adolf: the Germans and Their Fuhrer

Director: Michael Kloft, Mathias von der Heide
Year: 2010
US Release Date: 2011-08-23

If there is one thing the German people can never live down, it's the Holocaust. Argue all you want to over the decision to support the Third Reich or the entry into World War II, but the populace did embrace Hitler and his 'Fatherland Forever' ideals, many of which used ethnic cleansing as a means of revitalizing the spirit and dignity of a war ravaged nation. In our modern purview, such problematic politics seem as farfetched as those making a living out of denying "The Final Solution". Sadly, they existed, and for a while, flourished and have continued to rebound since in places like the Balkans and Africa.

Yet two new films -- the recent theatrical release The Debt and the new to DVD documentary Dear Uncle Adolf: The Germans and their Fuhrer argue a more complicated scenario. For many, payback for the lost six million Jews -- as well as the many Poles, Russians, Gypsies, gays, and all the others the Nazis didn't like -- will never be enough. It is a fight to never forget and never fail. But within the crazed country, at the time contemporaneous with the first concentration camps, were people who questioned the ghettos and detention of their fellow citizens and friends. Unfortunately, in both cases, the need for a bigger picture proposition outweighed the work and will of a select few.

The Debt sees this dilemma from the perspective of the persecuted. When a trio of Mossad agents, charged with bringing in a notorious war criminal, mess up the mission, they realize what needs to be done. As they argue over the reality of their carelessness, group leader Stefan (Marton Csokas) makes it very clear that they cannot go back to Israel empty-handed. For the fledgling nation, mired in its own serious issues of sovereignty, defeat is not an option. They must have their man, or a myth. While compatriots Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) fell under the false compassionate sway of otherwise evil captive, failure is worse than collaborating. It argues for a lack of strength, a shoulder shrug sense of fear that has hounded the Jews since the rise of the Reich.

Later, when the adult members of this now celebrated cabal sense their plan falling apart, bravery and justice are once again thrust to the fore. All throughout The Debt (the title even suggests the stakes at hand), the characters are concerned about protection -- or better yet, the act of protecting. Naturally, they want to protect their personal and professional legend, and they want to protect their respective families. But they also are in charge of protecting the entire post-Holocaust history of their people. If the truth gets out, it becomes a black mark measured against all other successes and triumphs. Granted, this particular tale is 100% fictional, but the theme is the same as with all other war criminal investigations. If the world lets just one of these monsters live out their life in peace, evil wins.

Oddly enough, it's a sentiment expressed over and over again in actual letters sent to Hitler during his reign as Chancellor. In Dear Uncle Adolf, a series of selected messages are read aloud over archival footage of the Reich's rise, as well as home movies of everyday Germans enjoying life. Still, for every mushy love note sent by a starry eyed citizen (the sentiments are shocking in their naive affection), someone stands up for what is happening to the people: not individuals per se, but the way in which the rest of the planet views their country. One particular plea sees a so-called sensible Berliner argue that, by specifically picking out the Jews, Germany looks not only prejudiced, but petty. They may be an issue, the writer begrudgingly suggests, but to round them up and ship them off doesn't appear to be the proper answer to the problem. In fact, it undermines the country's sense of self.

Others are not so subtle. More than a couple of these correspondences suggest that Hitler is leading the country directly into a confrontation it cannot answer for. "How do we explain it?", one person says. Indeed, they wonder how the rest of the world will react to such a radical, unconscionable approach? Others remove race from the situation and suggest that renewal should not come with repression. Aside from the obvious targets, the Reich also pinpointed thinkers and scholars, scientists and activists. Indeed, one of the most amazing sequences in Dear Uncle Adolf doesn't deal with the Holocaust, but small children pleading with their leader to let their daddies come home from prison.

In a weird, almost watershed way, these two films argue the inflexibility of their various viewpoints. Granted, one is so reprehensible as to remain a horror story some 70 years removed... and it should be. The Final Solution remains an affront to every human being, past and present. But the notion that defeat is not acceptable for our fictional spies argues for an equally illogical, if decidedly less reprehensible, position. Whether or not Stefan, Rachel, and David bring Dr. Vogel back alive is not necessarily the end of Israel as we now know it. It also doesn't suggest that the Jewish people are incapable of great acts of heroism and cunning. As the adult Rachel (Helen Mirren) eventually realizes, the lie is just as damaging as the truth. A false sense of pride is just that - false.

That the concerns of a select group of citizens were ignored while the Nazis rallied everyone from the elderly to the youth is not surprising. Dear Uncle Adolf makes it abundantly clear that the Fuhrer got much more fan mail than disagreements. But this love and admiration was also false -- false in the sense that few actually knew or completely understood what the new Germany was trying to be. False because the government was presenting one propagandized image while it was secretly doing something else. One such missive wants to understand all the flag waving and rights restrictions, believing (rightfully so) that it's all a greatness built on the back of misery and hate. As with all the other letters to the beloved despotic uncle, it goes unanswered.

Nor did they need to be. The Third Reich ended up speaking for itself -- loudly and clearly. The crimes it committed against the human race demand redress, something that The Debt argues honestly and openly. Yet there are also subtexts on both sides that suggest not everything was so cut and dry. Among the Germans, there were those who believed the actions of their leader were wrong. Sadly, they were a small voice among the din. In the case of our fictional spy games, a lie in service of supposed justice is no equity at all. Instead, it destroys the purpose behind such a pledge in the first place. As important as it is to "Never Forget", it is equally imperative to never forget why. It's a charge each of these films finds and fosters.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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