Making Choices in Nazi Germany

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives

Karin Wieland

If Karin Wieland’s dual biography does nothing else, it vividly illustrates that your choices do make a difference.

In the case of Marlene Dietrich, her move to the U.S. and particularly her active support of the Allied war effort enhanced her reputation, even when some of the films she made were not the best.

By contrast, though Riefenstahl proved herself a prodigious filmmaking skill, she achieved her greatest successes by dubious methods and in the service of the greatest evil in a century that witnessed a good deal of murderous events.

Regarding Dietrich, you could admire her talent openly and happily, whereas you might concede Riefenstahl’s talent, but given the subject and the service to which she put it, a qualifier must follow any positive comment. This is not a biography devoid of a viewpoint, being very much black and white in favor of Dietrich.

Worthwhile for those interested in early filmmaking, Nazi Germany, and, of course, the actress and the propagandist. While the book includes an assortment of photos, a wider selection keyed to some of the events covered would be appreciated. Includes footnotes, a brief reading list, and a helpful index. w/c


For Disappointed Orville Watchers

Galaxy Quest (Parisot, 1999)

Are you among those let down by The Orville, new on Fox. We sure are.

While it looks pretty good visually, though the computer animation is a bit too blatant, it falls flat in several ways. First, the stories are uninteresting. We’ve watched the pilot, “Old Wounds,” and the second episode, “Command Performance,” and both share the same lameness.

The ex husband/wife shtick may have sounded good in the pitch to executives but the execution is predictable. We expected sharper jokes, childish, for sure, but not groaners, and not in the good way.

While the cast is okay, given they have little to work with, Seth MacFarlane disappoints. It’s as if he sent a cardboard cutout of himself as a substitute. Sad to say, but it is coming off our DVR.

If you find yourself as disappointed as we are, we suggest you assuage your devastated expectations by watch Galaxy Quest a couple of times. What can we say: we’ve watched the movie a dozen times. It just never gets old.

While it parodies Star Trek, you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy it. Though you probably are, if you have tuned into The Orville, definitely a Star Trek parody. 

For younger viewers, it holds up as a good syfy with plenty of action and laughs. Older ones who’ve been through the mill of life can easily identify with the theme: what do I do for a second act?

Even watched many times, you’ll still find yourself laughing at how a troupe of out-of-work actors transport to another galaxy, help save a trusting and naïve people from an evil menace set on their extermination, and win back a revival of their space opera TV series.

It just never gets old. Take a look at the trailer, then get a copy and enjoy this evening. Also here, The Orville trailer. w/c


Why Read It When You Know It?

The Maltese Falcon (1929)

By Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon played by Humphrey Bogart is a story and a character we believe we know pretty much by heart. What’s the point of reading the novel, especially when the film does such a good and true job of capturing the book? Well, Brigid O’Shaughnessy has red hair, not Mary Astor’s dark brown. Minor, yes, especially in black and white, but you get the point. No matter how true the film adaptation, there will always be differences, sometimes minor, sometimes substantial, between the original and the interpretive copy. And therein lies the biggest reason for reading the book, particularly if you liked the movie.

What you see on your screen when you view The Maltese Falcon is director John Huston’s interpretation of the Hammett’s text. While Huston renders the book quite exactly, it remains that he colors it to match his vision. Really, can it be any other way? Bogart does a terrific job of capturing most aspects of Sam Spade’s character, which swings from backslapping, to brooding, to amorous, to brutally aggressive, to cunning, to dumb, to nearly always manipulative. Which aspect of Spade’s character dominates? Maybe you can discern this from the film; maybe you’d be better able to understand Spade’s true nature by reading Hammett’s words; or maybe, eh, who cares. Perhaps you’d like to read somethings that never made it onto the screen. The novel has some strong sexual content, given how many of us filter the past through a lens of greater comity. Hm, people will be people, today, in the Middle Ages, and in 1929, when The Maltese Falcon published.

Then there is the pure satisfaction of reading Hammett’s writing, his descriptions, his superb dialogue, and his steady pacing of plot revelations and twists. The dialogue here is the best. Yes, you will find some words and syntax peculiar to the time, but what makes Hammett’s dialogue outstanding, and serves as a lesson to budding writers, is how these define the character, define them better than any wordy description can. And there’s no better example than that of the Fatman, Kasper Gutman, delivered brilliantly by Sidney Greenstreet in the film. Essentially, Gutman’s the jolly fat man, until he releases his ruthless side, jolly too, but potentially deadly. Huston smartly transferred most of Hammett’s dialogue to film. Still, it pays to read the words for yourself to see how Hammett uses them to create character or change mood. It’s the syntax that truly defines the character of Gutman and everybody else in the novel.

So, if you enjoyed the movie and wonder why you would want to read the book, here’s why: Reading the book will increase immensely your enjoyment of the movie, and viscera. w/c

The Female Slave in Red

The Handmaid’s Tale

By Margaret Atwood

According to the best dystopian novels of the 20th century, we should be living or on our way to living in any of a various number of hellholes: a dehumanized, caste hierarchy of factory-manufactured people (Brave New World, 1932); the overthrow of democratic government in the U.S. (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935); a dehumanized, brutal dictatorship propped up by manufactured history and terror (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949); a dehumanized world that suppresses feelings and enforces subjugation by destroying literary thought (Fahrenheit 451, 1953); a “crime free” world in which authorities use predictive techniques to forestall murder (The Minority Report, 1956); a crime ridden world in which science attempts to recondition gangbangers (A Clockwork Orange, 1962); and to bring a potentially very long list to the point, the book in hand, a theocratic dictatorship in a willfully destroyed environment in which women find themselves formally classified and subjugated under the control of men, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985.

All these imaginings of the world gone wrong are worth your reading time, but Margaret Atwood’s tale is somewhat special among them. She focuses squarely on the reduction of women as mere productive machinery, and a handful as reproductive engines. At its most basic and its most forceful, The Handmaid’s Tale is about women deprived of all rights and forced into sexual slavery, women reduced to their most elemental biological function, and valued for nothing else.

In broad strokes, we find ourselves in the former United States of America now transformed after a bloody revolution into the Republic of Gilead some time in an indeterminate future. Ofred (meaning Of Fred, as belonging to him) takes up her station in the Commander’s house. Her purpose is to produce a child for the Commander and his wife, who, one or the other or both, are sterile, through a ritualized ersatz religious ceremony, basically a depersonalizing and dehumanizing approach to baby making. During the telling, we learn of Ofred’s previous life, in which she had a child, her training and indoctrination to be a (forced) Handmaid, the resentment and anger directed at her by other women, and her own determination to maintain her personality and eventually escape to free Canada.

This novel has sold very well since publication. Lately, sales have been brisk due to its serialization on Hulu. Perhaps you have watched the first season and wish to compare it to the original. You’ll find it true in the most critical ways and expansive in others. Reading the book, you marvel at how strange is this work of female slavery. The series brings the total bizarreness of Gilead to vivid life. Some scenes are quite horrifying, not because they are violent, but because they feel so alien in a way you think the characters should realize. Even more freakish than the impregnation ceremony is the birth ritual; it’s a jaw dropper on film.

Finally, as you read the novel or view the series or do both, keep this in mind: much of what you will read and see is not entirely fiction. As Margaret Atwood has stated and as the press has confirmed, much of the oppression is happening currently in the U.S. and other countries. Some examples include: gunning down refugees fleeing an oppressive government; children taken from women and given to well off families; forcing women to bear children and valuing them for only this ability; marital rape; decreasing fertility rates in developed countries; restrictions on women’s free movement and the ability to own property; protesters being shot; genital mutilation of women; and more. It’s this borrowing from the real world that makes Atwood’s dystopian Gilead even more terrifying. w/c

Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

The Price of Waking a Sleeping Dog

Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player) 1956

By David Goodis

File this classic noir tale, made all the more famous by François Truffaut’s retitled 1960 film adaptation Shoot the Piano Player, under “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” As Goodis’ very dark novel illustrates, they might yawn and lick you, or, more likely in noir land, they might be wounded by the past and explode to engulf you in violence that tears your world apart.

Eddie Lynn earns his meager keep by scratching out tunes on a beat up upright in Harriet’s Hut, a dive bar in the seedy part of Philadelphia. He a quiet man in worn clothes who comes across as milquetoast. He’s tightly scribed his existence in a  tiny circle of playing, lying in his room, and occasionally paying Clarice for a bit of sex. So divorced from the world is he, he’s not aware that a young, attractive waitress, Lena, has her eye on his.

Then Turley shows up battered and a little disoriented and urges Eddie to help him. Eddie hasn’t laid eyes on Turley, or his other older brother Clifton, nor his parents, or their modest homestead in the dark woods of south Jersey in nearly a decade. Turley and Clifton have been involved in a caper that has gone seriously wrong. Two gunsels, described as real professionals, are after him and he needs to get away fast. Eddie doesn’t want any part of the action but fate dictates otherwise. The pros turn up at the bar and in the first of many violent outbursts in the book, Eddie enables Turley’s escape. Now, however, Eddie is a marked man who himself must avoid and eventually flee the gunmen.

Unfortunately for Eddie, the affair awakens his senses, especially to Lena, who helps him, and to whom he begins to become attached. He sufferers internal conflict, in fact the core of the book is about his constant internal struggle to not love again, to hide his true identity, to keep clear of his notorious brothers, all of which bubble to the surface and help readers understand the real Eddie.

Debate himself as much as he will, he can’t suppress his growing feelings for Lena, and can’t keep his previous life, love, and agony over causing his young wife’s death bottled up. It sort of replays itself when the bouncer, who is also Harriet’s husband and an ex-wrestler known as the Harleyville Hugger (specialty: bear hugging an opponent into submission) tries to take liberties with Lena. A brutal and exhausting fight ensues between him and Eddie, when Eddie defends her. It results in the stabbing death of Hugger.

Now Eddie with the aid of Lena, for whom he finally concedes his growing affection, has to lam out of Philly to the one place he’s certain nobody will find him, the family house in Jersey. Naturally, this being noir and ultimately nihilistic at heart, complete disaster engulfs every character in the novel, until Eddie reins in his emotional monster, and the novel ends on these notes: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Modern readers will probably find the dialogue somewhat stilted and anachronistic and Eddie’s motivations a bit overwrought, but Goodis more than makes up for these with his word pictures of a dark, brutal world, and the idea of a guy who just wants to be left alone to stew in his misfortune and, most important, not to care and love again to only enviably hurt the one loved and himself again.

As mentioned, François Truffaut brought this novel to the screen in his French classic Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the trailer for those interested. w/c  

A Sophisticated Sociopath on a Rampage

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

By Patricia Highsmith

Psychological thrillers don’t get much better than this. Patricia Highsmith plants you deep within the brain of American sociopath Tom Ripley as he deceives one person after another, assumes the life of a young man he envies, and lashes out murderously to achieve his ends. Even today, more than sixty years after its first printing, with truckloads of psychological crime novels featuring psychos carted of to the remainder bins, and a swamp of crime movies and television shows spilling from our screens, this still stands out as an achievement of perfectly blending literary and hard-edged noir.

Succinctly, Tom Ripley is a young man in his mid-twenties existing in New York City. He really can’t do anything, doesn’t own anything, rooms with friends, and engages in petty forgery and scamming, not to make money but to amuse himself. As he says, he is very disappointed in his life and what he has made of it. Then his life changes. Mr. Herbert Greenleaf approaches him thinking him a close friend of his son, Dickie. Dickie has been taking an extended vacation in Italy trying his hand at painting, when his father needs and wants him back home in the family boat building business. Would Tom, all expenses paid, of course, sail to Italy and persuade Dickie to return home?

Tom connects with Dickie in short order and methodically befriends him. What Tom admires most about Dickie is his smooth approach to life, his nice manner, fueled, naturally, by lots of money. In a letter to Dickie, that is, Tom as Dickie, Marge Sherwood, Dickie’s wannabe girlfriend, writes of Tom, “He’s just a nothing ,,,” Perfect, as Tom is a blank canvas awaiting paint, and Dickie is the paint. Tom hatches a plan, really sort of a scatterbrained plan that feels almost spontaneous, to kill Dickie, which he does. Then the adventure truly begins as Tom dodges, weaves, and deceives (the police, Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and Dickie’s friends) his way around Italy, subsuming Dickie into the very core of his being. So perfectly does he do this that later in the novel he begins to believe he has a talent for painting and an appreciation of art. And no secret here, as you probably know the Ripley story turned into a five-novel series, he gets away with it.

Highsmith’s Ripley is a brilliant creation. He’s at various times a knockabout, a petulant child, a hedonist, a terrorized boy, a self-doubter, an explosive killer, a conniver, and a man unable to understand or even define his own identity. Paramount, though, above all, he thinks of only one person, only what’s good for Tom Ripley. Striping away Highsmith’s literary polishing, he sounds quite despicable. Yet, credit to Highsmith, you find yourself liking him, hoping, too, that his bobbing will succeed. Forget that you know, like all sociopaths, he doesn’t experience emotion but mimics it. Pay attention to Highsmith’s sentences and descriptions, the declarative style she employs here; you’ll see how it helps us feel Tom’s coolness, his emotional void.

Even her plotting captures the essence of Tom, his lackadaisical ambling approach to life, by giving us the impression stuff just happens. A situation presents itself and Tom improvises on the spot. So we readers feel like we’re just skipping from situation to situation, almost as if Highsmith is making it up as she goes, perhaps chortling at each twist.

A must read for everybody who loves their psychological fiction on the highest order. And after reading it, you might enjoy seeing how Hollywood realized it on the silver screen with a stellar cast. w/c