Tag Archives: fascism

Lacombe Lucien (1974)

As I watched the marvellous Louis Malle film, Lacombe Lucien, I remembered Simenon’s account of living under the German occupation of Belgium in WWI. Simenon fictionalised this period in perhaps his most autobiographical novel, Three Crimes. In the novel, Simenon argues, and argues well, that a period of occupation is an inevitably corrupting experience. Simenon offers many examples of this through the opportunistic individuals who float with the scum who happen to be in power. This thought came back to me repeatedly as I watched Lacombe Lucien. Malle’s film takes an unsparing look at the breakdown of French society through the life of Lucien, a twisted, emotionally stunted youth who lacks both political ideology (which would at least explain his attitude and actions) and compassion towards the people who fall into his path.

It’s German occupied France–south-west France to be more precise in 1944. Definite Vichy territory here, and the film opens with young Lucien (Pierre Blaise) mopping the floors in a hospital and emptying the slop from bed pans. While the nurses listen to the radio for news about the war, Lucien sneaks a moment to take a hidden slingshot from his pocket. In just a few seconds, he kills a songbird as it sings in a tree outside of the hospital window. Lucien smirks to himself at his petty victory, and in this one act, Malle sews up Lucien’s character in a nutshell.

Lucien hates his job at the hospital. On his time off, he returns home to the village farmhouse where his mother (Gilberte Rivet) now shares the bed of her employer, Laborit (Jacques Rispal). Lucien’s father is absent–forced labour for the nazi war machine in Germany, and while Lucien is at loose ends at his old home, it’s also clear that he’s not welcome. The village is a hot bed of resistance, and the farm owner’s son–a known patriot–is off fighting with the Resistance. Lucien, attracted to the excitement and glamour of the Resistance, and tired of the boring drudgery of the hospital, wants to join, but his efforts are rightly suspect, and the local Resistance leader, schoolteacher Peyssac (Jean Bousquet) rebuffs Lucien’s interest. 

Since Lucien’s attraction to the Resistance is not ideologically based, it comes as no surprise to see him next hanging about a huge hotel–the headquarters of the French collaborationists. Soon Lucien is part of the collaboration team, and it’s a role that suits him well. As his vicious, bullying nature begins to thrive, Lucien becomes the pet of the collaborationists, toting weapons, threatening the locals, and throwing around his ill-gotten gains (he calls it “war loot“). For the collaborationists, life at the luxury hotel is one big long party with champagne, sports cars, and rich food.  Those who live at the hotel are shown to be a motley crew of misfits: an ex-bicyling champion, a minor film star, and a former policeman who was dismissed in ’36 as an “undesirable.” These are the sort of rejects who are running the show, rounding up pockets of resistance and then handing them over to the Germans, and apparently there’s no shortage of those eager to offer information. A large amount of time is spent opening letters–about 200 a day–which detail suspicions against friends and neighbours.

Nasty Jean-Pierre de Voisins (Stéphane Bouy), a French aristocrat whose behaviour hints that he’s the black sheep of his family,  takes Lucien under his wing, teaching him the tricks of how to trap members of the Resistance and once caught how to torture them. But it’s not all work, and Jean-Pierre takes Lucien to the home of  Parisian, jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler) who lives in complete seclusion with his daughter, France (Aurore Clément) and his taciturn mother, Bella (Therese Gieshe). The Horns live in tenuous circumstances buoyed with tarnished glamour. While they are somewhat protected by Jean-Pierre, they must pay rent and protection money and Albert also serves as Jean-Pierre’s exclusive tailor. 

Lucien becomes obsessed with Horn’s daughter, France. This obsession ignites a change of events and a series of moral quandaries for the Horns as Lucien offers protection at a price, and it’s a protection that will expire when the Germans lose the war. Time, then becomes a crucial factor. The Horns must survive but at what price?

Time is also a factor for the collaborationists, and there’s the sense that for those who used the occupation to feather their own nests, there’s not much time left. At first the vast hotel is their party hangout/torture and interrogation headquarters, but that soon changes as 1944 wears on, and the hotel becomes a sanctuary for those sympathetic to the nazis.

Malle’s wonderful film shows the collaborationists as a nest of opportunistic, lowlife bullies who, inflated by nazi power and weapons, lord it over the locals. They are in contrast to people like the Horns who seem to be an almost entirely different species. In spite of their daily humiliations, the Horns appear to rise above their circumstances, and this is in direct contrast to Lucien and his fellow collaborationists who’ve sunk to almost unspeakable behaviour. At one point, Horn acknowledges that he cannot hate Lucien–in spite of everything he’s done.

Many reviews state that Lucien, by his youth and inexperience alone, is not an entirely unsympathetic character. He is devoid of any moral feeling, and torturing a fellow Frenchman seems to generate the same sort of feelings he experiences when he slaughters a chicken or shoots rabbits. The first scene paints Lucien as very unpleasant, and for this viewer, Lucien remained unpleasant and with more than one screw loose. While it can be argued in many films that bad characters act the way they do due to circumstances, any sort of moral compass is entirely absent in Lucien, and this is not simply due to his youth.

Tragically, Pierre Blaise was killed in a car accident the year after Lacombe Lucien was released.

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Mosley (1998)

“Pardon me for asking, but what do you know about the working class?”

I never thought I’d find myself watching a film about Oswald Mosley–let alone that I’d really, really enjoy it. I recently came across Mosley, a  four-part made-for-British television biopic based on the life of the man who was a member of parliament, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and later was interned during WWII. The film is based on two books written by Mosley’s son, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale. Part One: Young Man in a Hurry covers the years 1918-1920, Part Two: Rules of the Game covers the years 1924-1927. Part Three Breaking the Mold covers the years 1929-1933, and Part Four: Beyond the Pale covers the years 1933-1940.

Mosley very effectively shows the rot within the British upper classes through its depiction of Mosley’s life and political ambitions.  The film begins on Armistice Day when young Lt Mosley is in London watching the celebrations. Mosley (Jonathan Cake in a terrific performance), fresh out of WWI is determined to make a difference and believes that another war should never be fought. As an aristocrat (Mosley was the eldest son of the 5th Baronet of Ancoats), he very quickly finds a spot in British politics. Invited to the best houses and the best parties, he’s introduced to Lloyd George (Windsor Davies) and makes the older, married American Maxine Elliott his mistress. Mosley becomes the youngest member of parliament–not a bad start to a career that ended in infamy.

Mosley makes a beeline for “Cimmie” Lady Cynthia Curzon (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of the wealthy and influential Curzon family, and he’s assisted in his courtship by Cynthia’s stepmother–yet another mistress. In real life both Cimmie’s older and younger sisters became Mosley’s mistresses too, and the film depicts Cimmie as rather naïve and severely out-of-touch with her husband’s true character. But these are all aspects of Mosley’s personal life, and he is established rather quickly as an unpleasant and rather cruel egoist with little or no thought of other people beyond his ability to use them to his advantage.

As for his political life, Mosley had many ideas for England which involved a great deal of change. He’s portrayed as a young “man in a hurry,” in direct opposition to the establishment. At first Mosley is a member of the Conservative Party and is the MP for Harrow. The film depicts his impassioned speeches, “crossing the floor,” and his outrage at the Conservative government’s so-called Irish policy. The film tracks Mosley’s switch to Labour and his supposed interest in socialism and the ‘working classes.’ The use of the word ‘supposed‘ is intentional as the film includes many scenes of Lady Cynthia and Sir Oswald delivering speeches to the working classes. She’s wearing her fur coat and they’re ferried around by chauffeurs. In one scene the couple actually squabble about who is going to get the nicer car when they toddle off to lecture the masses. But while Lady Cynthia seems genuine (if a naïve Champagne Socialist), Mosley is depicted as much more calculating, ready to use women silly enough to fall in love with him and to exploit the working classes silly enough to vote for this wanker. ALL politicians do this sort of thing, of course, but Mosley was much more naked about it.

Mosley is highly entertaining and if it fails, it fails to show what is going on in Mosley’s head at crucial moments. At one point, for example, Mosley has formed the BUF and while his underlings labour to create a financial policy, they seem to go into one direction (heavy leanings towards Communism) with no idea that Mosley is headed towards fascism. We see Mosley’s eyes glinting with delight when he glimpses Mussolini for the first time, and there’s a giant hint that Mosley has gone off the deep end when he shows up in Italy wearing a black shirt. The film depicts Mosley’s political switch occurring largely in his head with those in his inner circle oblivious and rather shocked.

While the film spends a good amount of time on Mosley’s affairs, and his first marriage, a relatively small amount of the film is spent on his affair with Diane Guinness (nee MITFORD) one of those oh-so-famous Mitford sisters who mucked about in the politics of the time.  The film shows Mitford’s (Emma Davies) influence quite well, and before we know it this notorious pair are off to Berlin to be married at the home of Goebbels with Hitler as one of the guests. 

The film also depicts the Battle of Cable Street and one of Mosley’s explosive BUF rallies. Amazing really that he wasn’t locked up until 1940, but that’s one of the bennies of being an aristocrat–you can get away with more shit.  Unfortunately, the film does not explore Mosley’s life after internment, and that’s a shame. Still this was a highly entertaining look at Mosley, and he doesn’t come off well at all. While the film emphasises his personal relationships, the point is made that Mosley was a chameleon–ready to wear whichever political skin got him the votes, and more importantly, THE POWER. There seems to be a traceable line, in Mosley’s case, from aristocrat, adulterer, autocrat and fascist–his way or as the old saying goes–or the highway. Fascism seems to be the natural state for Mosley to devolve to as it bypassed any notion of humanity & equality and simply made it easier for him to pass off his ideas without modification from anyone else.

From director Robert Knights.

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A Month By the Lake (1995)

a month by the lakeFans of British films set in the picturesque tourist destinations of Italy should really enjoy the engaging and highly entertaining film, A Month By the Lake from director John Irvin and based on a story by H.E.Bates. And while nothing much really happens in the film it’s an enjoyable romp, thanks mainly to the talents of the film’s leading actors Vanessa Redgrave and James Fox.

One of the unspoken rules in films that depict the British abroad, is that away from the damp and the fog of their native land, they tend to drop inhibitions and go just a little crazy as they engage in activities and relationships they wouldn’t dream of indulging in in their native land. Take Shirley Valentine and Where Angels Fear To Tread–just two of dozen of titles that explore the behaviour of the British abroad.

A Month By the Lake begins with Miss Bentley (veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave) striding up the steps of an elegant lakeside Italian villa. This is the Lake Como resort Miss Bentley has visited every year for 16 years, but this is the first time she’s come alone. Although her father has recently died, Miss Bentley returns alone to the resort as she loves Lake Como and has made firm friends amongst the other guests. This is, we are told via voice over narration, that last glorious summer before the war.

But while rumours of war grumble in the background, the action focuses on the villa and its guests. There are a couple of middle-aged American women there and also the solitary retired British Major Wilshaw (James Fox). Lonely Miss Bentley is attracted to Major Wilshaw on the very first day, and while circumstances throw them together upon occasion, he’s beguiled by the saucy, young American governess, Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) who has charge of two little Italian girls.

This gentle romance follows the trials and tribulations of Wilshaw’s courtship, and while the film could so easily have become cliched and like a million other films on the same subject, A Month By the Lake is saved by its wry humour and sly look at the many foibles of human behaviour–vanity, willfulness, boredom and loneliness all gilded with the fact that these characters are far away from home and the repercussions of their behaviour may not wash ashore on their doorsteps.

The film keeps the shadows of impending war in the background, but the sense remains that so much is on the brink of loss and destruction. Vanessa Redgrave steals the film as the buoyant Miss Bentley, so easy to underestimate and designate as “spinster” while underneath passion and an irrepressible zest for life longs to burst free

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The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)

 “If your political dilettantism continues, there will be an explosion.”

Director Wolfgang Staudte’s marvelously understated satire, The Kaiser’s Lackey, a 1951 film, was recently released on DVD. Set mainly in the 1890s, the film is based on Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan. Originally banned in Germany, The Kaiser’s Lackey is now considered one of the 100 greatest German films ever made.

kaiserThe film’s protagonist Diederich Hebbling is hardly a hero; as a boy Diederich is terrified of everything. From his father’s impassioned, tyrannical rants to his mother’s ghastly tales of what happens to children, little Diederich learns to never take chances, and dog-like he follows the rules. The very first glimmer of Diederich’s character appears in an early classroom scene when he curries a teacher’s favour by tattling on a fellow student.

By the time Diederich (Werner Peters) is an adult and attends university, his character is set. Attracted to Agnes Gopel (Sabine Thalbach), he scurries away when threatened by a rival, and turning from the challenges of love, instead he becomes enthralled with the Neo-Teutons–a group that gives a sense of identity and kinship and that ultimately shapes his notions of German superiority and imperialism. Dabbling with contrived duels to gain obligatory, status scars, he “experienced a sort of suicidal élan,” and gradually Diederich’s inclusion in the Neo-Teutons becomes a substitution for personality. He evades military service by pulling strings, and lacking imagination, spontaneity, and individualism, Diederich becomes the perfect material for a politician. Eventually, with the confidence and comfort gained from extensive drinking rituals and the superficial camaraderie of the Neo-Teutons, he despoils Agnes and then casts her aside due to his notions of ‘unblemished’ womanhood.

When Diederich inherits his father’s paper factory, he returns home to Netzig and becomes a petty tyrant. Rabidly anti-Semitic, he prides himself on his patriotism and harsh treatment of his workers. In unsettled political times, Diederich learns to curry favour from the socially superior bombastic governor, but he also gains cooperation from the oppositional Social Democrats by bribing one of their leaders. Some of the scenes involving the governor and his dog are hilarious. Diederich, who’s beneath the governor’s dog on the totem pole of power, must suffer various indignities without complaint in order to gain access to the governor’s presence, patronage, and privileged inner circle. And like the good little underling he is, Diederich knows better than to complain when the dog treats him like some sort of squeaky toy.

Eventually elected to the town council after gaining notoriety through a preposterous trial, Diederich’s pomposity and vanity have no limits. Courtship to a local heiress whose inheritance and bovine nature suit Diederich’s ambitions results in marriage and a honeymoon. Once Diederich learns that the Kaiser is expected in Rome, he diverts his honeymoon plans, and abandoning his wife temporarily in the street he succeeds in gaining a glimpse of his idol. Running alongside the Kaiser’s carriage like a faithful dog, Diederich is the last person to realize how insufferable and ridiculous he is.

The film, however, makes it perfectly clear that even though Diederich is a buffoon, and a cretinous underling, as an autocrat shaped by the “corps, the army and the Imperialistic spirit” he’s a destructive force, and this is established in the film’s final prophetic scene. Diederich gives a thundering patriotic speech given at the unveiling of the town’s statute of the Kaiser, and with a captive audience, he becomes carried away–even ignoring the governor’s order to stop. As Diederich’s speech becomes more impassioned, the weather turns sour and his speech’s militaristic, nationalistic tone parallels the gathering storm. Admonishing the crowd that the nation’s greatness is “forged on the battlefield,” Diederich finishes his speech ignoring the collateral damage occurring around him. This brilliant symbolism presages Germany’s coming destruction and a barking, insane and obsessed fuehrer whose notions of racial purity, militaristic traditions, and German imperialism plunged the world into war.

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Pinochet’s Last Stand (2006)

“I’m hounded by Communists.”

You wouldn’t catch me cozying up to a right-wing fascist dictator responsible for the murders and torture of 1000s of people, but apparently good old Margaret Thatcher couldn’t wait to squeeze in for a photo shoot in one scene of the HBO-BBC made-for-television film Pinochet’s Last Stand  (AKA Pinochet in Suburbia) The title, by the way, has an ironic meaning that should become clear by the film’s conclusion.

The film charts the former leader of Chile, Pinochet’s 1998 trip to England, the struggles of human rights groups to detain him in Britain pending extradition to Spain to answer for his crimes, and the legal wrangle that took place. It’s not exactly gripping drama, but this is an interesting film nonetheless for the questions it raises. Pinochet (Derek Jacobi) is depicted as a cunning, arrogant and egotistical old git who stalwartly believes that he is above the law, above any sort of ‘moral’ justice, and does not have to answer for any of his actions. Of course this is the man who took over Chile after the suicide of Allende, and with Socialist president Allende out of the way, Pinochet swept away and “disappeared” anyone leftie he could get his hands on. Of course, with someone like Pinochet, most people are lefties, so that kept the field wide open.

The film depicts the shenanigans behind the legal maneuvers, and the pressures brought to bear against Home Secretary Jack Straw (Michael Maloney). There’s pressure from the US (Bush, the Elder) to hand Pinochet back to Chile (after all the US had supported the overthrow of Allende), and on the other side of the fence, there’s Amnesty International. Then there’s Baroness Thatcher nauseatingly helping Pinochet with his image-makeover. The two old fascists have a cozy time of it together. The film shows how fascists remain resolute while government lefties (Straw) always cave and make concessions. Tony Blair doesn’t qualify as a leftie even though he’s arguably a member of the Labour Party.

The film touches briefly on the crimes committed by Pinochet, and it’s a shame the film didn’t go into this area with more detail. It’s estimated that over 3,000 people were ‘disappeared’ and about 30,000 tortured. One of the Chilean protestors, Nicole (Yolanda Vazquez) plays a woman haunted by her sister’s rape, torture and subsequent disappearance.

Mainly this film raised some questions for debate in my home. Should Pinochet, for example, have been extradited to Spain for crimes against humanity? Should another country prosecute a dictator (Pinochet in this case) when the man’s own country’s judicial system is willing to turn a blind eye? Of course, there are precedents to consider here–the Nuremberg Trials, for example, and our very own Guantanamo Bay where residents of many countries around the globe are grabbed, locked up and not even tried for the crimes of which they are accused. Should crimes against humanity be tried by another country under the idea of Universal Jurisdiction? It shouldn’t be too surprising that Henry Kissinger opposed such a position.

Ultimately, it’s amazing to see how Pinochet achieved victimhood, but sadly the film failed to raise the outrage the subject matter so clearly warranted, and that’s a pity.

From director Richard Curson Smith

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Filed under British television, Political/social films

Una Pasion Singular (2003)

“My patriotism is for the human race.”

Based on the true story of Blas Infante, the Spanish film Una Pasion Singular explores the life of the man known as “the father of Andalucia.” The film begins with the arrest of the upper class, middle aged, Blas Infante (Daniel Freire) and his subsequent imprisonment during the Spanish Civil War. As Infante’s wife Angustias (Marisol Membrillo) struggles with the authorities to get her husband freed, flashbacks depict their meeting and early courtship. Infante and his wife are depicted as individuals with vastly opposed value systems. Infante is devoted to the notion of a separate, autonomous Andulucia, and agrarian reform that includes “returning the land to the peasants” but Angustias, the daughter of wealthy elites, is used to a life of privilege. Infante courts and marries Angustias and they both secretly hold the idea that they can ‘change’ the ethics of the other if given time and proximity of marriage.

Through flashbacks, the film shows Infante, who designed the Andulucian flag and wrote the national song, at various meetings organizing political strategy. Other scenes depict Infante offering his legal services to the disenfranchised peasants at no charge. These scenes of political, and social involvement are contrasted with scenes of conflict with Angustias. She was born to a privileged life, and she fails to understand why life shouldn’t continue on in the same manner. Disagreements about money, and Infante’s devotion to the cause lead to bitter arguments.

The scenes involving Infante’s fate at the hand of Franco’s brutal system of repression are very well done. The film does an excellent job of depicting the arbitrary cold brutality of the system–men taken out of the jail by night and shot, men taken on journeys by guards from which they never return. One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Infante is taken to a makeshift prison. The door opens and as Infante’s sight adjusts to the dim light, the room is seen to hold hundreds of men in various attitudes of despair as they await their fate. In this hideous makeshift facility, there are no trials, and there is no justice. Guards arrive periodically to take the despondent men away to their doom.

The contrasting flashback scenes of Infante’s relationship with his wife are not as interesting, and they tend to distract from the much more interesting story of Infante’s social and political beliefs. If, however, you are interested in the Spanish Civil War, or the tyranny unleashed in Franco’s Spain, then Una Pasion Singular is worth catching. Directed by Antonio Gonzalo, the film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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Silencio Roto (2001)

“Strangers fight for a short time–families for a lifetime.”

The Spanish film, Silencio Roto begins in 1944 when Lucia (Lucia Jimenez) arrives in a remote mountainous village. Lucia left the village as a child, and she’s returning to work in her aunt and uncle’s bar. Franco now rules Spain, but the village is a hotbed of activity by the Maquis–Republican guerillas in the mountains who continue to fight after the collapse of the Spanish Civil War.

Soldiers garrisoned at the village maintain a tight atmosphere of fear over the residents. Soldiers publicly humiliate villagers, and relatives of known guerillas are ordered to the garrison for sessions of questioning and torture. In spite of the fact that the villagers, are in many ways kept hostage by the army presence, some of them still find time to aid the rebels. Lucia forms a relationship with the young blacksmith, Manuel (Juan Diego Botto) until he too is forced to take to the mountains and hide out with the guerillas.

As rebel activity increases, reprisals against the villagers occur in the form of crackdowns and punishments. With informers everywhere, it soon becomes impossible for anyone to remain neutral, and Lucia’s involvement with the guerillas becomes increasingly dangerous.

Silencio Roto is highly romantic–and the fate of these star-crossed lovers–Lucia and Manuel is set against the national discord in Spain. The film illustrates that the Spanish Civil War–although conveniently forgotten by the rest of the world–still raged in parts of Spain long after the end of WWII. The film examines the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the point is made that it just wasn’t possible to lay down one’s arms and return home. The length of the conflict ensured the involvement of several generations of family members, and this idea is well conveyed in this sad, and yet beautiful film. From the Basque director Montxo Armendaria, the film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and it joins the growing ranks of Spanish films that are now announce and examine the atrocities of Franco’s Spain.

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