With concentration camps on the America-Mexico border and white supremacists regularly being given a platform on the BBC, remembering the Holocaust is a vital activity in 2019. Education is a battleground and learning about the Nazi atrocities was a key part of growing up for many, in the west at least; always with the thought that it couldn’t happen again. How naive was that belief: in America a high school Principal is removed from his post because he refuses the acknowledge the Holocaust happened. The Shop on the High Street (Main Street in America) is a Holocaust movie but without the camps and Nazis.
Whilst it’s nominally a Czechoslovakian film, it’s actually Slovakian in terms of its creative input, setting and language. During the war the Slovakian government supported the Nazis; their Hlinka Guard became the equivalent of the SS. Jozef Kroner plays Brtko, a small town carpenter who has the misfortune to be related, by marriage, to the town’s fascist leader. The latter gifts Brtko an elderly Jewish woman’s (Rozalia Lautmannová played by Ida Kaminska) shop, she’s going deaf and struggles to understand the situation. Kroner has some resemblance to Steve Carrell and shares the American’s talent for entwining seriousness with comedy. He’s too mild mannered and conflicted to take over the shop so pretends, after key ‘encouragement’ from a friend who opposes the fascists, to be Lautmannová’s assistant.
Spoiler alert: the first two thirds of the film is a mild comedy of Brtko trying to please his money-grubbing wife without upsetting anyone (though when pushed he does slap his wife; I’m unclear whether this is meant to show a dark side to Brtko or show how pushy his wife is – I fear the latter). I was mildly entertained thus far and wondered about the ethics of a comedy that had the Holocaust in its background (I still haven’t seen Life is Beautiful, La vita è bella, Italy, 1997, which like The Shop on the High Street won the Best Foreign Language Oscar). Then the film turns when the Hlinka Guards start rounding up the town’s Jewish population. Brtko can no longer finesse his ‘appeasement’ position’, trying to offend no one. The last half hour in particular, which takes place almost wholly in the shop where we can see the round-up going on outside, is truly devastating as an increasingly drunk Brtko tries to find the right course of action.
The immensity of the Holocaust is difficult to comprehend and Ladislav Grosman’s screenplay, by focusing on an ordinary man, enables us to understand how such an atrocity came about: few people are willing to make a stand against tyranny that would compromise their safety or economic well-being.
The film was co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, though accounts suggest that most of the creative decisions were made by Kadár. Despite the year of its release, it’s not a Czech New Wave film as it is, stylistically, conventional and both directors had been working in film well before the 1960s. It was a key film, though, in alerting the world to the brilliance of the films coming out of the country; its Oscar win was followed by three other films being nominated: A Blonde in Love, Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) – which won –and The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko). The film, however, is stylistically interesting as the increasingly expressionist mise en scène, and febrile handheld camera, both signify Brtko’s mental breakdown. Mishearing his name, Lautmannová calls him Krtko which means ‘mole’ in Slovak and so stands for those who bury their heads in the sand rather than dealing with unpleasant reality.
Post-1945 the story ended well with the defeat of fascism though the ensuing Cold War ensured conflict for decades afterwards. It seems we’re now returning to the 1930s with a rise in right wing populism, economic stagnation and fascists in power in some places. The Shop on the High Street reminds us we have to take a stand.
Denial is a strange film – a star-laden ‘independent film’, conventional in style and approach but with an intriguing mix of genre elements. Always engaging and involving it certainly delivers for audiences while being dismissed by some mainstream critics. Its release in the UK at the end of the first week of the Trump presidency proved timely as it offers an opportunity to explore concepts of ‘historical truth’ and the difficulty of ‘proving’ it in a court of law.
Denial is another ‘based on a true story’ narrative. It follows the legal proceedings set in train by the British ‘historian’ David Irving who alleged damage to his reputation caused by published statements by the American academic scholar Deborah Lipstadt in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993). Under English law, a libel action such as this is heard in the High Court and the onus of proof is on the defendants (in this case Ms Lipstadt and her publishers Penguin Books). The danger of defending the action was that Irving, a notorious right-wing Holocaust denier, would get the chance in court to expound on his own views and attack the statements of defence witnesses. In many cases libel actions are ‘settled’ out of court but would this be acceptable/advisable in this case. Deborah Lipstadt decided to fight and the film narrative is based on her book about the case.
The production did not have major studio backing but the three US and UK companies did receive support from BBC Films in the UK. In the US the film was released by the independent Bleeker Street but in the UK it is an eOne release, i.e. from one of the two ‘mini-majors’ (eOne is a Canadian-US-European multinational). The film’s cast boasts four central performances from acclaimed actors. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson plays her barrister Richard Rampton and Timothy Spall plays David Irving. All three are very good and deliver the performances their reputations suggest. But for me the standout, in a smaller role, is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the solicitor who Lipstadt turns to first. Irish actor Scott is currently being feted for his Hamlet at the Almeida in London and his performance in the difficult role of Julius is very impressive. David Hare adapted Lipstadt’s narrative (the courtroom dialogue is taken from the court transcript). Hare is a distinguished British playwright who is also well-known for his screenplays and for his films as a director. I haven’t seen much of his recent work but I remember his 1980s films such as Paris By Night (1988) and Plenty (1985) (directed by Fred Schepisi, written by Hare from his own play). I thought both films struggled to utilise the powers of their leads (Charlotte Rampling and Meryl Streep respectively). Rachel Weisz does better in this new film. Denial is directed by Mick Jackson. I was surprised to find that back in the 1980s Jackson directed the Barry Hines scripted Threads (1984) – one of the great British TV films about the possible effects of nuclear war. In the 1990s he went to Hollywood and scored with The Bodyguard (1992) with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner but in 1997 he the disaster movie Volcano proved to be his last cinema film for nearly twenty years (all spent on TV projects). Why did the producers choose Hare and Jackson as a team?
The key to Denial is, I think, the generic mix and how it works with the Holocaust discourse. At the centre of Denial is a courtroom drama with very high stakes. But the film is effectively a drama-doc – a dramatised reconstruction of actual events. So, although the trial is gripping, we know the outcome already and there are no real surprises. The trial was finally held in 2000 by which time the discourse of Holocaust studies/films/books etc. was developing further. Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 film Schindler’s List raised the profile of Holocaust narratives is mentioned in Denial‘s script. The Holocaust narrative in Denial is focused on the dilemma for Lipstadt and her defence team about how they should deal with the emotions and hurt that Irving’s vile outpourings were bound to threaten. The script veers towards making this a conflict between British and American attitudes to the libel case and this in turn means that the narrative must include an explanation for audiences of the crucial difference between English and American law, despite the fact that American law is based on English Common Law principles. (I can’t remember if the script refers to ‘UK law’, but American readers should note that Scottish law is a different beast altogether.) This conflict is neatly symbolised (or ‘heavily signalled’) by a tiny action in which at the beginning of the trial Deborah Lipstadt refuses to bow to the presiding judge when the trial begins, but at the end of the trial seems to have become ‘anglicised’ and bows like everyone else. I’m not sure how much patience American audiences will have for this narrative, but for me it was the most interesting part of the film. The emotion is carried partly by the existence of Holocaust survivors who the defence team, to Lipstadt’s dismay, are reluctant to use in court. For narrative convenience, only one such survivor is singled out (played by Harriet Walter, one of several well-known British actors playing smaller roles.) Rampton must refute Irving’s claims by conducting a case which shows evidence that buildings in Auschwitz were used to gas Jewish (and other) inmates of the concentration camp. This isn’t straightforward.
The potential Anglo-American split is also played out in the relationship between Lipstadt and Richard Rampton. Wilkinson’s Rampton is initially seen by Lipstadt as cold, detached and lacking compassion. There is no suggestion of any kind of romance between the two but the script displays what might be thought of as tropes of a romance narrative as Rampton visits his client’s room with a bottle of wine and she seeks him out in a café. Part of the conflict revolves around the social class distinctions of the English legal profession and alongside the emotional questions this is brought out first on a trip to Auschwitz which, as Rampton himself points out, is not for “memorialising” but for forensics – it is a crime scene and he must prove what happened.
Denial has done steady but not spectacular business for a narrative of this kind in the UK, making £730,000 in five weeks. I suspect it appeals mainly to older audiences and that it will find a wider audience on TV, where its star names will attract viewers who will be rewarded by the script and performances. As a cinema film it does feel a little ‘clunky’ but in truth Mick Jackson has only limited opportunities for visual display. He focuses on a foggy Auschwitz visit with some success but primarily this is about skilled actors and a highly literate script delivered in meeting rooms and Kingston County Hall masquerading as the High Court on the Strand.
I fear that I don’t have time to do this marvellous film justice, but I’ll do what I can. At the beginning of the film I found it a little difficult to engage with and I’ve seen criticism of the direction and performances. However, whatever the problem was, I overcame it quite quickly and became completely absorbed. It was only afterwards that I realised what a controversial film it has become. Although there have been the occasional gainsayers, most of the reviews have been very good and Barbara Sukowa gives one of the performances of the year.
Background (There are some spoilers here, but the film is largely based on historical record)
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a brilliant philosophy student in Germany in the 1920s and her PhD was supervised by Martin Heidegger. He eventually joined the Nazis but she was from a secular Jewish family and left Germany for France in 1933. In 1941 she fled France as well when the ’round-up’ of Jews began and landed in the US, eventually establishing herself as the first female university lecturer at Princeton in 1959. In the immediate postwar period she helped Zionist organisations to take Holocaust survivors to Palestine.
The film begins in 1960 when Israeli agents from Mossad captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Jerusalem where a show trial was organised. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the transport of Jews to the gas chambers and the trial was an international event. Hannah was commissioned to write about the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Even before the trial her friends and colleagues were divided about whether and how she should cover it. By this time, Arendt described herself as a ‘political theorist’ – certainly she wasn’t a journalist and the New Yorker had to wait for the long articles that were published first in the magazine and then in book form as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963. Arendt’s arguments in her report proved highly controversial for three reasons. Firstly she criticised the whole basis of the trial, since it was an attempt to put an ideology on trial, but only a man was in the dock. Second, she descred Eichmann as a man who had ceased to behave like a thinking person – in his statements to the court he didn’t display anti-semitism as such and he claimed to be an efficient bureacrat. From this observation Arendt developed her ideas about the ‘banality of evil’. Third, she suggested that some Jewish leaders had, through their behaviour in responding to the Nazis in an orderly manner, indirectly contributed to the extent of the deaths in the Holocaust.
The film is not a biopic as such. It focuses mainly on the events surrounding the arrest of Eichmann, the trial and its aftermath from 1960 to 1964. There are also two flashbacks to Hannah as a philosophy student (played by Freiderike Becht) and then to a second meeting with Martin Heidigger in Germany after the war. It is a film largely about ‘thinking’ – and the greatest compliment that could be paid to director and co-writer (with Pamela Katz) Margarethe von Trotta is that she makes long scenes of Hannah smoking and thinking supremely watchable. Margarethe von Trotta is the New German Cinema director who has struggled the most to get a decent film release in the UK. Some of her films have had pretty bad reviews but I’ve only seen the two releases which got some support, Das Versprechen (The Promise) from 1995 which I liked a great deal and Rosa Luxemburg from 1986 which I enjoyed, but can’t remember very well. Rosa Luxemburg was another great German Jewish figure, also portrayed by Barbara Sukowa. Margarethe von Trotta has been careful to avoid the tag of ‘woman’s film’ or ‘feminist director’ but it is worth noting that she works closely with other women as creatives and often features women as central characters in her narratives. Hannah Arendt was photographed by Caroline Champetier and edited by Bettina Böhler.
A few days after seeing the film I came across the concept of ‘prosthetic memory’ at the Chinese Film Forum (in conjunction with films about the Nanking Massacre in 1937). This suggests that film and other media can act as a kind of constructed historical memory coming between an individual and a historical event. I was profoundly moved by Hannah Arendt, partly through the excellence of the filmmaking and the performances but also because of my own personal memories. I was 11 when Eichmann was captured and I remember the furore surrounding the trial. I didn’t fully understand it at that age but I was aware of the issue and I think it was a defining moment re representations of the Holocaust (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But perhaps as important was the film’s use of costume and hairstyles etc. My mother was born the year after Hannah and she wore similar boxy suits in the early 1960s. The film brought back a lot of memories associated with that time. Margarethe von Trotta’s direction and Barbara Sukowa’s performance captures a thinking woman, but also a real emotional woman in a loving relationship and with a group of friends and supporters. I believed everything that Hannah said and I followed the arguments carefully – but I also responded to her as a recognisable woman. Her relationship with her husband (an interesting character in his own right as played by Axel Milberg) is also very well presented.
I must have missed the moment near the start of the film when Hannah’s American friend is introduced. She is played by Janet McTeer, a remarkable physical presence who defends Hannah like a mountain lion. It was only afterwards that I realised that this was Mary McCarthy whose novel The Group I read as a teenager. I hadn’t previously researched McCarthy’s interesting political background. The only disappointment for me was that Julia Jentsch has such a small role in the film as Hannah’s loyal assistant. She is one of the many German actors in the film which features both English and German dialogue.
If Hannah Arendt sounds like a film filled with speech and long periods of solitary smoking, it is – but it’s also about ferocious arguments and it includes one of the most impassioned public lectures you are ever going to have the pleasure to watch. If you can find it in a cinema, go for it – I’m hoping we get it in Bradford in December.