Everything Is Illuminated (2005)

Everything is Illuminated is a film directed by Liev Schrieber based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is about Jonathan’s search for the gentile woman who saved his Jewish grandfather.  He travels from the U.S. to the Ukraine, looking for a town called Trachimbrod which was wiped off the maps by the Nazis.  Trachimbrod is a fictional name, but it refers to a real place known as Trokhymbrid (Trochenbrod is the Russian name), which was a Jewish village located in western Ukraine.  The Nazis killed almost everyone and liquidated the entire village.

Not everyone was thrilled by Foer’s portrayal of Jews in the Ukraine.  Some claim it is an offensive and pointless fabrication, which may be true.  But the film doesn’t include scenes from the past as does the novel.  It stays primarily focused on the present.  The beginning of the film is hilarious, but the end is both dark and moving.

Alex is actually the main character and he makes the movie.  He’s from the Ukraine and serves as Jonathan’s translator.  But Alex’s English is a bit off.  Instead of everything being understood, everything is illuminated.  He describes Jonathan’s search as “rigid” rather than thorough.  And he is never able to get Jonathan’s name quite right.

The music in the film is a lot of fun, too.  The character who plays Alex, Eugene Hutz, is the lead singer for Gogol Bodello, a Gypsy Punk band.  This is the band that shows up in the train scene.  They also perform the song when the credits are rolling at the end of the film, “Start Wearing Purple”.

I give it 4 1/2 stars.

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Now that we are on the other side of my son’s graduation, I can work through my thoughts on Yann Martel’s latest book.  To be honest, however, I really don’t know what to think of Beatrice and Virgil.  I absolutely loved Life of Pi – the story has stuck with me for years.  Maybe that will be true of Beatrice and Virgil, too, but I don’t know that I want it to stick with me.

Maybe that’s what Martel was going for.  Obviously, he wants to evoke some extremely uncomfortable emotion within us and then just leave us there.  As far as I can tell, we are taken into Hell and that’s where we remain.

At the beginning of the book, the main character, Henry, is wanting to publish a flip book.  One side is an essay, the other side fiction.  It is an attempt to present the holocaust in a new way.   The two will merge into one another showing that there really is no ending or beginning.  The ending of the essay morphs into the beginning of the fictional story.  And the ending of the fictional story morphs into the beginning of the essay.  Unsurprisingly, his publishers don’t like it because they don’t think they can sell that sort of ambiguity.  They want something much more definite.  Something with a point so that they can market the book as being about something in specific.  It’s too difficult to market something that merges into itself and never has an actual beginning or end.

I watched a documentary about a woman who had been one of Dr. Mengele’s twins.  She had discovered the power of forgiveness and was able to forgive the Nazis.  But when it came to the Palestinians, forgiveness was a little more difficult to come by – especially when she was sitting face to face with several who were blaming her race for afflicting great harm on them.

That’s kind of the way it goes, isn’t it?  We’re horrified with what we see “out there” and are unwilling to point the finger back at ourselves.  We can feel good about forgiving those we believe have hurt us.  It gives us power.  But of what use is this power if we can’t likewise forgive those who hold us accountable for their pain?  When we say we forgive, what exactly does that mean?  That we get to feel superior?  Personally, I think forgiveness is meant to humble us.  Not make us feel superior to other human beings.

What I kept thinking the entire time I was reading Beatrice and Virgil, since it was about two stuffed animals who symbolize the Holocaust, is that the vast majority of us, despite our feelings of outrage against what happened to the Jews, are inadvertently creating unfathomable horrors against animals by our demand for cheap animal products.  In the name of efficiency, the Food Industry not only drives our demand, it does the unthinkable in order to meet it.  If most of us were to face the reality of how poultry, pork, fish and beef have become so incredibly inexpensive, I can’t help but think the demand would drop immediately.  Nobody would be OK with how horribly these animals are treated just so we can have cheap food at dinner.  The only reason we allow it is because we intentionally look the other way. And even if horrible things are happening to these animals, they don’t really matter, anyway.

Beatrice and Virgil are  are characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Virgil is an actual Roman Poet that Dante greatly admired and possibly thought of as a mentor.  Dante used Virgil as the guide through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Beatrice was Dante’s great unrequited love.  He revered her in the deepest sense but marriages were arranged in his society so he could not be with her.  She also died very young.  In Divine Comedy, Dante is reunited with her and it is Beatrice that shows him around Paradise.

Martel turns them into a donkey and a howler monkey.  He says he came up with the names because in Divine Comedy, Dante has lost his way morally.  He is confused, he is lost, he is falling into sin and he wants to come back to the straight way.  The only way to come back to the straight way is by traveling through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.   Just as Dante’s guides are Virgil and Beatrice, they are Henry’s (and our)  guides through the Holocaust .

One reviewer said she had to go take a shower after completing it because it made her feel dirty.  I totally understand what she is talking about.  I felt dirty after reading the book because it made humanity seem like some sort of horrible, tainted horror that can offer no way out.

Beatrice and Virgil were characters who had been created by a taxidermist.  They weren’t “real”.  And they were the only characters that were remotely likable.  I didn’t like Henry or his wife at all.  The taxidermist was at least fascinating, but I didn’t like him, either.   It’s been 25 years since I read Divine Comedy, but I vaguely recall Dante being somewhat likable.

I also didn’t particularly appreciate the ending, probably because I didn’t get it.  I guess it represented the Inferno.  But hadn’t “heaven” essentially been created by the creator of that Inferno?  Perhaps that was the significance of trying to create the flip book with one part merging into the other so that there is no obvious beginning or end?  No definitive line between fact and fiction?

Maybe if I read it a second time, it would make better sense?  But  I have no desire to put myself through that again!

God on Trial

The film God on Trial from PBS’ Masterpiece is fantastic. I’ve watched it several times now and have tried to capture the major arguments…

There is a legend that God was put on trial by a group of prisoners at Auschwitz. The people involved in the trial were from all walks of life: a criminal lawyer, a law professor, various professors of other disciplines, a glove maker, a rabbi thought to be a saint, many other rabbis, a physicist and other scientists, Torah scholars, college students, They are observant Jews, nominally observant, atheists, agnostics, etc. They run the gamut.

The prisoners decide to put God on trial after a “selection” has taken place. The prisoners know that many of them (the selected) will be killed the next day. They are trying to make sense of their excruciating suffering.

God is charged with breech of contract.  The Jews have an agreement with God and God broke the deal.  In the desert, Moses made a covenant with God.  He said the people would obey God’s law, and God said for this obedience, the Jews would be his own chosen people.  “No enemy shall be able to outwit him, no wicked man overcome him, I shall crush his enemies before him and strike his opponents dead.”

Those in defense of God say that the prisoners are being tested by God and that they must pass their test.  Before they blame God, the Jews should look at themselves.  Perhaps it isn’t God who has broken the covenant but the Jews.  “Because of our sins.” It is in the covenant that God reserves the right to punish the wicked.

But why did he choose to punish good, obedient people rather than Hitler?  In law, the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime.  What crime can justify the sort of punishment the prisoners are experiencing?  What punishment does the innocent child who is sent to the gas chamber deserve?

In defense:  The mistake is to make it personal.  God does not act against the individual.  His covenant is with the entirety of the Jewish people.

But what use is a God who is not personal?  A God like that is nothing more than weather.

In defense:  Put aside the idea of punishment.  Instead, think of God as a surgeon who has to remove the entire leg to get rid of the gangrene.  It isn’t personal, it is a purification.

But is this purification in the covenant?

In defense:  The first purification was the flood, the second the destruction of the temple by Nebucadnezar when the Jews were driven into exile in Babylon.  The Jews took their knowledge of the Torah and the one almighty God out into the country.  If they had stayed as they were, they would have been a tribe in the desert, nothing more.  It was painful, but it was also beautiful.  What if some great good is to come of what the Holocaust prisoners are suffering?  Perhaps there is a reason why a good person is taken and not an evil man. The good person is a sacrifice.  A holocaust.  The suffering is therefore meaningful.  Man’s sacrifice is the most beautiful.  The suffering of the prisoners at Auschwitz is related to the story of Masada – rather than be taken as slaves, some of the best Jewish warriors decided they would rather be killed.  These Jews fled to Masada where the Romans surrounded them.  10 men were selected to kill the other men and one man to kill the last 10. After the 10 were killed, the last man killed himself.  Two Jewish women hid from the slaughter to tell the story.  The goal of the Romans was to take the Torah away from the Jews so they could be Romanized.  Today, the Jews and the Torah are still here, but the Romans are dust.  The conclusion:  Suffering is a privilege if it is part of God’s plan.  Those suffering are fortunate to be purifying the people through their pain.  People will die, the war will end.  But the Torah will live.

So suffering is God’s way?  Hitler is working for God?  Is that right?

It’s possible.  Going back to the gangrene metaphor.  You can hate the knife, but love the surgeon.

But if Hitler is doing God’s work, then logic says that to stand in Hitler’s way is to stand in God’s way. Is it wrong to take arms against Hitler?  Is that not insane?

In defense:  The fellow prisoner who has been put in Auschwitz because he is a criminal and has been placed in charge of keeping the other prisoners in line says he doesn’t know whether he will be killed or not.  But his sole criteria is to stay alive as long as he cans which means he has to please the people who can kill him.  He agrees that he is doing God’s work because if “the bastard” (the God of Abraham) gave a damn about the Jews, he wouldn’t have given the Jews to him.  He has no problem allowing others to die if it means a few more days for him.

So in the end, if the only people who survive are people like this criminal in command (the vicious, the cunning, the shameless, the pitiless), what kind of Israel would want these as their people?  And if God can do all things, why can’t he purify his people without gassing them. If God is all powerful, then how can he be just?  Either he is all-powerful, or he is just.  He can’t be both.

In defense:  The answer is free will.  There is always a choice.

Free will?  What about the Jewish father who is forced to choose which child will be killed or which one will get to live?  The father doesn’t want free will.  He wants his sons.  Where was his will when he was forced to choose between the lives of his children?  What choice did he have?  The officer who forced the choice had free will.  Not the Jewish father.

In defense:  The war will end.  Hitler will die.  The people and the Torah will survive.  And the father would like to believe it is somehow beautiful.  Even though the father doesn’t understand him, he knows God is here.  Maybe God is being gassed,  Maybe God is suffering with them?

But who needs a God that suffers?  They need a God who sends the enemy of death.

Defense:  Maybe God is not all powerful.  Maybe God needs us to be all powerful.  You can ask,

“where does all the evil come from”, but where does all the goodness come from? Job 38:12.  “Have you ever given orders to the morning? Or told dawn it’s place that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?”

But God is guilty because in the covenant, he assures the survival of the people, but the survival of the people is no longer certain.  The Physicist among them tells them there are 100 thousand-million stars in our galaxy alone.  And God’s whole attention is focused on one little planet?  And not just on one little planet, but just on the Jews?  This God signed a contract just with the Jews?  And not all of the Jews, because certain Jews don’t count.  If he loved the Jews so much, why did he make so much besides the Jews?  The Jews come along and claim there is only one God.  They create a society in which all the powers are created in the hands of one king.  It’s an efficient society and it helps them to believe God loves them more than anyone else.  But then the Christians come along with a better idea.  Yes, there is only one God, but he loves everyone, not just the Jews.  People convert.  They conquer everyone.  One cult, one king.  It’s all about power and struggle.  Now Hitler has a better idea.  There is one God, and it is Hitler.

Defense:  Where does it get you to deny God?  What do you gain by denying God?  Those who claim they see a truth that those who believe in God do not see, what does it get them?  They end up in the same place as everyone else.  They are no better.   Even if God doesn’t exist, don’t let the Nazi’s take away your God.  He’s your God,  It’s your covenant.  Don’t let them take that away from you.

But be realistic.  The punishment that God laid upon the innocent – the children of Egyptian slaves during the plague, etc. were every bit as gruesome as what the Jews are suffering now.  God has never been good.  He’s only been on our side.  Why did he flood the earth?  What could human beings have done that was worthy of such a horrible punishment.  On the belts of the Nazi’s is written, “God is with us.”  So whose side is God on?  God has made a new covenant with someone else.

Where do you go with this?

At the end of the trial, God is found guilty.  The response?  Prayer.

And yet, good “exists”.  A father sacrifices himself for the life of his grown son and when his grown son realizes it, tries to sacrifice his life for that of his father’s.  A mother starves in order to feed her child.  We experience good, whether God exists or not.  And if he does exist, then good “exists” whether God is good or not.

So was their prayer answered?  The Jews are still here.  The Torah is still here.

Children of Paradise (1946)

I loved, loved, LOVED Children of Paradise! It’s a very long movie, over 3 hours, and is full of well-developed characters so its difficult to say the film is about one person in particular.  It centers on the prostitute (is she a prostitute?), Garance, and the men who love her: Baptiste (the mime), Frédérick Lemaître (the actor), Pierre François Lacenaire (the criminal), and Édouard de Montray (the aristocrat). The film is set in the 1800s and the men are based on actual people from the 1800s.  (Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas both wrote plays for Frédérick Lemaître.)

An informative insert came with the DVD. It says that Children of Paradise endured more disruptions than just about any other film thanks to the hazards of WWII, the Nazi occupation of France, and budget woes. Shooting began in August of 1943 and was not completed until January of 1945.

With the exception of Garance (who is introduced to us at the beginning of the film as “Truth”), the characters in the film all hide behind masks. Garance exemplifies occupied France because she is most interested in the simple things in life and refuses to compromise her liberty despite the demands of her suiters. The aristocrat, who thinks money and opulence can buy anything, represents the Nazi regime. The mime and the actor represent art, which touches people at a profound level.  Both are extremely generous.  They are “every man but no man.”  The criminal undermines the established order.

Definitely a movie I’d like to see again!

Inheritance (2006)

My husband has ordered new television service so I’ve been trying to make my way through all of the DVR’d stuff before we have to turn in the box. Today, my daughter and I watched a film called Inheritance from POV.

Remember Schindler’s List and that horrible, cold blooded monster, Aman Goeth played by Joseph Fiennes? 

Now… Imagine growing up believing that your father was a wonderful man who died fighting for his country, but when you are eleven, you learn your father was hung for war crimes. And when you are much older, you watch Joseph Fiennes play your father on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.  Could you imagine?

That’s what Inheritance is about, inheriting the sins of the father (and mother). Monika is the daughter of Aman Goeth and Helen was Aman Goeth’s Jewish slave in the 1940s.  Monika decides she has to meet Helen, who now lives in America. Even though Monika was innocent of her father’s crimes, she carries the guilt and it is almost unbearable for her to meet Helen because of it.

They meet in Poland at the remains of the concentration camp that had been run by Goeth, Monika’s father. What’s amazing is how compassionate Helen is able to be toward Monika. Monika is blown away by this, too, because she can’t understand how people differentiate the child from the parent even though the child is innocent. But Helen understands her pain and claims Goeth was a horrible selfish man for having had a child. She also respects Monika’s desire to know what it was like for her to live as her father’s slave. These two women exhibit amazing human compassion and courage.  I was sobbing throughout the film!   Both of them have suffered terribly through Aman Goeth’s cruelty in very different ways.

James Moll said he got the idea for the film because he had contacted Monika Hertwig to ask permission to use photographs of her father in a documentary they were producing for the 10th-anniversary of Schindler’s List.  Moll said, “She was charming. Easy to talk to. Then suddenly, Monika surprised me with a statement completely off the subject. She said, ‘I am not my father.’ That statement became the genesis of Inheritance.”

Heimat (1984)

I have been watching Heimat for almost 6 weeks now and have finished at last. I guess it was made for television but it was also shown in cinemas. I can’t quite figure how that would have worked because the film, from start to finish, is 15 hours, 40 minutes and 10 seconds! That’s a long movie. In the 1980s, it was considered the longest film ever made.

Edgar Reitz said he had hit a low point in his life and career and was snowed in on an island with nothing to do but watch “Holocaust" which was an American made film on what had happened in Germany. He was greatly troubled by the American perspective so started taking notes about how he would want to present what happened to Germany from the German perspective.

There is actually very little in the film about the Holocaust. Reitz centers the film around a small village in the Hunsruck (which is where he grew up). The town is fictitious as are the people, but they are based on his experiences and memories.

There isn’t a good translation for Heimat in English. It means homeland, but the deeper meaning has melancholic overtones of not being able to go home again – wanting to go back to that place where you were happy in childhood and that being an impossibility. Heimat refers to the drama of the fact that we can never return to where it is we have been.

It’s a fascinating saga that centers on Maria who is born in 1900 and dies in the 1980s. The film focuses on different people in every episode (there are 11 in all), but only she and the narrator (who is viewed as the village simpleton) are the in the film the entire way through. The film begins with the village boys returning home from WWI and how this has altered their relationship to the village. It continues with technology becoming more and more sophisticated, showing what building a highway through Germany does to village life, all the way to the 1980s when big business is beginning to take over and many of the locals are “selling out” their heritage.

I’m not sure I had ever made these connections before, although I know they’d be different in the U.S. But I could kind of relate because my grandmother was born right at the turn of the century – she’d be a few years older than Maria. And I can remember how hard she worked – her way of life was so foreign to anything I was used to. (My mother has stories of she and her brother being in charge of churning butter.) A lot of my homeschooling friends may be living something similar – building their own homes, baking their own bread, canning their own food, raising egg laying chickens, educating their own children, I think there is a definite yearning to go back to something more simple even though it is much harder work.

Reitz said he wanted to stick to “hard facts” through fiction and to try not to let his intellectualism get in the way. I think for the most part, he probably succeeded. There were so many different characters represented and we were allowed to see through the perspective of each and to see how these perspectives sometimes clashed with one another.

I have watched film after film on the Holocaust because my husband’s father is a German Jew who left Hamburg, Germany just as the horrible Nuremberg Laws were taking affect. He says he remembers the Jewish stores being defaced but he left before things got too bad. His parents thankfully had the forsight to send him to relatives in the U.S. He was only 11 years old and he sailed here by himself. I can barely imagine it.

It was interesting to watch something about Germany that wasn’t focused exclusively on the plight of the Jews. The issue came up on several occasions, of course. The village had been the same for 100s of years until the turn of the century and there is definitely a narrow-mindedness among villagers. The first episode shows a “gypsy” being run out of town. The problems the Jews face comes up in several instances, but is never the focal point. The focal point is this little town of Schabbach and the changes it faces from 1919-1982. This film was Edgar Reitz’s attempt to understand his past.

The Soul of Christianity – Thoughts on Jesus

From David Bentley: “The message of Jesus is grounded in a metaphysics of peace, not the metaphysics of violence that Nietzsche mistook it for. The truth of that metaphysics cannot be proved, and it can be urged only by the beauty of the communal life of those who commit themselves to it.”

I’ve never studied Nietzsche but will have to do so one of these days because everyone who refutes religion and labels it nihilistic quotes Nietzsche. What I find interesting is that Hitler, who was most definitely a nihilist, based much of his idealism upon Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” yet thought Christianity was idiotic. So clearly, Nietzsche gets interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps he also misunderstood the message of Jesus? I have a hard time thinking how his message would have been interpreted as a “metaphysics of violence”. 

Smith writes:

That Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is the most important fact for understanding his historical career. His immediate predecessor in this tradition was John the Baptist, and it is a testament to John’s spiritual power that it was his baptismal initiation of Jesus that opened Jesus’s “third” or spiritual eye, through which he saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove. Having descended on him, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, where, during forty days of prayer and fasting he consolidated the Spirit that had entered him and decisively faced down Satan’s temptations to use his newly acquired power for his own personal ends….What made him outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.”

I found this interesting because I’ve been reading The Brothers Karamazov and just got through "The Grand Inquisitor". The Grand Inquisitor blames Jesus for the hardship of man telling him, for instance, that if he had just accepted the bread that Satan offered him, he would have made life much easier for mankind because it would have made it OK for individuals to be subject to institutions which could feed them. That true freedom, according to the Grand Inquisitor, exists in not having to worry about being hungry. But what Jesus’ says is the opposite. If we obey our hunger, it can enslave us. And he says this not just for the sake of individual freedom, but for all of humanity.

Smith continues:

…Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he remained in the world. Unlike the advocates of armed rebellion, he extolled peacemaking and urged that even enemies be loved. It was the Pharisees that Jesus stood closest to, for the differences between them was one of emphasis only. The Pharisees stressed Yahweh’s holiness while Jesus stressed Yahweh’s compassion, but the Pharisees would have been the first to insist that Yahweh was also compassionate, and Jesus that Yahweh was holy. On the surface the difference appears to be small, but it proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate…The mission of Jesus and his followers had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which Revelation was encased and release that Revelation to a ready and waiting world. Putting it this way does not cancel the need for a continuing Jewish presence. Until the world is redeemed, there will always be a need for the witness of a nation of priests.

In other words, what Jesus wanted/offered was unique among his fellow man during the time in which he lived.

     Everything the New Testament quotes him as saying can be spoken in two hours. Yet those sayings may be the most repeated in the whole of history. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, to do them.” “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

     My teachings are true, he said in effect, not because they come from me, or even from God through me, but because (against all conventional odds) in your deepest selves you know that they are true.

He’s not demanding people to follow him. He is making an offering.

     If the infinity of God’s love pierces to the core of a being, only one response is possible – unobstructed gratitude for the wonders of God’s grace.

     Jesus wiped away all smudges of ego to attune his will perfectly to God’s will. His love for his Father was so complete that no love remained for him to squander on himself. Thus emptied of self, what remained was a vacuum to be filled by God.

I recently read in Free and Responsible Search that the idea we Westerners have of emptiness as a vacuum is sort of problematic because it resembles a blob with a vacuum inside. It is better to think in terms of the space that is inside of us is a misconception. But when I think vacuum, I don’t think blob. I think of something actively occurring within me. At the same time, any idea that there is literally a “within” or an “inside” to be filled is a misconception.

    Among the many possible meanings the word “God” carries, none is more important than “that to which one should give oneself without reservation.” In saying that Jesus was God, one of the things the church was saying was that his life provides the perfect model for that self-giving – in other words, the perfect model for the way human beings should order their lives.”

     Christ was the bridge that joined humanity to God. Bishop Irenaeus: “God became man that man might become God.”

What a beautiful understanding of Christ! (Bishop Irenaeus lived in the late 2nd century, early 3rd century. The understanding of Christ within the traditional church is definitely different than how that understanding has evolved today.)