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Tuesday 18 December 2018

RBG, Documentary Film, USA (2018), written and directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, 9* out of 10

RBG, the documentary, has been an unexpected box-office hit among young people in America and it deserves a wide audience beyond.  The portrait and life story of a highly intelligent woman fighting with her outstanding talent and well thought out strategy for a worthy cause: women’s rights. Don't miss getting to know Justice Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Imagine God looking down on the United States of America that has given rise to Donald Trump and everything that implies – and she is not best pleased. If you were to advise, who would you pick to help people reinterpret their foundational texts and lay down the law? 

Well, how about a 155cm tall fragile yet austere looking Jewish lady in her eighties whom her grandchildren affectionately call by the Yiddish “boobbah” (grandma)? Yes, God has a sense of humour as well as a penchant for being effective. RBG are the initials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America appointed to this position by President Bill Clinton in 1993, only the second female justice of four ever to be confirmed to the court. 

And RBG is the title of a hagiographic documentary on the life and times of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. At 85 years of age, the woman referred to as “this witch, this evildoer, this monster” and as a “liberal super-hero” prepares herself for a work-day like Rocky Balboa prepared himself for his bout with Apollo Creed in Rocky 1.

RBG tells the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life from its beginnings to the present day based on extensive interviews with the lady herself and admiring fans and adversaries and audio archive footage of her appearances as a lawyer arguing cases in front of the then Supreme Court to claim for several women (and a man) the equal protection of their rights under the law that the US Constitution supposedly grants to everyone. In one of her court appearances, she memorably quotes the 19th century abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimké: “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of my brethren is that they take their feet off our necks”.

What emerges is the portrait of a highly intelligent woman fighting for women’s rights with great talent and a brilliant feel for strategy. In a quiet, unassuming way, she exudes seriousness, intelligence and the ability to listen and convince with a quiet voice and powerful arguments. She strikes up unlikely, yet genuine, deep friendships on her way, such as the one with ultra-conservative Justice John Scalia, a colleague and determined adversary on the court. Being moderate in tone and clear in argument at the beginning of her career on the Supreme Court, the film shows how she has become ever more outspoken. Remaining highly respected by her colleagues she writes trenchantly argued dissenting minority opinions as recent Republican Presidents' appointments to the court have changed its balance towards the conservative right. 

Most recently, she has ever less reluctantly become an unlikely pop icon of the young generation of social media savvy women who celebrate her in Tumbler blogs like “The Notorious RBG”, a reference to Brooklyn rap artist The Notorious BIG, and a regularly parodied character on the widely-watched Saturday Night Live television comedy show.

RBG shows all this while making no secret of the admiration and affection the film-makers have for their subject. But then Ruth Bader Ginsburg is clearly a highly intelligent woman with an outstanding talent for the law and an enormous amount of civil courage, who has made a deep and important impact for the good of society in the USA.

RBG, the documentary, has been an unexpected box-office hit among young people in America and it deserves a wide audience beyond. There is nothing much special about this documentary other than its content and its subject, and these make for a highly interesting and surprisingly moving experience. Don’t miss it!

Friday 7 December 2018

First Reformed, Film USA 2018, written and directed by Paul Schrader, 8* out of 10

"First Reformed" is only slightly marred by a weak ending. Ethan Hawke in the role of a troubled priest in troubled times leads a strong ensemble of actors, but the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is the true stand-out in this thought-provoking drama.

New York State 2017. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the priest in a small picturesque village community church in upstate New York which was founded by Dutch Protestants in the 18th century and provided shelter to black slaves escaping with the help of the Underground Railway. Starved of funds and with a very small congregation, Toller’s church survives because it is part of Abundant Life a large modern evangelist congregation with its own broadcasting facilities. It also has a large modern church and community center and attracts young people and wealthy donors, among them Mr. Balq (Michael Gaston) the founder and CEO of the major local industrial company whose donations ensure the upkeep of Toller’s small church. 

Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles) who heads Abundant Life has helped Toller obtain his post so that he can free himself from the demons of a difficult past which haunt him. The small congregation and the occasional tourist group looking for a guided tour of the historic church are not very demanding, but the upcoming Jubilee celebrations for his little church are an unwelcome source of limelight and stress for the troubled priest.

One day after services one of Toller’s congregants the young pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him for advice and guidance for herself and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael has been away in Canada where he has become part of a radical environmental activist group. He has come to believe that the future for humanity is bleak and hopeless due to capitalisms nefarious impact on the environment and wants Mary to abort. At Mary’s urging, Toller reluctantly agrees to speak to Michael. But with his own troubles, Toller is quite vulnerable to pessimism, particularly when it is not unfounded. As the pressure slowly mounts events take a dramatic turn.

First Reformed is an understated drama that slowly builds up suspense. The issues raised in tense conversations are big issues of our time.  It is a credit to the writing that they are not dealt with in a preachy way, but serve as triggers to moral dilemmas that cause inner turmoil and desperate actions by some of the protagonists. Apart from the decidedly lackluster (non-)ending, this is a good story well told. The direction and the ensemble acting performances are all strong. What makes First Reformed stand out, however, is the cinematography by Alexander Dynan. The almost sepia tones of some of the landscape scenes and the static wide-angle view with people moving through the picture are very well matched to the pace and feel of the story. 

Is there is any damaging development whose future impact we feel confident in predicting that justifies us resorting to violence against people who are maliciously or willfully blind? This is not about using violent self-defense against imminent mortal danger as authorized by the law, but violence against a longer-term threat. There is apparently something deceptively and disturbingly attractive in having a cause which authorizes an inner drive to give way to righteous indignation leading to the feeling of justification for “righteous violence”. Given mankind’s evolutionary path violence is always a temptation and violence authorized by a strongly held belief, whether religious or secular, is apparently hard to resist. 

First Reformed is a movie that makes one think, a visually appealing, thought-provoking and suspenseful drama.

Monday 5 November 2018

Disgraced (Geächtet), by Ayad Akhtar directed by Tina Lanik, Burgtheater Vienna, (in German translation from the American Original), 7* out of 10

Producing "Disgraced" in a German version is challenging regarding casting and linguistic characteristics, as the play's plot centers around place, time and the ethnic identities of its protagonists. The straightforward Burgtheater production suffers somewhat from this and from imperfect acoustics. Nevertheless, the ensemble acting was competent throughout and "Geächtet" can be recommended to native German-speaking theatergoers who feel uncomfortable with watching a straight play in English. 

Manhattan 2011. Amir Kapoor (Fabian Krüger) American born with roots in the Indo/Pakistani subcontinent is a high earning and successful senior business lawyer on partner track in a New York law firm with exclusively Jewish name partners. Brought up in a strict version of Sunni Islam and a heavy dose of Jew-hatred by his mother, he has decided to leave Islam and change his original family name of Abdullah (Muslim) to Kapoor (which can be Hindu or even Sephardic Jewish). Amir is married to the WASP artist Emily who draws her artistic inspiration from the medievally enlightened Islamic sources in Spain and North Africa. Amir’s female black work colleague Jory (Isabelle Redfern) is married to liberal Midwest born Jewish gallery owner Isaac (Nicholas Ofczarek). Emily hopes that in his next exhibition, Isaac will include some of her latest works. As the action evolves, Amir will increasingly be confronted with issues in his professional and private life against a background of the post-9/11 identity politics in America. Amir’s cultural adaptations will be put to a severe stress test as some bad weeks at work and at home culminate in a disastrous small dinner party in whose course conversation about religion and politics followed by revelations concerning Amir’s professional and private lives have dramatic consequences. 

In the tradition of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, and Yasmina Reza’s “The Gods of Carnage” (Les Dieux du Carnage), Ayad Akhtar’s multi-award-winning drama poses the question of whether the statement “you can take the boy out of Pakistan, but you cannot take Pakistan out of the boy” was true in post 9/11 liberal wealthy New York society under President Obama. The playwright answers this question by holding a mirror to the smug, self-satisfied liberal America which has built a veneer of identity-politics-based tolerance. Is it a faux-tolerance which covers up suspicion and resentment towards Middle Easterners bubbling underneath? The American 9/11 post-traumatic stress syndrome is (still) very much at work here. Amir’s defensive armour which he has constructed to adapt to the demands made upon a successful Manhattan business lawyer on the partner track has been tested to the limit by 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan. It is cruelly sliced and diced by his professional colleagues, private acquaintances and nearest family. Stripped down to his core identity he reacts strongly and the situation escalates.

Disgraced is a rather dark and pessimistic about the presumed melting pot that New York is often seen to be and the high-handed, high-earning highly educated Obama-Clinton voters who inhabit it. In the process, it demonstrates the limits of political correctness. 

In the Burgtheater the set and the direction (Tina Lanik) are uncomplicated. The acoustics are somewhat challenging in that parts of the conversation on the stage is at times barely audible when it comes from towards the back of the stage or when an actor is facing away from the audience. The acting is competent. Nicholas Ofczaerek who has the most thankful role of the double-dealing gallery owner Isaac makes the most of it.

The translation of the play from American English into German by Barbara Christ is good, except perhaps the title: the English "disgraced" is translated as the German word for "ostracised", “geächtet”. 

Although a native German speaker, I found watching a quintessentially New York play quite difficult to follow and get into. I believe, this is mainly due to the ethnic identities of the characters being central to the plot: it took me a while to figure out that the main character was supposed to be of parents who came to the United States from the Indian subcontinent. At least he had dark hair; his supposedly Pakistani nephew looked altogether white and blond; I even initially missed that Jory was black, but that was me – the role is cast with a black (or mixed-race) actress. 

For me, therefore, the play had an effect not unlike watching an American movie in a dubbed version – somehow things don’t quite fit together and one is not quite captured by the action on stage. This is not something that happens with all translated plays. Yasmina Reza’s conversation-plays, for instance, work nearly as well in the translations as in the original (probably because place and ethnic identity are not key in her plots).

Therefore, I would say if you are a native German speaker who does not feel comfortable seeing straight plays in English “Geächtet” at the Burgtheater is a worthwhile play to go and see. If you feel comfortable with watching a play in the English original, you may want to watch it in the English original if the opportunity presents itself. In the light of the changeover from Obama to Trump and all this entails for liberal attitudes and political correctness the play may seem a bit dated already. In my view, Mohsin Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” remains an unmatched treatment of the subject.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

The Inheritance, play by Mathew Lopez, directed by Stephen Daldry, Noël Coward Theatre, London, 9* out of 10

Inspired by the English novelist E. M. Forster “Howards End”, Matthew Lopez' long but never dull play (2 times four hours) is a beautifully written piece full of quiet drama and subtle humour with engaging characters and plots; excellent performances by Kyle Soller, John Benjamin Hickey and a brilliant understated one by Paul Hilton.  Highly recommended for all who like the theatre.

New York City 2016. Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) lives with his boyfriend Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap) in the rent-protected apartment in New York which the family has inhabited since Eric’s grandmother moved in as a young woman and which Eric loves as a part of him. A cloud hangs over his future as the owners of the apartment have started proceedings to bring the tenancy under which he stays there to an end. Eric, modest and self-effacing, tries to live life with Toby and a group of friends all gay men, trying not to think about the changes that losing his beloved home will bring for him and his relationship with Toby. Toby who is outwardly fun, confident prone to outrageous behaviour likes to live day to day, enjoys the good life and contrary to the reliable and thoughtful Eric avoids introspection, thinking about his past and fears longer-term commitment. Eric and Toby also have two older friends a married gay couple, Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey) and his husband Walter. Henry is a real estate billionaire devoted to his business interest Walter his companion devoted to supporting him. Eric has visited Henry and Walter at the lovely country House in upstate New York not far from New York City.  When Henry and Walter move into an apartment in the same block as Eric and Henry is on a long business trip, Walter and Eric meet several times and develop a friendship based on mutual affection. Walter tells Eric about the support he gave to gay friends and strangers during the height of the deadliness of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s in his beloved house and garden in the countryside and the effect this had on his relationship with Henry. Eric tells Walter about his dream about a stable marriage and about his fears of losing his home. The short but intense period Eric and Walter and their very open communication about the important things in will in around about ways have far-reaching consequences. While they unfold, we follow several other plots concerning Eric, his boyfriend Toby who writes a play and their wannabe actor friend Adam (Samuel H. Levine) and others in their circle of gay young men-friends who are awaiting Hilary Clinton’s election as the first woman President of the United States with keen anticipation.

Inspired by the English novelist E. M. Forster “Howards End”, Matthew Lopez' long play (2 times four hours) is a beautifully written play full of quiet drama and subtle humour with engaging characters and plots as entertaining for straight men and women as for gay men who with very few exceptions make up all characters. For the audience, it feels like binge-watching an amazon prime or Netflix series where one cannot stop watching as one wants to know what happens to all the characters who have walked into one’s life. Apart from E. M. Forster whose spirit has a palpable presence I was reminded of the writing of Armistead Maupin in his “Tales of the City”. The 2 times 4 hours pass rather quickly as the writing, direction and beautiful ensemble acting, with excellent performances by Kyle Soller, John Benjamin Hickey and a brilliant understated one by Paul Hilton. And then there is Vanessa Redgrave with a poignant performance; she who played the character of Henry Wilcox’ wife Ruth in the 1992 Merchant Ivory film adaptation of “Howards End”.

Everything in the theatre starts with good storytelling and here the good story inspired by one of the great English writers of the 20th century E. M. Forster is beautifully extended adapted and written with rhythm, wit and feeling by a talented young playwright. Director and actors have excellent material to work with and they are doing an outstanding job. For anyone who likes straight plays (rather than musicals), this is one not only about being a gay man in New York but also about being a human being of any gender anytime anywhere. Highly recommended for theatregoers and E. M. Forster fans, The Inheritance Parts 1 and 2 having transferred from a successful run at the Young Vic are now booking in London’s Noël Coward Theatre until 19 January 2019.

Matthew Lopez - playwright


Wednesday 24 October 2018

The Waldheim Waltz, Documentary Film, Austria (2018), written and directed by Ruth Beckermann, 9* out of 10

Ruth Beckermann’s documentary The Waldheim Waltz consisting entirely of archive material, including her own first experiences with using a camera to document political events, is a skilful and timely piece of modern political history. With populism rising, it is also painfully relevant. The Waldheim Waltz has deservedly won several awards including the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This is highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in modern politics. 

When the artist, writer, filmmaker and public intellectual Ruth Beckermann found a videotape copy of her first experiments with documenting events she was involved in on film and viewed the material, the idea slowly matured to make it the basis of a documentary on the events marking the Austrian presidential election of 1986 which put Austria in the international spotlight - and not in a complimentary way. It was in the run-up to that election that Austria found itself under unwelcome scrutiny from an American human rights NGO, the World Jewish Congress.

A very convenient foundational lie underlying the post-World-War- II re-birth was that in March 1938 Austria and its citizens had been the first victim of Nazi-German aggression. This lie was comforted by the all powers who were allied against Nazi-Germany and guaranteed the country's existence in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. The catholic-fascist Austrian republic of 1938 had indeed been eliminated and annexed by Hitler’s Germany, but the Austrian people were anything but victims in the process, if one excludes Jews, Roma, communists and a few other courageous political opponents, most of whom were not really ever accepted by the vast majority of their co-citizens as part of the "true" Austrian people. Nevertheless, modern Austria's foundational lie was so convenient to many inside as well as outside of Austria that the country's international image of Mozart, the Sound of Music, Sachertorte and idyllic skiing holidays could cover some very dark and nasty truths of many of its people's willing adherence to Nazi Germany.

And so it came that a tall thin Austrian diplomat and former foreign minister by the name of Kurt Waldheim was proposed as Secretary General of the United Nations by Bruno Kreisky, an Austrian chancellor with Jewish roots, who curried favour with the Austrian people by showing great tolerance towards Austrian politicians with a questionable record during World War II. Kurt Waldheim was appointed Secretary General of the United Nations held this office from 1972 to 1981.

In 1986 Waldheim became a candidate for the Austrian presidency for the Austrian People’s Party, a political party in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. that sees itself as based on Christian values. Waldheim’s campaign got off to a good start when a poster showed his aquiline facial features in front of a panorama of New York City, the twin towers still firmly standing to the left of his smiling portrait proclaiming the slogan: “The man whom the world trusts”.

But then the journalist Hubertus Czernin took the trouble to check on Waldheim’s official military records and found that they contained mention of voluntary memberships in unsavoury Nazi organisations, including a riding club that was part of the Nazi Sturm-Abteilung. A few years later Czernin, to whose memory the film is dedicated, would also play a role in the saga of the reluctant restitution by Austria of a famous painting, Gustav Klimt’s The Woman in Gold to its rightful Jewish owners in the United States, and is fictionally represented in the film of the same name, which dramatized the story and starred Helen Mirren.

Responding to Czernin’s findings was the beginning of the Waldheim Waltz, a dance of unbelievable claims, implausible denials, pretences of falsely righteous indignation, thinly veiled disdain for Jews who dared to be unrelenting in digging up evidence that kept contradicting Waldheim’s ridiculous explanations and forced him into a corner where he would have to choose: either to own up to the truth or continue to occupy the metaphorical dance floor in ever more frantic movements making room for himself with sharp elbows and metal capped dancing shoes.

Kurt Waldheim chose the latter and as his cold-eyed smile turned into a nervous smirk, Ruth Beckermann was there as part of a small group of mainly young intellectuals in Austria who were mostly on the left of the political spectrum and believed that uncovering and telling the truth was indispensable for the future of Austrian society. Despite this not going down well with the large majority of their compatriots who were whipped into an anti-Semitic hate-fest by Waldheim and his campaign managers, they persisted. 

Things really began to take off internationally when historians working with the Word Jewish Congress uncovered documents and a photograph that irrefutably placed Waldheim in the Balkans as the intelligence officer of the notorious General Alexander von Löhr who after the war was executed for war crimes against the civilian population in a brutal German campaign against Yugoslav partisans.

At that point, Waldheim “waltzed” frantically into the public television dominated studios to decry a calumnious campaign against him and the Austrian people no less by a small number of Jews in the United States directed by his Austrian opponents.

For a young Jew from Austria like me, who had left the country over ten years earlier for London because I could not see a professional future there without my Jewishness always being an issue, it was confirmation that my move had been right. I was looking on from my posting with Bank of America in San Francisco and London as the international reporting of the Waldheim Affair unfolded and I remember how very relieved and happy I felt about having left my country of birth.

For the few young Jews then living in Austria including Ruth Beckermann the political climate turned from uncomfortable to downright nasty.

With archive material filmed by her younger self and collected from many other sources, Beckermann chronicles a key episode in Austria’s history which is also a timely contribution to the study of populist strategies which have now gained a stronger and visible foothold worldwide. She lets the protagonists speak for themselves including some very unpleasant Austrian vox-pop 1986-style. She also helpfully provides context. There is the German Chancellor Kohl standing with Ronald Reagan by the graves of members of the SS; there is an interview with Waldheim as Secretary General with the French television, where he explains that as Secretary General of the United Nations he does not have armies but he has no one he is accountable to no President above him, no Parliament. He is the highest moral authority on earth. In the light of what transpires about his prodigious talent for being economical with the truth, this interview turns out to be the height of irony and cynicism.

Ruth Beckermann's voice as she reflects on her own role at the time seems to be tinged with monotonic sadness. Yet resistance was not entirely useless: It arguably prevented a first-round win for Waldheim by a whisker, forcing him to waltz ever more frantically against his will. And the convenient lie to the world that Austrians were the first victims of Nazi-Germany became untenable. Although Austrian elected him he was now the man whom the world distrusts and did not receive a single invitation to a state visit during his tenure.

But time went by and a new populism became mainstream not only in Austria. In 2018 a coalition government under the 32-year-old Austrian People’s Party Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is arguably the most skilful and successful of right-leaning populist governments in the European Union and beyond. Kurz’ idealised young and determined face adorns Newsweek Magazines cover page in October 2018 with the ominous title “Austria Rising”. There will be more battles to fight and document for Ruth Beckermann and her friends.

It has also occurred to me that The Waldheim Waltz should be watched as a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy “Inglorious Basterds” as a kind of allegory with the Inglorious Basterds depicting the World Jewish Congress and SS Colonel Hans Landa providing a smoother more elegant version of Kurt Waldheim in his Wehrmacht years. The character of Hans Landa is brilliantly played in an Oscar-winning performance by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz – and here the title of Ruth Beckermann’s documentary, Waldheim’s Waltz takes a second equally resonant meaning.

Even without the Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds as a companion piece, Ruth Beckermann’s deservedly multi-award winning documentary is a brilliantly devised and compelling piece of recent political history of great relevance to current events. Don’t miss it.

Ruth Beckermann

Monday 15 October 2018

Dust, written and performed by Milly Thomas, directed by Sara Joyce, Trafalgar Studios, London, 9* out of 10

A devastatingly honest and heartfelt play about depression and suicide which manages to be moving and funny too. Milly Thomas' writing and performance go under the skin; an unforgettable tour de force. 

Alice (Milly Thomas) a young woman suffering from depression looks at her own lifeless body on a slab in the mortuary. As her inner suffering has become unbearable she has tried to escape it by ending her life. But here she is now, a ghostly presence among those she has left behind: her grieving father, her devastated mother, her speechless brother, her comfort-seeking boyfriend, her practical busy-body of an aunt. Telling her story of the time leading up to her suicide and observing the time following it, she slips into all these characters with devastating honesty and a wicked sense of humour. She becomes increasingly aware of the big hole she has left behind in the lives of those she loved and who loved her and sees herself and her own life in a new light. But once an attempt at suicide succeeds there is no way back.

Milly Thomas performs her own play in the Trafalgar Studios. Her writing is true, gripping from beginning to end and at times very funny. Her performance goes under the skin, an unforgettable tour de force. The intimate space of the small stage of Studio 3, direction (by Sara Joyce), mirror, lighting all contribute. But Thomas' facility as the narrator for inhabiting all the characters and switching seamlessly between them is outstanding.

The play has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, at the Soho Theatre in 2018 and now at Trafalgar Studios. It’s a reminder of the young talent in writing and performing which shines in the UK and for which the Edinburgh Fringe and the smaller London theatres with their eager audiences are an invaluable incentive and showcase.  

For those who have observed depression from close by or suffered from it themselves this one-woman play will be painful and poignant, yet it is also compelling and rewarding. No doubt, Milly Thomas knows what she is writing and speaking about here. "Dust" is also a piece of activism in the best sense, as Thomas is working with the Samaritans, an organisation dedicated to suicide- prevention. Every day and night the Samaritans save many valuable lives. Whenever they succeed,  they prevent the grief and lasting pain that one person’s suicide leaves behind in the heart of their family and friends.

Unfortunately, "Dust" has come to the end of its run at Trafalgar Studios, London. Those who have not seen it and would like to, will have to keep an eye out for a future run.

 Milly Thomas in "Dust"

Friday 28 September 2018

Prof. Timothy Snyder, 2018 Vienna Lecture at Vienna City Hall, Vienna Humanities Festival 2018, 9.5* out of 10

Timothy Snyder's 2018 Vienna Lecture and the following conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria were a thoughtful and thought-provoking delight. His book The Road to Unfreedom on which his lecture was based is an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important problem of our time. A great start to this weekend's 2018 Vienna Humanities Festival. 

The 2018 Vienna humanities festival takes the form of a series salons (for which 19th century Vienna was famous) bringing together leading figures from academia, the arts and culture. About half of the events are held in English.

The festival started last night with a 30-minute lecture by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Snyder is a meticulous researcher specialising in the 20th-century history of central Europe. But he is so much more:  a gifted writer, a brilliant speaker, and an inspiring educator. 

For him, history is not only there to explore and explain the past, but to provide a structure to understand it and analyse the present and the future. Despite spending many years of his research on arguably the darkest chapters of world history emanating from Europe and taking place in the heart of this continent, or perhaps because of it, Snyder is not a pessimist or fatalist. He believes in the power of agency, driven by a sense of individual human responsibility. We can and must distinguish between good and bad (or at least between better than bad and downright evil) based on the solid pursuit of facts and a fact-based pursuit of truth. Here Snyder is emphatic: facts exist, truth exists and all of us, but young people, in particular, deserve to be encouraged to pursue both from a normative perspective, i.e. taking a view, even if it might vary individually of what they consider good and bad.

In his latest book The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder speaks about two views of history that seem to have dominated the intellectual and political worldview after the fall of the iron curtain. The first is “inevitability” as exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. This view claims that there is no alternative to the route leading from where we were. to capitalism and liberal democracy. The only room for discussion is the extent to which the capitalist order needs mitigation and regulation. The view that it needs rather little of both, fuelled the crisis of 2008 and the political response of bailing out the banks. Snyder believes that there were other alternatives, but the inevitability view blocks us from considering them. Criticising this worldview is also what Snyder sees as his mild criticism of Obama and Hilary Clinton.

The other worldview is the “cyclical view” of history. This is the view that history is an ever-repeating cycle of intranational and international conflict and victimhood and cannot ever truly progress. Gains for all will always be temporary phenomena as sooner or later history will repeat itself as tragedy or farce, and we must not be fooled by it. This is the view propagated by the Putins and the Trumps of this world who gain and maintain power not by claiming to be able to improve their people’s lives but by explaining whose fault it is that those they govern are suffering. 

To do this, they make use of time honoured techniques such as the so-called  “active measures” which the Russian authoritarians employed already in the 19th century. Here the manipulator finds some disposition in the target and gets them to do something that is not in their interest. Our dispositions to be at least a little bit racist, misogynist and threatened by open displays of homosexuality are candidates for employing this technique.  And the internet and social media have given the potential effectiveness of active measures an enormous boost. 

Snyder identifies the Russian government as the main villain of the peace – perhaps a little too much. He says that fascism was based on “The One Big Lie” (i.e. everything is the fault of the Jews), while the politicians exercising power under the cyclical view of history today work by the propagation of the many medium-sized lies. At the same time, they discredit the belief that there is such a thing as the truth and encourage the view that everybody lies anyway. As the author Peter Pomerantsev has put it succinctly in the title of his excellent book on Putin’s Russia: “Nothing is true and everything is possible”. 

Snyder rejects both the inevitability view and the cyclic view of history. The future of human affairs cannot be predicted for certain. Here he joins Karl Popper’s theses as expressed in The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism.  Snyder emphatically believes in the power of agency by individuals and organisations to shape the future.  Ideas and actions based on an understanding of the structure of history which is accessible to us all are important to make the exercise of that agency beneficial. (Snyder in contrast the general accessibility of the study of history with the study of advanced physics which is not accessible to everybody.) He emphasises the importance of fact and the need to proceed on an understanding of what is good and what is bad, or at least what is a little bit better and a little bit worse and what is truly evil. Finally, the importance of fact-based high quality local investigative journalism is crucial to give such an effort a chance to succeed and allow liberal democracy to flourish.

Unlike some other academics, Snyder takes his role as an educator as seriously as his job as an historian. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes the world into which the Danish prince is thrown and says: “Time is out of joint”. These words contributed to Snyder feeling compelled to write The Road to Unfreedom (The similarity to the title to Viennese School economists Friedrich Hayek’s seminal Road to Serfdom may not be entirely coincidental, although Snyder comes from a very different school of thought than Hayek). Becoming a historian who - controversially for the members of his profession- looks at the present and the future through the lens of a thorough and structured analysis of the past. Snyder does so in a sharp-eyed yet moving and entertaining way. He may not be right in every aspect, but Snyder makes an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important debate of our time. 

Snyder’s lecture was followed by a conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria who probed his ideas carefully and critically bringing China India and other key world players into the debate and allowing Snyder to clarify some of the concept and ideas he raised in his lecture and his book. He did so with great clarity, modesty giving occasional glimpses of a fine sense of humour. The interview rounded up another memorable evening with one of the great historians, communicators, and educators of our time. Thoughtful, thought-provoking an entertaining.

Note: A number of error corrections and editorial changes to improve the readability of this text have been made several hours after it was first published.

Friday 21 September 2018

Weapon of Choice, Documentary Film Austria (2017), directed by Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger, 6.5* out of 10

Hampered in his investigation by potential and actual legal and political threats, film-makers Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger have still managed to create a thought-provoking documentary about Austria's high-impact contribution to Rap and Hip-Hop Culture. Whether it will also be allowed to provoke debate in Austrian mainstream media and society is an altogether different question.  

Surrounding the decaying Jewish cemetery of Deutsch-Wagram, a small town close to the Vienna city limits are the buildings containing the original workshop of an inventor who is behind Austria’s most powerful contribution to rap and hip-hop culture. 

His name is Gaston Glock. In 1981, without any previous experience in gun-design Mr. Glock invented a handgun with its steel barrel encased in a plastic-moulding, the Glock. His invention revolutionized the modern handgun. It also made Mr Glock a billionaire when his eponymous company and product conquered the US gun market in the 1990s. Its conquest began with the Glock becoming the weapon of choice for police forces throughout North America and continued with the Austrian gun reaching cult status among the members of inner-city gangs. As Glock rhymes with cock, and (sort of) with drop, cop, pop, shop and other useful everyday words in rap and hip-hop circles, Gaston Glock's second name became synonymous with “handgun” and mad its entry in hundreds of rap and hip-hop lyrics. 

Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger's documentary "Weapon of Choice" concentrates on three sociopolitical arenas in which the use of the Glock has become widespread: suppliers of guns and services to supposedly law-abiding US gun lovers, who emerge as rather friendly and eloquent people, Chicago gangs, whose ex-members emerge as rather honest people about the high they got from shooting their Glock to kill, and the (civil) war in Iraq, whose shady gun traders were offering Fritz Ofner a share of their profits, if he could use his Austrian passport and connections to get them to become Glock-company-approved gun-traders; or if he could at least bring them a few Glock's on a future trip to Iraq from Austria. Apparently he said no to both propositions. 

Ofner also interviews two former close business associates of the secretive and litigious inventor-businessman Gaston Glock. Both have spent significant periods in prison. One is the former CEO of Glock in the US. He chillingly explains how the first mass killing with a Glock in the eerily named town of Killeen, Texas turned out to be a major marketing plus for the company, that is now turning out more than 1.5 million guns a year in its Austrian factories, mainly for export world-wide. This export success ensures the philanthropist nonagenarian entrepreneur and inventor Gaston Glock and his company considerable protection and goodwill from Austrian politicians. The other interviewee and business associate of Glock, a jovial, money–laundering Falstaff-like figure from Luxembourg known as "Panama-Charley", is locked up in a Luxembourg prison for allegedly ordering the murder of Gaston Glock. This supposedly resulted in a failed attempt by a former French wrestling champion to kill Glock in a Luxembourg car park with an unusual “weapon of choice”, a plastic hammer for laying bathroom tiles. It does make one wonder whether there were no Glocks available in Luxemburg at the time.

Ofner and Hausberger's approach in their documentary is to let the viewer make up their own mind about the responsibility concerning of Glock the gun, Glock the company, Glock the man and the Austrian government who all benefit from the sales success of the gun. What responsibility, if any, do they have in misdeeds carried out with Glocks?  How should responsibility be allocated between incitement, shooter and gun? And what does that mean for those who produce, sell and facilitate the export of the gun into gangland and other warzones? And what about the good guys who defend themselves and law abiding citizens against violent crime, mass shootings and ideologically driven terrorism? Do they not need the best equipment to do their dangerous jobs?  

In their documentary Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger never explicitly ask these questions, let alone answer them. They want the viewer to do the thinking. Moreover, it's not too difficult to work out where the filmmakers tend to on these questions.

As Austrian citizens and residents making this film in Austria, Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger have shown considerable courage and determination. The threat of Gaston Glock’s long reach and heavy hand exerted via powerful lawyers and other means was hanging over him during the six years it took to complete the documentary. 

Perversely, the film can engender admiration for the Glock-gun and its inventor as much as disdain towards the role of this Austrian company in mass shootings, terrorist actions, and gang warfare. Ofner and Hausberger's attempt with this film to start a debate in Austria is courageous, but will most likely remain a flash in the pan.

For investigative journalists outside Austria, things are less fraught, apparently. Paul M. Barrett’s 2012 New York Times bestseller “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” remains relevant background reading on the Glock and its maker.

Unsurprisingly, the legal and other worries in the 6 years it took to make this film and its non-campaigning approach have taken a toll on the end-product. Ofner's film is less hard-hitting, inquisitive and informative as a documentary than many viewers would have wished for. Nevertheless, “Weapon of Choice” is thought- provoking. Moreover, it is a worthwhile contribution to transparency and debate around gun culture, profits from weapons sales and the political protection for the benefit of potentially controversial companies in the land of Mozartkugeln, Sachertorte and the Sound of Music.

A mainly young audience packed the large Filmcasino cinema in Vienna at its premiere here and stayed on to listen intently to the understated and modest Fritz Ofner making his case for launching and inner-Austrian debate with his film. Clearly, he has found out a lot more about the subject than he could show on screen. 

Fritz Ofner (right) being interviewed 
at the premiere of  "Weapon of Choice" 
in Vienna's Film Casino 

Thursday 16 August 2018

Tracking Edith, Documentary Film Austria 2017, written and directed by Peter Stefan Jungk, 9* out of 10, seen at JW3 Cinema in London

Combining cultural, social and political aspects of European history of the 20th century, Peter Stefan Jungk presents a beautifully crafted, meticulously researched and highly entertaining documentary about his aunt, the Viennese-born socialist photographer and devastatingly effective Soviet spy Edith Tudor-Hart.  

The subject of her great-nephew Peter Stefan Jungk’s documentary is Edith Tudor – Hart née Suschitzky (1908 -1977). Born in Vienna to a highly educated atheist and social democratic Jewish family, she became a kindergarten teacher trained personally by the educationalist Maria Montessori, then a talented photographer and one of the most devastatingly successful spies the Soviet Union ever had. 

With her Rolleiflex camera, she documented the lives of the working classes in interwar Austria, moved her domicile to the UK and trained her camera on the working classes of London and the Welsh Rhonda Valley. 

Edith’s turbulent emotional life included a marriage with the English surgeon John Tudor – Hart who left his family for Edith and, in turn, left Edith and her new-born son for the Spanish civil war. Later, when her son develops autism and is treated by the renowned child psychiatrist David Winnicott, she also has an affair with him. 

The big family secret Peter Stefan Jungk uncovers about his aunt is that she was one of the most effective spies the Soviet Union ever had. In Vienna, she had had a relationship with spy handler Arnold Deutsch. This was at the origin of the crucial role she would later play in the recruitment of the “Cambridge 5”, a group of 5 Cambridge University graduates, including Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean who were all part of the most devastatingly successful spy-network of the Cold War period at the highest echelons of British society.

Based on Jungk’s excellent book, The Dark Rooms of Edith Tudor – Hart, Tracking Edith is a beautifully researched and crafted documentary, combining cultural, social and political aspects of European history of the 20th century. Jungk’s interviews with relevant experts and family members are an object lesson of a quiet, subtle and sometimes humorous style that makes his interviewees comfortable. Three of the members of the Suschitzky family interviewed by Jungk are renowned cinematographers. Perhaps there is a cinematography-gene in the Suschitzky family which would explain the beautifully inventive cinematography that brings Edith’s photographs to life and includes the use of animation. All this contributes to making Tracking Edith a most interesting, thought-provoking and suspenseful documentary about this multi-talented, idealistic and practical woman. Edith Tudor -Hart combined strong political convictions, great artistic skills, a naïve enthusiasm for Stalin’s Soviet Union, a surprisingly modern attitude to sexual relationships and the ability to face the challenges of everyday life with a special talent for the practical aspects of espionage. 

It is not easy to do justice to such a multi-faceted life in a single documentary. Tracking Edith succeeds handsomely, is informative and entertaining and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Edith Tudor - Hart

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Licht (Mademoiselle Paradis), Film, Austria (2017), screenplay by Kathrin Resetarits directed by Barbara Albert, Jerusalem Film Festival, 9* out of 10

Based on true events, Mademoiselle Paradis is a beautifully observed psychological drama playing in 18th century Vienna, yet highly relevant for our time. Maria Dragus shines in the title role.

Vienna 1777. Maria Theresia Paradis (Maria Dragus) who was suddenly blinded as a young child has at the age of 18 obtained a stipend from Empress Maria Theresia of Austria due to her talent as a concert pianist. Her concerts are attended by Viennese society who love the spectacle of beautiful concerts being given by a blind girl. The young pianist’s parents Josef Anton (Lukas Miko) and Maria Rosalia (Katja Kolm) manage their daughter’s career. The Paradis family’s social position in Viennese society can only be maintained due to the dotage and stipend the young girl receives from the Empress. The controversial German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (Devid Striesow) who experiments with unusual therapies (magnetism, laying on of hands, talking therapies) is also in Vienna. He is married to Anna Maria von Posch (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg), a wealthy Viennese widow. Their house contains a sanatorium for people who have been given up or in fact ruined by the traditional medicine of the time. With his research and therapies, Mesmer seeks to gain acceptance in the scientific circles of Vienna, who are highly sceptical of his innovative ideas. When the parents of Mlle. Paradis bring her daughter to Mesmer and he manages to achieve some progress with restoring sight, he hopes that she will become his ticket to scientific recognition. As her sight improves the young girl begins to gain confidence and stands up to her parents and the relationship between her parents and Mesmer deteriorates. Moreover, as Maria Theresia’s sight appears to improve she begins to lose part of the virtuosity on the piano, on which the family depends.

Kathrin Resetarits has skilfully adapted the excellent novel Mesmerized (Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik) by Alissa Walser which is based on true events. Under Barbara Albert’s excellent direction Mademoiselle Paradis is a beautifully observed psychological drama that provides an insight into different strata of Viennese society, focusing on the vulnerable position of women, without ever straying from telling a suspenseful story full of socio-psychological drama. On the surface Mademoiselle Paradis looks like an historical costume drama and the costumes and photography evoking the Vienna between Baroque and Enlightenment are of a high order, the story of a talented person finding herself being pulled in all directions their entourage and their public is as relevant today as it was then. Screenplay, direction, cinematography and ensemble acting are at a consistently high level of achievement throughout and fit together beautifully and even at this high level, Maria Dragus performance as Maria Theresia Paradis stands out.

Made by talented women, to be enjoyed by both men, women and any other gender, Mademoiselle Paradis is an outstanding psychological thriller in an historical setting. Highly recommended. 


Friday 20 July 2018

You Only Die Twice (Der Mann der zweimal starb), Documentary Film Austria/Israel/Germany 2018, by Yaïr Lev and David Deri 9* out of 10

You Only Die Twice is two thrilling documentaries rolled into one. There is the story of the search for the past itself and how it leads to unexpected human encounters and connections. And there is the story it reveals of people's actions in the most extreme situations showing prejudice, discretion, courage and the strength of some to swim against the strongest currents. 

When Yaïr Lev’s mother, born and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel, hears that she has inherited a house in North London from a distant relative through who died without making a testament she is very happy because the money from its sale will come in very handy. She is the daughter of Ernst Beschinsky from Vienna who came to Israel (then the British Mandate of Palestine) in 1935. But then she hears that she may not be entitled to the inheritance, as another person called Ernst Beschinsky with the same birth details as her father seems to have lived and died in Austria. What starts as the attempt to secure his mother’s inheritance, turns into a detective story. After World War II, the second Ernst Beschinsky lived in the provincial Austrian town of Innsbruck in the Tyrol where over many years he was the president of its small Jewish community. Innsbruck was a hive of Catholic anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and of support for Hitler’s National Socialist Party before and during World War II. So, the question of who was the second Ernst Beschinsky and what motivated him to take on the identity of another person, a Jewish person to boot, becomes an explosive one for the Jewish community of Innsbruck. When a close connection to a Tyrolean family of committed Nazis, members of SA and SS, of the first hour comes to light everyone is starting to fear the worst.

Yaïr Lev and David Deri's thrilling documentary, which deservedly won the Audience Award and the Research Award at DocAviv 2018, tells two stories for the price of one. There is the story of what happened to the “Innsbruck” Ernst Beschinsky between 1935 and his death in 1987 and there is the story of the search by Yaïr Lev which brings him in contact with descendants of the family of committed Nazis to which the Innsbruck-Beschinsky was connected. Outwardly calm, Yaïr Lev, inwardly emotional Lev gets to find out about and meet Austrians of different generations and makes an inner journey that reveals the chaos and complication of war and the struggle of how to deal with knowing the facts about one’s people’s past. Lev’s thorough research shows that even extreme situations can be very complicated, and exceptional people confronted with the need to help others in questions of life and death can act with amazing courage, whatever their background. And true love and real friendship are sometimes found in unexpected places.

You Only Die Twice is an excellent documentary that holds the audience’s attention from beginning to end, a kind of road-movie thriller about a man's journey to discover and decode a turbulent past.

German speakers with access to Austrian IP-addresses can watch it here on against a small fee.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Il colore nascosto delle cose (Emma), Film Italy 2017, co-written and directed by Silvio Soldini, 7.0* out of 10

Il colore nascosto delle cose is a watchable romantic comedy with a little extra weight provided by Valeria Golina's moving performance in the role of the blind Emma. 

Teo (Adriano Giannini) is a successful copywriter in his forties. As he is quite happy with his disordered life, he does not want to commit to his girlfriend Greta (Anna Ferzetti) and give up the sexual trysts with his married mistress Stefania (Valentina Carnelutti). But when he meets the blind osteopath Emma (Valeria Golino), what starts out as an interesting challenge of just another sexual conquest gently becomes a loud wake-up call for Teo to change perspective and examine his life; but is he strong enough to take the consequences.

Il colore nascosto delle cose could easily be just another romantic comedy, with the advantage to English speaking viewers that it has the exotic charm of being Italian and unless one assiduously follows contemporary Italian cinema, the actors are new to us. But what makes this film a bit special is that wrapped in the comedy it deals with the drama of women trying to cope with blindness and visual handicap. It is in that part that the film is unusual and succeeds to be moving with drama and humour rather than pathos. The characters of Emma and her friends, the visually handicapped Patti (Arianna Scomegna) and the young recently blinded Nadia (Laura Adriani) are well written and acted. Valeria Golino as Emma stands out.

Il colore nascosto delle cose is a watchable comedy drama for those looking for light romantic comedy entertainment with a little emotional extra that keeps the tear ducts active.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Wagner, Hofmann, Loos – The Furniture Design of Viennese Modernity, Imperial Furniture Collection, Vienna, Austria 9.5* out of 10

This exhibition at the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna shows the protagonists as furniture and interior designers in the context of a network of intellectuals and business people who furthered their development by giving and getting them commissions.  Open until 28 October 2018, it is the most enjoyable and interesting exhibition I have seen so far this year on Vienna around 1900.  If you live in Vienna or plan to visit the Austrian capital, don’t miss it.

This year, many museums in Vienna are putting on special exhibitions in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and the Habsburg Empire and the death of several important representatives of “Viennese Modernity”. These include painters like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and architects/designers like Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser. 

Internationally, the painters are very well known. The architects and designers who developed a Viennese Style contemporary with Art Nouveau and the English Arts and Crafts Movement, less so. Yet their aesthetic has remained influential well into our time.

An excellent exhibition at Vienna’s Imperial Furniture Collection, which concentrates on three architects of Viennese Modernity, Otto Wagner, Josef Hofmann and Adolf Loos now allows visitors to Vienna to get to know them and their furniture and interior designs in the context of Viennese cultural intellectual and fashion life of the time.

The exhibition shows stunning examples of furniture and interior design by the three protagonists, presents the people who commissioned them to design their apartments and tells the stories of companies such as Thonet, who turned beautiful designs into reality. It shows the networks of Viennese salons and intellectuals in which Wagner, Hofmann and Loos moved and thanks to which they obtained many of their most important commissions. These include such interesting characters as the Austrian writer and cultural critic Karl Kraus, Bertha Zuckerkandl a journalist who kept an influential literary salon and Eugenie “Genia” Schwarzwald, a writer and pioneer of education for women in Austria. A vivid picture of a striving future-oriented rather optimistic Vienna emerges, in which mainly Jewish intellectuals and business people are involved in commissioning work from the non-Jewish Wagner, Hofmann and Loos. Sadly a few years later, many of their clients will perish in the Holocaust, others manage to flee Vienna in time to escape this fate and go into exile.

Apart from wonderful examples of interiors and pieces of furniture, supplemented by contemporary photographs, the panels are full of stories and quotes that enlighten, entertain and create a vivid context for the exhibited pieces and show cooperation and competition among the protagonists on a very human level. All the panels are in German and English. The quality of the translation is excellent.

This exhibition is the most enjoyable interesting I have seen this year on Vienna around 1900. It is a pity, that the well-researched and beautifully written accompanying catalogue is only available in German.

The exhibition at the Imperial Furniture Collection in Vienna is open until 28 October 2018. If you live in Vienna or plan to visit the Austrian capital before that date, don’t miss it.

Unfortunately, like the accompanying catalogue, the website of the exhibition is only in German but all the panels in the exhibition are in English as well as German.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Tully, Film 2018, written by Diablo Cody directed by Jason Reitman 8.5* out of 10

"Tully" succeeds as a personal drama with funny moments that puts the spotlight on the experience of a woman in an educated middle-class household in the US trying to raise kids and manage a family. Charlize Theron's understated performance as Marlo,  a wife and mother on the edge of a nervous breakdown, trying to hold it together is outstanding.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) and her husband Drew (Ron Livingstone) live in the suburbs near New York City. They are in their late 30s and have two young children Emmy (Maddie Dixon –Poirier) and Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who has mild behavioural problems, and a third child is on the way. Like many middle-class families Marlo and Drew are just about managing financially. Drew is absorbed in his work project, while Marlo is struggling with her pregnancy and running the household. When Marlo’s financially successful brother Craig (Mark Duplass) offers to pay for a “night-nanny” to help Marlo through the first weeks of the baby’s arrival, she first says no, but later changes her mind. Tully (McKenzie Davies), the young attractive night-nanny arrives and not only takes care the new baby but also of Marlo. Thanks to Tully taking care of her physically and spiritually, Marlo for the first time in a long while has time to take a breath and think about herself and assess her situation in a new light. As Marlo revisits her life and younger self she becomes ever more confident and adventurous; but gradually her initiatives start to cross conventional lines and not only Drew is starting to question where all this will lead….

"Tully" succeeds as a personal drama with funny moments that puts the spotlight on the experience of a woman in an educated middle-class household in the US trying to raise kids and manage a family. Meanwhile her husband struggles to provide the financial means, a good university education and an expert-level white collar job. This being an American film, it simultaneously questions and celebrates the virtue of self-reliance rather than engaging in social criticism let alone in questioning of the economic system. In Europe, one cannot help but compare the situation Marlo finds herself in, with women in countries such as Sweden where generous provisions for parental leave are designed to give both mothers and fathers sufficient time and money to organise family life in a calmer and more balanced manner. 

“Tully” stands out above the more standard Hollywood fare, as an unusual, intelligent and suspenseful story. Yet, like Hollywood often does very well, it successfully bundles humour, drama and emotion. Strong writing, excellent acting performances and competent direction combine to hold the audience attention and emotion from beginning to end through some moments of uncomfortable viewing. Charlize Theron's understated performance as Marlo, a wife and mother on the edge of a nervous breakdown, trying to hold it together is outstanding, and McKenzie Davis is excellent as her not quite perfect young helper in the title role. “Tully” is worth a visit to the cinema.

Friday 8 June 2018

The Cleaners, Documentary Film 2017, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, 8.5* out of 10

Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the social media. By focusing on the individuals in the frontline of examining extreme content they show the human drama and thereby raise the systemic issues in an accessible and impressive way. 

The Cleaners in the title of this documentary are the people on the frontline of social media who view posts, photos and videos and decide whether they need to remove them. To make this decision they view content which has been identified by some Artificial Intelligence software as potentially problematic and refer to policies they have received from the clients of their employer, among them Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google-Alphabet). These global market-leaders of social networking have outsourced these task, but by ordering it to be done, they have explicitly assumed a certain editorial responsibility for. Their software, policy manual, and the outsourcer they have chosen are there to ensure that certain types of content posted by anyone of their billions of users will be removed if it is “unacceptable”. Examples of the unacceptable are child pornography, terror propaganda, lots of types of lewd nakedness and certain forms of lèse majesté, particularly if images or representations of prominent figures involve lewd nakedness or sex.

The job of the cleaners involves being relentlessly assaulted by the most brutal and disgusting pictures and videos. From child rape to ISIS beheadings, a cleaner must view thousands of disgusting pictures every day and decide which of these they need to remove and why. 

The go-to country for finding an outsourcing company to do this job are the Philippines. One can only speculate that it is the combination of low wage cost together with its “Christian values” of this former Spanish and US colony that has something to do with the Filipinos and Filipinas being considered the most suitable work-force for this task. The cleaners who are recruited are mainly smart though, well educated, young people who are in the front-line of the most popular social media being paid USD 1.--  to USD 2.-- per hour.

The film presents five former “cleaners” who, despite the non-disclosure agreement they have signed with their former employers, articulately explain what they did, why they did it, how it made them feel and what impact performing this task had on them in the long run.

The social media giants and the outsourcing companies are secretive about the “cleaning” aspect of their operations; therefore, the pioneering work done by Block, Riesewieck and their team to bring to light how this work is performed in the frontline and by whom, is not only a scoop, but also a valuable contribution to the important debates concerning social media, fake news, freedom of expression and its limits. By focusing on the cleaners and their experiences and giving them ample room to present themselves, warts and all, the filmmakers have made a documentary that feels like a psychological drama. This approach makes their documentary interesting for a very wide audience beyond those who are interested in social media. In fact, it shows how ordinary people with whom we can identify and empathise try to cope under extreme conditions. Some of this makes for uncomfortable yet compelling viewing.

Block and Riesewieck have also found former mid-level managers from the social media giants who speak very eloquently and clearly about real live examples of the challenges they faced and how they tried to cope with what often were unprecedented situations. The testimony of Nicole Wong formerly responsible for policy in this area at Google and Twitter lays out the complex issues she was faced with very well.

Their documentary is least interesting when they show examples of people and cases who generate the posts that the cleaners must deal with, but thankfully this part of the documentary is not overlong. The case for Facebook posts containing hate-speech being mainly responsible for the escalation of the conflict between Buddhists and Rohingyas in Myanmar was not convincingly made,

With The Cleaners, Block and Riesewieck have created a thrilling documentary about the human challenges of a hitherto unexamined part at the frontline of the new media. By not adding a commentary voice, they avoid telling the viewer what to think, thereby making the impact of what the protagonists tell us even stronger and more direct. The research behind the documentary cannot have been easy and is clearly of high quality. The Cleaners is a remarkable first effort and one can hope for more great documentaries from these filmmakers. 

With the rapid development and convergence of new technologies (Artificial Intelligence, picture and film editing tools) the task of the human cleaners may soon be replaced by software while the challenge may soon be overtaken by ever greater manipulative technologies used to appeal to people’s emotions.  Nevertheless, The Cleaners is the timely product of the kind of documentary journalism which should be reinforced and multiplied. Organisations to which film-makers can turn for support (financial, technical, commissioning and more) have a crucial role to play here. Independent Public Broadcasters like the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF and the BBC in the UK have played an important role in making this documentary possible. They and the others are to be congratulated and supported for successfully fulfilling they’re role of critically examining important political, social and economic developments in an accessible and suspenseful way.

The Cleaners is a documentary, that holds the viewer’s full attention, informs you, makes you think and will stay with long after the final credits. Highly recommended.