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Wednesday 27 March 2019

Studio 54, Documentary Film USA 2018, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, 8* out of 10

Matt Tyrnauer's film is an interesting record of an important cultural moment in time for New York, and indeed America. Studio 54, the club, was an integral part of a social revolution led by the rich and famous who reached out to the gay and black community to gay and black culture mainly for their entertainment. Tyrnauer’s documentary is a watchable and entertaining reminder of  30 months of abandon and bacchanalia New York City-style when Studio 54 shone ever so brightly. Above all, it is a testimony to an ingenious business couple who created an extraordinary theatrical and social experiment and paid a heavy price.

New York in 1977 was the sweet-spot in space and time when the trauma of the Vietnam War and the hippie love culture gave way to the desire for indulging oneself: partying, dancing, taking drugs, having sex and its feeling good. It was the time when money, celebrity, sex, drugs and disco music all seemed good and those indulging in it thought that there would be no price to pay. It was the time when the inclusion of gay lifestyle and black disco-rhythms provided heightened enjoyment for the privileged people in the fashion, entertainment industries and when art meant pop-art. Studio 54 was the place in New York which perfectly enacted this. 

In his documentary about the iconic club, Matt Tyrnauer looks at the two people who created and ran it on Manhattan’s West Side 54th Street and 8th Avenue, a sleazy area in a city plagued by street-crime. Two Brooklyn kids with big dreams of success New York style, Ian Shrager and Steve Rubell were the perfect business couple to fall upon the most outrageous right idea at the right time. 

Matt Tyrnauer’s film is mostly about these two people, who complemented each other perfectly. It shows how their outrageous business plan, became reality in a disused television studio come theatre and achieved immediate success. 

Studio54 was more like a crazy Broadway show, with the audience being the cast than a night club. The show began with the long queue of people wanting to gain entry and the triage at the door. 

The outward star of the documentary is the extrovert Steve Rubell. But the more interesting character is Ian Shrager, son of Max Shrager, a Jewish Toni Soprano also known as "Max the Jew". Ian, a lawyer and businessman, whose roguish charm and raspy voice reminds one of Robert de Niro’s best comedy-drama performances.  Ian Shrager is a serious and engaging character. Answering Tyrnauer's questions, he charts the meteoric rise and hard descent of the Shrager-Rubell partnership. He recalls the frantically energised Studio 54 fantasy-world, and the business-couple's downfall followed by the (by New York City standards) slow rise from the ashes. A rise that was punctuated by tragedy and shared with many who were all totally unprepared for the impending doom of the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

Matt Tyrnauer's documentary captures a brief an important period in the cultural history of New York. Studio 54 was an integral part of a social revolution led by the rich and famous who reached out to the gay and black community to gay and black culture, mainly for their own entertainment. And it looked for a moment like the rest of the world did not have to be considered. The arc of history would run not towards ever more divided identity-thinking but towards the late Martin Luther King’s ideal, a world where we would all recognize our commonality as human beings and our separate “identities” would be secondary. 

That was the feeling on the dance floor of Studio 54, where we see images Liza Minelli and Andy Warhol. We see a shy Michael Jackson dropping in on Steve Rubell. Caught unprepared, he genuinely gives his full endorsement to Rubell and Shrager’s creation. Nile Rogers of Le Freak C’est Chic reflects on what Studio 54 meant for the social and musical scene of the late 1970s, and he can't help smiling as he remembers. 

Tyrnauer’s documentary is a watchable and entertaining reminder of a unique short moment of abandon and bacchanalia 1970-New- York-City-style shining ever so brightly for a brief moment in time. Recommended for everyone interested in 1970s New York.

The text of the original blog-post has been edited and corrected to eliminate some of the grammatical errors and repetitive phrasing in the early version.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Ratlines - Human Rights Lawyer, Author, Podcaster Professor Philippe Sands at the Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna 9* out of 10

Prominent International Lawyer Philippe Sands in an enthralling wide-ranging conversation with Austrian journalist and author Tessa Szyszkowitz on International Criminal Law, family history and Brexit. You can watch the award-winning documentary starring Sands and listen to his Podcast series Ratlines by following the links below.   

A Professor at University College London and a Barrister at Matrix Chambers, Philippe Sands is a renowned International Lawyer specializing in International Human Rights Law. In 2015 he published East-West Street, a book on the origins of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity and a report on the search for his own origins. By fate or coincidence, Raphael Lemkin and Hersh Lauterpacht, the protagonists behind these two profound and competing milestones in the progress of International Human Rights Law, developed and applied at the Nuremberg Trials in the wake of World War 2 and Sands’ grandfather’s family all lived at some point in their lives in the city of Lemberg, Lvov, Lviv. This city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, part of Poland and today is in Ukraine, which explains why it has at least three names. It was Philippe Sands who, when he discovered this connection, proceeded to unearth and tell the story of two great legal minds’ invention of two key concepts in International Humanitarian Law.  He also unearthed his own family history, a family most of whose members fell victim to such crimes.

Having gained fame as a writer of a popular book about the history of international law Sands went on to star in a BBC Storyville documentary My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did. He took 2 sons of key figures on the German/Austrian/Nazi side of his story whom he had met during the research for his book to Lviv. Niklas Frank is the son of the notorious War Criminal Otto Frank who headed the Nazi Administration in Poland. Horst Wächter is the son of SS-Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter who under Otto Frank headed the civil Nazi Administration in Lemberg. Civil in its designation it was not civil in its behaviour.  Niklas Frank detests his father who was found guilty and hanged at the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2. Horst Wächter, in the face of overwhelming indications to the contrary, is convinced of his father’s innocence. To his credit, Horst Wächter has opened all the family correspondence, as he desperately wants to find indications that his father under whose direction as head of the civil administration the Jews of Lemberg were sent to their death, was a good man who participated, if at all, only reluctantly in the abominable crimes so deliberately and efficiently directed by his good friend and boss Otto Frank. Sands, whose relatives were murdered under Frank’s enthusiastic leadership maintains throughout most of the documentary the persona of the accomplished barrister looking for the facts and prepared to defend or prosecute as the barristers’ code of ethics demands. He says he is not proud of the moment where he temporarily loses his professional cool with Horst Wächter.

The award-winning film led Sands to research what happened to Otto Wächter after the war. How had Wächter escaped the attempts of the allies to catch him? The story is revealed in a suspenseful entertaining and chilling manner in a BBC Podcast – The Ratline, with a cameo appearance by John Le Carré, master of the spy novel and Sand’s neighbour in London’s Hampstead neighbourhood. 

The Ratline is the name given to the operation of a network by the highest levels in the Catholic church in Rome to help Nazi war criminals escape from justice. Since soon after the end of the War the Western Allies were putting what they perceived as their own interest ahead of the pursuit of justice, most senior German and Austrian Nazis had their crimes whitewashed in return for helping the Western Allies fight the threat of Soviet Communism. 

This prompted me to raise my hand in the Q&A session and ask Sands how he would answer the question: Do "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" pay, if not for the perpetrators at least for their perpetrators' legally innocent descendants? The dead cannot have descendants anymore while most Nazi-criminals and their descendants, the latter being innocent of their parents' crimes, can live rich and comfortable lives undisturbed by survivors and any descendants or other relatives of the murdered? No, answered Sands, the passionate International Lawyer, International Criminal Law is a long game with small but important steps having been made over hundreds of years, and big steps having been made by the adoption of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide into International Law in the 20th century.  

In a wide-ranging conversation with the London based Austrian author and journalist Tessa Szyszkowitz, Philippe Sands showed himself as great raconteur thoughtfully reflecting on the experience of his journey through the history of his family during World War II and explaining the competing ideas of "Crimes Against Humanity" and "Genocide" and their origins. Charming, eloquent and a trifle self-possessed, as one would expect from a barrister, Sands showed himself as a man who can listen as well as talk. He is passionate about the importance of facts and possesses the persistence needed to look for such facts in all the most unlikely places. His persistence is so often rewarded that in Sands’ case serendipity appears to have become a trusty companion.

Sands spoke about the research and the writing of East West Street as a search for his identity. But listening to him, it becomes clear that the identity he exudes with the most natural confidence is that of the gifted lawyer driven by curiosity to tell the story based on where the facts lead him.

Horst Wächter, the son of the protagonist of Ratlines, was also in the audience and asked to speak, trying to convince us all that his SS-father who had joined the Nazi party in Austria in the 1920s and stood with Hitler on the balcony of the Heldenplatz after the Nazi-German invasion of Austria in March 1938, would never have willingly participated in the killing of innocent people including the deportation and killing of Jews. After the event, Horst Wächter, now Philippe Sands' friend, took 10 minutes to try and convince me personally of this too. So, he deserves at least 8* out of 10 for effort; but the weight of the facts speaks against his father’s “reluctance”. Horst Wächter did tell me that he had brought with him letters of people vouching for his father and showing that he had saved numerous Jewish people from certain death. Perhaps we’ll hear if Horst Wächter has made a dent in Philippe Sands’ view of Otto Wächter. 

Ably interviewed by a knowledgeable and thoroughly prepared Tessa Szyszkowitz, an Austrian journalist and author living in London, Sands effortlessly switched from intriguing secrets of the past to British politics of the present.  As a prominent international lawyer in Britain, he is involved in advising on the legal aspects of Brexit and was as eloquent and interesting when speaking about that topic as he was about the past. Although a convinced “remainer”, Sands delivered a stinging critique on the European Court of Justice for being unwilling to submit itself to the European Court of Human Rights on Human Rights issues. With democracy coming under strain and scrutiny in Europe and beyond, Sands indicated that the protection provided individuals and groups by the rule of law is becoming an important counterweight against attempts to limit the rights of the individual by the means of a democratic majority as some governments in former liberal democracies are veering towards authoritarianism. He answered questions on Trump’s USA, the Uighurs in China the reach of International Criminal Law today. A very interesting evening at the Kreisky Forum.

Below I have listed a number of links to Philippe Sands book, podcasts, and films. Anybody with an interest in contemporary history and politics who would like the role of international law explained clearly and in context will enjoy reading, watching or listening to Philippe Sands. If you get the chance don’t miss it.

Philippe Sands

Links to books, youtube videos, and podcasts:


Documentary Film: My Nazi Legacy: What our Fathers Did 
Available on Youtube

BBC 10-part Podcast: The Ratline on BBC Sounds:

East West Street: A conversation with Philippe Sands recorded at the London School of Economics November 2016 on YouTube

I made a number of spelling/grammar corrections and small editorial updates to the original blog entry on 17 March 2019.