WhatOurFathersDid_300dpiWebAs World War II stretches further in the past, its history remains no less striking. This writer understands the horrors of the war at least secondhand, as I have stated in earlier posts (Labyrinth of Lies uses high production value to tell compelling story of post-WWII Germany and Bonding with the filmmakers of ‘The Book Thief’ over my father’s German WWII story). Yes, my father fought on the German side, but he was not a Nazi. He told me stories of refusing the cult-like scene of the Hitler Youth at 12 years old, and he was harassed for it. His family tried to flee Hitler, but he was drafted into the Wehrmacht when he was 16. Though he rose up the ranks to sergeant, he refused invitations to apply for officer positions, and, in the end, he used his English skills to help the Americans, something he was most proud of doing at the end of the war.

My father is far from the kind of fathers the two men filmmaker David Evans examines in his new documentary, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. He follows renowned British human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who also holds the film’s writing credit, as he both individually examines and brings together two different men, Horst von Wächter and Niklas Frank, whose fathers were high-ranking officials in Hitler’s Nazi party. While overseeing conquered territories from a castle that is now part of the Ukraine, these Nazi officials shared responsibility in the brutal massacres of Jews in the region, many of whom were related to Sands.

MNL_001

If that’s not dynamic enough, the two men share very different views on their fathers. Niklas is the son of Hans Frank, who became Governor-General for the region of Poland under Hitler. Horst is the son of Otto von Wächter, Hans Frank’s deputy. Niklas has little sympathy for his father, a former lawyer who hanged for his crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. “I could not forgive him. He was brought up as a Catholic. He studied law in Weimar Democracy, so he knew by heart what was right and what was wrong.” Meanwhile, Horst only makes excuses using that famous ridiculous argument that his father was just obeying orders.

Against a dark history of our recent “civilized” past, Evans, a filmmaker most popularly known for having directed episodes of Downton Abbey, presents a rather striking story churning with layers of psychological torment. Horst prefers to hang on to his childlike nostalgia of growing up with a loving family and refusing to believe his father made a conscious decision to commit atrocities. Niklas shares no love lost for his father, a man, he says, who loved Hitler more than his family. Sands is also a key player. Even though he is a well-known lawyer who fights for human rights, he seems a bit swayed to handle Horst with kid gloves. It’s almost as if Horst has found a state of arrested development that he has found peace in, and it’s a bit disarming.

MNL_003

Niklas stands out as pushing against Horst more aggressively. It makes for a strange kind of drama of conflicting strategies of coping with similar pasts. Toward the end of the film comes the real wedge between the two German men, when the trio attend an annual celebration commemorating the deaths of Germans and their allies in a small Ukrainian town. These zealots dress in vintage German uniforms and even carry vintage weapons. It’s an opportunity for Sands to turn his inquisitiveness on these people. The outcome is scarily similar to the rationale some U.S. Southerners have for standing by the Confederate flag. But more revealing is Horst’s reaction to these people learning about his Nazi legacy. It speaks to how fine a line he was walking in his reasoning.

The film demonstrates a variety of coping mechanisms for dealing with the past by all these subjects. Evans and Sands present personal archival films and photos from Horst and Niklas alongside more familiar vintage images of Hitler and vivid scenes from the Jewish ghettos. Interspersed are the strange and often stark confessions. While Niklas says, “My father deserved to die,” Horst says, “I don’t want to get stuck somewhere full of shame.” Both men are treated with sympathy. Indeed these two were children, brought into something no child should be able to comprehend. Growing up with this speaks to the burden of the past and how the past entangles itself with individual identity. If you think World War II died with the defeat of Germany, consider this intimate battle for reconciliation between these three men, still inextricably connected by a war that has defined their psyches in profound ways.

Hans Morgenstern

What Our Fathers Did runs 92 minutes and is not rated (it contains some disturbing images and discussion). It opens this Friday, Nov. 13, in our Miami area at the following theaters:

Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami
O-Cinema Miami Shores
AMC Aventura 24
Living Room Boca Raton

For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Oscilloscope Pictures provided a preview screening link for the purpose of this review. They also provided all images in this post, credited as follows:

Photo 1: Horst Von Wächter, Philippe Sands (In Background) and Niklas Frank at the site of a mass grave outside Zolkiew, Ukraine in My Nazi Legacy. Photography by: Sam Hardy

Photo 2: Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940. Image courtesy of Niklas Frank.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

the-tribe-posterFor all of its gimmicks — a Ukrainian film inspired by silent movies that eschews subtitles and features a cast of deaf characters — The Tribe (Plemya) is also something else: one of the most uncomfortably disturbing films you will probably see this year. It’s a challenging movie to sit through, not just because there is no dialogue for those who don’t know Ukrainian sign language, but because the notion of the distant objective camera (with no closeups) adopted from silent film presents such an unflinching gaze. The deaf teenagers writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky follows are involved with the deaf mafia, a very real organization in the Ukraine with all the rules you might expect of organized crimes, and it’s brutal (read my interview with the director and actress in Miami New Times: Ukrainian Film The Tribe Explores the Little-Known World of the Deaf Mafia).

Grigoriy Fesenko plays the film’s lead, who we meet at a bus stop located across the street from the cameraman. In the wide shot, traffic whizzes by as he struggles to get directions from a woman to the deaf boarding school. The camera lingers so long, one can’t help but notice the rusted shell of a Trabant next to the bench, half buried by dead leaves, which speaks to the ills of post-Soviet Ukraine. The camera then follows him as he begins to walk to the school. This is a movie of long takes and distant camera. It’s a bold stylistic choice. While it often looks beautiful, it also often works to the film’s detriment.

THE-TRIBE_Home

There’s already a barrier between the audience and the characters due to the language and lack of translation. There’s a particularly frustrating scene that kills the flim’s momentum when the two female leads, who sneak out of the boarding school to moonlight as prostitutes, enter someone’s apartment surely higher up in the mafia. The characters sit around signing to one another for some time before the girls try on T-shirts advertising Italy. Only in the next scene, when the girls appear in line for a visa to Italy, does it become clear that they are to take a trip overseas to — most likely — peddle their bodies. It takes a long time before that becomes clear, and too often you’ll be thinking about running time in scenes like these.

But then there are the moments of extreme violence and raw sex acts between Fesenko’s character and one of the girls he pimps out and finds feelings for (Yana Novikova). It’s only worth noting these scenes not as spoilers but as fair warning about what you are getting into when you buy a ticket to The Tribe. You can expect some skull crushing violence, a backroom abortion that takes its time with every tool needed for the act and a sexual encounter where the two lovers 69 for sometime, where their slurping becomes a highlight for a largely voiceless movie. As Slaboshpitsky allows the camera to roll on and on … and on and on, you may find yourself tuning out of the narrative to grumble that you get the point.

THE-TRIBE_Dress

Also, for all it’s stylishness, the distant camera makes it hard for the audience to feel anything for the characters, except for the primal difficulty of their most physical experiences. It works on that level, maybe too well. But it doesn’t work on a level of character development. It is a film about outsiders, after all, and this style stays true to that, but you need some intimacy to connect with these people if you want the audience to sit through the duration of this 132-minute movie and actually care about what happens to them. However, Novikova deserves special mention as the most expressive of the lot. From her emphatic signing to a rare moment where she must scream out, she is the film’s heart.

There’s no denying this will be a difficult film for most to sit through. The film’s violent finale takes into account deafness at a harrowing level, but some will wonder if it’s too gimmicky. Maybe I am a little mixed about this movie, but it’s not an exploitation film or some movie devised to be cruel to the audience, like that terrible movie Gaspar Noe concocted, Irreversible. The Tribe is a product of the Ukraine. Anyone who has ever visited (the only ones I know visited for research or educational purposes) can speak to the post-communist chill of the nation’s disillusioned people. The Ukraine has long struggled with a corrupt leadership that has left many disheartened citizens to struggle on their own. Now Russia wants the territory back and has used some of the most flagrantly violent means and deceits to do so. What of its underclass and handicapped? This is a country coming apart shred by shred by the hollow promises of the Soviet Empire, a specter that still looms over its empty present. Sure, Slaboshpitsky has shot an unblinking violent, perverse and often shocking movie but can you blame him?

Hans Morgenstern

The Tribe runs 132 minutes, is in Ukranian sign language without subtitles and is not rated (you’ve already been warned about content in the review). It opens in our South Florida area this Friday, July 24, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and further north, in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It could already be playing in other locations across the U.S., if not coming soon. For other screening dates, visit this link and scroll down. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse. You can also read more of my conversation with Slaboshpitsky and Novikova in this post from a few days ago:

Interviews with the director and lead actress of The Tribe

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

THE-TRIBE_Walk

Note: the Q&A with actress Yana Novikova below features frank talk about sex and may reveal plot spoilers. If you are offended by either, you might want to skip that part of the article.

The first ever deaf-led film from the Ukraine will not be an easy experience for anyone. The Tribe (Plemya) is concerned with teenagers who work for the country’s Deaf Mafia, a real thing, according to Ukrainian filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky. The writer/director was once a crime reporter in Kiev, and he has seen it all. It’s no wonder he doesn’t hold back when he presents the world of these kids with a distant camera that hardly ever blinks. The sex and violence is presented with an unflinching gaze, and it has rattled people the world over, as the film has collected many awards.

Speaking via Skype, Slaboshpitsky says he noticed something rather funny about the cultural differences of certain countries with how they reacted to either the film’s sex or violence. “The film is already released in 144 countries,” he says, “including the United States … We had this discussion with my French distributor. It received the rating of 16+ in France. It’s very big. I think 18+ … only 10 films per year receive this rating, but 16+ is not good. For example Blue is the Warmest Color has 13+ and my French distributor told me, ‘We have no problem with sex in your film, but violence was a problem for French audience, and this rating, 16+, can inform the audience it is a violent film, so for this reason we can lose some viewers.’ Anyway, we have a successful release in France, but I have the same with my American distributor, and he told me, the violence wasn’t the problem with the film, but the sex is. It’s very funny. It’s a different culture,” he adds with a laugh.

THE-TRIBE_Threaten

It took a special cast to put the film together and Slaboshpitsky spent about six months working on casting the film. He said he auditioned approximately 300 deaf people for the movie before settling on the bold group of actors that make up the teenagers of The Tribe. Of lead actor, Grigoriy Fesenko, he said he needed some patience before he could tap into the talent he saw from the start. “A friend of Grigoriy sent us his photo,” he reveals, “and I thought his look was very nice. Then he came to audition, and it was very tangible because Grigoriy is a real street guy. He is a parkourist. He has experience in street fighting and hooliganism and something like that. In the audition, he was so nervous he completely fucked up the whole audition. It interested me because it was a very interesting mix of the brutal street guy and … very, nervous … and I ask him to come to the audition again, and I asked him come again and finally we took him in the film.”

Meanwhile, the female lead, Yana Novikova, took the director by surprise. She stood out during an audition for someone else Slaboshpitsky was considering for the role. “Yana it was a very special story because I wasn’t sure about Yana before we started to shoot the movie,” he recalls, “so [the character] is a prostitute, and I’m looking for someone who is more sexy, much more Marilyn Monroe style, something like that. So I go to audition at a special deaf theater in Kiev, and Yana was one of the persons who tried to take part in this audition, and I’m coming to see the other girl, which really looks like a sex bomb. When I saw them doing all these different tasks for the audition, I didn’t notice this sex bomb anymore. Yana took all my attention. Finally, we invited her to rehearsal, and she really, really impressed me.”

To read more from Slaboshpitsky about the film, as well as Novikova, jump through the logo below for the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog:

NT Arts

Now, for those still here, below is my complete interview with Novikova. She responded to my questions via email which were translated for her and then translated back and sent to me. It was a lot of work for everyone involved, and she gave some long, intelligent and insightful responses, so I wanted to share the entire interview somewhere, and Independent Ethos is probably the best place for it. Note: this is also where the frank talk of sex and spoilers come in, including reference to an incident on set that would make for a funny blooper reel on the home video release were it not X-rated.

Hans Morgenstern: Your performance is incredibly powerful. Did you ever think you would become an actress? I read you have always dreamed of acting since childhood. What attracted you to it when you were a child?

Yana Novikova: I was 6 or 7 years old and I went with my mother to see “Titanic.”  I loved Kate Winslet’s performance. I realized then that I wanted to become an actress, and what an interesting thing it is to do. It’s such a beautiful profession.

THE-TRIBE_Dress

Which of the films the director showed you in preparation for your role did you like best and why:

Last Tango in Paris
La vie d’Adel (Blue is the Warmest Color)
9 Songs
Shortbus
Any of the films by Lars von Trier or Larry Clark or Pier Paolo Pasolini?

The director advised me to watch some good movies. I was most impressed with Blue is the Warmest Color. We saw it with the guys who also star in The Tribe. I was so impressed with the performance by the lead character. It is because of her performance in that film that I changed my attitude towards the role in The Tribe. I was no longer afraid.

Where did you find the courage to express yourself with such a demanding performance that includes nudity and violence?

After watching Blue is the Warmest Color I realized that working in cinema is art. Internally I was ready for it. The movie is not about nudity. This is a very profound film, and I came to its subject and depiction seriously. I rehearsed and worked on the role for a long time, trying to get used to the image of myself as a prostitute. When it was time to film the intimate scenes, I asked Myroslav to keep the set to a minimum number of people. So the only one’s present were the camera, sound and translator. Even Myroslav was in another room, watching at the monitor. I still do not feel comfortable about being naked in front of strangers, it is unnatural for me. And we had to do a lot of takes. I had a good understanding with my scene partner, and I did what I intuitively felt. This was not porn, the scenes have an aesthetic purity, there is feeling to them. These scenes are important to convey a sense of fullness, so that the audience believes and empathize with the hero. In some ways it’s like a cinematic representation of some of the great Renaissance art. For example, one of our scenes is very similar to the painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer.

17TRIBE

There is a disturbing scene where you undergo an illegal “backroom” abortion. What was it like to shoot and how long did it take?

Myroslav prepared me well in advance that there would be a graphic abortion scene. I agreed immediately, but I was also worried about it, because I did not know how I should move or react like a real person might when having this procedure because I had never had one. The first day I was in rehearsal with Marina [Panivan], who played the woman performing the abortion. The second day we went to the director of a hospital, and we rehearsed in the hospital with a gynecologist. There was a special doll, a dummy, that they used to let doctors train on, so we could watch how it is done. The next day we filmed the scene, and it all turned out. And each time it was necessary to re-live the pain, to cry, to put forth the necessary emotion. In addition, I felt physical pain. The whole day I had to lay on that bare board, and by the end of filming that scene I was all cried out.

Though it is shocking movie, I’m sure you also must have enjoyed doing it. What did you enjoy most about making it?  Was there anything that you didn’t enjoy so much about the shoot?

I like that the film is completely without subtitles and words. It seems to me that a deaf actor can convey more emotion than a hearing actor, because everything must be written on the face, all of the emotions: joy, sadness, hatred, resentment. Wherever we showed the film, viewers who hear all understood. Of course, when deaf audiences see it, they pay attention to the gestures, to what the characters say with their hands. But that’s not the signed dialogue, that is the emotions, because deaf foreigners who don’t understand International Sign are like hearing audiences forced to understand it from the emotions. When Myroslav explained to us what he needed us to do, he emphasized that the main thing was what emotions we give. If we forgot a word, he did not want us to worry, the main thing was to show emotion. It was okay to improvise, especially when there are gestures, not words. You do not need to hear dialogue when everything is written on the face, you can see all you need to in the movements. Because of that, The Tribe is truly a film for everyone. I like that.

THE-TRIBE_Teacher

Was there a fun moment you had on the set?

Yes, there was a funny moment where Myroslav said to me and Grigoriy that it was necessary to come up with a position we liked for a sex scene. I laughed, and I could not pick a position, then Myroslav came up with the “69” position, but I did not want to do “69,” and I wanted to choose something else. But Myroslav showed us the “69” position and how beautiful it looked, like how a “snake” moves. We were in rehearsal and we just could not be serious about this. We were laughing so hard, no one could keep from laughing about this.

Do you have any other roles lined up in the future?

I have received several offers for new films, and I hope to be working on a new project soon. I’m also planning to study in the U.S. and earn my masters in dramatic arts.

Hans Morgenstern

The Tribe opens in our South Florida area this Friday, July 24, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and further north, in Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. It could already be playing in other locations across the U.S., if not coming soon. For other screening dates, visit this link and scroll down. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this article. All images are courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)