Tsirk – 1936 USSR Film – Reaction Essay

 

The film “Tsirk” was produced in the USSR in 1936. The film contains a large amount of propaganda that is presented in the format of a comedy. The film deals primarily with issues of race and nationalism and how citizenship is defined. The producers were implicitly comparing the way that minorities are treated in the USSR to how they are treated in the United States and Europe. The main character, Marion Dixon, has a relationship with an unnamed black man which results in a child. In the United States, this is treated as a major scandal and Marion is chased by a mob. In the beginning of the film, Marion’s manager is identified as German. He also has a negative view of Marion’s previous relationship and uses the existence of her child to control her. These views are sharply contrasted with the Soviet ideal, which is inclusive and does not discriminate based on race.

While the film may not accurately depict the status of minorities in the USSR, it provides the viewer with an opportunity to understand early Soviet views on race relations in two ways. First, the film presents the Soviet view of being inclusive as both positive and better than views on race held by Europeans, represented by the German manager, and Americans, represented by the mob in the opening sequence and Marion’s feelings of shame and fear in respect to her child. Race was not something that should be used to differentiate or exclude people from society. Second, the film provides the viewer with a glimpse of how the Soviets attempted to shape their national narrative, to create a cohesive whole from a mix of racial and ethnic groups that fell under the sovereignty of the USSR.

During the French revolution, French nationality was defined as being contingent upon being ethnically French. Putting aside the ambiguity and arbitrariness of how the standard for “Frenchness” was defined, the state was built on the foundation of the nation. Italy, England and Germany are also similarly built on the idea of a cultural, racial or ethnic group that compose a nation banding together to form a state. The USSR, on the other hand, was composed of many different ethnic and racial groups. This is similar to how the United States was formed, but the difference was in how minorities were (theoretically) treated. At the time, being American meant being white. Racial boundaries outside of the USSR in general were firm, represented by the German manager’s declaration near the end of the film that Marion’s sexual relationship with a “Negro” was a “racial crime”.

Soviet ideology, represented by the closing sequence in the Circus, is racially and ethnically inclusive. The Soviet Union is represented as being composed of many racial and ethnic groups, without racial boundaries or divisions. Each person is considered based on merit, rather than simply skin color. Whether or not this view of racial inclusiveness had any substance beyond this and similar films is questionable, but it was the image that the Soviets wanted to present to the world and to their own public. “Tsirk” represents the Soviet attempt to bring nations of people together in a common cause.

Also interested was the focus on technology and advancement. The acts in the circus revolved around cannons, space flight and reaching for the stars. This was perhaps symbolic of industrialism and was meant to inspire people to conform to Soviet industrialization policies. This ties in with the idea of all racial groups working together in the Soviet Union, because of the ways that local economies were reoriented to encourage industrial growth in the Russian Metropole. Of course, that also contradicts the ideal presented by the film, since these economic policies negatively impacted local non-Russian economies and would later lead to famine and impoverishment.

Whether or not “Tsirk” was an attempt to accurately reflect Soviet ideas or purely propaganda, it reveals quite a bit about the nature of race relations in the world at the time. It shows that ideas of citizenship and belonging were still very much tied to ideas of belonging to the same race or ethnic group. The Soviets understood this and, in this state sponsored film, were simultaneously criticizing other state’s treatment of their ethnic minorities while constructing a standard of belonging for Soviet citizens that contradicted prevailing norms.

Schindler’s List: Holocaust in Film

(For more on Schindler’s List, also check out this additional post that summarizes common criticism’s of the movie.)

Schindler's List DVD Cover Image

Schindler’s List is a movie by Steven Spielberg that was released in 1993. The movie is based loosely on a book written by Thomas Keneally, which is also called Schindler’s List. The book, in turn, is based on the eyewitness testimony of Holocaust survivors who were saved by the actions of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and member of the Nazi Party who used his position and influence to turn his enamelware manufacturing labor camp into a refuge for Jews. The movie attempts to track the course of these events while also showing Schindler’s inner transformation from a cold, calculating businessman into a savior. The events depicted in the movie take place near the end of World War II in Kraków and later in the Płaszów labor/concentration camp, both of which are in Poland.

Various methods were used to turn this semi-historical information into an entertaining movie. Spielberg’s choice of coloring in the film was very intentional. Schindler’s List was designed in a way to make the audience feel as though they were viewing something historically accurate and making the film (mostly) black and white, rather than color, was a deliberate and effective means of making that connection. This was probably done to connect emotionally with the viewer and pull him or her along as the story progresses.  Spielberg also set up his characters in an oppositional way that is simple and easy to understand, probably to appeal to a wider audience, and reinforced this image of good vs. evil through the use of light and dark imagery.

Schindler’s List is almost entirely shot in black and white, but there are scenes that are in color for added effect. The opening scene of the movie is in full color and shows a Jewish family lighting the Shabbat candles on a Friday evening. As the candles burn down and the flame goes out, the film transitions to full black and white. The point of this switch to black and white is to give the movie a documentary-style feel, to impress upon the viewer the historical reality of what is being depicted and more easily elicit an emotional response. I won’t go into the problem of presenting fictionalized material in a way that makes it appear to be completely historically accurate here. Essentially, what Spielberg has done is make it easier for the audience to empathize with people they know are real. The climax of this effective use of color is in the final scenes, when the characters in black and white transition to the actual living survivors when the film was shot. They are shown moving across a field and then moving forward in a line to lay flowers on the grave of Oskar Schindler. That scene completes the emotional connection and reinforces the power of what the audience just saw in the rest of the film.

The most famous use of color in the film is the “girl in the red coat” in the Kraków ghetto liquidation scene. In this scene, everything is black and white except for the coat a little girl is wearing. The camera follows her as she walks down a street and adults are gunned down behind her and in front of her. This is meant to draw the audience’s attention and probably to emphasize the innocence of the children who suffered through this event. The next time the audience sees the red coat the little girl was wearing is when it is in a pile in a wheelbarrow. The audience is left to draw the conclusion that she no longer needs it anymore, because she is dead. Another instance of coloring in the film is during the Friday Shabbat candle lighting ceremony in Schindler’s factory. Schindler not only gives permission to, but insists that the rabbi in the factory welcome the Sabbath. During this scene, the flames of the candle are in color again, like they were in the opening scene of the movie. This may indicate a restoration of the Jewish people, through Schindler’s respect for them as human beings.

Color also plays an important role in the depiction of characters in the film, primarily in the use of shadows on their faces. This ties in with the essentially oppositional nature of the main characters in the film: Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. To make this film more easily understood by a wider audience, Spielberg created a good vs. evil paradigm that posits Schindler as the hero and Goeth as the bad guy. Schindler is the troubled hero who starts out selfish and uninterested in others, much like Spiderman. Like Peter Parker, Schindler has to experience a traumatic event before he changes his mind about the Jewish people and uses his power for good. Like Parker’s uncle Ben, Schindler has the one-armed man and the girl in the red coat, among others. Schindler’s path to heroism is painted in a very easily understood way. Goeth is presented as an ultimate evil, a man that is beyond the bounds of sanity. He even has an evil sounding accent and an army of evil henchmen (the camp guards). To take the comic-book reference a bit further, we can think of Helen Hirsch as the damsel in distress that the hero, Schindler, rescues from the bad guy, Goeth.

This set-up of hero and villain is reinforced throughout the film by facial lighting effects. When Schindler is introduced, he is dark and mysterious and his face isn’t shown in full. When he is doing something negative, his face is in shadows. For example, when a Jewish woman shows up at his office to ask for his help, he is shown at the top of a staircase, in the distance and completely in shadows. Why? Because this scene shows him bowing to his dark impulses. In this case, he is acting on his lust for attractive women and because this woman is dressed conservatively, he sends her away. When she comes back dressed in a sexually appealing way, he agrees to meet her. When Schindler does something good, his face is shown fully lighted. An example is when he gives a chocolate bar to Helen Hirsch when questioning her in the basement, to reveal his good will toward her.

Fascism is not really addressed in this film, because it focuses more on Oskar Schindler and his transformation from Nazi party-man to Jewish savior. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the role of Jewish people in the film. There are many opportunities for character development, but the only Jew that really gets any serious screen-time is Yitzchak Stern. The Jewish people in Schindler’s List are essentially part of the backdrop of the Holocaust and act as supporting players to tell Schindler’s story. Not to belittle Schindler’s efforts, but it is odd that a film dedicated to the memory of six million dead Jews gives them so little time to tell their own stories, or act in any meaningful way.

Despite any flaws the movie has, Schindler’s List is an important part of the film industry’s portrayal of the Holocaust. It is the top rated Holocaust movie according to IMDB.com and has and will expose more people to the Jewish tragedy of World War II than any history book is likely to do, as sad as that may be. The use of color and the portrayal of the characters is very effective in drawing in and holding the attention of the viewer, allowing them to experience the film without having to think too hard about it.

The Shop on Main Street: Holocaust in Film

Obchod na korze (original title)
Obchod na korze (original title)

The Shop on Main Street is a 1965 film directed by Ján Kadár. The film was originally presented in Slovak and Yiddish and was originally titled “Obchod na korze.” The film takes place in a small town in Slovakia during World War II and attempts to tackle the question of how the Jewish people were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. What was going through the minds of the Jewish people? Why didn’t they fight back? How did the average citizen allow their neighbors to be rounded up like animals and packed into cattle cars for deportation? Kadár addresses all of these questions and more. Besides being an informative and well-told story, The Shop on Main Street is packed with symbolism that further addresses the subject of the film. Symbolism is so prevalent in the film that Kadár was able to present much more information and meaning within the confines of the film’s running time than what seems possible.

The main conflict in the film is between the new fascist conception of the Slovakian nation-state and the Jewish people. Because of fascism’s focus on ultra-nationalism, “outside” elements had to be removed from perceived positions of authority and privilege, which resulted in Jewish people having their businesses removed from their ownership and placed under the control of an “Arisator,” an “Aryan” manager. The idea was that Slovakia was for Slovakians (expressed in the film through a marching cadence sung by soldiers marching down the street), and Jewish people were not considered to really be Slovakian. Later, the Jewish people were deported en masse for concentration camps. This conflict is the backdrop for the story that Kadár presents in his film, in which a bumbling “Aryan” carpenter named Tono Brtko is named the Arisator of a button shop on Main Street owned by a Jewish widow named Mrs. Lautmann.

Tono is a very complex character and his relationships with other people, how he interacts with them, is used as a plot device to symbolically portray the director’s opinion of the Aryanization and deportation process. Tono’s symbolism as a character in relation to other characters has multiple layers, starting with his wife in the opening scene, where Tono demonstrates a poor understanding of anything going on in the world while his wife badgers him for money. I felt that this was a critique of Slovakian society, and on a broader scale, Christian society in general, for the apparent greed displayed in the confiscation of Jewish shops and goods during the World War II deportations. It reminded me of something Elie Weisel wrote, when he said that while he and his family were being deported from their home town, he felt as if the people who had just previously been their neighbors were eagerly waiting for them to board the trains, so they could loot and pillage through their homes. Later in the film, Tono’s wife berates him for not finding the gold that Mrs. Lautmann must have buried somewhere in her house, as if all Jews were leprechauns and one need only catch one to receive a pot of treasure.

The other important symbolic relationship that Tono has is with Mrs. Lautmann, the owner of the shop he is supposedly taking over. Mrs. Lautmann is an old, slightly senile widow. Her late husband died in a war (World War I?) and since then she has been on her own, though technically she has been receiving a stipend from the rest of the Jewish community. Her shop is in complete disrepair, but she seems to be completely oblivious to the fact, and also demonstrates a lack of understanding of anything that’s going on around her, including her new “Arisator-Jew” relationship with Tono, until the last scenes in the film, when reality suddenly and painfully dawns on her. Even at that moment, however, instead of proactively trying to hide herself, she runs to her bedroom to study Torah. In this relationship, Tono clearly represents Slovakian society as a whole, while Mrs. Lautmann represents the Jewish community. In this film, while Slovakians are busy robbing the Jewish people of their property and preparing to deport them, the Jewish people are presented as being oblivious to the real dangers that are going on around them and only wake up to reality when it’s too late to do anything about it (Mrs. Lautmann suddenly recognizes the deportation event as a pogram near the end of the film).

The film does present a different view of the Jewish predicament in the form of Mr. Katz, who reminds the viewer that there really wasn’t much they could do in terms of rising up against their oppressors. After all, what could an old woman like Mrs. Lautmann and an old barber do when the fascist government troops were standing on every corner with automatic weapons? The film doesn’t present a clear and easy answer. I don’t think it intended to. It was meant to inform and make the viewer think about how and why something as tragic as the deportation and later near-extermination of the Jews could occur, and it does that well.

These observations are barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dissecting all of the symbolism and meaning in The Shop on Main Street. Ján Kadár’s film is excellently done, explaining both the mindset of the Slovakians and the relationship between the average Slovakian and the Jewish community that doesn’t overly simplify the situation into a black and white conflict. Other important aspects of the film are the references to animals and the natural order of the world vs. the activities of the Slovakian government, as well as an excellent use of music to set the tone, but those issues are beyond my ability to address in this short reaction paper.

“Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” Review

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was definitely the worst film out of the series so far.  In fact, it’s the worst movie I’ve seen since that ridiculous thing they called a film and labeled “The X-Files: I Want To Believe”.

My first problem with this movie is that it felt entirely disjointed.  This was especially true of the first half of the movie, where the scenes bounced back and forth, and a lot of things were presented with no explanation.  Also, there were scenes that felt entirely unnecessary to further the plot.  Also, I’m not sure even the directors knew what they wanted the plot to be.  What I mean is that the trailers indicated that this would be a movie with a lot of action and a lot of important events, when in reality, nearly every action sequence in the movie was in the trailers.  The rest was dry.  It was like watching a high school love drama, complete with mushy kissing scenes, teenage angst, and jealousy.

Also, Harry Potter has always been about magic.  Where was the magic in this movie?  Again, the most astonishing thing you’ll see in the film was already shown in the trailers: Dumbledore summong fire.  The rest is weak.  Little balls of light flying from wands, and some steam coming from potions.  The previous films were special effects masterpieces that thrilled the imagination.  This, by comparison, was boring to the point of not even caring.  No magical creatures, very few magical devices.  Nothing imaginative in the least, which has been a staple of Harry Potter films.  There is nothing in this film that compares with the giant spiders, the flying car, the magic train station… none of it.  This was so sad by comparison.  I just can’t emphasize enough how… dry it was.  The whole thing lacked energy and seemed to deviate from what the story was really about.

Based on what we saw in the trailers, we were expecting some incredible event.  The trailers hinted that there would be some sort of magic spillover into the real world.  There was, for all of about 4 minutes.  And… what was the point of the whole bridge collapse anyway?  Just to have something exciting happen to keep the audience awake?  Just to use in the trailer?  I fought boredom for the duration of the film, constantly in anticipation of the action sequences that never came.

The last thing I’d like to know is where is the character development?  Harry Potter is supposed to be The Chosen One, but his abilities are, in most cases, less than extraordinary.  Shouldn’t he have learned something new by now, or at the least become powerful enough to defend himself?  Sure, he’s still in school, but… come on.  He’s The Chosen One right?  He’s supposed to defeat Voldemort, but he still has a hard time beating someone who’s supposed to be less than his equal, like Malfoy.

In the end, the film ended abruptly, leaving me entirely disappointed and in disbelief that a Harry Potter movie had been so bad, so dry, so … worthless.  This movie really sucked the life out of the series for me.  I’m not looking forward to the next Harry Potter movie anymore, and I even wonder if there would be any point to reading the books at this point.  Books are always better than the movies, but in this case, if the series gets this bad towards the end, I’m not sure I want to bother.

Gu Gu The Cat

My wife is a cat lover, and I’m fond of them myself. So, when my wife said that she’d heard about a movie called Gu Gu The Cat, I knew right away that we were going to see it. This was one of those times when I had to give in. Besides, it looked funny, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad.

Going to the movies here in Singapore is a very expensive outing, and will usually wind up costing about 35 bucks, including transit and a few light movie goodies, so she wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to make it. We’re getting ready for a move and our finances are tight. As sort of an answer to her prayers, her coworker won free tickets to the sneak peak showing for last night and wasn’t going to be able to attend. So, she asked my wife if she’d like the tickets and of course my wife jumped on the opportunity.

Last night we rushed out of the house at about 6pm, not sure if we were going to make it on time. The directions on the e-mail announcing the free tickets was a bit vague. It just said “GV Plaza 4.” So, she contacted a friend and asked where that was, and was told it was at Vivocity at Harbourfront. So, off we went! We managed to make fairly good time and were a bit anxious as we waited for the train to reach Harbourfront. We literally ran through the tunnel and dashed up the escalators to make it to the theater on time and sure enough, we got to the theater right at 7pm. Unfortunately… we were at the wrong theater. The sneak peak showing was at Plaza Singapura, and we were already out of time.

My wife was crushed. She really wanted to see the film. Like I said, she really loves cats! So, I consoled her by telling her that we’d set aside money and definitely catch Gu Gu at the regular opening on the 23rd. To cheer ourselves up we wandered around the mall and wound up having a pretty good time (more about that later).

Last night when we got home she started searching the internet to see if she could find a copy to watch. The film isn’t new, it just hadn’t been shown in Singapore yet. That’s nothing new. There’s a movie called Traitor that’s starting here in Singapore soon, but we saw a DVD copy from the US months ago. She found a copy on YouTube, but by then it was pretty late and she had to work today so I downloaded the files and set it up to watch tonight.

So, she was very excited and got home from work early. After we ate we got comfortable and started up the movie. For the first 15 minutes or so, it was interesting, to me at least, but after that it was painfully slow. The movie is more of a drama about life in general than about cats, and it seemed to focus more on the people in the story than on Gu Gu. Gu Gu was more there for comedic relief than anything.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has its high points, and there’s something to be learned from it, but if you go into it thinking it’s going to be a comedy, or very cute, or happy, you’ll be let down. The movie deals with a lot of heavy themes about love, relationships and missed opportunities. It even touches on the pain and loss of death.

So, I can’t say it was a bad movie, really. It just wasn’t what I expected.

Here are a few screenshots of the movie, courtesy of AsianFanatics.net, as well as the first segment of the movie (video was removed due to terms of use violation) movie trailer that’s hosted on YouTube: