Hitler's Secretary; Bright Young Things; The Sin Eater; Calendar Girls

 Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary

If you were told that you were to spend the next ninety minutes watching a film that was all interview, a focus on a talking head without any visual relief except the interviewee's change of clothes and, sometimes, watching herself on a video monitor, you might well beg out of the experience. But, you would be mistaken. This is an absorbing documentary, an interview with a woman who brings to life the last years of the Third Reich.

Traudl Junge was one of Hitler's private secretaries from 1942. He dictated his last will and testament to her. On the whole, she did not see much of Hitler until she was in the Bunker in the final days, although she was interviewed by him for the job.

Her description of those times becomes increasingly vivid and detailed as she warms to her subject (although it is a relief to hear her say at various times that she does not remember some things). The interview is at its most powerful in her recollections of the very last days, an eyewitness to Hitler's retreat into another world while still blaming the German
people for not responding to his vision and their mission, especially to rid Europe of the Jews.

The important aspect of the interviews is Frau Junge's continually asking herself why and how as a twenty year old, she could have been so unquestioningly caught up in Third Reich propaganda, could have been charmed by Hitler's personality and not asked herself what was really going on. For decades, she did not give interviews but, finally, she was persuaded to talk to film-maker, Andre Heller, in 2001. Her testimony is honest, self-condemnatory, puzzled at herself as a young girl - and finding some small way to atone and to forgive herself. It is recording of interviews like this that remind us how important it is to have visual records for the future.

Sadly, Frau Junge died of cancer the morning after the film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February, 2002, at the age of 81.

Bright Young Things

Stephen Fry, who portrayed Oscar Wilde in the film of that name, sees himself as something of a successor to Wilde in being a satirist, a wit and an elegant critic of British society and its pretensions. One could add more than a dose of Evelyn Waugh in his 1920s and 1930s novels to that description. That is why it seems very appropriate that Fry should adapt Waugh's portrait of uppercrust butterflies of the 30s, Vile Bodies, to the screen.

One of the major difficulties of reading Waugh and watching Fry's version is that most of the characters are unattractive twits, all a-twitter, imagining that they are God's gift to England and caught up in a superficial world of wealth, extravagance, narcissisism. It is a gaudy and gay world of parties, race meetings and incessant gossip. For those who
find such characters obnoxious and unbearable, it may be hard to sit through their stories even though you know that Wauch and Fry are going to make some moral conclusions by the end of the film. In fact, with the outbreak of World War II, this world collapses and some sense of responsibility emerges on the bright young things' scene.

Fry has a very large British cast, young things in the central roles like Charles Campbell More, Emily Mortimer, Michael Sheen and David Tennant and a great number of old things in supporting roles, Jim Broadbent as an eccentric drunken major, Peter O'Toole doing an excellent comic turn as an eccentricly doddering father, Julia Mackenzie as an old-fashioned landlady, Dan Aykroyd parodying the North American media moguls who dominated the British press and even John Mills doing some cocaine.

Glossy, glitzy satire.

The Sin Eater

In recent years there has grown up a sub-genre of religious horror films which create an eerie kind of supernatural atmosphere using the trappings of the Catholic Church rather than its theology and spirituality. It would be a mistake to think of them as ecclesiastical films, although they do make some points about Church practice and beliefs. But, by and large, they are the inventions of the screenwriters who latch on to some biblical or theological connection and run with them. In the last five years, there have been Stigmata, End of Days, Lost Souls, John Carpenter's Vampires, Bless the Child, Possession.

The Sin Eater is the least persuasive of them. It is a pity because it was written and directed by Brian Helgoland who wrote LA Confidential and Clint Eastwood's Blood Work and Mystic River and directed A Knight's Tale. He has gathered his stars from A Knight's Tale for this strange tale of a personage who has the mission to take into himself the sins of a Church outcast with a ritual of bread and salt, devouring the sins of the deceased and giving them some hope for salvation!! Heath Ledger and Mark Addy belong to a very odd religious order, The Carolinians, who seek strange
meanings and power in the Church. When their leader is killed (with his sins eaten), they go to Rome to investigate. They live in odd, candle-lit and art and relic-adorned quarters, visit even more odd bookshops and clubs where a hooded leader wants even more power. With them is Shannyn Sossoman who has escaped from a mental institution after she tried to kill Ledger but, fairly soon, he has let go of his priesthood (which was of a bizarre Tridentine variety) and succumbed to her. And, who should turn out to be a villain (and would-be Pope) but a Cardinal (as they have in several of these films) played by Peter Weller.

Oh well...!

Calendar Girls

When they hit the headlines in 1999, the Yorkshire women from the Women's Institute received unexpected publicity for the calendar they produced to raise money for a sofa in the waiting room of the local hospital where the husband of one of the women had died of leukemia. That must seem a long time ago because the headlines were not only local but worldwide.

Hollywood came looking and invited them to chat shows and to make commercials - and even to agree to a film about their exploits. Behind the scenes there were difficulties about how they should handle the fame and some breakdowns of long friendships. Here, now is the film version, a blend of the UK and Hollywood with everybody remarking (as I am about to do) that this might be seen as the female version of The Full Monty.

The headlines exaggerated everything, of course. The nude calendar might sound racy, even objectionable, but it was done in fun and the women show very little. It is the humour and the suggestion which make the impact. It is a defence of older women being themselves and a blow against the artificial glamour of commercial photography. It is humour about the body - which does not always go down so well in society which has been strongly influenced by Puritan or Jansenist severity and suspicions of things bodily.

Just as The Full Monty showed out of work men suffering from the social effects of unemployment and did their stripping for a joke, a blend of the humorous with serious social themes, so the Calendar Girls is both funny and serious.

The film shows us Yorkshire village life, the mundane meetings of the Women's Institute, the realities of marriage fidelity and infidelity, families both happy and unhappy, illness and death being persuasively portrayed. When it comes to the calendar, the film moves into cheerful mode (except for the president of the local branch of the WI). It is an
unexpectedly huge success. When Hollywood beckons, the film changes gear considerably and the audience is made to feel the exhilaration as well as the over-glitzy exploitation of Los Angeles.

Julie Walters plays the quiet character this time, with Helen Mirren left to do the flamboyant extraversion. There is fine support from several British character actors, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie, Linda Bassett and Penelope Wilton. The men don't get much of a look in but are treated sympathetically.

Despite the theme and the hoo-ha, Calendar Girls has its heart in the right place and is a film that you could take most people to - and those you couldn't are perhaps those who ought to see it.
LONDON - 6 October 2003 - 1,498 words

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