Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Spielberg gets just two cheers from me for his Berlin Wall epic, but klezmer music gets all three. A shtik naches

It’s odd how, when and why thoughts come to you. Last night was the second in our concerts this time around, and we were at a wine chateau called Domaine de Chevalier near Leognan to listen to klezmer music played by Meshouge Klezmer Band I don’t know why, but Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge Of Spies came to mind and I realised why I was a tad underwhelmed.

OK, the film won three Oscars and was also nominated in three further categories. Well, leaving aside that the Oscars are arguably as much to do with drumming up business in and for Tinseltown, they are not necessarily the best guide to quality as many all too often assume. Where, for example are the nominations for the innumerable independent productions made each year. Heart on heart this the Oscar ceremony is very much an mainstream industry smoochfest. But that doesn’t get close to why I was a tad underwhelmed, and it wasn’t until last night, apropos nothing I can think of, that I realised why.

Bridge Of Spies is very much a Spielberg film and the guy knows how to make films. It had all Spielberg’s hallmarks, quality oozed from almost every shot and, thankfully another of his hallmarks – a large dose of schmaltz – was less in evidence. That particular quality, for example, ruined his much-vaunted ‘America is the land of the free irrespective of creed or colour’ epic Amistad, and when I heard Spielberg quoted as saying that when he filmed his biopic Lincoln, he felt he almost had to wear a suit and tie while doing so, I decided the film would not be for me. As a pretentious and sycophantic comment it surely takes some beating.

Bridge Of Spies did have some schmaltz, of course, notably the end scene when James Donovan is seen riding the subway on his way back to work, but largely Spielberg kept it in check. What he didn’t keep in check was his penchant for over-egging the pudding. . And ‘the building of the Berlin Wall’ was nothing as it was portrayed by Spielberg. I should say that I was living in West Berlin in the years the Wall went up and with my brother was even taken on the S-Bahn to Berlin-Friederichstraβe by our father (the BBC Berlin representative from June 1959 until July 1963 and possibly working for MI6, in some capacity or other).

First off, there is a comment from, I think, some CIA spook or other, that the agency had word that the Soviets were planning to build a wall to stem the flow of refugees to from the East to the West. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact ‘the Wall’, which wasn’t even a wall for many months, was a panic measure by the East Germans on the night of August 12/13. It consisted initially of the East Germans – with no Soviet involvement – sealing of the East from the West simply by pulling barbed wire across every street and road connecting the two parts of the city. Until then folk could travel between both parts at will, and did, visiting family at weekends, for example. And it is not surpising that there appears to have been no planning whatsoever.

Walter Ulbricht (pictured), chairman of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) and, since the previous year the German Democratic Republic’s head
of state, had admittedly, in an interview two months earlier, declared ‘no one intends building a wall’, but the sudden sealing of off East Berlin appears to have been an ad hoc decision in view of the thousands of East German citizens who were seeking refuge in West Berlin throughout the very hot summer of 1961. It would seems his declaration

The Germans, for good reason, are known for efficiency and planning and there was no efficiency or planning when they sealed the East off from the West. But Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies gives a wholly different picture. The exchange of Abel for Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over Soviet Russia, took place seven months later in February 1962 and the scene depicted of stout-hearted East Berliners making their bid from freedom while the wall was being built – with tanks and soldiers looking on – is simply very silly. Nor was there anyway the American student, Frederic Pryor, could have crossed over to the East to visit his sweetheart. As for the final putting in place of the last bricks shown in the film, well, that, too, is risible. Yet, it is admittedly still a film, and Spielberg might plead he was portraying an ‘artistic truth’.

What occurred to me during last night’s concert was that the overall production of the film was somehow too sumptuous and oddly out of keeping with the subject matter. The rich colours, even when depicting drab East Germany, the substantial sets, all of it was somehow out of kilter. Even the style of filmmaking – the set pieces, the ‘good acting’, even in scenes between Abel and Donovan in the prison and the court scenes were first and foremost filmmaking, and fine filmmaking at that. And that was exactly what seemed and seems to be inappropriate.

The world of spies and the whole business of cynical East/West relations was shabby, on both sides. We told lies to our people, they told lies to their people. I grew up in that Cold War era and until I began to think for myself was wholly convinced we, the West, were the Good Guys in White Hats, and the Commies, the Russkies were the Bad Guys in Black Hats. If only life were so simple. But that is still the mentality of Spielberg’s film: Good v Evil. It’s as though he also word a suit and tie in homage to the Goodness Of The West when he made Bridge Of Spies. Shame, really. As the Sixties thriller The Spy Who Came In From The Cold showed us, it is possible to give a more realistic and more honest account of the times – and their breathtaking cynicism – without resorting to fairy tales. .
. . .

As for the klezmer music, I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. If I were to be cruel, I could claim that one or two klezmer tunes go a long way, consisting, as they seem to, of about three chords, but there is a definite joi de vivre about them which could cheer up a corpse and makes up for everything. And it is not the kind of music to sit
listening to in rows of ten – I was dying to get up and move, though I couldn’t tell you how. But this was a French music festival and although I shan’t claim it is in anyway po-faced, it was a shame we heard the music in what was to all intents and purposes a concert hall (albeit a makeshift one) and weren’t part of a wedding party of some kind, any kind of party, in fact. Then there are the slow, sad klezmer tunes. They too grab you and don’t let go.

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