Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Sophie Scholl: The final days (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage) (DVD) 2005

University students make excellent protesters and activists; Max Weber would have argued that university students, by virtue of their privileged position as state-sponsored intellectuals, are morally bound to be protesters and activists against the state. Yet there exists a problem of evil in academia: Why, if there is a moral duty to protest, do most students across nations and cultures remain largely apathetic?

Such is the uncomfortable position the members of the White Rose society find themselves in, during the final year of World War II. While the immorality of the war and Germany's impending defeat is clear to Sophie Scholl and her collaborators, it is likely that the general silence, fear or even apathy in the German public and their classmates provide that impetus towards their daring acts of resistance. We're not talking about terrorist acts or sabotage here, but a coordinated effort to blanket major German cities with fiercely written, relentlessly logical, and morally couched anti-Hitler missives. (Where else do you think "impeach him, impeach him now!!! came from?)

Understandably, the Gestapo is not amused and when the happy group make a mistake during the dissemination of their 6th pamphlet, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans are in for a world of pain. To be more exact, the high treason leading to capital punishment type of pain.

Much of this movie is set in the Munich Stadelheim Prison, where criminologist Robert Mohr interrogates Sophie Scholl over many sessions. This sort of set up normally makes for a good play and a bad movie; coupled with Julia Jentsch's too-reverent portrayal of the title character as a diffident and moralistic political martyr, it is a surprise that Sophie Scholl is as watchable as it ends up.

Here's a rule of thumb: political martyrs come across as less sympathetic the more they are self-assured of the justness of their cause. Simply put, the smugness that comes along with young political martyrs barely into their 20s tends to alienate them from the viewer, as well as run counter to good storytelling. And when the Garden of Gethsemane moment comes for the young girl, we feel that far too much of the movie has set her up as a smooth operator and knowing martyr: her self-doubt and true fear ring strangely false.

What saves this movie comes from Gerald Alexander Held as the sympathetic interrogator who seems hell-bent on finding an escape clause for the girl despite having to do his duty as a political officer, as well as betray a certain lack of confidence in his cause. While Sophie Scholl is a known, unwavering moral entity, the movie rides on the shoulders of Held's Robert Mohr, and flies on the wings of Andre Hennicke's very shrill and even more smug high judge Friesler.

As a movie based on historical events and personages, Sophie Scholl: The final days seems to hold its heroine on too high a pedestal to tell a story, and even to attempt a truer story.

The clues lie in the extra features on the DVD, which contain historical interviews with the survivors of the White Rose society, and family and friends of the Scholls. I'll put it simply: there has been a fair amount of whitewashing in the telling of this story. The real Sophie Scholl was a very more humane and human character than the political martyr we are presented with; and contrary to the expectations of Sophie Scholl, the reaction in the universities to the execution of the White Rose society members was that of either apathy or approval.

It's as though these university students and their descendants have a serious case of "let's pretend most of us intellectuals and survivors of that era didn't break out the champagne or continued to be apolitical when the heroes were executed" guilt, and the very turgid political martyr of Sophie Scholl was created.

While acknowledging the problematic concept and storytelling of this movie, I would just like to say that however compromised it is, this movie still shows clearly why it is immoral and wrong for students to resort to violence and terrorism, even to protest against an unpopular and unjust war. Yes, I'm talking to you, Bill Ayers.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Sky Crawlers (スカイ・クロラ) (2008)

The literary genres known as "science fiction" and "fantasy" are subject to strict boundary maintenance, least of all by their fans and audiences. Yet these boundaries tend to collapse in the face of realisation that both genres are merely two sides of the same coin: speculative fiction, and deal primarily in the same currency of world-building. For every JRR Tolkien, with their endless maps and faux historical footnotes of Middle-Earth turned into books in their own right, there is a Frank Herbert, with their endless maps and faux historical footnotes of the Galactic Empire turned into books in their own right.

So: the enterprise of world-building as an inherent and key part of both science fiction and fantasy. You build a world, then set a story in that world, and then let the story unfold in that world, with every difference and peculiarity of that world serving as a womb where the story gestates. One could build an entire world from scratch; the result is wondrous and alien: fire-breathing dragons and scions of Cain, space-faring alien civilisations beating off or dealing with the problem of relativity.

Or one could take our world, make just one or two changes in its parameters and let the ball roll from there, to see how the pins will fall, and how far they fall: social culture, individual psychology, ethics... The Sky Crawlers belongs to this mode of science fiction: speculative fiction as an extended thought experiment.

At its very basic, The Sky Crawlers is a genre flick: a WW1/WW2 flying ace movie. Yet it is also an extended thought experiment; set in a world where only 2 details differ from our own (one of which is stated in the poster, and the other is very different from what other reviews state) the ball rolls, the pins fall, and what we know should go into such a genre flick is made new again.

That's one method of measuring the genius that went into writing The Sky Crawlers. Another is to consider the subtlety of how the story is told. Much of anime and science fiction films make it far too clear how their alternate world is set up: you are invited by the 5th minute of the narrative to witness the construction cranes behind the world-building, introduced to the authoritarian villain behind the new world, who is then confronted and denounced by the angsty teenage protagonist before the end credits. There is nothing of this sort in The Sky Crawlers.

Where much of science fiction and anime storytelling has centred on show and tell, The Sky Crawlers believes in letting the audience infer from what is shown from the periphery of where the 'real action' is. The movie moves at a leisurely pace that forces the mind to question and speculate on the significance of each detail that is shown. Even if you do get the story by the end, the story is so subtly written and subdued: the horrors of the war in The Sky Crawlers, as well as the full story, can only be gleamed from a second viewing.

Animation-wise, The Sky Crawlers bucks some nascent trends in Japanese animation. Sole use of 3D CGI occurs for dogfight scenes, but the rest of the anime is predominantly 2D-CGI. The look, as with everything else in the movie, is calculated to take the focus off the showiness of science fiction, onto introducing the viewer to the subtle aesthetics and intellectual appreciation of extreme thought experiments.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

About this blog

Hi, I was the sole full-time film critic at from February 2006 to August 2007. I've had the honour of serving with Kristin Saw of The Substation in the 3rd Toronto Singapore Film Festival, as its Programme Director and a member of its film jury. And I had a load of fun writing scripts for the second season of The Noose last year.

As I concentrate my time on freelance journalism and writing, I'll continue to view movies, but at a much reduced rate. Offers for resident film critic or in-house reviewer are greatly appreciated...

Updated 13 March 2009