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Issue #1688      June 10, 2015

A triple treat from BBC Films

Three recent movies currently showing in Australian cinemas deal with real events and the experience of women during war and its aftermath, but in other respects are very different.

In Royal Night Out, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret enjoy a night of release from regal bondage – albeit under military escort – to join in public festivities when World War II ended in Europe at the stroke of midnight on May 8, 1945.

This comedy is the least serious of the three films reviewed here, and the least concerned about historical accuracy. The girls did have a night out, but the account of Margaret helping a brothel owner and his female employees gate-crash a huge party at Chelsea army barracks can be dismissed as pure fantasy.

Nevertheless, the story raises interesting questions. The princesses probably did give their escorts the slip and became separated in the milling crowds. It’s also probable that a young air force crewman, named Jack in the film, helped Elizabeth find her sister.

But was he from a working class background, and was he absent without leave, as the film suggests? Did he really hold republican views, and did he and Elizabeth clash fiercely but nevertheless consider slipping away together to Paris?

When reunited, did the girls really enjoy a rest and a cup of tea at Jack’s mother’s house? Was Margaret really returned to the Palace under military escort, while Jack drove Elizabeth home in his mother’s battered little van that she used to cart veggies to the market?

According to the film, Jack and Elizabeth’s brief, wistful flirtation ended after she drove him at breakneck speed back to his barracks in time for roll call, saving him from court-martial by ordering the terrified sentry to remain silent about his re-entry.

Elizabeth described her experience as “the most extraordinary night of my life” because she met ordinary people for the first time, while the King is said to have agreed to the girls’ release because he wanted to know the public’s reaction to his VE Day speech.

Royal Night Out pays tribute to the progressive role played by the King during the war. The film undoubtedly obtained royal approval before release, and is certainly no threat to the monarchy. However, it has its funny moments, and has something to say about the extraordinary detachment of members of the royal family from ordinary working people on whom they depend for their enormous, undeserved incomes and privileges.

Woman in Gold describes Maria Altman’s struggle to regain Gustav Klimt’s famous 1907 painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was stolen by the Nazis after they invaded Austria in 1938. Newly-married Maria and her husband Fritz Altman managed a last minute “skin of the teeth” escape from Vienna to Cologne in Germany, then secretly crossed the border into Switzerland before finally reaching the US.

Mrs Altman’s family was Jewish, and most of them died in concentration camps. Their looted possessions were transported to Germany, except for Klimt’s painting, which was considered too decadent for the refined tastes of the Third Reich and ended up in a Viennese gallery.

In the 1990’s the Austrian government passed legislation concerning restitution of stolen property, prompting Mrs Altman to seek legal advice about reclaiming the painting. The task fell to young Los Angeles lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, who located evidence that Maria had legal grounds to lodge a claim.

However, under the legislation Mrs Altman needed millions of dollars to argue her case in Vienna. The case lapsed for several years, but publication in the US of a book on Klimt’s paintings provided grounds for Mrs Altman to sue the Austrian government within the US federal court.

The description of the subsequent hearings, including Mrs Altman’s dignified and moving address to the court prior to the verdict in her favour, makes great drama.

The Austrian government, which had taken every opportunity to block her claim, then pleaded with her to sell the paintings back to the Viennese gallery because of its great significance as an Austrian work of art. However, she eventually sold the painting to a New York gallery.

That decision raises troubling questions. Part of the astronomical proceeds of sale went to Schoenberg, who subsequently established a thriving business in reclaiming stolen works of art. But was she right to deprive the Austrian people of a nationally significant work of art because of her appalling treatment by the Austrian government?

Surely the real enemy was not the admittedly hostile, grasping and obdurate Austrian government, but rather the Third Reich, which murdered her immediate family.

She could have sold the painting back to the Viennese gallery, providing that when it was displayed it would be accompanied by a description of the Nazis’ slaughter of millions of innocent people, the theft of their property, and Mrs Altman’s struggle to regain the painting.

The film begins with a close-up of the artist’s hands adding layers of gold leaf to the painting, but says little about it as a work of art. No-one in the film, including Mrs Altman, seems to have noticed that by depicting the painting’s subject festooned in gold, with a slender, elegant, little-used hand clasped languorously against her breast, Klimt was satirising the avarice and indolence of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, Woman in Gold is great viewing, with Helen Mirren terrific as the elderly but feisty Maria Altman, while Tatiana Maslay as young Maria rivals Ms Mirren’s performance.

The film includes chilling scenes in which the Viennese laugh as the Jews, their fellow citizens, are forced to scrub pro-independence graffiti from pavements, using acid and their bare hands, before being forced into trucks for delivery to concentration camps.

The film also leaves the distinct impression that the Third Reich still has its adherents in Austria, Hitler’s beautiful but haunted birthplace.

Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s World War I autobiography, contains the most powerful anti-war message of the three films.

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in Testament of Youth.

Prior to the war Vera gained the reluctant support of her father to study literature at Oxford. When she sat for the entrance exam in 1914 she found to her horror that she was required to write in Latin, for which she was totally unprepared. Maddeningly frustrated, she wrote in German instead, and was astounded when she was accepted.

With war looming, her brother Edward and his friends fell under the spell of phoney romantic military jingoism and vowed to “teach the Hun a lesson”. Edward was under age and her father, a sensitive man with realistic views about the brutality of warfare, refused to let him go, but Vera finally persuaded him to do so.

However, she was horrified by the statistics of thousands of casualties, printed everyday in closely-printed page after page of the broadsheet newspapers, and she became stricken with guilt over her role in Edward’s enlistment.

In 1916 she decided to quit Oxford and train as a nurse. Sent to a hospital in France, she treated wounded German prisoners as well as British soldiers. One day she rescued her badly-wounded brother, who had arrived for treatment but had been mistakenly placed among the dead patients. Edward recovered, but was then sent to Italy, where he died after being wounded again.

By the end of the war her brother, fiancée and two best male friends had died. She determined to write a fictional anti-war novel, but the venture failed, and for many years she set the task aside. However, in 1933 she determined to rewrite the work as an autobiography.

This time the manuscript, with its gripping reality and highly personal “first person” detail, was immediately accepted, and the entire 3,000 first edition copies sold out on the first day of publication.

During the struggle against fascism in the Second World War her pacifist views were deemed unpatriotic, even though she was included in Hitler’s list of people to be immediately imprisoned if Germany conquered Britain. However, in the 1970s a TV series based on her story proved highly popular.

Like the book, which is still in print and remains one of the most powerful and uplifting anti-war stories ever written, the riveting BBC film is replete with incisive, personal details of life during WWI.

Its depiction of raw, unpainted timber hospital wards housing bloody amputees, while corpses lie in rows in the thick mud outside, is shocking. However, it provides a welcome contrast to recent TV productions which glorify the First World War and depict wartime nurses in beautifully tailored and pressed uniforms treating handsome, clean-shaven wounded soldiers in attractive, immaculately sterile hospital wards.

In one scene Vera takes refuge from London’s Armistice Day celebrations in a small, dingy church, but finds it occupied by women silently weeping for their lost ones while the crowds scream and sing in hysterical pandemonium outside.

Testament of Youth is well worth seeing, but its adamant anti-war message may be why it has received far less publicity than the other two films reviewed here.

Next article – Food under commodified agriculture – The modern food system

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