Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- On Netflix, two different views of World War II: THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY and THE RESISTANCE BANKER

This post is written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

“Perhaps there is some secret sort 
of homing instinct in books that 
brings them to their perfect readers…..” 

Spun from honey (which has food-value unlike sugar), this delicious rom-com of a war romance is not an oxymoron. A WWII story has finally arrived driven by the full-on form of romantic drama rather than embattled war film. THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY, by the director of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell, is a sparkling, irresistible pastiche of friendship, love, mystery, and travel excursion, a perfect date-night entertainment. It’s based on a best selling novel of the same name by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008). Newell (below) filmed in Dover and Cornwall, as the British channel island of Guernsey itself does not offer 1946-worthy locations — too polished, painted, and updated, he said. (And on the beautiful craggy coastline he chose, Poldark might just be galloping around a bend.)

Downton Abbey’s cast is well-represented by Guernsey’s quirkily pretty and appealing lead, Lily James, plus Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Matthew Goode (the big-screen DA film version is due 9/19). Add more talent including Tom Courtenay, Michiel Huisman, Katherine Parkinson, and two children, to make a winsome and idiosyncratic Guernsey Island ensemble, offset by dashing American, Glen Powell.

Juliet Ashton (James), a fetching young writer in 1946 London, has had an exchange of letters with Guernsey pig farmer, Dawsey Adams (Huisman, “Game of Thrones”), who owns a book by Charles Lamb, essayist and critic, with Juliet’s name and address penned inside (she had sold it once in need of cash). He asks her to direct him to a London bookshop as there isn’t one left on Guernsey so he can order Lamb’s Shakespeare’s tales for children. He tells her of his reading group called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, formed during the war in a precarious moment when they were caught out after curfew, and which offered camaraderie and comfort in the face of the punishing Nazi occupation.

Expecting to find the plight of British islanders during the German occupation of interest to readers of The London Times, Juliet travels by boat to Guernsey (above) for the next meeting of Dawsey’s group. There she finds quietly scarred, reticent residents and a mystery: the organizing force of the Society, Elizabeth (Findlay), has been missing since her arrest in 1944, having left her tiny daughter Kit with Dawsey, who now calls him ‘daddy’ (below, Elizabeth and Dawsey before her arrest).

Elizabeth’s story is doled out in morsels as Juliet extends her stay searching for answers, gradually coaxing information from Dawsey (below) and the circle of friends, war records housed on the island, and eventual aid from Juliet’s fiancé in London, American officer, Mark Reynolds (Powell), who agrees to research what happened. Through flashbacks to the Nazi occupation, we see snatches of its harshness, concentration camp victims being worked and starved to death building fortifications on island and the indignities of British citizens being forced into submission with unthinkable rules and deprivations.

Dawsey explains that after its gaudy arrival (below) the German army forced them into isolation — telegraph cables cut, radios taken, mail stopped, curfews imposed. Island animals, including his pigs, were confiscated to feed the German army on the continent and he himself ordered to grow potatoes.

Guernsey residents were literally hungry and also starved for fellowship. Their book society became their refuge, says Dawsey, “a private freedom to feel the world growing darker all around you but needing only a candle to see new worlds unfold…..” They savored it together with trays of Amelia’s tea, nips of Isola’s (Parkinson) home-distilled gin, and Eben’s (Courtenay) tasteless potato peel pie (potatoes, peel, no butter or flour).

By and by, Elizabeth’s fate is told and resolution of the Juliet/Mark/Dawsey triangle is calculated to charm. The story would have been richer for more reveal of Elizabeth’s life, her relationship with a German soldier, and her stubborn defiance of the occupation. Reminiscent of Sybil Crawley’s rebellious spirit in the Downton Abbey saga, Jessica Brown Findlay surpasses herself in very little screen time, her emotions and actions making you want more of Elizabeth’s story, while a bit less of Juliet’s earnest dithering would have balanced the film’s rom-com-ness with more solemnity. Penelope Wilton (below, third from r) is the weight and grief of the drama, compelling as grandmotherly Amelia who has suffered much loss during two world wars. Wilton’s rich acting chops get far more reveal than the writing of her character allowed in many seasons of Downton Abbey.

But most pleasant of all, The Guernsey Society itself speaks to the pleasures of reading and in particular, its sharing.

 “What is reading but silent conversation.” 

 “A book reads the better which is our own, 
and has been so long known to us, 
that we know the topography of its blots, 
and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it 
to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” 
                                          .....Charles Lamb


A traditional cloak and dagger WWII story (Netflix, subtitled) THE RESISTANCE BANKER is the true account, set in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, of banker-brothers Walraven and Gijs van Hall, who used their financial expertise and positions of authority to rob their German occupiers blind, Robin Hood style, stealing from the Nazi-run Dutch central bank in order to fund the Dutch resistance. The brothers mustered funds through forgery and fraud to help fund the Red Cross, pay railroad strikers, resistance fighters, spy, and sabotage groups, and to buy printing and ID making equipment and supplies; they carried the underground on their shoulders. Proud of fighting smart, they used ingenuity and gumption to outwit a much weightier opponent. The Resistance Banker is the Dutch entrant into the Best Foreign Film category of the 2019 Academy Awards. It was a big hit with the Dutch public and is joined by other nations entering WWII-related films into the U.S. premier awards contest. (Russia has Sobibor, Austria: The Waldheim Waltz, Slovakia: The Interpreter, Switzerland: Eldorado.)

The film is helmed by movie and tv director, Joram Lürsen (at left). The 'Resistance Banker’ and ring-leader, Walraven van Hall, is played by Barry Atsma, who must have relived his role of a few years ago as Johan de Witt, prime minister of the democratic Dutch republic in the mid-1600’s, who guided the Netherlands during its Golden Age. He was butchered like Braveheart by political opponents in the Dutch film, Admiral. While Johan de Witt and his brother were both martyred in particularly gory fashion in 1672, the van Hall brothers fared both good and bad in 1945. Wally van Hall was betrayed, arrested, and shot more antiseptically in a lineup just weeks before the end of the war. Upon the arrest, Brother Gijs (Jacob Derwig) took Wally’s wife and children and his own family into hiding while Wally’s fate played out. Following the war, Gijs had a successful political career, eventually becoming Mayor of Amsterdam.

The saga began for Wally (above) in 1942 when he discovered the murder-suicide of a Jewish client and family that was precipitated by Nazi orders to vacate their home and submit to deportation. In a second rude-awakening, on a train halted for another, he witnessed cattle cars pass by filled with screaming prisoners. (These brief moments are the viewers only contact with the scale of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime other than their brutality to the resistance members they arrest.) Van Hall’s resolve to proceed consumed his life and he coaxed his more cautious older brother, Gijs, to join him in an underground bank scheme proposed by resistance members. The film lingers on the internal conflict of risk to life, family, and financial ruin before the brothers committed wholeheartedly to the dangers. But together they went on to engineer a variety of schemes, starting with raising legitimate loans and proceeding to outright theft and forgery. Below they check out fake currency, hot off the press.

They reportedly conjured up the modern equivalent of over a half billion Euros, called the largest bank fraud in Dutch history. But van Hall was a meticulous record keeper: he tracked and noted the intake and outgo of every amount and left a history of transactions as anal as Nazi record-keeping of its evil doings.

The tale does not progress smoothly; the frauds being committed under the noses of the Germans develop at a snail’s pace and the nature of the actual schemes somewhat difficult to follow, but the suspense ramps up midway to a thrill ride. Do hang on as the Nazi’s close in on Wally while money transactions are in high gear. Their work was almost done when Wally was caught near war’s end (below); Gijs, however, was able to continue distributing funds until the actual end of the war and offer exact accounting to legitimate authorities when the Dutch government reassembled.

Not until 2010 did the Dutch create a monument to their heroic steward — ‘the premier of the resistance’. Located opposite the Dutch Central Bank, it is an unusual bronze sculpture of a fallen tree (below) symbolizing their fallen giant. Both the film version and the family’s original black and white home movies (run over the credits) show Wally and his children tree climbing — the fallen tree sculpture resonates. But I’d like to think that a tall standing tree clouded in a perpetual mist would have been a more inspiring eternal metaphor for Walraven van Hall.

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