506: Dealing with WWII’s Wounds and Exploring Spiritual Lessons in History

“Surely the Lord was in this place—and I did not know it!”
    This is one of the greatest affirmations in all of scripture—uttered by Jacob, the man who would become a patriarch to Jews, Christians and Muslims. What’s stunning about this famous exclamation in Genesis 28 is that Jacob utters it as he’s fleeing for his life from the murderous rage of his brother Esau. Jacob is running because he just committed a terrible fraud, stealing the family inheritance. Jacob camps out that night in the countryside—and is shocked to see a vision of angels climbing a ladder.
    The next morning, he utters the affirmation that we repeat thousands of years later: “Surely, the Lord was in this place—and I did not know it.”
    Overall, our human vision is pretty darned limited, isn’t it? Christians say “we see through a glass darkly.” We like to think the world is at our fingertips in this age of handheld Internet access, but … …
    The problem is as close as our neighborhood cineplex this week. Right now, millions of moviegoers are wrestling with this spiritual challenge: They’re enjoying the high adventure and shocking violence—and also some of the righteously triumphant moments—in the movies “District 9” and “Inglourious Basterds.”
    All this week, Dr. Wayne Baker, the University of Michigan sociologist who created www.OurValues.org, will explore the violence—and the values—in these movies. You’ll also hear from author Rabbi Irwin Kula this week at OurValues.org.
    So, I’m not going to dig into the question of violence here.
    Right here, let’s think about the underlying spiritual question: How do we find spiritual truth—when “history” keeps changing on us?

This is part of a week-long series on violence and provocative themes in hit movies: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2.)

“Inglourious Basterds”
We Won’t Spoil the Movie, But …

    This movie is violent. Bloody. And it’s an utter fantasy, much like World War II adventure movies and action-packed Westerns were back in the 1960s. Not only did “Basterds” not happen—it never could have happened! It’s a fantasy.
    Here’s the story in a nutshell: Somehow, a tough group of American Jewish soldiers join forces with an Army officer from the American South (Brad Pitt) who fancies himself a latter-day Apache warrior. That’s wild enough already, right? Then, somehow, this unlikely crew winds up behind Nazi lines in Europe where they ruthlessly—and as horrifically as possible—kill or brand German soldiers. Yes, that’s “brand”—on the forehead.
    You probably never saw these early posters for the movie (see the poster at right)—but the first wave of movie posters showed a bloody baseball bat and a captured German helmet. Why? One of the Basterds crew kills his Nazi enemies with a Louisville Slugger to the skull. He calls himself the “Bear Jew.”
    But it’s not all horrific violence. If you explore a little bit about real-life 1940s European cinema, you’ll discover that director Quentin Tarantino is taking his own blows at the memories of real French and German filmmakers from the era. Some he honors and some he dismisses as Nazi stooges. These real directors and actors are his colleagues from that time and place—and he’s taking no prisoners himself as he sorts them out—good vs. evil.
    The climactic scene involves an inferno in a boobytrapped movie theater with imagery you’ll never forget. And, in the end, Tarantino is trying to show us something quite different than the history we think we know. No, his film certainly isn’t history! But Tarantino is asking each of us to think about that history in light of our own lives now. He’s pushing all of us to consider what we all would have done—or should do if we ever find ourselves in such a situation.
    The answers aren’t obvious. We leave the theater along with Brad Pitt, wondering what to do next. So, please, Email us with any thoughts you’d like to share about this film. Tell us why you’ve chosen not to see it. Or why you’re eager to go. Or raise a question. Or disagree completely.

“District 9”
How Far Does Our Spirit of Humanity Extend …

This movie is violent. Bloody. And it’s an utter fantasy, much like

    You get the idea. We’re facing the same spiritual issues in “District 9.”
    Here’s the story in a nutshell: One giant alien spacecraft breaks down like a 1960s station wagon along a remote side road—except that, in the sci-fi scale of things, this side road is the Planet Earth. However, instead of helping our alien visitors repair their vehicle and travel home again, earthlings sink to their worst fears and prejudices in “District 9.” Just to make sure we “get” the point, the movie is set in South Africa and the public policies echo the worst of Apartheid. To test the scope of our concept of “humanity,” these aliens look like giant, walking shellfish. Humans insultingly call them “Prawn.” As the movie opens, the one human assigned to push these aliens into a newly constructed concentration camp suddenly is doused with an elixir that begins transforming into one of them! (The unlucky fellow is in the photo at right.)
    Just like “Basterds,” it’s a Hollywood drama drawing on storylines from classic Hollywood movies.
    Just like “Basterds,” the answers aren’t obvious. We leave the theater wondering what to do next. So, again, please Email us your thoughts!

“Private Century”
One More Choice in Rewriting History …

This movie is not violent. It’s not bloody. And this movie is, indeed, real history from central Europe before, during and after World War II.
    Did you catch that? This, 8-part, 8-hour “movie” is the one example of real history in this trio of films.
And it’s not at all what you’ll expect!
    Facets Video, the nonprofit film group that promotes global cinema, is releasing a new, 2-DVD set of Czech filmmaker Jan Sikl’s years-long project to capture his nation’s 20th-Century story entirely from the home movies shot between the 1920s and the Velvet Revolution in late 1989.
    The DVD set won’t be released until mid-September, but here’s a link to Facet’s Web site about “Private Century,” created for an earlier New York Museum of Modern Art showing. And here’s a link to pre-order a copy of the DVD set through Facet’s online store.

    I’ve watched the whole thing and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. Sikl spent years collecting and archiving home movies from Czech families. Surprisingly, amateur movie making was a fairly popular hobby around Prague from the silent-movie era until today. Of course, the home movie archive was just an endless ribbon of boring footage until Sikl selected the six families whose stories he would reconstruct.
    Then, he had to conduct long hours of interviews and dig into historical records to piece together compelling biographical stories. To put it bluntly: This guy is a terrific storyteller! For example, there’s the story of a family who adored American Westerns and used to bootleg Western films, even under the Communist regime. When they lost that ability, a couple of family members began making their own Westerns with a hand-held camera.
    The most serious of the stories, though, involve World War II. And, until I saw this long film, I assumed that it was virtually impossible to show Europe in the early 1940s on a movie screen—without images of the war. Here, though, we see the war through the eyes of families both dramatically changed—and yet strangely untouched—by the war. That’s not to say you’ll come away cheering for these families. There are some very creepy chapters in these stories.
    But it’s not the history I thought I knew.
    It’s not the movie I thought I’d see.
    And that makes me wonder …

If you’re ready for more of this “rethinking history,” here’s a Preview of Coming Attractions:

    Stay tuned to
ReadTheSpirit for more provocative revelations!
    On Wednesday, we’ll publish an interview
with the author of the new book, “Paul Was Not a Christian: The
Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle,” and next week, we’ll
bring you an in-depth look at a major new book, “Occult America,” by
Mitch Horowitz. Whatever you thought you knew about American religious
history—Mitch will surprise you with fresh insights!

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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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