Review: Nicky’s Family

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically.

Specifically to this post, upon hearing of Sir Nicholas Winton’s death today at the age of 106 I confirmed that I had not given this film its own post yet. May he rest in peace. 

Nicky’s Family (2011)

In this documentary, which also includes dramatizations that are thankfully usually silent, the tale of a British businessman, Sir Nicholas Winton, who took it upon himself to organize the Kindertransport program, which evacuated hundreds of children out of Czechoslovakia prior to World War II and the transport of Czechoslovakian Jews, Slavs and Gypsies to concentration camps, is told. However, as the title suggests how Winton came to be inspired to do so, what he had to do and how is only a part of the tale. The film also tells of how the story became more widely known and some of what the survivors went through both as Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, what occurred during and after their relocation and lastly how the legacy of Nicholas’ actions are still felt to this day both with survivors and those inspired by his tale.

Within a seemingly simple story at the outset this is a hefty and ambitious task when all the component parts are taken into account. Having said that it does so quite well. Though I occasionally wondered about, or lost track of a thread, there is a narrative language established wherein transitions between hosted intros, stills, interview pieces, stock footage, re-enactments and b-roll occurs. It’s only a minor pacing hiccup in the end.

Much of the footage implemented, along with the personal accounts as well as some unique and well-placed scoring and original music really elevate this film.

In a great piece by Christopher Campbell from last year he discussed the importance of judging the film in question when dealing with a documentary and as a sidebar you can talk about the topic as he discusses in issue films, which this is. So here’s my sidebar: while there are myriad stories of heroics that occurred during the holocaust that saved further lives from being lost what separates this one is what a small, almost individual effort it was, how unassuming the hero is and how he’s inspired others to take action to this very day in almost a real-life Pay It Forward manner.

Nicky’s Family is a fairly good documentary that should find a wider audience both for the cinematic qualities it possesses and the tale it tells, one that may not be so widely known. For more information on the film you can visit Menemsha’s site or go here to request a screening near you.

8/10

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Review- The Round Up (La Rafle)

The Round Up (La Rafle) (Gaumont)

Any film that deals with World War II, more specifically the holocaust, fights an uphill battle. The film has to contend with not only the knowledge that we as a viewing public share but also with the inevitable outcome its story-lines share. These factors make any newly told tale, especially ones that may have been shared before, more daunting to tell than they have been in the past, however, what The Round Up (Le Rafle) does so well is tell a multi-faceted tale that most films that illustrate historic events tend to avoid. This film not only tells the tale of a single neighborhood, more specifically the Weismann and Zygler families, but also takes a look at the political sides of the equation (the ivory tower and backroom bargaining where lives were bartered and certain agreements were reached under a false sense of humanitarianism) which many films tend to avoid. Not only does that angle of the story get played but also as those rounded up start their unjustly imposed sojourn you also have the plight of the medical staff, illustrated by a nurse (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) who have to try an keep the imprisoned alive as they are eventually transported to Poland. It is adding these layers to the story which makes this film different than other of the like at least on the surface.

The differentiation does not lie solely on the surface, however, while this film does not ever take place in an unoccupied France until its denouement it does start in a time where knowledge of what’s truly happening is scarce and children remain children as they are wont to do regardless of circumstance. You are shown very good illustrations of the sense that permeates the community of “It Can’t Happen to Us” and it’s tackled head on later as the eldest of the Weismann daughters tries to warn everyone a few times and wants to flee but calm is urged by her parents. Later at the first stop it is poignantly touched upon again. It’s one of the many times wherein the senselessness and unimaginable insanity of what the holocaust was is very well illustrated. Many of the characters in the film are in the dark willfully or honestly and it allows scenes we’ve viewed and facts we know to wash over us with newfound impact.

Some of these points are made with very cleverly written dialogue as well that is uttered by the right characters in the right moments and in the right context. Things being too on the head are a matter of context as much as anything else and the correct personages say the correct things to make points anew in a different way or ones that are often overlooked. The children, the nurse in her naïveté, Hitler amongst his inner circle and French heads of state all say things that were they assigned to other characters may strike you as too much commentary. Part of why auteur theory is not a popular notion in cinema anymore is that voice in a script as opposed to things like composition and genre can border preachiness but this one deals in the political and personal of a difficult subject matter makes its points about the absurdity of the situation in terse pieces of dialogue, visuals wherever possible but never to the detriment of the narrative, which helps it excel.

Conversely, when it speaks more loudly for the film not to say a word, when an honest question is better left unanswered, where a glare from an officer says more than words possibly could the film does so. The film visually puts pieces in place to set up the ending without dialogue, so as precise and purposeful as it is at some points it understands the necessity of silence also. There is also no fear in illustrating complexity in character without going overboard and simplicity in others without creating characters. The complexity is shown mostly with the families we know who start with different levels of understanding of circumstance and gradually though they don’t know exactly what lies ahead the gravity of the situation becomes exceedingly obvious, yet you also see them grasp for humanity whenever possible. The second part of that statement being most important because there isn’t an excessive myopia in this film as exhibited in something like Life is Beautiful. It creates moments where the human spirit can overcome but also illustrates the length to which human beings will go to be cruel and to be free.

As you can see by now this film us most definitely an ensemble work a few actors come to the fore as vital but it relies on many to convey its story as well as it does. In the family the patriarch and matriarch played by Gad Elmaleh and Sylvie Testud; the medical personnel played by the world renowned Jean Reno and Mélanie Laurent who many will know and love from Inglourious Basterds and The Beginners; the kids spearheaded by Hugo Leverdez in a most impressive debut, The Di Concerto twins as Nono and Adèle Exarchopoulos and lastly the political contingencies highlighted by Udo Schenk as Adolf Hitler each of these nuclei brings the film vividly to life and fully realizes their characters.

In the early stages the intercutting between these disparate worlds is at its apex but it stays rather persistent through the course of the narrative. There are great cuts aesthetically and with story in mind we never see more of the political discussions than we need to in them we are shown the steps than lead to the decisions ultimately made and clearly how things came about.

Where this film really gets to me is at its conclusion but it is effective throughout and evokes different emotions and remains compelling in spite of the aforementioned stumbling blocks the story has. It is a brilliant work that illustrates through its many facets the precipitous escalation of events in Occupied France and the lives it affected.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Night & Fog

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Night & Fog

Night & Fog (Argos Films)

It is virtually impossible to ever come close to fully grasping the totality of the horror of the holocaust. If anything were to ever come close it’s Night & Fog. Never has the greatest calamity of the 20th Century been handled so precisely.

Many people are down on voice over narration but it’s part of the nature of the beast in a documentary and here, in this film, you have some of the greatest narration ever written by Jean Cayrol, a man who was himself a concentration camp survivor.

Not only does this film uniquely, at the time, mix color and black and white images but also uses the abandoned structures of the camps to haunt the film.

There is no question that this film is the apex of documentary filmmaking. It tried to take a massive subject and condense into something easy to understand. It allows you to reflect on things you see and learn but tries to bring as much of what transpired out as it can.

It also in turn becomes an important historical document. It is a masterpiece in as much as it achieves perfection in its form. If it was a feature length documentary it may not have this kind of impact.
 
It is an eye-opening and jarring account of the atrocities of the second World War that should be required viewing for all.

10/10