Book Review, Science fiction

Fatherland written by Robert Harris

n21490 I had read Harris’ Pompeii before and had found the setting fascinating. So the first thing that drew me to Fatherland was the setting – an alternate history world where the Nazis had won the war. And pretty soon, you realize that in Xavier March, you have a hero in SS uniform who stumbles upon one of humanity’s greatest kept secret, a secret always suspected but one so horrible that its almost impossible to believe!!!
If the setting is fascinating, so is the pace of the story.

As March gets deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that is the very foundation of the Third Reich, you get a glimpse of the world that would have been if the Wehrmacht had not been stopped at the gates of Stalingrad. A world where Albert Speer got to design Germany the way he wanted to, a world where Third Reich seems all set to fulfil the prophesy of Hitler of being a “Thousand year Reich”, a world where Europe is under the rule of the swastika and the eagle, where Churchill and the queen live in exile, a world where Goering dies of natural causes and Heydrich still lives and Stalin fights an endless guerrilla war on the edges of what was once the Soviet Empire. A world where Jews have disappeared and Slavs work as maids and gardeners.

Its 1964 and its a Cold War and its between Germany and USA and the president of USA, a Kennedy is on a detente visit to the Reich. The reclusive Fuhrer’s birthday is about a week away. A body is fished out one early morning and Xavier March is called in to investigate. So starts a story that ends up much bigger that anyone could have imagined. March, a member of the SS, who is not exactly the ideal National Socialist is a man who needs an excuse to turn rebel and this is a chance he gets as the story unfolds.
This is a story which is in many ways similar to Orwell’s 1984, in that  the state has become like Big Brother, except the level of technological surveillance has not not quite peaked yet (and unlike the terrifying spirit breaking world of 1984, the Third Reich simply kills you). March is similar to Winston Smith, with an undercurrent of rebellion and like Smith, March is lonely and desperate to seek even a glimpse of an alternate world.
What Harris does splendidly is that he creates an alternative world that is completely believable (Germany was close to getting an atom bomb at one time and them getting it is the turning point in this history). The way Hitler’s Germany permeated social life is shown here as it was – a society where children were taught that their loyalty lay first with the state and not with their parents. Harris, Robert
And I loved the portrayal of March – like Andrei Taganov in “We the Living”, he is a tragic hero who may have once believed but slowly and irrevocably becomes disillusioned  and in case of March, actively commits subversion against the state.
And I loved the ending – thank God it did not have a clichéd Hollywood ending, would have spoilt the whole feel of the book…
This is one book that may not have the power of 1984 but its not meant to be a social commentary. This is a book that is supposed to thrill you and set you to turn your pages. This the book does fantastically. You get to love the story, you get close to March and if you have even a passing interest in history, you would love the setting. Cheering for one of the SS is not something you can do everyday!!!

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World Cinema

Gloomy Sunday — A Song of Love and Death/ Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod directed by Rolf Schübel

gloomy_sunday_front As someone might have guessed, the title takes from the most infamous suicide song in history – “Gloomy Sunday”, which was composed in Hungary in the 1930s; a composition that supposedly drove many to suicide.

This movie is a fictionalized account of the time of composition of the song. The song is central to the narrative – right down to the last twist in the tale. Two men – one rich and worldly restaurant owner, the other a young and struggling pianist fall in love with the same woman and she incredibly falls for both. This gives rise to a somewhat troubled threesome relationship united by the irresistible love that the two men have. Eventually the two men grow to respect and admire each other. In the meantime, the pianist composes “Gloomy Sunday”, an instant hit that propels both the composer and the restaurant to fame; but which starts to trigger the suicides as well. This troubles the composer who tries to understand the message that the song is trying to convey, almost as of it has become an independent identity of its own. That message is something that the viewer interprets in different ways at different times in the story.

But this is exactly when the Germans invade Hungary and the ‘Finalgloomysunday Solution’ begins to start its roll call. The three get caught in a game that ultimately proves beyond them. The story ends in a tragedy and ultimately in a revenge plot many decades in the making.

The movie is brought alive by some great acting. The plot never sags in its ability to deliver sudden twists and turns and it has romance, friendship, heroism, betrayals and tragedies mixed together. The characters are given enough flesh to make them well-rounded and believable. The two very different characters of the men is brought out well, as is the reason why she loves them both in different ways. Erika Marozsán as llona is fairly delectable her looks are enough to assure you that men can and will live and die for her. The last fifteen minutes or so in the movie, were for me, had some of the best moments, not to mention the surprise at the end.

This, incidentally holds the record for being the longest running movies of all times. I now know why!!

World Cinema

A Woman in Berlin directed by Max Färberböck

woman_in_berlin_ver2 The story begins where most films about world war end – at the moment when Berlin capitulates. The story is about what happens then, a story that few people have wanted to speak about or put into film. The story is about neither heroics, nor ideology, nor something that would be written in textbooks. The story is about survival when the guns have fallen silent and when the people who remain need to make a new meaning of their shattered lives.

Both the victors and the vanquished.

The story is taken from a diary kept by an anonymous diarist (this diary caused such an uproar in Germany on its publication that the author preferred to remain anonymous) who was caught in the final collapse of Nazi state. Soon Berlin is surrounded by and filled with the Red Army, an army which had gone through hell to get to this victory. An army, more importantly for the inhabitants of Berlin, with a score to settle. Hitler had proclaimed the Slavic people to be untermensch or sub-human, fit only for extermination or slavery and the Wehrmacht (especially the SS) had taken up the task with enthusiasm. The result was that almost every soldier in the Red Army had someone or the other affected by the brutality of the Germans.

This did not bode well for the unfortunate men (mostly old – most able bodied men had been captured or dead or still fighting some hopeless battle somewhere) and the women trapped in the fallen city. It is well documented that the Red Army soldiers went on a raping spree as soon  as the city had fallen. We get an account of that from a woman who experienced firsthand the horrors of being a spoil of war. After the initial horrors, she begins to understand that in order to survive, she must accept the reality of the situation and get some control of the situation. It is then that she makes a morally bold decision, which to a peace-time civilian would seem like a reprehensible decision but which when taken in the context of the situation that the author finds herself in, is a intensely brave decision.A Woman in Berlin

But you would be mistaken to take this movie as a series of brutal acts. The complexity in the situation – both from the German and from the Russian side is something that the author understands and acknowledges as the story moves on. She realizes that the brutality that had been unleashed on the Russians prevents them from viewing the Germans as human and that it is a primitive revenge that is being exacted by the Russians. She also finds that the Russians, contrary to expectations (and German propaganda), can be generous and open-hearted and some of them (like the Battalion commander) worth feeling more than affection for.

The next stage in the movie comes when the German men start to come back. And suddenly you see through their eyes and you realize that they can never understand what the women have been through. Some try to adjust and fail and some simply wrap themselves up in denial. But the women soon realize that they are really alone in this one…

It’s a complex story at its heart, a story about a side of us that we rather not face in our day to day life. Which is what makes this movie so wonderful. It takes an unflinching look and makes us realize how intimately life is not black and white. It takes a look at the decisions that people need to take in a world gone to hell.

Woman12 But most of all, it’s a movie about intense quiet bravery and of an unflagging human spirit. It’s about a human will to survive and retain something of our own in the most hellish of situations. And this is supported by some of the best acting that I have seen. The actors are able to portray a surreal world, where everything seems unreal. A nightmare world where everyone is struggling to find a place and some meaning again.

This is a movie that you need to see with an uncluttered mind. This will, then, stay with you for a long time.