Valkyrie (2008) and My Thoughts on Historical Dramas

This past weekend, I rewatched the WWII movie Valkyrie (2008) with my brother.  (He, like me, is a history nerd and was the one who talked me into watching Lawrence of Arabia, for which I’m perpetually grateful.)  I don’t believe I reviewed Valkyrie last time, so it seemed like a good time to talk about it and about history-themed movies in general.

Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a Nazi officer, family man, and Catholic, who is tormented by his conscience and the events of the war.  In 1943, he joins a number of collaborators planning a political-military coup, which ultimately involves a plan to assassinate Hitler.  The genius of the plot is that it uses Hitler’s own backup plan, “Operation Valkyrie,” against him by feigning an emergency.  The movie zooms in on July 20, 1944, when Stauffenberg and his fellow officers attempt to carry out the assassination and coup.

The first thing to get out of the way is the casting.  Now, don’t get me wrong: Cruise is ok, and I love British actors – here we’ve got names like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, David Bamber.  But why, why, why are American and British actors playing Germans, especially when they don’t even try for a fake accent?  It’s just a bizarre thing to watch and bothered me deeply the first time I saw it.  (At least Christopher Plummer pulled it off!

Now, watching it a second time, I was able to fully enjoy the film.

  • Cinematography – The photography may be stylized, but it is stunning. Check out this trailer and you’ll see what I mean:
  • Acting – Casting aside, the acting is top-notch.  I haven’t seen Mission Impossible or any other Cruise films, but he does a great job here as the conflicted protagonist.  The supporting cast is excellent.  I was especially impressed by Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of Major Remer, the officer who displays chilling loyalty to Hitler.  Apparently Kretschmann was first slated to play Stauffenberg – I would’ve liked to see that.
  • Story – From a purely cinematic standpoint, the story extremely compelling.  It goes from the personal to the political and, finally, the philosophical.  Did Stauffenberg do the right thing? Is an assassination of a evil dictator a crime or a moral obligation?  The story is interactive in that sense; it gives you much to think about.

Now, history nerd that I am, I had look all of this up on Wikipedia.  As you read up on it, it seems (as to be expected) Hollywood may have simplified some aspects of the story.  There is even question whether Stauffenberg’s motives were driven more by politics than by conscience.  In real life, people are always more complicated (surprise).

So… are even the best, most accurate historical films worth watching?  Or is there a risk they will mislead viewers?

Personally, I don’t think any movie should be viewed in a vacuum, even fiction.  If a film moves, inspires, or fascinates you, then it’s worth looking into the source material.  In the case of history, it’s downright necessary.

Also, depending on the nature of the historical inaccuracies, some films may be more egregious than others.  In the case of Valkyrie (2008), the artistic liberties seem to have more to do with the angle the filmmakers took, rather than the actual facts.  I would be more bothered if the movie, say, was a completely made-up story using real figures.

As for Lawrence of Arabia, if it hadn’t been for that film, it’s not likely I would have got into reading about T. E. Lawrence and WWI.  Through my reading, I’ve discovered how inaccurate the film is, as well as O’Toole’s portrayal.  But in spite of that, I still love the movie, like I love an illustration in a book. 

Let me know what you think …. do you like and/or watch historical dramas?  And if so, what are some good ones?

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #4 / Wrap-Up

We made it! 

If you know me from past years, you know I’m terrible at sticking to read-alongs and challenges.  So I have to pat myself on the back for finishing this one.  🙂

Overall?  I give the Read-Along 5 stars – the pacing and discussion questions have been excellent.  The book itself, I give a solid 3 stars.  Wollstonecraft packed a lot of thoughts into the book, and I agreed with her on many points.  At the same time, there was a lot of needless repetition, which, if I hadn’t been on a schedule, might have bogged me down completely. 

On to the discussion questions:

Do you agree or disagree with Wollstonecraft’s arguments about “stupid” romance novels, in which an author presents perfect images of men and women in love and marriage. (We could even apply this to romantic films.)

I couldn’t tell exactly what kind of novels she dislikes, though it seems to be all of them??

Anyways, I would agree that romantic novels/films can be dangerous if they’re your main diet of entertainment.  By “romantic” I mean even as innocuous as Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery (let’s not even talk about Twilight).  I think a healthy mix of genres is always going to be better than, say, a narrow focus on romance, or action, or detective stories.  (Disclaimer: Former “hopeless romantic,” now barely romantic…I’m a bit jaded, perhaps.)

What do you think of her suggestion that a benefit of mixed schools would encourage early marriage? That is not the case today. If anything, less people are marrying, or more people are putting off marriage. So what happened (since modern schools have been co-educating for generations)?

Yeah… I think what she described was nice, but completely utopian.

Many parents don’t want their kids getting into serious romance in high school.  They want them to finish college first, since high school degrees alone no longer hold the kind of weight they used to.  So there’s going to be opposition to early marriage on that front.

Also, like you say, Ruth, moral standards have completely changed since Wollstonecraft’s time.  Now marriage is viewed as optional.

Finally, while it is completely possible to fall in love in high school, I do think in some cases, “familiarity breeds contempt.”  I can see more appeal in getting out into the world and meeting different kinds of people.

Are there any arguments throughout the book that you definitely disagree? How would you respond?

I would have liked to know more about her complaints on cathedral services in England.  Though I’m not Catholic, in general I didn’t care for her comments on church ritual, but there wasn’t enough context for me to give an answer to it, e.g. I couldn’t quite tell if she was talking about liturgy in general, some specific rituals, and/or the way they’re carried out.

Also, I am curious what she is talking about in these quotes:

Considering the attributes of God, I believe, that whatever punishment may follow, will tend, like the anguish of disease, to show the malignity of vice, for the purpose of reformation. Positive punishment appears so contrary to the nature of God, discoverable in all his works, and in our own reason, that I could sooner believe that the Deity paid no attention to the conduct of men, than that he punished without the benevolent design of reforming.

To suppose only, that an all-wise and powerful Being, as good as he is great, should create a being, foreseeing, that after fifty or sixty years of feverish existence, it would be plunged into never ending woe—is blasphemy.

God gives us this time on earth to reform… I don’t know of any biblical reference which suggests there is reformation in the afterlife.

Did the author change your way of thinking on any issue?

Not exactly.  But like I mentioned before, I feel I have a deeper understanding of the context around Jane Austen’s novels, as well as a desire to re-read them all.  This is not a small thing… only a few months ago, I would’ve been like “no way”!

I’m also reminded of all the benefits I have as a woman in 21st-century America: college education, privilege to vote, a car, the opportunity to be a leader, etc.  I may be pessimistic about the current state of society and the future, but on a personal level, I feel a sense of satisfaction having experienced a level of equality Wollstonecraft could only imagine.

Are there still areas of improvement?  Absolutely.  I have had some negative experiences as a female, from childhood to my college years.  Unfortunately, there are some people who still view a woman as “less than” or someone to be taken advantage of.

I retain my opinion that feminism, as it is today, is problematic.  Interestingly, it seems like the movement was also political in Wollstonecraft’s day, hence her analogies with revolutionary thought.  But today it is political in the extreme, and some of its proponents try to vilify anyone who disagrees with their particular form of feminism and social policies.

That’s why I’m glad to read these books and have these discussions, with women and men alike.  I don’t believe books like Vindication are the special property of one particular group, and we get a more nuanced picture if we evaluate literature and history for ourselves, rather than through someone else’s interpretation.

Top Ten Favorite Reviews

Cleo’s twist on today’s Top Ten Tuesday is right up my alley.  I’ve been reviewing books for a while now, and sometimes it’s nice to reflect on what I’ve written about books in the past.

Here’s ten of my favorite book reviews, some old and some newer (for simplicity’s sake, not including podcast episodes or movie reviews, only written book reviews):

1.  Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This is long overdue for another reading (plus a reading of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the book).  That said, I still like my theory about Kurtz being Marlowe’s alter-ego!

2. Amerika by Franz Kafka – Kafka is tricky to review; in spite of that, I think here I hit upon all the important points.

3. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe – Should I apologize for this??? I took WAY too much delight in this scathing review of a book by Goethe (of all people).  I don’t often write negative reviews, but when I do… whew!

4. Magellania by Jules Verne – Objectively this isn’t much of a review, but due to its personal connection, it’s a kind of favorite of mine.  And I hope it encourages more people to read this obscure book!

5. South by Ernest Shackleton – I’m happy with the content of this review, but also that I took the trouble to include some relevant pictures.  🙂

6. CEO, China by Kerry Brown – Didn’t intend for it to be a three-part series, but it ballooned into that.  I learned a TON in this book and enjoyed documenting it in those reviews!

7. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi – This book was so depressing, yet so important.  I was glad to help raise awareness even a little with the review.

8. Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Felt like I was able to put all my thoughts in this one.

9. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin – It was so much fun hosting this readalong, and it made me happy to see how many participants really enjoyed it!  Through the wonderful reviews and discussions that were shared, I feel like my experience with the novel was far richer than if I’d read it by myself (like I usually do). 

10.  A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence by John E. Mack – In a way, this review encompassed all of my reading and thoughts about T. E. Lawrence.  This was probably the best biography I’ve ever read, which is unusual in itself, so I was motivated to go all-out for the review.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #3

Week 3 of the Readalong covers chapters 6–11 which deal with early childhood, concepts of modesty vs humility, a woman’s reputation, class differences, and parent-child relationships.  Whew!  In all seriousness, though, while I personally would have chosen a narrower scope for such a book, I admire Mary’s willingness to take on a broad range of subjects and deal with each one in some detail.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book thus far is how much it puts into context Jane Austen’s work (and, no doubt, her contemporaries’).  After an Austen phase in my tweens, I later became disenchanted with her stories, finding (frankly) not much in them which seemed relevant to my life.  However, if I had any doubt before what “sensibility” means or whether Anne Elliot’s odious relatives were true to life, those doubts have been dispelled by reading Vindication. In fact, for the first time, I earnestly want to re-read Jane Austen, because everything makes sense now, and I think I could appreciate her novels more. 

Again, like Austen’s novels, Mary’s treatise still doesn’t seem entirely relevant to modern day.  But viewed historically, it’s pretty fascinating.

Answers to discussion questions:

1. Have you found any differences of opinions, yet?

Sometimes I’m not sure where she stands on the whole question of class.  On the one hand, she seems pretty adamant against distinctions based on birth and wealth, and argues (understandably) that those who rely on privilege to get by are hurting themselves as much as the commoners.  Then in chapter 9 she make a distinction between “women in the common walks of life…called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers” versus “women of a superior cast” who she would like to see in positions of power, such as government and medicine.  I don’t know if it’s something lost in translation (of centuries) or if she could have elaborated more, but it seems a little contradictory to put women into two buckets like that.

2. What do you think about her ideas in parenting? She believed that natural parental affection was more like self-worship. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Not having been a parent, it’s not really in my purview.  If I were a parent, I would teach a child to trust and obey me while they were still too young to understand the situation – “blind obedience” in Mary’s words.  However, as soon as they were old enough to understand, I would certainly spend the most effort on helping them learn to reason things out and fully understand why rules exist and how they are helpful.  Which is, I think, what she is getting at.

From what I’ve observed, parents who pursue a “blind obedience” policy don’t necessarily do it out of ego, so I’m not sure about “self-worship”…perhaps in some extreme cases.  I think what usually happens is the parent thinks their experience will, in every instance, completely correlate to their child’s life and experiences, so they will takes rules from their own childhood and apply them to their child’s life without necessarily re-examining the context. 

In a digital age, this can actually be dangerous, because there are so many new possible experiences for children that didn’t exist previously.  So while implementing one specific rule, a parent may be missing out on another piece of the equation.  I feel a better approach would be to identify core principles and teach your child how to apply them to any situation.

*takes off the parenting hat*

3. Do you agree with the author’s remarks on modesty, chastity, or discretion? Why or why not?

I really liked Mary’s take on modesty, especially in this quote: “Modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes…” (Ch 7)

In some social circles, the onus (at least sartorially) is entirely on women to be modest.  Mary rightly observes it’s a two-way street, though she is talking mostly about attitude and behavior.  She calls out men who “stare insultingly at every female they meet,” what I imagine to be the 18th-century equivalent of catcalling.  Sad to say that two hundred years later, some of us can still recount experiences of being rudely addressed or even touched by a stranger, no matter how modest in appearance or behavior we were.

I was also interested by her comments on girls at boarding schools, who were being raised with a lack of privacy when sleeping, washing, etc. Mary believed “girls ought to be taught to wash and dress alone…” (Ch 7)  I may be biased, being a very private person by nature, but I completely agree.  (My mom told me that when she was growing up, communal showers after PE were mandatory…ick!)

Overall, though there is some repetition, I’m finding a lot of gems in the book.  I’m looking forward to finishing it this week!

Kreisler’s "Syncopation" (1925) – A Classical Cousin

Recently, I dreamed I was playing the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, on stage, in front of a professional violinist, whom I was trying to “prove myself” to (!!).  I did tolerably well, which is the surprising thing, considering I never learned the piece (though always wanted to).

My violin

Ever since then, I keep thinking about picking it up again. I’ve barely touched my violin since I quit taking lessons about ten years ago (can it be, already?), when college took over my time and energies.  I generally don’t put much stock into dreams, but if nothing else, I feel inspired to start again, in seriousness.

Some of my favorite music for the violin was written by Austrian composer Fritz Kreisler.  He’s best known for his soulful “Praeludium and Allegro” (a piece I learned once) – in style, a kind of 20th-century successor of Vivaldi.  More delightful to me, however, are his lighter pieces in the turn-of-the-century style, or even a bit later.

Here’s “Syncopation,” played by the man himself, in an arrangement including his brother Hugo on the cello:

A newer rendition by Canadian James Ehnes is also excellent.

While we’re talking about Kreisler, here’s his recording of Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet.  As a (admittedly moody) teenager, this was a favorite piece to play, and one of the few I could play decently well:

Well, regardless of whether I start practicing again, I will forever have the violinist’s repertoire ingrained in my consciousness.