What is good made of, and how does it reveal itself? Perhaps through a dimpled half-smile, a red sweater, hair swept sideways over the brow -- the guise of a girl, just 21, who would go to her death for resisting the Nazis. Sophie Scholl, student, martyr, national cipher.
Sophie Scholl is at least the third film to dramatize the brave life and death of the young White Rose student-resistance leader, executed for printing leaflets condemning Hitler's government. “We keep making movies about her,” a German friend told me. “And I always find myself asking, ‘Would I have been on the side of good? Would I have died for my ideals?' We all wonder -- and we just don't know. Perhaps that is why we keep returning to her story…”
In a pivotal scene early in Oscar award-winning Tsotsi, lightning flashes across the sky and over its titular figure -- a young man in one strobe-flare, a boy in the next. The young man is someone out of scare-headlines about post-apartheid South Africa -- a hardened street criminal from the townships, fresh from a vicious murder and an assault on a fellow gang member. The image of the boy that appears a split-second later, viewers learn over the course of Gavin Hood's wrenching film, is a flashback to none other than Tsotsi (“thug”) himself, before he left behind the name his mother gave him and took up his street moniker.
A house, posed and white in the sun. A car whispers past. The front door of the house opens, a man emerges, crosses the street and walks directly into the frame -- so begins Michael Haneke's Caché (Hidden), the opening shot held a bit too long, tingeing the mundane with menace. Soon the image begins to fast-forward, over a worried conversation. The serene morning scene introduces both the charmed lives of the house's inhabitants and the peculiar, diffuse threat they seem to face. They are under surveillance, and their everyday movements, like the ones that open the film, are captured on videotape and delivered in plastic bags to their doorstep.
What is funny -- and why? A fat man and a thin one trying to move a piano? A bug-eyed freak and his teddy bear? Pratfalls, poop jokes, practical jokes, spun-out stories of laughed-through pain, drag-queen song and dance? What does what we find amusing say about who we are -- as individuals, societies, and even nations?
The title of the comedian Albert Brooks' film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World seems to promise such probings both philosophical and funny. But like so many other American quest-films or movies about Americans abroad -- Roger & Me, Lost In Translation -- Brooks seems to find little but his own irritating self.
Devastating as it was, the last presidential election did bestow one blessing on progressives -- it cleaned out the art house. The post-election period has swept away much of what had become tiresome or belligerent in political films -- the breathless hagiographies of lefty figures or tales of the cackling villainy of the right. Gone are images of a brave, beatific John Kerry; gone, too, are case studies of Svengali Karl Rove, or shots of President Bush yukking it up with members of the House of Saud.