We live in a world under threat from global terrorism. As we prepare ourselves to vote in November, here are four films that ask serious questions. What is heroism? What is cowardice? When have we done all we could do, and when have we gone too far?
ON EMPTY begins, Arthur and Annie Pope are wanted by the FBI. College radicals, they bombed a building to protest the Vietnam War, then went underground. Fifteen years have passed since that fateful event; they have changed names, jobs, and dwellings innumerable times, somehow still managing to raise two sensitive and loving sons, Danny and Harry.
This tight-knit foursome has reached a crisis point: Danny, now a high school senior, suddenly discovers he has ambitions of his own. River Phoenix, playing Danny, received a well-earning Oscar nomination, but the real star is Christine Lahti as Annie Pope, torn between her deepest beliefs and her enormous love for her family.
Screenwriter Naomi Foner is herself the mother of two precociously talented children: Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I wonder what she thinks now that war protesters are back in the nightly news?
Ivy Meeropol, the director of HEIR
TO AN EXECUTION, is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Executed as spies fifty years ago, the Rosenbergs are infamous Cold War figures. To some they were traitors who gave the Soviets the nuclear secrets that caused the arms race. To others they were victims of McCarthy Era hysteria.
The facts have been debated for decades, but Ivy’s concerns are more basic. She tracks down her grandparents’ surviving friends and listens intently to all their cherished recollections. What did these people believe in? How could a woman, Ethel Rosenberg, desert her two young children to face death with her husband? How could a man, Julius Rosenberg, let his wife make that sacrifice, thereby leaving his children alone in the world?
Like the fictional Popes, the real Rosenbergs were idealists motivated by the belief that they could make the world a better place. Were they naïve or heroic?
The Sethnas in EARTH
watch from the sidelines. A Parsee family living in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore, their comfortable life is ripped apart when the British Raj comes to an end in 1947. Hindus, Moslems, and Sikhs, who all dined together as friends at the Sethna’s gracious table, begin choosing sides as India and Pakistan split apart from one another to become separate nation states.
EARTH, directed by Deepa Mehta, is based on the autobiographical novel CRACKING INDIA by Bapsi Sidhwa. Lenny, the young narrator, sees the unfolding horror through innocent eyes. She accepts each new act of violence without anticipating the inexorable consequences. How does this happen? How can neighbors take up arms against one another repeatedly in countries like Bosnia, Ireland, and Rwanda? Mehta cannot answer the question, but she can, and does, depict the process. Told from a child’s perspective, the story becomes universal.
In the United States we are inundated with stories about the Holocaust, from Oscar-winners like THE
PIANIST to routine episodes of LAW & ORDER. Not so Germany, where the subject still triggers painful debates about guilt and complicity. Now
ROSENSTRASSE, the new film by acclaimed director Margarethe von Trotta, tells a story almost no one has heard of, just when we were beginning to think we’d heard them all.
Von Trotta’s protagonists are typically women forced into active protest by historical circumstance. In this case the lead character, Lena Fisher, is an Aryan woman married to a Jewish man. When he’s arrested, Lena bands together with other family members and faces down the Nazi guards before their loved ones can be deported to the death camps.
is based on historical fact, and Von Trotta clearly wants the details known. People may take comfort in thinking “there was nothing we could do,” but is it true?
The Vietnam War, the Cold War, the partition of India & Pakistan, and World War II, while each conflict has its own particulars, ordinary people are always caught in the middle. These four films demand that we ask ourselves painful questions, and respect shades of gray.
This article was originally published
in the September/October 2004 edition of
is posted here with their permission.