Gilbey on Film: Sacha Baron Cohen is back

This time as dictator General Aladeen of Wadiya.

To the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, at the behest of a certain General Aladeen of Wadiya. As the invitation puts it: “His Excellency Admiral General Aladeen Would Like to Pleasure You at the World Premiere of The Dictator.” Perhaps it is this unusual promise which brought all these shiny orange people onto the red carpet on a dismal, rainy Thursday evening prior to watching the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen. You would think their stylists would have warned them that tangerine doesn’t go with red, but here they are anyway, the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, illuminated still further in the sheet lightning from fifty photographers’ flashbulbs. No, strike that - the people behind me are saying it’s the cast of Geordie Shore. We’ll go with that. Thank you, people behind me.

Next is an abrasive wee fellow named Louis Spence. I don’t know who he is or what he’s done to warrant a place on the red carpet, but Alex Zane, the red-carpet interviewer with scissor legs, is mighty pleased to see him. What would Louis do if he were dictator of his own country? “Spit at people with speech impediments,” apparently. Oh dear. Is that an in-joke? Alex laughs, but it’s the fearful laughter of a man who sees his every media moment through the prism of the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand scandal, wondering: “Who will be next? Could it be me?” Moving along, he interviews one of several comics currently named Russell (not Brand), who tells him that what makes Sacha Baron Cohen so brilliant is that “he finds the line and thrusts across it …He totally, schizophrenically inhabits who he becomes.”

Right on cue, here comes the film’s star as General Aladeen, arriving in front of the venue waving from the driver’s seat of an orange Lamborghini - a clamped orange Lamborghini, that is, mounted on the bed of a City of Westminster tow truck. I like his habit of only giving press interviews in character (see this email exchange with Dennis Lim of the New York Times). Even if you don’t find it funny (though personally I’m tickled by his in-character assertion that “The Arab Spring is just a silly fad, like ‘mood rings’ or ‘human rights’”), you have to concede that it’s preferable to celebrities talking about the spiritual journey which they embarked upon with their latest role. Imagine if everyone gave interviews in character. Wouldn’t that be something? Unless it was Jodie Foster in Nell, obviously. Clearly there would need to be exemptions.

Just after the lights go down, Baron Cohen appears — still in costume and in character — in a spotlight in the balcony, greeting the audience with cries of “Hello, hello, death to the West!” and “Hello, English devils”. He says he has been enjoying his red carpet experience. “Usually when I am on a red carpet it is because I have just beheaded someone in my living room.”

That’s the general tenor of the material in The Dictator, which has at its core the novel idea of an essentially innocent oppressor: a naïve, mollycoddled man who just happens to be a vicious murderer. It’s really the same joke that held together Baron Cohen’s last two films, Borat and Brüno — wide-eyed naïf comes to the US and exposes inadvertently that country’s hypocrisy and small-mindedness — but with the twist of making him a psychopath rather than merely a buffoon.

Watching The Dictator, which begins with the dedication “In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-Il”, I missed the genuinely dangerous edge of Borat and Brüno; those pictures placed Baron Cohen in volatile, real-life scenarios where his provocations almost led to violence against him. There’s no way to fake or replace it. On the other hand, that species of comedy can’t go on forever, not least because the actor is now a widely recognisable superstar, unlikely to be able to orchestrate pranks of the same scale. At least The Dictator is often wildly funny, particularly when General Aladeen, stripped of his uniform and beard, and wandering New York for reasons too convoluted to recount, has to take work in a Brooklyn feminist co-operative “for people of all or no genders” (as the store worker Zoe, played by the impish Anna Faris, puts it).

The film has teeth, which it bares occasionally. I’m not thinking so much of the bad taste gags—a terrorism Wii game, which offers Aladeen options such as “Tokyo Subway” and “London Underground” before he opts for “Munich Olympics,” drew a shocked gasp from the audience, while there’s a running gag involving a severed head, which was done better in the horror-comedy Re-Animator. But it succeeds in finding a rich vein of humour in post-9/11 paranoia. And it turns the tables on both liberalism (in its lively mockery of Zoe and her co-op pals) and the west, the latter skewered in an inspired monologue which has Aladeen showing how the US advocates at home the same cruelty it decries in foreign regimes.

"The Dictator" is released 16 May.

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the premiere of The Dictator (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster