Reviewed: Trance and The Spirit of ‘45

Brits, glitz and grit.

Trance (15); The Spirit of ‘45 (U)
dir: Danny Boyle; dir: Ken Loach

Film-makers, unlike actors, rarely achieve the mummifying status of national treasure, and those that do (Richard Attenborough, say) are not usually at the vanguard of their art. Two directors who might be in contention for this dubious honour have new work out this month. One is Ken Loach, who is far too prickly to be realistically a national treasure: if the nation were to clutch him to its bosom, it might leave a nasty rash.

The other, Danny Boyle, is a simpler case, though for an unusual reason. It is not his work for cinema that has transcended cultural and generational boundaries but his direction of the London Olympics opening ceremony last year.

This ambitious project was also a crazily eccentric one; scale and spectacle were shot through with dottiness, as though Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks were being choreographed by Busby Berkeley in a staging visible from space. (Come to think of it, that must be one of the few batty ideas that didn’t make the grade.) The production won Boyle a degree of admiration that cannot be measured in best director Oscars or credibility (though he has both). It was, to this viewer at least, the finest Danny Boyle film never made.

Now, it’s back to the grindstone. Boyle’s new thriller, Trance, was shot months before the games and then edited just as the Olympic Park was being disassembled and the roof-mounted missiles returned to the cupboard under the stairs.

The film has London at its heart but here the city is a superficially sleek, flashy model of western sophistication beneath which lies a reservoir of violence and hurt. It is, in that sense, not unlike the film’s characters: Franck (Vincent Cassel), a gangster who masterminds a heist to swipe a priceless Goya; Simon (James McAvoy), the auctioneer and inside man who colludes with him, only to lose the spoils shortly before suffering a head injury; and Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist to whom Simon turns to retrieve his memory of the painting’s whereabouts.

Each of them has secrets that are revealed as the convoluted plot unspools. If we have been totting up the clues correctly, everything will look markedly different at the end of the film, when our assumptions about Franck, Simon and Elizabeth have been thrown into disarray. In a worst-case scenario, it may take longer than usual upon leaving the cinema for you to remember where you parked your car.

If I have been circumspect about giving too much away, it’s partly because I was handed a letter from “Danny” at the screening, requesting that I would not reveal any of the plot’s surprises.

Whether I was the only one to receive such an instruction, and that he had simply heard what an incorrigible blabbermouth I can be – OK, so I once described Citizen Kane as “the sledge movie” – I cannot say. The problem with Trance, though, is particularly acute, since there is nothing to it apart from its mysteries. That’s not true of its influences, which have a thriving life beyond their “spoilers” – Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Or, for that matter, the sledge movie.

The film is at its strongest visually. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design reinvent London as a half-deserted playground of brick, steel and neon, finding in its clustered streets and rooftops an unnerving desolation. (A walk in the park for these collaborators, perhaps, after the startling scenes of a depopulated capital in 28 Days Later . . .) And while there are references to Goya being “the first great painter of the human mind”, Boyle makes a good case for himself as a director skilled at conveying mental states.

Trance is as mischievous as a dream and just as ephemerally entertaining in a moment- by-moment sense. The eye is always being tickled, the funny bone nudged. Vincent Cassel is shown wielding a fire extinguisher, which is enough to induce nausea in anyone who recalls the head-bashing scene in the actor’s earlier film Irréversible; while a bottle of tomato sauce stands prominently in the foreground during a gruesome episode in which a man continues to natter after his face has been demolished by a shotgun blast. It’s as if Boyle is reminding us that the gore is only ketchup, and what we’re watching is just a movie.

Ultimately, that’s all Trance is. It has to be a problem that such a hefty chunk of the action takes place inside Simon’s head during hypnosis – in other words, not really happening at all. Then again, there is a tradition of romps confined largely to the brain, Inception being only the most successful. In the end, it’s the unnecessary tricksiness of the film that halts its flow. A crucial human component is missing. The film may be dreamlike but that’s just another way of saying it doesn’t add up to much once the lights come on.

Clement Attlee talks to workers in his Limehouse constituency in 1945. Photograph: Getty Images

Along with Roeg, Loach was another influential director whose work featured in a montage during Boyle’s opening ceremony. He is back now with a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a rallying cry to Britain today from those who remember the battles fought to rebuild the country in the years immediately after the war. Aside from its final moments, the film has been made entirely in black-and-white, the better to provide a continuity of experience with the archive material, rather than a then-and-now approach. The entire point is that those battles for equality need fighting again now. Principles central to British welfare and identity require defending all over again.

Loach scatters talking heads (a GP, a train driver, Tony Benn) among the footage brought together by the great archivist Jim Anderson. The assemblage by Loach and his editor, Jonathan Morris, ranges between the dust-dry and the fiercely sentimental. Loach’s 1983 documentary, The Red and the Blue, about the Labour and Conservative conferences, showed how acidic he can be but the mood of The Spirit of 45 is mostly of the tub-thumping variety. The editing bursts brilliantly at the seams on just one occasion.

Reflecting on the hiding he received at the hands of a policeman, a former miner wonders rhetorically, “Who is it who gives them the power to beat me, a working man, with a stick?” The cut to Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative conference, waving a yoohooing hand as if accepting responsibility shamelessly, is an unbeatable instance of the editor’s scissors being used to snipe as well as to snip.

The film provides a chronology of hope, from the pre-war years when doctors doubled as debt collectors, to the formation of the NHS and the nationalisation of transport and mining.

A sudden leap forward to Thatcher leaves a 1970s-sized black hole but it all ends in a burst of righteous anger and an invitation for us to continue the fight. Still, I have a low tolerance for cartoon touches such as the use of fox-hunting footage to represent the upper class, while the poor are all cloth caps, stout and gappy smiles. Loach is better than that; he’s no Michael Moore.

That The Spirit of ’45 survives its simplifications is due to the sincerity and urgency of Loach’s argument. And, regrettably, to its pertinence.

James McAvoy in "Trance".

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.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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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