Hitler’s Third Reich produced no great films. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant innovator and superb editor, with an extraordinary gift for visual effects, but I would hesitate to call Triumph of the Will, or even Olympia great films, unless greatness can be confined to technical prowess. Nazi Germany did not have the equivalent of an Eisenstein or Pudovkin, who still managed to create masterpieces out of political propaganda. Perhaps this reflects a difference between National Socialism and Communism, even though Stalin was no less murderous than Hitler. Great work can still emerge from the utopian ideal of the workers’ paradise. It is harder to imagine artistic excellence arising from violent racism. D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist movie The Birth of a Nation is a possible exception to this rule, but this film, too, is more remarkable for its technical innovation than anything else.
A new exhibition of street photography, “Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, brings together work by photographers ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans to Helen Levitt, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee; it also includes paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Pousette-Dart—all of whom were making images during and immediately after World War II. “Abstract Expressionism, film noir, Beat poetry, and the New Journalism are all widely recognized aftershocks of World War II,” writes Lisa Hostetler in the catalog of the exhibition. “It is time to add the ‘psychological gesture in photography’ to the list.” These photographs, with their emphasis on mood and atmosphere, and their exploration of blurred motion, shadows, and solitary figures, are very different from images made before the war.
Although Alvar Aalto first won worldwide attention in the early 1930s as a leading exponent of the International Style—a reductive form of modern architecture proposed as equally applicable anywhere on the planet—his more expressive, site-specific work from the mid-Thirties onward marked him as a regional designer in the best sense, and the quintessential Finnish master builder. In 1989, however, thirteen years after Aalto’s death, his friend and official biographer Göran Schildt revealed Aalto’s rollicking 1943 junket to Germany at the invitation of Albert Speer, Hitler’s court architect-turned-munitions chief, to inspect construction there just as the Final Solution shifted into overdrive. Schildt’s tragicomic account reads like a plot outline for The Three Stooges Go to Hell.
The incoming Ukrainian president will have to turn some attention to history, because the outgoing one has just made a hero of a long-dead Ukrainian fascist. By conferring the highest state honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) on January 22, Viktor Yushchenko provoked protests from the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland, and many of his own citizens. It is no wonder. Bandera aimed to make of Ukraine a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities. During World War II, his followers killed many Poles and Jews. Why would President Yushchenko, the leader of the democratic Orange Revolution, wish to rehabilitate such a figure? Bandera, who spent years in Polish and Nazi confinement, and died at the hands of the Soviet KGB, is for some Ukrainians a symbol of the struggle for independence during the twentieth century.
“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In Britain, the mandarins of New Labour—not satisfied with installing more closed-circuit surveillance cameras than any other democracy—have sought (so far unsuccessfully) to invoke the “war on terror” as an occasion to introduce mandatory identity cards. In France and the Netherlands, artificially stimulated “national debates” on identity are a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment—and a blatant ploy to deflect economic anxiety onto minority targets. In Italy, the politics of identity were reduced in December 2009 to house-to-house searches in the Brescia region for unwanted dark faces as the municipality shamelessly promised a “white Christmas.”
A strange little book came in the mail the other day. It’s called transcript and is published by the admirable Dalkey Archive Press. Translated from the German by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling, its author, Heimrad Bäcker (1925-2003), was unknown to me. He was an Austrian book editor, photographer and concrete poet who as a teenager joined the Nazi party and became an active member in the regional leadership of the Hitler Youth. At a first glance, his book looks like a collection of verbal scraps of uncertain origin, some of which have the appearance of avant-garde poetry, but on examination it turns out to be something entirely different. Bäcker’s “poems” consist of excerpts from documents by Holocaust planners, perpetrators, and victims.
Iran’s civilian research reactor in Tehran, the Tehran Research Reactor, has been much in the news lately. It has an interesting past and perhaps an interesting future. In March of 1974 the Shah of Iran declared that Iran’s goal would be the construction of some twenty power reactors to provide electricity for the country. The Tehran reactor, known as the TRR, was to be used for training students. There is little doubt that the Shah’s goal was to make nuclear weapons. Indeed, after he was overthrown in 1979, the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who said he believed that nuclear weapons were un-Islamic, dismantled most of the program. One of the survivors was the TRR. In recent weeks, Iran has claimed that its existence—and need for nuclear fuel—justifies pursuing uranium enrichment to higher levels, ostensibly for peaceful use. Many have doubted that claim, and now the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given official weight to those doubts. In its new report, the IAEA for the first time states outright what I outlined in November, that Iran’s enrichment activities may be related to “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” To understand why, it is worth considering the history of the TRR.
Few makers of architectural documentaries exploit the full potential of film to create a convincing sense of what it is like to move through a sequence of interiors, an ability made much easier with the introduction of the Steadicam in 1976. A rare exception is Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine’s 58-minute-long Koolhaas Houselife (2008), one of two recent releases on the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, principal of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam.
On February 12, Chinese human rights campaigner Feng Zhenghu was allowed to return to Shanghai after a 92-day stay in diplomatic limbo at the Tokyo Narita airport. Having left China last April to visit family in Japan, Feng, who is a Chinese citizen, was repeatedly denied reentry by Chinese immigration officials; when he was sent back to Tokyo last November, he remained in the Tokyo airport in protest, waiting for the Chinese government to change its mind. The international press has portrayed Feng as a solitary figure, pursuing an admirable if somewhat flamboyant quest for his personal rights. But the point of Feng’s protest goes much, much deeper than the fate of one man, and Feng hopes that the world will understand why.
In September 2008, fifteen months before he died, David Levine met with New York Review editor Sasha Weiss at his apartment in Brooklyn to talk about his caricatures. Over a period of more than four decades, he made some 3,800 drawings for the Review, ranging from Albert Camus in 1963 to Barack Obama in 2007. We hope the following narrated slide show, drawn from that conversation, will go some way toward capturing the wildly varied imagination of this remarkable artist.