Rabbit-Proof Fence

Everlyn Sampi in Rabbit-Proof Fence

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 July

 

Nazi eugenics law passed, 1933

On this day in 1933, in Germany, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) was put onto the statute books. It allowed for the compulsory sterilisation of anyone whose genetic disorders might be passed on to their children. Disorders originally included manic-depressive insanity and alcoholism, as well as more usual hereditary conditions, but were eventually widened out to include homosexuality, idleness and dissidence. Genetic health was decided in a series of courts set up expressly for the purpose, with the Nazis taking their cues from the work done in California, funded by the Rockefeller foundation and rooted in the writings of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin and enthusiastic interpreter of Charles Darwin.

 

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, dir: Philip Noyce)

A simple tale with a jaw-dropping true story behind it, Rabbit-Proof Fence puts a human face on the practice by the Australian government in the 1930s of separating mixed-race aborigine children from their families. The practice went on until the 1970s, we’re told by an intertitle card that comes up at the end. What we’ve seen up till then is the inhuman consequences of a wrong-headed law that sought to rescue the children of what were seen as transracial couplings from the “too black” families now raising them. To steal children from their mothers, in other words.
The curtain rises just as Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) – their poor but happy existence already established – are about to be forcefully removed from their families and taken to a strict school where they will be educated to the appropriate level for their social station (a servant or factory worker). The girls and their families resist but are overwhelmed by the authorities. Once at the brisk but not cruel school/internment camp, they don’t like the regime of enforced English-speaking and heavy manners, and as soon as possible they skedaddle, are captured, and escape again, deciding that they’re going to walk the 1,500 miles back home by following the fence that keeps the all-devouring rabbit separate from land earmarked for farming. If you want to read an allegorical intent into the fence – the rabbits are the marauding incomer, the fence a civilising barrier – the film isn’t going to high-five your efforts. It’s a remarkably straight telling of a simple and powerful story. But simple doesn’t mean dumb. The performances by its non-actor stars deliver the emotional heft, while Kenneth Branagh, arguably faintly overdoing it with the Nazi mannerisms, delivers recognisability – and a name for the marquee – as the government official running the relocation department who now wants those girls found.
Director Philip Noyce is a master of mood (The Quiet American) and a dab hand at the action thriller (Clear and Present Danger) and folds both together with the sort of retina-searing visuals that the Outback is famous for, thanks here going to legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle nods occasionally towards Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. That Roeg connection is reinforced by the presence of David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine tracker half-heartedly helping the white guys find the escaped girls, whose debut was in Roeg’s film, when he was a young Aborigine man helping the white girls get back home.
So, some symmetry, a lot of beauty and a fair bit of believable acting, tenderly nurtured by Noyce. The result is a film with a lot of heart and a hard message, delivered with a lot of style and ending with a lump-in-the-throat moment as the story from 70 years before is suddenly brought bang up to date.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A shocking true story
  • Christopher Doyle’s cinematography
  • Peter Gabriel’s ambient soundtrack
  • Christine Olsen’s subtle but ballsy screenplay

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy

Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 January

 

 

The Wannsee Conference, 1942

On this day in 1942 a short meeting was held at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the suburbs of Berlin. It was called by Reinhard Heydrich, boss of the SS, and gathered together the heads of various government departments to facilitate the removal of Jews from Germany and occupied territories, their deportation to Poland and their extermination. It lasted only about 90 minutes and was arranged to put in place the practical measures to ensure that the process ran smoothly, and to make sure that the various government departments cooperated. A secondary concern was to hammer out, once and for all, who was to be considered Jewish and who among the Jews was to be spared (those who simply could not be replaced, was the answer). It was in effect a power-grab by Heydrich, who arrived at the meeting with a sheet of paper on which were written the numbers of Jews estimated to be living in the various countries of Europe. The estimated number was “over 11 million”. The idea was to ship all of them out to Siberia, where they would all work till they died, and those who didn’t die would be killed, on account of their tough constitutions being too valuable to pass on to future generations. Though the entire meeting was couched in euphemism – Jews were to be “evacuated”, survivors of severe work details were to be treated “accordingly” – everyone present knew what was actually being discussed, as testimony from Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Israel in 1962, attests.

 

 

 

Conspiracy (2001, dir: Frank Pierson)

Conspiracy tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, and it tells it largely from a record of the meeting found in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry after the war had ended, which also provided the raw material for the German-Austrian film Die Wannseekonferenz. Kenneth Branagh heads the largely British ensemble cast, playing Reinhard Heydrich, while Stanley Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann, the high-level penpusher who facilitated the transportation of Jews across Europe, made sure t’s were crossed, i’s were dotted and trains ran on time – the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him. Heydrich is pivotal, the cool sinister presence nudging, cajoling, urging the other factotums present into endorsing what they have been summoned to that room to endorse. Disagreements are few, and tend to be of a pedantic or legalistic nature – on the exact definition of what a Jew is, according to 1935s Nuremberg Laws, for instance, which Colin Firth’s Dr Wilhelm Stuckart gets hung up on – rather than the moral awfulness of what they were planning. Heydrich was in effect asking the room to drop the legal pretext for killing Jews and just get on with it. In Branagh’s Heydrich we have not a portrait of evil but of cold efficiency, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler called him – Branagh later talked about wondering whether Heydrich, if asked to eliminate 11 million tennis players, might not have done it with similar ruthlessness. Beware the civil servants, the managers, in other words. Director Frank Pierson (who had written another largely single-room drama, Dog Day Afternoon, years before) keeps the camera at head level. We’re at the table with Heydrich as he moves the agenda from one item to the next, moving from the less controversial (“immigration”) to the more (“evacuation”) and focusing his frightening intensity on any backsliders he finds as each item is dealt with. We are at the table. It is mass extermination as high-level board meeting, murder as business.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An informative if chilling history lesson
  • The great cast includes David Threlfall and Ian McNeice
  • Fifteen men in a meeting has rarely been less boring
  • The Second World War from an entirely revelatory angle

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon