The Notary, Our Noble Master

Gardeavue

Watched this classic again last night. Lino Ventura plays a detective who subjects a wealthy local lawyer -- suspect in the rape and murder of two young girls -- to an hours-long interrogation in police headquarters. Lino Ventura intensely watchable as always with his Easter Island head and ludicrously gigantic hands. And Michel Serrault is perfectly cast as the clever, oleaginous yet despairing suspect. Romy Schneider, as his wife, is just plain Romy. She never really becomes anyone else no matter what role she plays, but you won't hear me complaining.

I first saw this movie years ago, before I was even a lawyer, in the U.S. Part of a Romy Schneider film festival. As I watched it again, a few memories of my earlier reaction to the movie came back. First of all, I remember being surprised when the detective tells the suspect that he can call a lawyer, but the lawyer is not entitled to meet him. "Whoa," I thought back then, "that's totally unconstitutional!" Which it would have been, in America.

The second cultural misunderstanding comes from the fact that everyone keeps mentioning that the suspect, Jérôme Martinaud, is a "notary". As an American, I said: "Who cares?" Yet this fact is mentioned several times, and the script calls attention to when and whether characters refer to the suspect as Master (Maître, the official designation for French lawyers and some other professionals). 

In fact, at the time I saw the movie, I was a notary, even though I didn't even have a college degree. In the U.S., the only function of a "notary public" is to put a stamp on official sworn documents. You just ask someone if the document is accurate, get them to sign it, and stamp it. Anyone over 18 who doesn't have a serious criminal record can be a notary. Anyone. You just fill out a form, pay a small fee, and bingo! you're in.

The situation is vastly different in Continental Europe, where notaries must be lawyers. Not only that, they benefit from an ancient privilege system that (1) requires dozens of different kinds of documents to be notarized, and (2) limits the overall number of notaries. This grants most notaries a regional monopoly, reducing competition and driving up costs. The Economist describes the cultural divide:

Notaries are important gatekeepers in many economies, in particular when it comes to establishing property rights—the bedrock of markets. At best, notaries are facilitators who, for instance, verify the identity of the signatories of contracts and the veracity of their statements. At worst, they are overpaid bureaucrats who delay the passage of simple transactions and bloat their cost.

By contrast, notaries are unknown in many common-law countries, such as Britain and its former empire, which take a more freewheeling approach to contracts. America is the odd country out: although its legal system is based on common law, it boasts 4.8m notaries, many part-time. Yet these exist mainly to satisfy America’s maddening appetite for stamps and seals, and have little in common with their highly qualified European namesakes. “They are butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers,” scoffs a European notary.

Both traditions have their drawbacks. In Europe notaries’ highly regulated work has made them the most prosperous of lawyers. Tax returns suggest that Italian notaries are paid better than any other professionals (though perhaps they are most honest about their earnings). A report in 2004 found that notaries made up 22 of Slovenia’s 100 highest earners. French ones are the most privileged of all, says Gisela Shaw, an expert on the profession. They can compete with solicitors to provide legal services. They may sell their practice when they retire.

A website on French property law notes:

With about 5,000 offices, 7,500 notaires and 40,000 assistants, the notarial profession has representation all over France and has an effective monopoly. The Notaire is the public official responsible for receiving all the "actes" and contracts to which the parties wish to confer the seal of authenticity, to assure their date, to hold them in trust and to deliver authentic copies of them.

The Notaire is under the authority of the Minister of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) and is appointed by decree. The Notaire's office (Etude) depends geographically on the area in which he lives.

So the status Jérôme enjoys result from the fact that he is a member of perhaps the most privileged group in French society: lawyers who have gained a coveted notary position. One of Jérôme's first lines of defense is that people are always starting rumors about him because they envy his wealth and social status, which explains why people are circulating unfounded rumors about his involvement in the murders.

It doesn't happen often, but there you have it: an instance in which comparative-law knowledge deepens your understanding of art!


Dr. Boll's Brilliant Career

Not that readers of this blog need it, but Vanity Fair's great piece on Uwe Boll gives us a bit of background: 

Boll made his name, such as it is, mostly by dragging the already abhorred genre of the “video-game movie” to previously unthinkable new lows. His video-game adaptations BloodRayne, In the Name of the King, and House of the Dead are rated 4 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; Alone in the Dark has a 1 percent rating. In 2007, BloodRayne received Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) nominations for worst director, worst picture, worst actress, worst supporting actor, worst supporting actress, and worst screenplay. Two years later, Boll received a “Worst Career Achievement” Golden Raspberry Award.

“The man simply cannot direct,” Razzies co-founder John Wilson told me. “He doesn’t know where to put the camera. He doesn’t know how to suggest to an actor how to deliver their lines. Doesn’t know how to come up with an edit where you can tell where the hell you are and what’s going on. That’s kind of basic.”

Cast and crew members have denounced the films. “BloodRayne was an abomination,” said BloodRayne star Michael Madsen. “It’s a horrifying and preposterous movie.” Willam Belli, who acted in and had a co-writing credit on Blubberella, compared viewing the finished product to “watching a car accident with clowns.” ...

At the height of his infamy, a petition titled “Stop Uwe Boll” garnered 357,480 digital signatures, and the domain uweboll.com simply contained the entreaty, “Please stop making movies.” Now, at last, he has. With no fanfare—with hardly any acknowledgement at all, in fact—Boll’s swan song, Rampage: President Down, was recently made available on iTunes and Netflix.

And then Uwe quits filmmaking and...opens a restaurant in Vancouver!

We meet at Bauhaus, in the Gastown district of Vancouver, the restaurant he opened just before he decided to quit filmmaking. “That’s the wiener schnitzel,” Boll says over the pounding noises coming from the kitchen. “They have to hammer it.” There is one gigantic painting on the Bauhaus wall that says, in giant letters: “ART.”

Boll’s passion for food rivals his passion for film, and the reviews for Bauhaus are far more positive than those he received for his movies. A Globe and Mail food critic praised the veal tenderloin in demi-glace as evoking a “voluptuous Boll-inspired warrior goddess easing into a mud bath.”

Summing up the appeal of his new calling, Boll says, simply: “It’s less complicated than filmmaking.”

And I bet you didn't know it was Dr. Boll: "Along with a doctorate about narrative structure in television and literature—yes, technically, it’s Dr. Uwe Boll—Boll wrote around 15 screenplays by his early 20s."


Bambi's Friends the Communist Spy and the Viennese Whore

Bambi

[from the extremely NSFW website Slutbambi]

If you're a fan of Roald Dahl, you know that in addition to the beloved children's classics such as James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he also published a collection of erotic stories entitled Switch Bitch.

But that's nothing compared to what the author of Bambi got up to. Bambi was originally published in Austria in 1923 as Bambi, eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (Bambi, a Life in the Woods) by the Austrian writer Felix Salten.

Now before we get to the Viennese whore, it's time for a detour to visit with the Soviet spy. Bambi was translated into English in 1928 by none other than Whittaker Chambers, one of the most notorious American figures of the Cold War. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Whittaker Chambers ... was a 20th-Century American writer, editor, and Soviet spy.

After early years as a Communist Party member (1925) and Soviet spy (1932–1938), he defected from communism (underground and open party) and worked at Time magazine (1939–1948). Under subpoena in 1948, he testified in what became Alger Hiss's perjury (espionage) trials (1949–1950) and he became an outspoken anti-communist (all described in his 1952 memoir Witness). Afterwards, he worked briefly as a senior editor at National Review (1957–1959). President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1984.

But Bambi's unwholesome associations go even further. Long before he wrote the story of the cuddly deer baby Bambi, Felix Salten wrote what one critic called "the only German pornographic novel of world-wide status", the 1906 book entitled Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the story of a Viennese Whore as Told by Herself (Josefine Mutzenbacher oder Die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne von ihr selbst erzählt) (full German text here). The initial printing was subscription-only to avoid censorship laws.

Salten never explicitly admitted authorship of Josefine Mutzenbacher, and because neither he nor the publisher submitted it for copyright protection, it was freely pirated, and remains in print to this day, having sold some 3 million copies to date. It furnished the basis for not one but 11 German soft-core porno films made between 1970 and 1994 (the original film's English title was "Naughty Knickers").

But even that's not all. The original novel itself was put on an "index" of books harmful to minors by the Federal Republic of Germany's Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors in 1969. This didn't mean the novel was banned, but it did severely restrict sales and marketing. The Wikipedia summary of the book's plot may give you an idea of why they made this decision:

The story is told from the point of view of an accomplished aging 50-year-old Viennese courtesan who is looking back upon the sexual escapades she enjoyed during her unbridled youth in Vienna. Contrary to the title, almost the entirety of the book takes place when Josephine is between the ages of 5–12 years old, before she actually becomes a licensed prostitute in the brothels of Vienna. The book begins when she is five years old and ends when she is twelve years old and about to enter professional service in a brothel.

Although the book makes use of many "euphemisms" for human anatomy and sexual behavior that seem quaint today, its content is entirely pornographic. The actual progression of events amounts to little more than a graphic, unapologetic description of the reckless sexuality exhibited by the heroine, all before reaching her 13th year. The style bears more than a passing resemblance to the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom in its unabashed "laundry list" cataloging of all manner of taboo sexual antics from incest and rape to child prostitution, group sex and fellatio.

Adding to the general perversion, Bambi himself makes a cameo appearance in one of those group-sex scenes [no, he doesn't -- ed.]. In the late 1970s, a legal campaign was launched to remove the book from the index. In 1990, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court issued a landmark decision on the case.

Although the court acknowledged the book had plenty of potentially child-endangering pornographic elements, including a rather eye-popping amount of pedophilia and incest, it also had literary qualities which qualified it as a work of art, thus entitling it to protection under the artistic freedom provisions of Article 5 of the German Constitution.* The Court decision held (g) that some parts of the youth protection law were unconstitutional infringements of artistic freedom.

Nowadays, Felix Salten is largely forgotten, but that didn't stop the Austrian government from sending an official delegate (g) to the Jewish Museum of Vienna (Salten was Jewish) to open a 2007 exhibition on the man and his work.

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New Documentary on Jens Soering

This is a new German documentary about Jens Soering, the German national who was convicted of a 1985 double-murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Virginia, where he still is. Here are two trailers, the first in German, the second in English.

Soering's case has a long and complex history. While in England, he fought extradition to the state of Virginia on the grounds that it would violate European human rights law for Britain to extradite Soering to Virginia to face the possibility of capital punishment. The European Court of Human Rights agreed in Soering v. UK. Virginia dropped its demand for the death penalty, Soering was returned, convicted, and now is in prison for life.

He initially confessed to the crime and fled the country. He now claims he's innocent of the crime, but I haven't really been convinced by anything I've read so far. The documentary looks intriguing, I'll post any thoughts as soon as I've seen it.

This is the first and last time I will ever put a trigger warning on this blog, but these videos contain brief shots of crime scene photos with mutilated human bodies, so be advised. 


Our Mothers, Our Fathers as an Anti-War Film

I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it

an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'

...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.

This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.

Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.

I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.

In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.

It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.

One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.

The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.

American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.

Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.


A Short Review of 'Poem'

Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.

This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem -- perhaps any Heine poem -- superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)

The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.

'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively -- the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.