Friday, March 8, 2024

The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest: Three Terrific New Films

 The Peasants is the single most beautiful film I've ever seen. The Zone of Interest is a Holocaust film. Both were shot, at least in part, in Poland. The Boys in the Boat tells a World War II story. 

The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest:
Three great films best seen in a theater


Friend, I beg of you. Go to a theater and see three great movies sometime soon: The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest.  


Leopold Staff, a Polish poet who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, said that "Even more than bread we now need poetry, in a time when it seems that it is not needed at all." Movies are democratic. They are accessible and they are communal. It's fashionable to declare one's superiority by sneering at popular culture. It's harder to sneer when you remember that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fearless counter-jihadi, was inspired by Nancy Drew novels, and that Top Gun and Saving Private Ryan drove military recruitment. Politics is downstream from culture. The culture we support with our ticket-buying dollars is as important as the candidates we support with our votes.


We get something from publicly watching a movie together with our fellow citizens. The Major and the Minor is a 1942 screwball comedy. I'd watched it a couple of times at home, alone, on a small TV screen before seeing it for the first time in a jam-packed, Greenwich Village art house theater. In that crowd of rollicking laughter, I suddenly realized what a very naughty movie The Major and the Minor is. Its double entendres had flown right over my head. While watching Gone with the Wind, a loud and spontaneous sigh erupted when the camera zoomed in on Rhett Butler's handsome face (see here). Gathering in the ladies room after a movie like that is a genre of psychotherapy. While washing your hands you ask complete strangers, "Do you think Scarlett and Rhett ever got back together?" You comfort and enlighten each other and the world is warmer, more connected, less lonely and tense. Mel Gibson's The Passion depicts Christ's torture, crucifixion, and death in grisly detail. Three Muslim guys took seats directly behind me. They were joking sarcastically. Clearly, they were in the theater to mock. After the film ended, I turned around to check on them. One was doubled over, distraught. His companions were rubbing his back and speaking softly to him.


The loss of public movie-going erodes not just community, but also art. Ali's well is a famous, eight-minute scene in Lawrence of Arabia. Most of what we see is a completely flat, lifeless, tan desert landscape against a blue sky unbroken by any cloud. Two men draw water from a desert well. A tiny dot appears on the horizon. Slowly we realize that that dot is a man approaching on a camel. He shoots one of the men to death. As we wait, and wait, and wait for the approaching man  to arrive, we experience a fraction of the desert: the emptiness, the boredom, the terror, the sudden and irrational violence, the value system so very different from our own. That scene could never move us in the same way on a small screen. And, when we are watching alone on a small screen, we can fast forward through the parts we don't like, like, say, the grim depictions of the Holocaust in Schindler's List.


My students, trained on media that rushes and delivers jolts of violence and sex aimed at the lizard brain's reward-squirting mechanisms, lack the ability to sit through a scene like Ali's well. They also have trouble sitting through a complex lecture on current events, or a long story of personal struggle told by a friend. Movies, like all art, have the potential to train us to be our best selves.


The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest are three very different films, but they are all innovative, in different ways. Peasants is so innovative another movie like it may never be made again. Zone rewrote how the Holocaust will be treated in film, and how it will be understood. Boys is rebellious, counter-cultural filmmaking in ways I'll detail below. All three films have much to say about our current politico-cultural landscape. Each addresses community. Each, given their visual and auditory artistry and impact, should be seen in a theater.


The Boys in the Boat tells the previously obscure story of the University of Washington rowing team's underdog victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. This was the same Olympics at which Jesse Owens, a black American, won four gold medals, as frustrated racist, Adolf Hitler, glowered.


The film is based on the 2013 book by Daniel James Brown. New York Times writer Timothy Egan said that Brown's book, "is about who we used to be. And who we still could be. Like the best history, its then-and-now wow factor is both embarrassing to the present and inspiring to the future." Brown's book has almost 90,000 Amazon ratings, averaging a 4.6 score out of a possible 5. The book was published nine years ago and it is number 7 on Amazon's charts this week. A popular reader review calls the book "thrilling, eye-opening, often heart-wrenching."


Boys the movie was directed by George Clooney with a script by Mark L. Smith, who also wrote The Revenant. The cast does not include name-above-the-title stars, and that added to the film's verisimilitude for me. I'd never seen lead actor Callum Turner before, and his anonymity contributed to my totally believing him as Joe Rantz.


Within the first few minutes, I was grateful to Front Page reader Mo de Profit for recommending this movie to me. Movies do telegraph their worth in just the first few minutes. Movies are made of light. You know this if you've ever tried to take a picture of a meadow glowing with golden sun, your beloved pet, or a baby's smile, and failed. The underexposed meadow looks like a dungeon, a shadow turns your baby's nose into a trombone, and poodle Fido's eyes glow red like some fiend. If a movie is getting light right, it might get other features right as well.  


Boys opens with sunlight on rippling water. A river flows between two wooded banks; above, the tracery of flying insects sparkles in the mist. The score by multiple-award-winning Alexandre Desplat is buoyant, sweetly playful, matching the play on light on the sun-dappled stream.


A boy is trying to manage a row boat. He is overcome by the wake of a passing motorboat. An old man approaches. I swear to deity, I started crying right then; I would go on to cry multiple times throughout the film. I was reminded of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, which begins, not with World War II combat, but with an old man, in 1998, accompanied by younger relatives. I immediately got what director Clooney was going to do with Boys. He was going to craft, as faithfully as he could, an old-fashioned movie-movie, with a straightforward narrative of an admirable but flawed hero who triumphs over hardship. And that, in Woke world, is rebellion.


Clooney wasn't going to engage in the ambitious, film class showmanship of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. Clooney wasn't going to give the old white man a black wife and an Asian grandson. He wasn't going to include an obligatory scene where the male lead receives a lecture from a superior black woman about his ancestors' presumed sins or has a basic fact explained to him by a gender nonbinary waiter. Clooney, probably not intentionally, was sticking his finger in the eye of Woke commandments. I sat back to enjoy the ride.


After the contemporary opening scene between the young boy and the old man, Boys shuttles us back into the past. We see the headlines on a faded newspaper. A hand lifts the newspaper, folds it, and places it inside a decrepit leather boot in order to cover a hole in its sole. Joe Rantz lives in the rotting carcass of an abandoned vehicle. And he is not alone. He exits his "home" and enters a smoky shanty town of similar impoverished "hoboes."


Joe looks like an Aryan god. He's tall and strikingly blond. We associate his appearance with wealth and power. But he is poor. Again, this is transgressive filmmaking. We are about to witness not a story of "white privilege" but of white poverty, white work and sacrifice, and white endurance.


Before you arrest me for the above thought crimes, please have a look at my review of The Woman King, here. I loved looking at all the black heroine's athletic bodies onscreen. These women were powerful and honorable. They worked hard and achieved high. Yes The Woman King was historically inaccurate. I enjoyed it as a movie, not a history lesson. I loved Boys at least partly because I loved seeing all the white male bodies onscreen. Some critics felt differently, and hated the sight of those white male bodies. More on that, below.


We watch Joe in an engineering class, where a pretty blonde, Joyce Simdars (Hadley Robinson), flirts with him. Joe is stoic. Joe's friend Roger Morris (Sam Strike) gets him in trouble by talking during class. Joe is, again, stoic. He goes to the cafeteria, counts his meager change, and stoically leaves without eating. Joe meets with the bursar, who warns him that he is in danger of being ejected from the University of Washington because he has not paid tuition. Joe begs for more time.


After Joe leaves, we see agony on the bursar's face. She's just doing her job, but it's hard. The camera's dwelling on the bursar's face after the main character leaves is one of the details that makes Boys so rich. It renders her character more complex. This is the Depression. She's had to do this before. She hates it. Clooney cared enough about this very minor character, the nameless bursar, to give her a redemptive onscreen moment.


Roger approaches Joe with an idea. They can try out for the school's rowing team. If they are accepted, they will have access to food and a room.


"How many fellas get picked?" Joe asks Roger. Roger asks another applicant. "Eight" he tells Roger. Roger says to Joe, "He doesn't know." Roger doesn't want Joe to know that these desperate boys' chances are terribly slim.


Crew Coach Al Ulbrickson, aka "The Dour Dane," (Joel Edgerton) is unsmiling. Edgerton has told interviewers that coaches always look unhappy, and during competitions, they look like they are about to have a heart attack. They work very hard, but once their team is in the game, they lose power and must surrender to fate. Studio executives warned Clooney that Edgerton was not warm and fuzzy enough. Edgerton's Ulbrickson reflects the values of a different time. This coach would never award anyone with a participation trophy. Boys saves the warm and fuzzy for the final scene.


Ulbrickson tells the assembled students that most will not make it. "The average human body is just not meant for such things," he says of the extraordinary demands of competitive rowing. "The average adult man is carpetable of taking in roughly four liters of oxygen per minute. An oarsman must be able to consume as much as eight. You will train your bodies to do this," the trainees are told.


In his book, Brown reports that in competitive rowing, "your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor … rowing a two-thousand-meter race … takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes … the body must immediately produce anaerobic energy. This, in turn, produces large quantities of lactic acid, and that acid rapidly builds up in the tissue of the muscles. The consequence is that the muscles often begin to scream in agony almost from the outset of a race and continue screaming until the very end …  Pain is part and parcel of the deal. It's not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it's a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you."


The Washington recruits run, saw logs, do sit-ups. After a day of that, Joe reports to a soup kitchen. He sees a fellow recruit and leaves, without eating anything. Roger offers to buy him dinner. Joe declines. He retreats to his abandoned vehicle, where, by the light of a kerosene lantern, he reads an engineering textbook and glances at a giant sore on his hand. He approaches Coach Ulbrickson, who at first says he is not available for a one-on-one with a mere trainee. Joe persists, asking how much he will be paid; he needs to pay tuition. Ulbrickson says he will not get any money till he is accepted to the team.


"Ivy League coaches don't get asked that," a reporter says to Ulbrickson.


That he won't get paid yet is tough news, but the respect is evident. Ulbrickson refers to his trainees as "son." Trainees refer to Ulbrickson as "sir." There is not a single f-bomb in Boys. When the team wins a significant victory, one says, "I could get used to this," and another says, "Not bad, huh fellas?" They are understated.


Ulbrickson is writing the names of those who made the team onto a blackboard. As he writes the final name, we are eager to know if Joe made it. But Ulbrickson's shoulder blocks our view of the blackboard. I actually craned my neck to see the invisible name. Masterful filmmaking. Of course Joe made it; the point is that Clooney made us care whether Joe made it or not.


Joyce, the ebullient girl who has been trying to get Joe's attention, is at a desk studying. She hears a pebble strike her window. She sees Joe. They go for a moonlight rowing lesson. Though sitting close, they do not kiss.


We see Joe and Roger staring at something that is pleasing them a great deal. We can't see what they are staring and smiling at. The camera pans around as Joe and Roger move and we see old-fashioned, indigo-and-white-striped "mattresses." These mattresses are about as thick as a blanket and they are atop bare wire frames. The room's walls are dirty cinder blocks. There are exposed pipes. Joe and Roger are over-the-moon with joy. The mattress is too short for Joe but, as he reclines, he smiles like the cat that ate the canary. To us, the room looks like a prison cell in an impoverished country. Joe, though, rejoices at what his hard work has won him.


After another grueling day of training, when any normal person would rush to a hot meal and a warm bed, Joe sees a light above the boat house. He investigates and finds a racing shell up on wooden horses. George Pocock (Peter Guinness), an elderly man with a British accent, enters. He is the boat's builder. He tells Joe he could always use some help. Without hesitation, Joe takes a broom and begins to sweep wood shavings from the floor.


"Your parents must be proud," George says. Joe merely snorts quietly but derisively. We in the audience have not been told this directly, but from Joe's poverty and his derisive snort, we conclude that Joe comes from a bad family background.


A university administrator, with an insincere smile, threatens Ulbrickson. If his team does not win something, and soon, Ulbrickson will be let go. With the trainees, Ulbrickson was the one with the power. This serpentine administrator has power over Ulbrickson. George, the boat builder, quietly suggests that Ulbrickson change the coxswain. The coxswain guides the team's speed, direction, and pace with oral commands shouted through a tin cone attached to his mouth by an over-the-head wire. Bobby Moch will be the new coxswain. He is ballsy, hungry, and willing to go against Ulbrickson.  


The Washington team must compete against better funded teams from more exclusive universities. Crew members from these schools are "senator's sons," who are "in boats before they are in shoes." Ulbrickson gives morose pep talks including "They are legacy. You? Try not to make a mistake. Don't tip the boat over." Coxswain Bobby is outraged and tells his crew to defy Ulbrickson's lack of faith. Yes, Washington is an underdog. But under Bobby's wily strategies and demanding commands, Washington defeats the University of California at Berkeley.


The crew celebrates. Impressed girls invite crew members to "someplace quite so you can explain to me how rowing works." "Someone wanted to do my algebra homework!" another crew member says.


Don Hume rarely speaks, but he is the team's "stroke seat," a key position. He is also an accomplished pianist. He is sitting alone. Bobby tells Don that tonight is his night. It will never come again. Don is too shy to make eye contact with a girl. But Bobby does get him to play piano for the celebrants. Don plays, "Ain't We Got Fun?" The partiers sing along. "Not much money, oh, but honey, ain't we got fun? There's nothing surer, the rich get rich and the poor get poorer … Even if we owe the grocer … tax collector's getting closer … Ain't we got fun?"


Joe and Joyce finally come close to kissing but a chaperone intervenes.


Joe recognizes, in the street, the father who abandoned him. His poorly dressed father is delivering lumber. Joe approaches. Joe reminds his father that he abandoned Joe when Joe was a just a child. His father replies that he was a solider when he was 14. He offers Joe a job delivering wood. "Or do you prefer your boat?" Joe's father sneers. Joe feels depressed, confused, and humiliated. He malfunctions in the boat and quits the team.


George, the boat builder and sage, asks Joe for help on a boat. They are rubbing whale oil into the hull. The boat has to shine "till you can see your freckles reflected in the surface." George counsels Joe. "You are not your father. You do not have to quit." Joe begs Ulbrickson for his spot back. Ulbrickson explains, "It's not about you. It's about the boat," meaning not just the craft, but the unity that is required for victory. Looking unsure, Ulbrickson allows Joe to rejoin the crew.


A crew member calls Joe "hobo." Joe grabs him. The other team members pull the combatants apart. The team member who called Joe a hobo apologizes, and admits that he has shoplifted from Woolworth's the clothes he is wearing. Joe shrugs and can't make eye contact. "Doesn't matter," he mumbles.


The team wins a key match and, thereby, qualifies to represent the US at the Olympics. But they can't go. There is no money to send them. The Olympic committee will, after all, send a "legacy" team of "senator's sons," a team fully funded for the trip.


Ulbrickson asks how much they need. "Five thousand dollars," he is told. Ulbrickson's shocked face tells the story. It's an impossible sum. Ulbrickson realizes he can harness the media to make this story public. Average citizens will donate. When the money is due, they are still three hundred dollars short. The Berkeley team coach shows up and offers Ulbrickson that amount.


The team goes to Berlin. Hume, the stroke seat, becomes ill. He competes anyway. The Germans cheat. The team is given a bad, distant position and does not hear the start called. The team wins anyway. And we return to the old man and the young boy. The boy says to the old man, "Did you like rowing eight man crew, grandpa?" and Grandpa Joe Rantz, slowed by time, replies. "We were never eight. We were one."


By the time the credits rolled, my handkerchief was completely damp.


I want to mention just a couple of the scenes that were so beautiful that I really want you to see this movie on a big screen.


The trainees are on the floor of the boat house doing sit ups. The diagonal line of their bodies occupies the lower right quadrant of the frame. Above them the sleek shells they will soon row are stacked in a horizontal line. Across the right middle of the frame, a horizontal line of another group of trainees exits the boat house. The upper left quadrant of the frame is white light from the sun outside. It's a composition worthy of a photography classic.


In another scene, the new trainees, now graduated to full-fledged team members, carry their twelve-foot oars into the doorway of the boat house for a group photo. This brief, beautiful shot is choreographed like a ballet.


I totally forgot Edgerton the actor and saw only Coach Ulbrickson. Callum Turner is superb as Joe Rantz. Luke Slattery is dynamic, charismatic, and charming as Bobby Moch.


Director George Clooney's goal was to create a film that followed the aesthetics and behaviors of the time of the film's setting. His actors, after winning a race, high-fived each other. No, no, no, Clooney instructed his cast. High fiving had not been invented yet. When Joe and Joyce finally kiss, an hour into the film, Clooney directed them in an "old movie" style of kissing. No visible tongue. Joe and Joyce kiss goodbye before Joe leaves for a competition. They are in a station, next to a mint-condition, vintage train engine. I immediately thought of Judy Garland and Robert Walker in the poignant 1945 movie, The Clock.


Back in the day people didn't chatter on and on about their psychological state – not in movies, and not in real life. They coped. Clooney recommended films to Turner. Turner told HuffPost, "Gary Cooper in High Noon and Mr. Deeds, watching movies like that. Spencer Tracy and tapping into Woody Guthrie."


I thought for sure that Rantz was a composite character, meant to represent Depression hardships. In fact, Joe Rantz was a real guy. The film is telling a true story about real people. Rantz did look like an Aryan god. Rantz was temporarily abandoned by his father when he was ten, and, permanently, when he was fourteen. Joe came home one day and found his father, his stepmother, and their children packed into a car with an oval rear window. As they drove away, leaving Joe behind, Joe could see his younger sibling through that oval rear window asking, "But what about Joe?"


All Joe could remember of his mother, who died when he was four, was the handkerchiefs she stained with blood as she succumbed to cancer. At times, he had to forage for food in the forest. Rantz earned a chemical engineering degree and worked for Boeing for thirty-five years. He remained lifelong friends with his fellow rowers. Joyce Simdars really was pretty as a picture and she and Joe were married for 63 years.


Don Hume had worked, as a youth, in pulp mills. This work damaged his lungs. He became ill with a respiratory problem in Berlin and lost 12 pounds. The New York Times says Hume was "ill and nearly unconscious" during the race. He rowed in spite of this.


Brown told Amy Wilder of the Columbia Daily Tribune, "These were really wonderful guys, the kinds of guys you'd want your daughter or your sister to marry. They were humble, good-hearted, earnest, hardworking kids." And, as a group, they became greater than any one of them apart from the others. Brown met Rantz shortly before Rantz succumbed to heart failure at age 93.


"When Joe first mentioned 'the boat' to me, I didn't understand what he meant. But he quickly made clear that it meant what all of them had done and what all of them had become together. It was a term he used for the single entity that rowed for a gold medal in Berlin … These guys were incredibly bonded together … Crew is a sport that is all about mutual trust and close cooperation."


Brown continues. "I get emails all the time from readers, and certain things come up over and over … people on both sides of our political spectrum … say basically, 'If only people on the other side would read this book, the world would be a much better place.' … if there is something in the message that appeals so much to both sides and tends to bring us together, then I'm all for it."


Filmmaker George Clooney was conscious of the story's power to inspire people. In a director's cut interview, Clooney said, "I think we've all been worked over the last few years … We've all felt like people have been separated into one side or another and gotten angrier and angrier and angrier … When I read the book, I was really inspired by the idea – we can't do this without one another. We can't get through it without one another. That's the feeling you get by these kids who were torn by the Depression, and forced together, and somehow ended up being George, John, Paul and Ringo."


Luke Slattery, who was so compelling as Bobby Moch, told the Denver Gazette, "The sport of rowing itself [is] a metaphor: You can only row well when you pull together. I don't want to sound naive when I say this, but there were moments in our history where differences were put aside and we pulled together for a common goal … I'm just proud to be a part of something that tries to uplift. This movie has this pure-hearted impulse to give people the belief in themselves that they can overcome tremendous adversity. It's rocket fuel for perseverance."


Callum Turner told HuffPost that, just like the original "boys in the boat," the actors playing them also discovered how hard work toward a common goal can transform men. "You know what's crazy, without sounding too sentimental – it's impossible not to – I created a bond with these guys that's going to live with me forever … We rowed together, we ate together, we went out together, we watched movies together … And we were all pulling in the same direction to try to achieve something that was seemingly out of reach … We set the target of reaching 46 strokes per minute, which is what the guys did in the last race to win the gold. We all moved at different paces, the process was up and down … We got to 46 and we were shocked. There was … this euphoric feeling that we'd set out five months ago to achieve something … we were all so proud of ourselves …  I'm just so proud of those guys. I'm proud to be friends with them."


How did our Woke overlords respond? Many professional and amateur reviewers and commentators condemn The Boys in the Boat as "stoic," "old-fashioned," "traditional," and "boring." Professional reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes give it a low score of 58%. The Rotten Tomatoes audience score, on the other hand, is 97%.


The Woke condemn Boys in the Boat as sexist and racist. Siddhant Adlakha at Mashable condemns the film's whiteness. "The Nazi swastika represents nothing for the movie's white characters." In fact Bobby Moch was Jewish. Don Hume and George Hunt served during World War II. The film's white characters, according to Adlakha, are "fighting for" "little." Because they are white, doncha know. White people never struggle.


The Lainey Gossip website calls Boys "a mawkish sports story … a weird 'don't forget the white dads did a thing, too!' plea." Joe's poverty is "comical." Depiction of Joe's poverty is "pornography." "This film knows it has a race problem yet has no interest in meaningfully addressing it!" Rather, it's a film about "white men" "rowing their little boats."


Newsweek reported that merely the release of the film's trailer "caused quite a stir online, with many criticizing its apparent lack of diversity." Newsweek quoted comments like "Toxic masculinity and no diversity. This just won't do!" and "Wow. That white pasty skin out in the sun is hard on the eyes," and "White people working together toward a common goal can accomplish anything. No diversity required."


The Next Best Picture website reports, "The submissive role of the film's female characters and no substantive characters of color … are still startling to see in a film in 2023." Fish Jelly Reviews condemns every aspect of the film, including Desplat's musical score.  The Boys in the Boat is for grandparents because it is "incredibly boring."


Now you understand that in telling, through beautifully crafted images, a straight line narrative that focuses on a compelling character who achieves in spite of impossible odds, The Boys in the Boat is the most transgressive, revolutionary film of 2023.


There's an ironic coda to our Woke overlords' objections to Boys as too white, too male, and too inspirational. I had never heard of "the boys in the boat" who won gold at the Berlin Olympics. Until Brown's book came out in 2013, their story remained obscure. When asked why, Brown told an interviewer that Jesse Owens' story overshadowed others' accomplishments. Owens was "the fastest man in the world," "the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history." As the New York Times reported in its 1980 obituary, "A member of what the Nazis mockingly called America's 'black auxiliaries,' Mr. Owens achieved a feat unmatched in modern times." Americans were too busy paying attention to the achievements of a black man in 1936, so they overlooked the achievement of eight white men. 


The Peasants is the single most beautiful movie I have ever seen. The soundtrack by Lukasz Rostkowski is an hypnotic, kickass, chthonic orgy of agony and ecstasy emerging like a geyser from the Polish earth. The Peasants is the most Polish movie I have ever seen. In being so very, very Polish, it ends up being utterly universal. Viewers around the world can see themselves and the negotiations they must navigate to get through the day.


The Peasants is animated. First, live actors in real sets performed the story. Then, those images, frame by frame, were turned into oil paintings by over a hundred painters in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Serbia. The process is so difficult that another film like The Peasants may never be made again. The Peasants, in spite of its great beauty, is as grim as the grave. But, like life itself, The Peasants provides one hell of a trip before the final destination.


Wladyslaw Reymont (1867 – 1925) was born into an impoverished noble family. Beginning in 1904, he published his four-volume, ethnographic novel detailing the lives of Polish peasants. In 1924, Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.


Directors DK and Hugh Welchman followed up their 2017 animated film, Loving Vincent, with an animated Peasants. The film's plot is simple and timeless. In this small village, under Russian colonial domination, peasants are completely interdependent. They need each other for day-to-day survival. They sow, harvest, and celebrate together. A wagon gets stuck in the mud; neighbors must arrive to push it out. The cabbage harvest is good; everyone celebrates while gathering together to process it for kraut. One person's business is everybody's business. Any coloring outside of the lines is quickly quashed. One can cause trouble simply by being too beautiful.


Teenage Jagna (Kamila Urzedowska) is too beautiful. And not just that. She spends hours creating wycinanki, elaborate paper cutouts. She uses primitive sheep shears to create delicate images of flying birds. She holds these up to the sky and moves them to and fro, as if giving them flight. The villagers assess Jagna's obsession with creating pretty things as contrary to their work-oriented values.


Boryna (Miroslaw Baka), the wealthiest peasant, is an old widower. He claims the best of everything in the village already, so of course teen Jagna will be his property. Everyone in the village wants to see Jagna's wings clipped. Her beauty is too provocative. Jagna is forced to marry Boryna.


Antek, Boryna's son, also wants Jagna. The competition between Boryna and Antek is a literal tug of war, with each man grabbing her and pulling her close, as the village gossips. Soon every man in town is bragging, falsely, that he has had sex with Jagna. This braggadocio, no matter how false, upsets mothers and wives. Someone needs to be lynched, and someone is. It's a sickening scene. It reminded me of actual stoning videos one can see on the internet.


After we left the theater, my movie-going companion, a man, asked, "Was the point of this movie that men are pigs?" Indeed, the women in the film say that, "Men are pigs who stick their snouts in any trough."


I responded, "Did you see the women in that movie?" These village women are drama-obsessed gossips and troublemakers. They kill with their tongues and through shunning. They use even folksong lyrics to lacerate their targets.


My friend then asked, "Doesn't this movie support every negative stereotypes of Poles that you worked against in your book Bieganski? These Poles drink vodka, fight, and have sex. They work like oxen."


No, I explained. It's all about pronouns. When people stereotype Poles, the operative pronoun is "they." They get drunk, they bicker, they are like animals. In The Peasants, the operative pronoun is "we." The magic of art is that viewers see themselves and their world in the sometimes vicious, sometimes loving, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideously ugly village of The Peasants.


The Boys in the Boat, The Peasants, and The Zone of Interest are all about communal life. In The Peasants, community is like Kali Durga, the Indian goddess. Community gives life; community destroys; in a cycle as never-ending as the seasons themselves, as planting and harvest. The Peasants is a closed system. There is no escape. If you want to survive, you have to play the village's game, or die.


In The Zone of Interest – reviewed here – Auschwitz Commandant Hoess and his wife Hedwig are, they believe, members of the Master Race. As such, they have no responsibility for the million plus human beings whose murder Hoess supervised just over the wall of his lovely garden. Hoess' Nazi community is perhaps the most evil humanity has ever created.


The Boys in the Boat are beneficiaries of a community we should all keep alive. In this community, you face hardships but you don't complain; you do your best under the circumstances life handed you. You work hard. You deal with pain. You support your teammates. This community is so threatening to Woke that cultural arbiters must denounce The Boys in the Boat.


Each of these films would be reduced to a joke had they adopted color-blind casting. In February, 2024, Google's image generator, Gemini, created controversy. Users asked for an image of Marie Curie, a Polish, woman scientist, and Gemini responded with an image of a black Muslim man. Asked for an image of a Gestapo officer, Gemini responded with an image of a black Nazi. Had these films presented us with a black Joe Rantz, a black Auschwitz commandant, or a black Polish peasant, the films would be laughing stocks or worse. Color blind casting works with some stories, but in others it simply can't, and we shouldn't demand it.


Danusha Goska is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery



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Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
This blog welcomes comments from readers that address those themes. Off-topic and anti-Semitic posts are likely to be deleted.
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