Beginning and Ending a Year of Books

Last year I blogged about reading lists and enjoying the curl-up-in-bed book All the Light We Cannot See http://bit.ly/2CuB8vJ by Anthony Doerr. I mentioned being surprised at how many books I’d read in just a few weeks. Keeping lists can do that for you.

I start 2018 similarly surprised by how many books I managed to read last year.

Some of those include: Bloodlines by John Piper, Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Gospel Boldness by Rod Thomas. Rod is a Christian missionary in Japan and it is clear that his book Gospel Boldness flows from his work in that country. He encourages Christians to confidently share the gospel, saying that clarity in this area is ennabled by God’s Spirit and is something that can be cultivated. Bloodlines by John Piper is an honest and thought-provoking discussion on the gospel of Jesus Christ and racism. ‘The achievement of the cross [on which Jesus died],’ says Piper ‘in reconciling all ethnic groups through faith in Christ is part of how the work of Christ on the cross magnifies the greatness of God’s grace.’ Piper urges Christians to abstain from partiality and to support God’s plan to gather a diverse and unified redeemed people.

I appreciated Questioning Evangelism for its fresh approach to engaging people in respectful, intelligent discussions about Jesus. Newman is funny and supports genuineness, caring and listening – the antithesis of the one-size-fits-all, in-out, disrespecting sales pitch approach to people I have seen in the past.

But my favourite (and only fiction) book on this list has to be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005). This is my second reading and I relished it perhaps more the second time around. The narrator (death) is well-developed, the characters perfectly individual, the descriptions unusual, and the subject matter (Germans who didn’t support what the Fuhrer was doing in WWII) deeply touching. The style is such that you simply cannot get lost, or confused. The short sentences and chapters make for easy reading, and even though the narrator explains what is to come before it happens, these revelations don’t spoil the story. I cried as my eyes raced across the pages and as my heart ached for Papa, Mama, Rudy, Max and Liesel. The Book Thief is on the shelf of my bookcase reserved for lifetime favourites.

The Book Thief was my last read of 2017, All the Light We Cannot See my first. How interesting that both had WWII as their subject, and children as their protagonists.

I look forward to my 2018 reading material. Here’s to a fruitful 2018 of books!

Snowy Transformations

I arrived in a freezing Germany on 9 December 2017. My goal: to visit the Christmas market at Marienplatz, Germany. Bundled up in five layers of my paltry southern hemisphere winter wear, my eyes watering in the cold, I braved the outdoor experience alongside my husband.

A gluhwein stand

The atmosphere was marvellous. Stands of hot chocolate and gluhwein steamed invitingly in the biting air, while visitors and tourists waddled past in their padded coats. Just taking off my gloves to examine little goodies at the stands froze my bony fingers. Shopkeepers helpfully spoke English when I looked blank at the German tongue, and people seemed generally cheerful despite the minus one degree Celcius temperature. It took three trips to the market before I had decided on what to buy. South African Rands don’t make much of a dent in Euros. And, to my practical mind, many of the ornaments and trinkets, nice as they were, wouldn’t have been very useful.

I settled on buying traditional food. The stand that got my Euros was the one

A strange kissing companion

that offered tasting samples and I enthusiastically bought packs of stollen (a fruit bread) and lebkuchen (a ginger-type biscuit) for friends and family back home after nibbling the delicious little blocks.

We had just got back to our hotel room when it began to snow in earnest. I was delighted. In two hours every horizontal surface I could see was covered in soft whiteness. But of course, with icy weather comes travel problems. My departing aeroplane that night had to undergo special de-icing procedures before it could safely take off. I have to say that this was the best part of my trip. Because I have a cockpit pass I was permitted to sit in the cockpit for taxi and takeoff and what a view I got. Before taking off the Airbus A340 was surrounded by three giant de-icing vehicles. Like weird-looking Transformers (I think the creators of the film based their models on these machines), the trio scooted back and forth around the wings and tail spraying 60 degree Celcius liquid across its surface. Using a checklist designed for such conditions the pilots did all the requisite checks and procedures before lifting off the icy runway. Beneath us the whitened landscape twinkled in gentle yellow lights until it disappeared beneath a layer of cloud.

Winter lights

What a treat. Sitting in the cockpit was much more exciting than any movie I could have watched on the aeroplane’s entertainment system.

My funny husband

German Films Undo Stereotypes at DIFF 2017

There was a ‘German Focus’ at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. Ten German films were screened as part of this focus. Lien Heidenreich-Seleme of the Goethe-Institut explained that the institute’s goal was to ‘undo stereotypes through visual storytelling’. There remained a general impression, said Heidenreich-Seleme, that German cinema was highly political and serious. The new filmmakers wanted to break that stereotype.

Well, I think they did a good job. I saw three of the ten and can recommend all of them. Humour, sensitivity, quirkiness, captivating cinematography and unique storytelling featured in various degrees in the films I watched.

Goodbye Berlin is the story of two fourteen-year-old boys (Tshick and Maik) who form an unlikely friendship one summer. Both social outsiders, the boys have absent/no parents and look for belonging and to be special to someone. They take matters into their own hands when they fail to be invited to a popular girl’s party, steal a car and set off across Germany in search of some mythical place. Along the way they forge a friendship that will ostensibly last a lifetime, discuss deep life issues, and develop a confidence that (Maik certainly) didn’t have before.

Another film that centred on friendship was The Most Beautiful Day. In this story two men in their thirties dying from incurable diseases meet at a hospice. Throwing caution out of the window the two go on a stealing spree, trade in the goods for cash and then set off on an African adventure. Apart from death the story touches on other sensitive issues like love, courage, commitment and treasuring what is important. But it never gets sentimental. A little silly in places The Most Beautiful Day is nevertheless very funny and – of interest to South African viewers – features a strong South African element.

Paula is an altogether different film to the two above and tells the story of German painter Paula Becker. Paula was a free-spirited young woman in the early 1900s, determined to do the unacceptable for women, which was to: paint for a living and paint in her own unique style. She did this, eventually. The story of Paula’s art is told in parallel to her personal love life. The sexual tension throughout the film is evident and forms an integral part of why (according to the storytellers in this film) Paula painted what she did. Carla Juri who played Paula was absolutely brilliant and the cinematography throughout its German countryside and Paris setting flowed beautifully.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the German Focus at the 2017 DIFF. I only hope these features make it to the mainstream cinema circuit in South Africa.

Source: IMDB

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a story of history

A few years ago I visited Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. My husband and I travelled just 32-odd kilometres to get there from Munich. I remember walking back into the small town after the English tour. Only a few hundred metres down the road we turned a corner and bright, summery shrubbery obscured the site of many deaths from view. I think this is what it was like for many Germans during WWII. An extermination camp operated, mere kilometres from where ordinary Germans lived. And residents either chose to ignore its existence or were unaware of it.

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Alexander Fehling in the subtly and brilliantly acted Labyrinth of Lies. Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/the-week-in-movies-labyri_b_8182496.html

Decades later of course the world has enough information about what went on in these camps to be appalled. Perpetrators have been prosecuted. Camps like Dachau have been made into museums so that we can’t escape history. But it wasn’t always like this. The film Labyrinth of Lies makes that clear. Set in Frankfurt less than two decades after the war viewers of this movie are confronted with a Germany of silence. Victims hesitant to speak up. Nazis living and working as bakers, mechanics, teachers in towns alongside their victims, not revealing what they did. Officials unwilling to share what they knew. Finding the criminals was a mission, exacerbated by laws for their prosecution that didn’t yet exist, and reams and reams of paperwork and red tape.

One young prosecutor, instilled with a sense of justice, “stumbles” across a victim, and a journalist passionate to tell the truth. And so together they begin what would lead to the first large trial in Germany of SS officers who were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Auschwitz. Alexander Fehling as the prosecutor Johann Radmann is outstanding in his role. Subtleties of facial expression and body language reveal more than words as the actor moves his character from ignorance, through duty then horror, to passion, despair and determination.

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a film about history. It reveals the human heart and poses the question that, had we been in the position of those Nazi officers, would we have behaved any differently?

Labyrinth of Lies is in German with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on Friday 30 September 2016.