Slated with weekly sessions of Hebrew school from the age of five to 14, I've seen more Holocaust documentaries than I can remember — and many I can never forget.
Some of the most powerful entries painted the tragedy with a daunting grandeur; others, of equal effect, related with the audiences through vivid personal stories. What makes an account of this historical black mark most commanding is its will to carry forth full force with its message, not to safeguard the public from the atrocities inherent in the subject matter. 50 Children, which aired Monday night on HBO, tells a wonderful story of two individuals — Philadelphia residents Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who traveled to Nazi-occupied Germany on a mission to rescue 50 Jewish children from the clutches of the monstrous reign. The documentary, narrated by Alan Alda, interviews a handful of the now-grown beneficiaries of the Kraus' heroism, touching softly upon the great deeds of the American couple in the face of Hitler's growing tyranny.
But as far as Holocaust documentaries go, 50 Children is a softball feature. It is beyond unfortunate that in discussion of such a time, the simple idea of leagues of children in danger is not enough to thematically capture the severity in question. Such is the shortcoming of 50 Children, a film that treads a bit too lightly when its subject warrants weight and agony.
One could argue, instead, that 50 Children aims to shed a light on a beam of shining light in this dark era, that glowing positivity being Mr. and Mrs. Kraus. And in doing so, it earns the luxury of shying away from some of the most explicity horrors of the time. After all, it is remarkably important to highlight the hope in episodes of tragedy. In showcasing this, in delivering a story of 50 young boys and girls rescued thanks to the Kraus family, 50 Children does the tremendous service of exemplifying hope in the most hopeless of times. But as an instruction to those only learning about the Holocaust, 50 Children seems to fall short of capturing the era. There's almost too much hope in this film; 50 Children, as an artistic project, neglects to instigate a presence of this unparalleled conflict, instead entrusting the viewer's knowledge of the Holocaust to fuel the necessity for the Kraus' deeds.
But it is important to never lapse in this endeavor, to never free ourselves from the present memories of the Holocaust. 50 Children's task is well-intended and inspiring, but it lacks an important component of telling an uplifting story about a dark time: the illustration of the dark time itself.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.