When Hollywood Gets History Right: Two Tales of Courage

I’m not a big fan of Hollywood doing history.  Traditionally, they get it terribly wrong and people get confused about the details of history, relying more on the Hollywood version than on the actual record.

But, perhaps recent criticism of Hollywood’s miserable record in getting history right has had an effect, for there are two films that came out in the past few months that tell the true stories of true heroes and mostly get them right.  The movies are about two couples who both decide to take courageous stands against an oppressive state.  Sadly, they end up differently, with one victorious and the other paying for their resistance with their lives.  But, the courage that each couple showed is remarkable and an inspiration to all who feel inspired to take action against a state too eager to control too much of our lives.

WARNING: Spoiler Alert!  I highly recommend both of these movies for viewing, even if you know the outcome and, since their based on true stories.  But, this review will include spoilers.

The first is Alone in Berlin, starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as Anna and Otto Quangel, an unassuming factory worker and his wife who take it upon themselves to wage a distrete campaign against the Nazis from their home in Berlin, and Daniel Bruhl as Escherich, the police officer intent on finding them out and bringing them to “justice.”

The movie is based on the fictionalized novel, also entitled Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, so some of the historical details follow the novel rather than history.  But, Fallada based his novel on the real story of Elise and Otto Hampel.

The Quangel’s learn that their son has been killed fighting for Germany in World War II.  Distraught and disenchanted with the Nazi regime, Otto starts hand-printing postcards with anti-Nazi messages and dropping them discretely around the city of Berlin, hoping that ordinary citizens will pick them up, read them, and be similarly disenchanted with life under the Nazis.  Soon, Anna joins her husband in his mission.  Unfortunately, the cards are usually turned over to the police, where Officer Escherich assumes the task of tracking down and arresting whoever is writing the cards. It’s a testament to the control the Nazi regime held, as well as the mind-set of the ordinary people of Berlin, that almost all of the cards were immediately turned in to the authorities.  Of course, this was Berlin, the capital city of National Socialism, so maybe that’s not so surprising.  Had the Quangels (Hampels) been in a city or town more remote from the center of Hitlerism they may have experienced more success and support.  Certainly, there were cities and towns in Germany, and others under German control, that were not as steeped in the mythos of Naziism as was Berlin.  It’s a testament, then, to the courage and perseverance of the Hampels that they took on and remained faithful to their mission of resistance even in the face of what they certainly knew were overwhelming odds.

Well, one can’t walk around Berlin during the early 1940s with anti-Nazi postcards in his coat without eventually some mishap occurring that exposes you.  Sure enough, Otto discovers that some of his cards have fallen out of a hole in his coat pocket and been found on his factory floor by a co-worker.  The authorities are called, and Otto and Anna are arrested, tried and convicted to hang.

At first glance, of course, it seems their mission was an utter failure.  Their cards were almost always turned in to the authorities, so there’s no evidence that they influenced anyone.  They were found out, found guilty, and executed.  But, here we are in 2017 watching a movie about their courage and resistance in the face of great evil.  Perhaps their legacy is not in their success, but in their witness.  Their witness may inspire others who face similar circumstances.  It will be more difficult, I think, for a movement like National Socialism to catch on today.

The second movie is entitled Loving, and tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving of Central Point in Caroline County, Virginia.  The Lovings, portrayed by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, were an interracial couple living in Virginia in 1958 who, because of the anti-miscegenation laws of Virginia, drove to Washington, DC to get married.  They chose, however, to return to Virginia to live as a married couple.  Only weeks after their wedding, the police arrest them for breaking Virginia’s race laws.

Initially, they plead guilty and agree to move out of state in order to avoid going to prison.  They live in Washington, DC for ten years, but over time decide that Virginia is their home and develop a desire to return.  Mildred writes Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, for assistance, and Kennedy recommends their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (back when the ACLU was doing good work!).  To make a long story short, the Loving’s case travels through the courts and, in the landmark 1967 decision, Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court of the United States overturns all state laws that prohibit interracial marriage.  The Lovings move back to Virginia and live their lives in peace until Richard is tragically killed by a drunk driver in 1975.

The movie is strong in its subtlety.  Like the Hampels, the Lovings are an unassuming couple.  Mostly, they just want to be left alone.  The opposition they face is social, not violent.  They’ve broken both unwritten and written laws, and in the minds of the locals they need to pay the punishment for such.  Subtle threats are set against them, but the movie is one that children could watch, and should watch.  Mostly, the movie is about the Lovings themselves and the quiet courage they display in the face of injustice.

The courage of these two couples, and the straightforward and largely accurate way their stories are told by Hollywood, is a testament that small acts of resistance can be effective.  We don’t need to torch the earth or turn violent against each other.  We may have to pay the ultimate sacrifice, but that’s what doing the right thing sometimes requires.  If you’re not willing to pay the consequences for doing what’s right, what’s the point of doing what’s right?

So, hurray for Hollywood in getting the stories of the Hampels and the Lovings right.  Maybe this is a sign of better things to come.

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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