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Hitler’s Tasters

From earliest ages, we have poured ourselves into holocaust literature, trying to understand, witness, empathize. For the most part, the perspective has been a Jewish one, sometimes a scholarly dissertation, a history book, a probe into evil, a horrifying tale or memoir. And we are mystified, amazed, speechless. We are fascinated, distracted, hurt, aware, for we as survivors, the children or cousins or descendants or friends of survivors are only able to glimpse the horrors we did not experience. Thank G-d.

As years pass and more distance accumulates, we can stand slightly apart and instead of engulfed in tears and anger, we are able to glean other stories, perhaps not written by those whose narratives are first hand. In At the Wolfs Table by Rosella Postorino, she rewrites the story of the last surviving woman tester, Margaret Wolk, forced to taste Hitler’s food before he did. Although Postorino changes Margaret’s name to Rosa, recalling her own name, Rosella ,the author, personally embodies the question of the protagonist faced with a terrible moral dilemma : What would I do if…..? By sampling Hitler’s food, Rosa/Margaret is ensuring Hitler’s survival, and knowingly supports his war endeavours and atrocities. Obsessed with her protagonist’s issues of guilt and responsibility, Postorino states, “We cannot ask everyone to be a hero, and I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary woman.”

Margaret Wolk was a secretary living in Berlin in 1941, married to Karl, with Jewish friends. Her husband departed for war and her apartment was bombed, forcing her to relocate in Gross- Partsch( now Poland) to live with her mother-in-law. The details of the true life are closely replicated in Postorino’s book as she describes the circumstances of Rosa’s life : her meals of vegetables, grains and fruits Hitler demanded in his diet; her escape on Goebbel’s train aided by a Nazi; and even the return of her husband from a Soviet prison camp. Because Wolk died at 95 before Postorino could interview her, she gleaned the facts revealed in podcasts, articles and newspapers such as der Spiegel that lay out the interment at Wolfsschanze and after. It took decades for Wolk to speak publicly about her wartime life.

Rosa Sauer, our protagonist in Postorino’s book is a sympathetic German, forced along with nine other women in the story to taste Hitler’s food to avoid his being poisoned. Born into a family who has resisted and scorned Hitler’s philosophies, Rosa’s idealistic father is a railway worker, her mother a seamstress so Rosa comes to the reader as the innocent bystander. She recalls a vivid memory from high school fixated on Adam Wortmann, a beloved math teacher, marched away because he was a Jew.

She confides ,” I had never been a good German”, and explains even at an early age, she had played at the game of death by swallowing threads from her mother’s creations. Rosa’s mother dies when their apartment is bombed and Rosa continually returns to her past, her former life and her mother’s admonitions regarding the necessity of eating. She remembers her mother saying that eating was a way to battle death: “She said it even before Hitler, back when I went to elementary school”. Chosen by the town mayor in Gross- Partsch as a taster, Rosa has become party to the war effort and so, the correlation between food and endurance continues : ironic when most are starving. Three times a day , a bounty of asparagus, peppers, peas, rice, salads, milk and even cakes are her daily fare : “ Hitler nourished me and that nourishment could kill me.”, she relates.

Rosa says, “We were ten digestive tracts.” Wolk herself commented, “Some of the women cried at the beginning of every meal, fearing the food [was] indeed poisoned and they were going to die. We had to taste everything and wait an hour, after which we cried our eyes out, knowing that we were saved, day after day.” Although treated to delicacies and the finest foods, eating is far from a comfortable, enjoyable pastime. In one scene in the book, many women succumb, faint, become extremely ill, vomit, but ultimately recover .Hitler’s tasters are always in peril, for the food might be toxic ;the Allies, but especially England had wanted to destroy Hitler.

Fears for Hitler’s security were not unfounded. On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenbergs, a trusted soldier, detonated a bomb in the Wolfsschanze in an attempt to kill Hitler. He survived, but nearly 5,000 people were executed following the assassination attempt. In the story, Rosa describes meeting von Stauffenbergs at a party given by her father-in-law’s employer, the baroness who is quite taken with the Fuhrer, believing he will save Germany. She is also entranced by Rosa, inviting her to the castle where they ride horses, talk books, music, film and theatre: a contrast and brief respite from the Wolf’s Lair. However, with assassination attempts, the tasters are forced to live on the premises believed secure. Rosa never encounters Hitler, but glimpses his dog, Blondi. At the baronness’s party Rosa -the- taster becomes Rosa -the -love interest as she is noticed by one of Hitler’s obersturmfuhrer, Ziegler. Before the lock down, he begins to appear at Rosa’s window at night.

Besides the wartime examination of the tasters, At The Wolfs Table illuminates many themes that pertain to women, many feminist ones. It is a story of victimized women forced to comply during wartime to the orders of men. Rosa talks about missing love and her own body. For the baroness’s party, Ulla, another taster, had come to arrange Rosa’s hair and Rosa herself altered an old dress from Berlin’s nightlife in attempt to feel attractive. Her dalliance with Ziegler is part command performance, part investigation of self. She believes she ultimately has no choice, but also recognizes a desire within herself.

As a young bride before Karl’s departure, Rosa spent barely a year with her husband, dreaming of children, a life of normalcy, but of course, the extremes of war disrupts lives and hopes. In Gross- Partsch, tormented by his absence, she writes to Gregor everyday,” a diary of me missing him.”

The other women in her group also cope with their stilted loveless lives and their used but de- sexualized bodies. One of the tasters, married with two young children, becomes pregnant by a young farm hand , and Elfreide , another of the inmates, is able to procure a clandestine abortion for her in the woods.And another of the young women, Leni with a blotchy complexion dreams of her first love experience, but naively allows herself to be courted and betrayed by a soldier. She blames herself, disclaiming the admittance of rape. Elfreide speaks up, refusing to allow the outrage to pass. Rosa briefly in a position of power demands Ziegler provide protection for her, but Rosa too is betrayed when the woman disappears, likely sent off to a camp. Yet the Rosa- Ziegler liaison is complicated as he does insist on finding safe passage for her on Goebbels’s train once the war appears lost. She had told herself, “ But at night , Gregor( her husband) disappeared because the world itself disappeared and life began and ended in the trajectory of the connecting of Ziegler and me.” Cold comfort and rationalization for her nagging submission to Ziegler’s advances and withdrawals.

Rosa’s escape back to Berlin on the train, her discovery among the luggage and simple meal with a young family, the crooning of a lullaby and simple kiss to their baby juxtaposes the chaotic inhuman cattle cars that drove the precious human cargo of unfortunate targeted Jews to camps. Without mentioning that final destination, it is strongly evoked in the gently contrasted paragraphs. I doubt any Jew could read the section without a gasp of sorrow for those lost in the persecution.

As well, the theme of eating that should be pleasurable becomes a main obsession in the book. As readers we think of bulimics and anorexics who cannot tolerate or vomit their meals. Forever, women have considered their bodies too fat, too thin, playing with, balancing their diets.From skeletal Twiggys to curvaceously plump Sophia Lorens, the size of hips, busts, waists, legs and butts( whether to enlarge like the Kardashian’s or not) are the fodder of magazines and the cause of self doubt plaguing women forever. One of the tasters papers her room with images of stars, fantasizing about the perfect looks of a German actress. The women are all stand ins for Little Red Riding Hoods, guessing who or what ( food) will destroy and devour them, helpless? And will they all be blaming themselves or others for bad choices, too tight clothing, wrong moves, uncertain paths, neglecting the advice of those older and wiser.

Rosa aware of this strange life she is leading writes, “ The ability to adapt is human beings greatest resource, but the more I adapted, the less human I felt.” In a wash of contradictions and consumed by guilt, she admits her personal punishment was not poison, or death but life: as she had persisted in living by ingesting food, engaging in a romantic tryst with the enemy and seeking escape back to Berlin.In all of these situations, Rosa cannot rejoice or even forgive herself, as women often refuse to do, for there is shame, guilt, the burden of surviving when so many others succumbed.

At The Wolf’s Table raises many complicated and complex issues. In real life, Margaret Wolk’s leaving Wolfsschanze and return to Berlin was not the end of her story. Her treatment by the Russians was a nightmare. It is not surprising that only towards the end of her life did she reveal the horrors. As Jews who have continued on with our own memories, I think we can empathize, once more sadly aware of lives lost and destroyed – even those who were not Jewish.

Dances with the Piano

She walks in glorious, head held high, a shimmering gown with a slit to the thigh even though it’s noon.She looks the part of the diva. And my god, she is. Her name is Rosinna Grieco and I’m here for the noontime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre. On the program is a Bach Toccata and a Liszt Sonata and this young woman immediately takes charge. Usually I will close my eyes, removing myself to a personal reverie , my own mindfulness where the music overtakes my head and I am transported somewhere beyond sight and touch. But I cannot take my eyes off Rosinna. She commands and is a commanding presence.  
Immediately I am astounded by the space around her that becomes charged as if she is an extension of the piano, or the other way around. The surrounding negative space, the backdrop to her presence becomes alive, the air that encloses her vibrant as her fingers prancing on the keyboard create precise shapes moving up and down the piano. I do not want to close my eyes because I am witnessing a performance of music in which the pianist is deepening and extending understanding , echoing Yeats’ poem of the impossibility of separating the dancer from the dance in “Among School Children.” And in taking in this moment, I cannot look away, mesmerized. As audience, we are is all fixated.

When the Liszt is preformed, I become even more aware of the relationship between player and played. She seems to be singing or talking to her instrument, her face radiating reaction to the music. In the quiet moments, she seems to coo, to encourage her fingers gliding, coaxing the tones to the shades and diversity of the lightness of the piece, but equally, she practically jumps off her stool during the passionate chords that resound darkly, ravenously, thundering sections where ominous clouds gather. The contrasts between light and dark, gentle and intrusive are made explicit as the performer herself is the vehicle uniting music and emotion. We are breathless, happily depleted at the conclusion, no one wanting to move and disturb the enchantment.

I think too of earlier in my week when Cathy Tile presented her lecture on Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Here the music of Shostakovich is the subject  that frames the story, a three part concerto. Barnes’ narrator reflects that a soul can be betrayed three ways: what others do to us; what others make us do to ourselves; and what we voluntarily do .His narrative presents the musician at the beck and call of Power, as directed by Stalin.Fearing for his life and his family’s , Shostakovich regretfully composes nostalgic, comforting, sentimental works for “ the common man.”

I think of Madeleine Thein’s book Do Not Tell Us That We Have Nothing , and her take on two musicians in China and their conflict between party loyalty and the need to create original music…and the betrayal that accompanies being made to conform to the dictates of megalomania in oppressive regimes. Hitler too, like Mao and Stalin, rejected innovative music, the first inmates in Dachau being those dissident musicians who dared to transgress by performing jazz.

At first I can empathize with Shostakovich, his guilt, neuroses, and his fear and consider that the average person has no choice but to lower their eyes to the ground, shuffle on , but my moral meter, my husband reminds me that Shostakovich wasn’t the “ordinary man” and DO remember Nureyev and Baryshnikov and Solzhenitsyn who did leave, people so openly recognized as brilliant and talented that they could control and continue their artistic lives away from Mother Russia. At Tile’s lecture, someone suggested that Shostakovich was too Russian to defect and so he stayed, worked, suffered tremendous guilt and produced art that conformed to the dictator’s taste.
So our judgment, at the very edge of our sensibility, is held just there, not condemning him. Barnes writes perhaps rationalizing ,” …to be a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change- which made it, in a way, a kind of courage….” To endure is in deed courage, to bear witness, to continue on when there is no or little hope – yes, for the common person. However when one is outstanding, one with options, and a recognized artist who bends to power, we have to question. For if a great composer, one granted amnesty in his transgressions , allowed the perks of his position and even sent off to the United States on tour, is unable to speak out, how can there be hope for the common person? 

Today, the passion of Rosinna Grieco inspired me, changing my grey day to one full of possibility. And it made me think of all the brave souls , small souls, speaking out, protesting against Donald Trump and his restrictive measures that tighten the noose for women, minorities, immigrants… How can one not be impressed by them, these tiny Davids willing to take on the Goliaths of the swamp. As great as Shostakovich was and his music, perhaps he might have been broken musical barriers and instead of betraying his colleagues, Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Khachaturian , encouraged lesser lights to sway to their own music.

Reminder to son: Get those piano keys fixed!


Things in Wrong Places

This week my daughter staying here with her two babies looked up at a tall tall tree two houses over and observed a hawk. Yes, a hawk in midtown Toronto at Avenue and Lawrence. She knows because she does these amazing nature walks in the country where she lives in a picturesque town outside of Philadelphia. What was a predatory bird doing in North Toronto?

That got me thinking about things that don’t belong.

The Republican National Convention brought to mind that old Jim Carrey movie, the Truman Show, or what I remember of it. Watching the beautifully scripted and choreographed sons of Donald Trump, I felt as if I were watching a play composed in a studio. Young men who over the years on Celebrity Apprentice who barely uttered more than mono-syllabic grunts of approval to their mega boss were poised and well spoken. My mouth hung open. And daughter Ivanka , the cherry on the ice cream in her perfect pink turning left and right to capture the crowd’s attention, all lauded their ignoramus of a father as wise, hardworking and ever so compassionate as a president hopeful.And maybe he will be! I noticed Trump’s demeanour had been improved and even his down to earth too loud ramble began to sound reasonable: That is the scary bit as the dictator weaves his web with lies and slurs and vague unsubstantiated promises that He can and damn it, will “fix “ America ( to the hoards chanting, “USA…USA…USA…” )and make it right, always capitalizing on fear, he pontificates, Give me the power- and the people on the floor of the convention, the overwhelming number of middle and lower class white Americans in their silly shiny hats and gaping mouths ( like mesmerized me?) cheer and shout approval. Papa will take care of the dragons of government and keep out all the bad people. He will protect you and build walls.

And later on Sunday’s Meet the Press, the same toned down Trump explains that the purpose of the EU was “ to beat America” and by the way, keep all those war- ravaged Syrians in camps at home. So much for the land of the free and the brave. And forget NATO.

My mind like many others imagined the moustachioed dictator who promised similar security for Germany, keeping or exterminating or locking away those rodent- faced Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics and mentally- impaired. The beer halls were full of nodding, applauding folk who burdened down by war treaties like Versailles and restrictions after WW1 were tired of their economic restraints and their humbling by other European countries. Chanting, marching, goose- stepping – remember Regensberg? Nuremberg?to progress with the funny outcast fellow who bellowed and promised pie in the sky, better times, make Germany great again, they desperately wanted to believe.

Amidst Trump’s crowd, one black, one Latino and a few in skullcaps( well, he did say Israel was the only friend in the Middle East) . And my heart sang Shame, shame, shame on you Americans, falling for the lies of the rich businessman. He has exposed himself in debates, in interviews, on talk shows- wherever- as less than a performer and the gall to think he possesses the knowledges to repair America. It truly boggles the mind that he is a possible White House hopeful.Today, July 25, 2016, his rating was 48% to Hillary’s 46. Has the world gone totally mad or are we just watching a egregious TV show where the old guy( with the comb- over ) gets the pretty model like Sophia Vergara?

Sesame Street used to sing, “ One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…” I know my thinking unusually does not reflect the majority, but none of our friends in San Diego support Trump, and the only person anywhere who said they did was an customs guard we has encountered at the aero port. We were joking about Rob Ford( before his cancer) at the border crossing , and this seemingly gentle , pleasant man volunteered with great pride his choice for the next president of the United States.Gad Zooks! Even Republican hopefuls repulsive Ted Cruz and John Kasich rejected him, one openly lambasting him; the other refusing to attend the Convention.

To jump back to actual fictional, Black is the New Orange, has also reached an incredibly depressing level of life, this time in prison as the privatization of Litchfeld.The humanity of the prisoners is revealed as personages you might chat with at the grocery store or the library appearing devoid of their crimes, heinous or not: contextually stories even make one sympathize with their reasons for being jailed.They hang out, complain about the food, tend gardens, do nails, confide their desires for love, companionship and better lives. Fraud, swindling and even murders are comprehended as the endgame due to incredible circumstances. The women, all races, colours, sexual orientation are almost mundane as girlfriends.

However,overcrowding and the imposition of psychotic guards have distorted circumstances to such an unbearable degree that inmates ( in the last episode) have rioted, peaceful tactics and sitins having been abandoned. Brute force trumps any reason. Again, it is the rule of the ignorant, the bullies to have the inmates taught “ manual education” as opposed to opportunities for true learning, forcing them to actually build more institutional cages, even destroying the small patch of land where a handful of tomatoes and fresh vegetables were grown. To the outside world, their re- education boasts a valuable skill; more lies, repositioning truth for profit.

I am not taking aim at business nor on the basis of one NETFLIX ‘s show decrying or believing that that like Chicken Little that the sky is falling. But as I survey the world With Brexit and Trump and his idiotic talk ( last night’s joke regarding Hillary’s lost emails), daily gun rampages everywhere, the world does seem to be coming apart. Yeats would intone, “things fall apart/ the centre cannot hold…”,ironically in 2016, way past Orwellian predictions of a brave new world. This cannot be what brave looks like, I fear.

 Ban guns, listen and hear the voices of the oppressed, don’t forget the past, and do not vote Trump.

An evening of civility

Just when you fear that life has been overrun with madness and the forces of evil intend to swoop down and crush life from all things, destroying the magic of possibility, you are included in a supper of celebration for a very special woman who will now head up an important professional group. You, a gloomy Gus, by nature, are given a reprieve and can re-imagine places of civility, rationality and good conversation that can wipe out the blackness of everyday events.

So I found myself in the backyard of a house on Roxborough, led through rooms where stained glass stands in for walls and into a garden so wildly tamed that pasteled lilies barely contained by strings are easily 12 inches across; and birds and bees feel so totally at home, that their presence feels natural in mid-town Toronto.

I am the “wife” of one of the invitees, an added presence requested by the lady herself. Perhaps because we have briefly discussed William Blake and Mary Pratt, or more likely as a thoughtfulness to my husband, I have been included in this evening. Unlike many gatherings for this profession, I am anticipating this one so I can see this woman again. From my perspective, I believe she is the right person to head the group although my knowledge of her to this juncture has been second hand. That she loves art and ballet, I believe, are a bonus. Not affected add-ons, she is as passionate as I am about the arts. I reflect that her commitment to her work will be likewise. I surmise that she is an authentic soul in whatever she takes on. I am drawn to her, and not just because of her rich laughter that is deep and full, but because of her humility, her humbleness. These are the qualities I adore.

The garden makes me think of Peter Pan and Wendy, and as the sun goes down, the twinkling candles might be Tinkerbell’s friends who have gathered near the table to cozily and quietly add sparkle. Talk at cocktails has encompassed those foibles of aging as we are all past our physical prime: memory loss, love of travel… One of the guests has recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with 12 others, decrying that it was not that tough. ( He is the baby of the group at barely 60. Ha!) He adds,” Of course we had 52 sherpas to cook us wonderful meals.” He chortles.

I try and remember the name of the park in Italy that plagued my falling asleep the night before. I try out “Bernini… Bulgari”, sensing they are not what I am searching for. When I tap my husband, interrupting his conversation, he immediately remembers, “ Borghese”. Ah, relief to find the word that fits that fuzzy space left wanting in my head. A friendly engaging guest describes how she has read that it is names that are the first to go and how embarrassing it is not to come up with the moniker that matches a familiar face.

Somehow I veer into the description of the chuppa that my husband and I designed for our son’s wedding, explaining we needlepointed from September to May and how the piece has travelled to New York and beyond. I laugh that its end may be at the bottom of a closet, the food of moths, but admitting it is a project I am glad we had undertaken, amazed that my husband would have laboured for hours with needle and wool in hand. But that is the trajectory of light conversation that encourages diverse topics that easily bounce from topic to topic.

At table that is nestled in front of a small pond and surrounded by trees and more beautifully encroaching flowers, the talk turns to legal politics- of Mike Dufy and his love child. The hostess produces the article in Macleans to substantiate the claim; then on to the provincial budget’s money for legal aid, veering towards stories of Montreal school days where one public school’s teachers were all Jewish refugees from WWII, to Quebec’s townships where flowered paths replaced roads, on to ordering dinner in Moosonee, to “ bare-naked’ postings on the internet. No one raises an eyebrow or scowls. We are no longer surprised, almost accepting of these lapses of adolescent judgment that occur before one realizes they are more than lapses, omissions because hormones rather than rational thought govern giggles.

One invitee tells of a soldier who confided his terror in a foxhole: fearing at 16, he would experience death before being laid. Another suggests that the author of Flanders Fields, John McCrae was gay. And still another offers that Harold MacMillian spent hours every night reading Aeschylus in Greek before he entered parliament each day: a quilt of varying textures, times and traumas.

The main discussion concerns WWI, Dieppe. One woman relates that some tombstones’ epitaphs read “ Know only to God”, tears arising from the corners of her eyes . A publisher reminds us of the veterans with lungs like jelly as no one considered that in gas warfare, the wind might change, and blow its deadly fumes into the faces of the Allied Forces. Another asks, ‘Guess who refused to allow Jewish graves to be destroyed?’ We are incredulous that sentiment is attributed to Adolf Hitler. But perhaps, it is reminiscent of the cache maintained in Prague where Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts in his Museum of an Extinct Race. Still the narrative feels unlikely.

The publisher brings up Viet Nam and the trauma of returning home without the support of the general populace. But the talk returns yet again to World War I, the casualties, the deaths, the graveyards. I mention Pat Barker and her sensitive, human portrayal of the times, but perhaps I say it too quietly or more likely, the hearing of the group does not reach to my whispers. They are eagerly planning a service with an engaging speaker for Remembrance Day.

More loudly, I offer into the conversation Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and her description of the alarmed soldier befuddled on a bench back from war. They nod.

I tell them that when I taught Eli Weisel’s Night, the kids did not believe it was true. They are surprised, but the talk reverts to a reverie that concerns more days torn away by slaughter. I want to interject again that it is the future, the present of our protégées who must never forget. Even the books, historical retelling in novels of real events take on a mustiness, a fairytale quality that does not truly connect with our technology savvy youth whose truths live on screens – not in distant reality.

Some of the guests are over 80, memories much more vivid than mine and I admire the clearheadedness of their interchange. But it seems to me that we have veered into memory, not just for memory sake, certainly not for nostalgia and there is a desire beyond the words to keep those times alive. My mind flashes to Gaza and the Crimea, seething that nothing much ever changes, pondering the airplanes that will be downed, ever so many more lost boys and girls.

Yet, the evening is so still, so perfect as we sit wrapped in the darkening velvet of enchanting green foliage. The setting evokes for me other kinds of soirees, of salons where talk and poetry and politics have been eternally viewed through a veil of civility, concern and language,determined not to embellish or distort. Experiences, here this night, as morsels of ripe fruit are nibbled on, tasted, savoured, and presented to others for their consideration and consternation. All the while there is a palpable respect: for others, for words, for events that exist before us or in memory, both lived and shared.

A wonderful dinner concludes with pound cake, raspberries, blueberries, salted caramel and pistachio ice creams. When I discover the sudden stream of sugar on the cake, my senses light up, and I know I have been privileged to be among these thoughtful men and women.

Sound and Fury American style -albeit no longer on the big screen

It seems that Leonardo di Caprio has a talent for playing the icons of the American dream: Gatsby and not too long ago Jordan Belfort in the Wolf of Wall Street. Let me begin by saying that he is great, well as great as a one-trick pony can be. Sadly the depiction is a symbol of America in the 20th and 21st centuries- all hype, glitter and excess in a film that runs excessively long with excessively obnoxious characters, again sadly based on real people in real situations.

He is the Willy Loman salesman in extreme born with a talent to sell, dazzle and make money- lots of money. He is the motivational speaker who hypnotizes. And like Blaise Pascal in Les Pensees (17th Century) who expiated the penchant for the quest, Belfort screams the passion of the hunt and all the perks that accompany that rush into adventure. Unlike Loman however, the glittering journey suffices more than nicely. Maybe the drugs keep Belfort from falling into self-awareness when plans go askew. Disparaging the failed FBI agent who hounds him, Belfort mocks the agent’s “sweaty balls” on his lonely subway ride, representative of the life the man is doomed to lead because of his desire for justice, not flamboyance. Belfort earns a mere 3 years in an exclusive tennis-playing jail facility, triumphing that he has been able to screw the system, maintain his dishonesty, and demonstrate his lack of remorse. Great lessons for the youth of today.

American Hustle contrasts Wolf nicely as it is a slower film, one for the boomers with stories reminiscent of the tales our parents once retold and affectionately ruminated on: the Damon Runyon-types that dwelled in humorous and sentimental gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters in a variety of dicey situations, spouting colorful dialog with names such as Benny Southstreet, Big Jule, Harry the Horse. In American Hustle, Di Niro’s mobster is a study in tension. A look can pierce any façade.

Both Bale, the protagonist in Hustle, and di Caprio have mistresses on the side, lavishing them with material goods, both doublecrossing their arch government nemeses, and both attempting a loyalty to friends. Bale is no angel, in spite of a quieter and more thoughtful performance, perhaps appealing more-only in contrast to the more obnoxious out there di Caprio. Superficially the films are incredibly similar, yet the times only several decades apart are truly night and day. The underpinning is the same; both men are deplorable guys whom society should disparage, yet both wind up being heroes to the young: guys who are smart enough to get away with bad things and succeed.

Years ago when I taught Grade 9’s I would always ask who their heroes were: inevitably it was their moms or sports figures, usually baseball stars who made obscene amounts of money. My generation would have responded to the same question with John F. Kennedy, who at least was admired for his leadership and Peace Corps innovations. In truth, he was also an icon of good looks, aristocratic demeanor, Harvard smarts. But the money-thing that he tried to play down was not the reason he was lauded. And yes, there were mobster-links and women and the Ratpack. But to us kids in the 60’s , there was a message beyond greed. Pierre Trudeau also offered this optimism and sophistication even as we chortled at “fuddle-duddle” and gasped at the Pierre Laporte situation in Quebec. Both Kennedy and Trudeau stood for something.

With Nelson Mandela now gone, the last shimmer of goodness feels dissolved in the golden temptation of goods and naughtily provocative hijinks, leaving the poor, the garbage men and firefighters as in their portrayal in Wolf of Wall street as easy marks, schlemiels who trust in telephone solicitors, 419 schemes and easily gamble their pensions away to Nigerian conmen and Madoffs of the world-who was at caught-. The working class is decried as fools for trusting, given the finger and shown as deserving of being bilked of retirement funds, Belfort and his cronies dance, cajole, engage in sexual hijinks that speak to adolescent immaturity. Alas, the working stiffs of the world deserve being played by the smoother, classier and cleverer of the world. We are Elmer Fudd for fodder.

Belfort has the power, but the people who buy his line, thumping their chests as primordial savages are worse than the duped working folk. They allow themselves to be lead- no conscience, no thought, only the throb and shriek , the noise that follows charismatic men like Hitler, the Swengalis of the world, the uncaring and driven of the world who play with the people’s hearts and minds, rendering them victims to victimizers. Sadly, these are reality truths, short of morality. Theirs is

“… a tale/Told by an idiot full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v, 17-28.)

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