Target London – Where’s the damn map?

January 15, 2014

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Target London, by Christy Campbell, tells the story of the second London blitz of 1944 by unmanned flying bombs and supersonic rockets.  The story is told in detail – great detail.  In fact, the first half of the 400 pages, before the first V-1/buzzbomb/doodlebug hits England, is at the same time extraordinarily tedious and gripping, narrating as it does the years of intelligence work that preceded the first attacks.  We have a front seat on the bureaucratic infighting, brilliant and difficult personalities, blunders and  intellectual coups transpiring as the British sifted through mountains of intercepted messages, once they had cracked the Enigma codes, of course.

All of this was done before the digital age had dawned, although they did have the essential help of the earliest of computers, which they called “bombes.” All very, very, Ultra secret.  Only a select few were allowed to be “in the picture.

Part of the British intelligence game was not letting the Germans know how much they knew about what the Germans were doing. Giving that game away would prompt the Germans to change methods, tighten up security, adopt different covers, which would then have to be blown again.  There was a lot of deception, misinformation, cover stories, hoaxes, some of which seems to have amused the directors greatly.

When the Germans finally got their V-1 (V for victory and revenge, revenge for the British terror bombings of civilian urban centers) buzzbombs flying into London, the engineers needed accurate information on where they struck. This was essential for evaluating and improving their performance.  Juan Pujol, a London-based Spanish  double-agent under British control was tapped by the Germans to report. They wanted information on bomb strikes plotted on a London map, ruled into squares, a grid.  As Campbell relates:

Juan Pujol, agent Garbo, still had to get the right map on which to plot where the Maikäfer [Maybugs – the German nickname for the V-1] were falling. It was proving a problem. Garbo radioed his control, and bought the Baedeker guide to London from a second-hand bookshop. But Control insisted on the Pharus version. Garbo’s research took him to the British Museum Library, where he found “the only copy in existence. I learn that the German map was edited in 1907 and therefore is very antique indeed. It seems to me very strange that the war plans are worked out in Berlin on such antique maps.”

But now, at least, everyone was working from the same grid.

Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, made the idea of gridded London famous.  In the first part of the story, exactly that type of map – it probably was not a Pharus! – is tacked to the wall of the flat where Teddy Bloat, Tyrone Slothrop, and other servicemen are living during the V-2 assault.  The map shows a strange convergence of data:  Slothrop’s female conquests and the rocket strikes seem oddly congruent.

Ah, yes, if you are not all using the same set of coordinates, your data will be meaningless.  I know about that personally.  Here is the map that the German rocket masters wanted to use – German, of course – and very nice indeed.

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Well, it’s not just German commanders who have some problems with maps:

HOTSPUR: Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, Will you sit down? And uncle Worcester: a plague upon it!

I have forgot the map.

GLENDOWER: No, here it is.

William Shakespeare Henry IV (Part 1)

The British were able to defend against the V-1 to some extent.  Fighters and anti-aircraft guns could shoot some of them down, and their noise and relatively low-speed provided warning to civilians.  The V-2 was a different story.  Here is another peek at a stamp issued late in 1944, I think, that celebrates the launching of the ultimate revenge weapon, the V-2 rocket, against which there was no defense possible.  The image is pure propaganda: rockets ascended vertically and were never launched in such salvos.  Just as British intelligence confused and conflated the flying bomb and the true rocket for a long time, this stamp combines the powerful launch of the V-2 with the slanting trajectory of the V-1, which was shot from a ramp.

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Here is a reconstructed V-1 on a launch ramp.  As you can see, the ramp is light, and easily transported.  The Germans developed portable pre-fab ramps after the Allies started bombing their hardened launch sites.

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The bombing wasn’t all that effective, but it did disrupt testing and perfecting the V-1.  Precision bombing isn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, or today.

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The work of building the flying bombs and rockets was moved to a fantastic underground system of factories excavated and manned by slave labor overseen by civilian engineers and managers. Wernher von Braun, later the leader of the American rocket development effort for war and peace, was as undisturbed by these facts as are the suited civilians in second photo below.  These incredible color photos were taken by Walter Frentz, a colleague of  Leni Riefenstahl, apparently as part of propaganda/selling job for the project.  Notice how nicely groomed the slaves are.  Of course, those needed for skilled technical labor stood the best chance of surviving.  More photos and history at this excellent site.

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“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.   

Tom Lehr

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M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.

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The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.

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Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.

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He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!

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In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House

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There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)

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Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.

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Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.

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Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

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…which ends up being rather successful.

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The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…

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Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.

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click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.

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Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.
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Talk about a femme fatale!

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Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.

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The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.

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The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.

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Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.

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Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.

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Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.

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With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

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Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!

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Ballet Russe, Zionism, and Terror

March 22, 2012

In my recent post of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of two short tales from Scheherazade’s 1001, I included a picture of Ida Rubenstein, a figure from fin de sièclela Belle Époque history who was new to me.  She was born to a wealthy family of Russian Jews, came to dance late, for a ballerina, that is, and made a big splash with Leon Bakst and Nijinsky.  Her début was a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she danced through the seven veils to the nude.  She was denounced by the Archbishop of Paris for dancing as Saint Sebastian in a ballet scored by Debussy, with costumes by Bakst.  Sacrilege!  A Jew and a woman depicting the martyred saint!

During WWII, she fled France for England, where she helped escaped Resistance members, and was intimate with Walter Guinness, her sponsor and sometime lover.  He was assassinated in 1944 by members of the Stern Gang, a terrorist organization of Zionist Jews trying to dislodge Britain from Palestine.

Stern Gang is what the Brits called them, but they referred to themselves as Lehi, but also as ‘terrorists’ and, according to Wikipedia,  may have been one of the last organizations to do so:

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah,whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

There we have it.  Infatuation with The Cause, with Violence, with The Nation.  Sound familiar?  On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lehi made overtures to Nazi Germany, offering to assist in its war against the British in exchange for allowing the free emigration of Jews to Palestine to join the nation-building cause.

The more I learn about the history of Zionism, and its role as a foundation of Israeli society, the more disgusted I become.  Former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member in good standing of the gang.


Doggone it!

May 29, 2011

I don’t think it’s a joke:  the Nazis believed all sorts of outlandish things.  Now it comes out (why now?) that they had a project to train dogs to speak and perform military tasks.  They wanted to create an army of Nazi dogs!

In 1998, I read The Lives of the Monster Dogs, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in 2008 when a bunch of walking, talking dogs, with Prussian accents, become celebrities.  They escaped from a remote town founded by a Prussian officer hoping to do exactly what the Nazis wanted to do.  I guess the author, Kirstin Bakis, scooped the news long ago.

And on the topic of talking dogs, Jim Thompson’s novel, The Golden Gizmo, a macabrely comic tale, features a deadly Doberman that talks and sings along with hymns.


Brute Force

February 12, 2011

Brute Force (1947) is a prison melodrama about a joint filled with guys put there for crimes that were, well, really not so bad.  Just a bunch of guys who made some mistakes, got shafted – all good men really.  A grifter taken by a beautiful babe, a veteran of the Italian campaign in WWII, a clerk who couldn’t help stealing to get that wife the fur coat she knew she deserved…that sort of thing.  Not too realistic, but this film is a dark fable, an allegory of social class oppression, and the guys in stir are everyman-types standing in for the rest of the working stiffs outside who never have a chance.  Add a blood curdling sadistic-fascist power structure, and you have a film that leaves the good guy-bad guy fairy tale way behind as it descends into the darkest depths of film noir.

The reinforced concrete architecture of the penitentiary looks like something from a German expressionist film set, or maybe Loudon, from The Devils.  Like a medieval fortress, the way out is barred by massive gates and a drawbridge.  The impassive guards manning machine guns in towers bring to mind the Nazi death camps.

The associations with the Nazis are focused on the character of Captain Munsey, a sneering, ambitious sadist who fancies himself the bastion of civil society against the criminal animals he guards.  In one of the most blatant and disturbing sequences, he tries to beat some information about an escape plan out of a prisoner.   We first see him cleaning his gun, his shirt off, music – sounded like Wagner to me – playing in the background.  A phonograph, engravings of classic art, the whole deal, and his own portrait in uniform surveys the scene.

Then Munsey gets down to business with his rubber hose, pummeling Louis, who is handcuffed to a chair.  We never actually see the rubber hose hit flesh – the censors insisted that be cut out.

The escape plan is set for the workers on “the drain pipe.”  It’s a giant tunnel, a make-work project, that has no discernible purpose.  The plan is doomed, of course.  Doc warns Collins, but it’s no use.

Munsey is waiting with a machine gun at the escape point, and he tells the guards who seem uncomfortable at the prospect of shooting down unarmed men that there is “no reward for bringing them in alive.”  Collins smokes out the informer by asking his men what position they want to take during the break.  All but one say, “Wherever you put me.” The rat says, “Last, that’s where I can help most.”  The last shall be first – he’s put at the front of the car and is shot by the guards.

The system of oppression victimizes everyone, although not in the same way.  An earlier scene stages a debate on prison policy in which a pompous and impatient official berates the warden for the lax discipline in the joint.  The humane doctor points out that there is not enough opportunity to keep the men employed and that the prison is 100% over capacity.  He accuses the official of blowing hot air just to seem like he’s dealing with the problems, but all he wants is to shove it, and the men, under the rug.  Eventually, the warden, a well-meaning but feeble man, is forced to hand over the place to Munsey, the sadist.

Women figure in this movie only in flashbacks about life outside, and for the most part, they’re just trouble.  One is a sharp cookie who entices and then fleeces and flees.  Another wants nothing but a fur coat out of life, and she’s troubled only momentarily by how her husband finds the dough to buy it…then the knock comes at the door.  Yvonne de Carlo plays an Italian girl in love with a soldier who brings her food.  She kills her fascist father to protect him, but the MP’s pin the killing on him.  Only Collins has an untroubled love that’s pure – he dreams of a pretty young woman dying of cancer, confined to a wheelchair – he just wants to break out and get her the money for the operation that will cure her.

In the end, the guys in cell R17 get out:  they get out the only way one can.  As the doc says, nobody ever really escapes.  And so it is in life too.  We none of us get out of here alive.



Tolstoy and the Master Race

December 17, 2010

I have reached the chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace after the Battle of Borodino.  The Russian army is retreating beyond Moscow, and the city is being left to the invading French.  Napoleon’s triumphal entry will be his undoing.  Tolstoy tells us that just as a pouring water on earth leaves no earth and no water, but only mud, just so did the flooding in of the French army leave no city, and no army.  Empty Moscow absorbed the army as sand absorbs water.  The army was destroyed as soon as it dispersed into the empty quarters of Moscow, and it became a disorganized, undisciplined, looting horde: the city burned.

Tolstoy does not blame the French for burning the city, nor does he credit ardent, or fanatical, Russian patriots.  Rather, he says that it was inevitable that Moscow would burn.  An empty city, built of wood, inhabited by an invading army, an army that casually piles furniture in squares to make bonfires – such a city was sure to disappear in flames.  Chicago did the same later in the century as a result of one cow kicking over a lantern!

In the early period of the occupation, Pierre has a fascinating encounter with a French officer commandeering the villa he is resting in.  The officer, a handsome and vain young man from a noble family, enters the house and beings surveying the rooms to make arrangements.  One of the Russian inhabitants is a gentleman acquaintance of Pierre’s who is old and mentally ill, even delusional.  The man tries to shoot the Frenchman, and Pierre instinctively protects him, wresting the gun from his friend.   He begs the officer not to punish the man who is clearly not in his right mind.

The conquering officer is magnanimous.  He declares that Pierre, who has saved his life, is now a Frenchman.  Tolstoy comments that this man could imagine nobody but a Frenchman being capable of any such heroism.  The officer is quite talkative, and even charming, while also pompous, noble (in the manner of the French we are told by Tolstoy), and completely unaware of the nature of the people around him.  He is so wrapped up in his dream of French gloire, his love of Napoleon, and his joy in the victory of which he has been a part, that he imagines that people are just what he thinks they are.

The officer resembles Tolstoy’s Napoleon in his self-absorbtion, but what struck me was that his behavior and attitudes were the same as those who would conquer France in another 130 years, the Nazis.  This invading French army saw itself as the master race, coming to distribute, in a condescending and benevolently despotic manner, the fruits of their superior and admirable civilization.  The tone of the officer’s talk prefigures speeches by pompous, arrogant, brutal Nazis declaring the benefits of the Reich that they are bringing to their victims.  Its self-satisfaction and ignorance would be its destruction.

With the benefits of 130 years of pseudo-science, the Nazis were able to refine this outlook to the point that many of those they conquered were classified as sub-human, and suitable for burning or mass slaughter.  The French were still in the throes of the Romantic Age.


Berlin – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort.  If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this.  He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s:  some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen;  and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.

Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration.  The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable:  poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence.  At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew?  Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh?  After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…

A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata.  How did they perceive the chaos?  What did they fear, want, hope for?   Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?

But it’s not all politics.  The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.