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Serbia’s Atrocity, Holland’s Shame

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A Toast to Fratricide: Mladic (left) drinks with Karremans (middle)

I have previously covered the events leading to Srebrenica Massacre. This post continues the discussion.

In the days following the massacre, American spy planes flew over Srebrenica, and took photos showing the ground in vast areas around the town had been removed — a sign of mass burials. Early reports of massacres appeared here and there as the first survivors of the long march from Srebrenica began to arrive in Muslim-held areas a few days later.

The international community was horrified, but the Dutch — who previously enjoyed high reputation as peacekeepers — were almost unperturbed; when the Karremans Garrison which left Srebrenica to Ratko Mladic and his band of butchers returned to Zagreb, they were welcomed back by the Dutch crown prince and prime minister. As the news of the massacre became widespread, the Dutch newspaper the Telegraaf featured a photograph of twelve cheerful Dutch soldiers in Novi Sad, enjoying a post-hostage meal provided by the Serb government on 24th July. “A toast to freedom” read the headline, and the article now ironically reads, “Their dedication shows once again how well-equipped for its task the Dutch military is, when it comes right down to it”.

In the late 1995 — this after Miguel Gil Moreno, Dusko Tubic and David Rhode had covered and photographed the killing fields of Srebrenica — Karremans was promoted to the rank of colonel. More shockingly was the fate of a roll of film shot by a Dutch soldier, with photographs of the events in Srebrenica, which was destroyed in a darkroom in an action the Dutch parliament deemed as a “cover-up” by the Defense Ministry.

On 13th July, just before the massacre, a girl fetching water for her family in Potocari found nine bodies in a stream across the street from the UN base. A Dutch warrant officer Be Oosterveen was approached by a young local, who led him and another soldier towards the bodies. The Dutch soldiers both videotaped and photographed the bodies. However, the videotape was later destroyed by Dutch soldiers under orders from an officer because it also had video of top-secret Dutch air defense equipment. The photographs were “accidentally destroyed” during their development in a military film-processing lab.

Considering all this, the Netherlands’ fight to make Serbia’s EU accession dependent on the capture of Ratko Mladic seems pompous and ironic. Mladic, who was finally caught yesterday, was mainly responsible for Srebrenica (and many other atrocities during that excessive and brutal war), but the Dutch garrison, which wanted to go home; the UN high command, which wanted to end enclave problems in eastern Bosnia; and the Bosnian army which saw no value in protecting strategically unimportant Srebrenica must also share some of the blame. Srebrenica was a sad episode; it is a dark stain of Europe’s history, made all more tragic because it could have been averted.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 27, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Photographing Fabienne

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One thing I loved about reading old Life magazines is that they featured deep investigative reports with their evocative photos. It made you feel as if you were there, right at the centre of all the action — and I think this is something that was sadly lost with the demise of magazines like Life or Picture Post. So, this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find a piece of photo-investigative journalism that reminded me of those halcyon days of photojournalism. And it was online.

It is a fifteen-part (and growing) report on death of a young girl named Fabienne Cherisma in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake last year; the fifteen year old girl was shot three times — twice at point blank range — by the Haitian police, who thought she was a looter. No less than fourteen photographers captured the aftermath of Fabienne’s death, making it one of the most poignant images to come out of the Haitian tragedy.

As I have noted before, in such cases, photographers working for big news agencies usually have advantage; the most widely circulated image what that of Carlos Garcia Rawlins, who worked for Reuters. Vivid headwound, flowers that were peeking out from the pictureframe, her pink argyle sweater, and incongruously bright and attire were contrasted clearly against the drab ground and sky in Rawlins’ and many other photographers’ photos.  Soon after the photos were published, when Nathan Weber released the photo below — which showed multiple cameramen pointing their lens at the lifeless body of Fabienne — that hoary old chestnut of a controversy concerning the ethics of disaster photography popped up again.

On Prison Photography, Pete Brook closely followed the controversy and meticulously reconstructed the milieu surrounding her death. He talked to many photographers who were there in a series of compassionate, humane and insightful interviews. Like a detective, he analyses the gradual change of trickling blood and body and picture frame positions between different photographs and photographers to understand the event timeline, and ponders whether it would be possible to determine who fired the fatal shot. Equally interesting is Brook’s continuing coverage of the photographers’ fortunes after Haiti; three — James Oatway, Olivier Laban-Mattei and Fredric Sautereau — were honored for their work in Haiti; two others — Lucas Oleniuk and Paul Hansen — won awards for their photos of Fabienne.

Nathan Weber offered a different perspective

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 16, 2011 at 5:21 am

When Hitler Met His End

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“For seldom had so many millions of people hoped so implacably for the death of one man” wrote Time magazine. The magazine was of course writing about Adolf Hilter, whose death was announced by the Hamburg radio at about 10.30 pm on May 1st 1945, almost 66 years to the hour of bin Laden’s death-notice.

There were many karmic similarities between the ignominious ends of this and last century’s greatest villains. Bombed out or driven away from the nations they cynically manipulated, both men would met their demise surrounded only by a dwindling loyal cadre. The armies they wronged would carry the photos to figure out how a fugitive Hitler or bin Laden might disguise himself.

There were conflicting reports on Hitler’s last days, his power and sanity during the cornered days under the Reich Chancellery, and unsurprisingly there were conflicting reports on his death too. The West believed, based on testimonies by those who were in the bunker with him, that Hitler had shot himself; the Soviets only revealed in the late 1960s that Hitler took a cyanide pill. Hitler was identified by his dental records; the Soviets buried the body, but the East German government dug it up, burned it, and thrown the ashes into a river.

On its cover, Time magazine featured a portrait of Hitler with a bloody X through it — starting a powerful tradition that the magazine carried through its coverage on the demise of the Empire of Japan, Saddam Hussein, al Zarqawi, and now bin Laden (above). [Bin Laden cover was commissioned years ago, back in 2002.]

While it took the Internet only a few minutes to fake bin Laden’s final photo, it took the world of 1945 quite a while to come up with a photo of a man who vaguely resembled Hitler (ab0ve).

the origins of this video are murky

And an event of this scale required conspiracies too. Lack of photographic evidence surrounding Hitler’s death fuelled allegations that the Fuhrer had indeed escaped. A German submarine that escaped the Allied blockade to arrive in South America further escalated these rumors. No matter how or where he met his end, Adolf Hitler as a political force died in 1945. The Nazis would gain a place in popular culture, but more often than not, only as delusional and self-important vaudevillians.

If the Revolutions of 2011 are any guide, Islamic radicalism will probably follow this route too in a few years’ time.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 4, 2011 at 5:12 am

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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England, My England

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So perfect is the composition and the cacophony of the photograph above that on your first glance, you can almost wonder whether it is all staged. In his photo of holidayers at Blackpool, perhaps the best known of all the English holiday resorts, the photographer Chris Steele-Perkins delivered a masterclass in revealing the allure and the absurd behind deceptively simple surroundings.

The milieu was very British; the weather is gloomy, and the beach is littered. Blackpool’s omnipresent donkeys with their silly bows looked as if they have wandered into the wrong photograph. A muzzled dog urinates against the windbreak. But the central character of the scene looks imperturbable amidst the beaches’ sights, sounds and smells. The lounging man, his lunch lying next to him, is still wearing his formal socks as he rests yards away from the sea. He has ostensibly come to the beach to enjoy the elements, but his attire and demeanor suggest that he is as cocooned from the nature as sandwiches he has carefully wrapped away in aluminum foil. Beneath all his stoicism, his sense of discomfort is palpable. It was Steele-Perkins’ commentary on “Britishness” that invokes the best works of the satirist William Hogarth.

Chris Steele-Perkins is best known for his very first work “The Teds”, an immersive documentary on London’s Teddy Boy gangs, that captured not only the gangland culture but also fashion and life in the 70s London. His subsequent career recorded rural life in Durham, the Cumbria World Gurning Championships, life at St Thomas’ hospital and inner city racial conflicts. His current work in progress documents the often challenging lives of carers and the cared for. Chris presents a sweeping, unique mosaic of what he thinks makes England truly English. In his work throughout the 1980s and the 90s, Steele-Perkins offered a deeply pessimistic view of the British pursuit of pleasure. To him, this hedonism is not confined along class lines, noting his pictures “have nothing to do with celebrity or fame but of everyday-ness and how that can be special”. This view is reflected in a series of photos such as ‘Fightin a Night Club, London’, ‘Hospital Visit by Postman Pat and His Cat’ or ‘Juliana’s Summer Party, London’ collected in his aesthetically pleasing and cultural intriguing “The Pleasure Principle”. But ‘Blackpool Beach’ which was also included in the book is different; an ahedonistic tour de force, it is still, for millions of Britons, really is ‘the English at home’.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 1, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Toni Frissell, Tryall Plantations

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About fifteen minute west of the city of Montego Bay lies the Tryall Estate. When Toni Frissell took the enchanting photograph above at Tryall’s hilly 2,200-acre plantation, its world famous golf course didn’t exist yet. The golf course and many villas it would sprawl nearby would not arrive until 1958 — ten years after Frissell popularized the dreamlike landscape of Jamaica in her photos for Harper’s Bazaar.

Before being developed by the influential American businessmen in the 1950s, the Tryall Estate was only a storied, but forgettable outpost of Britain’s imperial past. Originally an English fort, it began cultivating sugarcane in the 1660s making it one of the oldest sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Sugarcane plantations and works were irreparably destroyed in the Slave rebellion of Christmas 1831, and the property was sold to the illustrious Anglo-Irish family of Browne. They turned the property firstly into a coconut plantation, and when it became unprofitable, into a hotel. Frissell actually was invited to take photos of the estate for its reopening after the WWII.

In the 1930s, Frissell introduced an important addition to the fashion photography. She was the first person to take models away from the confines of the studio and to photograph them in exotic places around the world. These dramatic settings and the animated poses she created would lead to a whole new type of fashion image. Although the era’s practices of using studios never actually went away, Frissell’s techniques would be soon copied by many.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 26, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

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1.7 million Cambodians died during those bloody years

For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.

Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)

If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.

That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.

Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 12, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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As Saddam falls

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As viewers watched on television, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Leon Lambert and Corporal Edward Chin prepared to bring down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Photograph by Alexandra Boulat.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th 2003 quickly became one of the enduring images of the war in Iraq. But it was a controversial moment; in a 2004 documentary, “Control Room”, Al-Jazeera reporters argued that the toppling was merely “a show … a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. This sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Times, citing an internal army report, and later by a New Yorker/ProPublica investigative report.

Since then, the issue had devolved into a series of he-said, she-said’s and it is hard to remember that it all happened only eight years ago, and all records are online and out there to review. Analysis of broadcast news with regards to this pivotal moment had been done before, but I would like to turn the focus here into how major news outlets covered it.

The BBC correspondent, who was in the square said, his impression was of “a newly free people” expressing their “overwhelming joy”. CNN’s coverage (in print at least) was monotonously factual: “A Marine draped the American flag over the head of the statue — a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network Al Arabiya.”

The newspapers’ coverage, perhaps because it was immediate, was effusive.  The Times wrote, “It was a momentous day, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the communist empire in 1989. And no image of it will be more enduring than the toppling of that 20ft Saddam statue by a US tank egged on by a cheering, excited mob which then stamped with undisguised glee on the fallen idol.” The New York Times was equally enthusiastic: “Cheering ecstatically, a crowd of Iraqis danced and trampled on the fallen 20-foot high metal statue in contempt for the man who had held them in fear for so long. In scenes recalling the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraqis hacked at the statue’s marble plinth with a sledgehammer.” Meanwhile, the Guardian files in a confusing report.

The foreign press, according to BBC, was equally prone to sensationalism. Even the left-leaning Liberation says there were no regrets when the statue fell. Bild, too, made comparisons with the fall of other personality cults of Hitler and Stalin. Throughout the Arab World, however, TV coverage played down the fall of Baghdad, focusing on scenes of chaos and looting.

In the weeklies that were published a few days later, the tone became more tempered. The Economist noted “If the fall of a regime has a single moment of collapse, it came on April 9th.” But it also emphasized that “This was not the Berlin Wall. The crowd in the square was small.” Time magazine, too, echoed those sentiments, wryly dismissing TV stations’ more sentimental reporting.

It is my personal opinion that while the media did not deliberately exaggerate the events, its presence didn’t help either. Observation often changes the phenomenon being observed, and the toppling was perhaps a mere victim of this. While the original reportage was frenzied, I also think the subsequent accusations are equally cavalier.

The crowd was mostly reporters and journalists.






Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 10, 2011 at 9:30 am

The Papal Assassination Attempt

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On 13 May 1981 in St Peter’s Square an attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II. The assassin, who was quickly apprehended, but not before his bullets hit the pope four times, was one Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had escaped from prison in his country.

The pope was wounded in the abdomen, left hand and right arm; “Mary, my mother,” John Paul gasped as he collapsed. Yet, he quickly made full recovery even though a 41-hour operation removed part of his intestine and replaced almost all his blood with transfusions.

The background of the assassination attempt has never been satisfactorily explained. Ali Agca, a lapsed Muslim who had links to a Turkish ultranationalist group, the Gray Wolves, never explained his motives. He suggested that the K.G.B. and Bulgarian intelligence were involved, but later retracted those claims. Investigators founded tantalizing details that seemed to support some of his assertions, but nothing was proved, and three Bulgarians and three Turks arrested in connection to the case were released.

Ali Agca, however, received life imprisonment, and remained in prison until June 2000, when he was officially pardoned. However, he had long been forgiven by the pope, both publicly from his hospital bed, and privately when he went to visit Ali Agca in prison. On that moving occasion, Ali Agca knelt and kissed the Fisherman’s ring in a sign of respect; he did not ask for forgiveness. Instead, he said, “I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer, So why aren’t you dead?”

Over the years, John Paul, who was very mystical for a pope, had always asked himself the same question. The fact that the bullets missed vital organs by millimetres confirmed the near messianic sense of his mission on earth. John Paul always maintained that his survival was a miracle, and that he had been spared for some divine purpose.

The assassination had been attempted on the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three shepherd children first allegedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, and John Paul II credited the Madonna of Fatima with saving his life. The near fatal bullet was fitted into a jeweled crown worn by her statue. In May 2000, the Vatican revealed that the third part of the vision imparted to the children at Fatima, which was long kept secret, had been an assassination attempt on a pope.



Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 10, 2011 at 7:13 am

Posted in Politics, Society

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Naked Maoists Before a Naked Wall

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For two brief years in the late 1960s, there existed on Stuttgarter Platz in Berlin a notorious squat often referred to as the Horror Commune. Kommune I was a Maoist microsect which aggressively promoted sexual promiscuity-as-liberation. Its members rejected such bourgeois norms as personal privacy — the bathrooms had no doors — and devoted themselves to organizing political protests and stunts. It had been set up in March 1967 by Fritz Teufel; his notoreity began after he broke into the dean’s office at the Freie Universitat, took his cigars, toga and chain of office, then rode a bicycle through the corridors to the auditorium, where he allowed the cheering student body to appoint him the new dean. His first official act was to sack all of the unpopular professors.

When the American Vice-President Humphrey visited Berlin in April 1967, eleven Kommunards tried to ‘assassinate’ him by attacking him with puddings, flour and yogurt; the absurd joke was lost on Die Zeit, which called them the “eleven little Oswalds”. Teufel was one of the eleven, and was soon arrested. He soon became a celebrity, helped by his last name, which means “devil” in German.

During Teufel’s absence from Kommune 1, it circulated a self-portrait: seven nude young men and women splayed against a wall, displayed with the headline: Das Private ist politisch! (“The personal is political”). The photo was taken by Thomas Hesterberg, and was captioned “Naked Maoists Before a Naked Wall” when the photo ran (partially censored to remove private parts) in Der Spiegel in June 1967. Although it would be subjected to much parody and mockery in later years, the photo was extremely controversial and divisive when many German newsmagazines decided to reprint it.

The photo’s message was as explicit as its contents were: the commune tried to draw the parallel between the pictures of helpless, naked concentration camp bodies and the rebelliously unclothed bodies of Maoist revolutionaries. Thusly, deeper message was that adolescent promiscuity should force the older generation to be open about sex, and consequently about their past, i.e., Hitler and everything else. The Kommune’s proclamation that “If Germans can look at the truth about our bodies, they will be able to face other truths as well” provoked Rudi Dutschke (an influential conventional leftist of the older order) so much as to condemn the Kommunards as ‘neurotics’.

For the Kommune, it was all downhill from there. In April 1968, two members were arrested for attempting to burn down a department store in Munich. During their trial that October, rioting broke out, and about 400 sympathizers were arrested. Teufel’s original visions, Spass-Guerillero (“fun guerrilla”) and  Witz als Waffe or (“joke as weapon”), were soon forgotten; Teufel found out that fame too was considered a bourgeoise anathema when he himself was expelled from the Kommune. When the Kommune dissolved in 1969, its remnants slowly turned into a terrorist cell: in the early 1970s, a splinter Kommunard group banded together to form the Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF). The allusions to the Royal Air Force (RAF) was not accidental: just as the British had bombed Germany from above, they intended to raze ‘new fascism’ (i.e., capitalism) from within. A chaotic game of cat and mouse with the authorities followed, culminated with the mysterious deaths of the gang’s leaders in their cells. In total, the RAF carried out almost 250 attacks, robbed 69 banks, kidnapped a few dozen politicians, businessmen and journalists, and murdered 28 people.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 24, 2011 at 8:07 am

Elizabeth Taylor (1932 – 2011)

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Elizabeth Taylor, screen’s ‘pre-Christian Elizabeth Arden’, is Dead at 79.

Liz Taylor was perhaps Hollywood’s best known star, albeit one better known for her alluring beauty and offscreen antics than for her acting. In an acting career than spanned six decades, she received her share of accolades and excoriations, and was best remembered for her 1963 film Cleopatra — one of the sliverscreen’s biggest flops.

The picture was originally intended as a low-budget remake of 1917 epic, to cash in on the recent popularity of sword and sandal pictures like Ben-Hur. But Fox brought in Liz Taylor, and built sets worth millions at London’s Pinewood Studios. After hefty demands (which included an unprecedented million-dollar salary, a $1500 a week stipend for her husband, a $3000 a week stipend for herself) were made, Liz Taylor conveniently woke up with a cold on the very morning the filming was to begin. The cold turned into a five-week absence.

Veteran Director Joseph Mankiewicz was brought in to save the picture the press was already calling the greatest movie never made. As the script was being furiously rewritten by Mankiewicz, Taylor again become sick, this time with pneumonia. She fought for her life and claimed that she died and came back, a publicity stunt that helped rekindle her waning star. Claiming that London’s weather contributed to her sickness, she demanded the production — massive sets and all — move to Rome.

The studio considered replacing Taylor (with among others Marilyn Monroe) but decided against it. But other cast changes led to the fateful decision to hire Richard Burton as Taylor’s opposite number. Their subsequent affair, Le Scandale as Burton called it, was shocking by the day’s standards, as were Burton’s lurid descriptions of torrid sex with Liz Taylor. Paparazzo Marcello Geppetti’s famous shot of Burton and Taylor kissing on a yacht on the Amalfi Coast confirmed these rumors. The photo was responsible for triggering not only the worldwide interest in the affair, but also sundering of carefully constructed studio images of celebrities’ lives all too common in the 50s and the 60s. The world of June 1962 had never seen anything like it. According to Snap! A History of the Paparazzi, there had always been rumours surrounding stars in gossip magazines such as Confidential and Hush Hush, but never before had there been pictures such as these to substantiate them.

The last to know were their respective spouses, and when Burton’s long-suffering wife threatened to leave him, Burton dumped Liz, who promptly overdosed. Her suicide attempt was another disaster for Fox, but a publicity scoop for Taylor. Burton dumped his wife of 12 years, and reunited with Liz. Yet things hardly picked up for Fox; Burton and Taylor’s stormy fights often incapacitated Taylor; the duo would often show up to work drunk. But Taylor kept on charming the studio executives and they kept funding this vanity project. Mankiewicz, who wanted to make a seven-hour epic, presented another problem. When the final, four-hour version was presented, the critics universally panned it, singling out Liz Taylor’s performance. “Overweight, overbosomed, over-paid and undertalented, she set the acting profession back a decade” noted David Susskind. The New Statesman‘s review which included the words “monotony in a slit skirt” was withering.

Fox nearly went bankrupt over the movie which cost it a record $42 million, and earned back just half of that. Cleopatra entered history books as the only film ever to be the highest grossing film of the year, running at a loss.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 23, 2011 at 10:36 pm

The End of the Thousand-Year Reich

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As the Second World War came to a close, a wave of suicides swept Berlin and other parts of Germany. Hitler was a lifelong admirer of Wagner and his climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) where the heroine Brünnhilde returns the stolen cursed ring to the River Rhine and hurls herself onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. This immolation unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla. According to a dispatch from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler initially planned “to embark alone in a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up in the air somewhere over the Baltic” if the Allies enter Berlin. His motive was to suggest to his supporters “that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven” — a Brünnhildean self-sacrifice, in a Messerschmitt.

In the end, his suicide was less grandiose and ignominious — although it didn’t stop some of his fervent followers from believing that Hitler had escaped unharmed from the wreckage of his 1000-year Reich. But Hitler was not the only Nazi to follow Brünnhilde’s example. Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler all committed suicide, as did Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack and Culture Minister Bernhard Rust. Eight out of 41 regional party leaders, seven out of 47 senior SS and police chiefs, fifty-three out of 553 army generals, fourteen out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and eleven out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Housing Commissar Robert Ley strangled himself awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Goering would follow him when the Nuremberg judges denied him the firing squad he requested.

This suicidal impulse was not confined to the Nazi elite. Ordinary Germans in untold numbers responded to the prospect of defeat in the same way. At the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance, which coincidentally but not too surprisingly was Götterdämmerung, the audience was given potassium cyanide pills. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. Untold numbers of victims of rape by the Soviet Red Army also committed suicide, and news of violence and rape further propelled mass suicides in villages all over Germany. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.

Mass suicides that created a sensation were those of Leipzig burgomaster’s family, that was captured by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller. The photos showed a different approach between this two great female war-photographers. Bourke-White, a meticulous observer as always, kept her distance from the tragedy, even taking photos from the gallery above. Miller moved in closer; a fashion photographer covering the war for Vogue, Miller’s photo of the body of burgomaster’s daughter was almost a fashion shoot of a wax mannequin — her Nazi armband immaculately displayed, her lips parted as if waiting for a true love’s kiss that would revive her.

Bourke-White's pictures are on the left, and Miller's on the right.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 18, 2011 at 2:57 am

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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Fukushima Nuclear Incident

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When I saw conflicting reports over the exploding nuclear power plant in Japan that had been damaged by an earthquake and a tsunami, I wanted to believe much of it was due to media-hype and difference in threat perception between the general public and the nuclear industry. Nuclear power was considered safe by experts, but the general public who grew up watching Homer Simpson bumbling at the Springfield Nuclear Plant always maintained healthy skepticism. Daily aerial photos of the fuming plant didn’t speak to me as powerfully as the image above, which chillingly reminds me of the images of Chernobyl disaster nearly three decades ago. Both the Soviet Union and nuclear industry never recovered from that incident. Today, the question is how bad the situation in Japan is going to get and how precisely the Japanese society will be transformed by this incident.

There are already some signs of disquiet. Yesterday, the Japanese Emperor Akihito gave a television address — the first time a Japanese emperor has given a speech directly to the people on television during a national crisis. Beyond poignant comparisons of the address to the radio address his father gave in 1945 to declare Japan’s surrender to the allies after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a harsh fact that the Japanese public broadcaster NHK instructed its employees to cut into the speech if there were crucial developments in the nuclear crisis. In a country where the Emperor is revered universally, this instruction bordered blasphemy, a potent indicator of the deep cultural impact of the crisis.

It is also undeniable that Japanese culture and psyche too will be greatly transformed by this crisis. In a country where cabinets and prime ministers (31 of them since 1947) came and went, government and industry are effectively run by elite bureaucrats and corporations, with whom Japan always had ambivalent relationship. While revered for Japan’s rapid growth since the Second World War, they were also reviled for elitism and insularity they represented. While the Soviet Union had nomenklatura, Japan’s top civil servants retire to high-paying corporate jobs in a system known as amakudari. Now they seems overwhelmed by the crisis.

While the Soviet belief in the messianic might of their empire contributed to the Chernobyl cover-up, the Japanese brief in discretion is equally troubling. Until recently, many Japanese people concealed their maladies from family members to avoid causing alarm, and disrupting calm. Reassurances along the same vein seem to be coming from Japanese authorities, despite the fact that the situation in the reactors seems to be deteriorating.

According to a wikileaks cable, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” to her nuclear plants. I am a strong supporter of the nuclear power, but have always been disturbed by the way industry reacts to such warnings. In university, I took a class on nuclear power with someone who is now the head of his country’s civilian nuclear program. He was very dismissive of my concerns over nuclear waste storage and transfers. Everyone else in the class (there were 15 of them) does not seem to be too concerned either, and quite worryingly, some of them actually went into nuclear industry. My professor have always insisted that Chernobyl was an isolated accident that could not have happened outside the Soviet Union. Let’s hope he’s correct.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 17, 2011 at 2:31 am

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