Yesterday I went to see the film Dunkirk. It tells the story from the perspective of all those involved in the 1940 evacuation: the army; the navy; the airforce and the civilian people who answered the call to rescue the remnants of the British army in a flotilla of small fishing vessels.
In regard to the airforce, there was a lot of ill feeling at the time among the British soldiers that the airforce had let them down. “Where were you at Dunkirk?” would be an accusatory question levelled at the airmen, for it seemed that the sky belonged solely to the German airforce that bombed both the men and rescuing ships seemingly uncontested.
However, I watched a programme only last week called Dunkirk: The New Evidence where it was revealed that the rescue of the stranded soldiers took place because of the action of the Spitfire pilots who were engaging the enemy miles inland, winning an aerial battle that was taking place far away from the sight of those desperate men.
The film is low on dialogue but high on tension, one particular exchange, between two men looking for the sea to return, being:
“The tide’s turning now.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bodies come back.”
I watched the film with recent conversations in mind that I’d had with people whose family members were present at that historical moment, personal stories recounted to me:
the woman whose grandfather said that every time he got on a boat he ended up back in the water;
the man whose uncle was badly wounded and later died of his injuries;
the man whose grandfather stood with other men for hours with the sea up to their chest, holding aloft their rifles in the air, until in despair they threw them into the water.
But more emotional for me, though, were my own family connections:
My Great Uncle George who was captured at Dunkirk. He was in the rearguard, fighting to buy time for the men on the beach.
Then there was my grandfather Fred. In the scene where the screaming Stukas are bombing the defenceless soldiers who are arraigned across the beach like sitting ducks, I thought to myself My God, my Granddad went through this?
One of the loveliest men you could ever wish to meet, you would never know what he had experienced. All that I do know is that he was one of the last off the beach at Dunkirk (he’d been salvaging equipment) and was one of the first on the beach on D-Day.
It was only in 2015, during the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk, that I came to an hitherto unknown realisation: while my grandfather was stranded on those beaches of Dunkirk, his first child-my father was being born at home in Manchester. I recalled my father saying that, with his own father being away at war, they didn’t know what he wanted his firstborn called, and so they named him Fred after his father.
But I never knew it was Dunkirk where he was.
There he was, not knowing if he would survive, if he would get back to England, if he would ever get to see his child that was being born right then across the channel.
It is time, some considerable time, that have enabled me to piece these things together.
On reaching England he returned north by train to Manchester. Whilst having a pint in the family pub in Collyhurst, a local cobbler took his boots away to repair for free as they were split, feet showing, from the long, marched retreat in France
These memories serve to remind me that the German army-of which we see little of in the film, was likewise made up of similar ordinary people, separated from family and loved ones, their allegiance and involvement instigated by the happenstance of the time and place of their birth.
Here’s a short trailer for the film, there are longer ones to be found on YouTube.
I watched Woman In Gold today, the true story of an Austrian-Jewish refugee (played by the great Helen Mirren) living in America who launched a legal campaign against the Austrian government to reclaim paintings by Gustav Klimt that were stolen from her family by the Nazis during the war.
In particular was a portrait of her beloved aunt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer l, later changed to Woman In Gold to disguise the sitter’s Jewish identity. And maybe to obscure how the painting ended up in an Austrian gallery, too. As part of the national identity, it was described as ‘the Austrian Mona Lisa’.
The film finished with a line stating that it is estimated that over 100,000 works of art are yet to be returned to their rightful owners.
I am no expert when it comes to art, but when you look at the image of the painting, enlarged, close up, can’t you just feel the warmth on your skin?
And all those eyes in the dress, maybe looking at us from history, perhaps inflicting a judgement.
I used to be a bit of a blood thirsty kid. I think I may have mentioned that before.
When I was growing up I was a huge fan of Hammer, and idolised the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Sir Christopher Lee, no less. I was gutted when I first heard of the death of Cushing. And, as a horror fan, films like The Vampire Lovers and Lust For A Vampire had everything that a teenage lad could want. If you know what I mean.
I recently read the autobiography of Countess Dracula herself, Ingrid Pitt, the Polish born actress who was regarded as the Queen Of Horror.
I wanted to read her book, in particular, as I knew that her story was not the usual Hollywood actress fare. And what a story it was.
The second part of the book included the usual name dropping anecdotes. How she played cards with John Wayne, rode a motorcycle with Clint Eastwood, and practiced karate with Elvis. But it is the retelling of the early part of her life that sets this book apart.
Her childhood coincided with the madness that consumed Europe in World War Two, and her early narrative tells of a last glimpse of her grandparents and (temporarily) her father, as she was led on a journey that eventually led to her being imprisoned in Stuthoff concentration camp along with her mother. A five year old girl, taken from everything familiar and suddenly surrounded by such cruelty and death, some of the memories related of this time in her life are harrowing. She remained imprisoned there, until, at the age of eight, both she and her mother escaped into the forest as they were being marched by the Nazis to face a firing squad.
They then lived in the wilderness among partisans, until the red army approached and the war came to its ignominious end.
What comes across in the book is the indomitable strength of her mother, who kept going on behalf of her child, with a strength and endurance she discovered because of her child. Together, they got through their hellish ordeal and eventually emerged on the other side.
Although her difficulties did not end there, I will leave it for you discover for yourself how she eventually became the famous actress and writer who was much celebrated by we Hammer fans. Suffice it to say that Pitt’s is a remarkable story of overcoming the odds in one of the darkest and shameful chapters in man’s history.
I read a comment about her autobiography, the original version of which is entitled Life’s A Scream, by a man who knew her. He said that she told him that she had wanted to call her book From Shit To Champagne, but was persuaded otherwise. I think that would have been a perfect analogy of her life journey. She herself said, in one interview, that acting in horror films was easy, because she had seen what real horror was.
R.I.P Ingrid Pitt 1937-2010