Movie Review: ‘DEAD WAKE’

The Gilmer Free Press

‘I’d never seen a more uneventful or stupid voyage,” declared one passenger on the Lusitania’s final crossing, but surely this was a minority opinion. On May 01, 1915, this “floating village in steel,” the jewel of Britain’s Cunard line, set forth from New York bound for Liverpool, carrying 1,959 passengers and crew members — including 189 Americans. German U-boats were patrolling the North Atlantic, and Germany had issued a grim warning: British shipping lanes were now a “zone of war,” and vessels flying the flag of Britain would be “liable to destruction.” To some, at a time when the entire world was waiting to see if America would be drawn into the war in Europe, the Lusitania appeared to be tempting fate. “The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the prelude,” wrote U.S. Ambassador Walter Page from London. “I almost expect such a thing.”

In contrast to Erik Larson’s previous blockbusters “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts,” the broad strokes of this story will be familiar to most readers. But this enthralling and richly detailed account demonstrates that there was far more going on beneath the surface than is generally known. Though many believed that civilian ships would be safe from attack, codebreakers in London were tracking the movements of German submarines with the aid of a dead signalman’s codebook and were aware that the German navy considered the Lusitania to be “fair game.” Even so, few measures were taken to ensure the ship’s safe passage, raising troubling questions about the motivations of the British Admiralty.

William Thomas Turner, the Lusitania’s rugged and experienced captain, was not made aware of the codebreakers’ efforts, but he did receive assurances that the Royal Navy would provide an escort through British waters. When that escort failed to appear, Turner seemed unfazed. Outwardly, at least, the captain appeared to share the sanguine views of his employers. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea,” Cunard officials claimed. “She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”

As Larson demonstrates, however, the world had been slow to grasp the dark implications of the Unterseeboot, or U-boat. Some of the book’s most gripping chapters track the evolution of the submarine from “a suicidal novelty” to a brutally effective killing machine, together with the extraordinary burdens placed on the shoulders of the U-boat captains: “He alone determined when and whether to attack, when to ascend or dive, and when to return to base.” The captain alone bore the responsibility for all that occurred during a cruise, and not all of Germany’s leaders were comfortable with this. “Unhappily,” declared Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, “it depends upon the attitude of a single submarine commander whether America will or will not declare war.”

Thirty-two-year-old Walther Schwieger, in command of the U-20, “a pinpoint in a vast sea,” had acquired a reputation for ruthlessness after firing a torpedo at a presumably unarmed hospital ship. Nevertheless, crewmates insisted that he ran a “jolly boat,” and on one occasion, after sinking a freighter off the coast of Ireland, Schwieger even paused to rescue a struggling dachshund from the wreckage. By May 1915 he was regarded as one of Germany’s most knowledgeable commanders, and when rumors surfaced that Britain was about to launch an invasion, Schwieger was ordered to hunt and attack potential troop transports. Aboard the Lusitania, however, most passengers shrugged off the possibility of a torpedo attack. As one traveler noted, “The idea came to be regarded as a mild joke for lunch and dinner tables.”

Larson uses letters, journals and the accounts of survivors to reconstruct the shipboard experiences, and these are among the most vivid and often heartbreaking passages in the book. In one, Theodate Pope, one of America’s “few female architects of stature,” recalls the consternation of a fellow passenger who had been served a dish of ice cream but no spoon: “He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it.” In another, Nellie Huston, a 31-year-old traveling home to England, describes the unexpected challenges of trying to get into her top bunk in second class. “I don’t know if I was supposed to be able to spring right into it,” she explained in a letter home, “but I’m too heavy behind.” Charles Lauriat Jr., a noted Boston book dealer, came aboard with a priceless set of drawings by William Makepeace Thackeray and a one-of-a-kind edition of “A Christmas Carol” adorned with handwritten notations by Charles Dickens. Lauriat neglected to take out insurance, having judged that the risk “is practically nil.” In the end, he lost these literary treasures but managed to save a set of pictures of his baby. “They were my mascot,” he cabled to his wife.

These stories put a human face on the scenes of carnage when the Lusitania finally crosses the path of the U-20 on May 7, 1915. Lauriat’s experiences are especially harrowing, as he finds himself momentarily snagged in the ship’s wireless antenna and nearly dragged to the bottom. Pope was also among the survivors, but her traveling companions were not. She spent the rest of her life trying to contact them through spirit mediums. Huston did not live to mail the account of her struggles with the second-class bunk; her letter was found floating in her purse on the sea.

Turner appears to have been fully prepared to go down with the ship, but in the end his life jacket spared him as the Lusitania “seemed to be plucked from my feet by a giant hand.” The torpedo, as Larson explains, struck the hull at a particularly vulnerable spot, flooding the coal bunkers that ran the length of the ship and sending her to the bottom in just 18 minutes. As Schwieger himself noted, “She could not have steered a more perfect course if she had deliberately tried to give us a dead shot.” In the chaos, only six of the ship’s 22 conventional lifeboats were successfully launched.

“There can be no doubt that for many passengers death came suddenly and utterly by surprise,” Larson writes. “Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy.” Of the 1,959 passengers and crew members, only 764 survived. Among the dead were 123 Americans. “We shall be at war with Germany within a month,” predicted one American official.

In fact, a further two years elapsed before America entered the conflict, and by that time a great many uncomfortable questions had surfaced about the Lusitania. Even Schwieger found it “inexplicable,” as he noted in the U-20’s log, that the ship had not been safely diverted to a more northerly route. Others wondered, in the face of Germany’s public warning and a well-documented surge of U-boat activity, why no military escort had been provided, though Turner himself doubted that it would have prevented the catastrophe. “It might,” he said, “but it is one of those things one never knows. The submarine would have probably torpedoed both of us.”

These questions are still being debated a century later. Larson’s account is the most lucid and suspenseful yet written, and he finds genuine emotional power in the unlucky confluences of forces, “large and achingly small,” that set the stage for the ship’s agonizing final moments. Turner, for his part, understood that some dangers were an unavoidable part of life at sea. Days before the Lusitania set off from New York, he testified at a hearing on behalf of families of passengers who perished aboard the Titanic three years earlier. Speaking to a panel of eight lawyers, the captain scoffed at the notion that a luxury ocean liner could ever be considered unsinkable. “Who told you that?” Turner snapped. When asked if he had drawn any lessons from the Titanic tragedy, he gave a chillingly blunt reply:

“Not the slightest,” he said. “It will happen again.”


The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson

Crown. 430 pp. $28

Movie Review: ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is the type of movie you’ll want to rehash later. Olivier Assayas’s drama is intriguingly ambiguous and strangely constructed, and there seems to be symbolism lurking in every shot. Yet, despite acting that dazzles and no shortage of artistry, the movie is more fun to ponder than to sit through.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an actress who rocketed to fame decades earlier at 18 with the stage production and movie remake of “Maloja Snake.” In it, Maria played Sigrid, a cruel young woman who seduces her older boss, Helena, and destroys her life.

Since that role, Maria has accrued quite the filmography, co-starring alongside Harrison Ford in political thrillers and flying high in an “X-Men” movie. But having reached her threshold for wires and green screen, Maria is ready for a new project. And just then, a script drops into her lap. A young and up-and-coming director plans to produce “Maloja Snake,” and he wants Maria to play Helena this time. The role of Sigrid will go to the American starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is best known for drunken and drug-fueled shenanigans.

Maria’s personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), thinks her boss should take the part, but Maria resists. She still sees herself as Sigrid, and she tells anyone who will listen. But eventually she gives in, partly due to grief, perhaps, because the original director of “Maloja” has just died.

The Gilmer Free Press

Much of “Clouds” takes place in the small Swiss enclave of Sils Maria, where the play’s namesake can be found. The Maloja snake is a bizarre and beautiful natural phenomenon, a cloud formation that winds through a mountain valley like a giant python. It’s also a harbinger of bad weather.

Maria and Valentine spend their days hiking and running lines; they occasionally go out for drunken evenings of gambling or stay in and sip wine while searching for incriminating photos of Jo-Ann online. All the while, Maria struggles with the role of Helena. She can’t identify with this pathetic older woman who is completely powerless against the beguiling, if toxic, lure of youth.

The two women debate the role over and over again. You could say that the movie is just one long conversation, and even the best discussions get tiresome at some point. Sections drag, despite the splendid performances from Binoche and Stewart.

Still, there’s plenty to chew over. Maria and Valentine have a sisterly bond — they’re loving, but also argumentative, with each other — though there are fleeting intimations of mutual romantic feelings. And Maria’s dependence on her young charge echoes the relationship between Sigrid and Helena. (If that’s not meta enough, Valentine loves celebrity gossip sites and relishes being the first to know about Jo-Ann’s affair with a married man. In real life, Stewart has been a paparazzi target for years, particularly after she was caught kissing her director from “Snow White and the Huntsman,” who was also married.)

One of the movie’s recurring themes is our urge to oversimplify. Maria and Valentine are constantly trying to label each other in easy terms. “You were in love with him,” Valentine declares when she and Maria are chatting about the late “Maloja Snake” director who made her famous. But it isn’t so straightforward — nothing in the movie is. And that makes it feel more realistic despite the occasionally stilted dialogue. People and feelings are often too nebulous for categorization. Nevertheless, people always try.

In addition to the tremendous acting, Assayas’s direction has a novel feel, with clever fade-outs reminiscent of theater, which happen just when some bit of action is about to take place. But there are also some curious decisions. When Valentine is driving along hairpin turns on a mountain road, a strange and dreamy sequence begins, accompanied by loud discordant music that will no doubt have viewers in the target demographic covering their ears.

Moments like that come and go, taking us out of the movie before our search for understanding pulls us back in. It’s a flaw, sure, but not enough to outweigh the feat of drawing us back into the movie so long after it’s over.

★ ★ ½

R. Contains strong language and nudity. 124 minutes.

Book Review: ‘Touch’

The Gilmer Free Press

Claire North’s Touch (Redhook, $26) is as masterful as her debut, “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.” In this fast-paced, imaginative novel, an entity simply known as Kepler can move from person to person, wearing his or her skin for a while, living each life while its host’s consciousness “sleeps.”

When someone tries to assassinate Kepler but kills its host instead, Kepler goes on the hunt to find out why someone wants it dead.

A cat-and-mouse game ensues until Kepler finally faces down its nemesis.

There is plenty of conspiracy and intrigue in this deftly paced novel, but North also poses subtle questions about identity and love.

In the end, it is not power that Kepler and its nemesis are fighting over but the right to be known.

Raleigh County Native Inducted Into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Gilmer Free Press

CLEVELAND, OH —A Raleigh County native was among the legendary musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the annual ceremony Saturday night in Cleveland, Ohio.

Stevie Wonder handled the induction of Bill Withers, 76, known best for hits like “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” calling Withers “a great man who has written some incredibly great songs.”
Bill Withers

“It’s been a wonderful, odd odyssey with ups, downs and sometimes screw-me-arounds, but I will always remember the good things,” Withers told the crowd.

“Bottom line is, check this out, Stevie Wonder knows my name and the brother just put me in the Hall of Fame.”

Wonder performed “Ain’t No Sunshine” and was joined by John Legend for “Use Me,” another Withers classic.

Withers, who rarely performs publicly these days, did sing with Wonder and Legend on a version of “Lean On Me” during Saturday’s ceremony.

Withers, who was born in Slab Fork, W.Va. in 1938, was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

In addition to Withers, the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class celebrated Saturday included Ringo Starr, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Green Day, Lou Reed and the “5” Royales.

The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be televised on HBO on May 30.

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