Critics' Picks

What you need to see, read, do this week: Nazi TV, German robot music and an alternative to warmed-over Coldplay.

Published August 30, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

"Trouble the Water"
My colleague Andrew O'Hehir has already written eloquently about "Trouble the Water," Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's superb documentary about survival and reinvention in post-Katrina New Orleans, which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles. But "Trouble the Water" opens in more theaters across the country this weekend (with others to follow in the coming months), and if, in preparation for the grim Republican National Convention proceedings this week, you want to get a better sense of what being an American really means, this is the picture to see. Lessin and Deal don't just follow Katrina survivors Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, around with a camera: Their film consists largely of footage shot by Roberts herself before, during and after the storm, which forced the Robertses out of their house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward and into an odyssey that involved shepherding fellow storm survivors through a land that suddenly looked nothing like home. "Trouble the Water" is a document, both defiant and celebratory, about people who refused to be displaced in their own country, even when their country had forgotten about them. -- Stephanie Zacharek

"Binding Energy" by Daniel Marcus
The characters in this collection of moody stories have ordinary troubles: loneliness, grief, guilt. They just happen to live in various futures, some technologically advanced, others postapocalyptic, and have to contend with things like needy voice mails from dead boyfriends. The effect is disconcerting, Raymond Carver crossed with William Gibson, yet somehow perfectly suited to the waning days of cool summer. -- Laura Miller

"Television Under the Swastika" on DVD
As the gardening show begins, Erich peeks over the back fence and says, "You've finally come to visit my garden, Rudolph!" Cheerfully dismounting his bike, Rudy responds, "Yes, I'm here. Heil Hitler!" Welcome to the forgotten Nazi pre-history of television, exhumed to mesmerizing and terrifying effect by German documentarian Michael Kloft, director of the bloodcurdling title "Goebbels Experiment" and several other films about the Third Reich. As Kloft's 1999 film "Television Under the Swastika" -- now available in North America on DVD from First Run -- demonstrates, TV didn't begin with its cultural ascendancy in affluent postwar America. It began as a propaganda tool in Hitler's Germany, which had a state television service from 1935 to 1944, broadcasting the Nuremberg Rallies and demented anti-Semitic speeches alongside beauty tips for Aryan brides, a variety show shot in a rooftop beer garden, live events from the 1936 Olympics (watched by an audience of 160,000 at public "television parlors") and time-wasting interviews with low-level bureaucrats: "I can't tell you how much our Strength Through Joy program has accomplished!" As the Allies closed in on Berlin, Nazi TV broadcast its last shows, including a fitness program for amputees still eager to serve the Führer. -- Andrew O'Hehir

The Week That Was' "The Week That Was"
If you're bored with the same old easy-listening alternative rock, most of which sounds like some gentle, inoffensive blend of Coldplay, Wilco and Earlimart, then The Week That Was, a solo effort by Field Music's Peter Brewis, offers a welcome change of pace from the likable but unimaginative, melodic norm. This is the sort of release that feels refreshingly uncategorizable yet hauntingly familiar, like the ambitious but slightly antisocial child of Kate Bush and Pink Floyd who refuses to play nicely. The 32-minute LP presents a deeply unpredictable, unfathomable progression of songs, from the relentless drums and early-Genesis sound of "Learn to Learn" to the Beatles-y ballad "Come Home." There's supposed to be some sort of unfolding crime mystery inspired by Paul Auster here, but good luck unraveling that one. Even after several listens, these songs will leave you scratching your head and wondering, "That was interesting but ... what was that?" -- Heather Havrilesky

"Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution" on DVD
The cliché that German people are like robots had to come from somewhere. Most of the credit (or blame, if you like) for that stereotype should probably go to the wide-ranging influence of electronica pioneers Kraftwerk, whose fascinating rise out of Germany's experimental krautrock-meets-space-music scene in the '70s goes under the microscope in Prism Films' three-hour documentary "Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution," released this week on DVD. The word "influence" hardly covers the saturation that Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider's modest output achieved worldwide. How many other bands can claim both Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and 50 Cent's "In Da Club" as direct descendents? The doc busts open an archive of low-tech videos of early performances and interviews with geeky German rock critics, avant-garde musicians and former Kraftwerk-er Karl Bartos that sets the band in musical and historical context like a jewel. By keeping such a wide focus, the film suggests that the robot-men reconstructed Post-WWII German identity without imitating American pop. "We were pretty much aware that we weren't raised in the Mississippi Delta," quips Bartos. Kraftwerk's style emphasized a Teutonic affinity for futuristic tech and celebrated a past that seemed to have ended around 1933, which is when you-know-who started doing you-know-what to 6 million people. Better to be seen as robots, Kraftwerk must have reasoned, than as Nazis. -- James Hannaham

"Intervention With Kristin Chenoweth"
Never mind Broadway. The best musical number of the year may be found free of charge on a hilarious parody of the overwrought show "Intervention" in which Kristen Chenoweth musically "'splains" the perils of meth addiction -- and, as a side benefit, outs the addict to his family. "Consider this your subpoena," she trills. "It's time to stop doing tina." ("Tina" being one of meth's many pseudonyms, along with "poor man's cocaine.") Chenoweth is already a dependable delight on "Pushing Daisies," and here she harnesses her ear-splitting soprano and shatterproof perkiness toward truly dangerous ends. By the time she's thrown her tiny body into the waiting arms of the addict's family, you may never be able to watch a musical again. Or refrain from rhyming "lunch" with "white crunch." -- Louis Bayard


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