Monthly Archives: December 2013

Since I first watched We Can Be Heroes in 2005 I’ve been a great admirer of Chris Lilley’s work. Summer Heights High (first screened in Australia in 2007, and on the BBC and HBO in 2008) is probably Lilley’s most popular series, but for me Angry Boys (2011) – a show that engendered a much more mixed reaction from critics – really showcased Lilley’s talent for creating characters on a grand scale (read my review of Angry Boys here). Lilley’s latest project Ja’mie: Private School Girl is entertaining, and certainly proves once again Lilley’s ability to completely become a character. However, Ja’mie lacks the pathos and emotional power of We Can Be Heroes and Angry Boys, and the series left me slightly disappointed at its ending.

Like Lilley’s previous shows, Ja’mie is a cultural satire filmed in mockumentary style; in this case a six episode satire that targets upper-middle-class private school girls in Australia. The series is set in Sydney (though it was filmed in Melbourne), and is based on Lilley’s observations of school girls. The star of the show is Ja’mie King (played by Lilley), a character that first appeared in We Can Be Heroes and was also featured in Summer Heights High. Ja’mie is seventeen and in her final year of school at Hillford Girls Grammar. She is the school captain, self-professed most popular girl in school, and on a mission to win the school’s most prestigious award, the Hillford medal. Ja’mie spends much of the show surrounded by a posse of prefects, girls who sycophantically tell her how wonderful she is and how much they “fucking love” her. Ja’mie is incredibly spoilt (she comes from a background of extreme privilege – her house has its own elevator, she is constantly supplied with new iPads) and incredibly narcissistic. She screams at her younger sister Courtney (played by Madelyn Warrell), calls her mother (Jhyll Teplin) a bitch, and sucks up to her father (Brad Brivik) to get what she wants.

Ja’mie’s world is extremely well created. To add to the show’s authenticity many of the supporting actors are school girls themselves, and scenes between Ja’mie and her prefects feel natural and unrehearsed. However, some scenes do run on a bit long, and the often incoherent (though very realistic) cacophony of teenage girls talking over each other does get annoying. Ja’mie is also (unfortunately) a very real character, and a very unlikable one. This, I feel, is where Ja’mie fails to achieve the greatness of Lilley’s previous work. The characters in Angry Boys, for example, are similarly flawed and cringe-worthy. However, Lilley makes an effort to give each character a human moment, to let the audience see that their selfishness or immaturity come from very relatable places of insecurity. Ja’mie is given no such moment. From the beginning to the end of the series Ja’mie remains selfish and manipulative; she doesn’t change at all (her final voiceover is “Deep down inside, I’ll always be a private school girl”). Lilley’s treatment of Ja’mie’s world is mostly surface, while his other shows manage to go much deeper. We are given Ja’mie’s obnoxious, for-the-cameras persona, but get very little idea of the complex human being she must be underneath. There are numerous opportunities for Lilley to delve deeper in Ja’mie’s character, to allow us to sympathise with her, but he doesn’t fully utilise them. One such moment comes when Ja’mie’s mother asks her if she thinks it’s strange that her father is taking his beautiful young assistant to Ja’mie’s graduation. “Mum, you do realise Dad’s an idiot, he’s just really rich and that’s why we need him”, Ja’mie says, before flouncing off into the elevator. The almost-connection here between Ja’mie and her mother is brushed over, and is quickly forgotten in the face of the show’s extravagant and shocking climax.

I did enjoy Private School Girl, but I wasn’t moved by Ja’mie the way I was by Ruth Sims in Angry Boys or Pat Mullins in We Can Be Heroes. And unlike Lilley’s previous shows, I don’t think Ja’mie would survive a second viewing. Lilley has announced that his next project will be a series about Jonah, one of the central characters from Summer Heights High. I can see Jonah being a more relatable and likeable character than Ja’mie King, but I wonder if revisiting old characters is the best way for Lilley to realise his full potential as a writer and performer. I will definitely be watching Jonah in 2014; hoping Lilley can recapture the human connection he has so successfully portrayed in the past.

Ja’mie: Private School Girl was created and written by Chris Lilley, and produced by Princess Pictures. Chris Lilley and Laura Waters were executive producers on the series. Ja’mie aired in Australia in October 2013 and in the US in November.


This review contains spoilers.

I just finished Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (translated from the German by Michael Hofman) while sitting on the balcony in the fading afternoon light. The last hundred pages of this almost six-hundred page epic had me engrossed; Fallada’s novel (in the last few chapters, at least) hurtles towards a conclusion that is obvious from the beginning, and yet still manages to be very powerful.

Alone in Berlin is yet another novel from my apartment bookshelf; the shelf that just keeps on giving. I’ve avoided this offering for a while, perhaps because of its imposing thickness (Alone in Berlin is a heavy volume, and its thin pages are dense with text) and subject matter (you really have to be ready to commit yourself to an intimate, no-escape account of life inside Nazi Germany). Unsurprisingly, Alone in Berlin is not easy reading. It’s the kind of novel that makes you feel as if you are locked – along with many of the characters – in solitary confinement; gasping at tiny windows, ready to risk being shot in the face just for a breath of fresh air.

Alone in Berlin was first published in Germany in 1947, but – incredibly – wasn’t translated into English until 2009. After its English release Alone in Berlin quickly became a bestseller in the US and the UK. The novel has been published under two different English titles – Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone. However, the original German title translates more accurately as “Everyone dies for himself alone”, which critics have argued (and I think I agree) is much more in keeping with the novel’s themes. Alone in Berlin has had mixed reactions from readers, with some critics noting that there are many superior books written about Nazi Germany. Primo Levi, on the other hand, (author of If This Is a Man, an account of his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz) called Alone in Berlin “The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. Other readers have pointed out that the novel’s structure is somewhat sloppy, and that the writing lacks grace or poetry. There is certainly some truth to these accusations, but considering Hans Fallada wrote the entire novel in just 24 days and died (probably from substance abuse) before it was published perhaps they are flaws to be forgiven.

Hans Fallada’s astounding life story is detailed in Alone in Berlin’s (the Penguin edition) Afterword by Geoff Wilkes. The author was born Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen in 1893, and adopted the pseudonym Hans Fallada from the Brothers Grimm fairytales. When Ditzen/Fallada was eighteen he attempted suicide with another man after struggling to deal with his sexuality. In an attempt to simulate a duel the two men fired on each other. Ditzen killed his friend, and then shot himself in the chest but survived. He was declared mentally unfit for trial and was instead sent to a sanatorium. The rest of his life would be punctuated by bouts of mental illness and drug addiction.

Alone in Berlin is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a German couple who left anti-Nazi notes around Berlin after Elise’s brother was killed in the war. The Hampels were arrested in 1942, and executed barely six months later. In Fallada’s novel the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged couple who lose faith in Hitler and the war effort when their son is killed at the front. Otto – a quiet, unassuming man who has never wanted anything other than to do his work well and avoid talking to too many people – decides he wants to protest in some way, and starts writing postcards with anti-Nazi sentiments on them. He drops the postcards in random locations around Berlin, hoping that people will find them and be inspired to stand up to the regime. His actions are punishable by death should he be discovered, which of course he eventually is, along with his wife who has been helping him write and distribute the postcards. Sadly for the Quangels (and the Hampels) most of the postcards were immediately turned in to the Gestapo. Otto and Anna discover that people have a much greater capacity for fear than they do for resistance.

Alone in Berlin does not just focus on the Quangels but follows an enormous cast of characters that are in some way connected to the couple. There is Trudel, the fiancé of Otto and Anna’s dead son; the various Gestapo inspectors assigned to hunt down the Quangels; the post woman and her ne’er-do-well husband; a retired judge who lives in the same apartment building, and many more. Fallada takes a very omniscient approach with this novel, jumping often from character to character, and holding most of them at a distance.

Alone in Berlin is so long it took me a good month to get through, and over that time my relationship with the book had its ups and downs. At first I was completely captured by the story, the characters, and the no-frills narration. At about the halfway point I started to find the length and the descriptions tiresome. I felt like there were too many characters and not enough connection with any of them. For a while I seemed to be reading a number of different books at once; one about a couple sending postcards, another about a woman escaping her useless ex-husband for the country, yet another about a pet shop. Reaching the end, however, I found myself caught up again, as the novel narrowed in on the Quangels and followed them to their deaths.

As previously mentioned, one of the criticisms aimed at Alone in Berlin is that it is not beautifully written, that the narration is detached and clunky. At times I did feel as though I was wading through a lot of tedious sentences. However, there were some lines where the austerity of the language served the novel very well. The following passage, for example, comes towards the end of the book as the fate of the Quangels is being decided in court:

The court withdrew to consider its verdict.
Long interval.
As at the theatre, most people went out to smoke a cigarette.

There is so much power in these three sparse sentences. Here is a moment that needs no dressing up, that would lose its weight if it were surrounded by adjectives or philosophy. Fallada’s language may not be beautiful, but in giving up beauty it gains a raw authenticity that serves its difficult subject very well.

Perhaps Fallada was not aiming for a spectacular novel. Looking more closely at his chosen protagonists – a couple who were from the beginning destined to fail in their attempt at revolution – it seems evident that what Fallada was interested in was not drama but a quiet, ordinary sort of goodness. As Geoff Wilkes notes in his Afterword, many of Fallada’s works depict characters that do not resolve their problems but deal with them, and stick to their morals. Otto and Anna may not defeat the Nazis or even inspire anyone else to try, but they do triumph over their own fears, and find peace within themselves. It may not be particularly impressive or dramatic, but it is certainly real.

Hans Fallada is one of the best-known German writers of the 20th century. His most popular novels include Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker. Fallada died in Berlin in 1947.