Holocaust Memorial Day: A Unique Insight Into Prof. Viktor Frankl

Viktor & I: An Alexander Vesely Film (2010)

Screening on Thursday 26th January, 7.30pm @ The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
Part of Holocaust Memorial Day

Viktor Frankl and I_dvd_cover

Viktor & I is about famous Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Filmmaker Alexander Vesely travelled the world to document the personal and unique side of this important man. For the first time in film, people will see Dr. Frankl through the eyes of those closest to him. A defining character of the 20th century, he was not only a genius, doctor and survivor of Nazi terror and tragedy but a man who lived, believed and loved. Making his US directorial debut, Vesely shares intimate glimpses of his eminent grandfather who, amidst great suffering also gave us all hope.

Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie, Logotherapist & Existential Analyst, will give a brief introduction to the film, while Prof. Paul Miller, Consultant Psychiatrist and Trauma Specialist, will give a short postscript talk on trauma and human responses to it.

Tickets £4.  To make a booking, or for further information, visit the Strand Art Centre’s website at: http://www.strandartscentre.com/movies

Learning From Tragedy & Suffering: The Remarkable Alice Herz Sommer

The Lady in No. 6 is one of the most remarkable and moving documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but consider that this 2013 film won the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.  The film is an exploration of Alice Herz-Sommer’s life.  At 109 years old, Herz-Sommer was at the time of filming the world’s oldest pianist and the second oldest person living in London. But perhaps of most significance, she was the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.


At 38minutes, this film is short, but in this time the viewer has the privilege of getting to know something of a woman who possessed an indomitable spirit and a forgiving and optimistic outlook.  For me, she exemplified the teachings of another Holocaust survivor, Prof. Viktor Frankl who very famously said in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

To choose one’s own way was something Herz Sommer most certainly did.  Although she found herself in a concentration camp, with her son, but no other family members, she refused to give in to fear and despair.  Through her music she lived and breathed hope.  Even in the perverse nihilism of the concentration camp she was able to say “Every day in life is beautiful…every day!” And then when she emerged into a ravaged post-war Europe she resolutely refused to look back. “Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated” she says without a shadow of doubt in her voice.

And there are many more memorable moments in this film. I was moved to tears when she described the death of her son Raphael, an accomplished cellist and conductor, who passed away in 2001, aged 64.  Herz Sommer expresses her gratitude that her son was spared suffering, that he had no inkling that his condition was terminal and his passing was so quick. Remarkable yes, but entirely in keeping with Alice’s attitude to life.

Alice Herz Sommer, who died only a few weeks ago at the age of 110, was a beautiful person who leaves behind a legacy that is priceless.  We can all learn something from Alice’s philosophy and outlook on life. So yes, please do watch this film; you won’t be disappointed.

You can find out more about ‘The Lady in No.6’, and watch the film, by visiting http://nickreedent.com/.

Existentialism & Ethics In Action: The Life Of A Neurosurgeon

It was Henry Marsh, a celebrated neurosurgeon, who once so perceptively said: ‘what are we if we don’t try to help others…we’re nothing, nothing at all.’ These words were uttered in the closing moments of ‘The English Surgeon’ an emotionally charged BBC film that looks at Marsh’s charitable work in Ukraine.

Marsh, and his fellow surgeon Ivan Petrovich, make a formidable team, despite the limitations placed upon them in Ukraine with respect to equipment and facilities.  The film presents each encounter with a patient as an existential experience for both the medics and the patients.  Unsurprisingly, Marsh is at his most comfortable when he can offer hope to person sitting opposite; but then there are the inevitable encounters with people where there is, medically speaking, no hope.  And then there are the cases where the decision to operate is an agonising one – where the risk of intervening might just be too high. But whatever the situation, Marsh is always looking for ways to help and he is visibly frustrated when he encounters terminal cases, where there is nothing more to be done.

As the film unfolds we see the limitations of medicine and surgery laid bare. Despite the technology and expertise that exists in a consulting room or an operating table, the substantive existential questions remain extant.  What is the value of life? How can people find meaning in their lives when they are terminally ill?

 These questions are posed, but not answered in ‘The English Surgeon’.  More reflection is offered in Marsh’s superb book, recently published: ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’.  Marsh talks candidly about his failures, his disdain for the National Health Service as it is currently constituted and his frustration with what he sees as its overwhelming and desperately stifling bureaucracy.

Do No Harm

Marsh’s candid account of the agonies of balancing risk, operating where there is little hope and dealing with the aftermath provides a powerful insight into the life of a neurosurgeon and the ethical dilemmas that they face each every day of their working lives. Most of us would find it incredibly difficult to function in such an environment, where existentialism and ethics are brutally real, rather than abstract concepts we have the luxury of debating at a distance.

The life of a neurosurgeon is unique, but embodies those meaningful words of Albert Pike: ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal’.

 Check out ‘The English Surgeon’ on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOwsD38VxwQ and

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Do-No-Harm-Stories-Surgery/dp/0297869876/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396891701&sr=1-1&keywords=first+do+no+harm

Examining The Cost of Non-Violent Resistance: The Case Of Sophie Scholl

Bust of Sophie Scholl in the White_Rose_Memorial_Room, Ludwig Maximilians Universitat, Munich (Source: Adam Jones)
Bust of Sophie Scholl in the White Rose Memorial Room, Ludwig Maximilians Universitat, Munich (Source: Adam Jones)

The iconic and heroic figure of Sophie Scholl still speaks to those of us who espouse non-violence in the modern age.  Scholl, who was a member of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany, paid for her activism with her life. Her implacable opposition to the nihilistic ideals of the Nazi party led to the guillotine, a fate she met with dignity.

 The White Rose was comprised of University of Munich students and a member of the philosophy faculty there. The group’s modus operandi centred round an anti-Nazi leafleting and graffiti writing campaign, which began in June 1942 and finished just under a year later.

 Six of the most prominent members of the group, including Sophie and her brother Hans, were arrested by the Gestapo, tried for treason by a Nazi court, found guilty and beheaded shortly thereafter.

Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag said of the White Rose: ‘It is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the 20th Century… The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there, but I don’t know why,’

 Sophie Scholl was driven by her conscience and her faith.  Baptised a Lutheran she was influenced by a powerful anti-Nazi sermon delivered by the then Catholic Bishop of Münster.  Indeed her faith was a motivating factor throughout her short life, although she struggled with it during times of eternity.  Some quotes come to mind:

‘The only remedy for a barren heart is prayer, however poor and inadequate’. (As quoted in a letter to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnage)

I’m still so remote from God that I don’t even sense his presence when I pray. (As quoted in At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl).

I know that life is a doorway to eternity, and yet my heart so often gets lost in petty anxieties. It forgets the great way home that lies before it.  (As quoted in Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler).

One of my favourite Scholl quotes, which is disputed, but insightful regardless of its provenance, is as follows: The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes’.

 A great place to start if you want to find out more about Scholl, is to watch the feature film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.  Based on historical evidence, the film depicts Scholl and her fellow White Rose members in a way that makes one think deeply about the issues surrounding non-violent resistance and the courage required to follow its path.  The film’s website is: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/scholl_html/flash.html

Film Review: Viktor Frankl & I

In this film one encounters a man who lived life to the full, and crucially, lived out his own philosophy.  He understood the import of Socrates’ maxim: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Also, like Socrates, Frankl understood what it is to be human and to experience the panopoly of emotions; he experienced the nihilism of Auschwitz, the heights of academic and professional achievement, and the satisfaction of seeing his therapeutic theories impacting positively on so many lives. And of course as prisoners, Frankl and Socrates understood exactly what freedom was and its importance.  Moreover, that both experienced imprisonment and the transcendence of suffering as intrinsic to the out-workings of a philosophy centred on meaning, was absolutely crucial.

The basis for Frankl’s brand of therapy and existential analysis was conceived before the Holocaust, but was moulded and tested in the horrors of the concentration camps.  Rather than destroying his faith in the goodness of humanity, his suffering at the hands of others cemented in his mind the basis for the logotherapeutic relationship.  And in-so-doing, Frankl returned again and again to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words: “When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”

Viktor Frankl and I_dvd_cover

We know much about Frankl’s theories and philosophy from the publications he has left behind and the proponents of logotherapy and existential analysis. With the release of Viktor and I we now have a detailed exploration the life and character of Viktor Frankl.  His grandson Vasily has done a fantastic job of interviewing a diverse range of associates, friends and family of his famous grandfather.  What emerges is a portrait of a man who is generous, humorous, humble, intensely intellectually curious, and yes, perhaps even slightly vain.  The most touching parts of the film are where the interviewees relate stories of Frankl in tears as he recounts, in very private moments, the dreadful cost of the Holocaust on those he loved.  And then there is that magnificent moment when an almost blind Dr. Frankl shuffles across the stage to kiss his tearful wife as she receives an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University; in that poignant instant, we see a man who loves deeply and exudes gratitude.

Viktor and I is a film that can only increase one’s admiration for a man who suffered appallingly, yet in and of that suffering found meaning and therefore led a life of self-transcendence and service to others.  His legacy will live on, both in logotherapy and existential analysis, and in the hearts of those who knew and loved him most.

You can find out more details about Viktor and I, and order the DVD, by visiting:  http://www.viktorandimovie.com/

The World’s Oldest Holocaust Survivor: Viktor Frankl’s ‘Will to Meaning’ In Action

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It was the famous Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and founder of the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, Viktor Frankl, who frequently drew upon Friedrich Nietzsche’s insightful maxim to explain the core philosophy of his existential analysis: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” 

Throughout the various stages of his life, Frankl collated both empirical and anecdotal evidence which supported the centrality of a ‘will to meaning’ in overcoming the cruel blows of fate that life inevitably brings.  Nowhere was this more evident for Frankl than in the concentration camps where sheer survival was a gargantuan task that required self-transcendence and focus on a will to survive and ultimately to prosper. Throughout his writings he makes reference to those whom he met, in the most dire of circumstances, but who still retained and exhibited a strong will to meaning.

Today, I came across an inspiring story that exemplifies Frankl’s worldview.  Alice Herz-Sommer, who at 109 years old is the world’s oldest pianist, as well as its oldest Holocaust survivor, is the focus of a short documentary entitled ‘The Lady In Number 6’.  The film’s producer, Nick Reed, talking to The Algemeiner said this of Alice: “She just on all things has this philosophy that is incredibly positive. She’s just naturally, instinctively somehow along her journey picked up this process where her brain is always in a positive loop,” He continues: “People who have seen the film are just amazed that this woman has been able to take something like the Holocaust and turn it into a positive,” 

Alice’s passion in life was, and still is, music.  It was music that sustained her in the concentration camp and it is music that has sustained her in her life since.  Her will to meaning is incredibly strong as her passion for life is undiminished.

You can watch an extended trailer for the film here:


Rediscovering Orthopraxy

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was unique.  A theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was a Christian who lived out his faith in an intensely practical way.

After giving up a career as a distinguished theologian, Schweitzer dedicated his life to serving God as a physician in the West African mission field, more specifically Lambaréné, now in Gabon, but then in French Equatorial Africa. It was there that he built a hospital that served a multitude of people from far and wide.

I first came across Schweitzer when I read his famous ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, then ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’ and the intriguingly titled ‘The Psychiatric Study of Jesus’. A talented and insightful writer, I always got the impression that as a man, Schweitzer was rather modest and avoided couching his thoughts and philosophies in the strident language of a self-assured academic.

Most impressive though for me, was Schweitzer’s ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy, which adopted the principle of non-violence and concern for others as a consistent ethic to live by.  And live by this he did, although he was pragmatic enough to entertain slight deviations from these principles when circumstances dictated.

Also noticeable was Schweitzer’s distaste for colonialism.  Indeed he once wrote:

“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they (the coloured peoples) have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.”

That said, by today’s standards he would still be judged as somewhat paternalistic, but judged by the standards of the time, he was socially progressive.

The film ‘Albert Schweitzer’ is a study in Christian Orthopraxy and explores Schweitzer’s journey, showing his ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy. Part biographical drama/part documentary, this captivating film (with actors playing the characters), traces Schweitzer’s life from birth to about the age of 30 when he makes the decision to devote his life to medical missionary work. The latter half of the film looks at Schweitzer’s busy schedule in the hospital-village and portrays a man who cares deeply for the humans and animals that surround him.

Schweitzer’s ethic is as relevant today, if not more, than it was in his lifetime. In an era of environmental degradation, human and animal exploitation, we surely need to rediscover the power of orthopraxy.

A good place to start is by watching the film which can be accessed here via YouTube:

Paradox And Interconnectedness: Seeing The World Through New Eyes

As the musician and activist Kathy Mattea once sagely observed: ‘That’s the great paradox of living on this earth, that in the midst of great pain you can have great joy as well’.

Nowhere have I observed this paradox played out with such thought-provoking beauty and profundity than in the experimental non-narrative documentary by Ron Fricke entitled ‘Baraka’.  Fricke’s extended cinematographic meditation explores themes via a mesmeric compilation of nature, everyday life and human activity shot in twenty-four countries on six continents over a fourteen month period.

The existential paradox is presented through poignant images of grinding poverty, monotonous work, factory farming, prostitution, economic exploitation, pollution and the crushing of individuality. The contrast with the beauty of creation, the peace of meditation, thoughtfulness and self-transcendence tells its own story. It is at this level of transcendence, whether it is expressed through the world’s major religions or philosophies, or through some other means, that humanity comes alive and radiates beauty and hope.

I find myself drawn to watch and meditate on the message of ‘Baraka’ when I am in reflective mood.  Like any good film though, each time I watch it I see something new and emerge with a different perspective. Notwithstanding that ever-changing landscape, as I watch, I consistently turn over in my mind those very famous words Thomas Merton uttered during his ‘Louisville Epiphany’:

‘Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are — as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth’.

Merton, in his epiphany, calls on us all to explore our radical interconnectedness and to reflect on what it means to be human.  Intriguingly, ‘Baraka’ does just that too, although this time through the highly effective medium of film.

I’d highly recommend ‘Baraka’.  Once you’ve watched it once you’ll almost certainly want to watch it again….and again!

In the meantime, you can watch the official trailer here (and you can also view the entire film courtesy of Youtube):

An Encounter With ‘The Teenage Exorcists’

Check out Pastor Bob Larson’s website (http://www.boblarson.org/) and you’ll see that he refers to himself as ‘the world’s foremost expert on cults, the occult, and supernatural phenomena’.  Quite how he makes this assessment is not clear.  Maybe it’s because he travels the world ‘exorcising demons’ in their thousands, embarking on tours around the US, the UK, the Ukraine and beyond.

Wherever Larson goes, it would seem that the methodology is the same – whipping up a frenzy followed by exorcising ‘demons’ from vulnerable people who are struggling with addiction, the aftermath of sexual abuse and myriad other problems. Larson’s simplistic worldview – that such problems are the result of demonic possession – is a persuasive one for those who want a quick-fix.

Enter the scene ‘The Teenage Exorcists’ and the Larson showmanship is complete. Brynne Larson, Tess Scherkenback, and Savannah Scherkenback have happily taken on this moniker and act as an adjunct to the main show.  In their new film, Vice has obtained exclusive access to the girls and Bob on their tour of Ukraine, during which they attempt to save souls by exorcising people’s “sexually transmitted demons.” It’s certainly a film that’s well worth watching.

I have no doubt that the Brynne, Tess and Savannah are sincere in their beliefs; the problem is that their worldview is not only simplistic, it’s dangerous.  To reduce the trauma produced by childhood sexual abuse to a demon that can be exorcised in a matter of minutes is irresponsible. Trauma is almost always complicated and specialist therapy is needed to resolve the psychological issues it creates.

Ever the showman, the film shows Mr. Larson closely directing events and recording the results.  ‘The Teenage Exorcists’ are an excellent marketing tool, but actually play only a limited role in the entire process.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment in the film for me was when the three ‘exorcists’ were asked to name a person who inspired them most; they answered ‘Margaret Thatcher’! But then again the whole film was rather bizarre, so that remark was probably in keeping with the rest of the film.

My own view? Well, whilst I would affirm exorcism’s role in very rare cases that have been thoroughly researched and investigated, I have a strong aversion to its wholesale, and inappropriate, use. Not only does it open up Christianity to ridicule, it offers false hope and can further damage people who are already damaged.

Anyway, you can make up your own mind by watching the film here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qk65kdAVNXI