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Putting the chaos of war into focus

Times Staff Writer

Anyone who saw Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei’s Oscar-nominated “War Photographer” when it first surfaced in June would be surprised if its subject, James Nachtwey, were not in Baghdad at this time, for he has been hailed as the world’s greatest war photographer. And, indeed, Nachtwey is there as of this writing.

Current events have made this remarkable documentary about a remarkable man timelier than ever. It returns this weekend as part of the Laemmle Theatres’ Spring Documentary Days series.

In the light of the war inIraq, Nachtwey’s approach to his work takes on added resonance. As I wrote last year after an initial viewing, throughout his career, Nachtwey, 52, has been determined to serve the victims of battle and poverty the world over. He does not exploit his subjects but rather expresses their plight through his pictures, which are astonishing documents of terrible events and deeds.

Frei’s documentary begins with a quote from World War II photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” When the situation calls for it, Nachtwey could scarcely get closer. Nor, in turn, could Frei in following him into Kosovo after widespread massacres into the thick of the action in Ramallah and then into the shantytowns of Jakarta, Indonesia, and a sulfur mine in East Java.

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Inspired by the vivid images from Vietnam, the Massachusetts-born Dartmouth graduate reveals that he quickly knew he wanted to be a war photographer. Providing insights are Nachtwey’s colleagues and friends including CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Stern magazine foreign editor Hans-Hermann Klare and Geo Saison editor in chief Christiane Breustedt, Nachtwey’s onetime lover, who says she wishes they could have had a closer relationship but respects the demands of his work.

Even so, Nachtwey, while driven in the pursuit of his profession, comes across as a man content with his priorities.

If “War Photographer” asks us to contemplate the ravages of war, the New Beverly Cinema offers the perfect escape from it with its exhilarating Friday and Saturday double feature, Mitchell Leisen’s “Midnight” (1939), with a Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett script, and Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise” (1932).

Although the Paris of “Midnight” is a complete artifice, existing only in the never-never land of lavish studios sets, it continues to connect with us. So does this film’s timeless wit, and the talent of its star-studded cast, headed by Claudette Colbert at her most enchanting.

The famed indefinable Lubitsch touch was never more evident than in “Trouble in Paradise,” the director’s favorite among his films. The supremely assured sense of style and utmost civility Lubitsch brings makes “Trouble in Paradise” astonishingly poignant and thoroughly irresistible.

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Screenings

“War Photographer”: 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, Laemmle Sunset 5, (323) 848-3500.

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“Midnight,” Friday 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2:40, 6:10 and 9:40 p.m. and “Trouble in Paradise,” Friday, 9:20 p.m.; Saturday,

4:30 and 8 p.m., New Beverly Cinema, 7165 Beverly Blvd.

(323) 938-4038.


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