24 August, 2009

Four great films about WWII that feature neither Jews nor American soldiers, and one not-so-great WWII film that features Jewish-American soldiers

(As always: spoilers....)

At the end of Elem Klimov's 1985 war epic Иди и смотри (Come and See), teenage freedom warrior Florya finally fires the rifle he scavenged off of a dead soldier buried in the sand in the first scene. He's seen his share of Nazi atrocities in his travels through Belarus, from the slaughter of his townspeople to the burning of his old, harmless father to the wholesale incineration of an entire community. He has transformed from a bright-eyed and goofy-grinned boy, eager to do his patriotic duty and boldly fight for the national cause, to a withered husk of a human being, his clothes dusty, his eyes glassy, his face ashen, a permanent, wrinkled frown carved into his horror-stricken face.

The war is not over at the end of the film, but the Belarusians have won a small but important victory over the Nazi invaders, who consider Eastern Europeans beneath the level of human dignity, incapable of rehabilitation and undeserving of mercy, fit only to die quickly. As Florya and his comrades regroup and move on to bigger battles, Florya passes a puddle with a portrait of the Fuhrer lying abandoned in it. He opens unceasing fire right into Hitler's face, a cathartic moment, and the film ends with newsreel footage of the war and history in rewind. Florya takes out his aggression--violent yet harmless--on the idea of the ruthless dictator, on all the atrocities of history, and on war itself, and finally we see Hitler's baby picture, swathed in a nightie, no mustache, no swastikas, and we are reminded that even Adolph was once an innocent child like Florya.

His energy and ammunition spent, Florya rejoins the good fight. He's been through hell on earth, but he has somehow remained pure.

Throughout most of human civilization, war was a topic to be treated with dignity and honor. War turned boys into men, tested mettle, and bestowed honor. War protected ideals, chivalry, and nobility. War offered either great rewards--riches, land, political power, cultural victory, slaves--or an honorable death, to courageously lose one's brief life defending something greater than oneself. Despite the violence and tragedies of The Iliad, Homer offers no criticism of war itself. The Roman poet Horace wrote some time around 20 BC:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

"How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths."

From Biblical wars to the Crusades to Lancelot and his fellow knights, never was war seen as anything other than a sometimes-tragic means of achieving grand goals. The titular character of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the invincible Roman general, finds peace only on the battlefield, and when he refuses to put his wounds on public display in order to win a political victory, audiences for perhaps the first time met a living casualty of warfare, for war had changed Coriolanus, making him beastly, short-tempered, and arrogant, and he could no longer exist comfortably in a society at peace. Centuries ahead of his time, Shakespeare may have been the first artist to realize that war was not just a temporary condition but a damaging illness that left its mark even on the survivors.

By the American Civil War others like Stephen Crane with his Red Badge of Courage were beginning to promote a new war genre that was more critical and realistic, and after the modern horrors of trenches, gassings, and machine guns in the First World War, anti-war art became as prominent as pro-war propaganda, from Erich Maria Remarque's brutal All Quiet on the Western Front to the horrifying expressionist paintings of Otto Dix to Wilfred Owen's reworking of Horace's ode:
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Pro-war film continued through World War II. Among the Allied films starring the likes of Erroll Flynn, Ronald Reagan, and John Wayne was a series of seven documentary films entitled Why We Fight, commissioned by the United States government and directed by the lovable Frank Capra. The first of the series won the very first Academy Award for Documentary Feature, and none of the films did anything to discourage enlisted men, to challenge the concept of war, or to humanize the enemy.

On the Axis side was director Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels, with his doublespeak professional title "Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda," who churned out narrative and documentary films that highlighted the beauty and unstoppable courage of the Aryan race and culture while illustrating the many flaws of inferior Semitic and anti-socialist villains. Among these films was, of course, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will), considered a masterpiece of editing and innovative cinematic techniques.

All of the outright and empty-headed propaganda coupled with the many deaths and horrors of World War II eventually took their toll on audiences, though, and in the latter half of the twentieth century, anti-war films became much more common. The year 1957 saw the releases of both Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory and David Lean's The Bridge on the Rive Kwai. The grisly, full-color, live photojournalism of the Vietnam War was the final nail in the coffin for the glorification of war, and now very few realistic war films exist that don't in some way illustrate that we are all members of one human race, that war destroys us all, ruins families, endangers society, and forces men to become monsters.

At least not until now with the release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which features at its heart a movie theater, Joseph Goebbels, and a soldier-turned-actor. Beyond espionage killings, there is very little combat in this war film--the bulk of the battle footage is depicted within the film's film-within-a-film, a propaganda piece directed by Goebbels entitled Nation's Pride, starring a young, somewhat handsome Nazi sniper (Daniel Brühl) who survived three days in a clock tower behind enemy lines and in that time killed hundreds of enemy combatants and won the city for the Axis. The once humble young man is now doing his best to put his lethal past behind him and enjoy his new celebrity as a war hero and film star. The clips of the film, as watched by a packed theater of Nazi elites--among them Adolph Hitler--, reveal something that is hardly humanistic or well-rounded. The sniper shoots one nameless Allied victim, then another, then another. A victim loses his head. The sniper says something patriotic and reloads. A victim falls from a window. The audience in the film laughs and rejoices. The real audience is reminded that such glorification once existed.

And then the climax of Inglourious Basterds comes, nameless Nazis are killed by Jewish heroes, and the final scene of Come and See is reenacted, only this time it's not a framed portrait of Hitler but the real deal and there are no baby photos to distract us. Tarantino has placed us in an uncomfortable position--he wants us, with our cultural relativism and our sensitivities, to relish in the glorification of war. He wants us to rejoice that Nazis are being slaughtered. It's not too much to ask for--at this point, "Nazi" is synonymous with unsympathetic--but to someone (like me) who's prone to overthinking things and who has a penchant for compassion, it's a difficult moment.

My first response was: he hasn't earned it! The Nazis are just nameless and faceless caricatures! He doesn't give us any hope of possibly understanding them. But that's a dangerous thought. They're Nazi elites; they did countless horrible things, some of the worst things in history. What's there to understand? And besides, two of the most well-developed, nuanced, and complex characters in the film--the sniper and a detective Hans Landa (played by an Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz in one of this year's best performances so far)--are Nazis. If anything, it's the Allies and Jews who are one-dimensional. With the revenge tragedy (in which the avenging hero loses his own life and sanity in his endless, escalating, cycling quest for revenge) dating back thousands of years and the anti-war theme firmly established, can a viewer in the year 2009 abandon those ideals and simply admit that sometimes reckless, bloody, unmerciful violence is a good thing?

I haven't been able to answer that yet. It's been three days and I still can't decide if I absolutely hated Inglourious Basterds or somehow secretly loved it. My boyfriend despised it but isn't quite sure why. I've read reviews by people claiming it's phenomenal, mature, bold, and exciting but who provide little explanation as to why it's all those things. On the one hand, the film is the very definition of "self-indulgence." Tarantino has become a parody of himself, of self-referential pastiche, of post-modernism. The soundtrack is anachronistic, with most of the music taken from the Ennio Morricone scores of Spanish and Italian Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s, with orchestral tracks lifted from 1980s horror flicks, with a prominently featured David Bowie song and one memorable motif that Tarantino already used in Kill Bill. It's a constant reminder that we're not watching anything that actually existed in 1944. In one scene a hepcat Samuel L. Jackson, sounding like he's stepped out of the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon, narrates some exposition about nitrate film while archival footage plays, once again reminding us that this is all fake. Scenes drag on for much too long. Michael Myers makes an unnecessary appearance with a bad British accent and a veiny, alcoholic's nose.

There's a concept of good fiction being a sustained, dreamlike illusion, where we forget that we're reading or watching something, where we forget that we're passively receiving some fictional, carefully arranged information and surrender ourselves to the world, its structure, its time, and its rules. We forget ourselves and our world. Our surrender is seamless. Tarantino says, to hell with that.

At the same time, some of the scenes are quite suspenseful, the dialogue quite clever, the characters quite memorable. There are genuine surprises and laughs. Hans Landa, the famed "Jew Hunter" who fluently speaks German, English, French, and Italian (and possibly many other languages) and never allows a subtle detail to slip from his grasp, is a fantastic character ranging from an intelligent conversationalist to a charming flatterer to a boyish jokester to a ruthless killer in sharp and spontaneous instants. He's a delightful character--both frightening and admirable; if he were on our side we'd give him a TV series and root for him every week.

Someone has suggested that one of the film's themes is the loss of personal peace, that the film creates a world where tension is constant and unyielding, where secrets are always being exchanged and withheld and where lives are always at stake. This is true, and the best scenes in Inglourious Basterds are the ones that most effectively achieve this suspense, but for non-stop anxiety in Vichy France I point to Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), a spine-tingling, nail-biting, foot-shaking, edge-of-the-seat thriller about undercover resistance fighters trying to win back their country.

In Melville's war-haunted France, one's never sure who's on one's side. Anyone could be carrying death, and trust is a rare commodity. After a suicidal escape from a concentration camp, the political criminal Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) ducks into a barber shop for cover. With the sirens blaring outside, Gerbier conceals his escaped convict status by casually requesting a trim and a shave. In a deliberately paced and nerve-racking scene, we stress over whether the barber might slit his throat with the straight razor. Instead he saves his life and gives him a free coat to conceal himself.

At one point two brothers (played by Jean-Pierre Cassel and Paul Meurisse) attempt to have a normal conversation. Cassel's character has just joined Gerbier's resistance and completed his first mission, but he doesn't mention this nor anything else about his involvement in the war. Instead they chat rather lifelessly about rations, the weather, the past, and food. Afterward he reflects on his educated brother's pathetic, helpless role in the new occupied France, alone and useless, wasting away. Only later does he learn that his brother is actually a high-ranking member of the Resistance, who likewise was concealing his dangerous private activities and probably thinking the same thoughts of his younger brother.

The incredible Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, a dedicated mother and housewife who engages in life-threatening espionage in her free time. She keeps the two different worlds completely separate--for her comrades to know her family's identity would threaten her family's well-being, and for her family to know of her secret involvement in the Resistance would endanger her comrades and their success. In a world where compassion is a costly affliction--where close friends can turn on you, where impostors and rats must be brutally silenced, where the lives of your friends and families can be used as a threat against you, and where too much emotional involvement can destroy your clarity, will-power, and determination--Mathilde makes a dangerous gamble by living both lives simultaneously.

In a chilling scene, the three spies, disguised as Nazi soldiers, learn that their comrade and friend--who they have come to rescue--has been tortured beyond relief and is close to death. No matter how shocked, saddened, and outraged they must be by this information, they must conceal it all, guarding their disguises as disinterested Nazi soldiers or else endangering their own lives.

In Melville's war, victory, logic, swift-acting, and determination cannot coexist with love, friendship, and compassion. Though the successful end of the war may reintroduce these most human of elements to society, they cannot continue while the war wages.

Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta,(Open City) is another film (from 1945) about resistance fighters who must conceal their most important desires and thoughts while pretending to lead normal lives in fascist Italy. A central figure in the underground movement is Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), a Catholic priest whose role of authority allows him certain freedoms to help the resistance (such as being out past curfew) and whose religious convictions assure him that the fight for freedom and equality is the most Christian path. His actions are dangerous, and he loses all sense of normality--even whistling a pop tune becomes a charged action--but the film lacks the suspense and emotional depth of other films, and most of the scenes are never quite as engaging as they should be. Maybe it's because I watched a dubbed instead of a subtitled version--the unsynchronized sound and the strangeness of the American voices speaking in bad Italian accents was distracting and took away from the otherwise realistic filming of the movie. I discount the film now, but reserve a firm opinion until I see it as it was originally made.

I want to circle back from occupied France and fascist Italy to the final (often forgotten) frontier of World War II: Eastern Europe. Nazi fighting in Belarus and Russia was ruthless. Whereas Nazis thought of Jews and non-Aryan Westerners as profoundly evil people, they thought of Eastern Europeans as less than human, an unsalvageable, populous race of dim-witted and dangerous beasts who needed to be exterminated before they could cause too much trouble. Germans killed Eastern Europeans quickly and in large numbers, murdering women, children, and old people and destroying entire cities at once. No prisoners. No occupation. The Russian army required all the help it could muster, and so child partisans were a common occurrence, hence Florya in Come and See and the twelve-year-old Ivan of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1957 Ива́ново де́тство, (Ivan's Childhood).

Played by Nikolai Burlyayev, a skinny, blond boy, Ivan is a tiny scout who acts and speaks like an adult and expects to be treated like one. Ivan became an orphan when Nazis murdered his mother and sister. He would have been killed himself except that he was hidden at the bottom of a well when the attack occurred--not because he was seeking refuge from the war but because he was caught in a moment of childlike wonderment, transfixed by the reflection of the sun underneath the well's water. Many flashbacks fill Ivan's Childhood, showing us a tan, smiling, giggling, exuberant twelve-year-old boy. In a beautiful scene, a joyous Ivan, bursting with love and life, rides with his sister on an apple cart during a rainstorm. In the present narrative, however, Ivan does not smile. His innocence has died with his family, left at the bottom of that well. Now he does his duty, makes his advances, and is prepared to die for the freedom of his country. He is deeply offended when superior officers patronize him, and he proves himself to be more mature, serious, and experienced than a soldier who is at least ten years his senior.

In a subplot, this older--but still quite childish--officer falls in love with a young nurse. It's an impossible romance; they can't possibly achieve any lasting happiness given their circumstances. The scenes illustrate how maybe we're all too young for war, regardless of our age. Only once we've either lost all hope or experienced war first-hand can we truly be old enough to handle its ravages.

Ivan's Childhood is a leisurely paced, expressionist film about the perils of growing up. The mournful, nostalgic film need not be seen as just a war film, but as a solemn reflection on the loss of childhood beauty and happiness. Even without war, we sometimes lose sight of the joys of the sun reflected in a pool of water, of a drenching rainstorm, of a ripe apple, of a run down the beach, of a beautiful piece of music. Vadim Yusov's cinematography is incredible, and even in scenes of despair it reminds us that beauty abounds.

Come and See, made almost three decades after Ivan's Childhood and building upon a very similar plot and themes, is a superior film, often referred to as the most realistic and powerful war film of all time. It subtly references the previous movie--at one point Florya stares at a star at the bottom of a well--while introducing us to some of the most disturbing images of war atrocity: charred, talking corpses; distantly seen piles of corpses; slaughtered livestock; Nazi heartlessness. The title of the film comes from a verse of Revelations, and while the film maintains a level of complete realism, it manages to achieve the most startling depiction of the Apocalypse ever captured on film. Even the eating of lobster is given a horrifying, nauseating charge.

Klimov's film, with cinematography by Alexei Rodionov, is perhaps the most important World War II film of the ones I've just discussed, somehow managing to remind us of both the need for retaliation, the horrible unjustness of Nazi occupation, the high cost of war, the occasional necessity of war, and the fact that even Hitler was once an infant.

Come and See (1985)
d: Elem Klimov w: Ales Admovich, Elem Klimov
(Aleksei Kravchenko)
TSPDT?: #312

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
d/w: Quentin Tarantino
(Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Daniel Brühl)

Army of Shadows (1969)
d/w: Jean-Pierre Melville
(Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse)
TSPDT?: #490

Open City (1945)
d: Roberto Rossellini w: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini
(Aldo Fabrizi, Marcello Pagliero)
TSPDT?: #98

Ivan's Childhood (1962)
d: Andrei Tarkovsky w: Vladimir Bogomolov
(Nikolay Burlyayev)
TSPDT?: #591


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