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Ed Driscoll

Springtime for Europe’s Cinematic Elite

May 29th, 2011 - 2:40 pm
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Roger L. Simon exclaims, “What the hard-working auteur has to do these days to generate a little attention from the public!” These days, there are really only two choices left. Play the Polanski card, or the Lars Von Trier/John Galliano card:

Lionel and I discuss the brouhaha at this year’s Cannes Festival over Danish director Lars Von Trier evincing sympathy for Hitler at a press conference. What the hard-working auteur has to do these days to generate a little attention from the public!… Methinks this is a symptom of how uninterested people are in the art cinema now. Or maybe Von Trier was off his meds. Who knows? In any case, long time Cannes Festival director Gilles Jacob “ankled” Von Trier. (That’s “Varietyese” for kicked him out.) Lionel says Jacob shouldn’t have done that. It martyrs Von Trier. I wonder if anybody cares…

It’s a good episode, and well worth your time. Though at one point in the segment, Lionel notes how responsibly, by and large, the postwar Germans have handled their legacy. But there are a few notable exceptions to that rule, in a pair of films that I linked to last year.

First up, there was The Reader, made into a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, and Lena Olin, based on the best-selling mid-1990s novel by German author by German law professor and judge Bernhard Schlink. In 1999, according to Wikipedia, it made (but of course), Oprah Winfrey’s book club list.

Last year, I described the film version as a sort of pedophilic version of The Night Porter with the genders reversed, then attempts to excuse the former SS guard character played by Kate Winslet for not knowing she was condemning Jews to death because she’s illiterate.

Can you say metaphor, boys und girls? I knew that you could. But as Ron Rosenbaum writes, in a spot-on review of the film last year at Salon:

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder! Lack of reading skills is more disgraceful than listening in bovine silence to the screams of 300 people as they are burned to death behind the locked doors of a church you’re guarding to prevent them from escaping the flames. Which is what Hanna did, although, of course, it’s not shown in the film. As I learned from the director at a screening of The Reader, the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

Using extensive and fairly believable make-up effects, the film depicts Winslet’s heavily aged character spending decades in a prison cell rather than confess to her illiteracy. At the film’s climax, after teaching herself how to read — and keeping with the metaphor of the film, presumably beginning to understand the crimes she was involved in, Winslet’s character hangs herself from the ceiling of her prison cell, after first climbing on top of a desk containing the books that she had taken out from the prison library.

As Rod Lurie wrote at the Huffington Post, the Reader’s coda adds one final insult on top of the the rest of its facile metaphors, all designed by author Bernhard Schlink to excuse his fellow Germans of their guilt:

The hollowest scene is the one I am sure was intended to be the film’s most redemptive. A grown up Michael goes to see a survivor of the very church burning Hanna was involved with. She lectures him about the camps and refuses the money Hanna has willed to her (though she accepts the tin the money came in). The beautiful Lena Olin plays the survivor. She is well dressed. Her New York apartment is large and gorgeously furnished, her art collection on display.

In the scenes preceding it we see Hanna. She has nothing. She is in bad health. She commits suicide.

So, the SS representative in the film ends up pathetic and sad and, by the way, not guilty of the crime for which she was sentenced.

The lone representative of the survivors is haughty and glamorous — a near perfect (and negative) stereotype of the wealthy European Jew in New York.

Guess whom the audience can relate to more?

And then there was the film version of The Baader Meinhof Complex, which I described last year as a sense of Deutschland Deja Vu:

A small but growing band of radicals with a penchant for street theater, wishing to smash capitalism and destroy the system from within, led by a fanatical, brawling leader, with at least one articulate well-bred intellectual within the inner circle. Starting off by blowing up small, bourgeois shops. Eventually hooking up with sympathetic allies in the Middle East. Then killing American soldiers. And when finally cornered, going out in a Gotterdammerung of mass suicide rather than face punishment from their captors.

That’s never happened in Germany before!

Also adding to the sense of déjà vu, were the roles of the detectives assigned to capture the Baader-Meinhof: Bruno Ganz played the lead investigator and Heino Ferch his lieutenant. Was it purely a coincidence that they were the actors who played Hitler and Albert Speer in Downfall? (Another prominent actor in Downfall, who played one of Hitler’s generals, played the judge who presided over the Baader-Meinhof’s circus of a trial.)

Christopher Hitchens had a grand old time riffing on the film’s overwhelming sense of eternal recurrence:

There were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.

You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin. (In a rather witty move that implicitly phrases all this in reverse, the makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex have cast Bruno Ganz as the mild but efficient head of West German “homeland security,” a man who tries to “understand” his opponents even as he weaves the net ever closer around them. It requires a conscious effort to remember Ganz’s eerie rendition of the part of the Führer in Downfall five years back.)

It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both. As if curtain-raising a drama of brutality that has long since eclipsed their own, the young but hedonistic West German toughs take themselves off to the Middle East in search of the real thing and the real training camps, and discover to their dismay that their Arab hosts are somewhat … puritanical.

Will these trends, designed to reduce the horrors of the Nazis and the guilt of the German people in aiding and abetting their crimes continue? And will leftwing artistes continue to have dalliances with Nazi chic to epater their fellow bourgeois?

Count on it — their worldview is so boxed in; their artistic vocabularies so shrunken; where else can they go?

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