Thursday, March 23, 2006

Quote of the Day:
"You're pretty good. Do you want to play in college?"
"Yes."
"Where do you want to go?"
"Duke."
"OK. Well, what's your second choice?"
"I don't have a second choice."
~ J.J. Redick - in middle school

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Movie Review

Death and the Children

The Nazi genocide of the European Jews overwhelms the mind with subjects for contemplation, none of which is well suited for narrative fiction. Stories about individuals in the extermination camps may be inevitably moving, and may also lessen the anonymity of the murdered millions, but such stories are nonetheless inadequate for dramatizing the larger issues because of the randomness with which death and survival were determined in the camps. In a sense this randomness becomes the only "story," one that does away with the significance of character to narrative. And so a movie that focuses on a single camp victim, or even on a group of them, feels wrong if our minds have expanded to the enormity of the situation; it's somehow shriveling, and falsely comforting, to be asked to hope that any singled-out individual will survive.

The Holocaust, a crime of historic proportions, is simply greater than any heroic ordeal out of conventional romance—it calls for a new approach to character and narrative. Narrative moviemakers, however, aren't interested in abandoning the significance of personality, no matter the subject. Typical of the road not taken (or even perceived) is the scene in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) in which Helen Hirsch, the brutalized Jewish houseslave of the P?aszów work camp commandant, gives a tearful speech about the arbitrariness of individual fate in the camps. Spielberg, ironically missing his own point, focuses on this individual's "dramatic" speech about the insignificance of the individual, and goes in for familiar, explicit emotionalism. (Schindler soothes her, cannily guessing why her tormentor will not kill her.)

Furthermore, because the Nazis attempted to exterminate an entire people there's an epic dimension to any account of the Holocaust, but this dimension exists in maximal tension with the concept of epic, which classically is the story of a people's ascendancy. (As in the Exodus story; the Aeneid is the quintessential literary example.) The Holocaust is an epic of appalling victimization on a staggering, industrial scale, and though some Jews may have felt they were being punished for their sins (an attitude that at least maintains the rationality in creation), I believe the more dominant feeling is horror at the vulnerability of such a large, diverse, and far-flung group.

What's missing from the Holocaust epic is the possibility of effective group action—no heroes arose from among the Jews to lead them to ultimate, military victory. (Taking the Holocaust as separate from the astonishing martial prowess of the state of Israel.) The heroes were the American and Russian armies, while the internees they liberated had been reduced to skeletons with haunted eye sockets (they seemed literally to have turned into symbols). The Holocaust can't even be seen as an ironic epic, something like the Jonestown mass suicide in which the members of the group, drawn together by whatever desperation and credulity, victimized themselves (and their children, of course). Heroism did survive in the Nazi camps to the extent of the tiny sacrifices that one internee made for another, but such heroism had no meaningful effect on the shape of the larger drama.

Lajos Koltai's Fateless

Fateless, a Hungarian picture directed by the cinematographer Lajos Koltai and based on 2002 Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész's adaptation of his 1975 work of autobiographical fiction, is the first movie I've seen that grasps the problem that the Holocaust presents for narrative artists. Kertész based the book on his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 and 1945 and the movie starts out conventionally enough focusing on Gyuri Köves (Marcell Nagy), a Budapest teenager who is the son of a prosperous merchant about to be transported to a forced labor camp. We see the father's last night in the well appointed apartment with his loving family and concerned neighbors; we hear the gossip about the state of the war and what's really happening to transportees, and some attempts to incorporate events into a Jewish understanding of existence. And at the margins we get an idea of Gyuri's sexual experimentation with a Jewish girl upstairs, who is considerably more rattled than he is by the Nazi racial laws. Gyuri is sensitive but a typical teenaged boy at the same time—the girl may seem hysterical but Gyuri's responses are a bit behind events. While still living at home he displays the middle-class adolescent moodiness typical of boys in ordinary times.

After his father is transported Gyuri leaves school to begin work in a factory with other Jewish boys. On his way to work the first day, however, a rogue Budapest policeman takes all the boys assigned to the factory off every bus that passes and holds them captive to await further orders. The policeman is frighteningly literal-minded about his duty, and perhaps mad, both of which make him an appropriate messenger to the other side: all the boys, and a few men as well, are sent off to KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is where the movie really gets interesting.

Although we follow Gyuri from beginning to end, it is, in fact, the disintegration of the storytelling, mirroring the boy's own disintegration, that makes Fateless so distinctive. Having had to wear a yellow star in the streets of Budapest, Gyuri has already lost a sense of control over his destiny. But as he begins to starve in the camp and to lose his sense of propriety and his self-control, the movie, while still following him, begins to feel depersonalized. There's a hint of what's coming in a shot of some of the boys sitting in the shadow of the Birkenau crematoria and talking about another boy who failed the initial selection. The smokestacks and the louring sky make the crime against the Jews merge with the bad weather—it's an image of something amiss in nature and the boys are mere brushstrokes on the bigger picture. Later there's an amazing moment when Gyuri watches a Nazi guard eat and mimes the guard's chewing and swallowing, the closest he can come to a satisfying meal. This bit echoes the earlier dinner scene on his father's last night home when Gyuri was too upset to eat the food on his plate. Not only has adolescent petulance been starved out of him in the camp, but he's dissolving in some more fundamental way.

Then when the internees are forced to stand in formation on the parade ground for hours on end, Koltai leaps free of Gyuri and the movie rises to another plane altogether. We're not sure why the men have been mustered, or why they're made to stand, or even how long. (A lack of information goes hand in hand with a lack of control.) As the men weaken and start to sway with exhaustion, Koltai pushes representation to the point of abstraction. He takes the camera down the lines of striped pajamas, some of which begin to undulate like waterweeds, then above and behind as the patterns of movement become more pronounced. The depersonalization becomes so extreme that it's as beautiful as it is wounding. It's the beauty in fact that makes you aware of the depersonalization because you know that what you're looking at isn't beautiful to your understanding. It's the single most daring visual passage from any movie set in a Nazi extermination camp and one that gets at the very heart of the annihilation by degrees suffered by the prisoners.

Bandi Citrom (Áron Dimény), a fellow Jew from Budapest some years older than Gyuri, does take the boy under his wing, inculcating a certain discipline to keep the conditions from wearing him down. But as Gyuri's time in the camps goes on, Koltai doesn't keep us apprised of what happens to the other characters, or even of which camp we're in, or how much time has passed. So when Bandi notices that Gyuri is limping, discovers the boy's grossly swollen knee, and takes him to what passes in the camp for an infirmary, Koltai has already prepared us to see the elements of Gyuri's story as disjunctive pieces. We never see Bandi again, or discover what happened to him (so we have no idea whether his discipline was effective). And because the healthcare system in the camp is so ambiguous, we, like Gyuri, can't be sure whether he's being loaded onto a cart to be nursed or incinerated. At one point a man throws the boy over his shoulder and we see the world from Gyuri's delirious perspective—upside down—as he passes mound after mound of living? dead? bodies. Using visual and rhythmic means, Koltai has already made conventional dramatic shaping disappear; now even the present moment is indecipherable—bare perception without the possibility of cognition, much less structure.

Koltai never struck me as a great cinematographer on István Szabó's films (Mephisto (1981), Meeting Venus (1991), Being Julia (2004)), but as a director he is a great cinematographer. (The credit goes to Gyula Pados.) And he doesn't overdo the visuals, so when the astounding sequences come they have full presence and weight. They have such sensory impact, and are conceptually so right, in fact, that it's something of a letdown when Gyuri is liberated and the more conventional narrative returns (along with the too-literary summary of his experience that Kertész has given Gyuri to speak). The traditional life "story" must return, of course, because the Nazi extermination camps were the exception to normal existence. More importantly, the depersonalization of the camps happened to individuals, albeit en masse, so it makes sense to have personality return afterwards, like blood flowing back to a numb limb. What sets Fateless apart is that the depersonalization matters to us not solely because it's happening to the character the moviemakers have invented and made us care about. At the same time, however, the movie doesn't feel remote, like an acted-out generalization about the camp experience. We're not being milked for emotion or detached from the character's suffering. No depiction of the extermination camp experience of an individual has ever been so large; it verges on the ecstatic.

In all these ways Fateless avoids the romantic mistakes of Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002; click here for my review) in which the filmmakers expect us to be swept away by the travails of their exceptional Jewish hero, who escapes from a forced-work detail and goes into hiding in a vacant apartment, only to be trapped there after his protector stops bringing supplies. What many critics considered the high point—when the famished concert pianist moves his fingers precisely but soundlessly over a keyboard, trying to hang on to what made his pre-War life meaningful—I found downright tacky. The fact that a victim of the Nazis is a great pianist doesn't make his suffering meaningfully worse or different. And the Holocaust doesn't need poetic heightening, any more than it needed the gaudy melodramatic heightening of the mother forced to choose which of her two children would go straight to the gas chamber in Sophie's Choice (1982).

Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful

These are all reasons why I skipped Life Is Beautiful (1997)—I don't want to be asked to admire the specialness of someone's Holocaust experience. I watched the movie recently, however, and I have to say, if you're going to get the Holocaust wrong, this is the way to do it.

Benigni plays Guido Orefice, a Jewish-Italian waiter in the late 1930s who is a romantic clown. A classic slapstick protagonist to the extent of constantly getting into scrapes, Guido has the gift of turning every hitch in his experience to advantage. Mishaps aren't humiliating to Guido, as they were to the perpetual adolescents played by Harold Lloyd, because Benigni attributes the physical resourcefulness of the silent slapstick actors to Guido himself. This gives the character a buoyancy that allows him to make life a never-ending acrobatic stunt in which he just keeps shifting and persisting—and talking—until he lands on his feet. Benigni is not a great physical performer but he is peskily winning, and no slapstick star of feature films since Raymond Griffith has had less of a penchant for sad-clown masochism, which is key to his pulling off this Holocaust comedy.

As a director Benigni thinks of setting in terms of potential gags, involving bicycles, house keys, hats, eggs, steering wheels, i.e., standard slapstick props, and he runs the gags together with a craftsmanlike fluency not seen since the silent days (with the exception of Jacques Tati). At the same time, as a star Benigni has the winsomeness of the striving juveniles played by Lloyd and Keaton but also some of Chaplin's least sentimental qualities. In a scene in which Guido talks a patron who entered the restaurant after the kitchen was closed into ordering a meal that's already been prepared, for instance, he shows the aplomb of the guttersnipe Chaplin seizing opportunity; at other times he shows the antisocial Chaplin's effrontery in refusing to take bureaucratic or police power seriously. In addition, Benigni has a motormouth on him that gives him some of Jerry Lewis's sheer force. All the influences come together in a scruffy, unsinkable goofball who can believably win the beautiful, wealthy, gentile schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) from her pompous-bureaucrat fiancé. Guido calls Dora "principessa" and summons all the alertness, brass, and luck at his command to make her realize how magical she appears through his eyes. Guido himself is not much to look at but you can see why Dora can't resist him.

Life Is Beautiful draws on the entire history of slapstick moviemaking, but the subject matter keeps it from feeling quaintly nostalgic. Guido meets Dora when Italian anti-Semitism is more in the way of a shame than a crime, and thus relatively easy to mock. In one sequence, for instance, Guido shows up at Dora's school wearing an inspector's sash he snatched at the restaurant specifically so he could see her again, only to discover the "inspector" is scheduled to give a speech on Aryan racial superiority. Guido charms Dora by travestying the stupidity of the notion. Later, when thugs paint Guido's uncle's horse green and write anti-Semitic threats on it, Guido rides the defaced animal like a steed into Dora's engagement party and spirits her away.

The film then jumps ahead a few years when Guido and Dora are married and have a tiny, big-eyed son Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini), and when the situation is considerably worse—Jews are banned from "Aryan" shops and Guido's bookshop is marked as a Jewish business. Next, father and son are deported to a concentration camp, and to protect Giosué Guido tells him that it's all a game—whoever wins the most points gets a brand new tank. Not a toy, but a real tank. The fantasticness of Benigni's handling of the concentration camp is the movie's real distinction. The conditions we see are not realistically dehumanizing; the barracks look comfortless but not filthy and the internees have not reached the point of turning on each other. Even the slave labor is stylized: Guido and the other men spend their days lugging anvils up to a gigantic cauldron, a motif that gives slapstick a dimension of ironic mythopoeia. At the same time, Guido's buoyancy considerably lightens the unavoidable pathos. Benigni makes the game take over the atmosphere of the concentration camp; not even murderous fascist racism can get Guido down.

The Holocaust is inherently sobering and Benigni's frolicsome approach, while not meant to assault our sensitivity to it, can't sit comfortably on what we know about the camps. At one point a German guard asks for an internee to translate as he rattles off the camp rules. Guido volunteers, not because he speaks German (he doesn't), but because he doesn't want Giosué to find out that the game isn't for real. So Guido "translates" the German's speech by relating to his bewildered fellow prisoners the rules of the game he's made up for his son. This madcap spree of verbal slapstick, an act of desperation to rival Chaplin's café song at the end of Modern Times (1936), is inappropriate given the setting but even funnier for that very reason. My jaw hit the floor but that didn't stop me from laughing. There's a fine line between bad taste and comic audacity; what Benigni gets from treading that line, until it disappears, is to create a fable of paternal love that survives the camps.

Benigni will not give in to fascist humorlessness (in a way that put me in mind of Charles W. Chesnutt's use of the comic tall-tale form to write about a runaway slave in his story "The Passing of Grandison"). As the time in the camp progresses and Giosué by chance escapes the massacre of all the other children and has to hide, the movie gets even wackier. At one point Guido is skulking around the prison yard in drag (Benigni makes about as convincing a woman as Marty Feldman would have) and dodging a guard-tower spotlight like a character in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Benigni's defiance of fascism is truly crazy, and the mismatch of tone and setting reaches a level of derangement that has surprising power because it's also gentler than the spittly razzing of Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and the Donald Duck short Der Fuehrer's Face (1942).

The benign-hearted fantasy of Life Is Beautiful is justified by the fact that the narrator is the grown-up Giosué, who retells his parents' story with a comic-romantic propensity inherited from Guido. Life Is Beautiful reflects a baby's memory of his heroic buffoon of a father, a man who, as he's being hauled away by his brutal captors, lampoons their wooden-soldier goose-step to amuse his son, who he knows is looking on from hiding. Watching the movie you can't separate the defiance from the tenderness from the low comic impulsiveness. Slapstick is not a sign of the indignity of physical existence to Benigni; I can't think of another comedian who has dramatized the view that life is beautiful not despite slapstick but because of it, certainly not in the context of fascist genocide. When, in the final act of comic shaping, you see Giosué riding that real tank, you know that his father, though gone, has permanently made life a harlequinade for him.

Benigni's elemental narrative sense, and the overlighted Candyland visuals, keep the movie out of the Pantheon of experimental slapstick masterpieces (e.g., Kote Mikaberidze's My Grandmother (1929), Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'or (1930), Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct (1933), Vittorio De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1951), Louis Malle's Zazie dans le métro (1963)). But it's the most adventurous piece of slapstick made by an open audience-pleaser since Jerry Lewis's The Bellboy (1960) and The Ladies Man (1961). And Benigni does with the Nazi setting what Chaplin didn't dare in The Great Dictator—he lets the liberating nonsense triumph (one of the main ways in which Miracle in Milan rises above The Great Dictator and even Modern Times). If the fantasy in Life Is Beautiful were a little gutsier, more authoritative, and angrier, it would be positively Aristophanic. As it is, it's mad enough to make virtues of qualities that in any other work would be defects.

Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves

Naked Among Wolves (1963), by the East German director Frank Beyer, is also about a child secretly kept alive in a concentration camp, and its depiction of camp life is more realistic than in Life Is Beautiful to a certain extent. In the early scene in which a Polish prisoner staggers into Buchenwald carrying a suitcase in which the child is hidden, for instance, the man's hurried but uncoordinated gait expressionistically tells you what the camps do to the physical man. In that one moment the movie suggestively borders on zombie-movie grotesquerie.

Naked Among Wolves falsifies the experience in another way, however. The heroes (including a 32-year-old Armin Mueller-Stahl) are Communists who are planning armed resistance within the camp; they are so noble, however, they endanger their uprising by protecting the Polish-Jewish child. The SS finds out about the boy and use the men's concern for him, and a shrewd combination of physical and psychological torture, to uncover the underground organization. What's lacking is any sense of the dehumanization in Fateless (or in Elie Wiesel's Night, in which a son beats his father to death for a crust of bread). In Naked Among Wolves the men cuddle and feed the child like doting uncles, and it becomes a point of pride to them that they won't choose between protecting him and the uprising. They'll not only outwit and defeat the Nazis, they'll set them an example as well.

The prisoners in Life Is Beautiful at least had their daily task of schlepping anvils. In Naked Among Wolves the prisoners have extraordinary amounts of free time, which they spend engaging in (seemingly well-fed) ethical debates about their situation (as in Arthur Miller's 1980 TV adaptation of Fania Fénelon's Playing for Time). Altogether the movie has the faults that Serge Daney noted in the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust: "extras looking too fat, acting performances, generic humanism, action and melodramatic scenes," except that the humanism is specifically Communist. The take-away is that struggling is superior to brooding—i.e., right-thinking political action is better than words—but of course we're told so in explicit dialogue. Even when a character is left alone in prison while his cellmate is interrogated, we get a stream of words in voice over. (This character reduces to vocables the same endless standing on the parade ground that is so indelibly visualized in Fateless.)

The hidden child in turn becomes unreal, a symbolic means of demonstrating the unconquerable morality and fortitude of the Communists, who, one character tells us, will inevitably take over after the fall of the Third Reich ("What else is there?"). Both sides know the Americans' arrival is only days away and the movie is conceived in terms of the gamesmanship between the prisoners, who delay obeying orders in the hopes of unnerving their captors, and the Nazis, who either want to kill all witnesses or else go easy on them so they'll testify to their leniency when the U.S. Army has taken charge. The head of the camp is worried because he's heard the Allied foreign ministers have agreed to try war criminals. He says, "Maybe I'll be lucky and skim by. Maybe I'll grow a full beard. Maybe I'll be a forester in Bavaria." Then he leans back in his chair and sighs, "But if they get me. I'll always be the commandant at Buchenwald to them," as if to say, Life is so unjust! Only the authoritarian sobriety of the Communist state that made the movie can explain why this line isn't intended to get a laugh. The prisoners for their part have an energy and clear-headedness that doesn't match my experience of hunger, let alone starvation and exposure. Naked Among Wolves, an epic of Soviet-bloc, Remember-the-Alamo! heroism, is as phony as the war was long.

Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò

Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò (1960) manages to combine a startling depiction of the dehumanization of the camps with a similarly unsatisfying Communist romance. Susan Strasberg plays Édith, a French-Jewish 14-year-old sent to Auschwitz with her parents. Put in a grange with the other children of the transport to await death the next morning, Édith sneaks back into the barracks where a sympathetic doctor gives her the identity and clothes of a gentile criminal named Nicole who has just died. Édith thus exchanges her yellow star for a black triangle, and generally better prospects. (At dawn "Nicole" watches as the other children, and the older folk, including her parents, are herded naked to the gas chambers.)

Nicole is sent to a work camp in Poland where conditions are marginally better, though she is among the most visibly traumatized of the prisoners. At first it seems that she can't be degraded; when another woman spills her soup, Nicole shares hers. Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) sees this and thinks she and Nicole are two "nice girls" united against their common fate. Before long, however, Nicole steals a potato Thérèse got in exchange for a shirt, and then later accepts an offer to become a prostitute for the SS guards who promise her more food. This is one of the events that will lead Thérèse, now the camp's lone nice girl, to throw herself onto the electrified fence. (The filming of Thérèse's suicide in turn led to Jacques Rivette's famous denunciation of the movie, and to Serge Daney's intriguing, if extravagantly "French," work of "cinema-biography" entitled "The Tracking Shot in Kapò".)

As Nicole, Édith becomes so inured to her situation that she lounges in the SS barracks chatting with a maimed officer. She is deadened enough, in fact, that she accepts promotion to Kapò, the prisoner in charge of truncheoning the other women in her barracks into line. You know this isn't a Hollywood movie by the way the teenaged ingénue grabs at the chance to barter sex for food. And with the exception of Riva, the other women in the barracks don't seem like actresses; not only are they believably tough in a way no American actress is, even in working-class roles, but the violence with which the actors playing the SS handle them is shocking.

Strasberg isn't quite right for the role for this very reason—in such a realistically brutal environment she's not scrappy enough to be anyone's choice for Kapò. Unfortunately, however, the soulfulness that made her convincing as a piano-playing teenaged French Jewess makes her right for the turn the story takes at the end, when Russian POWs are brought into the camp and Nicole and Sasha (Laurent Terzieff), a Red Army soldier, fall in love. The movie loses all credibility after Nicole spitefully gets Sasha punished to show him she's in charge. (He's forced to stand through the night facing the fence; if he falls forward he'll be electrocuted, if he steps backward he'll be shot.) Sasha comes through this ordeal without rancor toward Nicole; rather, he loves her, and his heroic strength is enough to revive her humanity. (How many young couples, I wonder, had their first dates in Nazi work camps?)

The movie thus reformulates itself in a drearily familiar heroic register. The Russians are mounting an escape and Nicole plans to go with Sasha to Russia. When she asks him what his parents will think of her—she's told him she's really Jewish, and then there's the SS concubinage and all—he says he'll never breathe a word and that they'll love her. So we are in KZ Hollywood, after all, and it gets worse, when it turns out that Nicole is the only person who can shut off the juice to the fence but when she does so an alarm will sound and she'll inevitably be killed. Sasha has promised the other Russians not to tell her but he breaks down just before zero hour. Nicole is so heartbroken that she wants to die anyway, so what the heck.

Although Pontecorvo left the Communist Party after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, the movie ends up dramatizing a Communist bromide—as a comrade says to Sasha, sometimes it's right for one to die to save many. Yes, but generally that one is a volunteer, and there's certainly no heroism where she isn't. Kapò degenerates into a gross amalgam of trite romance heroics and unconvincing left-wing rhetoric. When the same Russian hears the artillery of the approaching Red Army, he muses, "What will it feel like to be free again, to do whatever we want?" How would a young Russian in the 1940s know what it felt like to be free in the first place? (That's as loony as imagining a cultivated French Jewess finding contentment as a Stalinist war bride.) The leftism merges with the sort of bland popular-front platitudes we know from the likes of Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller, when Sasha says to Nicole, for instance, "Sometimes things happen that we have no control over. We want love and happiness for everyone but we're forced to kill and hate."

Pontecorvo is not the visionary firebrand of The Battle of Algiers (1966) here. He cares about the subject passionately—as a Jew, and as a Communist leader in the Italian Resistance (click here for a short biography)—but he turns it into pap. There are even scenes that fail in direct comparison with Life Is Beautiful, e.g., a translation scene, but played for tears; Nicole evading a camp spotlight, but played for suspense. And somehow Pontecorvo gets the brutality but misses the irrationality. Daney never saw Kapò but he got it right when he wrote, "Pontecorvo neither trembles nor does he feel fear; the concentration camps revolt him purely on an ideological level." (In the work camp one of the women explains to another how low morale has sunk by saying that some of the political prisoners, who we're told make up 50% of the camp, have betrayed "the cause.") Pontecorvo knows how bad it could be for the body but not the being. He later showed himself a master of the medium but Kapò isn't even close to what Lajos Koltai accomplishes in Fateless.

You can find more like this at Blogcritics and at Desicritics, a sharp and lively new website with an Indian/South Asian focus edited by the brilliant Aaman Lamba.