Lili Marleen: a celebration and critique of the Hollywood musical tradition and its historical context

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Lili Marleen” (1981)

An unhappy tale of thwarted love, Fassbinder’s “Lili Marleen” plays hard and fast with its original source material, a biography of Lale Anderson who originally performed the famous World War II song “Lili Marlene”, beloved of Allied and Axis soldiers alike. The film is set during a period spanning a decade from the late 1930s to mid-1945. German cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) and Swiss Jewish composer Robert Mendelssohn (Giancarlo Giannini) meet in Zurich and fall in love; but Robert’s father (Mel Ferrer) is concerned that his son’s affair with a German citizen will jeopardise his secret mission of rescuing Jews and spiriting them out of Nazi Germany. He tricks the couple into leaving Switzerland and going into Germany on business; when they arrive back at the Swiss border, they discover that Willie is banned from entering Switzerland. The lovebirds are forced to go their separate ways.

Alone and heart-broken, Willie sings Robert’s song “Lili Marleen” in a night-club and a senior Nazi military officer Henkel (Karl-Heinz von Hassel) happens to be visiting at the time. He hears the song and arranges for Willie to cut a single of it. Although Willie is hardly a great singer and her pianist is a fairly ordinary musician, the song enjoys a huge amount of air-time on Radio Belgrade, a German military radio station in the Balkans, and Willie is catapulted to fame. Robert makes a risky trip to Berlin to see Willie and ends up being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. His father, repenting of his cruel trick, agrees to support a clandestine mission in which Willie tours Poland and picks up a roll of film detailing the plight of Jewish prisoners in the Treblinka concentration camp. Willie carries out her part of the mission but an informant reports her to the authorities and her career is ruined. However the film reaches Robert’s father safely and Robert is eventually freed and returned to him. Robert becomes a successful and famous composer while Willie, under constant surveillance, attempts suicide and ends up even more of a pawn of the Nazis as the war drags on and Germany’s war-machine and society are sapped and spiral downwards into ruin.

The film is a fine illustration of the ways in which the individual’s quest for love and freedom is thwarted and denied by society and its institutions, and by other individuals as well. Willie is forced to pay a heavy price by Robert’s father for her love of Robert. Naive and guileless, she ends up in the grip of the Nazi war and propaganda machine. Robert suffers a great deal as well and the fame and fortune he enjoys at the end of the film suggest he will do much better than Willie, materially at least anyway if not in his private life. Schygulla and Giannini’s acting is adequate for the roles though Schygulla seems old for a role that basically calls for an innocent dumb blonde who knows zip about the Nazi government’s policies against non-Aryan Germans, the scale of the war and its utter violence, and the privations suffered by ordinary Germans as the war continues without end. Everything Willie does, she either does wrong or she gets caught out and she eventually pays a price. The pity of it all is that Willie is essentially an innocent who of all people does not deserve the bad luck she attracts; but she lives in a harsh world in which to survive successfully, one must give up child-like artlessness and become hardened and hollow inside.

The film gives full rein to Fassbinder to indulge his love of Hollywood musicals with an extended sequence of chorus girls and other performers dancing and leading massed singing on stage while soldiers and Nazi officers engage in revelry. The cinematography is excellent and gives prominence to an artful use of colour and interior props, especially doors which are used to herald changes in mood and a character’s development. The film does a fairly decent job of highlighting how far removed Willie and elite German society are from the realities of war, the suffering of ordinary Germans subjected to rationing and endless propaganda and the treatment of Jews, gypsies, POWs and other social and ethnic misfits in concentration camps. The song “Lili Marleen”, repeated ad nauseam throughout the film to the point where it becomes an instrument of torture – Willie sings nothing else – despite it being a mediocre effort, can be seen as a metaphor for the banality of popular culture and its purpose as a mass sleeping pill to be ingested daily by a gullible public. This point is driven home by the Nazis’ spiteful drafting of Willie’s clueless pianist as a soldier: he is sent to the Eastern front where he is promptly gunned down by Soviet forces: deliberate murder using your enemy has perhaps never been so cynical and malicious.

Apart from all this, the film is not all that remarkable: it has a distant air and the actors don’t seem fully engaged in their characters. That may have been intentional on Fassbinder’s part – the film is as much critical of its period as it is a celebration of the style of film associated with it. Fassbinder must have recognised the propaganda value of Hollywood musicals and musicals made in other countries that sought to emulate the grand American style and in “Lili Marleen” spoofs it and its associated elements.

 

 

The Manchurian Candidate: a layered and intense film on the abuse of power

John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

At some point during the Korean War in 1952, a platoon of American soldiers is betrayed by their Korean interpreter who delivers them to their Communist enemy. The enemy sends the soldiers to Manchuria where the Yanks are subjected to various mind control experiments and treatments by unknown scientists. After several months, they are exhibited before an audience of sceptical Soviet and Chinese bureaucrats. One man, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is shown off by his doctor (Khigh Dhiegh) who demonstrates his victim’s absolute submission by forcing him to kill two of his comrades. The other men in the unit which includes one Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) are all heavily drugged and can only stare at Shaw as he calmly executes their companions.

This is the horrifying introduction – told in a series of fragmented flashbacks – to the plot of “The Manchurian Candidate”, a gripping and intelligent thriller exploring psychological and political manipulation, the misuse of power and the repression of individuals within institutions of society. Superficially an anti-Communist film, “The Manchurian Candidate” probes and questions the nature of loyalty and patriotism and of political power itself.

Some years after their training, Shaw returns to the US to a hero’s welcome and is delivered back to his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his step-father (James Gregory), an ambitious Presidential candidate. The other men in the platoon also return safely but two of them, Marco included, suffer recurring nightmares in which a garden party attended by elderly women is mixed in with that chilling demonstration. Marco overcomes the effects of his manipulation with the help of his commanding officer and a military psychologist and, through a series of peculiar incidents involving himself and Shaw, begins to suspect that Shaw is still under mind control and has been tasked with carrying out an important political assassination.

The intense and highly absorbing plot moves surely but not too quickly and depends heavily on the cast to carry off the story which at the time of the film’s release must have seemed fantastic to its audiences. Happily the cast rises to the occasion: Angela Lansbury is formidable as the bullying, stridently anti-Communist Eleanor who dominates both her son and her husband; Frank Sinatra performs capably as a nervy Marco, hesitant at times but determined to confront his fears and nightmares; and Laurence Harvey as Shaw cuts a complex and piteous figure at the mercy of competing forces in his mother and his controllers. Some complex relationships are revealed in the portrayals of Shaw and Eleanor and their interactions: incest is hinted at, Eleanor may be a frustrated puppet-master of sorts and her motivations in planning a false flag event (the assassination of a US Presidential candidate) so that her ineffectual husband may assume power and create a dictatorship in the US to fight the Soviets are deep and, while initially contradictory, actually make some sense of a crazed sort. The minor characters perform their roles capably though a sub-plot involving Marco and a new girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) dissipates quickly and Leigh’s talent goes begging. The sub-plot hinted that Rosie may also be Marco’s controller and might have a connection with the young woman Shaw marries and his father-in-law, a Senator who opposes Iselin and who is a deeply ethical and principled man. A parallel between Marco and Shaw in their relationships with women is hinted at but is not developed.

Cinematography is excellent with some unusual points of view used in a few scenes. The film’s major highlights are the scenes of the demonstration in which Shaw kills two of his men as dreamt by Marco and another man in the platoon who happens to be black: in Marco’s dream, the women attending the hydrangea party are all white and in his companion’s dream, the women are all black – this surely demonstrates how their controllers cleverly drew upon the men’s past memories of garden parties and moulded them to fit their plans!

Skilfully written so as to push both action and character development constantly, the script manages to layer its story with enough contemporary political and social issues of its time and Freudian psychology to boot that even over fifty years after its making, the film still appears fresh and relevant to modern audiences. Eleanor’s character may strike a chord with women who are still frustrated with the slow advance of women’s rights to the level where a woman may run for the highest political position in the land on her own merit alone. Political science students will marvel at how prescient the film is in suggesting that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates may become the puppets of unseen power-brokers and even foreign intelligence agencies. There is a suggestion in the film that Shaw’s controllers may be using Communist governments to advance their own interests and agendas in accumulating power for themselves. Philosophers and psychologists may see in Shaw a symbol of the individual’s never-ending struggle in achieving free will and becoming his/her own person, gaining insight into his/her mind and mental processes, and breaking free from the social conditioning that would otherwise keep him/her an automaton. There is also an insinuation that with Shaw’s killing of his wife and father-in-law, both of whom represent innocence and integrity respectively, the US is losing its own political innocence and soundness.

The film’s rather wobbly and watery conclusion contains some rich irony in that by taking charge of his destiny, Shaw becomes a hero and a real human.

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

The Wind Rises: a dishonest, cowardly film that supports current Japanese militarism

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises / Kaze tachinu” (2013)

Miyazaki’s swansong film is a fictional biography of  aeroplane designer and engineer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 and which was used in other aerial including kamikaze campaigns by Japan in World War II. The film is curiously devoid of the historical context from which it arises and I suspect the director is not fully aware of how much the central character of Horikoshi and his career are a banal reflection of his own. There’s also an underlying theme which has been present throughout Miyazaki’s work since “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and that is a spiritual one: the impermanence of life, the thin line between physical reality and the world of dreams, of transcendence beyond the physical, which also turns out to be the world of death.

Horikoshi might be an odd choice for a subject of a farewell piece. The film though manages to reference a number of other Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films in several scenes and motifs that are threaded throughout: one can find very subtle reminders of flicks like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Laputa: Island in the Sky” and even more nature-themed films like “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”. The Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni who inspires Horikoshi and is the object of the Japanese man’s hero-worship might have stepped straight out of the Studio Ghibli classic “Porcorosso”. There’s not much here that Miyazaki hasn’t done before in style of animation – if anything, his depiction of human beings is still as cartoonish as it was nearly 30 years ago in “Nausicaa …” – and in some ways he’s even gone backward in the way he has placed female characters in positions of passivity and subservience to men. The film also has some personal resonance for Miyazaki as his father once ran a factory that produced parts for Horikoshi’s planes.

The film starts with Horikoshi as a young boy dreaming of being a pilot; unfortunately he wears glasses, and his dream goes awry. In a second dream, he meets Caproni who is surprised that a young Japanese boy has intruded into his dream but then realises that they both share a love of aeroplanes. Caproni tells Horikoshi that designing and building planes are better than flying them and Horikoshi, waking up, resolves that he will become an aeronautical engineer. To that end, he applies himself zealously to his studies. In the meantime, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing conflagration that all but consumes Tokyo pass him by but not before he unexpectedly meets a very young girl and her mother whom he helps to safety.

Time flies and Horikoshi, after a rough start with a plane design company that crashes during the Great Depression, ends up working for a company that makes planes for the Japanese military. He designs a military plane for a naval competition but it fails to pass and his employer sends him away on holiday. During this rest, Horikoshi is reunited with Naoko, whom he helped years ago, and they fall in love and become engaged in spite of the fact that she is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. A German tourist warns Horikoshi of the perils of working for an authoritarian and militaristic government.

Horikoshi enjoys renown for designing a fighter plane that surpasses current German technology and is the pride and joy of Japan. However this renown is short-lived as is also his marriage to Naoko. Horikoshi lives to regret the destruction that his invention, with all the work and sacrifice that have gone into it, has brought to the world. That he continues to live is due to the hopes and trust Naoko has invested in him and to the message that Caproni brings to him in a dream: that though he (Horikoshi) has invested and exhausted his creativity in a being that was beautiful but which brought hell to humanity, nonetheless he lived to see his dreams come true.

The historical setting and Horikoshi’s career provide opportunities to question Japan’s militaristic ambitions then (1920s – 1940s) and now but Miyazaki adopts a very peculiarly ahistorical stance in the way he deals with episodes in Horikoshi’s early life and career. The depiction of the Great Kanto earthquake and the fire that destroyed Tokyo in the quake’s immediate aftermath are bloodless and matter-of-fact; there is no sense of the panic that must have swept through the fleeing crowds – in fact everyone treats the catastrophe with calm and leaves the devastation in an orderly fashion! Perhaps this treatment is deliberate to illustrate the all-consuming nature of Horikoshi’s obsession; episodes in the film dealing with his friendships with fellow work colleague Honjo and his superiors suggest that Horikoshi is indeed oblivious to insidious changes in society around him. However there can be no such excuse for the film’s jump from the time of Naoko’s death (which must have been some time during the late 1930s) to the period just after 1945, when Horikoshi walks through a field of destroyed Japanese military planes and gazes down on Tokyo once again destroyed, this time by Allied war planes visiting total destruction as revenge for the Pearl Harbour attacks. An entire war spanning half the world in which tens of millions died in battle, suffered poverty and starvation, and were subjected to torture, rape, mutilation and hideous medical experimentation at the hands of the Japanese, and still undergo anguish because of Japan’s reluctance to apologise for war crimes, has been overlooked.

The character of Jiro is poorly developed and not likely to appeal to a wide audience. This could have been the film’s strength: Jiro’s colourless personality may be taken to represent the everyday worker bee in Japanese society who does as s/he is told, keeps his/her head down and rarely complains or speaks out. His/her life is spent in work and diligent obedience and is curiously detached from society even though his/her concerns revolve around the group and maintaining the correct relations with others. Apathy and lack of involvement in political, social and economic concerns are hallmarks of such worker bees. If anything, such people tend to be political / social / economic conservatives. The relationship with Naoko is a stereotyped one that might have sprung out of a 19th century Italian opera. Even so, when Jiro is forced to see the consequences that his work and creations have brought to Japan, and to know that there is not much he can do to atone for the damage done, his reaction is bloodless; he is unable to bring himself to express contrition. His god Caproni can no longer help or inspire him and the spirit of Naoko, superficially comforting, drifts away to leave Jiro in an existential hole.

“The Wind Rises” could have been a great film that treats seriously the responsibility of all individuals to question their roles in society, how the work they do may or may not be advancing human society, and how they might be blinded by personal ambition and egotism and be subject to manipulation by others or government into pathways that lead to destruction. Instead Miyazaki has avoided asking hard questions of himself and others in depicting his characters as robots and the way they proceed through their lives as cut off from the currents flowing through Japanese politics, society and economy.

I feel quite bad at having been taken in by the film’s beauty and the pathos of Naoko’s suffering and death; I now believe that this is a dishonest and cowardly film that insults the millions of victims of Japan’s rise to power and crushing defeat in the 1930s and World War II. What makes it worse is that as I write, Japan under Shinzo Abe’s government and with the approval and push of an incompetent US government, itself not content with paying and funding fascists in Ukraine to oust President Yanukovych or arming jihadi fighters in Syria against President Assad, has adopted a more militaristic and aggressive approach and is quietly pursuing more nuclear energy production, with a view perhaps to manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear power, even after the meltdown disaster at Fukushima in 2011. “The Wind Rises” could have served as a warning to Japan not to pursue such militarism ever again.

 

Apocalypse Now (Redux): an illustration of how war fashions society and individuals in its own image

Francis Ford Coppola, “Apocalypse Now (Redux)” (2001)

The actual plot is very basic: sometime during the Vietnam War  – a newspaper clipping on Charles Manson’s trial suggests the year may be 1970 and there is mention also of President Nixon – the protagonist Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a mission by his superiors to hunt down and kill renegade US colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The mission seems fairly straightforward enough but in the nightmare that was the Vietnam War, Willard’s quest turns into a personal surreal and hallucinatory descent into inner hell. As his boat takes him up the Nung River and deep into Cambodia, Willard learns more about Colonel Kurtz’s history from the dossier given him and is drawn to the man’s contradictory character. It seem that Colonel Kurtz had been a model soldier and leader and was mooted for a position as General in the US Army. Willard learns that Kurtz was rather too efficient at his job, using methods and tactics to kill Viet Cong which his superiors “disapprove” of and has now become deranged.

On his way to the river that will take him to Kurtz, Willard and the four men he travels with (they are all known by various nicknames) encounter a rag-tag bunch of characters and witness some strange incidents: there is the eccentric and trigger-happy Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, recklessly orders an air strike on a Vietnamese village and then directs his men to spray napalm fire into a forest, turning it into one huge inferno. Kilgore helps Willard and his men reach the Nung River where the group commences to travel on its own. Crewman Lance (Sam Bottoms) is spooked by a tiger and wastes ammunition trying to get rid of the animal. Sailing upstream, the men come across a US supply depot show featuring some Playboy bunnies which ends in chaos with soldiers punching one another over the girls. An encounter with some fisher-folk on a sampan goes awry when one of the crew goes berserk and machine-guns everyone; when the crew decide to take an injured woman on board their boat and seek medical help, Willard cold-bloodedly shoots her dead. Later the US navy boat is attacked by unseen assailants who kill crew-member Clean (Lawrence Fishburne), leading to a simmering conflict between Willard and the boat’s skipper Chief (Albert Hall).

A surreal episode follows in which the crew are entertained by French colonial plantation owners who might have stepped straight out of a time-machine from 20 or 30 years ago. On resuming their journey, the crew soon reach their destination which turns out to be a savage fiefdom of mountain tribal folk in awe and worshipping a living god who turns out to be … Kurtz, living in a temple surrounded by corpses. Kurtz imprisons Willard and taunts him by killing one of the crew members and throwing the dead man’s head into Willard’s lap, and then lecturing Willard on his own theories of war and civilisation. For a while, it seems as if Willard will end up as yet another of Kurtz’s victims but there are some surprises in store.

The film is noteworthy in part for its technical work and cinematography which often render the setting very dream-like and psychedelic in parts. The night-time scene during which Willard’s men panic at the presence of a tiger is rendered in blue and green light, thus heightening the fear of the unknown that the men feel. At times, viewers can well believe that as the US navy boat continues on its journey, it is entering another very ghostly dimension in which conventional beliefs about morality fall away and men like Colonel Kurtz become truly and dangerously free; there are shots in which mist rises from the waters and envelops the boat as it sails. The crew-men’s use of hallucinatory drugs, their liking for the psychedelic rock music of the period and their increasingly fragile mental state add to this viewer’s impression that they are physically as well as mentally entering another world in which everything is somehow brighter, darker, deeper, more vivid and more dangerous, spiritually as well as physically. For much of the film, the cinematography is beautiful and unearthly, and the film’s leisurely pace combined with long scenic shots of forest, river and above all the mist rising over the river have the effect of plunging viewers deeply into a world, seemingly a paradise at times, far away from the reality of war.

The music soundtrack is significant to the film also, and never more so than in the climactic scene (in which a song by The Doors is playing) in which Kurtz is made to confront his own mortality and the full awfulness of human (and by implication his own) cruelty, darkness and the hollowness to come. In this scene also, Willard (who throughout the movie has been studying the military dossier on Kurtz and has come to identify with the man, his background and motives) finally bonds with Kurtz in spirit and action. Oh all right then, here comes the spoiler: Willard kills Kurtz with a machete.  Here at last the film makes a profound statement about the effect of the Vietnam war on individuals like Kurtz and Willard and, through them, on American society: war as an entity seizes people and refashions them in its own image and values, turning them into total killers, and then unleashes them onto the rest of the world. Initially when the Americans brought total war to Vietnam, they imagined they could control it with their technology, their ideals and beliefs, and their goals; but the war ends up controlling America heart and soul. One imagines that when Willard returns to “civilisation”, he will be handsomely rewarded and celebrated as a war hero and role model for future generations of soldiers to follow … but spiritually and morally he is dead inside.

Significantly even though this is a film about the Vietnam war, very few Vietnamese people appear save as extras: all the violence and the suffocating insanity are provided by Americans. Everywhere in the film where Americans group together, the viewer gets the feeling that violence, madness and mindless killing will result … and the viewer is usually right. It would make no difference if Willard were to meet Kurtz or not and Kurtz, when he does appear, comes across as a very ordinary if rather eccentric fellow: no more and no less mad than his fellow Americans, he epitomises the perfect robotic killing-machine made so by the demands, expectations and rewards of the military culture that took him in as a young man.

The film perhaps makes too much of its theme of human nature as essentially contradictory and capable of both good and evil, and not enough of that theme’s dark twin which is that human nature also reflects back to society and to us the values and behaviours prized and rewarded by that society. Kurtz is what he is because American society has rewarded him with war medals and increased status in the army and society generally while pretending to ignore his amorality and brutal methods. Eventually he reaches a state where he realises that American society is essentially as amoral as he is, in celebrating him first and secondly fearing and rejecting him for much the same reasons it celebrated him originally – because he is too efficient at what he does. Having reached his pinnacle and finding no satisfaction in it, just emptiness, he submits to his society’s final judgement over him. This is really what makes “Apocalypse Now” such a powerful work, not least because we are still so reluctant to acknowledge that as social creatures we are highly malleable, we reinforce what society wants from us and in turn allow society to mould us even more in particular directions. If war seems to be the permanent state of the world, it is because that is what our society celebrates. We need not invoke biological explanations to explain our war-like and avaricious behaviour and actions towards others.

The film remains one of Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest directing achievements from the 1970s; it’s a great pity that his work after that decade declined so much.

The War on Bugs: a study of “Starship Troopers” as a satire on American and Western fascism and cultural brainwashing

Rob Ager, “The War on Bugs” (2012)

Researched, written, edited and narrated by Rob Ager, this documentary examines the themes of the science fiction film “Starship Troopers” made by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in 1997. This film was the third of three SF flicks Verhoeven made, the earlier two being “Robocop” and “Total Recall”. Additionally Ed Neumeier worked on the scripts for “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers”. The documentary’s style is fairly basic, depending in the main on running excerpts from the film which Ager’s narrative refers to. It is divided into short segments dealing with different aspects and manifestations of the themes of “Starship Troopers” that satirise fascist tendencies in American and Western societies.

Ager begins with a brief history of how he began watching “Starship Troopers” and thinking it a clever adaptation of James Cameron’s film “Aliens”.  Over time, he became fascinated with Verhoeven and Neumeier’s aims in writing and developing the script from the original eponymous Robert Heinlein novel and turning it into a superficially B-grade movie heavy on satire and irony. Ager quotes an interview in which Neumeier explained why the film was developed as a comedy and satire: he and Verhoeven believed its themes would be delivered more effectively in a humorous cartoony way as opposed to a dramatic approach which would have the effect of being preachy and didactic.

The film quickly begins to delve into the research that Verhoeven did on fascism, its history and its symbols. Verhoeven studied the history of the US during and after World War II, noting the country’s ready celerity in invading other countries such as Vietnam, Grenada and Panama so as to impose and maintain a particular political-economic-social order and prevent these and other nations from following independent paths. The political philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky is cited as an influence in the way Verhoeven develops the propaganda of the fictitious state that wages constant war against insect-like aliens on another planet.

The bulk of the film is devoted to explaining aspects of the fictional imperialist space empire of the future Earth in which Anglo-American society and its values dominates throughout, and how these political and social aspects mirror or parallel tendencies and developments in current Western society. Under various subject headings such as “Lies”, “Media”, “The War on Everyone” and East vs West”, particular issues that Ager notices in “Starship Troopers” are brought out and explained in detail. Of particular interest is how Ager draws attention to parallels in the way the war in “Starship Troopers” is sold to the gullible public and how the War on Terror has been promoted to audiences in the US and beyond – yet the film was released several years before the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in September, 2001!

A real eye-opener is Ager’s investigation of how political correctness and agendas promoting equality and egalitarian values, multiculturalism and social diversity actually mask racial prejudice, and how fascist governments and politics can hide behind supposed tolerance for other races, religions, different sexual orientations and other outsider groups. This of course is actually an old divide-and-rule tactic used by power elites in the past though the actual divisions may vary: over a hundred years ago it was one group of working-class people against another (as in, say, poor white people against poor black people) or one brand of Christianity against another (as in Protestants versus Roman Catholics in parts of the Anglosphere), now the dividing lines are along life-style issues (such as the interests of gays or a particular sub-set of gay people in their community against those of the general heterosexual community) – but the desired effect of dividing people and weakening them through culture wars is the same: a small privileged elite, all sharing the same or similar values, emerges on top.

The main gripe I have about the documentary is that Ager’s accented narration does go very quickly and viewers may need to watch the film a few times to catch and absorb all that he says. Possibly also a frame-by-frame investigation would have assisted in Ager’s bringing out the film’s concerns in more detail and enabled viewers to question aspects of Ager’s analysis as well. Ager’s investigation is subjective and viewers more or less have to try to keep up with it and accept it at face value.

 

 

 

The Syrian Diary: a valuable historical document giving an alternate viewpoint on the Syrian civil war

“The Syrian Diary” (Rossiya 24, 2013)

Made for Russian television, this documentary follows Rossiya 24 reporter Anastasia Popova and a Syrian army unit she is attached to (or embedded with, depending on your point of view) as the soldiers move through parts of Damascus to flush out and fight so-called “rebel” soldiers of the Free Syria Army. The documentary makers are unabashedly firm supporters of the Assad government and Syrian army forces. As such, this film is a valuable historical document as it shows a snapshot of the Syrian civil war from the point of view of pro-Assad supporters and also interviews three women with first-hand experience of the war and its effects on civilians. Given that so much Western mainstream news reporting about events in Syria is extremely biased against Assad, the intention being to support without question US desires to invade Syria and depose Assad, alternate opinions and ways of viewing the conflict, however dispassionate, are needed and very welcome in creating and developing a more complex and nuanced picture of what is happening on the ground.

The film’s narrative structure is not always too clear from the jumpy collages of individual accounts spliced hurriedly together. We jump from one interviewee to another but a few people dominate: Yara Saleh, a reporter herself; Bassem, a soldier who has lost a father and brother; Bassem’s wife Nadia; a middle-aged man; Mikhail, a reporter; and the widow of Amir, a friend of Bassem and Popova, who was tortured and executed by FSA forces. Through these people and others, we see themes developing: the loyalty and support for Syrian army troops demonstrated by the Syrian public, who turn out in their droves to hail and congratulate the soldiers; the soldiers’ willingness to die for Syria, their discipline and good natures; the bewilderment of Syrians at the lies being built up around their country by Western governments; and the barbaric behaviour of the FSA men in their treatment of civilians and the way they butcher their victims.

Call it propaganda, yes, but the film does flesh out what many alternative underground news media websites and other outlets have long suggested about the FSA forces: many if not most come from other countries (Libya and Saudi Arabia are mentioned), the fighters are young, illiterate, ignorant of their history and their Islamic religion, and untutored in the ways of the world. The fighters swallow whatever lies they are told by Saudi-funded Wahhabi “sheikhs” who most likely know nothing of Islam and its principles themselves. Disturbingly, the film mentions that many FSA fighters are on drugs and commit outrageously brutal and sickening acts of violence and desecration while under the influence of these drugs. Where these substances come from and who is supplying them and why are never known: one does not need an IQ in triple digits to guess that these drugs are most probably psychoactive substances made in some First World country and then delivered to middlemen parties in Middle Eastern petro-sheikhdoms who supply them along with weapons, ammunition and willing if gullible young men to Syria.

There are heart-breaking scenes of Amir’s treatment by the FSA rebels who obsessively film everything they do and then release the videos to Western news media with claims that government troops carried out the atrocities. A segment on Syrian soldiers praises their stamina and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their brother soldiers and their country, and portrays them as a sober and disciplined fighting force. A small section shows the soldiers goofing around on a bicycle and talking and laughing with children. Something of the generosity and hospitality of Syrians themselves, their religious tolerance, their reverence for their land and their love of a good time with lots of rhythmic sinuous music and dancing shines throughout the documentary.

Only the most obtuse can come away unmoved by this documentary. I recommend this film to all viewers following the news about Syria’s internal conflict and who are heartily sick of the Western news media’s performance in covering the civil war.

The Grand Illusion: meditating on the effects of war on society and people’s loyalties

Jean Renoir, “The Grand Illusion” (1934)

Jean Renoir’s film is a moving meditation on war and its effects on the traditions of early twentieth century European societies. Aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) are French prisoners of war held together by the German army during World War I. The three men plot to escape from their prison and succeed; later they separate and are caught by the Germans. This time, they are transferred to a fortress to be watched over by the German aristocratic officer Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). The German officer and the French officer discover they have a great deal in common and together ponder what war does to men of their class and why their class wages war. Later Boeldieu plots with Marechal and Rosenthal on another escape attempt. The two commoners – Marechal is a working-class mechanic and Rosenthal a middle-class banker – escape but Boeldieu is caught, badly wounded.

The film makes a good point that people are united through common class interests instead or inspite of national, ethnic and linguistic interests. Once Marechal and Rosenthal escape a second time, they quickly begin arguing and nearly come to fisticuffs on occasion. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu acknowledge that political / social revolutions and war will sweep their kind away and the world will soon be dominated by the issues and obsessions that interest middle-class and working-class people. Questions of loyalty, duty, nationalism and patriotism arise: which of these counts for more than the others?

The actors play their roles with great sensitivity and dignity: Stroheim in particular as Rauffenstein, who has already seen war and been deeply affected by it, his body shattered in a number of ways, embodies honour and the finer qualities of humans, even if towards just another of his own class who happens to be his enemy. Likewise Boeldieu has a noble spirit which aids Marechal and Rosenthal’s escape but eventually costs him his own life. Marechal and Rosenthal are portrayed with great sympathy – one has to remember the film was made at a time when anti-Semitism and anti-German feeling were rife in France – and even most minor characters are notable for their humanity, wit and good humour.

Renoir’s direction is very deft, moving the plot and its themes along at a brisk and no-nonsense pace. Filming methods including the use of deep focus and some interesting experimentation with framing shots and long takes are presented in a nonchalant way. The countryside plays a surprisingly large part in the film but it’s the social landscape and the relations among the different social classes that most interests Renoir. Viewers certainly feel that times are a-changing because of the war: Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein agree that war is hellish for the plebeians but a necessary function that gives the upper classes their raison d’être. In some respects, that observation rings as true now as it did in the 1930s: the elites may have changed with regard to their childhood backgrounds and how they obtained their money but they still rely on war, whether actual physical war or the war between different social strata and social groups and sub-cultures, to keep the hoi polloi firmly under the heels of their jack-boots.

For a war film, this movie actually does not feature any war and espouses friendship and brotherhood between and among people across societies of the same social level. This is very much an anti-fascist / pro-socialist film that celebrates a common humanity and the love that humans can have for each other that transcends artificial barriers and traditional loyalties.

Dirty Wars: a persuasive indictment of the US government’s War on Terror with something hidden and unexpected

Richard Rowley, “Dirty Wars” (2013)

Part documentary, part personal testimony, this is a searing documentary following investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill across the Middle East and the United States as he follows the scent of a secret war waged by a secretive military force within and authorised by the US government and its agencies. Initially he visits a remote community (Gardez) in Afghanistan where local people tell him of an assault by unknown US soldiers late at night on a family celebrating the birth of a baby. The assault leaves a man, local police chief Mohammed Daoud, and three female family members dead and another man, related to all three women, in shock and harbouring suicidal thoughts and anger at the US army. After interviewing the family, Scahill hunts for details on who the attacking soldiers were and who was in charge of them, and discovers that the attack had been ordered by the head of a secret paramilitary force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), embedded within the US government and acting on orders from its executive.

The trail takes Scahill to a poor desert community, al Majalah, in Yemen where he learns that a Cruise missile fired by a US destroyer has killed a number of nomadic people in a camp. Whereas the US forces in Gardez removed traces of their presence and even paid some compensation to the family who lost their relatives, in al Majalah Scahill finds that the US attack left plenty of evidence; the difference between the two attacks is that the US is not officially at war with Yemen. Further on in the documentary, as Scahill discovers that the US War on Terror has extended to Africa as well as western Asia, he travels to Somalia to speak to warlords there and learn about the role they play.

Back home, Scahill does more research on lists of people targeted by the US as terrorists and turns up the name of a US citizen, Ansar al Awlaki, a Muslim preacher who initially helped the US government after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks but later was repelled by the Bush administration’s brutal actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and began advocating resistance. Scahill interviews Ansar al Awlaki’s father Nasser al Awlaki about how his son became radicalised. In the course of making this film, Scahill learns of Ansar al Awlaki’s killing by a US drone and then of Ansar al Awlaki’s 16-year-old son by a drone as well.

The documentary is well made for its subject matter: it is an indictment of the US government’s resort to use of a paramilitary force, one that may well have a psychopathic agenda of its own, to harass and terrorise Muslim peoples across the globe with impunity; and it gives an insight into the often dangerous work carried out by foreign and war correspondents. We see a tiny part of Scahill’s feelings about the work he does, how thankless it can be: he is stonewalled by US Federal politicians and military generals, and ridiculed by US TV news media hosts in the course of his investigations and attempts to bring his revelations to a wider public audience. He finds ordinary life as an American difficult to readjust to after his hair-raising, adrenalin-filled adventures in Afghanistan and Somalia.

The pace of the film, the quick editing and Scahill’s presence in the majority of the film’s images and in voice-over suggest that “Dirty Wars” was deliberately made in the style of a mystery thriller; the problem though is that mystery thrillers usually have closure and this particular mystery thriller doesn’t really have one. Fortunately Scahill is up to the role of mystery detective: good-looking with a clear voice, something of a lone wolf, he obsessively chases leads on his computer, collects clues and puts them together, plasters and pins up lists on his office wall. His private life is all but non-existent. The use of close-ups puts viewers uncomfortably close to scenes of action, even car sickness at times, giving them the same POV as Scahill’s: this is a clever if sarcastic comment on the embedding of news reporters with US army units in war zones.

Viewers will rightly be horrified that a secret war using missiles and drones is being waged by a paramilitary force obeying the personal orders of the US President on innocent and impoverished peoples around the globe. Audiences might also feel some despair that a US citizen was targeted for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights violated when he was killed. After all, if al Awlaki and his son could be killed, then might not other US citizens also be targeted simply for being relatives or friends of suspected terrorists who have yet to be caught and charged with crimes?

Throughout the film, Scahill refers to things hidden that are out in the open (as in the JSOC being a hidden force committing war crimes openly) but there is one thing hidden yet open that he does not mention: the people he visits in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia are generous towards him and ply him with tea, hospitality and as much information as they feel they can give. In particular, Nasser al Awlaki, on learning that he has lost both a son and a grandson, welcomes Scahill and treats him warmly: the meeting between the two men and the silence between them, Nasser al Awlaki looking grave while Scahill is visibly upset and contrite, are very moving indeed. The warmth and openness of the Afghans, Yemenis and Somalis contrast strongly with the manner of many of the Americans portrayed: porcine politicians, supercilious and shallow talk show hosts, and one rather creepy military trainer incriminate themselves as corrupted and hollow people.

As long as there are people like Nasser al Awlaki in the world, there is some hope that the rest of us will learn that grace and compassion are better weapons to bring people together to solve considerable problems than raining brutality, death, terror and fear on people.