Apocalypse Now (1979) “Tragic Character of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”

Preliminary remarks: There are several different versions of Apocalypse Now, including the theatrical release, the Redux version which is 53 minutes longer than the original and the 259 minutes long “VHS” version, which is now all but lost. This article is based on the Redux version, while the ending of the VHS version will be mentioned, and will be crucial to the interpretation. The Redux version significantly changes the film thematically, it draws the film closer to the book on which it is based, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

While speaking in Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola said that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. The very conditions of the shooting resembled the madness of war so closely that, in the words of the director, the crew went mad. In the famous documentary about the making of the film Hearts of Darkness: Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Coppola said that they had too much money, too much equipment and that the crew (and Coppola himself) descended into madness step by step.

Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shooting and Coppola’s response was that no one was allowed to have a heart attack on his set. Quentin Tarantino said that this was the moment when Coppola’s madness had started. When interpreting the film, one can take into consideration various sets of ideas which put a different light on the movie. The emphasis could be laid on the clash of civilizations, the critique of imperialism, the Vietnam war and the character study of Lt. Kurtz. This interpretation will connect the last two and focus on Lt. Kurtz, an army officer deeply commited to his ideals and his descent into the abbys.

In the remarkable opening scene we see the trees in the wind and The Doors’ song The End is playing. The forest is soon engulfed in flames and the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) appears which conveys emptiness bordering on despair. He is naked, drunk and dancing, breaks the mirror and his hand is bloodied.  He is shown in the most vulnerable position and says that, very hour he spends in the room he gets weaker, while they get stronger. We see a gun and from the very beginning we understand that we are in the realm of thanatos and despair.

 

He is taken by the army and set upon a task to find and assassinate an army officer named Kurtz who resides deep in the jungles of Cambodia an whose methods, as the army officer says, have become unsound. Kurtz is accused of ordering assassinations of the Vietnamese intelligence agents he believed to be working for the enemy. It is important to note that in contrast to Marlow, who in the novel Heart of Darkness embarks on an imperialist journey in Africa as an advanturer, Willard’s journey is not of his own will. This can be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that the Americans were “thrown” into Vietnam without choice, considering the balance of powers. This thesis is soon rejected when we hear Willard’s thoughts: It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.

Willard’s superiors emphasize that Kurtz was brilliant and outstanding in every way, but has “obviously gone insane”. We hear Kurtz’s words on the cassete player:

I watched a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving… But we must kill them. We must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie and we have to be merciful to those who lie. Those nabobs. I do hate them.

Nabobs were British governors in East India, wealthy individuals who worked for the East India Company. Here, we witness the first reference to imperialism and Kurtz associating the Americans with imperialist powers. A snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor is a metaphor for Kurtz’s own condition and the Americans in Vietnam. His words can be compared to the condition of the crew working on the film in the Phillipines, going mad step by step. Kurtz advocates mass killings, the destruction of animals, villages and armies; he sees hypocrisy and lies around him and proclaims the Last Judgment in the Christ-like manner, as Michelangelo depicted it in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. His agenda is annihilation as a reaction to the utter moral corruption and meaningless destruction. At the end of the film, we can see the following words written in blood on a temple wall: Apocalypse Now! A military officer says to Willard: “Out there with these natives, there must be a temptation to be God.” This is the very definition of hubris which for the Greeks meant the will to become like gods.

Willard’s first reaction to the order to assassinate Kurtz was: Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. As Willard reads documents on Kurtz he finds out that he graduated on Harvard with a thesis on the Philippine uprising in 1898. The American invasion of the Philippines in the end of the 19th century was clearly an imperialist conquest. This is the second allusion in the film which associates Kurtz with the critique of imperialism. In the famous scene in which the American helicopters invade a Vietnamese village and Wagner plays on the stereos the American understanding of the spectacle is more than evident.

 

The spectacle and the killings merge in an all-out show wich when compared with the scene with the Playboy bunnies portrays the interplay of eros, thanatos and spectacle. The scene in which a military officer explains how they bombarded the hill for hours and found out that there was nothing there, and that the smell later was of victory shows the non-utilitarian destruction which was commonplace in Vietnam. Hannah Arendt in her book Imperialism writes: “The most radical and the only secure form of possession is destruction for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours.”

The vision of French soldiers in the mist, which appears only in the Redux version of the film, casts a new light on the narration. Now, the allusion to imperialism is explicit. We can conclude that the scene with the French was important for Coppola from the beginning, since he mentions it in the documentary, but somehow it did not reach the theatrical version. The French are presented as phantasms of the past, who refuse to leave Vietnam, although the situation for them is hopeless. They persist with the idea that Vietnam is their home, that they cannot and will not leave. They discuss the foreign policies of their country with Willard and criticize the American endeavour as a fight “for the biggest nothing in history”. The old Frenchman keeps on saying I know that we can stay… We can stay…

 

Vigorous line:

Horror, horror…

(said in a whisper)

Colonel Kurtz

At the very end of the movie, when Willard comes to the temple where Kurtz resides with his followers, Willard sees bodies hanged, heads on the ground and a deranged photojournalist who speaks frantically about Kurtz, calling him “a warrior poet” and recalling the scene when Kurtz wanted to kill him. Willard is in contact with a plane squadron bearing a suggestive name “Almighty”, which is prepared to bomb the temple, Kurtz and his followers. This reference to the Divine is a suggestion that Kurtz is a false deity, a golden calf, and the Americans are called upon to restore the Divine order by destroying the idolatry and restoring the true order. It can also be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that  hubris of the Americans is even greater than that of Kurtz. The Americans see themselves as the impersonation of the Divine will and thus their will to be gods is absolute.

When Willard meets Kurtz, his silence is indicative. He was mesmerized by Kurtz while reading documents about him and when he meets him he is captivated by the grandiose image Kurtz projects. Kurtz says that his allies are “horror” and “moral terror”. It is obvious that his motives are of moral nature and the reading of late Nietzche’s philosophy strongly suggests that crimes done in the name of morality are the most atrocious. Speaking of his recollections when he saw the Vietnamese cutting the arms of inoculated children, Kurtz speaks of the purity of the act and the bravery those men were capable of. He is the only one who refers to the Vietnamese as men, while the rest of the characters dehumanize them (gooks). What is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Apocalypse Now is the easiness with which Coppola transposed the behaviour of the Europeans toward African natives from Heart of Darkness  to the Vietnamese setting. Kurtz says that he can be killed, but cannot be judged; this is most probably a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Will to Power in which he wrote that for nihilism to be prevailed, values that pass judgment must be prevailed as well.

In stark contrast to the ending of Heart of Darkness in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife about his demise, Colonel Kurtz wants Willard to tell his son the truth about him. The question which needs to be posed is whether the truth about someone so inhuman yet all-too-human can be said to those who live in the comforts of civilization. This is one of the tragic elements of Kurtz’s destiny. During the scene in which by brilliant editing (cross-cutting) Willard’s murder of Kurtz is shown (who wanted to die like Socrates, if we are to believe Nietzsche), it is juxtaposed to the ritual slaughter of an animal. This suggests that Kurtz’s murder is also of ritual nature; in ancient civilizations the ritual slaughter of an animal was associated with an act of purifiction. Thus, Kurtz’s murder is puryfing, in the first place for him, since his life had become a circle of death and madness without end. His last whispers the horror, the horror, suggest that proposition.

When considering Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is necessary to highlight the distinction considering the word “tragic”, which exists in Croatian language. These are “tragično” and “tragičko”. The first one denotes the everyday use of the word “tragic”, which borders on banal. On the other hand, “tragičko” is characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy which foresees a tragic age (which existed in the pre-Socratic Greece) which will be the age of great purification, outbursts of genius and creative energy, but also the destructive age abundant with horrors and disasters.

Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as the affirmation of life, but it must be highlighted that tragic characters in, for example, Aeschylus’ tragedies brought their fate upon themselves by their hubris. The same is implied for Kurtz; when he accepted to play role of a deity for the natives (as have all the imperialist powers) he precipitated his doom. The tragedy of Walter E. Kurtz is that the best of us can be tempted, fail to resist and fall into the horror of darkness. When Kurtz is killed, Willard sees a book in which the following written: Drop the bomb, exterminate them all. In the longest version of the film, the natives surrender and nevertheless, the bomb is dropped on them and they are all exterminated, as is vividly shown as a spectacle in the ending credits. Allmighty strikes, and the “Divine Order” of annihilation is established.

 

The Lives of Others (2006) “Auschwitz of the Soul”

Introductory remarks: The painting selected alongside the headline of the article is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Mountains and Houses In the Snow”. His expressionism conveys the overstressed colors which are on the verge of puncture. For this article, white and its sublime horror presented in the painting are particularly interesting. The symbolism of this use of white will  be present throughout this article.

Regarding the title, I chose “Auschwitz of the Soul”, an expression used by a scholar of the German Democratic Republic, which implies the torture, submission and in the end extermination of souls of subjects in GDR. Kirchner’s painting may as well be an outline for the concentration camps with its strict order of the objects in the painting (the trees most particularly); its composition gives the impression that the mountains are subordinating the houses at the bottom with their immense might.

 

I repeat once again: we must know everything! Nothing can get past us. And some directors are not yet doing this. They don’t even notice it, comrades, some of those among us. They don’t even really understand it yet. That, precisely, is the dialectic of class warfare and of the work of the Chekists.

Erich Mielke, 1981.

[the head of  the  East German Ministry for State Security (Staasi)]

 

The film can be roughly divided into three acts. In the first, the actors are grouped on the stage according to their social status: a writer (Georg Dreyman), a Staasi officer (Wiesler), an actress  (Christa-Maria), a dissident, a theatre director, an ambitious and corrupt Staasi official. They are each shown in their own distinct light and are “waiting” to be fully developed. The interesting part of the first act is the abundant use of irony, even humor, but each of these figures of speech are either very close to cynicism, or are explicitly cynical. The second act begins with a suicide of the theatre director Jerska.

The reading of the film which tends to explain it in the terms of the Staasi officer being closely entangled with the lives of Christa-Maria and Dreyman as a catalyst for his transformation into a “good man” is only partially true. The tears appear in his eyes in the moment when he hears Dreyman playing Beethoven’s Apassionata and claiming that no man who actually hears this music can be evil. Georg’s expressive performance of Apassionata as a eulogy for his dead friend, seems to move the Staasi officer deeply. Georg quoting Lenin’s impressions on the musical piece most likely induced strong feelings in the man loyal to the regime, as well.

 

A few scenes after, Wiesler is reading Brecht’s romantic (in terms of a movement) meditations. It is art, combined with a genuine reaction to the terrible loss that moved Wiesler, not “passionate sex” of the couple as some may argue. Sex “moved” a voyeuristic officer who likes to supervise artists rather than priests since they are more sexually active. Wiesler tells Christa-Maria in a bar that she is a great artist, and he seems quite sincere. It is true that he starts to feel affection for both of them, but the reading of the film which emphasizes the role of carnal  and amorous relationship between the artists as Wiesler’s main motivation is simply incorrect.

In the third act, after Georg succeeds to get his article about suicides in the GDR published in Der Spiegel, the tragedy occurs once again and the transformation of  the Staasi officer Wiesler into a “good man” is complete. He uses all resources available to him to help Georg. Slavoj Žižek calls the presentation of Staasi in The Lives of Others “too modest”, but I tend to object. Horrors of Staasi are not presented on a “massive scale” in terms of intensity of prosecution, yet the horror of elimination of healthy interpersonal relationships and means of self-actualization is all too vivid. The aim of the film is not to present Staasi in a neo-realist manner; a certain romanticism in unavoidable.

Žižek also objects to the presentation of the minister’s vices  (the use of blackmail to get a woman) as a major plot element, since it is a universal phenomenon which is possible (and is often actualized) in all societies, democratic ones as well. That may be true, but the director’s goal was obviously to present a distinctly liberal argument of the power that corrupts absolutely, since it is absolute (lord Acton’s argument, which is disputable as a law of moral natures, but still highly relevant). The moral corruption is present not only at the highest levels of power structures, but at the lowest as well; it does not destroy bodies – it destroys souls. In a reference to Lipsky, I will call it the structurally caused street-level moral corruption.

A cinematic reference relevant to The Lives of Others, and more particularly Staasi’s praxis is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. In Murnau’s film count Orlok spreads plague and sends rats to the city as his agents. The plague which Staasi spread was in the form of total control, imprisonment, surveillance and destruction of interpersonal relationships. I will call it the white plague in direct reference to Kirchner’s painting. It is rather invisible, does not aim primarily at the bodies, but souls of its subjects. Orlok’s rats are equivalent to the Staasi informers.

 

Vigorous line:

What is a director if he can’t direct? He’s a projectionist without a film, a miller without corn. He’s nothing.

Albert Jerska

The scene in which Jerska and Georg discuss his position as a theatre director banned to direct is abruptly cut and the shot which succeeds it shows the surveillance apparatus in darkness. This example of powerful editing intimately connects the Staasi with the role of the artists in GDR. Aforementioned Jerska’s thoughts pose a fundamental question of the relationship between artist and his essence which is connected with his artistic work in the most innate manner. If the writer cannot write or director cannot direct, he is stripped of his self, of his innermost being. The most chilling and uncanny phenomenon in the film is the case of Christa-Maria. She is an actress and an artist who, like Jerska, is confronted with the possibility of ceasing to be an artist.

The decision which she has to make; whether to betray her lover or cease to be an actress is a tragic choice. Either she has to forsake her ethical beliefs and betray her feelings or abandon art. In both cases she loses a significant portion of that which makes her what she is. In her case the Auschwitz of the soul is most vivid. Totalitarian regime’s goal, as Hannah Arendt writes, is to reduce human beings to their basic biological impluses and needs; to be controlled entirely, stripped of their essence as social beings and ther intimate self which constitues them. The horror of destroying one’s soul draws us back to Kirchner’s painting which shows desolate landscape which is intense and horrifying. Life in totalitarian regimes is pure zoe, life stripped to bare life. The Lives of Others‘s Sonata for a Good Man is similar to the comforting vision a child sees in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a welcome illusion brought to life which tries to ease us with the belief in our fundamental goodness, but, witnessing the horrors of the life eliminated one may ask oneself together with Theodor Adorno, is poetry even possible after Auschwitz.

 

References:

Jens Gieseke, The History of the Staasi, East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990, Berghahn Books, Potsdam, 2014

 

Like Father, Like Son (2013) “Nature or Nurture?”

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son explores the meaning of the proverb in the film’s title and whether it can be the justification and the solution to the tragic choice characters in the film are forced to make. Ryota is a workaholic and a successful businessman, hardly spending time with his family; his wife tells him that he has been telling them for six years that they will spend Sunday together. He says that he does not have time for losers, believes that the strong succeed while kindness is nothing but vice. Their lives change abruptly when they find out that their son Keita is not their biological child and that the children were swapped in the hospital. Ryota’s first reaction to this discovery is: “Now I understand.” He feels that his son’s Keita’s lack of strength and gentleness is an explanation for his not being his son, due to his self-image of success and strength, which he projects on others as well. Soon they meet the parents of their biological child (Ryuseki) and they have to decide whether they will swap the children or raise the one they already did for six years.

In his book Moral Dilemmas Daniel Statman writes: “Tragic choices are situations in which whatever a person does, he would irreparably damage one of the projects or relationships which he pursued and which shape his life.” The choice Midori and Ryota have to make, as well as the couple who raised their biological child, certainly falls in this category since whatever they choose, they will irreperably damage their lives. Either they have to give up the child they grew to love over the six years they raised him or they have to give up raising their biological child. Ryota’s co-worker calls the situation a tragedy, and certainly it is tragic. In the hospital the staff say that 100% of couples decide to make the swap. Nevertheless, the decision cannot be made in advance since a variety of factors are to be considered; ethical, emotional, the well-being of a child, the psychological effect this will have on him and so on. The fundamental question for the parents is whether the heritage which defines parenthood is strictly biological or a matter of socialization as well.

Eating Our Meal

Eating Our Meal, Japanese girl, age 7

Found on https://library.illinoisstate.edu/icca/exhbits/japanese.html

Yukari, who raised Ryusei, is Ryota’s opposite. He is a shopkeeper, spends a lot of time with his children, bathes with them, flies kites and behaves like a  child himself when he is with his children. In his Twillight of Idols Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “Leading a long life, having many descendants [my emphasis], these are not rewards of virtue; rather, virtue is itself a declaration of the metabolism that brings about (among other things) a long life with many descendants…” At one point in the film, Ryota suggests to Yukari that he raises both children, since their future must be taken into consideration. In other words, since Ryota has much more financial capital, is younger and “stronger in metabolism”, he has the right to more descendants than Yukari does. Yukari is of course, deeply offended by that suggestion and refuses it. Things change dramatically and in an ironic fashion when Ryusei, Ryota’s biological son, comes to live with him. Ryusei runs away from Ryota’s apartment and comes back to Yukari, whose wife says: “We have no problems with having both Ryusei and Keita.” Although Ryota has a larger financial capital, it turns out that a child’s desire for care and attention is stronger than for things Ryota has to offer, and it seems that Yukari is the one who is more virtuous than Ryota.

 

Vigorous lines: 

I’d like him to live with us, he is of my blood.

Ryota

Your blood? In our time and age it does not matter.

Ryota’s lawyer

 

The problem posed from the very beginning of the film is whether being of one’s blood is still an argument strong enough to consider one’s biological child one’s own, in favor to the child a person has brought up. Ryota’s lawyer argues that blood does not matter “in our time and age”, while in premodern or early modern societies this kind of dispute could be easily solved – blood is more important than emotional bonds, or the subject of nurture (exceptions were adoptions by feudal lords for an example). Psychonalysts would say that we as human beings are formed in our early childhood; although Ryusei and Keita were brought by their non-biological parents, their psyche is formed through the influences of their “foster parents”. In the hospital the staff says that incidents of this kind were happening in the  60’s and Keita’s grandmother says that adoption was not uncommon during the wartime years and strong bonds between children and foster parents were formed, in other words she opts against the swap.

Ryota’s father says: “Well, have you got to know him?… Does he look like you? Of course he does. That’s what family means. Ones children are like one, even if not living together… Listen to me, it’s a matter of blood. It’s the same in humans as it is in horses. This child will be more and more like you.” While his father opts for the swap, his mother says that living with someone and loving him makes him more like you. In these observations the eternal question whether genetics or our upbringing make us who we are can be discerned.

DNA (2)

In his writings, particularly Being and Time Martin Heidegger stressed out that Dasein (for Heidegger the term means the existence which makes his being an issue) is temporal, not merely because it exists in time, but because it is rooted in temporality – the unity of past, present and the future. By encountering himself in his historical “heritage”, he opens up possibilities of his being. Dasein is authentically historical. His authenticity, which Heidegger understands as the appropriation of himself, can be attained or not. The key figure in regard to this observations is Ryota’s biological son Ryusei who fights being transferred to another home without any explanation whatsoever. He becomes authentic in the acts of defiance, he understands his heritage in terms of his upbringing. Keita remains passive throghout the whole affair. The historical character of Dasein is revealed throughout the movie and the main debate is, as noted above, in the character of that historicity.

In the somewhat ambiguous ending, Ryota and Keita are walking down the separate paths and Ryota is apologizing to him. They meet at the end of the paths which at some point come together. Symbolically it may mean that although they were living together throghout Ryota’s life, they were walking separate paths. Symbolism can be twofold. They were walking seperate paths because Ryota never spent time with him, and on the other hand, because he is not his biological father. Nevertheless, at some point they do come together and the ambiguous ending offers a possible solution. Whether he will stay with Ryota or not, we can only guess, in the same manner in which the problems posed in the film are a conjecture themselves.

References:

Daniel Statman, Moral Dilemmas, Amsterdam-Atlanta, Rodopi, 1995

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twillight of the Idols: or How To Philosophize With a Hammer, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1986

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) “…Nevers Mon Amour”

Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alan Resnairs, opens with a close-up of an arm and body amorously entangled. They are in the dark, their bodies are joined and small particles, resembling ashes or sand (as the sands of time), are falling and covering them. They are caressing and soon begin to glow, as they are coated in gold or bronze. Due to scarce lighting, their skins are of dark texture, while the one, that of a man, is darker. Soon, we learn they are a Japanese man and a French woman. The first words spoken (by the Japanese man) are “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” She answers: “I saw everything“. Their experiences of Hiroshima are of substantially different quality, she saw the photographic footages and films, in other words reproductions of the event, while he as the member of the Japanese nation felt it to the core. She says that she saw the hospital in Hiroshima; the Japanese man answers: “You didn’t see the hospital in Hiroshima“. The hospital halls are shown in a tracking shot and are presented in a clear, sterile manner with an almost terrifying depth. The shot is juxtaposed to the couple caressing.

She says that she saw the musuem, which portrayed the horrors of the bombing so vividly that the people weeped. She says that she saw the film, capturing the terror imposed on the victims. The horrid scenes of children and women disfigured and mutilated are juxtaposed to the shots of caressing couple. The main theme of the film is introduced for the first time, the one of remembering and forgetting, of the memory that cannot be relinquished. She says: “Like you I am endowed with memory. I know what it is to forget.” He replies: “No, you are not endowed with memory.” As they are entangled in an embrace she connects herself with him regarding the experience of being permeated with memories. Due to unawareness of her life experiences during the Second World War he replies that their positions are not equivalent; the people of Hiroshima were annihilated and those that survived are left disfigured. As the film progresses both the Japanese man and ourselves become aware of the possibility of identification between the Frenchwoman and the Japanese man. She answers: “Like you, I have struggled with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot. Like you, I longed for a memory beyond consolation, a memory of shadows and stone.”

The Japanese man, an arhitect, whose parents were killed during the bombing, starts to inquire about Frenchwoman’s past; she gradually exposes herself and her love toward a German soldier in her hometown Nevers during the War. She claims that she had gone mad then, since the German soldier was shot by the French. She was screaming his name, “like a deaf man”, and was imprisoned in the cellar by her family. They cut her hair, depraving her of her femininity. She scratched the stone walls to the point her hands were bloody. She experienced a severe trauma. During the scene in which the Frenchwoman talks about her experiences in Nevers they are sitting in a cafe and the articifal light illuminates her face, while the rest of the film is set mostly in the dark and the light is scarce. She speaks to the Japanese man as he is the German soldier saying: “The only memory I have left is your name.” The Japanese man says to her: “In a few years, when I have forgotten you and other advantures like this one… I’ll remember you as the symbol of love’s forgetfulness. I’ll think of this story as the horror of forgetting.” In other words, although remembering traumatic events can be horrifying, the equal horror lies in forgetting, the people and experiences we cherish, regardless of their possibly traumatic content.

 

Vigorous lines:

Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. Thats’ your name.

The Frenchwoman

And your name is Nevers. Nevers in France.

The Japanese man

In the closing lines of the film, the Frenchwoman calls the Japanese man Hiroshima, and he calls her Nevers. Thus they connect each other with the symbols of trauma and destruction. Earlier the Frenchwoman thinks: “This city was tailor-made for love. You fit my body like a glove. Who are you? You are destroying me. I was hungry. Hungry for infidelity, for adultery, for lies and for death. I always have been.” During this voice-over of  Frenchwoman’s thoughts the decaying trees resembling nuclear blast are shown. They bring each other destruction, but the most horrific and the most destructive element of their relationship is that they are aware they will forget each other’s thoughts, feelings they felt for each other and ultimately the time they spent together in Hiroshima. The annihilation (Hiroshima) is not brought by love, but in the instance of forgetting that very love.

Love

Gustav Klimt, Love, 1895 

The painting was found on https://www.gustav-klimt.com/

Note: In this Gustav Klimt’s painting a couple is shown in an embrace, as  they are actors on te stage. The man’s face is of darker textures than woman’s, as in a shade, like the ones in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Above them are symbols of death, youth and old age. In Klimt’s painting the juxtaposition between love and death is particularly emphasized, as in the film. Youth is contrasted with old age, and that can be connected to the immediate experiences of youth which we want preserve in memory, but in older age are necessarily forgotten. The young Frenchwoman from Nevers is closely tied with death since her lover died (as in the painting) and as she grows older the painful but inconspicuous process of forgetting ensues.

There is another aspect, which is somewhat hidden under the many layers presented in the film and that is cultural trauma. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of German Film Sigfried Kracauer writes that “the films of a nation reflect its mentality.” He writes that “what films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions  – those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimenson of consciousness.” In other words, films are expressions of collective mentality of a nation at a certain historical moment. Hiroshima Mon Amour was made in 1959, a short time after the French and the Japanese people experienced severe cultural traumas.

For the French it was the defeat by the Nazis and the occupation, but also the collaboration of a part of the French with the Nazis (Vichy France). This can be seen in the film when Casablanca is shown playing in the theater – the film about French resistence – and in the simple fact that the Frenchwoman was in love with a German and her father was forced to close his shop due to her involvement with him. For the Japanese the trauma was defeat in the war and the occupation, as well as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Frenchwoman and the Japanese man have much in common since both their nations suffered a traumatic defeat and occupation; while for the Frenchwoman the trauma is of personal nature, it reflects the broader context of cultural trauma; the same applies to the Japanese man. The film explores personal and cultural trauma but its main message is the opening of a possibility of connection and empathy between nations since practically all of them have suffered severe traumas in history; the same applies for the members of each nation.

 

References: 

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, A Psychological History of German Film, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2004

 

Manhattan (1979) “Woody Allen’s Monochromatic Nymph”

It is 1979 and in Manhattan the psychoanalyst is on acid, as well as the editorial staff of a comedy show and most likely half of the town Woody Allen is in love with. At the beginning of the film, his character Isaac talks about the decay of his times in regard to “drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…” This referral to decay may be nothing more than a pose, a phantasm of a nervous mind, since this stance seems to appear in almost all cultures regardless of time and place; in a more articulate manner, yet perhaps no more truthful. In Manhattan the Freudian psychoanalysis is not yet replaced by Xanax, present in his recent film Blue Jasmine; the woman at a party claims that ther doctor told her that she has (finally) had a “wrong orgasm”, Isaac’s friend’s lover Mary, which is later involved with Isaac himself, claims that her dog is a “penis substitute” for her; Isaac admits that he tried to run his ex-wife’s girlfriend over with a car, after being cornered via Freud.

To comprehend the movie, we must turn to its end in which Isaac says and records: “An idea for a short story about, um, people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves cos it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems about the… universe”. The “real unnecessary neurotic problems” seem to operate according to the logic of the iron necessity; the characters can’t escape them, yet Isaac sees their illusory lack of substance. Both Mary and his ex-wife told Isaac, or wrote in the memoirs, that his recourse to the “terrifying problems of existence” is sort of a diversion aiming to escape the immediate realities of everyday life.

His narcissism mostly consists of the fact that he sees grandiose narratives involving cosmic ideas in his everday experiences (his paranoid character in Hannah and Her Sisters does the same). Isaac’s “unnecessary neurotic problems” result in a unnerving relationship between the mundane and “cosmic”. During a confrontation with his friend toward the end of the film, he says that he has to model after someone – God.  His recourses and  the embrace of life’s pleasures come in form of the romantic relationships and humor. Groucho Marx is one of the “things” that give his life meaning, since via humor, one can grasp the immediate and mundane, as well as universal, in a manner that affirms life.

 

During a scene at a planetarium, where the interplay of dim light from the planets and shadows forms a beautiful visual imaginarium, in the context of discussing Saturn’s moons, Isaac says to Mary that the facts “mean nothing ’cause nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind…You rely too much on your brain.” Mary suggests that he finds her “too cerebral”, but Manhattan can be described as such as well. The emphasis is not on the “rational thought”; the film seems to project an impression of the elaborate rationalization of characters’ romantic issues, life stances and emotions, yet passion is the main drive that fuels the narration.

The main objects of passion in the film are New York City and Tracy, Isaac’s 17 year old girlfriend, in whose company he feels free and natural. The irony is that while trying to escape commitment with Tracy, (he does not take her seriously since she is a teenager), he gets entangled in strong feelings toward her. Isaac says to Tracy: “You know what you are? You’re God’s answer to Job… He would have pointed to you and said, ‘Y’ know, I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these.” As he recalls all things in life that make it worth living, he singles out Tracy’s face as well. In Nick Cave’s words:

He said that in the end it is beauty

That is going to save the world, now

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Nature Boy, Abattoir Blues, 2004)

 

Vigorous line:

Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it out of all porportion… To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.

 

 

The film opens with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue playing and Isaac’s voice-over telling us of the start of his new book which is inspired by New York City, the city he romanticizes and adores. The City for him means, in a customary Allenesque style – beautiful women –  the crowds and “street smart guys who seemed to know all the angles”. In sum, for Isaac the city is its  people, but also its surreal black and white landscape. The city pulsates; it vibrates to the tunes of the great American composer. The city is his nymph, an inspiration and a muse. It is not uncommon for men of all nations who live in urban areas to form a strong connection with a city they live in, to idolize it: a man and the city coalesce; the city’s streets are his veins, the main square a heart beating with crowds and the street lamps windows of his soul.

In her study Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality, which will be quoted more extensively, Lauren Hackett writes: “The contrast between modernist rationality… and the surrealist pure thought, is exemplified by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York. He recounts the individual experiences of Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier upon their arrival in New York City. Le Corbusier sees in New York City the potential for a rationalized, truly modern city. He critiques its shortcomings as ‘utterly lacking in order and harmony and the comforts of the spirit which must surround humanity.’ He believes that the city wants such rationalization, but he ignores the capacity of the psychological space of the city to overcome its physical rationalization. The only order in Manhattan is the grid. Everything else is able to ocurr freely upon that grid.

Dali immediately realizes the playful imagination of New York. While trying to sleep, he is disrupted in a dream by the roar of lions from the Central Park Zoo. ‘This silence, broken only by roars and savage cries, was so unlike the din that I had expected – that of immense ‘modern and mechanical city’ that I felt completely lost…’ He has realized that the actions that take place in the city traverse the rationalization of the grid. The grid exists only as a field for urban realities to establish relations upon. In this sense, New York City is Surreal. The common person feels liberated by the absurdity of physical relationships.”

The contrast between over-rationalization which most of the characters in Manhattan force upon themselves and the Surreal New York City is the main tension in the film. They should feel liberated due to the “absurdity of physical relationships” and enjoy the Surreal New York City, yet mostly they are entrenched in their own rationalizations. The scene in the planetarium and the one by the Queensboro Bridge are the precious moments in which the characters are lost in their surroundings and truly enjoy life in the night that is theirs and in the city which is their own.

 

 

References:

Hackett, Lauren “Fragmented City: The Intersection of Surrealism and Urban Reality” (2009), Architecture Senior Thesis. Paper 84.

 

Death In Venice (1971) “Beauty Amidst Decay”

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies. The main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. Gustav’s friend despises his self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world.

Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts.

 

When Gustav comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees.

The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. Since Gustav is a composer in Visconti’s film, this may imply the decadence of music in contemporary times, a topic interestingly explored by Theodor Adorno. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Gustav says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The  perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty is deeply present throghout Death In Venice.

 

Vigorous lines:

You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.

Gustav von Aschenbach

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. This form of “divine madness” is love that comes from gods Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; he does not engage in contact with him until the last part of the movie. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty.

No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.

Alfred

In the ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing sublime beauty. Symbolically it conveys the moment in which the artist  creates works of the purest aesthetic value and his decline as an artist commences. It also points to an aesthetic experience which is an everlasting benchmark for comparison with other objects of aesthetic appreceation, bordering on adolation.

When an artist reaches the zenith of his abilities, only decadence can follow, since all living things either grow or decay. Old age and decadence are contrasted with youth and purity. Gustav’s friend Alfred says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” The film’s title Death In Venice (Venice is often called serenissima – “the calmest”) carries an explicit allusion to sickness and decadence (the plague) which are juxtaposed to purity and beauty (Tadzio); a synthesis is formed out of oppositions. Thus, art is only possible in the realm of finality and entropy; nevertheless, when the screen freezes, the beauty is preserved.

Late Spring (1949) “Tears at A Noh Play”

There is a certain sadness that permeates Ozu’s films, of the passing of time and an era; of transience, of a time that will be long gone, but needs to be preserved. This is most particularly true for his so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s muse; Last Spring is a part of the trilogy. The film follows Noriko as she is living with her father, her devotion to him and her reluctance to get married and leave him. It is a domestic drama that strives for simplicity, but also portrays an era Japan is going through, the post-war period. The rapid change of social structure and most particularly young generations is presented.

His other films, Tokyo Twillight, for example, show the consequences of those changes for the structure of the society, most notably the family. Ozu is called “the most Japanese” of the directors famous in the West; Akira Kurosawa was never recognized in Japan in a way the Western societies valued him. Ozu was called a “social conservative” by the New Wave Japanese directors, and that may very well be true. His portrayal of the changes that ocurred in the post-war Japan show the impact of Westernization policies in everyday life and in the prevailing atmosphere.

 Late Spring opens with a shot of a railway station sign written both in English and Japanese and a shot of a traditional Japanese building. This scene alone shows that the film deals with the traditional and newly emerging influence on the Japanese culture. Later, Coca Cola sign appears; it was not unusual for Japanese directors of that era to use its symbolism as a sign of the Western influence on Japanese culture – the ending of Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods uses this particular symbol extensively. When Noriko’s father and his friend are talking about in which direction Tokyo, the ocean and the shrine are located, his friend seems to lose orientation with regard to the exact location of the places and static objects. This implies that Japan is losing its cultural locus  and identity in the historical changes, and is lost in the transformation that is taking place; the identity needs to be rashaped and found again.

West Tower

The changes are not just cultural, in the sense that children are playing baseball and Gary Cooper is a symbol of masculinity; they are broad in the sense that the societal structure is changing, but there is a need to preserve the traditions of the people. This particular tension is the major force behind Ozu’s most important works. Late Spring seems to be a personal film for Ozu, since he never married and stayed with his mother until she died, he passed away two years later.

 The film is mainly about filial devotion and care, and ultimately the sacrifice for the loved one. A particularly powerful scene is the one in which Noriko and her father are at a Noh play in the theatre. Noriko, anticipating the possibility of leaving her father and marrying, looks down sadly, while the chants and music are being performed. The camera beautifully captures Noriko’s feelings and sadness over her anticipated departure, the solemn atmosphere and her father’s face showing delight make it the key scene in the film.

 

Noriko’s father tells how she was engaged in forced labor during the war and  used to “spend her holidays scrounging for food” and how that built her character. Ozu implies that character is built through sacrifice and suffering. The scholar Motoori Norinaga invented a term to define the essence of Japanese culture; it is called mono no aware, the phrase derives from aware which means “sensitivity to things.”. This kind of sensitivity is particularly present in Ozu’s films, Late Spring seems to capture the moments with great care and the film delicately captures the feelings of the protagonists and the spirit of the tradition. There is a certain warmth in this portrayal, characters are shown as deeply sensitive and caring toward others and prone to endure what is necessary.

 

Vigorous line:

If I had said otherwise she wouldn’t have married

Noriko’s father

 

Noriko’s father lies about remarrying, wanting to leave impression that he will ve someone to live with and take care of him. This is particularly hard for him since Noriko repeatedly expressed her wish to stay with him so he can be taken care of. When they talk for the last time before her marriage, she says: “Even marriage couldn’t make me happier. My greatest happiness is to be with you.” Ozu uses an ellipsis, which is a characteristic of his cinematic style, when he does not show Noriko’s marriage on screen; her fiancé is not present as well. Her father’s lie about remarrying is what Plato presented as a “noble lie”, a lie which is necessary to be the foundation of something of utmost importance; for him the foundation of a state, for Noriko’s father the prospect of his daughter starting a new life in marriage.

Noriko’s father’s friend remarries and Noriko calls him “unclean”, jokingly, but she sees that act as indecent, to say the least. Her father’s sacrifice is thus even greater since the biggest lie he told, as he says, involves an act which his daughter sees as immoral. The viewer cannot but feel respect toward a man who does not shy away from putting his honor at stake for good ends; at the same time he loses his loved one and condemns himself to loneliness.

 

The film ends with father entering the house, sitting on a chair and peeling an apple. There is immense sadness in this scene, and the viewer cannot but feel father’s pain, alongside him. His head falls down in despair; he is left alone so his daughter can have a prospect of a good life and happiness. One cannot but think that this symbolizes the end of the old Japan, as it was known to many. A shot of the sea at the end reminds us of the transience of life, but also that endings are the new beginnings. Thus, with life’s spring ending, a new season begins.

Hrvoje Galić