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

 

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.

Three Colors: Blue (1993) “Blue Is the Coldest Color”

Three Colors: Blue came out half a year after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, transforming the European Community into the European Union. The film was supported by the Council of Europe, but mostly financed by the French. It celebrates the idea of the European unity and integration, but also the three principles of the French revolution – equality, brotherhood and freedom.

Kieślowski said in an interview: “The words [liberté, egalité, fraternité] are French because the money [to fund the films] is French. If the money had been of a different nationality, we would have titled the films differently, or they might have had a different cultural connotation. But the films would probably have been the same.” The films are, of course, titled after the colors of the French flag.

Three Colors: Blue opens with a shot of car wheels, ominously turning down the road, anticipating a tragedy. The film follows Julie (Juliette Binoche) as she suffers after she had lost her husband and a child in a car accident. She is struggling with her feelings, repressing her emotions and suffering, trying to appear strong and not vulnerable. Soon after her loved ones’ death she has sex with a man who is in love with her, appearing cold to his emotions toward her. In a memorable scene we see an extreme close-up of infant mice; we can see how the newborn affect Julie’s tortured psyche since she has lost a child. She gets a cat and exterminates them.

One of the few truly joyous scenes throghout the film is when a young man who found Julie’s husband’s cross necklace gives it to her; the boy tells her a joke her husband told before his death, which she immediately recognized and laughed. In the scene after the aforementioned one, she is swimming in a pool and the blue color is particularly vivid. This implies that a feeling of connection with her husband gave way to a possibility of expressing sadness. The scene with a golden cross necklace also anticipates the joyous and ethereal ending of the film, in which Christianity has a particular significance.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake. Germans even imagine God singing songs.”. Julie’s husband was a world-famous composer, composing a piece in celebration of the creation of the European Union. The composer who wrote the music for the film was Zbigniew Preisner; he worked with Kieślowski on other films, most notably The Double Life of Veronique and his music present in the films is attributed to the fictional composer Van den Budenmayer. Van den Budenmayer allegedly composed in the late 18th century Netherlands, in the period between Baroque and the Romanticism. Baroque’s majestic force of classical harmony and order was celebrating the pain of Christ and his sufferings, while Preisner celebrates love, and brotherhood of the European people. Romantic movement on the other hand, which was strong in Kieślowski’s Poland as well, celebrated the irrational, emotionalism, fantasy and imagination. Preisner seems to draw inspiration from both movements.

 

 

The song in the finale, Song for the Unification of Europe, is majestic, its verses are from the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians and his famous words about love. It must be higlighted that the Greek word for love is agape, which can be also translated as charity, a selfless love (in the film, Julie and her lover refer to the Greek version of the text). It is seen as the highest form of love. St. Paul says:

 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Allegory of Charity, 1655

Francisco de Zurbarán, Allegory of Charity, 1655

The French principle of equality is mentioned in the movie in the brief scene in the court, but is also celebrated at the end of the film. The principle of brotherhood is particularly emphasized in the film as well, of the Europeans, but also all men regardless their choices in life or social stature. This is implied in the figure of a prostitute  which Julie helps in the time of need; the principle of freedom is here stressed out. Three Colors: Blue is a sad and joyous celebration of life and the fundamental liberal democratic values. While The Song for Unification of Europe is playing, we can see the faces of people we encountered in the film, among them a prostitute; they are all equal in their joys and sufferings, Kieślowski implies.

 

Vigorous line:

You emptied out the blue room?

Julie

room-2100820_640

Julie’s asking if the blue room is emptied symbolizes her rejection of the mourning process. Her maid tells her that she is crying because Julie is not. She also says that she vividly remembers Julie’s husband and child. After a trauma one experiences pain, sense and memory loss, among other side-effects. When the doctor tells Julie of her husband and child’s death, we can see an extreme close-up of her eye, which is moving distressfully.

As Derrida says, a “phantom” may be produced if we refuse to mourn. This implies that someone incorporates the lost body and “acts out”. Julie bites her daughter’s candy stressfully and tosses it into a fire and breaks a window in the hospital. Mourning is constitutive for the subject; one may refuse to mourn after experiencing a trauma out of the desire to stay the same as before; Julie wishes to stay strong and self-dependent. This can, of course, be dangerous for a person’s well being. The only reminder of her daughter she decides to keep is the blue chandelier, with blue symbolizing sadness and loss. Earlier in the film, she violently breaks it.

In Three Colors: Red, the red color appears quite often, while on the other hand, the blue color in Three Colors: Blue appears rarely. Only the pool, certain objects and sometimes the screen are blue; this symbolizes the lack of sadness. During the final scenes, we can see her naked body in her lover’s eye and her tears, at last. The ending credits are blue, and that should not be taken lightly. The grieving process has just started and the film was only a preparation, a journey through suffering and the creation of art, and in the end, the beginning sadness, melancholia.

 

References:

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

 

Wings of Desire (1987) “Celestial Purity and Carnality”

 The original title of the film Wings of Desire is Der Himmel über Berlin (Sky Over Berlin); the English title beautifully captures the main antinomy present in the film – the one between spirituality and celestial purity and the carnal, eroticism and sensuality. In Marion’s character, the sensuality and existentalist wondering about being-in-the-world (Heidegger) are both present, she frequently asks herself questions of profound meaning; her character is authentic. She is beautiful, sensual and radiates eroticism of elegant stature.

Titian Angel

Tiziano Vecellio, Angel, 1520-1522

Note: Titian’s Angel beautifully embodies the aforementioned ideas of celestial purity and carnality; Titian’s nudes can be contrasted to his Annunciation; the erotic and the divine are equally important for his work

On the other side of the coin is Cassiel, an angel who is portrayed as the angel of Temperance is in the Renaissance art; he is one of seven Archangels. At the end of the film, when Nick Cave performs and the meeting between Marion and Damiel is about to happen, Cassiel turns himself against the wall in sadness and a hint of anger arises. The film is abundant with existentialist voice-overs, but the carnal and the erotic aspect enriches it and makes it similar to its photography. Black and white often turn into colour palletes of symbolic meanings; most of the last half an hour of the film is shot in colour – when Damiel becomes a man.

It is interesting that the tale of Genesis and a primordial river that emanated life is rather detached from religious narratives; beautiful shots of trees and water show the essence of life, its origin in the abundance of nature. It is symptomatic that water is the element which is presented as a spring of life, everything came into being from water. The character which is in spiritual communication with Cassiel is the Storyteller, a keeper of man’s memories and a well of creation. He admits that he is old, he longs for days long past, but through his words everything is preserved and new tales come into being.

At the end of the film, Damiel and Marion meet and she has a monologue characteristic of Wenders’ work (Paris, Texas), she opens her soul to him, tells him that with him she can be lonesome, an idea that is associated with true companionship – “to be alone together”. Nick Cave performs in the background, we can hear his song “From Her To Eternity”, a song which contemplates suffering over a woman. One of the verses says:

But, Ah know, that to possess her,

Is therefore not to desire her.

 

Vigorous line:

 When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it is a child, everything was full of life, and all life was one.

Damiel

The Croatian novelist Vladan Desnica once wrote: “There was a multitude of religions and philosophies that claimed that a man has a soul, and that very soul is endless and immortal. It often seemed to me peculiar that never and nowhere there was a belief that a child has an endless and immortal soul, and later when it grows up, loses it.”

This Desnica’s belief can be compared to the main ideas of Wings of Desire. When Bruno Ganz’s character, the angel Damiel, listens to the thoughts of people, those thoughts are often banal and without substantial meaning, while the children who see him, smile at him and ask themselves profound questions. A phrase “When the child was a child” is a leitmotif of the film, it is often repeated; child has an endless soul and is entagled in much deeper existential questions than a grown man.

Children In the Sea

Joaquin Sorolla, Children in the Sea

A child is immersed into the world, the trees in the woods breath with life and life is similar to a dreamlike experience. Friedrich Nietzsche in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra tells a parable of transformation from a camel into a lion and then a child. A camel carries the burdens of the world on her back, the lion destroys those burdens, while the child has abundant creativity and carefree freedom for play. Heraclitus wrote: “Eternity is like a child playing at draughts, the kingdom belongs to a child.”

Hrvoje Galić

Princess Mononoke (1997) “A Beautiful Tale of Corruption”

In 1995 Hayao Miyazaki took a group of artists and animators to the ancient forests of Yakushima, which inspired the landscapes in the film. At the beginning, the narrator says:

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts… who owed their allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.”

Miyazaki’s vision of the “days of gods and demons” seems to be inspired by the ancient Japanese religion, still practiced today, Shintoism. Kami are the spirits that are worshipped; they are not separated from nature, but are of nature. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the life of prehistoric man, a savage lives in accordance with nature and in peace with animals. He states: “no animal naturally makes war upon man, except in case of self-defence or extreme hunger, nor expresses against him any of these violent anthipathies.” He also writes: “Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice.” On the other hand, in Princess Mononoke man and beast wage war against each other.

It is a tale of corruption, of both beast and man. The corruption of man can be found in two different shapes. The enemy of both “industrial man” and beasts are the Samurai (Miyazaki seems to follow the tradition of great Japanese directors Masaki Kobayashi, Kikachi Okamoto and other New Wave directors in this matter); the enemy of beasts are men who possess iron. The Samurai are corrupt since they follow the authoritharian form of government in which some are oppressed and others rule, while the “industrial man” is corrupt because he uses technology, namely, iron, to subdue nature and others. Rousseau also writes: “It is a very difficult matter to tell how men came to know anything of iron and the art of employing it… mines are formed nowhere but in dry and barren places… so that it looks as if nature had taken pains to keep from us so mischiveous a secret.”

Rousseau sees the discovery of iron and agriculture as a great step toward man’s tyranny over himself, other men and nature itself. It is no coincidence that in Miyazaki’s animated movie man possesses iron which destroys animals and turns them into demons. Prince Ashitaka is touched by the demon and becomes cursed himself; his hand wants to murder Lady Eboshi, while his mind remains uncorrupted. He serves as a mediator between the Beasts and “industrial men”, while he makes no fine moral judgments regarding the Samurai, the relics of the Japanese past.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa 1830-1832

In Princess Mononoke the nature is abused and it hits back, turns against man. The Beasts wage war against man, while their sovereign, Forest Spirit guards over them. This can be seen as a parable directed against contemporary man’s behaviour toward nature. His machines destroy it and nature “fights back” in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes. In the last few decades, the number of hurricanes in the world has tripled, and indicators show that this happens as a consequence of man’s actions.

Thus, Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist film, but its scope is even greater. The corruption of man is demonstrated by numerous examples; his lust for power is endless and he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It is symptomatic that the Emperor wants Forest God’s head to achieve immortality. The moral is that he will not get immortality, but he will only engineer his own destruction. The film ends with Lady Eboshi advocating  a return to the traditional form of life and states that she will build a village and live in accordance with Nature. This is fairly optimistic, it is a fantasy of reunion with our own essence.

Note: This lullaby perfectly captures the feelings princess Mononoke experiences throughout the film.
Vigorous line:

Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.

Osa

buddha-199462_960_720

The aforementioned line reminds one of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. He was well-versed in Indian philosophy and compared his philosophy to Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s anthropological and metaphysical pessimism emphasizes that to live means to suffer. Prince Ashitaka, although aware that he is cursed and is about to die, has the will to continue striving and fighting for what is good and just; he is a heroic figure. Princess Mononoke often calls him human; in other words enemy, yet he chooses not to take sides and strike whenever it is needed against those who bring chaos and disorder. Living in this world may entail suffering, Osa implies, but the moral of Princess Mononoke is the necessity to find the will to continue fighting. When all hope fades, those who can bring change by a heroic act or seemingly small acts ( e.g. of compassion), are the people who, against all odds, bring order and harmony into the world.

Hrvoje Galić

Badlands (1973) “Romantic and Soulless Killing Spree”

[This article has been edited on 11.3.2018]

Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first film is loosely based on real-life events following the murders a couple had commited in 1958, in the United States.  In 1993 the United States National Film Registry elected Badlands for preservation since they considered the film to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. The film inspired a singer-songwriter Bruce Sprinsteen and his title song Nebraska; Springsteen saw it on television.

 

I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton

Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died

(Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982)

Springsteen was reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find at that time; that very short story can be juxtaposed to Malick’s film;  O’Connor and Malick share their religious beliefs. One can wonder if Malick agrees with the title of the story; his oeuvre seems to confirm this assumption.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen) and a 15 year old girl Holly who start a killing-spree across the country. The way in which they end up together is peculiar to say the least. He seduces her and she quickly falls in love with him. They are both interesting individuals; we don’t know Kit’s background yet we can reconstruct Holly’s. At the beginning she says: “My mother dies of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yard man.”

The act of keeping and burying certain important or symbolic items is present throughout the film; Kit does it often. Holly’s throwing out her fish after it got sick is of immense importance for understanding her character. She says that’s the only thing she did wrong. Since her father did not want her and Kit to be together, Kit shoots him. When her father died, his lips resembled those of fish; in Nick Cave’s words:

Well you know those fish with the swollen lips

That clean the ocean floor

When I looked at poor O’ Malley’s wife

That’s exactly what I saw

(Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads, O’Malley’s Bar, 1996)

Since she threw out the fish and her father resembled one when he died, we can conclude that Holly felt guilty of her father’s murder. After his death, Kit burns Holly’s house while Carl Orff’s Passion plays.

 

The act of burning the house and Holly’s father killing the dog is, in part, what made Holly indifferent and empty. Everything she loved and cherished – was destroyed. Her indifference to the murders and the tone of her voice implies apathy; it can also be explained as a defense mechanism. When someone sees horrors and suffers greatly, one may become apathetic out of desire to prevent further suffering (he or she recedes as if into a shell).

Kit, on the other hand is psychotic; that very thing makes him an individual, different from the rest. At the beginning Holly says: “And as he lay in bed in the middle of the night, he always heard a noise like somebody was holding a seashell against his ear. And sometimes he’d see me coming toward him in beautiful white robes and I’d put my cold hand on his forehead.” Kit’s seeing her in “beautiful white robes” may imply that he longs for innocence and purity he cannot find in this world.

 

Vigorous line:

Kit knew the end was coming. He wondered if they’d have the doctor pronounce him dead, or if he’d read what the papers would say from the other side.

Holly

Holly tells us this after a beautiful and simple shot in which Nat King Cole sings: “The dream has ended, for true love died.” She decides that she will never hang around with another “hell-bent” type, no matter how in love she was. There is no tone of regret or sadness in her voice when she tells this, only indifference, although secretly filled with a yearning for life. The darkness surrounding them as they dance symbolizes the vacuum created in their souls and the ending of a romantic relationship.

Kit contemplates his path into eternity, he wants to be in contact with this world even after death; more importantly, he wants to know what people say about him. Kit’s words open up a question regarding a relationship between a mass murderer and his presentation in the media. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers particularly deals with this issue in a tone of a powerful and psychotic satire. The media report the killings and people seem to be fascinated with them to a troubling degree.

Walter Benjamin in his Critique of Violence writes about a “great criminal” who inspires admiration in the masses due to his total disregard to the existing legal order. Kit as a mass murderer fascinates us when we see him on film, most likely due to Martin Sheen’s astonishing performance and his character’s ravaging individuality. This is particularly vivid at the end of the film when the policemen seem fascinated with Kit, ask him why he had done the killings and ask each other about their favourite musicians. Kit even gives them his personal belongings as mementos.

The question which should be posed is not only a relationship between mass murderers and media in real life, but also between presentation of mass murderers on film. There seems to be a triangular relationship regarding to mass murders involving the real-life events, the media and fiction. This is the essence of Kit’s words when he wonders what will the media say about him when he dies (since he is a fictious character, based on a real-life one, and contemplates the role of media when he is gone).

His narcissistic curiosity overshadowed with metaphysical questions explores another aspect of the relationship of a criminal and mass media, his fascination with his own projection which can be a motive for further acts of violence. During the film he records himself leaving fragments of his thoughts while having illusions of grandeur.

When the policemen finally catch Kit, he builds a grave for himself with the stones he found on the road. The longing to be remembered is equally strong in human beings as to be remembered for something “extraordinary” (with and without quotation marks) and becoming a mass murderer fits that description in a gruesome fashion (think of Charles Manson). The last shot in the film shows the airplane soaring in the sky and we see a beautiful shot of clouds and the Sun. The airplane symbolizes the soaring of the soul into afterlife.

sunset-1625073_960_720

 

Hrvoje Galić

2046 (2004) “Wong Kar-wai’s Poetry of Destructive Love”

Wong Kar-wai is not just a movie director, he is a psychologist and a poet dealing with romantic love. His style is so nuanced and brought to perfection that he can be put in the same sentence with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri; the early poems of the aforemention poet are not his authentically, he imitated other authors, mostly Guido Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti’s poem Fresca rosa novella partially reads

Tu m’hai si piena di dolor la mente’

You have filled my mind with such agony

‘Voi che per li occhi mi passaste l’core’

You who grasp my heart through the eyes

 

We can see that in Cavalcanti’s poem visual tropes are often used. In the first part od Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, the main female character wears sunglassees in the night; if interpreted in the spirit of Cavalcanti’s poem, it seems that she doesn’t want anyone to fall in love with her (it is true that she does drug deals and wears sunglasses for practical reasons, but it may also be seen as a defense mechanism).

A part of one of Dante’s poems  published in his book Vita nuova reads:

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing

Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Pious Lady on the Right (Study for Dante’s Dream)

Note: The painting, The Pious Lady on the Right, although seeming to be at odds with the ideas presented, portrays the spirit of the aforementioned poem and Wong Kar-wai’s work; a woman is the victim of Amor as well as man.

The connection between Dante from Vita nuova, Cavalcanti and Wong Kar-wai is obvious – both of them find romantic love destructive. In his movies love is never actualized; it is a zero-sum game, but in the end his characters don’t end up with a zero; they end up emotionally crushed, but also enriched by the joyous experience of romantic love. 2046 is the final part of a loose trilogy Days of Being Wild – In the Mood for Love – 2046. Some of the characters from the previous two movies appear again in 2046, but transformed and severely emotionally “damaged”. 2046 tells us what happened with Mr. Chow after the events in In the Mood For Love. Structurally, the film can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Mr. Chow is a libertine lover; in the second he is a nostalgic and caring gentleman.

He engages with a woman who lives next door; she doesn’t succumb easily to Mr. Chow’s newfound charm. He has to “win her over”, after she slaps him when he presents her with a gift. They form an unusal relationship in which Mr. Chow makes the rules; he does not want to get emotionally involved. In the beginning, she is similar to Charles Boudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval, at least as much as we can tell from Boudelaire’s reflections about her in his poems; he often compares her to a cat.

The subplot in the film follows the motel owner’s daughter’s relationship with a Japanese man; although this relationship succeeds, precisely that fact is a catalyst for Mr. Chow’s intensified suffering. Mr. Chow is a writer, and he imagines a place called 2046 where people can recapture their lost memories and experience them again, possibly into eternity.

 

French philosopher René Descartes used to imagine that an evil demon of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to decieve me.” This “demon”, for Descartes, is our senses; applying this notion of Cartesian philosophy to the world of Wong Kar-wai’s movies leads to the conclusion that romantic feelings are such a demon. We can see plainly that in the end Mr. Chow’s life has lost its meaning, romantic feelings have played so many tricks on him that in the end he starts living the life of a gambler. Gambling is a game of chance and luck, symbolically it can be compared to romantic experience; he simply cannot surpass modus operandi he is used to.

Vigorous line:

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because in 2046… nothing ever changes.

Mr. Chow

During his voyages Odysseus encountered Phaecians, a highly civilized race who live the life of pleasure and enjoyment of poetry. The king offers him to marry Nausicaa, his daughter, and to live with them. After hearing the bard singing, Odysseus says:

My Lord Alcinous, what could be finer

Than listening to a singer of tales

Such as Demodocus with a voice like god’s?

Nothing we do is sweeter than this

For Odysseus, this is one of the greatest temptations he encountered during his journeys. Mr. Chow is tempted with 2046 as well; they both leave the place since they are aware that their life journey simply cannot stop there; they are destined for more. The Japanese man Mr. Chow imagines goes to 2046 and is simply lost during the encounter with a robot he falls in love with.

Both the Japanese man and Mr. Chow, who leaves 2046, are a significant part of his personality; he wants to live “among the Phaecians”, but his instinct tells him that it is utterly destructive to live an illusion and a lie. Escaping illusions and lies can be more harmful than living in them, but both Odysseus and Mr. Chow show moral strength and virtue and leave the place. They decide to live the life of pain and hardship.

The episode with Phaecians has another side to it. It represents the dangers of music and poetry to an individual’s well-being. Immersing oneself into life of aesthetic pleasure is criticized by Kierkegaard in his Enten-Eller. Although Kierkegaard presents aesthetical and ethical life as matters of existantial choice and implies that they are incommensurable, it is obvious (when his other works are considered as an argument supporting the thesis) that he is advocating religious life.

In his Politeia, Plato writes that Homer should be honored and then excluded from the polity. Plato saw the dangers poetry can bring. Wong Kar-wai and Dante are poets who are aware of the dangers romantic love and uncontrolled emotions can bring; we can only guess if Plato would include them in his polity.

End Note: I owe my gratitude regarding to the more nuanced understanding of Dante’s poetry to my former professoressa, Ludovica

Hrvoje Galić