The Cranes are Flying is a Soviet film released a little more than a decade after the end of The Great Patriotic War, and four years after the death of Joseph Stalin. It was only well after Stalin’s death, under the protection of Khrushchev’s thaw, that director Mikhail Kalatozov was safe to make the film. The Cranes are Flying would have bothered Stalin. It’s not unpatriotic — instead, it’s patriotic in the wrong way. Under Stalin, Soviet films portrayed the war as a glorious victory, with the common people and the nation’s strong leader working hand-in-hand to defeat the Nazis. (American and British films largely did the same during this decade.)
But The Cranes are Flying skips the victory. It exposes the war as a tragedy – one that killed about 1 in 10 Russians. The battle scenes show soldiers trudging along in misery, and being killed for no clear reason. It shows the people at home suffering through no fault of their own, denied even the halo war widows are given in the novels.
The Cranes are Flying coalesces this suffering into a single character. Veronica may have lost her only true love in the war. She has also lost her home, her family, her self-respect, her social standing and has undergone tremendous trauma. She moves through wartime Russia as almost a non-person. She keeps her pain inside of her.
Then the film climaxes, and Veronica lets it all out. Her pain is transformed into a pain of victory, and is identified with the greater Russian cause.
Some leftists saw the film as anti-war. I disagree. Much like Saving Private Ryan, it acknowledges the horror and pointlessness of war, but without denigrating the cause. The movie legitimizes the trauma of the Russian people, and encourages them to see their pain as an act of patriotism, rather than as a cause for discontent against the ruling regime.
I recently was able to tour the Angels & Tomboys exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, featuring depictions of girls in 19th-century American art. The introductory sign explains that the paintings “…reveal artists’ fascination with this subject, particularly after the Civil War, when the themes of home and its female inhabitants resonated with a traumatized nation.”
Reading that, my mind turned to films about young girls made after the wars that traumatized Europe in the 20th century. Did some European artists who lived through war also turn towards young girls as subjects for the same reasons?
During the wars, young girls would have been the most marginalized and least important players. Films made during the war and in the decade or so following focused on the heroic deeds of the young men involved. There are adult women involved as love interests, but never young women, and never girls.
After years of faraway adventures and of tales about those adventures, it would make sense for some filmmakers to long for “the themes of home and its female inhabitants.”
Two paintings in particular at the Crystal Bridges exhibition reminded me of scenes from these films.
The first is an oil painting by John George Brown called Crossing the Brook. Brown was an immigrant from England, who began painting in New York shortly before the start of the Civil War. I’ve paired it with an image from Mouchette, by director Robert Bresson. Bresson famously spent time as a prisoner of war during World War II.
William Merritt Chase’s Idle Hours immediately brought to mind The Spirit of the Beehive, by director Victor Erice. I chose this movie frame because of how it matches the painting compositionally, but virtually any still from the film would match the painting’s palette.
Erice was born the year he sets his film – 1940, immediately at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Chase was a teenager in Indianapolis during the American Civil War. He joined the U.S. Navy at Annapolis as soon as he was old enough – which was after the war had already ended – but quickly changed his mind and made a career in painting.
Our American and European reactions show similarities to each other in color, composition, subject matter and context. But, I believe the artists are doing very different things.
Brown’s and Chase’s paintings are soothing. They show an innocence either regained or untouched by war. They are protected by nature.
Bresson’s and Erice’s girls however, are assaulted by nature and by deranged men. They are traumatized. Mouchette lives in an abusive household. She runs into the woods and is raped by an epileptic fugitive. She commits suicide by drowning.
Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive is traumatized by a story not too unlike Mouchette’s. She watched the film Frankenstein, and sees a girl drowned by an imbecile monster in the woods. Later, she finds her own man in the wilderness; he is a fugitive republican soldier. She helps him, but he is shot by Franco’s police. She stops speaking, but a doctor assures her family the shock will wear off.
Now, we see the contrast. In the American paintings, we see a desire to forget the war. Reconciliation and harmony is possible, because even though the men may have been through hell, women have been left untouched. We can go back to the way things were.
In the European films, such a reconciliation to the world is unthinkable.
A Man Escaped is “based on a true story” – in this case the memoirs of French prisoner of war André Devigny. An opening title tells us 7,000 people died at the Montluc prison at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Director Robert Bresson himself held as a prisoner of war for a year.
The plot of the film is simple. Lt. Fontaine is a member of the French Resistance who is captured by the occupying Nazis. He puts together a plan of escape. Each day, he quietly chisels away at the door with a metal spoon. He puts the panels carefully back in place and covers it with a bathrobe, in case a guard should search his cell.
Another prisoner is shot trying to escape. Fontaine is sentenced to death. And he is given a cellmate, who Fontaine considers killing to keep him from further complicating the escape plan.
Several choices by Bresson keep the film focused, fast-paced and exciting. He famously used non-professional actors in his movies, and here that decision works to push audiences’ focus on the action instead of on a face. We see shots of hands making rope and cutting wood and of feet reaching for the ground rather than close-ups of a star sweating.
Likewise, the story is also action-focused. In contrast to the over-producedThe Shawshank Redemption, A Man Escaped tells us only the smallest details of Fontaine’s crime and nothing of his plans after leaving prison. We know only what we need to know and see what we need to see.
“Watching a film like “A Man Escaped” is like a lesson in the cinema. It teaches by demonstration all the sorts of things that are not necessary in a movie. By implication, it suggests most of the things we’re accustomed to are superfluous. I can’t think of a single unnecessary shot in “A Man Escaped.”” – Roger Ebert
Bresson uses A Man Escaped as a religious story of hope for redemption, and he makes sure the audience knows it. But the film is nowhere as ham-handed about its allegory as Shawshank is. For the most part, Escaped zeroes in on the central drama of any prison escape story:
“…by employing the shot–counter shot rhythm generally used for conversations, Bresson converts Fontaine’s interactions with his cell door into a struggle between protagonist and antagonist.” – Tony Pipolo
Day of Wrath, a movie about 17th Century women accused and condemned of witchcraft, was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and released just months after the Nazis dissolved the Protectorate Government, announced martial law and began hunting for Danish Jews.
But there are no “Righteous” in Day of Wrath. Anne falls in love with her husband’s son, and the two start an affair. Dreyer portrays Anne in the most sympathetic light he can — their sinning takes place in sunny meadows and they are the only happy scenes in a film primarily composed of dour faces. But Anne won’t recognize her sin, and she (rather justifiably) wishes her husband dead.
This moral ambiguity adds to the idea that Anne can symbolize Denmark. At the time of filming, the nation was actively cooperating with the Nazis. Now that collaboration has been condemned, and rightfully so. But that collaboration likely saved countless lives, and prevented the Holocaust from spreading north. Denmark’s deal (collaboration to save Jews) could be allegorized as Anne’s deal (consummation to save witches).
Other references to the occupation can be found in the rumors that the blonde-haired Anne’s mother may have secretly been a witch (read: Jew), and in the torture and “interrogation” of the kangaroo court. Even here, Dreyer’s condemnation is double-edged: in 1943 the Danish Church protected the Jews. But the 17th Century setting reminds one that the Nazis did not invent European anti-Semitism, and implicates the church for its sins as well. The film is inspired by an actual witch trial. (Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon likewise explores the roots of Nazism in Europe’s past)
In the end, the Day of Wrath comes for everyone. The repentant are tortured by their own consciences. The unrepentant are burned at the stake.
The 9 1/2 hour film Shoah consists of eyewitness testimony of those who participated in and were the victims of the slaughter of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime. Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors, former Nazis, train drivers, and neighbors. There is no archival footage – Lanzmann overlays the interviews with footage of how the extermination camps looked when he arrived, in the 1980’s.
The Holocaust was still a memory when Lanzmann took up his camera in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The film is as far removed from the events as a film about U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be today. I’ve had the privilege of hearing from two concentration camp survivors in person. When Lanzmann travelled to villages in Poland, he was swarmed in the streets by curious people who were eager to about life in a town where hundreds of thousands were put to death.
Shortly after the end of the war, it was decided to cast the German populace as good people, seduced by their wicked leaders. How could such a civilized nation be tricked into doing such barbarous deeds? Propaganda, socialism, poverty, and insufficient commitment to Western liberalism usually get the blame. But in political debate, it’s hard to find something that won’t “eventually lead to the Holocaust!”
Lanzmann simplifies all this. The Holocaust happened because people hate Jews. The Poles he interviews are what Americans would call “casual racists.” When Lanzmann brings an extermination camp survivor back to the town that let the Nazis take him away, they talk about how glad they are to see their Jewish friend again — while one man recites the Christ-killer myth in front of a church Jews were rounded up in, oblivious to his own anti-Semitism.
Lanzmann is able to confront us, his audience, with the historical reality of the Holocaust. It’s not an abstract philosophical point that can be used to criticize contemporary politics (Munich, Fahrenheit 9/11, X-Men: Origins) or subject matter for Oscar-bait (Schindler’s List, The Pianist).
His interviews with the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust are disturbing. Some of them use a hidden camera, recording Lanzmann’s promise that the subject only being interviewed for background. (Lanzmann’s autobiography The Patagonian Hare goes into fascinating detail about his deception.)
None of them are willing to take responsibility for any of their actions. Each assures Lanzmann they themselves had nothing against the Jews and were ‘only following orders.’ Franz Suchomel even absurdly argues with Lanzmann about the number of people the Nazis could kill in one day at Treblinka:
Lanzmann: To “process” 18,000 people, to liquidate them… Suchomel: Mr. Lanzmann, that’s an exaggeration. Believe me. Lanzmann: How many? Suchomel: 12,000 to 15,000. But we had to spend half the night at it.
When Lanzmann interviews one of the Nazis in charge of the Warsaw ghetto, he finds more evasion. Dr. Franz Grassler claims to remember very little, (“I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips…”) and takes notes of the dates, acting surprised. (July 7, 1941? That’s the first time I’ve re-learned a date…. So in July I was already there!”) Dr. Grassler recasts the ghettos as a humanitarian mission, meant to keep Jews alive and typhus from spreading.
The travel agent who got the Nazis group discounts on the train tickets they bought for Jews, the SS officer who killed families and the villagers who did nothing were not college students in a Stanley Milgram experiment. Lanzmann intercuts the interviews of the perpetrators with one of historian Raul Hilberg, who famously argued against the “banality of evil” thesis.
But Lanzmann refuses to offer psychological or political excuses. A person does not have to be insane, sadistic, compliant or brainwashed to commit evil. Lanzmann disengages from the ‘comic book Nazi’ and the ‘just following orders’ tropes. He shows us men and women who seem no more remarkable than those we see on trial for murder every day.
“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Come and See might be the best war film I’ve seen. Devoid of the trappings of heroism or nobility that we lay over the chaos once it has ended, Come and See is the pure horror of war.
There’s more than a bit of a dichotomy with war films, especially with American war films. Soul-searching anti-war goes to Vietnam. Gritty heroism in the face of evil goes to World War II. Regardless of style or genre, we eternally celebrate the fact that we fought.
Come and See – a Soviet film about a Belorussian boy who joins a partisan militia to fight the Nazis – is completely devoid of such self-congratulations.
It’s psychological horror – closer to Tarkovsky or David Lynch than Spielberg or Eastwood. It traumatizes the viewer. Rather than ‘putting us on the battlefield’ in a naturalistic, Red Badge of Courage way, it puts us inside the mind and body of a young boy losing at first his smile, then his innocence, then his hope, then his sanity.
Klimov uses precisely the right tool at precisely the right time. He speeds up or slows down the action, uses realistic or exaggerated acting, and creates a chaos of oppressive sound while deepening our immersion. When Florya and Glasha trudge through the mud, we feel it. When Glasha dances, we watch with joy. When we witness the murders, we cry. Not out of a sense of mourning or injustice, but from the horrible question – is this the world? ‘the realization that we are in Hell and escape is only a fantasy.
A few decades from now, all the survivors of Nazism will have left us. Will documents like Come and See help prevent new generations from creating new horrors of their own?
“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” – Revelation 6:7-8 KJV
Rossellini’s realism isn’t any less contrived or manipulative than classical Hollywood styles. ‘Simplicity,’ rather than ‘realism’ might be a more accurate word in this sense. The film still lies, ’24 frames a second.’
But its lie is convincing; Paisan feels much more natural and more ‘real’ than a different war film might have been. We spend our viewing time thinking about the real Italians and Americans, without being distracted from the on-screen drama.
Paisan is more engaging than your average piece of Italian realism. I had planned to watch the 6 different episodic stories in different sittings, but I ended up staying through the whole DVD.
The “temporary survivors” attempt to communicate their experience, to preserve their memories. We get photographs that are politicized, a museum that is a destination for weeping tourists, a staged re-production for a commercial film and symbolic story that many, like our Frenchwoman, attempt to find personal meaning in. As our man says, “you saw nothing in Hiroshima.”
Our woman tells her tragedy. For the man it is a piece of psychoanalysis, a way to “understand” his lover and then a triumph when he learns of his exclusive knowledge of her torment. Just as she celebrated in France upon learning of Hiroshima, he celebrated in Hiroshima upon learning of France. He grins and jumps up and dances.
Nevers, France is what began to make our woman what she is today. But now it is “a two-penny romance.”
I sometimes wonder if, like Vlad the Impaler, Adolf Hitler might one day end up as a cartoon character on cereal boxes. But even if his image is kept accurate and the tone of the Holocaust is kept solemn, Nazism is now only a memory to a small few.
Alain Resnais made Night and Fog in 1955, showing archival footage of the concentration camps. His creation was devastating and powerful, but it was not a memory – it was a new thing, an account. He must have had audience reactions to Night and Fog in mind when he struggled with his charge to make a Hiroshima film.
For those of us who were not in New York in September 2001 and did not know anyone involved in the attacks, 9/11 was a national, emotional tragedy. We wept in front of the TV screens and mourned people we never knew. Terrorism felt like an “existential threat,” it felt like “the end of the age of irony.”
For those of us involved in personal tragedy, forgetfulness seems like a betrayal. We feel guilty for not weeping at every memory. Moving on involves forgetting – while refusing to move on transforms mourning from memory to neuroticism.
Whatever Hiroshima means to us today, its not what it meant to those in Hiroshima. And perhaps on August 7, it no longer meant to them what it did on August 6.
Zushiô’s father is an anachronistic Lockean, telling his son “Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.” His commitment to Enlightenment ideals doesn’t play over well in 11th Century Japan, and his family is exiled. They don’t even last a full day before being kidnapped. Zushiô and his sister Anju are put into a slave labor camp; their mother is sold into prostitution.
The heart-wrenching story unfolds, and more than once we are reminded of the slave camps the Japanese set up during World War II. Zushiô and Anju’s camp is run by the eponymous Sansho, who recruits Zushiô as a Kapo of sorts. Later, after committing atrocities of his own, Zushiô begs for forgiveness.
The legend of Sansho the Bailiff is an old one, and the book that directly inspired Mizoguchi was written in 1915. The ideas he places into the film are modern and Western.
I don’t know enough about Japanese Buddhism to know how prominent the strains of feminism and individual rights have been through its history. What is clear is that Mizoguchi is Japanasizing the values of his country’s conquerors. Japan can be a part of the liberal community of nations without assimilating and losing her identity. In fact, for Mizoguchi, liberalism is Japan’s true identity. Mizoguchi seems to have been genuine here – his pre-war films share the same themes.
Each scene is beautiful. The shots are long, but the pace doesn’t feel slow, thanks to wise, quiet camera movements. I don’t often pause re-watch shots during my first time through a movie, but I felt compelled to several times with Sansho.