War, Noir, Atheism

October 2, 2010

On the beach

In earlier posts, I have commented on the connection of film noir and the experiences of millions of men during WWII.  I thought of this yet again after reading this human interest story in the NYTimes about two men who both landed at Normandy on D-Day and happened to be next to each other in a hospital ward in NYC awaiting open heart surgery.  Naturally, they formed a bond quickly.

Before the surgery, the doctor told one of them not to be afraid.  The patient, who is 90, scoffed.  He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get through — I’ve been through Normandy.”  There’s a man who has built his life on bedrock.  Later on, he remarked, “After getting out of World War II, I’m not afraid of nothing and I’m not impressed by nothing.

The two men profiled worked in retail and construction.  Another war story I have read comes from Victor Brombert, who taught 19th century French literature at Princeton for many years.  (He is a noted expert on Flaubert and Stendhal).  He came from a family of secular, unreligious,  prosperous, bourgeois, French Jews who had the sense to leave before Hitler could rout them out and gas them.  After attending school in the USA, Brombert enlisted in the army and found himself on the beach at Normandy on D-Day.

The saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.  I’ve never heard much evidence for this – to me it sounds like wishful thinking on the part of advocates of religion.  I have read stories similar to Brombert’s.

He relates that he was scared beyond belief, scared senseless.  He was trying his best to make his body as small as possible, clawing the ground so hard that his fingernails were in agony as he forced sand under them.  He was deafened and stupefied with terror at the sound and concussions of the shellfire around him.  At that moment, he came as close to prayer as he ever came in his life.  He promised himself that if he survived, he would never complain about anything again.

Not exactly a prayer to God, but not a bad way of life, either.


Dahlias Everywhere

September 18, 2010

Millions of young men were demobilized after WWII – the scale of it is hard to imagine in this era of small wars and a volunteer army [a related post].  The Blue Dahlia, picks up where the war left off, with three buddies out of uniform at last, and back home in Los Angeles.  One of them has a large plate in his skull, and suffers from neurological problems, as well as what we would call post traumatic stress disorder.  In those days, it was just shell shock.  My encyclopedia of noir says that the amnesia theme in many of these films is directly related to this.

The film stars Alan Ladd, in the center of the frame below, and Veronica Lake, famous for her peekaboo hair style, which has not been in evidence in the roles of hers I know so far.  Both of them have very low-key acting styles, almost minimalist.  Both of them hit hard times and died as confirmed alcoholics.

The plot hinges on what must be the biggest fear of every enlisted man far from home, apart from being blown to bits, that he will return home to find his wife or lover has cheated on or dumped him.  Johnny’s has.  Then she ends up dead.

The cops are pretty dull in this caper, in fact, they seem to work at it.  But in the end, it turns out that they are pretty sharp after all, unlike some noirs.  They question the owner of the Blue Dahlia nightclub who was having an affair with the dead woman, an obvious prime suspect.  While leaving, he asks, “I’m not under investigation, am I?”  The captain replies, “Oh, I dunno.  How do you feel about it?

There’s not a terrible amount of suspense, and the plot is pretty creaky, I think, but the coolness of Ladd and Lake is fine.  Lake picks him up when she sees him walking alone in the rain.  He says goodbye and remarks, “Every guy has seen someone like you.  The trick is finding her.”  He finds her in the end, of course.  The only femme fatale around is Johnny’s wife, and she’s killed early on.  Lake plays a different kind of attactor, the blonde goddess.

It’s nice how blue dahlias turn up everywhere.  The club’s name, in the wife’s apartment, as part of the police investigation, but through it all, I hear the rumble of the guns of the war, the ones that Johnny’s buddy hears every time someone insists on playing that big band music – monkey music, he calls it.

At one point, to jog his memory, Johnny and his buddy, whom he led through 124 missions in the war, play a little game with guns, the sort of thing old war pals do.  He holds a match while his friend lights it with a pistol shot from across the room.


Mao & Political purges: theory and practice

May 19, 2010

The Long March is over, but I am only half through Phillip Short’s engrossing biography of Mao Zedong.  To escape encirclement by Chiang kai-shek’s GDP armies, vastly outnumbering the communists, Mao led the Red forces on a trek thousands of miles long to the northern desert wastes where they were able to establish a base and rebuild their strength.  The march was an incredible feat of stamina, daring, brilliant strategy, and a bit of luck.  It was in their secure retreat at the end of it that Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book, Red Star Over China.

As I try to fathom the last member of the the 20th century’s triple crown of evil, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, I am struck by Mao’s differences from Stalin as portrayed respectively by Short and Montefiore (The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin).  Mao was not a paranoid mental case as Stalin appears to have been.  Like Stalin, he had a classical education.  Unlike Stalin, he was not enthusiastic about violence right from the start.  Joe seems to have relished the chaotic and violent life of a revolutionary outlaw bandit ‘expropriating’ bank funds for the Bolsheviks and organizing terrorist attacks; Mao, at first, was drawn to anarchism and communitarianism, and was repelled by ‘needless’ violence.  Mao was incredibly self-confident about his abilities as a military commander and politician, apparently with good reason.  Stalin was a bumbler as generalissimo, and always felt insecure around intellectuals.

A major difference between Russia’s revolution and China’s was that the Soviet state was founded by a military coup that was followed by a brutal civil war lasting a few years.  China’s ‘revolution’ was, in fact, a twenty-year civil war that ranged across the nation, and was fought with terrifying brutality, including frequent use of scorched-earth tactics by Chiang.  Mao rose to prominence, with frequent setbacks and dismissals by the central administration, while Stalin quietly and steadily homed in on supreme power.  Mao was so outspoken about his views, often directly in conflict with the center and with the USSR, that he was often reprimanded, accused of various political heresies, e.g. ‘right opportunism,’ ‘flightism,’ and ‘high flown-ism.’  He was adept at retiring from the fray at the right moment and waiting, sometimes in desparation, until the Party begged him to return and save their butts from disaster.

Eventually, his military strategy, and his insistence that the Chinese peasants must be at the heart of the revolution, despite the orthodox communist view that industrial workers and tradesmen must lead it, was accepted.    There’s no question:  his astute views, rooted in his deep knowledge of China – he produced several landmark studies of the peasantry, remarkable for their detail and understanding – were behind his role as the unifier and liberator of China.

One could take him for an Abe Lincoln or George Washington figure, which is the criticism made of Snow’s book.  Before the Long March, the dark side of Mao’s future was also apparent.  In Futian, during one of the GDP’s encirclement campaigns, the first big purges broke out among the communists.  They were massive, bloody, and indescriminate.  Short attributes them to the insanity-producing conditions of living in fear of the GDP, soldiers fearing destruction of their families by the GDP, the meddling Stalinist influence of the Soviet advisors, and the fact that most of the men were uneducated and illiterate.  Not to mention that Chinese history is filled with bloody and manic purges, so there was a tradition to uphold.

Just as in Russia, the purges were self-destructive, carrying off many needed, capable, and loyal party members, but these purges were before those of Stalin!  They seem to have risen from the grass roots upwards, rather than being concocted completely at the top and forced downward on everybody.  According to Short, Mao at first believed them to be justified, and then felt they had gone too far.  After that, he took a pragmatic and self-serving view.  Such ‘excesses’ were inevitable in brutal class war.  They helped enforce party discipline.  The cost of opposing them might be too high.  The man who had urged Red Army recruits to pay peasants for their food, always be polite, never strike a civilian, and who had urged good treatment of prisoners, including freeing them with the offer to join up with the cause, became comfortable with mass murder as a political tool.  The origin of the purges in the mind-numbing horror of the flight from the GDP foretells the insanity of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, barely remaining human under the onslaught of bombing by American B-52s at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

This raised a question in my mind about that other dictator/mass murder, Hitler.  Holocaust scholars debate the nature and ‘function’ of his campaign against the Jews, but did he have purges?  Other than the famous Night of the Long Knives, admired by Stalin, which was a calculated move to consolidate power over the Nazi party, I haven’t heard of any.  Perhaps the attempt to exterminate the Jews, despite the diversion of resources and the other practical problems it raised, was simply one long and very successful purge.  And it performed the same salutory function for the state:  maintenance of a state of terror and abject discipline.  Without the Jews, the Nazis might have turned on themselves repeatedly.  If the Jews hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent them…


The Red Badge of Courage

February 27, 2010

Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage: only read of them, and conversed with his civil war veteran brother about Chancelorville.  Nevertheless, his depiction of the atmosphere of battle convinced many that he had seen it first hand, and it won high praise from veterans.  He is writer of marvelous descriptions, and uses poetic metaphor with a wonderful economy.  This gives his epic of the Civil War an overarching sense of irony, deflating the romantic pretensions of lawful battlefield slaughter; pretensions which yet lived on, kept alive by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in America, and countless others in Europe.  WWI pretty much finished off that point of view.

The story proceeds on two levels: a realistic tale of a few days in the life of a civil war soldier, filled with telling minor details and marked by a singular absence of glory; and the inner tale of the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming, usually noted simply as “the youth.”  He grapples with the central question that faces him, and all soldiers, and all who contemplate their work:  How the hell do they do it?

A friend told me once that he learned that the most difficult thing to train new soldiers to do is to run the right way.  To run towards danger.  The Red Badge does not deal with the training that Henry got, perfunctory, no doubt, but in a modern army, there is tremendous effort placed on molding the soldiers into a group so that they do not think of their paltry survival as separate from the the unit.  War is not a place for individualistic heroism these days.  That went out with the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece…

After Henry flees the front lines, he engages in a long series of inner divigations to prove to himself that he acted sensibly, if not heroically, and he manages to screw his courage up to rejoin the unit, rather than to desert.  He thinks

…furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness?

The pagan theme is sounded frequently, an ironic note of comparison with the myths, legends, and literature of classical antiquity.  When Henry rejoins the battle and falls into a manic frenzy of shooting, continuing alone, long after all others have ceased, unaware that the skirmish is over, Crane says, “He had fought like a pagan defending his religion.” And note the further irony in the quotation above…doomed to greatness! He echoes the common sentiments of new recruits, recounted in a passage I recall from a WWII memoir that went something like this:

At first, everyone believes he is too smart, too good looking, too strong, or too loved by his mother to bit hit.  Then, after a while, that illusion goes, and he realizes he could in fact be killed or wounded.  Finally, everyone realizes that it’s only a matter of time before they leave action, dead or badly hit.

A writer on the Holocaust remarked once that there were no survivors in the death camps, only those who happened to be alive when the war ended.  For the infantry in total war, it is the same.  The casualty rates in WWII were mind boggling for our troops, hastily trained, hastily equipped, not always well led, and facing a hardened fighting machine on the defensive in the Pacific and Europe.  Those who went first, died pretty much.  Some of them had a copy of Crane’s book, no doubt.

Crane did not finish with Henry Fleming in this novel.  A short story, The Veteran, revisits him, now as The Old Man, recounting his experiences to avid listeners.  He does not hide the fact that at first, he ran.  His grandson is very perturbed.  In the climax of the story, the youth is tested yet again, or tests himself.


Berlin – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort.  If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this.  He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s:  some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen;  and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.

Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration.  The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable:  poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence.  At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew?  Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh?  After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…

A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata.  How did they perceive the chaos?  What did they fear, want, hope for?   Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?

But it’s not all politics.  The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.


Chosen few

October 4, 2009

Onan - Genesis 33:8

The Bible, the Book of Genesis in particular, has been coming up in my daily rounds, lately.  I’ve been on a Bible binge of late:  read the King James Five Books of Moses, got the Wolverton illustrated version, and was just looking at some nice linoleum prints of the text in my local library.

And…R. Crumb’s long-anticipated illustrated version of the first book of the Bible, “All 50 chapters!  Nothing left out!” has arrived at last.  For devotees of Crumb or the good book, it’s a happy day.  Crumb has played it straight, so if you are hoping that he has turned the stories into an excuse for weirding us out, you will be disappointed.  If you doubt it, look at his representation of Onan in the leading image of this post:  Who would have thought that coitus interruptus would be treated with such discretion by the creator of the Snoid, Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and innumerable other phallic maniacs? Eve and the Serpent

He stays very close to the text, although the words are not my favorites, but a modern translation, and he’s done a lot of research.  He did take a liberty with the serpent – showing him as an upright lizard with legs rather than a snake – or did he?  In his notes, he gives a convincing justification for his change from tradition.

Abraham is the patriarch to whom God makes an offer that he cannot refuse.  He really can’t - Sacrifice of Isaacdeclining an offer from Yahweh is not an option.  Somehow, I feel that the story of Abraham and Isaac is the center of the whole convenant thing between Jehovah and the Jews.  Was it really such a good deal for the Jews to be the Chosen People?  It had advantages, but oy!, in the long-term?  There really wasn’t a choice in the matter, maybe that’s the ultimate lesson of the story.

Which brings us up to the present time:  Marek Edelman was remembered in an obituary in the New York Times yesterday.  Edelman was the last survivor of the Jewish uprising – he didn’t think that word was appropriate – against the Nazis as they moved to destroy the Warsaw ghetto and murder all of its inhabitants…liquidate is the word that everyone uses.  Apparently, he was prone to speaking inconvenient truths, are at least, truths as he saw them.  He dismissed the word “uprising” saying it was simply the desperate attempt by a couple of hundred people to determine when they would die and how.  There was not question of success.  He was not keen on Israel or Zionism.  He decided to remain in Poland all his life, a fact which drove some Jewish scholars of the Holocaust batty.  He ridiculed the notions of heroism that people retroactively assigned to some peoples’ actions, while others, those who went quietly to their deaths, were categorized as passive.  He said they only did what they could to maintain their dignity, to comfort their families for whom there was no hope at all of rescue.

For some Jews, the question of the nature of the deal they got from God rankles.  “If we are the Chosen People, how could you let this happen?”  Which brings up the question – Chosen for what?

For a depressing sample of scholarly venom deployed against Edelman, read these letters in Commentary from the 1980s regarding an article on Poles and Jews.  Commentary is a creature of the Podhoretz gang, a bunch of Jewish former leftists who “got religion” and turned hard right.  The original neo-cons.


Hangmen Also Die!

March 22, 2009

hangman3 hangman4

hangman2 hangman1

The hangman of the film’s title is Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler’s top men, No. 2 in the SS, put in charge of the occupied city of Prague.  He was killed by a British commando team in 1942, and the Germans shot 1600 people and destroyed Lidice in retaliation.  At the time this movie was made, according to Wikipedia, the actual story wasn’t known, and the film makes it the act of the local resistance movement.

The film was the work of the Expressionist master, Fritz Lang, with Bertolt Brecht and others helping out on the writing.  It’s a long film for that time, over two hours, and it’s filled with shadows, menace, brutality, and a bit of Hollywood wartime feel-good sentimental patriotism.  Mostly, it’s scary and claustrophobic.  It tells a story of the assassin attempting to elude the Nazis, torn by his duty to the underground and the knowledge that the Germans have arrested hundreds of innocent people to shoot in batches until he is discovered.

The Hangman of Prague makes his entrance in the beginning, shown as a strutting peacock and a sadist.  At first, I nazi_pimplethought I was watching Klink from Hogan’s Heroes.  In general, the Gestapo are shown as brutal, sadistic, and full of themselves.  We get a close-up of one looking at himself in a mirror while he squeezes a big pimple on his face during a break in his desk work.  The depiction of interrogations, though without much explicit violence, is chilling.  One old lady is made to stand by a chair that is designed to come apart if she puts her weight on it for relief.  The film is filled with sick little details like that.

The most interesting character in the film is Inspector Gruber of the Gestapo played by a well known Jewish character actor of the day.  Gruber is a sexual libertine and a heavy drinker.  In contrast to many of the Nazi villains who are uptight sadistic militarists,  he is earthy and almost casual in his mannerisms, but he is very clever.

Here we see him at work in his office.  No uniform, sitting down and giving orders, a modest (venus pudica) nude in the background.  He is on a long leather couch.  Could this office be the commandeered space of a psychoanalyst?

grubers_officegrubers_spirit

With business over, Herr Gruber gets down to business with his secretary who was behind the screen.

grubers_socksIn Lang’s earlier classic, M, the image of a balloon floating upwards was used to indicate the murder of a child.  There is a similar use of images to indicate or punctuate actions in this film, as well as to build character.  In this image, Gruber is shown pulling us his socks and tieing his shoelaces – a frequent action for him.  It distinguishes him yet again from his fellow Nazis, always so spit-and-polish.  Here, he does it front of a naked statue, in a place that doubles as a workplace and a place of sexual indulgence.

gruber_confronts2On the track of the assassin, Gruber breaks in on a couple in the midst of a tryst, or so it seems.  (In fact, the woman is pretending in order to hide a fugitive.)  Gruber is not put off by her state of undress – he rather enjoys making her uncomfortable while he thoroughly ransacks the room.  He also enjoys the possibility, slim he thinks, that he has simply blundered into an adulterous rendezvous.  It’s all the same to him!

gruber_lipstick

Later, Gruber carouses all night with some prostitutes,  and forces one of his suspects, the actual fiance of the young woman, to join him.  He thinks he can wear him down with drink, women, and jealousy.  (The guy isn’t in on what his girl is involved with.)  The lipstick on his cheek jogs his memory about a detail in his meeting with the girl and he’s off to get her.  He knows she’s involved in the plot!

He finds the real killer of Heydrich, a local surgeon, but the doctor kills him before Gruber can turn him in.  Like the balloon floating upwards, his hat, falling to the ground and rolling about under the table on which he is being throttled to death indicates his end.  His left foot dangles nearly to the floor, its sock and part of his calf visible.  When his body if found in a cellar coal heap, planted there to pin the blame for the assassination on a collaborator, only his calves, shoes and socks are visible.

gruber_dies gruber_dead


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…


Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.


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