Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why is Downfall Great?

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 account of the last days of the Third Reich does not begin in April of 1945. Instead, the movie opens with a simple documentary head-shot of an aging woman who wonders about some unnamed woman. Her narrative ends with the simple phrase "I could have said no." Similarly, the movie does not end with the death of Adolf Hitler, nor the victorious arrival of Russian troops, but with the same woman: "It was no excuse to be young and it would have been possible to find things out." This is Traudl Junge, the real Traudl, secretary to Adolf Hitler.

Bookended with this documentary footage, Downfall (Der Untergang) is a triumph of historical filmmaking, combining the art and ontology of the cinematic medium with a courageously incomplete testimony. The film is foremost an example of historiophoty at its best, combining the inherent realism of cinema with the ambiguities of any artistic endeavor, finding a synergy between these two antithetical poles. There are no camera tricks or open acknowledgments of artificiality; on one level, the movie adheres closely to the precepts of realism that most audiences have come to expect - especially of historical reconstructions. However, there are a few artful touches, ones that are most frequently heart-wrenchingly underplayed: a defenestrated dolls, a letter montage, a series of vanity tableaux, the slowly-emptying bunker. These moments of overt artfulness contrast with a painstaking physical and, most importantly, psychological , realism. None the personages are caricatured, no matter how brutally absurd they may seem to our post-modern sensibilities.

This abstention from judgment is the second part of Downfall's triumph: an incomplete testimony. Most narratives, even historical reconstructions based on personal experience, are complete - they seek to label, categorize and understand past contexts and actions. It's not surprising; this is the essence of psychological closure. Nonetheless, the bravest of historical reconstructions understand that somethings cannot be understood no matter how thoroughly we explore them or how carefully we may articulate the circumstances.

Traudl Junge, a 22 year-old woman, is our effective protagonist. Nonetheless, she is a difficult entity to characterize: naive but sympathetic, uncertain, in state of continual shell-shock, yet never so removed from reality that we feel an identifiable distance from her. Like in a third-person limited narration, we see most of the world over her should, through her affect, even when not literally at her side: Hitler at turns psychotic and charming, harsh and then frail, the infectious gaiety of Eva Braun that belies her dangerous insouciance, the desperate bickering of Nazi generals, the disturbingly frank talk of suicide that is as ubiquitous as unending bottles of alcohol.

As hinted above, Downfall is often a study in contrasts: pristine ideology (Magda Goebbels) versus brutal reality (the Hitler Youth stand-in, Peter). Yet despite intense moments of barbarity, it never seeks to explain, only to witness, to bear testimony of what was, mostly Junge's testimony. The film has the courage not to tidily box things up with labels like "insanity" or "innocence," but rather only to question with needing pat answers. Rather than point to past events and then carefully explicate them, Downfall only underlines them and lets the spectator comes to his own conclusions - no small task, but one to which we may take with the courageous skepticism that Traudl eventually learned: to find things out on our own.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Etre et avoir: love and hate

Nicolas Philippe's 2002 documentary about a secluded French one-room school opens with a suite of deliberate metaphors: cows being herded in a wintry tempest, the warm cocoon of an empty classroom (turtles tortuously moving across the floor), and finally snow-covered pines swaying in the wind. There is a singular lyricism to it, like the rest of the movie, that patiently follows Maître Lopez and his charges through the school year. Bit by magical bit, Lopez exercises patience and diligence, dexterously overcoming the challenges of teaching 13 children aged 3 to 10 all in the same room practically at the same time. All action takes place surrounded by the picturesque countryside of the Sainte-Etienne region of southern France, as if, again a deliberate touch by the filmmaker, in a fairytale. It is a charming meditation on education, on finding oneself, on the the first steps of the difficult socializing path that we all tread, toddler, adolescent or adult, and the wizardly power of those who usher us through each stage.

And here is precisely where this "feel-good movie in the noblest sense" (Screen International) goes awry for me. Let's look at the opening sequence again. The first image is herding cows; in an interview contained on the DVD Philippe avows this to be a (somewhat clumsy) metaphor for education - brainless beasts being cajoled and pushed across the field into a (socially accepted) place to be. The second take is the warm cocoon of the schoolroom, empty but for the absurd little turtles; patience will be necessary and maybe a sense of humor for this movie; fair enough. But what particularly interesting is a single image that stands out in the order of the classroom: a globe, out of place, lying on the floor, upside-down. And finally, the magical touch of the swaying trees, a rather ambiguous sign, at once expository (this is the countryside and not the city) as well as evocative (life moves differently out here). Therefore, we can read this series of vignettes as: dumb beasts (children) being herded (to school) which is artificially unlike home (abounding with exotic creatures) where the world is turned upside-down, a fairy tale in the original Grimm sense: through a dark wood into the terror of the Id.

From the first images, read in this way, I initially anticipated this movie to be a sideways but virulent critique of the French school system (which, with its overcrowding and antiquated methods, has much to criticize). Yet, no, this movie is a loving and, yes, lovable ode to Maître Lopez and his countryside unified classroom, his 30 year-old methods and the simple way in which his students plan to live their lives. (As teachers and veterinarians, they say, but more likely as farmers, like their parents and their parents before them.) Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about M. Lopez. As a professor, I see a lot of myself there: the various ways of teaching, the touchy interpersonal conflicts that arise and require meditation, the wisdom to know when to put your foot down and when to let things slide. The nobility of the teaching profession and the magical, yes, magical frisson that occurs when your students suddenly (or not so suddenly) succeed. The joy of teaching and the bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the school year.

And yet, there is a hidden conservative agenda to this documentary that grates despite everything that it has going for it: charm, lyricism, nobility... a saccharine patina over a portrait that more to do with the ideals of the French State than the actual state of affairs in most of France in 2002. Mind you, 2002 - only three years before the 2005 riots that ripped through the Paris suburbs and various other major cities. Riots that were perpetuated by immigrants and second-generation immigrants very much unlike Lopez (whose father came to France from Andalusian Spain), people whom the French school system and social network had failed. Young people trapped in rampant unemployment, in overcrowded, run-down, underpaid, understaffed and under-funded schools. It may be most instructive to watch Etre et avoir alongside L'Esquive (Kechiche, 2003) or even Hate (Kassovitz, 1995). Though these may be purely fictional films, they have more to say about the real state of affairs for much of the French population is recent times, certainly more than Etre et avoir.

For escapist documentary, Etre et avoir receives full marks; for creating a role model of Lopez, vignt sur vignt; for a degree of artistry that I love to see in films of any kind, especially documentaries, bravo. But for creating such a frothy, magical and abstract portrait of a national education system in crisis; for embracing and praising a manner of education and population that is so homogeneous, so conservative and therefore so much what is ripping France apart from the inside today, this movie deserves a ripping counterpoint.