REVIEW — The Decent One (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Vanessa Lapa’s documentary about Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One.

The Decent One draws on some private correspondence that was uncovered in Himmler’s house at the end of the war and sold into private hands by light-fingered American soldiers. Following the scandal surrounding the so-called Hitler diaries, the documents never made that much of a splash and were never made public until Lapa’s parents decided to buy them for her so that she could make a documentary about them. The result is a rather frustrating experience as while the film does give some fascinating glimpses into what life must have been like for the friends and family of prominent Nazis, Lapa chooses to focus most of her attentions on Himmler rather than the people around him.

This evidently put Lapa in something of a sticky situation as how do you produce a biographical documentary about a prominent Nazi without inviting unflattering comparisons to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or more psycho-sociological writing such as Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Lapa tries to overcome this problem by unearthing scandalous biographical details such as Himmler’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex and his habitual drug use but the methods she uses to present these so-called biographical details are so manipulative that you can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow:

Lapa makes a great show of putting the documents in the foreground of the film and many shots of Himmler’s angular hand-writing give the impression that the documents are being allowed to speak for themselves. However, take a step back from the images of Himmler’s correspondence and you start to realise that Lapa’s editorialising is so aggressive that it smacks of desperation and frequently borders on the outright manipulative. For example, one of the earliest exchanges of letters between Himmler and his future wife finds Himmler referring to himself as a ‘naughty man’ for spending too much time away from his fiancé, to which the woman playfully responds that she will exact a terrible revenge for his absence. Now… in the context of hundreds of personal letters, this exchange would probably come across as the slightly awkward flirtations of a sexually active couple but Lapa isolates these sentence fragments and instructs her voice actors to deliver readings that encourage the audience to conclude that the future Mr. and Mrs. Himmler has a relationship that was a bit kinky if not actually sadomasochistic. Also suspect is the way that Lapa juxtaposes a document relating to stomach problems caused by prolonged opium use with Himmler’s passing assertion that he had experienced a touch of constipation while on the Eastern front. Again, when seen in the context of an on-going personal correspondence, such an admission might come across as little more than a comment on Himmler’s health but Lapa frames the information in a manner that encourages us to infer that Himmler was a habitual drug user. Aside from being dubious historical practice, such manipulative sensationalism only serves to highlight the extent to which Lapa struggles to find anything new to say about Himmler that hasn’t been said before: There are no private doubts to be found here, only the belief that he was doing the right thing and that history would prove him right.

Surveying some of the film’s other reviews, I notice that I am not the only one to dislike the heavy-handedness of Lapa’s editorialising. Setting aside the fact that films like Shoah set the tone for Holocaust documentaries by allowing people to speak for themselves, I am also struck by the fact that there is now a very fine line between a serious documentary about the Nazis and the type of sensationalist trash you get on cable TV. Massage the primary sources a bit too much and your careful documentary turns into Hitler’s Henchmen by way of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

REVIEW – The Congress (2013)

Videovista has my review of Ari Folman’s second feature film The Congress. Set in the immediate future, the film revolves around a fictionalised version of the actress Robin Wright who decides to sell all of her image rights to Hollywood and retire from public life for a period of no less than twenty years. In return for the paying the actress a generous pension, Hollywood will be able to use the image and name of Robin Wright to make all of the films and adverts they deem appropriate for her brand. With no awkward human actress to wrangle, the studios turn Robin Wright into a global superstar but the next contract pushes much further… twenty years from now, people won’t be wanting to watch Robin Wright, they will be wanting to be Robin Wright.

Loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel called The Futurological Congress, The Congress is best understood as a cinematic critique of contemporary cinema. Less a film than an extended visual essay designed to critique cinema itself, The Congress is a collage of carefully assembled cinematic references designed to draw our attention to the fact that contemporary Hollywood is in the business of wholesale emotional manipulation in which film is never anything more than a means to an end:

The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.

There is nothing new in films suggesting that corporations want to take over reality but Folman’s critique is surprisingly explicit. Rather than attacking a faceless multinational corporation, Folman aims his guns directly at contemporary Hollywood.  Particularly surprising is his willingness to critique actors who sell their image rights to corporations who then go on to use those image rights as a means of putting a human face on their exploitative business practices.  Consider this quote from a Variety article about the sponsorship deals built around Iron Man 2:

“This was not a hugely recognized superhero character,” Bob Sabouni, senior VP of business development and promotions for Marvel Entertainment told Daily Variety . “These partners got the mystique of the Marvel brand the first time around and took their faith in that. They were pretty well rewarded and are now stepping up their game and creating even better programs.”

Which partners are we talking about?

Marvel’s “Iron Man 2,” which rockets into megaplexes May 7, has brought back most of the promotional partners — including Audi, LG Mobile, 7-Eleven, Dr. Pepper, Oracle and Burger King — that spent considerable coin to help launch the first film in 2008.[…] The Hershey Co.’ Reese’s brand, Royal Purple motor oil and Symantec’s Norton software are also partners.

It is something of a misnomer to refer to the likes of Disney and Marvel Entertainment as film companies as the artefacts they produce behave more like malware than conventional films. Once introduced into a cultural space, cultural malware sucks up all available resources to the point where it is almost impossible to get away from said product let alone start a conversation about anything else. Everywhere you look, there will be articles about what the product is like and what it tells us about other products that will be released in years to come. Anyone who happens to be plugged into a cultural space that has become infected by cultural malware will most likely become infected too meaning that smart, principled commentators will soon devote all of their time to writing about stupid, regressive cultural artefacts while completely ignoring films, books and TV series that are not themselves disease vectors. Once established in a cultural system, the malware will use the system to undertake tasks that are harmful to the components of said system such as encouraging them to buy over-priced status objects and foodstuffs that make them significantly more likely to develop a serious health problem. Fully aware that these harmful tasks might cause the system to react against the infection, the cultural malware also seeks to replicate itself by encouraging people to get excited about the next generation of cultural pathogens.

I was not entirely convinced by The Congress in much the same way as I was not entirely convinced by his first film Waltz with Bashir.

When I reviewed Waltz with Bashir back in 2008, I expressed my frustration with Folman’s apparent lack of focus.  Having now re-watched the film, it occurs to me that what I originally took to be a lack of intellectual focus was actually an intelligent man flinching from the truth and attempting to derail his own line of thought. The reason Folman sabotaged his own film is that the process of therapeutic self-analysis documented by the film lead him to a door that he refused to open, a door marked ‘What Ari Folman did during the 1982 Lebanon War’.  In fact, you could very well argue that Waltz with Bashir is all about a man being offered the chance to learn the truth about who he really is only for that man to decide that he is better off not knowing.

 

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My review of The Congress calls it a less personal project than Waltz with Bashir but one could argue that The Congress is actually Folman’s attempt to confront the tissue of lies he has assembled around his involvement in the 1982 Lebanon War. In the film, Robin Wright is presented with a choice between returning to the misery of the real world in order to maybe track down her children and remaining in the chemically-induced corporate virtual reality with a man she loves. Wright chooses the first option but Folman’s explanation as to why she would make such a decision feels just as evasive as the conclusion to Waltz with Bashir where he pointedly refuses to ask the questions that would help him connect with his past and discover how involved he really was in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. If Folman can’t convince himself about the virtues of the real world, how can he possibly hope to convince us? The philosopher Robert Nozick asked a similar question in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia but the argument he presented for refusing to plug yourself into a bliss machine was just as unconvincing as Folman’s. Folman’s The Congress is engaging, frustrating and at least too clever by half but it remains that rarest and most previous of breeds: a work of cinematic science fiction that encourages us to think rather than gorge on hydrogenated vegetable fat while thinking about Robert Downey Jr.

 

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