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 Night Porter (1974)

FilmJuice have my review of Liliana Cavani’s arthouse nazisploitation flick The Night Porter.

The Night Porter tells of a former Nazi who is attempting to evade prosecution and disappear into the shadows of post-War Europe. However, this flight into shadow is arrested when the Nazi encounters a young Jewish woman who survived the War by serving as his personal sex slave. Concerned that this young woman might turn him in to the authorities, the Nazi sets out to murder her but the second the pair are face to face they tumble back into the same sadomasochistic patterns that had seen them through the War. At the time of its release, the film’s suggestion that some Jewish people might have enjoyed or benefited from their time in a concentration camp was taken as an almost impossibly transgressive thing to say as Europe was in the process of turning Holocaust survivors into a class of living saints. However, as time has passed and the moral certitudes of the Second World War have begun to evaporate, the political elements of The Night Porter are not as shocking as they were meaning that all that remains is a film is which a topless Jewish girl sings for a bunch of Nazis. As I pointed out in the review, these scenes are astonishing:

If cinematic history has been kind to The Night Porter it is chiefly due to the series of dream-like vignettes that Cavani scatters across the face of the narrative. Almost entirely dialogue-free, these vignettes chart Rampling’s transformation from a terrified child to a sexually empowered woman who fearlessly performs a topless cabaret before a group of leering Nazis. Shot with a combination of elegant eroticism and low-key surrealism, these scenes are not just amazing to look at, they are also a highly evolved exercise in visual storytelling. Indeed, the more we learn about the behaviour of the ‘little girl’ in the camp, the more we realise that there was a good deal more to the sexual relationship than a desire to survive.

The problem is that, once you move beyond the beauty of those dream-like scenes, the film begins to fall apart.

While there is no denying either the beauty of the power of these transgressive dreamscapes, it is frustrating to note that while the storytelling inside the vignettes is arresting, Cavani fails to root them in either the wider narrative or basic principles of human psychology. As with Max’s feelings of guilt and his desire to withdraw from the world and live ‘like a church mouse’, the true desires and motivations of the ‘little girl’ are never explored and so Cavani never actually engages with any of the Big Ideas that litter the foreground of the film.

With nothing to say and nearly two hours in which to say it, The Night Porter shambles along with neither point nor purpose. Lacking proper characterisation, the film struggles to engage our sympathies meaning that the descent into thriller territory towards the end of the film feels forced, fraudulent and entirely unexciting.

Released on Blu-ray with neither bells or whistles, The Night Porter does contain a few legitimately wonderful cinematic moments but aside from dancing Nazis, there is little here to explain why it is that this film has endured while other works of artful Nazisploitation such as Tinto BrassSalon Kitty have largely disappeared from view. Neither as transgressive as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or as politically engaged as Marcel OphulsThe Sorrow and The Pity, Cavani’s Night Porter sheds little light on the human truths lost in the moral rubble of the Second World War.

REVIEW – Sealed Cargo (1951)

Anyone who grew up in Britain in the 1980s will remember a time when TV schedules were bulked out with lesser-known black and white films.  Films which, as a kid, you would seldom find yourself watching.  There is a definite rainy-saturday-afternoon feel to Alfred L. Walker’s Sealed Cargo.  A war-time drama dealing with U-boats and the paranoia surrounding Nazi infiltration of the Danish merchant navy, Sealed Cargo features both some sublimely atmospheric moments of tension and some frankly demented action sequences.

Videovista have my review.

Heartbeat Detector (2007) – Re-Engineering Ethical Process Outcomes

A little while ago, I reprinted my Vector piece on cinematic adaptations of the works of J. G. Ballard.  One of the themes of Ballard’s work I used to pull together the different films was the concept of a benign psychopathology.  This concept serves to unite the different works from the various stages of Ballard’s writing career and also forms the heart of his development of an old surrealist saw into a form of proto-postmodernism.  The idea, at its simplest, is that Humanity has become detached from the environment in which its emotional hardwiring evolved.  From a world of mountains, deserts, forests, swamps and plains we have moved into a world of cities, motorways, cars and conference centres.  A world constructed largely by us, for us.  However, despite this world being supposedly designed to suit our needs, we find ourselves paradoxically distant from it : Either the architecture surrounding us reflects our position and role in society thereby dehumanising us, Or it is an abstract expression of some impractical aesthetic ideal and it alienates us.  Our reliance upon the car and the city is physically and psychologically toxic and yet we cannot return to the state of nature we once lived in.  We die in car accidents by the hundreds of thousand and yet we still drive to work.  We self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, losing ourselves in the pleasures of consumerism and empty sensuality and yet we do not seek to change the world.  The co-dependent and unhealthy relationship we have with our environment is a benign psychopathology, a form of madness created by an attempt to adapt to an unnatural environment.  A form of controlled and evolutionarily beneficial madness.  A form of high-functioning dementia this benign psychopathology is an attempt to reformat our emotional hardwiring and set up a new set of stimulus-responses that are better suited to our new world.

In Ballard’s early Science Fiction novel The Drowned World (1962), the character Dr Robert Kerans is horrified when Captain Strangman drains the lagoon and makes it possible for humanity to resettle the ruins of a drowned city.  In Crash (1973), the character of Ballard develops an attraction for people maimed in car crashes as automobile accidents become fetishised.  In Cocaine Nights (1996), Charles Prentice comes to realise that rape, arson, theft and murder are not anti-social activities but rather necessary tools for the creation of social cohesion.  Throughout Ballard’s work, the severing of Humanity’s emotional connection to the environment allowing the development of benign psychopathologies invariably results from some terrible event.  An event which Ballard scholars have come to refer to as The Death of Affect, drawing upon a chapter in Ballard’s central work The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) in which a couple visit the scene of a car crash only to find that the site has been drained of all emotional content :

“These infrequent visits, dictated by whatever private logic, now seemed to provide nothing.  An immense internal silence presided over this area of cement and pines, a terminal moraine of the emotions that held its debris of memory and regret, like the rubbish in the pockets of a dead schoolboy he had examined” [Page 108]

Of course, benign psychopathologies do not have to take the form of a sexual predilection for car accidents.  They can be much more mundane.  Much more common.  Much more familiar.  Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector — based upon the French novel  La Question Humaine by Francois Emmanuel — is an exploration of the idea that certain psychopathologies can survive the death of their host organism, living on in the cultural aether to rewire whole new generations to fit with new and emerging forms of environmental unpleasantness.  A process of adaptation that is noticeable in certain chilling linguistic similarities.

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