Monthly Archives: May 2015
Late in April 70 years ago, Allied forces, mopping up at the end of World War II, began entering the hundreds of Nazi death camps sprinkled throughout Europe, near metropolises and in countrysides alike. Their emanating scents ignored, their in-plain-sight locales hidden in the vile unconsciousness of ideological righteousness, you might say they were as ubiquitous as McDonalds franchises.
Though I like to consider myself conscientious about Jewish questions, I hadn’t actually thought about the death camps for quite some time. However, as a subscriber to the PBS Frontline newsletter, into my Inbox recently arrived a link to Memories of the Camps, an hour-long film depicting the discovery of the camps and their internal combustions, more often than not a confluence of the banal and the grisly.
Narrated by a wizened Trevor Howard, the viewer is brought through a quick history lesson, including the rise of the Nazi party to power in a politically divided Germany. Many people have assumed that the Nazis rose in an overwhelming groundswell of nationalistic pride, but actually, as Howard points out, though the Nazi party garnered some 17 million votes in the 1933 election, other parties collectively received around 20 million votes and would have come to rule had they been able to form a coalition against the Nazis.
One gets such nuggets of tragedy while the film flows with scene after scene of carnage and depravity, although, to be sure, not on the scale of, say, Shoah. The film reinforces the Hannah Arendt ‘banality of evil’ meme throughout — and very effectively — depicting every day Germans going about their daily business as if the camps were merely places of employment with bad workplace ethics, and the stench of burning human flesh merely another collateral industrial pollutant.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s production is its direction by a young Alfred Hitchcock. You might argue that Hitchcock later became the master of the banal and grisly oleo, and after watching Camps one imagines a young director deeply traumatized by the scenes of ghastly horror he found mixed in with the nonchalance that people come to treat even such camp experiences.
And in one scene it is rather disturbing when Hitchcock shows the shock on the faces of post-war German villagers forced to visit one camp where a table is set up and on which are table lamps with shades made of human flesh. The genuine awe that explodes their naivety is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock’s later work.
However, the most compelling images are those of the faces of corpses in the piles being bulldozed toward open mass graves. In some of them (and we see a few such moving piles) there are women, their mouths open in Edvard Munch-like screams, the beauty of their facial details mocked by the pale mascara of death. Indeed, the opening scene could have inspired the shower scene in Psycho, after the deed is done, the striking music silent, the beautiful visage still in an eddy of bloody water swirling around the vertiginous drain. A life stilled.
It is now known that the death camps were the Nazi solution to the Jewish Question. I’ve given more reflection to the Jewish Question than most gentiles I know. Though I was christened a Catholic and made it into the orthodoxy so far as making my confirmation, I lapsed rather regularly, until my lapse became agnosticism. The fact is most of the formative influences on my life were Jews. I frankly don’t see how I’d be alive today without the benign, though indirect, influence of Jews in my life.
The first foster home I was in the care of the Rosenbergs, a Jewish family, with three older girls, from the Boston burbs, who had a pond out back with ducks and a willow, peanut butter in giant tins, and who wanted to adopt we three brothers.
Back in 1965, when my single mom had no phone, an old Jewish person next door saved her life when she cut her wrists with mirror shards. Bennett Cerf and Ogden Nash filled me with the delight of puns and language play that became the essence of my lingual shtick a half century later.
Early Woody Allen standup sharpened my sense of society’s farcical relativism, and his early films — Bananas: the decree: the revolutionary dictator’s first announcement to his people: “from now on everyone must wear their underwear on the outside of their pants.” A revolution in humor. Plus, I actually liked the idea.
But there was also Lenny Bruce and his savage humor, all of it on the mark and unwelcome, a kind of anti-hero, a Jewish James Dean, creating the very cliffs he would later be chased toward and driven off by bigots and fascists. Bob Dylan captured the sentiment in his song from Shot of Love.
The first Holocaust narrative I ever read came at 10 years old: Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir that moved me so profoundly that many years later I sought admission to BU just to get a chance at being a student in his class.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog is my favorite novel; each letter therein a layer of being, a nuance of consciousness; unmatched profundity from small things to all the great concepts. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead. And Philip Roth. His story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” was not only funny, but recalled the time when my family was the only Catholics in the all Jewish Boston neighborhood Mattapan.
It was in there that I felt my first burn of shame after slapping one Jeffrey Rosenbaum across the face following a kickball dispute and watching him not strike back but weep. The Jewish mother on the first floor of our three-decker watching, becoming the inspiration, I’m sure, for my later pursuit of philosophy, asking me as I sat alone on the steps, “I’d really like to know what makes you tick.” A question I have pursued in every direction since.
There was Nat Hentoff, my first writing mentor. Abbie Hoffman, my first vision of beauteous political theater, who directly inspired my later application (and admission) to BrandeisUniversity. Revolution for the hell of it, indeed. Why not? The universe does.
There was Lu, my shack-up lover for three years of university life, and now my best friend. Her mother, who gave me prints of the Thames and a vision of a mapped out infinity.
Emily Meyer, for whom I was a teaching assistant, and who later became my most prolific correspondent as I made my way around the world like a Don Quixote without windmills.
There’s Lloyd Schwartz, my best poetry instructor, a man of immense culture and humanity and beauty, who nurtured my raw emotional energy into an Academy of American Poets prize.
Have I had a greater aesthetic/cultural influence on my life than Bob Dylan? I’m tempted to say Marley, but Dylan remains that beautiful mystery and revealer. Doesn’t he? My favorite song is “Love Minus Zero.”
There was Steve Satell, who taught me the leg-hand hook shot. Heinrich Heine, the first poet I ever translated from German. Arthur Rubinsteing, Felix Mendelsohn, Leonard Bernstein, Susan Sontag, Seymour Hersch.
The Israeli brothers who I shared a house with in Rockville, where I worked for the Social Security Administration, and had to be nice processing retirement claims from barbed eyes CIA agents and a German woman who came in one time with a number tattooed on her wrist that broke my heart and made me quit my job.
There was the time I was an Israel commando in the Raid on Entebbe.
These are just a tiny fraction of the Jews who have meant something in my life.
So when I think of the commemoration of the Death Camps, it is not abstract. I think of these, my friends and mentors and influences who have made me who I am — all of them tumbling, rolling, stiff and lifeless piles of love and humanity bulldozed toward an open mass grave by the military industrial complex that was Nazi Germany.
And even as I deplore most contemporary Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the occupied lands, I comprehend with a passionate heart the Jewish proclamation of “Never Again!”
The PBS film is free to all, and is an understated and intelligent glimpse into the thinking and consequences of Nazi imperial insanity, which still has considerable resonance for our times. It was never about Jews, but the endless fight for civilization against all the cancers and malignant angels of human nature.
The film classic Sunset Boulevard begins with a drowned William Holden looking up from the bottom of a Hollywood mansion swimming pool and recounting in a voice over, with flashbacks, all the years of narcissism, excess and grand delusions that led to his fateful, if avoidable watery demise.
Of late I’ve been feeling like a drowned crawler, not so much swimming as “scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” and, indeed, in my own bottom-fed reflections I own that I am nothing so manly as William Holden, but rather, and in keeping with the now-established T.S. Eliot vibe, a latter day Prufrock succumbing to the dead pool of human consciousness, where humankind cannot bear too much reality, and I am wholly terrified by the cleft and cling of any proffered peach.
All of this leads in a roundabout way to the freestyle swim my mind took while recently watching The Birth of a Nation(1915) in its entirety for the first time. I’d read rumors about this “great” controversial epic film, but admit I was somewhat repelled by the idea of watching three plus hours of black-and-white silence (not counting the mostly classical music soundtrack); after all, I already knew, anecdotally, that the film was regarded as an apology of sorts for the excesses of the antebellum South and a quaint glorification of the “moral” motivation of the nascent Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn’t until I had seen Griffith’s new techniques favorably compared to the “great” Nazi film propagandist Leni Riefenstahl that I sat up from my watery gravity and listened for the first time, as it were, to the mermaids singing each to each.
Having now viewed and reflected on Griffith’s Birth, I can now see the likeness of intent that Griffith’s vision seems to share with the Nazi propagandist. There is at work in Birth as in Triumph the archetypal symbolism, the broad simplification of human motivations, the idealizations of the master-slave dialectic (Griffith’s slaves pick cotton like it’s candy, and smile at their masters as only blackfaced whites playing blacks can do in teasing up the Southern Siegfried idyllism), and the absence of meaningful economic or political systems at work. Indeed, considering that it’s meant to be a three-hour epic journey into the psyche of a nation, you’d be forgiven thinking that the nation depicted in this film was filled with the stiff poses and gesture dialogues you’d expect to find in those old Classics Illustrated tales of history and happy empire.
All nations have significant “birth” moments – catalyzing events that shape national mythologies and promote characteristics and traits meant to be badges of identity. The French, the Brits, the Turks, the Czechs have all had such moments. And in 1915 – a hundred years ago – the Great War that swept Europe and Asia Minor was nothing if not a sorting machine for national identities.
In this context, Griffith’s film is a weird depiction of a nation leaning toward deep pacifism, with respect to the rest of the world in the Reconstruction decades following the carnage-filled Civil War. Birth of a Nation has two parts: in Part One, the viewer is invited to regard the antebellum South as benign and flourishing with happy plantation slaves keen to labor, and anxious to please, while the North is set up as a provocateur using the Abolitionist movement as a tool to tear down the Peaceable Kingdom that is Dixie; in Part Two, raging and triumphant Abolitionists and carpetbaggers complete their quest of raiding the plantation “lifestyle” for no other purpose than greed.
In perhaps the most bizarre twist to the depiction, Griffiths has mulatto Thomas Lynch – played as a kind of blackfaced “supremacist” who makes Malcolm X seem like Michael Jackson by comparison – set mobs (Lynch mobs – get it?) on local whites throughout the Carolinas, and to beat them down and put them in their rightful place, including, ironically, disenfranchisement of the white right to vote. This outrageous take-over and suppression by Northerners leads to the rise of the rebelling vigilantes who will soon become known as the KKK. What Griffiths ends up pushing, intentionally or not, is the outrageous notion that the white knights of the Ku Klux Klan rose up like the twerking Scots (from whom the Klan claim to derive their esoteric roots – at least, as Griffith paints it) led by kilt-clad Mel Gibson in Braveheart to fight back against black oppression. It’s all rather astonishing really.
The Birth of a Nation was released midway between the beginning of post-Reconstruction in 1865 and the legal establishment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which as meant to enfranchise millions of African Americans either not allowed to vote outright, or whose voting capacity was often suppressed by obstructions such as poll taxes, threats to employment, literacy issues, and ID snafus. It is now clear that Birth also led to resurgence of a waning KKK, and, consequently, helped lead the country toward many more tears of misery and injustice for African Americans throughout the States, but especially in the South, where voting problems continue to exist.
Griffith’s film was widely panned by “liberal” critics of the day, while at the same time being received radiantly by white Southerners who felt kicked around some by the mandates of Reconstruction. It is tempting to write this film off as a cinematic and political anomaly (Griffiths himself was said to be shocked by Birth’s polarizing effects), and to assume that it is not a true picture of the national psyche. And yet it is equally tempting to see the Pax Antebellum, with its devotion to slaving, as deeply emblematic of the kind of exploitative capitalism contemporary American neoliberals still inflict upon the many plantation states of the developing world, and one sees, without looking too hard, a suggestion in the easy rise of the KKK of a tendency – even a preference – for fixing things abroad with a kind of vigilantism and fiery symbolism. For what is the War on Terror in many respects if not a turn to extrajudicial white sheets and the burning crosses of Pax Americana?
Which leads to an especially relevant segue, as 2015 is also the centenary of the birth of blues goddess Billie Holiday, who sang the brooding and literally haunting “Strange Fruit,” which lyrically conjures up the long legacy of Deep South lynchings that were so much part of Holiday’s consciousness. It’s a good time, too, to reflect on the tragedy that was Holiday’s life – the drug addiction, the exploitation by agents – and to lament how she was pursued to her dying day, like a character out of Les Miserables, by police and federal agents who saw her black ballads as a threat to domestic order.
I started out by recalling William Holden reflecting on a wasted life from the bottom of a pool. But it’s fitting to end this piece by alluding to the tragic end of Rodney King in 2012. A strong swimmer, he was discovered droned at the bottom of his backyard pool. A neighbor reported to the media that shortly before he splashed in he had been sobbing with a voice “sad and crying.” King had once famously tearfully asked his fellow Americans on TV, “Can’t we all just get along?” following his beating by police and the subsequent rioting the video release of the beating provoked. Clearly, his death, and the events in America since, such as in Ferguson, suggest that the answer is decidedly NO. Not really. Not for long.
In this light, it may have been Griffith’s next film – Intolerance – that more powerfully suggests what a post-natal America has grown up to embody.