Empathy for the Devil: The Lives of Others (2006), Black Book (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 28, 2007 06:12pm | Post a Comment
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. -- Edward S. Herman

Sympathy is much easier to come by than empathy.  Funny that, since it would seem easier to disinterestedly understand the conditions leading to another's feelings and reasons behind his or her actions than to actually share those feelings and agree with those reasons, particularly when the other is so different from oneself.  I suspect the dominance of the word 'sympathy' is largely due to not enough people appreciating the need for 'empathy,' or even understanding what the word means, as if the two terms were synonyms.  Thus, when the more ethnographically inclined among us suggest America needs to understand the environs or rational structures of a foreign entity perpetrating some act that we deem immoral, they get called traitors, or sympathizers.  HUAC in the 50s springs readily to mind, as well as the right-wing media's reaction to the intellectual Left's take on 9-11.  Classical liberalism, which serves as the bellwether for America's moralizing, defines the human as a self-regulating rational individual, and thus any action taken by an entity (our state, another state, or some hodge-podge collection of disagreeing radicals) that violates the rights of the human so defined is, ipso facto, inhumane.  Thus, any attempt at humanizing, eliciting empathy for, the ad hoc devil will be received about as judiciously as Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" in 60s Israel -- which is to say, not very to downright hostilely.  This negative reaction is always despite any potential moral agreement that the devil should still be hanged.

It's a characteristic of the Leftist and what's now called the Liberal, particularly artists and intellectuals of these persuasions, to try and understand how another human can be led to committing inhumane acts, whether due to their focus on structural influences on behavior or because they're all just godless commies who don't have enough commonsense to tell right from wrong.  Regardless, one can smell leftism or modern day liberalism on art any time a story about some morally reprehensible subject is eliciting an act of understanding from the audience (be that subject an Islamic terrorist, Nazi, covert CIA operative, or mythical monster like Grendel).  Sometimes, you get a critical understanding of the subject, as in CROSSING THE LINE, a doc about an army private defecting to North Korea in '62, but other times such artists slip into sympathy when they should've been going for empathy, ironically creating a right-wing work, like DIRTY HARRY.  Three dvds I've recently caught all have that familiar odor:

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film takes place on the wrong side of the Berlin wall in its waning last decade and tells the story of Stasi Captain, Gerd Wiesler, who is sent to spy on the popular, ostensibly pro-Soviet playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his apolitical girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, all because the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, has a hard-on for the actress.  Wiesler is shown being a devoted agent for the communists, teaching students the techniques of his craft, defending its morality and having very little life outside of work.  It's not until he discovers the true reason for his current assignment -- while being told by his commanding officer, Anton Grubitz, to find something on Dreyman when his eavesdropping has produced nothing -- that he begins to question his ideological service,  It's not so much that he questions the ideology, only whether anyone around him is serving communism or the more bourgeois interest of personal gain.  It's his vicariously experiencing the aesthetically romantic lives of Dreyman and Sieland that he begins to turn against the ideology, the crux of his transition being when he hears the playwright playing a piano piece composed by Gabriel Yared.

This tale of the transformative powers of art was inspired by an anecdote of Lenin's reaction to Beethoven's Appassionata, where he could no longer listen to it as it made him want to stroke heads, not smash them.  In a century where one of the greatest poets, Ezra Pound, was making radio broadcasts in support of Fascist Italy, the anecdote comes across as not much more than a romantic lie artists would like to believe in to inflate the political importance of their vocation.  Contrary to Donnersmarck's assessment that it's a testament to the power of art, what seems more crucial is that Lenin chose smashing heads over listening to a phonograph.  Thus, what the film ultimately leaves us with is a sympathetic tale of how we'd like to believe we'd react if we (meaning us non-communists and members of a non-totalitarian, liberal state)  found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being a Stasi Captain.  What it doesn't give us is any reason why we might find ourselves in that position had we been brought up in East Berlin.  Thus, we're to admire Wiesler for his bravery in trying to save the artists from state persecution and despise his superiors for their misuse of bureaucratic power -- humane on this side, the inhumane on that side.  Right back where we started.

Paul Verhoeven is the master of transparent cinema, taking classical Hollywood narrative techniques and turning them into a reflective experience of viewing.  His masterpiece of mainstream film is undoubtedly STARSHIP TROOPERS, where he delivers the goods one expects from a sci-fi action spectacle, but, upon reflection, makes the viewer feel dirty for being complicitous in enjoying a fascist fantasy.  He seems to be going for a similar effect in BLACK BOOK (which seems to be loosely inspired by Anthony Mann's movie of the same name)  where he gets you to root for Ludwig Müntze, an SS-hauptsturmführer, which is the Nazi equivalent of a Captain.  (Interesting that Sebastian Koch, who played the persecuted artist in the previous film, is now playing the Captain in a totalitarian regime.)   However, Verhoeven leaves out just about all personal actions and  traits that might have led to Müntze's having achieved his rank in the first place.  It seems unlikely that a man would achieve a rank similar to that of Josef Mengele's without being a fairly committed Nazi.  One might object in the film's defense that actions don't always convey beliefs, but as Slavoj Žižek says of communism, acting as if one believes is good enough for the totalitarian bureaucracy to be real. 

Thus, Verhoeven and his co-writer, Gerard Soeteman, gain sympathy for a Nazi only though a cheat, namely omission.  But that's not their only trick.  They also tend to focus on the character's more positive qualities and the Dutch resistance's more negative ones: his falling in love with a Jew, Rachel, the main character -- who, with her hair dyed Aryan, was sent  to spy on his activities; his willingness to negotiate with the Dutch resistance, members of which it turns out were the reason for the majority of Jewish deaths depicted in the film; and contrast him with a classic evil Nazi whom he gets to butt heads with over the mistreatment of prisoners.  As with the prior film, the only kind of "understanding" here comes from a manufactured form of sympathy, making what most call a monster into what's not much more than a version of who we believe we'd be if thrown into evil circumstances.  The questions of how such circumstances structure one's decisions or how seemingly benign actions (e.g., those of efficiency) in one context take on monstrous implications in another are largely ignored.

Finally, I saw the last of the Bourne trilogy, which turns out to be the most critical here of the tendency toward viewer identification, or sympathy, even if it makes little attempt for empathic understanding.  The interesting aspect of Jason Bourne, which keeps him being just another fantastic superspy in the mold of James Bond is that while his super-abilities come from his secretive training, his morality  comes from no longer being able to recall the ends for which he was trained.  Thus, the narrative thrust of the trilogy: while trying to find out who and what he is and why a top secret offshoot of the CIA wants him dead, he tries to make amends for various assassinations he performed, but can only remember as abstractions without their ideological content.

So as not to condemn the entire CIA, there's good guys (Nicky Parsons and Pamela Landy) -- who recognize the wrongs perpetrated on Bourne by the ultra-clandestine offshoot Operation BlackBriar -- and real bad guys (Deputy Director Noah Vosen and Dr. Albert Hirsch) -- who do everything they can, including killing innocent civilians, to keep the Operation under wraps.  In terms of an action spectacle, the film delivers (although there is an extended sequence involving cellular technology that reminded me of that tedious Ben Affleck actioner where he spends an hour and a half with a phone to his ear).  As with 007, the object of the audience's wish-fulfilling identification is clearly delineated, only with a face that suggests more B.M.O.C. at your average Mid-Western fraternity than international espionage.   But the film is tuned to STARSHIP TROOPERS in that its final reveal has the viewer questioning his or her fantasized identity rather than giving into the dictates of diversionary entertainment.   -- SPOILER ALERT -- Upon going face-to-face with Dr. Hirsch, Bourne achieves total recall, remembering that he willingly gave himself over to the Operation, proving his allegiance by willingly killing an unknown captive for no other reason than he's told to.  -- END SPOILER ALERT -- Therefore, director Paul Greengrass and writer Tony Gilroy reinforce what a responsible viewer should already know, that there's a bit of fascistic yearning underlying these wish fulfilling fantasies of agents "doing what has to be done" outside of liberal law, what Dirty Harry viewed as flaccid bureaucratic moral proscriptions.

Relevant Tags

Liberalism (3), Leftism (2), Action (75), Bureaucracy (1), Identification (3), Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (2), Dvd Criticism (26), Paul Verhoeven (2), Lives Of Others (2), Sympathy (1), Paul Greengrass (3), Black Book (1), Jason Bourne (2), Dirty Harry (1), Normalization (1), Empathy (2)