Sunday 9 February 2014

Our Humanity Challenged: Week Two Toxic Nationalism from Dreyfus to the Great War

For the next five weeks, I will be using this space in part to provide commentary and images from films not shown during the class itself  for those taking the course Our Humanity Challenged  at the Life Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.

King of Hearts
In the 1966 film King of Hearts, a Scottish soldier is sent by his commanding officer to disarm a bomb placed in the town square by the retreating Germans. As the fighting comes closer to the town, its inhabitants—including those who run the insane asylum—abandon it. The asylum gates are left open, and the inmates leave the asylum and take on the roles of the townspeople. The Scot has no reason to think they are not who they appear to be—other than the colorful and playful way in which they're living their lives, so at odds with the fearful and war-ravaged times. The lunatics crown the soldier King of Hearts with surreal pageantry as he frantically tries to find the bomb before it goes off. Although the tone of the film  is comical— even at times farcical—the "mad" characters reveal more humanity than what is displayed by outsiders who engaged in the madness of war.

War Horse
From director Steven Spielberg comes War Horse, an epic adventure that is set against a sweeping
canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. War Horse begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets—British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter—before the story reaches its (perhaps improbable) emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land. The film is especially relevant for this course because of the courage of both the boy and the horse that is displayed amid the horror of war.

Inspired by the stories once passed down to him by his grandfather, writer/director Paul Gross explores a defining period of Canadian history in this epic war drama concerning the Battle of Passchendaele. Although the film might strike a viewer as too sentimental and old fashioned, it does reveal the courage and patriotism of the times as well as the stigma attached to anyone suffering from shell shock, "bad blood" or a physical illness.

Siegfried Sassoon
 Based on Pat Barker's novel of the same name, Regeneration  (later renamed Behind the Lines when released in DVD) tells the story of soldiers of World War One sent to an asylum for emotional troubles. Two of the soldiers meeting there are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of England's most important WW1 poets but the most interesting exchanges occur between Sassoon and his physician William Rivers at Craiglockart Hospital where British officers suffering from severe shell shock were sent.
William Rivers

Perhaps most interesting is the film Max set in Munich December 1918 that depicts an unlikely friendship between two men who endured the horror of war, a Jewish art dealer named Rothman and a fledgling artist, Adolf Hitler. Rothman tries to encourage Hitler's humanistic impulses by supporting his art while others tap into his budding hateful demagoguery. One of the most enjoyable features of the film is viewing the modernist paintings displayed in Rothman's studio and observing Hitler's reactions to them. They include Max Ernst's Spanking of the Christ Child, a satirical take on the hypocritical and the life denying expressions of religion that is vividly captured in The White Ribbon, an austere German film that is set in a village prior to the outbreak of war, and the works of the acerbic Expressionist artist, George Grosz, who makes a cameo appearance.

The Grey Day by George Grosz

Spanking of the Christ-Child
George Grosz

The White Ribbon

Adapting Humphrey Cobb's novel to the screen, director Stanley Kubrick set out to make a devastating anti-war statement, and they succeeded above and beyond the call of duty. In the third year of World War I, the morally bankrupt French general Broulard orders his troops to seize the heavily fortified "Ant Hill" from the Germans. General Mireau knows that this action will be suicidal, but he will sacrfice his men to enhance his own reputation. Against his better judgment, Colonel Dax leads the charge, and the results are appalling. When, after witnessing the slaughter of their comrades, a handful of the French troops refuse to leave the trenches, Mireau very nearly orders the artillery to fire on his own men. Still smarting from the defeat, Mireau cannot admit to himself that the attack was a bad idea from the outset: he convinces himself that loss of Ant Hill was due to the cowardice of his men. Mireau demands that three soldiers be selected by lot to be executed as an example to rest of the troops. Acting as defense attorney, Colonel Dax pleads eloquently for the lives of the unfortunate three, but their fate is a done deal. Even an eleventh-hour piece of evidence proving Mireau's incompetence is ignored by the smirking Broulard, who is only interested in putting on a show of bravado. A failure when first released (it was banned outright in France for several years), Paths of Glory has since taken its place in the pantheon of classic war movies, its message growing only more pertinent and potent with each passing year (it was especially popular during the Vietnam era
Shell-shocked soldier in Paths of Glory

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