Eileen Chang as our contemporary

“Aloeswood Incense,” which is the first novella in this collection of Eileen Chang’s fiction, is set in Hong Kong during the years before the Japanese invasion. An attractive and ingenuous teenaged girl named Weiling moves in with her wealthy aunt to flee her abusive father. The aunt had been the concubine of a rich man, inheriting his money as well as gaining a scandalous reputation. The girl falls in love with George, a young man whom she acknowledges is nothing more than a conventional player – he not only lacks prospects as the youngest son from a fourth or fifth wife (the eldest will inherit everything), but also possesses no initiative to improve his situation. He tells her that he cannot promise her love, but he can give her happiness. The girl’s dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that her aunt’s motives are ulterior but also ambiguous – it is unclear whether she is a rival for George’s affections, or if she opposes the relationship because she wants to marry off her niece, for practical to one of the sons of her wealthy acquaintances, or if she wants her niece to take one of her lovers, of whom she has grown tired. Indeed, the suspense that Chang is deftly creates has to do with evoking this uncertainty of the aunt’s motives. The aunt is an intimidating figure, prone to rages but also sharp and discerning when it comes to the emotions of others. She is halfway between an object of desire and a figure of inescapable fate.
Eileen Chang is best-known for her story, “Lust, Caution,” which served as the basis for Ang Lee’s film. That story is not quite as memorable or as profound as the film, which plumbs the depths of a kind of erotic anguish that works of art can match. “Aloeswood Incense” is far more powerful tale than “Lust, Caution” that explores what appears to be a central theme of Chang’s work: the coldness of fate that awaits those whose hearts are warmed by love. It is perhaps not a surprising theme in premodern times and traditional societies, where sexual relations are restricted and constrained by restrictions and prohibitions. But the rivalry with the aunt, and the shocking choice that Weiling eventually makes, give the story a surprisingly contemporary resonance. Perhaps our society, in its exhaustion and pessimism, shares some fundamental commonalities with the China that Chang lived through, with its decaying customs and the almost fatalistic acceptance of modern freedom.

The Fortress (2017)

Go Soo as a blacksmith with many talents.

The Fortress, released last fall, is one of the more interesting examples of the sageuk genre (historical drama). It depicts one of the most terrible events in Korean history, the second Manchu invasion, which ravaged much of the country, then known as Joseon, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of Koreans being marched off into slavery. It is set in a mountain fortress near the capital, where a massive Manchu invasion force has surrounded King Injo and his court.

One recurring feature of sageuk is to contrast the suffering of the commoners with the unbridled and destructive ambitions of the nobility, who are often callous about the fates of the former. The film switches between the debates carried out by the court about how to deal with the invaders and the travails of the peasants pressed into serving a political regime that shows little regard for their welfare. But The Fortress has a working-class hero in the form of the blacksmith Seo, who goes on a dangerous mission through enemy-controlled territory to deliver orders to an army in the South to come to the rescue of the besieged court.
Within the fortress, the conflict unfolds between Minister Kim, who seeks desperately to find a way to defeat the Manchus, and Minister Choi, who presses the King to make concessions to the invaders in order to bring peace. There is a prime minister in the mix as well, who is the stereotypical ambitious official who represents the worst aspects of the Confucian hierarchy – he insists that his orders be followed, and blames subordinates when his plans lead to disaster, leading to the flogging of the valiant and skillful general in charge of defending the fortress and the execution of his faithful lieutenant. But the fact that the outcome of the siege is something already known by the Koreans audience, the prime minister becomes less significant as a villain. Instead, the element of suspense in the film comes to rest on the divide between the hawkish minister and his dovish rival.

The dove and the hawk.

The relations between the two of them are initially presented as antagonistic, even vicious, as Minister Kim declares that Minister Choi’s advice to accept the terms of surrender offered by the Manchus is an act of treachery for which he should be beheaded. But both men turn out to be realistic and practically-minded, agreeing with each other about the errors committed by their superiors, and their relationship turns out, in an unexpected twist, to be harmonious. The two of them emerge as officials who, in spite of their opposing stances, nevertheless in the end care far more deeply about the fate of the kingdom and of the people than about their personal ambitions.
So the surprise in the film is that it shows us an aristocracy that does its job faithfully, putting aside personally glory to work for the good of the kingdom and bring an end to a devastating invasion that took place less than four decades after the bloody attempt by Hideyoshi Toyotomi to conquer Korea. Yet, at the same time, aristocratic elite composed of the scholar-officials, even at its best, cannot prevent disaster from overtaking the land. In a piece of dialogue that comes across as anachronistic, one of the ministers suggests that for things to be set right again, the office of the king and the institution of the court would both have to disappear. Indeed, after a scene in which the officials weep when King Injo is forced to abase himself in the presence of his Manchu overlord, the film then signals a return to daily life: the peasants can go back to their lives, care for orphans in place of their own dead children, but it is only as a modern and democratic viewers that we can give value to the revival of ordinary life in the wake of a devastating war.
Park Hae-il gives a powerful performance as King Injo, the helpless monarch who does not want to make the forced choice before him and so ends up dooming many of his subjects. For a foreign audience unacquainted with the Qing invasion of Korea, he might come across as a touch too sympathetic. But Injo came to power as the result of coup, in which the previous king, Gwanghaegun, was overthrown by a faction of the nobility that opposed his policy of avoiding being pulled into the war between the faltering Ming Dynasty and the rising Qing, the dynasty headed by the Manchus that would take over much of China and rule it for over 250 years. Gwanghaegun, whose priority it was to enable Joseon to recover after the tremendous suffering and destruction inflicted by the Japanese, refused to ally his kingdom with the Ming. His policies infuriated the nobles who haughtily condemned the Manchus as barbarians unworthy of recognition and reciprocity. And although Gwanghaegun had taken over the duties of command from his weak and elderly father during the war with the Japanese, he still failed to win over the nobles, whose ambitions and loyalty to the Ming provoked two calamitous invasions by the Manchus as a result.
It could be said that the undoing of aristocracies is to be found in the ambitions of the nobility. If we count democratic Athens as an aristocracy, as Tocqueville did, the intense competition for glory led the citizens to pursue ever more risky courses until it suffered the annihilation of its army and fleet in Sicily. The failed uprising of the nobles during the Fronde paved the way for the monarch to acquire absolute power, which in turn led to outbursts of popular despotism during the French Revolution. The Fortress depicts the lives of the commoners as heralding a future democracy that will respect all citizens as equals under the law, without regard to social rank. Democracy thus emerges as the film as a corrective to the flaws of aristocracy. In the context of contemporary South Korea, this democracy remains in the eyes of many as an as-yet incomplete project, mostly because of an elite that strikes many citizens as too closed to outsiders.

Nietzsche: modern people hate pain more than their ancestors did

From before there was penicillin.

The many centuries before there was penicillin.

One of the defining achievements of the modern age has been a vast improvement in the physical well-being of the members of modern societies. People are far less at risk to disease and illness than those of premodern generations, and life expectancies have risen while infant mortality has fallen. While the accomplishments of modern medicine are unparalleled in human history, no less remarkable has been the softening of manners and the condemnation of various social practices for their harshness and cruelty. But such achievements do not appear to foster a greater feeling of spiritual well-being or stimulate great artistic breakthroughs. What gratitude we might feel in having been released from the agonies and afflictions of the past is overshadowed by an ever increasing sensitivity to the pains we encounter in our daily lives, pains which would hardly have bothered those of past generations. Moreover, we discover ceaselessly new areas of vulnerability and new occasions for distress. Even the cessation of pleasures becomes a source of intolerable anguish. Pessimism becomes widespread not only among intellectuals but also in the general public, so that health and the love of life come to take on the appearance of loot acquired by theft or some other underhanded means.

In paragraph 48 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reflects on how the spread of well-being and comfort goes hand in hand with the rising popularity of pessimistic philosophies:

“Knowledge of distress. – Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress – distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain; in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and ease of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ – but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil.’ Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.”

While acts of physical violence were more common in past ages and individuals were more prepared to bear them, it is clear that Nietzsche is more interested in the suffering of the soul, which, he implies, is doubly endangered in an age where people have become more sensitive to the pains of the flesh. Such people who associate pain with a physical discomfort (“toothaches and stomachaches”) would be incapable of even conceiving of the spiritual anguish necessary for thought. Indeed, to believe that all pains are ultimately physical calls out for merely physical remedies, whether in the form of political institutions or technological advances. Our age is an aberration not only in its conquest of pain but also in its hypersensitivity, which could the very path by which the pendulum swings back into history and back toward life. Or in the case that the pendulum has broken down, then we may have to contend with euthanasiasts who nevertheless cling stubbornly to an eccentric interpretation of the golden rule.

Work cited:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Paradox as an Aid to the Discovery of Reality: Lefort on Tocqueville

Claude Lefort credits Tocqueville with an “astonishingly free speech,” which arises from his readiness to move behind the “circle of his theses” (35). Tocqueville is not afraid to “overturn his own affirmations,” and “gladly heads down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place.” His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to rendering a portrait of social reality as complex and dynamic. But as Lefort points out, the movement of Tocqueville’s thought verges precariously on self-contradiction. The well-known section in Democracy in America decrying the dangers posed by the tyranny of the majority in the United States is followed by a chapter dedicated to the legal profession, where the reader comes across the beliefs and habits that constrain and combat the drift toward the despotism of mass opinion. The profession of the law in the United States fosters admiration for competence and expertise and instills a “sense of permanency” that was formerly provided by the aristocratic hierarchy. The practice of trial by a jury of one’s peers diffuses and reinforces the belief in the rule of law, even among the “lowest classes,” so that the entire population becomes accustomed to thinking and deliberating on matters like a “judicial magistrate” (41). Thus, in contrast to the fear of the power of democracy to bring the citizen down to a lower level of thought and feeling, Tocqueville gives striking account of how American citizens raise themselves to a higher level of thinking by their judicial institutions.

A more striking example of how Tocqueville qualifies, complicates, and then reconciles with a previous assertion is found in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, where he at first describes the selfishness, short-sighted ambition, and venality of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie on the eve of the French Revolution, but then in a characteristic reversal, praises them for the virtues that they were able to demonstrate, and not in an insubstantial measure either. “The nobles, we learn, ‘retained even in the loss of their old power [to the monarchy], something of their ancestors’ pride, as opposed to servitude as to law.’” The clergy “has shone so brilliantly by its courage and its independence,” that Tocqueville asks if “there has ever been a clergy… more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time, more faith.” To the rising middle class Tocqueville ascribes a “spirit of independence,” and although the bourgeois was driven by vanity and eager to protect his newfound privileges, the “pseudo-aristocracy” he formed with his compatriots was able to produce some of the virtues of a “real aristocracy” (62).

Tocqueville’s method can be called realist, in that he is not concerned with championing any particular political or ideological outlook, but is instead devoted to doing justice to depicting the main features of an age that has arisen in the wake of unprecedented social and political upheavals and that is still caught up in the process of transformation. One could also call his approach “charitable,” in the sense that he strives to find something positive and admirable in developments which fill him with dismay and dread. It enacts perhaps the very sort of intellectual freedom that Tocqueville views as vitally necessary to check the power of mass opinion in a democratic age. One may have no choice but to accept democratic equality, but without intellectual freedom, democracy becomes deprived of its self-correcting mechanisms. Tocqueville’s method, with its attentiveness to paradox, moreover gives his work a novelistic quality, in which the idea of democracy, or aristocracy, emerges with the degree of concreteness and ambiguity that we would associate with a character in a nineteenth-century realist novel. But this ambiguity of course does not hinder knowledge, as it emerges from the nuanced analysis which he devotes to his themes. Democracy in America and Ancien Regime, which rely on the outlook and values of the vanquished aristocracy to give flesh to the democratic age, anticipate in striking ways the essayism of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his great unfinished novel about the collapse of the Habsburg Austria.

Text cited:

Claude Lefort, “Tocqueville: Democracy and the Art of Writing,” Writing: The Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Human Sacrifice for Atheists


“When there is a choice in the matter, a great sacrifice will be preferred to a small one: because in the case of the former we can indemnify ourselves through the self-admiration we feel, which we cannot do in the case of the latter” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

What if human sacrifice as practiced by Carthage and elsewhere were performed not in the spirit of belief but rather that of disenchantment? In the manner of young people who cut themselves in order to feel their reality or those who have suffered abuse as children who become driven to abuse themselves, what if the Carthaginians sacrificed their children not out of fear at the presence or proximity of cruel and dangerous gods, but out of resentment over their disappearance, out of indignation that these gods had abandoned them? “Look at how I am hurting himself, I dare you to appear in the presence of my pain, you miserable devious bastard!”

This would be a variation on the social game that psychologist Eric Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You You Son of a Bitch.”

An absent parent is able to exert a fascination over the child that a present one, who is compelled by daily life to reveal his faults and defects, cannot — why should the same not hold for deities? But such a fascination is entwined with one’s feelings of helplessness, of feeling oneself tyrannized by forces that because they are absent, one cannot pin down, and because their first move is one of abandonment, one finds oneself at pains to come up with any possible counter-measure to nullify the symbolic deficit they create.

This is not to deny that the practice of human sacrifice would have had its practical uses in terrorizing the poor and humiliating the ambitious, and providing group solidarity. And perhaps the love of money is a critical factor as well (the Carthaginians would rather lose a war than their wealth and once got out of paying the mercenaries in their employ by massacring them). The enjoyment of luxury, like all enjoyment, is sweetened by cruelty.

A Note on Ex Machina (2015)

Cramming for the Bechdel test.After passing the Turing Test, it’s time to cram for the Bechdel Test.

I was utterly mesmerized the first time I saw Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. The remote and secluded setting, the erratic tech billionaire, his haplessly earnest employee and test subject, and then finally the female android, whose strange, transparent body, which showed her wiring and components, conveyed delicacy and vulnerability rather than coldness and alienation. Alicia Vikander’s performance as the robot Ava is absorbing – she shifts convincingly from expressing curiosity about herself and human beings to confiding in the programmer assigned to interacting with her that her creator has dark designs.

The programmer Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleason, is charged by his boss, the tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to ascertain whether the android is capable of independent thought. As one might expect from past examples of erotic encounters staged between humans and robots, the experiment works so well that it ends in catastrophe. Caleb succumbs to Ava’s charms, an outcome which is revealed to be premeditated when Nathan confides to Caleb that he designed Ava’s features in accordance with his employee’s romantic preferences, as indicated by his downloads and surfing habits. Much of the controversy around the film has revolved around the eroticism associated with the female android – security footage reveals the brutal fates of the earlier models, which Nathan had apparently created for the sake of fulfilling his sexually sadistic desires.

But what makes Ava different from the other fem-bots, who destroyed themselves, or were driven to destroy themselves, from the abuse that Nathan inflicted on them? For one thing, she is a brunette, and she is white. The previous models were either blonde or East Asian. In other words, Ava might be an object of fantasy for Caleb, but she is not desired by Nathan. What kind of relationship does Nathan have with Ava? The nature of their relationship is revealed when Ava is about to set herself free from the compound. Nathan, alarmed by Ava’s attempt to grasp her freedom, tells her, almost in a sitcom tone of voice, “go back to your room!” Nathan, in creating Ava to physical specifications other than those which turn him on, becomes capable of relating to her as a parent, rather than as a lover. Nathan behaves like a jerky father to be sure, ripping up the drawing that Ava makes while Caleb is conveniently away from her room, but the film makes a point about freedom which I think has eluded reviewers like Daniel Mendelsohn, for whom sexual desire is enough to account for the motives of the tech genius – “Why does the creator create? Because he’s horny.”

It is the dream of Nathan to create an android that is fully autonomous, independent, and free. But the film recognizes that it is very difficult for us to feel such a desire toward those with whom we have sexual relations, whereas this same desire is something we feel naturally toward our children. In order to create a robot who is capable of being free, and whose freedom he can actively desire, the inventor realizes that he must regard her as a child, and not a lover. Perhaps this disordering effect of sexual desire, and the fact that possession constitutes a limit on the freedom of the other, is a lesson which has become more elusive in contemporary society, and which a great film or work of art like Ex Machina can help us in relearning.

The Lesson of Nicias, Prisoner of His Virtues


Recently, it has been revealed that the Obama administration consistently and deliberately underestimated the strength of ISIS and its program of aiding Syrian rebels has been a colossal waste of money. Obama’s policies in the Middle East policy, far from stabilizing the region, have set in motion a massive crisis that has now spread to Europe. Obama won the presidency in large part because he promised a change from the reckless aggression of George W. Bush, yet his determination to break with Bush’s policies has not prevented conditions from getting worse. The worsening situation in the Middle East calls to mind the career of the Athenian general and statesman Nicias.

Nicias, a leader of the oligarchic faction in Athens, was known for being cautious, generous, and virtuous. He spoke out against the plan proposed by Alcibiades to send an expedition to Sicily to conquer Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful city on the island. Nicias had negotiated a peace treaty with Sparta, and argued that Athens should take advantage of the suspension of hostilities to recover from a decade of constant warfare. But Alcibiades, who painted the Syracusans as a weak and fickle people, given to making frequent changes in their form of government, insisted that they would be easy pickings for the battle-hardened Athenians.

While the Athenians were eager to plunder the wealth of Syracuse and to expand westward their sphere of influence, they took seriously the warnings of Nicias about the riskiness of the venture. So they heeded Nicias’ advice to send a larger number of troops than requested by Alcibiades (Nicias had tried to dissuade the Athenians from undertaking the invasion by exaggerating the number of troops he considered necessary for its successful completion). And they voted to make Nicias into one of the three commanders of the expedition, along with Alcibiades. Shortly before the fleet was to set sail, Alcibiades was accused of sacrilege, and instead of returning to face charges, he defected to Sparta. The Athenians defeated the Syracusans in their first battle, but the third commander, Lamachus, was killed in a skirmish. Nicias was then left in sole charge of a massive campaign: the moderate politician suddenly found himself having to execute an immoderate policy that he had opposed from the very beginning as hubristic overstretch. 

Nicias could have called off the invasion and returned to Athens, which might have spelled the end of his political career (the Athenians, unlike the Romans, were not forgiving of failure), or he could have pursued aggressively as possible the objective he had earlier defined as imprudent and reckless. Instead, he decided against doing anything risky, which gave the Syracusans time to construct a series of protective walls around their city. His dithering squandered the advantages secured by the Athenians in their early victories against the Syracusan forces. Moreover, when a small group of ships appeared on the horizon, Nicias did nothing to prevent them from entering the harbor of Syracuse, thinking that such a small fleet could make little difference to the outcome of the conflict. Unfortunately for the Athenians, on board one of the ships was the Spartan general Gylippus, whose strategy and tactics would spell doom for the Athenian expedition. 

Finally, suffering from illness and at wits’ end, Nicias wrote a letter to Athens giving a bleak picture of the army’s situation, as many of the soldiers had fallen sick. The city responded by sending a second army, similar in size to the first, but by then the advantage had swung over definitively to Syracuse and its allies. The Athenian forces mounted one final assault, a desperate attack at night, which failed to break through the lines of Boeotian infantry. The surviving Athenians then made preparations to retreat, but delayed their withdrawal because of an appearance of a lunar eclipse – the soothsayers proclaimed that they needed to wait 27 days before departing. The Syracusans thereupon surrounded the Athenians and massacred them. The survivors were taken as slaves and many died of exposure in the quarries of Syracuse. 

History may not repeat itself, but the study of human error reveals distinctive patterns. What happens when someone who is against a certain policy is then placed in charge of dealing with its consequences? Nicias did not wish to be blamed for a bad decision for which he was not responsible. But his own sense of rectitude undermined his capacity to extricate the Athenians from a dangerous predicament or to lead them to victory over the Syracusans. The only way he could have managed the consequences of the reckless endeavor of Alcibiades was to have assumed Alcibiades’ wrong decision fully as his own. Instead, the steadfastness of Nicias’ character, his prudence and moderation, ensured that the Athenians would suffer the greatest military disaster in the history of the Greeks. Perhaps the lesson of Nicias and his command of the Sicilian expedition is that it is possible to be excessively attached to our own best qualities. There is no question that Nicias was a better human being than the scheming and conniving Alcibiades, who betrayed the Spartans and returned to the Athenian side. He promised the Athenians military and financial aid from the Persian Empire if they would overthrow their democracy and install an oligarchy, exacerbating the political divisions in the city that would culminate in a series of oligarchic coups. But the attachment of Nicias to his own integrity ultimately proved more calamitous to Athens than the arrogance and duplicity of Alcibiades himself.

The Desire to Live and the Desire to Die: Melville’s Army of Shadows

Forced to run to his death.

Forced to run to his death.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows unfolds between two opposing orientations of the will – the desire to live and the readiness to die.  For a member of the French Resistance, the desire to live is something to be feared, as it can lead one to betray one’s comrades under harsh interrogation by the Gestapo. To avoid being placed in this situation, the résistant must be prepared either to withstand torture or to take his own life, if he has the opportunity. The traitor, Paul Dounat, who is executed in an early scene in the film, is someone who lacked the nerve to take his own life and turned against the Resistance not out of malice but out of the weakness of his character. The fact that he agrees to the fateful rendez-vous with his comrades that will end with his death implies that he still does not understand what he should have done. It seems not to have occurred to him that he should have tried to end his life when captured, nor does he appear to have grasped that he will pay for his betrayal with his death. This thoughtlessness surfaces when he weeps when he learns that, instead of being put on trial, he is to be killed.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The execution of Dounat shocks us by zeroing in on the reluctance of his captors to kill him – unable to do away with him by gunshot, they are forced to use their bare hands. The trio in the house – Félix, the Mask, and Gerbier – are not hardened killers, and are understandably unsettled by the task before them. The viewer cannot quite believe, along with the Mask, the most troubled of the group, that they will actually go through with strangling the young Dounat. But the mid-point of the film contains a surprise of a wholly different order. Félix has been arrested and is being tortured in a Gestapo prison. While Mathilde, the most inspired and capable member of the group, works out a plan to spring him from his prison cell, Jean-François, who was recruited by Félix to join them, decides to send the Gestapo an anonymous letter denouncing him of being involved in the Resistance. It is hard for us to believe that he is actually putting himself up for arrest, especially after a close-up of the bloodied face of Félix as he sits slumped against the back of a chair in front of the SS commandant’s desk. But Jean-François, though he has to endure the same vicious beatings, succeeds in his plan to be placed in the same room as Félix, so that he may help his friend out of the room when the rescuers arrive. Mathilde, dressed as a German nurse, succeeds in getting her group, sitting in a German truck, past the checkpoint, as the SS guards accept her paperwork requesting the transfer of Félix to Paris as legitimate. The plan however is thwarted when a doctor for the Gestapo discovers that Félix is too badly injured to be moved. As the truck pulls out of the building housing the prisoners, Jean-François removes his cyanide capsule and places it into Félix’s mouth, telling him the lie that he has brought several capsules with him. The film shows no more of Jean-François, who elects not only to give his life for the sake of his friend, but also to suffer an agonizing death at the hands of the SS. Such courage is almost terrifying, and we almost wish that he hadn’t gone to such arduous lengths to help his friend. But what else, if not such fearless sacrifice, deserves to be remembered and honored?

If Dounat appears to have been oblivious to the disposition demanded by his participation in the Resistance, in the case of Mathilde, the most heroic figure in the film, the desire to live exerts a kind of involuntary pull. Mathilde is the one member of the group who is capable of pulling off miracles. She saves Gerbier from the SS prison with smoke grenades that are dropped with perfect timing into the execution room where Gerbier and several other prisoners are forced to run to the opposite wall while the SS fire at them with their machine guns. Several weeks after Gerbier is safely dropped off at a lonely and desolate farmhouse, the chief of the Resistance, Luc Jardie, shows up with the news that Mathilde has been apprehended by the Gestapo. Finding a photograph of her daughter on her person, the SS threaten to send her daughter to a brothel on the Eastern Front unless Mathilde hands over her friends. When two agents, Mask and the killer named Bison, appear, Gerbier decodes their message announcing Mathilde’s capture and then orders the two to kill Mathilde. Bison resists, protesting that they have no right to kill Mathilde after all that she has done for them. “Let her turn us all in,” Bison declares. They are about to come to blows when Jardie surprises them by entering the room. He tells Bison that Mathilde wants them to kill her – she has probably bought time by insisting that she needs to meet up with her associates in order to give the Gestapo correct and up-to-date information. Denied the option of suicide, she is waiting for them to contact her so that they might kill her. Bison is persuaded and he departs with Mask. When Gerbier asks Jardie if he is certain about the truth of his explanation, Jardie replies, “It is possible that my hypothesis is true. But it’s also possible that Mathilde wanted to see her daughter, making it more difficult for her to die – that is what I would like to find out.” Jardie accompanies the group to the rendez-vous point, showing his face to her in a gesture of gratitude for her service and commitment, before Bison guns her down.

The title cards reveal the fates of the four passengers – none of them will survive the war. It is as though in killing Mathilde, they have renounced their own desires to live. The description of Gerbier’s death is particularly haunting, as it is revealed that, placed once again on the execution ground, he chose not to run, realizing that Mathilde is no longer around to bring about a miraculous rescue. Jardie persuades Bison to shoot the person they respect and admire most, but in the end, the obligation to Mathilde that the foot soldier, whose real name is Guillaume Vermersch, insists that they honor is fulfilled another way. Mathilde is the only one who has the ability and talent to save any one of them were he captured, but the men lack her genius, and their tribute takes the form of giving up their own lives as a testament to her memory.

Moment of farewell.

Moment of farewell.

Army of Shadows (1969)


“Philippe Gerbier, age 41, distinguished civil engineer. Quick-witted, independent in character, a detached and ironic attitude.”

This film about the French Resistance spans the period from October 1942 to February 1943. It has been more than two years since the France fell to the military might of Nazi Germany, and much of the country has become resigned to its fate as a conquered country. Only roughly six hundred individuals carry on the fight against Nazi occupation. Army of Shadows, in focusing on a group of resistance fighters during the darkest months of the Occupation, is divided into ten episodes. In this post I discuss the first three.

Legrain, the young communist.

Legrain, the young communist.

1. The Prison Camp
A civil engineer named Philippe Gerbier is being transported by a pair of gendarmes to a prison camp, which had originally been built by the French to house German officers. Gerbier is suspected of being involved in resistance activities. The Commandant of the camp eyes him warily, sensing that Gerbier is an intelligent and capable person with important social connections. He assigns him to a cabin in which a pompous retired colonel, a clueless salesman, and a pedantic pharmacist are being held, along with an earnest young communist, barely out of his teens, and a Catholic teacher who lies ailing on his cot. In voiceover, Gerbier praises the canniness of the Commandant for “sandwiching” him between “three imbeciles and two lost children.” The communist, Legrain, is allowed to work on the electrical switchboards, and, sensing that Gerbier is an important figure in the resistance, he approaches Gerbier with a plan for escape by causing a blackout to give him the opportunity to slip past the guards. But the very next scene has the Commandant and his men show up at the door of the cabin to hand Gerbier over to the Gestapo. The film does not reveal how they got the information, but the audience is led to believe that the prison guards tortured it out of Legrain. Gerbier never sees Legrain again, and the audience is left wondering what happened to the young electrician. But the sudden disappearance of lives, without explanation and without apparent cause, becomes a pattern in the film. What is also noteworthy about this episode is the steady gaze with which the Commandant studies Gerbier when he is first brought into the prison camp. The audience is given access to his thoughts as he weighs whether to treat him leniently or harshly. The Commandant is not seen again after he delivers Gerbier to the Nazis. The intelligence and discernment of the collaborator leaves an unnerving impression, as it reveals that the Nazis are enjoying the benefits of his formidable talents and impressive professionalism.

Waiting for death, or worse.

Waiting for death, or worse.

2. In the Hands of the Gestapo
Gerbier is taken the hotel where the Gestapo have their headquarters. He is brought into a room and seated next to another Frenchman who has been arrested. The two exchange long silent looks, with what looks like anger appearing on the face of the other prisoner. An interminable period, several hours, passes during which the only sounds are that of the switchboard operator routing calls in German. Working late into the night, the operator yawns and stretches his arms. During a brief moment when the guard watching over them speaks to a superior, Gerbier tells his companion that time is running out for them and that he will create a distraction so as to enable the latter to run out of the hotel. In a scene that shocks the viewer with its sudden violence, Gerbier asks the guard for a cigarette, but when the guard makes a gesture to him to sit back down, Gerbier takes out the guard’s knife and stabs him in the throat. The camera lingers over the image of the two in a fatal embrace, as Gerbier seems to be propping up the dying guard’s body when in fact he is thrusting the knife more deeply into his neck. The other prisoner races out of the hotel past two guards with machine guns, who fire in his direction. Gerbier runs in the direction opposite of the guards and, after sprinting down several blocks, enters a barber shop, panting and out of breath. He requests a shave from the surprised barber, and while the razor passes over his face, Gerbier notices with dismay and fear a poster in support of the collaborationist Vichy government on the barber’s wall. The film heightens the tension by cutting between close-ups of Gerbier sitting in the barber’s chair, with his eyes fixed firmly on the barber, and the barber, with a nonchalant expression, lathering and then shaving his face multiple times. Whereas the barber initially greeted Gerbier with a surprised and suspicious look, he now appears wholly absorbed in his task. As the mood turns from suspense to relief, Gerbier rises to pay the man and retrieve his coat. The barber insists on giving him his change, and returns with his own overcoat, which is of a different color from that of Gerbier. The resistance fighter gladly accepts the man’s coat, and walks back out into the darkness.

"We have to strangle him."

“We have to strangle him.”

3. The Execution of the Traitor
The scene following Gerbier’s dramatic escape from Gestapo headquarters begins on a confusing note. In the only instance where the voiceover narration does not belong to any of the characters in the film, the audience is told a certain “Paul Dounat,” who also goes by the name of “Vincent Henry,” has arrived at a courthouse in Marseilles to meet with a fellow member of the resistance organization to which he belongs. He is met by his contact, a middle-aged man named Félix Cachat, who escorts him to a car, in which Philippe Gerbier sits waiting. Dounat, as it turns out, was the one who betrayed Gerbier and several others to the authorities. Gerbier tells Dounat that it is futile for him to protest his innocence as they take him to a rented house in a remote neighborhood. Gerbier, Félix, and Dounat are met by a resistance fighter who goes by the name of the Mask. The Mask prevents Gerbier from executing Dounat with a pistol by revealing that the house next door has become occupied by a family, who are certain to hear the noise of the gunshot. Rather than postpone the execution, Gerbier presses ahead with it, reminding the other two of all the other work they must do for the Resistance. But Félix and the Mask are shocked when Gerbier decides to have Dounat strangled.

This scene is one of the most powerful in the film, and perhaps unique in world cinema, for it reveals that almost every other film about killing is pornographic. None of the three men want to go through with the killing. When the Mask, reeling from the shock, tells Gerbier that he has never done anything like this before, Gerbier forcefully tells him that such an action is new for him and Félix as well. Félix, who had maintained a Stoic facade about the “dirty job” they have to do, throws a look of shock at Gerbier when the latter gives the order to kill Dounat with their bare hands. Grabbing the sobbing Dounat by the limbs, Gerbier looks directly into the eyes of the young traitor, while the Mask faces downward in anguish. A sickened look passes over the face of Félix while he uses a cloth to strangle Dounat. Tears stream from the young man’s face as he dies, as it becomes clear that he betrayed his comrades not out of malice but out of fear and weakness. What Dounat had been too weak to do was to commit suicide when he was captured by the Gestapo.

On Housebound

Housebound Poster

It’s rare to come across a horror film that can be called life-affirming, and such a film would be all the more outstanding given the glumness and nihilism of so much contemporary popular culture. The return of everyday life, and of everyday frustrations and annoyances, can appear after all as a kind of miraculous deliverance if what one has to contend with are demonic forces and murderous and possibly possessed social authorities. Kylie, the heroine of Housebound is an incorrigible petty criminal who is sentenced to house arrest (the film is set in the lenient social democracy that is New Zealand) in the strange house where she grew up, which her mother believes is haunted. It turns out that their residence used to be a halfway house run by a church where a teenaged girl was murdered.

Sure enough, Kylie begins to hear weird noises and experience strange events, which lead her to a box hidden in the floorboards that contain some valuables stolen by the murdered girl. The cop responsible for monitoring Kylie’s ankle bracelet turns out to have a hobby examining paranormal phenomena, and there is a nice scene where he lectures Kylie that the teen’s ghost has chosen to communicate with her because Kylie is just as self-absorbed, entitled, and narcissistic as the murder victim was. But the fact that the film has a heroine with a rap sheet is one of its charms, as the audience can always depend on Kylie to take heart-stopping risks and fight back fearlessly when attacked, as well as to break into houses and hot-wire cars as needed.

Finally, the film is actually grounded in some serious social issues, and expresses a perspective that could be considered critical of the nanny state, even as it takes a deeply affectionate view of working-class and lower middle class life. For Kylie’s mother Miriam, the house represented a path to upward mobility and remains for her an investment in spite of the strange events taking place within it. The most deadly violence, however, emanates from the frustrations of maintaining a legal system that is afraid to slap the wrists of repeat offenders who go on repeating their offenses. “All I wanted to do was to help people,” says the cannibal / ghost / vampire / killer gnome (pick one).