Irish south coast…
I got burgled on 24 June. The Algerian refugees in the basement had been fiddling with a satellite dish in the back yard and helpfully left a ladder standing against the wall. Not noticing the ladder, I left a window open that warm Saturday night and the little f*cker, a teenager, climbed up and in. He passed a lot of items – a few CDs, all my tapes, a tape recorder, a reading lamp, remote control, phone charger, some foreign coins, a cap, a couple of pairs of jeans and an old pair of black shoes – out through the window to an accomplice who must have vanished into the night upon hearing that something had gone wrong. For some reason they didn’t take my passport or overcoat, which were the most valuable things there. Not a proud boast. The TV set wouldn’t have fitted through the window. The kid did find a spare set of a friend’s keys on the table and he got greedy, entering the hallway in order to explore other enticing possibilities, upstairs.
The chap who lived directly above me was watching Alien at the time and got an extra fright on hearing a rattle through his keyhole. He was a bit of a nutter (in his own words, he “out-aggressed” the visitor) and he even took a hammer off him before telling one of the other tenants to call the police. I arrived back to find cops in the hallway in their caps and yellow jackets. I thought it was quite amusing until I saw my place had been trashed, with books and papers everywhere. At least he hadn’t ripped the posters. It took me until five in the morning to put it all back together. I sobered up in the brightness and ended up throwing out a lot of stuff, like in a spring clean. The cops came back and took away stuff to be finger-printed, like a black glove, for instance. We were now in OJ territory. They also gave me the number for Victim Support. I didn’t phone.
On 25 October, the scene was the room they called Court 55 at the juvenile court in Smithfield. I was sworn in, holding the Bible in my right hand and repeating the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ stuff like I was on TV. I nearly laughed. The prosecuting officer – still only a trainee garda – had told me what to say i.e. that I’d come home in the early hours to find my place had been ransacked and that the Gardaí had taken the accused into custody, having found him on the premises and having found on him some foreign currency and a bunch of keys. There was no point in mentioning the stuff that was gone.
He then produced a brown envelope full of French and Norwegian coins and asked if they were mine. I presume they are. The solicitor for the accused jumped in. You just said you presume they are yours. I just smiled. I know what you’re getting at and it’s an obvious question to ask, I suppose. Look, I don’t even know if money can be fingerprinted and I can’t prove to you scientifically that that’s my money but I believe it is, to the best of my knowledge. He smiled and then he came over to the bench. There he, the cop and I inspected the money, pushing the coins around for a while until I was told I could step down. I swept the coins into my hand. I presume I can take these? The judge was smiling too at this stage. I’ll make an order about them later. Then the solicitor said it was all moot as his client had been wrongly arrested on a Section 4 or something. After a short deliberation the judge said she did not like technicalities appearing in her court but unfortunately she had to throw the case out.
Another officer then entered and took the stand – it was a seat, actually – while the accused still sat in the dock, with his hands in his pockets, like he was behind a school desk. His tired and worn mother looked on from the back of the room. This garda said he’d arrested the lad for causing hassle in a shopping centre, for threatening to punch the head off a security man and for telling the officer to f*ck off, after which there had been “a bit of a scuffle”, in the officer’s words. The defending solicitor started pestering him. It sounds very like you lost control of the situation. I was looking at a man in a grey suit who sat beside the judge. He was looking at the lawyer like he was a piece of shit. It was hard not to laugh.
The officer flatly denied this assertion, insisting he’d only had some trouble getting the cuffs on him. The judge took the cop’s side, saying the lad had got enough of a warning and that the officer was only acting like a trained officer of the law, unlike a mere shopping centre security man, for instance. Given the accused had already been bound over to keep the peace, the judge gave him three months, suspended, plus some probation, and told him he was very lucky. I still felt like laughing. The judge thanked me as we filed out. Moral: what was the point of all this?
Die Macht der Bilder (1993) is known in English as The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. When watching this film, it is hard to ignore even the sparkling eyes of a razor-sharp old lady often condemned as a witch of Nazi propaganda, especially for what she filmed at Nuremberg.
In this documentary, she insisted that Triumph of the Will had to be seen in the context of the time, which was 1934, not 1945. At that time in the Thirties, Robert Musil was living in Berlin. His diaries show that not quite everybody was blind to what was happening. It is seen as a spell of bad weather… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up…
Riefenstahl nonetheless pointed out too that her film contained nothing about anti-Semitism or racial theory. Instead, she argued that in it she conveyed (through Hitler, you may splutter) the themes of work and peace. Her avowed goal had been artistic, once she had accepted the task on the condition that she would never have to make another film for the Nazi Party.
Riefenstahl was more than able for the unseen interviewer who asked her about the responsibility of the artist concerning those who will be affected by the work. On the issue of filming for Hitler, she pointed out that Sergei Eisenstein had worked for Stalin but her more general point was that artists cannot tell the future and that the likes of Michelangelo and Rodin had shown no grasp of politics.
The more she spoke, the harder it was not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her position. She ridiculed Susan Sontag’s assertion that she had been attracted to photograph the Nuba people in Africa because their black skin reminded her of the SS. She pointed out that a Nazi wouldn’t think black people were even worth photographing.
In a fit of enthusiasm they later regretted, the French had given Triumph of the Will the gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 – a decision they vindictively balanced out after the war when they imprisoned its maker. This was after the Americans had decided that she had no case to answer, beyond being a fellow traveller (Mitläufer). This imprisonment also happened despite the fact that neither she nor any close family member had been a member of the Nazi Party.
Her true crime? Perhaps it was to be perceived to have done the impossible and actually produced a ‘fascist’ work of art. The Wagnerian comparisons commonly made in this case tie in with Louis Halle’s observation on Germany and Italy in The Ideological Imagination.
“What the fascist movements lacked in philosophy they made up for in theatre. It is surely no accident that the extreme of fascism was realized in the two countries most notable for their contributions to grand opera.”
– The Ideological Imagination, 1972, p.99
Though she denied she was proud of Triumph of the Will, given the trouble it had caused her, and she did not think fondly of the extended hard work, editing it and so on, there was evident glee on her part as she showed off certain camera effects she had achieved. She could even remember the geographical origins of specific contingents where they took part in particular shots.
Riefenstahl’s outlook was apolitical at the very least and the future was all there to see in Mein Kampf and so on, but the vast majority of Germans – of human beings – are not lights in the darkness like Sophie Scholl or Willy Brandt. As a boy, Leon Trotsky was suspended from school for a year for inciting his classmates to howl at a teacher who was tormenting a fellow pupil simply because he was of German descent. Trotsky saw that once the protest began the class was henceforth divided into three groups – the frank and courageous boys on the one side, the envious and the talebearers on the other and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. Writing about the incident from the perspective of suitably chastened adulthood, he added that these three groups never quite disappeared, even in later years.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi expresses anger and revulsion when evaluating a statement made by Liliana Cavani, director of The Night Porter, who said that we are all victims of murderers and that we accept these roles voluntarily. Levi says that to confuse murderers with their victims is a sign of moral disease or artistic affectation, or a sinister sign of complicity rendering a precious service to the negators of truth.
Today the cinematic glorification of serial killers earns vast amounts of money but, in that context, an important distinction can be made between The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, to take two key examples of the genre. In the former, Hannibal Lecter is a satanic figure in the artistic sense of the term, as a snaky embodiment of temptation. He gets all the best lines, his feats are superhuman and, at the end of his satirical quest, he ends up like a guardian angel.
In Seven, the Kevin Spacey character is a grudge-filled little vigilante who trots out his banal motives behind gruesome tortures and murders which have been carefully and cleverly rendered by those behind the camera. Which of these films is a sign of moral disease, a form of sinister complicity?
In the same real world where a gangster like John Gotti gets life without parole, despite never having ordered the carpet-bombing of a Third World country, which of the following pair of even more famous cinema examples answers the same question? Is it Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler (“It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken”)?
Contrast that now with a scene from one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here. In other words, get out. Does the latter example not express the true moral of colonial war?
The application of Leni Riefenstahl’s technical brilliance was ill-advised but one could say too that she was unlucky. Too many artists to mention have buried their heads in the sand or even joined in the madness prevalent at any given time and there was no honest reason for preventing her from ever making a film again. Few others whom we think should have known better actually grasped the destination. They were often simply content to admire the parade.