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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Double Feature: A Century of War

In a special year-end publication, the French newspaper Le Monde calls the hundred years just ending, 1914-2014, “Un Siecle de Guerre,” a century of war.  The editors divide it into four periods of conflict – World War One, World War Two, the Cold War and Decolonization, 1945-1991, and Separatism and Terrorism, 1991-2014.  These hundred years have been, and will be, the subject of myriad histories.

But a great work of art is worth a hundred history books.  In my opinion, if you want to understand the last century, skip the political and military potboilers, and see just two great movies:  Jean Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion,” from 1935, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” from 1966.  "Grand Illusion” ushers in the collapse of European civilization from 1914 to 1945.   “The Battle of Algiers” is all you need to know about the clash of civilizations that has roiled the world ever since. 

When I was a boy, I used to bother my parents with questions about historical disasters of their time.  What started World War One?  What caused the Great Depression?   I never got a satisfactory answer, from them or anyone else.   But Jean Renoir paints the answer in film, in a word, though it’s a word that no one utters in his film:  illusion, illusion, illusion.   The mysterious “grand illusion” is never mentioned or defined, but it’s easy to see that every man in the film is driven by some illusion, some grandiose idea to die for.  And die they do:  for national pride, for aristocratic honor, for military or patriotic duty, for old Europe, as Ezra Pound had it:

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization..

The movie ends with a prophetic image for Europe and the world:  two Frenchmen, escaped from a German war prison, scrambling up a mountainside in Switzerland, sinking at every step into deep snow, making their way back to France, living to fight another day.    

For me, the peak of the story is its earlier prophecy – a pastoral vision of peace.  The two Frenchmen, Marechal and Rosenthal, hiding out in a barn in the German Alps, are discovered and sheltered by the farmer – a young widow whose husband and all her brothers have been killed in German victories.  Elsa and her little daughter Lotte are the only ones left on the farm.  In a brief idyll, a few weeks, all the characters see through every illusion, every division, every barrier:  Marechal, a French patriot, learns to speak and love in German.  The climax of the episode comes at Christmas Eve.  Rosenthal joins in a midnight party for Lotte, celebrating the birth of his fellow Jew, with this happily hidden, ad hoc Family of Man.

But the idyll ends in early spring, with Marechal mumbling a farewell speech to Elsa hoping that someday, maybe, after the war ends ..   But by now we know that illusion is stronger than hope.  

“The Battle of Algiers” is about the great post-war illusion – the belief of wealthy developed nations that third-world liberation movements can be crushed by killing off the leaders and buying off the people.  This was the French illusion in Algeria in the 1950s, and not the last of its kind.

The film’s hero is an Islamic terrorist, a ruthless killer.  Still it is impossible not to understand his point of view, and sympathize with his violence in the face of France’s brutal counter-insurgency.  Americans can’t help but see ourselves today in the smooth-talking French commanders, who refuse to use the word torture, but rationalize its use in the name of counter-terrorism, and who justify their crackdown with the idea that most Algerians are “decent folk,” and happy under French rule.  This would seem disingenuous, were it not for our own illusions later in Vietnam, and the nonsense one reads to this day about hearts and minds in Afghanistan.  

We don’t understand, because the desire of these peoples is not expressed in terms we understand.  The French win the Battle of Algiers, “decapitating” the rebel organization by killing or imprisoning all its leaders.  But somehow, two years later, the whole nation of Algeria rises up against them.  The last six minutes of the film are a riot in the streets of Algiers, breathlessly reported back to Paris by a clueless correspondent.   “For no apparent reason,” he says, demonstrations have broken out again – much bigger than anything before. Day and night, the Casbah echoes with “unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries.” 

The war in Algeria is a template for all the unwinnable, asymmetrical wars rich nations have fought since World War Two.  Even the 9/11 attacks on the United States are foreshadowed in the terrifying film personage of Aly le Pointe, an illiterate Arab enraged by the casual arrogance and brutality of colonial rule, a serial mass murderer of civilians, but a brave man, a religious man, willing to die for his people.  In the end he refuses to surrender, and dies along with his family when the French blow up his home.  And maybe this is his illusion, that it’s better to die than surrender.

If there is one man in the film without illusions, it is the true-to life character of rebel commander El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef, dramatizing a character based on himself.)   Trapped and surrounded in his home just like Aly le Pointe, he concludes that it is useless to die this way, and negotiates a trip to prison.  In prison, Yacef wrote the book that "Battle of Algiers" is based on, and plays himself in the movie.

"Battle" is a cinematic marvel.  It feels like a documentary, but in fact is a scripted movie, re-creating  real historical events.  There is only one professional actor in the cast -- Jean Martin, who plays the French paratroop commander.  Pontecorvo chose ordinary people of Algiers to play the people of Algiers, refusing to romanticize them. 

The film's conclusion is as relevant today as ever.  No regime that thinks it has crushed a popular movement should rest easy, because such movements can come back to life suddenly, bigger than ever, and "for no apparent reason."   We see something like the Battle of Algiers today, in Kiev. Watch for it again and again in the next century.

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips