The White Ribbon

At Loose Ends 
(Image courtesy: Empire Online)

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon had to fight it out with quite a few heavyweights this year at Cannes for the Golden Palm including Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Jim Jarmusch, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino. It has also been selected, but not without some controversy, as Germany’s official entry for the Oscars. All I can say is that Austria must be happy. Since the end of the Second World War, fascism has been studied and dissected on film many times over with varying degrees of success. With a veteran such as Haneke at the helm, writing an original script for the movie, I did expect more than what The White Ribbon presents here. Some reviewers have pointed out that being familiar to Haneke’s body of work will help one appreciate this film more. I had only seen his The Piano Teacher (2001) before this one and felt that The White Ribbon does not really succeed because Haneke undoes everything that he did right in the former film. Even his subtle, cerebral and gently commenting mise en scène is not able to heal the film from the blows dealt to it by its script. Sure, it is an ambitious film that many directors would not have been able to pull off, but it falls way too short of standard for a director who has established himself as one of the most important directors working.

The White Ribbon brings to us a chain of mysterious and violent events that occur in a village in Germany prior to the First World War as narrated by a teacher (Christian Friedel) who worked in that village during that period. We are presented with a host of characters from various walks of life – the Baron (Ulrich Tukur) and his wife (Ursina Lardi) who provide employment to majority of the village, the Fender family of peasants who have just lost the lady of the house in an accident at the Baron’s workplace, the village doctor (Rainer Bock), who has recently had an accident riding a horse, and his mistress and the midwife of the village (Maria-Victoria Dragus), the village priest (Burghart Klaußner) and his family and the narrators own love interest – the new nanny at the Baron’s – the seventeen year old Eva (Leonie Benesch). We are made privy to the happenings of each household and the dirty underbelly hiding behind the flawless exterior of the quiet and secluded village. Mishaps pile up one after the other, progressively violent, and suspicion soars in the village as the culprit is nowhere to be found. All these characters and events are held together on a single clothesline that consists of the children of the village. They are the witnesses and victims of the events that unfold. They are also the documents that would define the course of history – of the village, of the country and of the world – that is to come.

Primarily, Haneke’s film proposes political, social, religious and sexual repressions exhibited on a young generation by its predecessors as the roots of fascism and places this argument in the context of pre-war Germany. Although these forms of repressions have been studied individually and in considerable detail in many other films of the past, The White Ribbon attempts to integrate all these influences into a monolithic attitude that defines the course of a society. As observed by many reviewers, The White Ribbon bears remarkable resemblance to Clouzot’s wartime classic The Raven (1943), which scathingly exposes the changes in mentality of a collective during uncertain times and the hypocrisy and hate that such a political climate brings to surface, in its study of a group as a whole wherein disparaging threads eventually converge to draw out a single, coherent portrait of the group at a particular time. The class system is tangible, with the aristocracy, intelligentsia, the middle class and the peasantry being represented with clear demarcation.  The Baron and his wife – the upper class – have only their personal relationship and their property to worry about. The bourgeoisie is content in sticking to a set of middle-brow principles (there is way too much formality going on in the film) and maintaining status quo. The peasants can only worry about everyday survival. The apolitical intelligentsia – typified by the doctor and the teacher – is busy with its own romantic encounters and perversions. Cinematographed by Christian Berger, this isolation of the clerisy is summed up in two stunning shots in the film – one during the dance at the village fest (reminiscent of Ophüls’ magical Madame De… (1953)) and one on a horse carriage (reminiscent of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), one of the best explorations of fascism on film) – in which the teacher and his love interest Eva are alienated from the village events. And whenever a member of any class tries to digress from these functions, they are berated and made to return to their position by either the class divide or the generation divide.

The White Ribbon presents us a seemingly pacific society which thrives on domestic bureaucracy for survival and maintains hierarchies to perpetuate that status. Haneke presents these power games not as a ping-pong rally, as we have seen in so many films, but as a chain of dominoes. In his world, there is no such thing as retaliation. Everybody has to conform to and perform specific roles in society – willingly or otherwise. The elder Fender has to play the role of a helpless farmer whereas his son, the radial, has to play the part of an obedient child irrespective of him being an adult. There is an obligation placed on everyone in the hierarchy by ones above them to conform to certain rules and to get punished upon transgressing those boundaries. The priest ties a white ribbon – another stereotype which symbolizes innocence (as defined by Protestant morals) – on his adolescent son’s arm to remind him of his duty to ward off worldly temptations and lays down an unwarranted responsibility upon him to play the role of a moral Christian. This seems to be the plight of every child and young adult in the village who can’t seem to counter their “masters” and are forced to channelize their reactionary violence through other means. Like Estike (Erica Bók) in Satan’s Tango (1994) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria) in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), both of whose forced passivity and oppression translates into graphic violence on powerless creatures (I can imagine a restless Chris Marker tossing around in his seat), these children, too, exercise their power on those lower down the hierarchy (The White Ribbon could also be titled “The slap fest” for domestic violence in the film is commonplace).

[The White Ribbon trailer]

Moreover, this kind of contrived passivity that we observe within the village is reflected in the larger picture of Germany. The White Ribbon is set in a time just before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered the Great War. History stands witness to the fact that Germany also went through such cycles of passivity followed by misguided violence like the children in the movie (the film is subtitled “A German Children’s Story”). If Germany’s army was curtailed after the first war and Alsace and Lorraine confiscated, it would give birth to a patriotic movement that would go on to mutate into a fascist force. If the second war resulted in a greater chastisement and imposition of eternal guilt on its citizens by the western world, it would explode into a misdirected “terrorist” movement – the RAF (“…punishing the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations” reads a note dropped at the scene of one of the crimes). Although Haneke shoots in black and white and has the narrator recite the story in the past tense, his film resonates in the contemporary world too. At one point in the film, the priest tells the doctor’s son, who asks his permission to shelter an injured bird, that the bird in his room is used to captivity while the one in the kid’s hand is used to freedom. The upper class in The White Ribbon flourishes by keeping the rest of the village engaged in the economic clockwork that it has setup and by ensuring that any subversion will only result in despair and struggle for livelihood for the insurgents. The elder Fender, although aware that the Baron is responsible for his wife’s death, cannot do anything about it for any action on his part will put the future of his kids in question. This situation isn’t much unlike those in today’s capitalistic societies which have a strong religious backbone.

Evidently, the film’s scope is large. Haneke attempts to study and integrate the very many factors responsible for the rise of fascist movements by actually having many threads in the narrative to illustrate each of these factors. And this seems to be one of the biggest drawbacks of the film. Haneke has way too many characters to have depth in each of them. What begins as an incisive study of a few characters goes on to become a document of the society at large, in which individual characters are sacrificed to drive forth Haneke’s idea. His work here turns out to be a film that is built on a set of judgments made by the writer-director rather than a keen exploration of issues. Compare it to the film that it pipped at Cannes this year for the Golden Palm – Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009). Audiard’s film, which I think is one of the few brilliant films of the year, is sufficiently ambiguous and presents us with sketches from the protagonist’s life. Audiard does not give us an “idea” or a “message”. He lets us form any possible meaning out of the film’s observations. Haneke, on the other hand, sacrifices truth for meaning. He cuts from one vignette to another in a deterministic fashion to serve a set of preconceived ideas. His hop-step-and-jump approach works wonders in the initial part of the movie, when we find ourselves struggling to sort out an overarching theme, but it goes on to over-determine the central idea of the film, just falling short of being didactic. Eric Hynes’ review sums up with ease my complaints about the movie. It is true that the film, to a good extent, explores fascism as a phenomenon of the masses rather than that of a single evil soul, but Haneke dwells a bit too much on kindred events to remove any scope for thematic enrichment.

I do not intend to say that Haneke bites off much more than he can chew, but just that the way he goes about chewing seems inefficient. It seems to me that the film would have been better off had Haneke pruned down many of its narrative elements in order to provide depth instead of attempting to crystallize a meaning. By pruning down, I do not mean simplification of its themes or trivializing of the issues at hand, but that the number of characters could have been held at a bare minimum. One fatal blow for The White Ribbon is that, although there is a narrator who provides the basic “facts” about the film before Haneke illustrates the in-between events visually, the film lacks a constant perspective using which all the disparaging ideas could be integrated. It is true that Haneke denies emotional identification in the movie, but the problem is that he does not even provide a reference against which the audience can interpret the events. Haneke’s script, in essence, is a consolidation of the themes Bertolucci explored in detail in individual films. The White Ribbon shares with The Conformist (1970) the idea that sexual repression and social conformism may be the prime instigators of fascist drive. More importantly, the depiction of fascism as being perpetuated by religion and its minion unit – the family – is also that of the masterful The Last Tango in Paris (1972). And the master-slave relationship between the Baron and the Fenders is but a miniature version of 1900 (1976) – an ambitious film that strays off and moves into self-parody. In all the above cases, Bertolucci provides us with a constant perspective, even if he has multiple protagonists, so that we are able to clearly assimilate and make judgment. On the other hand, The White Ribbon lacks a single coherent perspective (or has only one perspective – Haneke’s) and individual scenes, although possessing enough ambiguity of their own to be called virtuoso, exist only to conform to Haneke’s meaning and judgment.

Because of this over-emphasis on the central theme, The White Ribbon eats up many of the other possibilities which the first half of the film puts forth.  Even at the end of the film, we do not know who commits these atrocities. It could well be some of the repressed members of one of the social classes and there are enough evidences to actually find a one-to-one matching. Haneke does not implicate them and finishes the movie with an open ending (“open” as far as the genre is concerned). Sure, it makes it clear that it is the whole society that is to blame. But Haneke’s writing prefers to lean towards and to underscore endlessly the idea of a repressed childhood and forced conformism to such an extent that it almost obscures the other dimensions of the movie. The film begins with the narrator confessing that many of the elements in the story he is gong to narrate are hearsay, preparing us for the narrative ambiguity in the film, but the film promptly repudiates that statement and removes any thematic ambiguity the first half may have offered. Scenes like the violent outbreak of one of the village boys on the Baron’s son and the priest’s daughter ripping apart her father’s pet bird are inserted into the narrative in a contrived and unsubtle fashion to be regarded as worthy. So are the scenes of the parents’ behaviour towards their children that end up seeming only like filler materials which aid to fatten a shallow analysis based on a single new idea. But even with a wafer-thin idea on text, the director has enough freedom to explore it cinematically. Bertolucci did it in The Conformist with its dynamic mise en scène, which took over the job of providing meaning and emphasizing the central idea, however simplistic it was on paper, unlike Haneke who relies here on his script to do that. That does not mean that Haneke’s film is technically unsound.  Right from the first shot, where a peaceful horse ride in a serene countryside is suddenly interrupted by a jolting moment, Haneke announces the soberness of his gaze. He keeps alienating us from the movie with his choice of B&W, the detached distance of the largely stationery camera, the painting-like stasis of the images and his restrictive framing (his indebtedness to Bertolt Brecht is discussed in detail here). Sure, he does very effectively disengage us from the narrative to make us reflect on the events rather than identify emotionally, but he also goes to the extent of denying omnipresence to the narrator for this purpose. And that hurts the film.

 
Verdict:

After watching Inglourious Basterds last week, I skimmed through a few films I was referring to in my review and felt that Tarantino’s movie, its last chapter in particular, refers to them in a manner slightly deeper than mentioned. What I present here may be plainly speculative, but the very fact that Tarantino’s film retains enough ambiguity to generate such arguments makes the film one to be celebrated. Inglourious Basterds, more than any other movie, seems to be closest to Jean Luc Godard’s History of Cinema (1988-98). If one considers Godard’s film as a classroom lesson in cinema (Why not? The movie even resembles an office presentation!), then Tarantino’s movie is a student project (that would easily get an A+) based on that lesson. It seems that everything that the French discusses in his video anthology is absorbed and blended cleverly into a mainstream flick by Tarantino. For the sake of simplicity, I lift and reproduce the same lines from my post on Godard’s film to compare it with Inglourious Basterds.

“If we had to single out Godard’s most favorite quote it has to be the misattributed Bazin one: “The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires”. And this is where the series kicks off. Cinema as a substitute for our dreams – the dream factory. Godard explores the meaning of “dream” as interpreted by the two functioning extremes of cinema then. He presents the occident interpretation as one that had converted cinema into a portal offering an alternate reality, a second life, to the audience whose “dreams” were the fodder for the larger-than-life images that the films projected -one that continues till date.”

Tarantino’s film, on a basic level, as the director himself confesses, is a form of wish fulfillment. As with his other films, Inglourious Basterds unfolds as a revenge saga. But by situating his plot amidst real life events, unlike its predecessors, Tarantino is able to involve his audience more and provide better justification to the characters’ actions, rather than dealing with simple morality.

“[Godard] argues that cinema could have prevented unfortunate tragedies and averted genocides rather than merely crying over damages dealt and observing helplessly the misery of its subjects.”

Here, Tarantino seems to deviate. He seems to be of the opinion that cinema, perhaps all art, can’t ever change the world (unless, of course, you consider the way he uses it in the movie!). Proof? Take a look around. What it can do is to change the image of the world when it is passed onto a new generation.

“And in resonance with this ideology, instead of bemoaning what is lost and what could have been, Godard anticipates the death of cinema (He apparently asked Henri Langlois to burn the archives). Death, so that it can rise again from the ashes. “Art is like fire. Born from what it burns.” says Godard and that is precisely what he desires – Cinema to go down with all its exploitations and restrictions and rise in its purest form. Back to infancy, so that it can learn everything out of free will, without rules and without vanity.”

This is exactly what Marcel does when he burns the films – destroying those exploitative propagandist films of the Nazis and perhaps also those WW2 films that insist upon being loyal to reality and hence impotent. With the fire at the cinema hall that flips conventional reality, Tarantino places us at the beginning of a new history – of cinema (courtesy Tarantino) and of the world (courtesy Marcel).

“Godard attempts to reconstruct history as seen in retrospect. He utilizes existing film fragments to fabricate various histories of film – the one that was and the ones that weren’t but could have been. He examines how cinema could have been made independent of historical accounts and even made to influence them.”

This theory seems to form the core of Inglourious Basterds. Why should art ever trail history? As Bazin would say, Realism in cinema should just be the means, not the end itself. Tarantino, like Godard, sure can’t change history, but, at least, he can examine the history – again, of cinema and of the world – that could have been.

“Godard elucidates this servile relation that cinema bears to history using images of dictators and authoritarians. He highlights how the visual medium itself is being manipulated by a few people in power and how in turn, modern cinema manipulates the audience. Godard reproaches this moral policing and expresses his disapproval of the hypnosis that the TV-driven audience is subjected to. He appeals for a cinema that provokes but doesn’t direct, a cinema that gives you options but doesn’t select one, a cinema that makes you think and doesn’t think for you and a cinema that is only complete with its audience. As he quotes in one of the segments, “Cinema does not cry. Cinema does not comfort us. It is with us. It is us”.”

Tarantino, also, fills the film with fascists who seem to be exploiting the medium for questionable purposes. Goebbels’ film, like many a mainstream film that are made by another kind of fascists, has manipulated reality and wants its audience to buy that as truth. And Shoshanna’s film (like Tarantino’s) is what Godard seems to be wanting in place of Goebbels’.

“There is an intriguing recurrence of the image of human hands in the film. Godard urges artists to think with their hands – their real tools that have the potency to both create and destroy, to beautify and to horrify, to document and to change. He argues that these are the instruments capable of changing and redefining history and it is the weakness of the mind that hinders the possibility.”

Marcel, who had ‘created’ the small film with Shoshanna, is the one who would be setting fire to the pile of nitrate films. Tarantino, too, highlights his hand as he flicks the cigarette on to the heap – the hand that went from mere documentation of reality to direction of reality.

Brandon Colvin is of the opinion that Inglourious Basterds is primarily a comedy. I’m going to take a diametrically opposite path and say that this movie, when reduced to its human elements, stripped of all its film references and modernist facets, is a tragedy with a martyr called Shoshanna at its heart. The word ‘tragedy’ is often used loosely and seems to denote every tale that has a pathetic, miserable and depressing outcome. But, surely, Tragedy does not base itself upon emotions. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A tale is said to be tragic when two morally unquestionable and righteous forces are made to clash and a situation evolves when one of them has to let go of its stance, despite all convictions and emotions for the greater good. Tragedy is always the result of a choice that calls for a great sacrifice to go with it. As they say, it is our choices that define us. And a tragic choice defines us for life – either as a hero or as a coward (“merely human” would be the euphemism). Sansho the Bailiff (1954), even with its heavy pathos, is a melodrama whereas The Dark Knight (2008), despite its uplifting upshot, remains a tragedy. Shoshanna could well have married Zoller and led a very content life. Instead, she repudiates that path and takes up the task of liberating the Jews at the cost of her own life. Tarantino, apart from using Ennio Morricone’s moving piece Un Amico, employs mythological and historical iconographies to underline the magnitude of this tragedy.

The final chapter of Inglourious Basterds has got to be the densest that Tarantino has ever filmed. The chapter is ambiguously titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” as if recalling some B-movie from the 50s. But more than that, it seems to me now, it tries to allude to two of the most iconic “giant faces” of women that we know. The first would be that of Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – a film that is constructed out of hundreds of such giant faces. The tale of Joan of Arc by itself is a tragedy in which Joan sacrifices a normal life for the good of her people, much like Shoshanna, who, too, goes down in flames at the end of her journey. Only that Shoshanna doesn’t just suffer and prefers to take all of them down along with her. And then there is the most dreaded giant head in Greek mythology – that of Medusa the Gorgon – a mere gaze into whose eyes is supposed to petrify you. Daniel Ogden (source: Wikipedia) describes this stare of Medusa’s as “seemingly looking out from its own iconographical context and directly challenging the viewer”. Now, the Nazi officers in the final chapter are watching a fictional film, seated safely away from real life action, without any apparent threat from the images on the screen. When Shoshanna slips in her own film, with her gaze directed towards the Nazis, she essentially “looks out of context of the movie”, challenging, literally, the viewers, in a manner in which the modernist director used their actors, and petrifying them by dragging them out of their passive state.

The Passion of Joan of Arc - Dreyer

Medusa - Franz von Stuck

Inglourious Basterds - Tarantino

But then, our ideas about these two iconic characters are derived only through images and shadows – through paintings, through Dreyer’s film and through textual accounts. As George Steiner put it, “It is not the literal past that rules us. It is images of the past.” With the passage of time, history and mythology mingle to such an extent that it becomes virtually impossible to separate them. In Chris Marker’s magnum opus The Owl’s Legacy (1989), Jean-Pierre Vernant illustrates the mythos behind this practice of image (which is a word that referred to doubles, miniatures, copies and ghosts in general in Ancient Greece, the land of tragedies) creation. He tells us that images, for Ancient Greeks, were a means of facing man’s worst fears by reducing them down to caricatures. In Medusa’s case, this meant that they could see her directly in the eyes (a la Perseus who used a mirror – an image creating device – to slay her) and subsequently use these images to intimidate enemies. In Vernant’s own words: “So there is a way, though images and through stories of disarming the horror of death that the monstrous face expresses and which the image carries out so that what can’t be seen can be depicted in many ways” (recalling Godard’s quote about movies in History of Cinema: “How marvelous to be able to look at what we cannot see.”)

In the final chapter of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino absorbs these images of dead characters from tragedies in mythology and history, blends it with the “image” of the tragic Shoshanna, who too is now dead, and, in essence, creates a mythology (Shoshanna the martyr) and history (Shoshanna the WW2 hero) of his own. Now, this is not far from what he does with his other characters in his movies, wherein he imbibes mythos and facts from within cinematic history to create new ones for his own characters. Only that, in Inglourious Basterds, his canvas seems to have expanded, with his universe transgressing boundaries defined by the history of cinema.  Furthermore, Tarantino uses the images of the movie – his Medusa mask – to “look at what he cannot see” in reality. Throughout the movie, he keeps attacking Hitler’s “image”. He depicts Hitler as a weak and paranoid individual with vermin like attributes. When he kills him in the final shootout, it is the “image” of Hitler that he wants to kill (much like the mentality behind voodoo and effigy-burning practices), for he can’t kill him in reality – exactly the same thing that Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) does in Come and See (1985) when he fires at a photograph of Hitler in an attempt to undo the images of history, if not history itself.

In The Conformist (1970), Bertolucci equates the fascists with Plato’s prisoners of the cave, suggesting that they are blinded by fake ideologies fuelled by personal insecurities. In The Owl’s Legacy, Marker equates the audience in the cinema hall (citing Simone Weil) to those prisoners, proposing that they are blinded by images they see on screen and take them for reality. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino combines both these notions and presents us Nazis watching movies in a cinema hall. These “blind” Nazis enjoy the massacre that Zoller is doing on the screen, assuming that this is how it was. Zoller, on the other hand, is the only person there who knows it wasn’t so and leaves the cinema hall, breaking free from one of the captive caves he is occupying. Additionally, Tarantino does not forget to free his audience from the chains of their cave. Like it was done in Bertolucci’s film, he keeps reminding us that we are watching a movie and whatever we are seeing is a mere paining on a plastic canvas (contrary to what other films on historical subjects want us to believe). In chapter two, Raine, seated at the centre of an arrangement that resembles a Greek theater, tells the captured Nazi officer that “watching Danny beat the Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies”. Raine seems to know that he is just the shadow of a man placed on a simple image. And because he regularly attempts to remind us of the fakery of it all, Tarantino’s violence also helps to serve the same purpose – to try to disengage us from whatever is depicted on cinema screen even when it is unmitigated and concrete. As the movie’s title confesses, its all a fraud and a very beautiful one at that.

[The Conformist (1970)]

[The Owl's Legacy (1989)]

(Images Courtesy: Imaginary Year, Hellenica)

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds
(Image Courtesy: Scanners)

If there is any filmmaker whose single film could evoke comparisons ranging from Happy Gilmore (1996) to La Dolce Vita (1960), it would have to be Quentin Tarantino. But why not? Here is a director who has made a name with his unique style that more or less marries the crassest and the classiest of film elements. It almost seems like no matter what film you name, you can always find a connection to Tarantino’s. Here he is, with his ultra-violent WW2 epic Inglourious Basterds, releasing in India on the birthday of a person who has become an icon of non-violence. An unimaginably large number of essays, analyses, critiques, blog posts and reviews have cropped up within weeks of its release, with opinions running the gamut, and that just goes to show how provocative this one is. It has even raised questions about creative licenses and the unlimited freedom it has given artists through the years. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino strays out of what many people would have till now called his comfort zone and has proven once and for all his status as an pop auteur. Inglourious Basterds may not be the film of the year, it may not even be the director’s best film, but it sure is the most important film of the decade.

For the uninitiated, here is the central premise of the film. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has just produced a film titled Nation’s Pride involving the real-life exploits of a Nazi Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who plays himself in the movie and which is going to be screened a cozy little theatre in Paris owned by a Jewish woman Emmanuelle aka Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent). A group of American Jewish soldiers now called The Basterds, led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), along with inputs from the allied forces plans to blow up the theatre in order to get the leading Nazi men including Hitler (Martin Wuttke). However, to complete their mission they have to get through the cunning and powerful Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) who is in charge of the security at the grand event and who never leaves any stones unturned to trace out the Jews that the Nazis are in search of. Meanwhile, Shoshanna, whose family was murdered four years ago by Landa plans for her own revenge by blowing up the cinema hall using inflammable nitrate films that she has stocked through the years. Of course, as always with Tarantino, this summary is completely unimportant in comparison to what he achieves in the film.

With Inglourious Basterds, gone are the romantic days of Renoir when a couple of gentlemanly officers could end the war over a cup of tea. Now, deals are meant to be broken, enemies are meant to be stabbed from behind their backs and friends are supposed to be ratted on. Enemy corpses aren’t supposed to be given a proper burial, but should have their scalps removed. Instead of receiving a gentle kiss on their hands, ladies have their necks wrung. “I respectfully disagree” makes way for a “*bleep* you”. “Nat-zi ain’t got no humanity” replaces universal brotherhood. And scheduled duels are substituted by under-the-table gunfights. Everything in Inglourious Basterds is guerilla-esque, everyone in the film remains true to the title of the movie.  Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is to be questioned. Tarantino’s army is one that lives and moves in the shadows. What you see most definitely isn’t what it is. Like the film hints in the card game that the officers play in the tavern in the fourth chapter, the inhabitants of Tarantino’s new universe wear so many masks one over the other that it almost reduces to a Scooby Doo adventure. One isn’t supposed to believe what one sees, even if it’s all written out there.

The idea is simple. Inglourious Basterds is a 5-set tennis match. The Jews win it 3-2. For every Nazi set, there is a Jew set that follows. Throughout the film we see characters trying to get the upper hand and stay on top in whatever way possible. Even within individual chapters small scale power games are at work and one isn’t always sure how it is all going to turn out. The final images of these chapters alternate between images of the Nazis and those of the Jewish characters – Landa kissing Shoshanna goodbye, Raine carving out a swastika on a Nazi soldier, Shoshanna planning the film, Landa digging out Hammersmark’s shoe and Raine, again, with his masterpiece – much like a close tennis match. Each sequence, each shot and each dialog seems and feels like a tennis rally. The director regularly places his actors on either side of the widescreen and the audience’s eyeballs are made to go left and right throughout each conversation. Tarantino’s editing pattern could well apply to a Wimbledon telecast, for it mixes over-the-shoulder shots and two shots effectively as if providing both the audience’s and the camera’s viewpoints of the “match”. And of course, Tarantino’s writing ensures that we get the reward for the tense stretch of time he puts us through during each conversation.

The mere skeleton of the plot would reveal that Tarantino is reversing conventions here. For once, he is allowing the Jews to kill Hitler. But Tarantino keeps underlining, hinting, presaging and highlighting this reversal of roles between the Jews and the Nazis throughout the film. There is some sort of reversal going on within each structure and substructure of the film. Take the magnificent first chapter of the film wherein Tarantino throws at us everything that the film will offer us in the rest of the chapters. As Landa sits at the table, surrounded by the farmer’s family, it looks as if it is Landa who is being questioned. We are soon proven wrong and Tarantino’s majestic train of role-reversals kicks off once Landa starts digging. In a Bertoluccian touch, Tarantino keeps breaking the 180 rule without any hesitation, allowing his camera (helmed by ace cinematographer Robert Richardson) to wander into both sides of the two-shot setup to suggest the inversion of the hunter-prey relationship that adorns the whole conversation. Even his dialogues are decorated with such rhetorical clauses like “If I were in your position…” and “If you were in my shoes…”. Or consider the way he writes the first and final chapters such that they mirror each other entirely. If the Nazis kill a few Jews hiding below them during the first chapter, the Basterds will similarly gun down hundred times that number of Nazis in the last one. If Landa lights up his pipe to create a small smoke cloud in the farm house, a whole cinema hall will be burnt by the Jews. If LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is the betrayer of Jews in the opening chapter, Landa will become the traitor among the Nazis in the final chapter. Both Tarantino’s camera angles and his actor placements locate and relocate the relative positions of the Jews and Nazis throughout the film in a manner that recalls the way young Bertolucci handled his mise en scène in The Conformist (1970), which too revolved around faked identities and interchangeable personas and which Tarantino seems to be alluding to in the final few minutes of the movie.

Inglourious Basterds - Landa

Inglourious Basterds - Raine

Tarantino really puts his audience in a dicey situation here. Inglourious Basterds has been called a revenge fantasy. But never does a character in the film mention that it is a mission of revenge. The Holocaust hasn’t yet happened in the movie time and there are only hints of the Nazi’s plans for the Jews. It is only in hindsight, with the knowledge of what happened in reality, that we are able to call the film a revenge saga. If there is someone in the audience who is oblivious to Holocaust, the film might just appear otherwise. Tarantino teases us with the notion that revenge is the same kind of crime as the one that instigates it, but aided and justified by the passage of time – an idea that was ineffectively explored in Gaspar Noé’s positively disturbing Irreversible (2002). Tarantino lets the two worlds – the “real” reality and the film’s reality – collide and one’s response just depends on how much of a balance one wants to maintain between “what happened” and “what happens”. We can choose to either draw the line between “what-might-have-happened” fiction and “what-couldn’t-have-happened” fiction early on in the film or wait till Tarantino draws it for us in the last chapter.

Some commentators have suggested that Inglourious Basterds tries to humanize the Nazis and gain sympathy for them. But, surely, it isn’t the fault of the movie that we pity the SS officer when the Bear Jew prepares for the homerun or when the Nazis turn to ashes in the theatre. It is simply the ways movies work. Given a pattern of narrative, we seem to generally tend to support the weak, the suffering and the oppressed, thanks to our morality. Be it aliens of sci-fi flicks, tribes of exotic countries or mute animals of the jungles, we tend to patronize them, putting them on our moral scales. When, in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex de Large (Malcom McDowell) is trained to respond in a predictable fashion to certain impulses at the reformatory, Kubrick, in some ways, is speaking in a self-reflexive fashion. Alex is pure evil and there can be no other justification for his acts other than the fact that he is an evil-doer. Even so, Kubrick makes us accomplices to his acts and eventually makes us root for him. It is Kubrick who is manipulating his audience as a cosmic joke. And it has taken around four decades for some filmmaker to stimulate us in such equally provocative fashion and, in the process, make us evaluate our own moral standing and the way we tend to judge characters – on and off-screen. Speaking of A Clockwork Orange, Hans Landa drinking his glass of milk is reminiscent of and as chilling as Alex holding it in Korova Milkbar

Tarantino adorns the movie with a slew of sight gags, much like the ones we see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, almost none of which actually fails. During Landa’s interrogation of LaPadite, at one point, he unveils his gigantic, almost unreal, smoking pipe dwarfing that of LaPadite. In the fourth chapter, when the Gestapo officer comes from within the tavern to question the officers about their accent, we see a huge whisky glass in front of him that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the scene. Even in the last scene, when Landa hands over his knife to Raine, we are shown that Raine’s knife is the bigger one!  Furthermore, during the second chapter, as we are introduced to Hitler, he is posing for a gigantic portrait, indicating that his image is much more formidable than the man himself, whom Tarantino is happy to caricature. In fact, all these in-jokes would have fell flat if Inglourious Basterds had indeed played out as a straightforward drama. Thankfully, Tarantino’s characters are themselves cartoon-ish in nature, hence justifying whatever deformation Tarantino does to them and his attempts to reduce intense and delicate power games to petty mine-is-bigger arguments.

Tarantino doesn’t just bend and blend genres here, he takes them along the movie. His characters don’t simply absorb from genres, they are the genres. Inglourious Basterds is the kind of movie that will happen if a filmmaker casts non-actor cinephiles to act in a WW2 movie. Tarantino’s history is not a history given to him by text books (which by itself is a corrupt version), but one given to him by cinema. His characters aren’t those defined by the WW2 setting of the film, but ones from our age that have strayed into a WW2 movie. These aren’t characters have evolved from the film, but ones that have been pushed into it. What Tarantino does here is that he picks stereotypes from every genre of popular cinema and cooks them up in his WW2 broth.  In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the titular character tries to chew more than he can bite by jumping from one genre of cinema to another and trying to pirate the film away from the director to places only he wants to be (Early in the film, director Samuel Fuller tells us that movies are all about emotions). Continuing the tradition of Godard’s influence on Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds too absorbs quite a bit from the French, especially Pierrot. In Tarantino’s film, too, each character tries to hijack the movie from the genre it is supposed to be, as if protesting the director’s decision of forcefully situating them out of place.

[Inglourious Basterds Trailer]

Almost every character in the film tries to own a sub-genre. With his ultra neat conversational ethics and table manners, not to mention the tinge of narcissism, Landa is the quintessential smooth-talking secret agent (Landa himself insists that he is a detective later on). Aldo Raine is the leader of the men who are on a mission type, with his I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Shoshanna thinks she is the next Beatrix Kiddo, with her all-red femme fatale act. Poor little Zoller tries to be the romantic hero despite his designation in the film. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), already an actress, wants to be the deadly female spy (someone mentions Mata Hari as she talks during the tavern scene). Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is altogether from a different country’s cinema, with all his ethnic and lingual idiosyncrasies intact (“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind I go out speaking the king’s?” ha!).  Even Herr Goebbels seems to think that he is in a B-grade sci-fi flick (“I have created a monster” he says). Much has been said about the corny celebratory ritual that Donny Donowicz (Eli Roth) performs at the end of his “innings”, but that only conforms to the genre that he is – the B-Comedy subgenre (Apparently, Adam Sandler was to play this part – who else?). You’ll either love his lines (and his bizarre nasal accent) or hate them, depending on how much you appreciate such type of comedy.

Apart from playing out their genres in the movie, the characters in Inglourious Basterds keep assuming different nationalities and ethnicities. Faking accents, speaking multiple languages, feigning papers and changing appearances seems to be order of the day. Characters are recognized using ethic slurs and covers are blown with the minutest of faux pas (which sort of brings back the scintillating experience of watching last year’s treasure In Bruges, which got everything right when it tried to marry the most serious of genre elements with the most absurd of situations). “I am a slave to appearances” confesses Aldo Raine as he handcuffs Landa in the final scene. Everyone in the film is. The multilingual Landa wants the Italian names to have a ring to them. The “little man” is unhappy about the unfair nickname that the Germans have given him. Hitler is convinced that the Bear Jew is a golem. Shoshanna goes to the extent of performing a full fledged ritual for this purpose. Right from the misspelt title you are told that what it looks or sounds like isn’t what it is. Tarantino pulls our legs as he switches the subtitles on and off throughout the movie, giving us only the most basic of information and leaving the rest to our ‘expertise’.

Tarantino’s complete disregard for the content of his film and his prankster attitude towards it are characteristic of Jean-Luc Godard too. But even with all the influence Tarantino has managed to kill his “father” with a distinct style that borrows from Godard’s yet deviates starkly. The greatest asset that Tarantino seems to possess is the ability to maintain a consistent tone in the movie. Even when he marries genres as wide and fatal as melodrama and thriller, he maintains a certain kind of detachment from it that lends these sequences a tongue-in-cheek flavour which unites them under a single stylistic umbrella despite their vast disparity. One deadly flaw that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) had was that, in an attempt to marry genres, he ended up marrying styles too, which made the film be nothing more than a surface imitation. On the other hand, even when he cuts to cheesy in-movie documentaries (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), again reminding us of Godard’s My Life To Live (1962) where the director seamlessly includes a mini documentary that lists down statistics and factoids about prostitution in Paris, Tarantino maintains a strong grip on the filmmaker’s gaze towards his subject, never allowing us to mistake him for inconsistency of style.

Tarantino’s idea of filmmaking is akin to blowing a balloon. He blows and blows, till the onlookers cringe and then he allows it to pop. The mantra, for him, seems to be not “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s not funny”, but “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s funnier”. This way, I guess one could call him anti-Hitchcockian. Hitchcock’s sums up his legendary theory of suspense thus:

There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Take the case of Tarantino. The audience always knows the outcome of his set pieces – that the balloon is going to pop one way or the other. Additionally, he doesn’t inform his audience of the popping time. Instead of making us ask questions like what will happen, he makes us ask when will it happen (and here, Tarantino likes to stretch the audience’s patience). Furthermore, Hitchcock preferred not to make that bomb of suspense explode, for he believed that it will make the audience uncomfortable, whereas one can bet that Tarantino will relish in showing what you expect (Not only will the Hitchcockian bomb explode, but limbs will fly, heads will roll and blood will flow). In fact, in Inglourious Basterds, not only do the Basterds’ bombs explode, but the theatre burns as per Shoshanna’s plans, Landa’s “private” bomb goes off and Donowitz and Ulmer (Omar Doom) manage to machine gun down the Nazis. Talk about beating a dead horse. But, on the other hand, Tarantino also uses a lot of the master’s techniques in Inglourious Basterds as he builds the film with the aid of a series of Red Herrings and Macguffins (One could have sworn that Landa had Shoshanna when he orders the milk). I am, however, undecided about the violence that the director depicts since it doesn’t work just on a purely cartoon level as in the Kill Bill movies. Here, the violence is closer to reality and one only wonders if Tarantino would have lost anything at all if he had cut away before the moment of gore.

But Tarantino’s film, like all his other works, is at heart about cinema. His streak of film references and tributes continue as he recalls a number of films from the past that he has grown up with. He pays homage to German cinema throughout Inglourious Basterds with a large number of Dutch angles that never once feel forced or out of context. In the final chapter, which begins with images recalling Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, complete with the 360 degree Ballhaus shot), Tarantino takes this fetish to a whole new level. The film within the film, Nation’s Pride (actually directed by the Bear Jew), presents to us a German propaganda movie made in the style of a Soviet propaganda movie, Battleship Potemkin (1925) in particular, forming an unusual alliance between two countries that could have only been possible in cinema. This whole set-piece works on multiple levels of realities. If Goebbels is making a fiction within the fiction based on a distorted form of reality within the fiction, Tarantino too is making a fantastical fiction that relies on betraying reality. Only that Tarantino’s ethics are far from Goebbels’ (which is actually the way Hollywood tells it). It’s certainly less exploitative to heavily exaggerate a reality that never was than to mildly dress up a reality that was.

Early this year, Tarantino called Woody Allen’s widely and undeservedly trashed Anything Else (2003) one of the 20 best films made after he entered the industry. And not surprisingly, much is common between these two films despite their stylistic differences. In Anything Else, David Dobel (Woody Allen) tries to break out of the schlemiel image that the director had created for himself through the 70s and the 80s. “The issue is always fascism” he says in the film and he smashes the car windows of two thugs who bully him out of a parking space. What Woody was trying here is to undo history – both personal and collective – as he guides his younger self, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), who prefers “writing a biting satire in the quiet and safety of some delicatessen”, away from what he has become. Tarantino realizes that the only way to undo history, if not in reality, is through art and that art, in many ways, does not owe anything to political and historical “reality”. When Shoshanna switches from one projector to another during the screening, she is actually shifting the movie from one reality onto another – from a history we all know to a history that could have been.

[Tarantino interview]

Tarantino’s mission of trying to carve out a fantastical alternate reality isn’t really a unique one. In Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98), he keeps talking about two kinds of histories – the history that was and history that could have been – of cinema and that of the world. He argues that cinema could have indeed prevented large scale mishaps and put an end to Nazism once and for all. Tarantino realizes that this is nothing more than an elegiac fantasy and makes a joke out of it all telling us that the only way cinema could have brought about a political change was physically – by blowing itself up. And that the only way it could have ended Nazism was by putting them all into a large room and burning it down. In a scene that echoes the final few minutes of The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which was a film that reflected our tendency to believe that if it is cinema it must be true, Marcel (Jacky Ido) burns the pile of nitrate films to blow up the theatre as a huge heap of bullets piles up on the screen resembling it. With that, Tarantino is happy to plainly flesh out his idea of history that could (should) have been.

His attempt, like Allen’s in Anything Else, is to shatter the image that, especially popular cinema, has bestowed upon minorities of America through its incessant ethnic stereotyping – the suffering Jew, the benign black and the noble Native American. Let’s face it; it would only be a miracle if we ever see a black/Native villain in a summer blockbuster. So in a way, the revenge, led by Aldo-Shoshanna-Marcel, isn’t merely a fantastical Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, but a revenge for all the minorities and nonconformists of a cinema (industry) whose fascist producers insist upon maintaining status quo and sticking to a “final solution” (No wonder Marcel burns the movie reels). For Tarantino, who has been a popular nonconformist throughout his career in Hollywood, this is surely the sweetest revenge fantasy possible. It is his fairy tale and he is telling it the way he wants it to be. When Landa finds a single shoe in the tavern following the shoot out he must have realized he is in someone’s Cinderella story. The truth is that it’s Tarantino’s.

 

Verdict:

P.S: Christopher Landa delivers the performance of the year. His scene with Hammersmark is one to worship.

 

Essential Reading:

Jim Emerson’s series of articles on the movie at Scanners

David Bordwell’s take on the film at Observations on film art and Film Art

The Auteur’s Round-up of articles in their Notebook

Mark Baker, Adrian Martin, Jan Epstein and Nathan Wolski discuss the film’s wider aspects at The Monthly

Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy in conversation at The House Next Door

Il Conformista (1972) (aka The Conformist)
Bernardo Bertolucci
Italian

“That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot… A true fascist.

 

The ConformistBernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is everything that a viewer could ask for – a great story, interesting characters, stylish visuals and a purely cinematic language to convey them all. Using images that possess the judiciousness of a Tati, meaning of an Antonioni and elegance of an Ophuls, Bertolucci, not even 30 at that time, conjures up a film of both high mojo-quotient and long “shelf-life”. Evidently inspiring The Godfather series, The Conformist is the kind of film that persuades you to understand what the difference between direction and visual illustration is. The next time somebody kills you with that irritating “The book was better” act, hit them with this one. Not that The Conformist is better than its book version, but only that it makes such comparisons invalid.

Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Bertolucci’s script follows a young man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), during the years just before the second big war. He is about to get married to a typical middle class woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), with “paltry, little ambitions – all bed and kitchen” in order to become a “normal” person in the society. He is also all set to be inducted into the Italian fascist party and has to carry out the assassination of an insurgent in Paris, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), incidentally his professor during his college days. Employing ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s hypnotic tracking shots and handhelds and seamless, highly-stylized, tense cutting between various timelines, Bertolucci attempts to illustrate the reason for the rise of fascism by delving into the psyche of one man with a troubled past and an uncertain future.

The Conformist is a difficult film, not because its themes are heavy or its form too radical, but because the statement it proposes is a tad indigestible. Once you get over its slight simplification of ideas and reasons, it is a sweeping masterwork that you are looking at. I probably haven’t seen any film that as clearly reveal how we have all confused sexuality with morality, morality with religion, religion with politics and politics with security. The tension is palpable in almost every shot of the film. Consider the central scene of sheer cinematic awesomeness where Quadri and Clerici recollect what actually went wrong. Using staggering interplay of light and shadow, gestures and movements and room space and sound, Bertolucci develops the central motif of the film in pure film language, without ever betraying the diegesis of the film. Bertolucci’s script takes up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that humans are all prisoners inside a dark cave unable to differentiate between real objects and the shadows that they cast on the walls, and adapts it so as to examine the dark history of the country. It is after this point that every element of the film cries out for attention and the ambivalence of the central character brought to light. Especially remarkable is the final shot of the film where, after Italo is swept away by a Rossellinian crowd, Clerici sits on a low platform near the fire, looking towards a homosexual street dweller through prison-like iron bars, still unsure of his political, sexual and moral footing.

The ConformistIn fact, all the major characters in the film tantamount to prisoners of Plato’s cave. None of them actually know what their principles actually mean or what they want from it all. Clerici is confused with both his sexual orientation and political ideology. His wife, Giulia, does not see beyond the two things that Clerici mentions. The professor seems to spend an idyllic life like that of the bourgeoisie –the very people whom he is fighting against. Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) is none but a female counterpart of Clerici. Only that the mass she is conforming to happens to be the resistance group. The tragedy about Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) is that the people he despises is the very group he works for (“Cowards. Perverts, Jews. They are all the same. If I had my way, I’d put them all up against the wall. They should all be eliminated at birth”, he says). Even the blind Italo (José Quaglio) joins the group not because of his political leanings, but for “normalcy” and hence safety. It’s almost as if the people who oppose passive acceptance of political philosophies are themselves creating another form of fascism by unanimously scandalizing it – an idea ambiguously explored in Daldry’s The Reader (2008), where it is as much a taboo to humanely understand the people associated en masse with the Holocaust as it is to carry out the inhuman acts of fascism without questioning it.

What is brilliant is the way Bertolucci brings to surface this ambivalence of his characters. He regularly captures Clerici in the frame along with his reflection on mirrors, glass panes and windows. He places him behind wind shields and transparent surfaces and cuts in tandem between the views from both sides. He softly blurs out of focus and then into it when recording Clerici. He breaks both continuity and the 180 rule (also serving as a distancing tool) to have his characters oriented in opposite directions. At one point, Clerici even assumes two quirky firing stances – one symmetrically away from the other. Furthermore, throughout the film, Bertolucci takes Clerici through regions of light and darkness – knowledge and ignorance – thus elevating the already expressionistic tone of the film. It is as if this duality of Clerici’s is as inseparable as his features, perhaps because he never completely believes he is doing the right thing by trying to fit into pre-fabricated structures of the society. As Bertolucci rightly says in an interview:

“Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary.”

As a matter of fact, Clerici is swappable with any character in the film, for he imbibes something from each of them. He behaves like Giulia in order to become one of them. He gradually finds himself moving towards Quadri’s ideologies than the fascists’ (In the layered scene at the ballroom, Bertolucci cuts to a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, indicating the frivolous and merely superficial antagonism between them). Clerici sees himself in Anna. His craving to become an acclaimed fascist comes in the form of Manganiello. One could even say that he meets his own future self in the form of his conformist father (Giuseppe Addobbati) at the asylum, whose political and (alleged) sexual contradictions are not far from Clerici’s own. But he is actually the closest to his friend Italo – insecure and scared because of a difference but unable to see beyond immediate refuge (Bertolucci once superimposes their faces, when Italo is reading a piece of text in praise of Mussolini and Goebbels). Italo even says early on in the film that they are, in a way, similar, after which we notice that he is wearing an unmatched pair of shoes. The idea of physical and ideological blindness recurs throughout in the film to reinforce the Plato allegory.

The ConformistI have always considered Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) as one of the greatest movies ever made and the best one about the Holocaust that I have seen. Watching The Conformist, one can clearly see where Wertmüller’s movie gets its inspiration from. Both films seem to complement each other thematically. While Seven Beauties examines how man’s fake principles fade into oblivion when it comes down to survival, Bertolucci’s film shows how man can assume false policies in order to survive. However, formally, both the films seem very similar in the sense that both of them exaggerate melodrama to the point of caricaturing it and consequently, derive meaning out of that absurdity. Both use oversaturated colour palettes and chromatic shifts generously to keep reminding us of the phony nature of it all. In fact, Bertolucci keeps prodding us with theatricality. As Clerici recites his father’s past, three women are performing a song in the background (Incidentally called “Who’s happier than me?” – another allusion to the prisoners of the cave). He meets Anna in a ballet class. There is even an edited scene that involves blind people dancing to a piece of music.

Bertolucci is one of the biggest New Wave fans and it shows in the host of movie references that he places in the film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if you spot allusions to The Little Soldier (1960) or Alphaville (1965) in the film, for the director himself tells us so in an interview. Not counting the humourous nods to neo-realism and Buñuel, Bertolucci is continuously in conversation with his mentor Jean-Luc Godard throughout the film. With anecdotes about the film’s first screening and the influence of Godard on his style, he mentions here how Quadri was modeled with the French director in mind and his assassination, in a way, signified the film’s stylistic and ideological shift from Godard’s. But clearly, the relationship is one of reverence. When Clerici tells Manganiello at point: “What a strange dream I’ve had. I was blind and you took me to a Swiss clinic for an operation. And professor Quadri performed the operation. It was successful. I regained my sight and went off with his wife who had fallen in love with me”, one suspects that this is not just a token of his wavering political and sexual stance, but Bertolucci’s own gratitude towards Godard for his influence.

The ConformistHowever, Bertolucci deviates from Godard by making The Conformist a highly individual-oriented film. While Godard’s is a study of the effect of social and political structures on the individual, Bertolucci’s is the exploration of the effect the psychology of (a generalized) individual has on socio-political norms. His Clerici is a character tailor made for in-depth psychoanalysis and many facets of the film clearly remain subjective. For instance, why does he “see” the same woman thrice, at different places, in the film? Why does no one else stalking Manganiello? Does he even exist? Why does Clerici marry Giulia, even though he hates her typically bourgeois mentality? Bertolucci’s mise en scène suggests that the answers are functions of Clerici’s psyche, which is evidently affected by his childhood trauma and sexual “deviation” (Although every reading of The Conformist insists that it illustrates the role of sexual deviance in the rise of fascism, a case could be made for any kind of difference – sexual as with Clerici, physical as with Italo and even religious, as with the mystic Hanussen). This way, Bertolucci calls for a reassessment of fascism as a force that has grown bottom-up because of individual insecurities, fears, motivations and ignorance rather than a mass hysteria initiated by an arbitrary single man.

(Pics Courtesy: mcnblogs.com, brynmawrfilm.org, dvdactive.com)

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