Day 353: ‘The Least Despicable, the Meanest and the Ugliest’ 2018

Day 353
Monday 18 June 2018   11.44pm
‘The Least Despicable, the Meanest and the Ugliest’  2018

Top 100 Films –
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is equal #59 with 7 other films: La grande illusion (1937), Gertrud (1964), Blow Up (1966), The Conformist (1970), Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Blue Velvet (1986) in the 2012 BFI  Directors Poll

I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) tonight. It lived up to its title. It was all of those things. Plus, it was quite beautiful in many ways and quite revolutionary – you see what I did there? – civil war! – in making everyone, an ever-so-slightly different shade of mean, nasty and unreliable.

The last four weeks of films have almost all been films about greed, power and corruption. When you break a film down into its most basic elements its not surprising that almost all films are about just three things. 1. Greed/Money 2. Power/Control/Corruption 3. Love/Sex, while celebrating the beauty of the male and female actors who are lovingly photographed, equally, in black & white and colour, in 1.33:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1 and Cinemascope (2.35:1).

When you come across a title that just sound right, the last thing you need to do is change the film, just to make it fit the title. The title of this very good Sergio Leone film is one of the most famous of all time, known across the entire globe. It’s trite and wise at the same time, and it summarizes most of what we see in films: heroes, villains and people who do terrible things, awful things, ghastly things.

But, if it hadn’t already been taken in 1966 by this Spaghetti western, it would have been an appropriate title for the film, Shoah, the Hebrew word for destruction. Shoah is by definition a mixture of the bad that people can do, the good that people can do, and the ugliest things people can do. And in between those three attitudes are many shades.

In Shoah there are good Polish people and selfish Poles. There are despicable Germans, mean Germans and Germans who were caught up in the politics of their country. Such was the secrecy surrounding the way Hitler went about collecting Jews, concentrated in several places, that many Germans would not have known the extent of Hitler’s madness. To some extent, other people who were part of Hitler’s war would have known some things and could have guessed at other things.

There’s a person in Shoah, Second Era, Part Two, who I really felt for. Glassler was a bureaucrat, who was put into a situation of seniority and asked to handle tasks that came down from the Fuhrer. He was appalled by what he saw in the Warsaw ghetto. He felt sickened by it. To such an extent that he only went into the ghetto when he couldn’t avoid it because it was too awful to witness. He says he was 28 at the time. The director, Lanzmann, tells him he was thirty, and a mature man. Glassler says he graduated with his law-degree at 27 and at 28 he was made deputy to the Commissioner, Aueswald.

In between learning what Hitler’s Final Solution was for the Jews in 1942 and the interview with Lanzmann in the late-1970s/early-1980s, a lot of information about what really happened to the European Jews was not widely known at the time. People who were civil servants, pushing paper from here to there, didn’t necessarily know the implications. I don’t believe that the extent of the extermination of the Jews in the death camps was known to all of the people that had a hand in the paperwork.

With the document for a ‘special train’ rather than make eight pieces of paper, the same message was sent to the station masters at the eight stations the train with the Jews passed through. The document wasn’t even labelled secret because (conjecture by Raul Hilberg) it would have drawn more attention to it if it said ‘secret‘ than not saying ‘secret‘. Also, why make eight different documents when you can just send one document to eight people. So they just made one document.

Even within the German army there would have been soldiers who were just out of their teens who were following the orders they were given. They weren’t all like the merciless SS who beat Jews to death in the Warsaw ghetto or the Death Camps. The commandants weren’t necessarily as vicious and inhuman, as Goebbels, Himmler, and Hitler. Again it is shades of grey.

When I see a film like Shoah I have the instinctive reaction that this is one of the worst acts of man against man, but I don’t jump to the conclusion and accept that all Germans (and Polish) people were part of this ugly conspiracy to rid Europe of the entire Jewish race. The Polish people, for one, were invaded and occupied. What were they meant to do, commit suicide like Adam Czerniakow, President of the Jewish Council, rather than continue to do what their job required of them?

What I didn’t realize was that the Jews in the camps who were responsible for the ‘Work Detail’ were helping get people into the gas chambers and had the responsiblity of taking the corpses out; or were responsible for taking the dead Jews out of the gas vans and taking them to the ovens, and then disposing of the bones in the body that hadn’t been reduced to dust. Should they have all committed suicide, so that they weren’t unwilling hands, nonetheless working for Commandants who were working for Hitler? Should everyone who suspected that the Jews shipped to Treblinka and Auschwitz and Belzec and Sobibor, just refused and been imprisoned themselves or also be killed?

As good as Shoah is, and as important as Shoah is, this incredible document of what happened, through Lanzmann’s dedication and unflagging energy, shows more than anything, that everyone who did what they did, as bad as it was, was human. Of course, some were literally raised (through the Hitler Youth) to be ruthless killers and some were convinced by the Nationalism of Hitler’s charismatic speeches that the Nazis were uniting Europe rather than invading it and taking it over.

Any of this may be quoted out of context to say that I don’t hold the Nazis accountable for their atrocities, but it isn’t true. The film Shoah, shows that there are many ways of looking at the same events and, remarkably, Claude Lanzmann was able to extract people’s stories through walking into interview situations as if he was naive, and had no idea of what these people had actually done.

I even feel for Oberhauser, who pulls beers, and refuses to talk to Lanzmann. If you read in history about what happened to Oberhauser after 1945, all the trials and imprisonment he endured, the man you see behind a bar, refusing to talk about something that he was knowingly part of, is understandable. Maybe all of the people like Oberhauser, from that rank upwards should have been put to death, or at least spent the rest of their life in prison. But, Shoah, is not about – well, mostly not, other than Franz Glassler – accusing people of the behaviour that they or their government approved – but letting people tell their story in their own way, with their own voice, with their own emotions bubbling away just beneath the surface. Imagine what would have been going through Oberhauser’s mind behind the bar pulling beers, when Lanzmann and a film crew turned up to interrogate him. He’d already served a few terms in jail for his crimes, and here they were, more people, wanting to break him down into pieces, with behaviour by the filmmakers which was quite intimidating.

I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about the death penalty – actually, I do, but that’s another story – so kill those convicted of war crimes or imprison them for life, but recognise that whenever the years between 1939 and 1945 are brought to their attention, yet again, they will be feeling something on the inside that is almost certainly painful to them.

I thought I was going to write about a Sergio Leone western just now, not about Shoah again. I suppose the fact that I spent four or five hours today making more notes and observations about the 9½ hours of Shoah, in my notes section of my 100greatesfilmsever folder, means that the impact of the film is still deeply within me.