Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 67 million dollar epic about the Battle of Stalingrad is usually considered a bad movie. It was booed at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was so poorly received in the former Soviet Union that an organization of Red Army veterans called for it to be banned. Peter Rainier at Rolling Stone wrote that “it’s as if an obsessed movie nut had decided to collect every bad war-movie convention on one computer and program it to spit out a script.”
Enemy at the Gates is a bad movie, but that begs the question. Has there ever been a good movie about the Battle of Stalingrad?
Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2013 Stalingrad was a gigantic hit in Russia, but I found it ludicrous propaganda for Vladimir Putin’s cultural conservatism.
Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film was intelligent and well-made. It accurately depicted the agony of the German Sixth Army as it was encircled by the great Soviet counter offensive in the Winter of 1942. But it was an anti-war movie, not an anti-fascist movie. It tells us no more about the Soviet Union than The Deer Hunter tells us about the Vietnamese.
The main problem for a film about a battle like Stalingrad, or Gettysburg, or Verdun, or any great clash between mass, industrialized armies, is scale. Stalingrad was the largest battle in history. Over a million Russian soldiers were killed. An entire German Army group was outflanked, encircled, and annihilated. You can’t possibly get it all on screen. So you have to make a choice. Which part of the Battle of Stalingrad will you use to represent the whole?
Jean-Jacques Annaud decides to focus on the sniper Vasily Zaytsev. The first 20 minutes of Enemy at the Gates are excellent. Half the film’s 67 million dollar budget was spent on the (exciting if historically inaccurate) opening sequence, Zaytsev’s arrival in Stalingrad, and his regiment’s crossing the Volga under heavy German fire. But after that Enemy at the Gates just goes flat. Jude Law is miscast as the Russian peasant turned marksman. Rachel Weisz is ludicrously miscast as his fictional lover Tania Chernova. But a big budget film requires big stars. Post Heaven’s Gate, no Hollywood studio will fund a movie that costs 67 million dollars unless they know it’s going to make money. That means guaranteed box office draws like Law and Weisz, a pretty boy hero, and a heroine with the finely chiseled features of a high-fashion model.
Enemy at the Gates, to its credit, unlike Bondarchuk’s or Wilsmaier’s film, does portray the role women played at the Battle of Stalingrad. But does Weisz’s upper-middle-class Jewish intellectual, her love triangle with Zaytsev and Commissar Danilov, Joseph Fiennes, dramatize anything about women like the 1077 Anti-Aircraft Brigade, girls barely out of high-school who held off an entire Nazi Panzer division for the better part of a a day? Weisz is a good actor, but couldn’t they have at least smeared her makeup? Does Commissar Danilov’s final renunciation of the communist ideal give us any clue about why communism triumphed over fascism? Is Danilov even a credible representation of a Soviet Army “political officer?” Even the sniper duel between Zaytsev and a Major Koenig, Ed Harris, is tedious and badly paced. If there’s one thing a big budget Hollywood studio production should be able to do well, it’s a gun fight. But Jean-Jacques Annaud drops the ball. Perhaps Mandalay Films should have hired Quentin Tarantino or John Woo.
In other words, I’ve seen Stalingrad (2013), Stalingrad (1993) and Enemy at the Gates (2001), three major, big budget films, and I have yet to see a good movie about the most important battle in history. The first is a right-wing piece of junk. The second is a decent “war is hell” film. The third is just a dud. No film about Stalingrad, as far as I know, captures the great Soviet victory over fascism, and have no illusions. If it wasn’t for Zhukov’s counteroffensive in 1943, we’d all be speaking German. The Russians saved all of our asses. Surely it’s worth at least one good movie.
But I doubt it will ever happen. Hollywood was purged of Communist Party members in the 1950s. Since then, there have been a lot of good American anti-war films about the war in Vietnam. But the capitalist film industry probably won’t get much more progressive than the idea that “war is hell.” Nobody, as far as I know, has tried to make a film about Ho Chi Minh or General Giap. The best American films about the Second World War, like Robert Aldrich’s Attack, cynically deconstruct the kind of propaganda Spielberg serves up in Saving Private Ryan. But deconstructing self-serving American propaganda and accurately portrarying the communist victory over fascism are two entirely different things. I suppose I’ll just have to dust off my copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and start reading.
Was the German soldier an ordinary man trapped in an evil cause? Was General Von Paulus and the German Sixth Army “stabbed in the back” by Hitler and the German high command? Was the kessel on the Volga in the Winter of 1942 and 1943 the first real “death camp?”
Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2013 rewrote the Battle of Stalingrad as a victory of right-wing Russian nationalism over German nationalism.
Stalingrad (1993) Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (1999) rewrite the victory of Communism over Fascism as the agony of General Von Paulus and the Germany Sixth Army.
Stalingrad (1993), which was directed by the German filmmaker Joseph Vilsmaier, follows in the tradition of the better American films about Vietnam. Like Olive Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Stalingrad centers the war on a group of likable everymen trapped in a hell not of their own making. The film opens in sunny Italy. We meet Lieutenant Hans von Witzland, a proper young man from an aristocratic Prussian family, and Sergeant Manfred “Rollo” Rohleder, a veteran of the Africa Corps. At first, we are led to believe that von Witzland is a Nazi. He refuses to pin a medal on the rough-looking Rohleder when the latter refuses to button up his collar during inspection. “Heroes aren’t late,” he says to Rohleder and his friend Corporal Fritz Reiser. But once we get to the frozen steppe along the Volga, we realize that von Witzland’s proper, “by the book” Prussian militarism actually means the opposite. He’s an old school German conservative who violently objects to Russian prisoners being abused. He hates the Nazis. Fritz Reiser, who’s played by the French actor Dominique Hororwitz, is a tough-minded realist who’s determined to survive at any cost. That Reiser is played by the very Jewish looking Horowitz sends a clear message. Von Paulus’s soldiers were not all Nazis. Like Americans in Vietnam, they were just soldiers with rotten leaders.
We meet two German captains.
Once again, we follow the convention pioneered by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, and revived in American Vietnam War films in the 1980s. Captain Hermann Musk, played by the Czech actor Karel Heřmánek is a hard man but a good officer. He’s respected by von Witzland, Reiser, a teenage recruit named “GeGe” Müller, another soldier named Müller and Otto, played by Sylvester Groth. Captain Haller, on the other hand, Dieter Okras, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chris Hedges, is a straight up Nazi.
As the battle, and the Winter, wear on, von Witzland and his platoon realize that their real enemy isn’t the Russians. It’s Captain Haller, and the high-command back in Berlin. The climax of the film comes when von Witzland and his platoon take a Russian factory, but are quickly surrounded by the Russian army. They escape through the sewers (echoing the classic Polish war movie Kanal), where Emigholtzone, of von Witzland’s platoon, is severely wounded. Von Witzland, Reiser, and Rohleder, like any good soldiers, refuse to leave their comrade on the battlefield. They drag him through the sewers to a German field hospital, where they hold a German orderly at gunpoint. “Save him,” they demand.
Holding an orderly at gunpoint to save a comrade, of course, is what any good soldier would do. You don’t fight for your country. You fight for the guy on youur left and on your right. In an American film, they’d be let off with a stern warning and sent back to the front. But this is the German army at Stalingrad, led by the incompetent and worse. Von Witzland and his platoon are transferred to a punishment detail disarming mines. They’re doomed and they know it, but it really doesn’t matter. Their goal now becomes twofold. On the one hand, they want to stay alive. But on the other hand, they want to avoid becoming war criminals. They fail in both. After Captain Haller orders them to shoot a group of Russian civilians, von Witzland and Reiser are horrified, but they go through with it anyway. Later, they get their revenge. They “frag” Haller, after he threatens to kill them for “looting” some chocolate dropped by the Luftwaffe into the kessel, and take over a bunker filled with food and drink for senior German officers.
They also find a Russian woman named Irina, played by Dana Vávrová, the film director Joseph Vilsmaier’s wife. She not only looks like Anne Hathaway. She speaks fluent German. Von Witzland, who we realize by now is not only a good man trapped in a bad cause, but a hero, refuses to let Reiser, Rohleder and Otto rape Irina. There’s little danger of it anyway. The three men are desperate to have a woman one more time before they die, but they’re also in no mood to frag von Witzland, or the severely wounded Musk. Otto, unable to deal with the war crimes he’s been forced to commit, kills himself. “Heil Hitler” he says, just before he puts a gun in his mouth and blows his brains out. Rohleder takes Musk back to the front, where they meet a long line of German POWs with their hands in the air. Irina offers to help von Witzland and Reiser escape the Russian encirclement, The walk through the snow. Just as they appear to have made it behind the Russian lines, Irina is shot by Russian soldiers. Von Witlzand, who’s now too weak to go on, dies in Reisers arms. The snow covers both their bodies, the Prussian aristocrat and the working-German soldier, faithful to each other in death.
While Vilsmaier’s film may ignore the heroism of the Russian soldiers who defeated fascism at Stalingrad, he certainly captures the hell of the war on the Eastern front. Stalingrad may not have the same technical virtuosity of Saving Private Ryan, but it does show mass, industrial warfare for what it is, the assembly line destruction of the human body. Von Witzland and his platoon live in filth. They don’t have enough to eat. Getting wounded is essentially a death sentence Indeed, one of the strongest scenes of Stalingrad takes place in the field hospital where Reiser holds the orderly at gunpoint. It’s a meat factory. We can almost smell the burned, rotting flesh. We hear the unanswered groans of the dying German soldiers. It’s as close as a film can get to the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Once you’ve read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, you realize that even Vilsmaier’s film only gets part of it.
Antony Beevor’s idealogical point of view is more or less the same as Vilsmaier’s. Paulus was a mediocre general out of his depth against Russian masters like Zhukov. The German Sixth Army was betrayed by the high command in Berlin. Beevor had access to newly available Soviet documents in the archives that were opened up after the fall of communism. His main contribution to history seems to be documenting the extent to which the NKVD coerced Russians into the war against Germany. Beevor certainly documents the Stalinist terror against ordinary Russians well enough. But he fails to address two things.
1.) Why the Russians fought on so heroically at Stalingrad in 1942.
2.) How the NKVD’s coercion of ordinary Russian soldiers in 1942 compares to the French capitalist army’s arbitrary mass executions in 1917.
Where Beevor’s book really shines is in the same area Vilsmaier’s film does. Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 portrays the German kessel (cauldron) on the Volga as the first death camp. Hitler and the German high-command’s callousness towards their own soldiers is every bit as horrifying as their callousness towards the lives of Jews and Slavs. That Beevor seems to believe in a moral equivalence between Stalinism and Nazism in no way lessons the power of his writing. The vast, minute descriptions of starvation, of massive lice infestations, the effect of the climate on the human body, the sheer incompetence of Hitler and the German general staff puts us in the boots of a German private at Stalingrad. It’s as effective an anti-war book as I’ve ever read. Like Vilsmaier, Beevor’s message for all of us is “disobey your leaders. Trust in your own judgement.”
But it’s still not the whole story. Indeed, after Bondarchuk’s Putinite travesty and Beevor and Vilsmaier stating the obvious – war is hell — I still want to see someone make a film about how and why the Soviet Union (the Soviet Union not Russia) saved the world from the Nazis at Stalingrad. Maybe Oliver Stone can give it a try. He’s already made an excellent documentary about the eastern front. Maybe he can make a film about Stalingrad.
In 1968, the French novelist Roman Gary wrote a short story, later expanded into a full-length novel in 1970, called White Dog. The story was a fictionalized memoir. Gary and his wife, the American actress Jean Seaberg, adopt what they believe to be a friendly, well-trained German Shepherd, which they name Batka. Later, to their horror, they find out that Batka is a former Alabama police dog who’s been trained to attack black people on sight. Not wanting to have Batka “put down,” they take him to a black dog trainer to see if they can find a cure for its racism. But the dog trainer, who turns out to be a Black Muslim, doesn’t cure Batka. He retrains him to attack white people, including Gary himself.
Gary had written White Dog partly so that Roman Polanski could turn it into a movie. But the project stalled after Polanski was arrested for rape, then subsequently left the United States. In 1981, Paramount Pictures gave the project to the now renowned B-movie director Sam Fuller. Fuller rewrote the script to make White Dog a straight up denunciation of American racism. Seaberg, whose support for black nationalist causes Roman Gary had grown to hate, was replaced by struggling young actress named Julie Sawyer, and played by the now all but forgotten Kristy McNichol. The black Muslim became Carruthers, Berl Ives, and Keys, Paul Winfield, and elderly white man and a young black man who run an animal shelter called Noah’s Arc. They’re both sincere animal lovers and anti-racists who genuinely want to see the dog cured. The character of Roman Gary is written out of the script altogether.
White Dog was suppressed.
Sam Fuller, a World War II veteran who also directed classics like Steel Helmet and The Big Red One, was dismayed to find out that his film would not be given a distributor, partly because the NAACP had decided that the anti-racist script was actually racist. The film was later released in France and given a limited run on American television before finally getting picked up by Criterion, released as a DVD, and widely reviewed. I actually remember seeing White Dog on HBO in the 1980s. It felt like a heavy handed left-wing allegory, of which there were many in the late 70s and early 80s. I watched it again last night. My impressions were decidedly mixed.
Does White Dog deserve its cult status?
I suppose the answer would be “yes and no.” On one hand, it’s a hilariously bad, over the top, heavy handed melodrama with often wooden acting and dialog that explains the plot more than it dramatizes the interaction between people. Fuller puts no effort into making the film even remotely believable. The dog is more than just a vicious German Shepherd. Like the shark in Jaws, he’s a relentless, terrifying killing machine. White Dog requires a constant effort to suspend your disbelief. Neither of the two murders, one inside a church, is ever followed up on by the police, even though it would be pretty easy to figure out both men were killed by a vicious dog.
Once you do manage to suspend your disbelief, however, and look at White Dog as an allegory rather than a realistic drama, the film gets much more interesting.
White Dog opens with a pitch black screen that lasts so long you start to wonder if there are technical problems. It finally begins to make sense when a car slams on the brakes, and we hear a thump. Julie Sawyer, who had been driving through the Hollywood Hills in the dark, has hit a beautiful, white German Shepherd. She gets out, puts the dog inside her car, and takes him to a vet, who, after slapping her with an exorbitant bill, 250 dollars in 1981, tells her the dog is perfectly fine and advises her to put up “Dog Found” posters. She follows his advice, but no one shows up to claim the dog. Later, after a white, would be rapist breaks into her apartment, and the dog saves her, leaping through a plate glass window and restraining the man by locking its teeth around his forearm until the police show up, she decides to keep him.
Then he runs away.
Julie spends days in an agonizing search, going to the pound every day and waiting for the ASPCA trucks to come in. She doesn’t find her dog, but she does witness another dog being “put down,” gassed. The “white dog” finally comes back home after it murders a black street cleaner, showing up at Julie’s apartment covered in blood. You might think the blood would alert her to the fact that something isn’t right, but she doesn’t seem to have a clue. She washes him off in the bathtub and thinks no more of it. Later, after she brings the dog with her to a film shoot, and he savagely attacks a fellow actress, who’s black, Julie can no longer deny the obvious. This is no ordinary German Shepherd.
White Dog is not only about a vicious German Shepherd, but the obliviousness of most white people to racism. It’s always there, staring them in the face, covered in blood and gore, but they rarely, if ever notice it until they’re faced with a horrible reality they can’t possibly deny. Even then they sometimes deny it. Eric Garner, for example, was murdered on camera by the police, the trained attack dogs of white supremacy, and many white people still try to deny it had anything to do with race. Julie Sawyer is both a typical white woman, and yet a profoundly moral one. When she finally “gets it” she brings the dog to Noah’s Arc to see if she can get him cured without having him gassed. Even though the dog has killed, she wants to save its life. She’s still traumatized after having witnessed the dog “put down” at the pound.
Once Julie drops the dog off at Noah’s Arc, White Dog becomes Keys’ movie. Keys is determined to save the dog, even after it kills yet another black man. Why? I suppose that Keys, like most black men, realizes that whites are the majority in the United States. Unless white people can be cured of their racism, there’s no hope at all for American society. He also realizes that racism comes from early childhood abuse. The way you create a “White Dog,” he explains to Julie, is to find some black drunk or junkie who’s desperate for a fix, and have him savagely beat the dog from the time he’s a puppy.
Is Keys right?
I’d say yes and no. Most white people don’t become racists because they’ve been mistreated by black people, but because they’ve been trained by their parents. On the other hand, parents who train their children to be racists are usually violent, emotionally and physically abusive. It’s hard to imagine a genuine racist – as opposed to someone who’s merely cluless like Julie — coming from a loving, supportive, open-minded family.
Keys devotes himself full time to retraining the dog, to associating black skin with kindness and generosity. He makes sure that nobody but himself gives the dog food. He pets him, caresses him, gently faces him down when he bares his teeth, progressively allows him less restraint and more freedom of movement, even as he progressively bares more and more of his black skin. Finally, he starts to introduce the dog to a black man who hasn’t fed him. When he feels he’s been successful, he calls Julie back to Noah’s Arc as an observer.
Roman Gary’s dog trainer was a black nationalist who trained the dog to take revenge on white people. Fuller’s movie ends on a much more subtle, ambiguous, if equally pessimistic note. As Keys demonstrates to Julie that the dog is no longer a killer, his own perceptions begin to fall apart. He sees the dog as vicious when he’s not. He sees him baring his teeth in attack mode, when, in fact, he’s simply walking in his direction. A black man who has had to face down white racism, Fuller tells us, becomes damaged himself, paranoid, unable to see his own success. He will have to retrain himself even as he retrained the dog. Keys may not be a black nationalist, but he now sees white people as vicious and evil.
But there’s yet another twist. Keys does not succeed in redeeming the “white dog.” He merely disassociates the abuse he suffered as a puppy from black skin. Earlier, when the dog’s real owner had come to claim him from Julie, we noticed that he was a nice little old man with two angelic blond grandchildren. When she confronts him over having trained a “white dog,” however, he turns vicious and hateful. Racists, Fuller is telling us, aren’t obvious monsters. They can be perfectly good people when they’re among “their own kind.” It’s only when they meet black people, or white anti-racists, that the fangs come out. Keys, in effect, unintentionally repeats what Roman Gary’s black nationalist had done deliberately. After several false charges, where the dog appears to be baring his teeth, only to be revealed as trotting up to Keys in a friendly manner, he charges Keys’ business partner, Carruthers, an old white man who looks a lot like his original owner. Keys is unsure if it’s another false alarm. It’s not. The dog jumps on top of Carruthers and viciously attacks him. Keys shoots him dead.
Racists, as it turns out, will have to be “put down” after all.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s best known and most highly regarded film is a technically innovative and aesthetically beautiful mediation on fascism. What kind of man becomes a fascist? Why does he become a fascist? What does he do when the fascist government he’s dedicated his life to is overthrown?
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici, an academic from an upper-class family living in Mussolini’s Italy. Clerici lacks a clear identity, and sense of purpose. While he may be heterosexual, he was also abused by a family chauffeur when he was a little boy. While he may be from the aristocracy, his family is also in decline. His mother is addicted to morphine. His father is confined to an insane asylum. Marcello Clerici wants to be “straight,” to be normal, to fit in with the crowd.
After they decide that the weak, easily manipulated Clerici might be useful, Mussolini’s secret police send a beefy thug named Manganiello to be his handler. Manganiello, who’s played by Gastone Moschin, Don Fanucci from Godfather II, follows along as the newly married Clerici takes his wife Giulia, Stephanie Sandrelli, on a trip to Paris. Giulia is a shallow, sex obsessed young woman who consciously chooses to know very little about her husband’s clandestine activities for Mussolini. But this is more than just a honeymoon. It’s a working vacation. Clerici has been assigned to ingratiate himself with the anti-fascist exile Professor Quadri, his old philosophy teacher, and set him up for an assassination.
The Conformist might be about a spiritually ugly little fascist coward, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful films ever made. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who would later go onto make Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola, has developed a remarkable approach to visualizing the fascist mindset. While his camera movements are fluid, dynamic, clearly rooted in the French New Wave, Bertolucci’s sets are static, geometric, grandiose, massive. Taken together, Storaro’s camera movements and Bertolucci’s sets clearly demonstrate the appeal of the fascist aesthetic. The constantly moving, unstable point of view flitting through the clean, brilliantly lit spaces dramatizes what’s going on in Clerici’s mind, his lack of a real identity, his vulnerability to being manipulated, his inability to act when he’s tested, his worship of state power.
Clerici doesn’t so much carry out his mission as stand passively by while Manganiello carries it out for him. It’s his failure to stop Manganiello that’s his most eloquent condemnation. Professor Quadri is not only a principled anti-fascist, but a living embodiment of the liberal alternative to Clerici’s tortured conformism. Anna, his gorgeous young wife, played by a radiantly beautiful Dominique Sanda, takes Giulia under her wing. Clerici immediately falls in love with her. If Clerici’s unstable sexual identity puts him under Manganiello’s thumb, than Anna’s sexual ambiguity is swaggering, powerful, liberating. The way Dominque Sanda stands, her hands in her pocket, her loose hips, he direct gaze, defines lesbian chic in a way that hasn’t been quite so sexy since Marlene Dietrich perfected the same look decades before.
Quadri, in fact, is all too tolerant, intelligent and broad minded. He knows Clerici works for Mussolini. But he also hopes to reclaim him for liberalism and democracy. “You’re a fascist and I’m an anti-fascist,” he says. “We both knew that. But we still decided to have dinner.” Quadri, however, is doomed, not because he’s under any illusions that Clerici is a fascist, but because he doesn’t understand quite what a sniveling little worm the man really is. When he gives Clerici a letter to deliver to the anti-fascist underground in Rome, and he hesitates, he assumes that his old student hesitates out of principle. A real fascist would just take letter, which is actually blank inside the envelope, and turn it over to Mussolini’s secret police without comment. What Quadri fails to realize is that Clerici is genuinely afraid that even touching the letter will get him into trouble, that he lives in genuine, quivering, white knuckled fear of men like Manganielllo.
For Professor Quadri’s assassination, Bertolucci and Storaro, astonishingly, shift gears again. We are no longer in the world of Italian fascism, with its chic futurism and geometric Roman grandeur. We have entered one of Leni Riefenstahl’s Alpine landscapes. Anna’s trust in the innocent, shallow Giulia proves fatal. She mentions that they’re going up to Professor Quadri’s house in the mountains. We can see the pain in Clerici’s face when his wife lets it slip that the Quadris are driving up through a deep, dark wood, a place where there’s hardly any traffic, the ideal setting to murder them both without the danger of witnesses. He knows he shouldn’t betray them. He knows he will. The winding road into the Alps, the blue light, the snowy ground, the thick, black forest, the climax of The Conformist is a visual tour de force that trumps anything else in the Bertolocci’s masterpiece. Nature looks on indifferently as Manganiello’s goons repeatedly stab Professor Quadri, and then hunt down and shoot the terrified Anna. Nature looks on indifferently because nature is grand. Clerici looks on passively because he’s a worm.
In the film’s coda, Bertolucci reminds us that just because a fascist government falls doesn’t mean that fascism is over. “Conformists” like Marcello Clerici learn to adapt, to fit in whatever comes their way. As a gigantic stone image of Mussolini is dragged through the street by the once fascist, now anti-fascist Roman people, Clerici does them one better. He spots a skinny, effeminate blond cruising a dark, curly haired street kid. He decides it’s the chauffeur who molested him as a child. Is it? The film never makes it entirely clear. But Clerici is certain. He not only denounces the poor man as a fascist, he accuses him of setting up Professor Quadri’s assassination. Clerici is so devoid of principle, so devoid of self-reflection that he simply projects his own horrifying betrayal of his old teacher onto a complete stranger.
This is the kind of man, Bertolucci demonstrates, who make the Hitlers, the Mussolinis, the Dick Cheneys and the Francisco Francos not only possible, but inevitable. Marcello Clerici is still a relatively young man at the end of The Conformist, and he’ll almost certainly survive. So what’s next? It’s not hard to imagine him becoming the same kind of lackey for the American occupation that he was for Mussolini. I have no doubt he’ll spend the rest of the 1940s denouncing communist and anarchist heroes of the anti-fascist resistance to the CIA.
Westfield, New Jersey is an upper-middle-class, predominantly white town about 25 miles outside of Manhattan. People move there from all over the United States, mainly for two reasons. The public school system regularly sends its graduates to the Ivy League. The town also has the biggest collection of colonial revival houses in the area, block after block of beautiful old mansions built at the beginning of the 20th Century. One of Westfield’s grandest colonial revivals used to be located at 431 Hillside Avenue.
Over 5000 square feet, it had 18 rooms, and a name, “Breeze Knoll.” I’ve ridden my bike past the site of Breeze Knoll many times. Hillside Avenue is “hidden in plain sight,” a gated community gated only by its cleverly laid out obscurity. A few blocks in one direction is bustling (and now fairly multicultural) downtown Westfield. A few blocks in the other is seedy, dangerous Route 22. But all around the site of the now destroyed Breeze Knoll are block after block of five and six bedroom homes. Built by Wall Street money, and maintained by the same financial industry that gave us the sub-prime crisis, it looks like a tightly packed mass of James River plantation houses.
John List was a mousy little German American accountant from Bay City Michigan when he bought Breeze Knoll in 1965. He was living far above his means. The house was never completely furnished. He didn’t socialize with his neighbors. The only reason they remembered him at all was the way he used to mow his front lawn in a suit and tie. By 1971, he was deeply in debt, skimming off his mother’s bank accounts, whom he moved into the attic of Breeze Knoll shortly after he purchased it, and even behind on his utility bills. His wife was suffering from tertiary syphilis and going mad. Then he lost his job.
List, a devout Lutheran who worshipped at the Redeemer Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Westfield, couldn’t face his wife or his mother. He also couldn’t face the idea that his three children, one of whom was the 16-year-old Patricia, would end up living in poverty, or on welfare. Patricia, as was typical for teenage girls in 1971, had a rebellious streak. She was a theater nerd who liked to hang out late with her friends (downtown Westfield is still a well-known gathering place for teenage kids from all the surrounding towns), and probably smoke marijuana. List became convinced she was coming under the influence of the devil.
Every day for most of that Fall, List would walk up to the Westfield train station, and hang out there until it was time to “come home from work.” On November 9th of 1971, after weeks of careful planning, he shot his wife and mother in the back of the head with a 9mm handgun, then Patricia and her 13-year-old brother Frederick when they came home from school. He dragged all four bodies into Breeze Knoll’s grand ballroom, laid them out in sleeping bags, and ate lunch. It must have been a relief not to have to explain to his wife or to his mother why he was home early. I bet that food tasted good. While he was eating, he wrote a 5-page letter to his Lutheran pastor, explaining what he had done. List, being a devout Christian, couldn’t commit suicide. What’s more, he explained how he expected to meet his family in heaven after he died. He seems to have believed sincerely that he was saving their souls by taking them out of the Godless evil of secular America in the 1970s. He went to the bank, closed his account, drew out all his mother’s money, and closed hers, then went to pick up his eldest son from soccer practice. John Jr., who was 15, must have put up quite a fight. There was no clean shot to the back of the head for him. Instead, his father shot him 8 times in the chest and face, then dragged him into the ballroom with his mother, grandmother, brother and sister.
John List disappeared for almost two decades. So carefully did he plan the murders of his family that none of his neighbors even suspected anything was wrong for a month. He parked his car at Kennedy Airport to throw the police off his trail. He had already stopped his milk, newspaper, and mail deliveries. He had written his children’s schools and part time employers informing them that he was taking his family to visit relatives in North Carolina. He had left lights on at Breeze Knoll to fool his neighbors into thinking he was at home. Finally, a month later, people began to notice that something was a little suspicious. The lights were burning out one by one. A neighbor called the Westfield police, who went to investigate, then found the macabre scene in the ballroom. In 1990, the cops finally arrested John List. He was extradited to Union County from Richmond Virginia, and spent the rest of his miserable life in Rahway Prison, ending up, at long last, in the part of the state that Westfield native John Steinfeld, in his satirical map of New Jersey, describes as being populated by “Russians, Pollacks, and Toxic Fumes.”
Breeze Knoll “mysteriously” burned down a few months after List killed his family in 1971. My guess would be that the town government burned down the house to prevent it from becoming a tourist trap. After all, those rich WASPs in Westfield probably didn’t want to be reminded that one of their own had been a mass murderer. I grew up in neighboring, working-class Roselle, more African American than Polish or Russian, but not a place where John List would have wanted any of his children spending much time. After all, the eastern part of Union County, New Jersey is “dangerous.” But I’ve known Westfield very well, ever since I was a child. I went to a Lutheran Church in neighboring Cranford. My mother’s family, like John List, were German American Lutherans. Westfield, along with Route 22, is the main retail center of central Union County. It has lots of shops and restaurants. Most importantly of all, it used to have two first run movie theaters, once of which, the Rialto, was ridiculously easy to sneak into for free. For Kung Fu movies, you had to go to Plainfield or Newark, and you had to pay. But for first run, mainstream Hollywood films, The Rialto in downtown Westfield was the Pirate Bay of the 1980s. It’s where I saw Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc, a brilliant Australian war movie called Breaker Morant, My Brilliant Career, Tess, the arty film by child molester Roman Polanski, all the Monty Python films, Reds, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, and Raging Bull. In fact, I think it’s pretty safe to say that if it hadn’t been for downtown Westfield and the Rialto, this blog wouldn’t exist.
The program at the Rialto in 1976 was a bit before my time, but I’m pretty confident that they showed Richard Donner’s horror film The Omen, in spite of what had happened a few blocks away. More than any other horror film, it’s always haunted my memories. It scared me to death when I saw it on HBO in the late 1970s. Later, when I saw The Omen on TV in my college dorm, it seemed a bit ridiculous, but the damage had been done. For a long time, I was afraid of churches, seeing the words “Satan,” or the number “666” in print, and the dark. Indeed, now that I’m a sophisticated 50-year-old instead of a coarse 20-year-old, it disturbs me even more, if only because I finally understand why it scared me so much as a child. The Omen is a mainstream, Hollywood film that turns John List into a hero.
I suppose most people are familiar with the plot. Richard Thorn, Gregory Peck and his rich baritone voice, is a fabulously wealthy American living in Rome with his wife Cathy, played by Lee Remnick. The film opens in a hospital where Cathy has given birth to a stillborn child (who we later find out was murdered). Part of what makes The Omen so effective is the way it somehow manages to be both a classic, anti-Catholic, anti-Italian conspiracy tale, and yet serve as right-wing, fundamentalist, Catholic propaganda. A priest and a nun both convince Richard Thorn to adopt another child, to pass it off to his wife as her own. He agrees. Cathy is emotionally fragile. Losing a baby might kill her. The priest, Father Spiletto, is right out of nativist propaganda from the 19th Century, the suave Catholic villain from central casting, but Richard Thorn doesn’t see it. Cathy somehow can’t recognize that she’s been presented with a changeling.
Shortly after Richard and Cathy Thorn adopt Damien, Richard is appointed Ambassador to the Court of Saint James by the President, who was his roommate in college. They’re both thrilled. Not only do they have a new son, but Richard’s political career is back on the fast track. It’s a little unclear what he was doing in Rome other than getting duped by mysterious Catholic priests, but they quickly relocate to a mansion in London which, to my architecturally untrained eye, looks just a bit like Breeze Knoll. In any event, it’s a big, scary, partially furnished house now occupied by newcomers. Richard Thorn is the Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but, like John List, he doesn’t seem to do much socializing. They do, in fact, throw a birthday party for little Damien when he turns 5 years old, but it doesn’t end well. A large, ferocious looking Rottweiller lurks on the edge of the estate’s grounds. Then little Damien’s nanny hangs herself in full view of all the little children. It’s still shocking.
Why Damien’s nanny hanged herself will eventually become clear when we meet Mrs. Baylock, a very scary Billie Whitelaw, who forces herself on the Thorn family. The Thorns’ apparent naiveté about hiring nannies is explained away when Mrs. Bylock tells them that “the agency” sent her. You might think that the Thorns would be a bit more thorough about screening nannies after what happened to the first one. In any event, Mrs. Bylock and the Rottweiler are minions of Satan who have been sent by hell to protect Damien, the son of the devil, and the anti-Christ.
Mysterious Italian priests and sinister domestic help? Check off two primal fears of the WASP, ruling class. But there’s more to come. The very public suicide of the nanny of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in front of an entire birthday party full of angelic, blond, ruling-class children is quite obviously big news. Richard Thorn arrives at work the next day to a gaggle of newspapermen and paparazzi, one of whom is named Keith Jennings, David Warner as a somewhat less swinging London photographer than David Hemmings was in Antonioni’s Blowup, but who will soon play a very similar role. As he develops his photos in his darkroom, he begins to notice signs of foul play, even murder.
Thorn is confronted by another priest, Father Brennan. Confess your sins, he says, “drink the blood of Christ, eat his flesh. It’s your only protection.” He knows about how the two little boys were switched in Rome. He knows Damien’s the son of the devil, the anti-Christ who intends to murder Richard Thorn, Cathy Thorn, and anybody who comes between him and the “Thorn millions.” Brennan, on first appearances, is such an obvious maniac that Thorn has the police escort him out of the embassy. But appearances can be deceiving. Father Brennan, like the voices inside of John List’s head, may be telling Ambassador Thorn to kill one of his children, but he’s right. Damien is the anti-Christ. If John List killed his daughter Patricia to save her soul, to prevent her from smoking pot, listening to loud music, and having sex, the stakes for Ambassador Thorn are higher. Letting Damien live will mean death and destruction for millions.
Father Brennan demands another meeting. Thorn agrees to see him in Bishop’s Park in London, where the priest tells him that Cathy is pregnant, and that the devil will kill her child. He’s right. Not only is Cathy pregnant – How could Father Brennan have known? – she wants to have an abortion. If John List considered himself a Christian hero for killing his children before secular American corrupted their souls, Richard Thorn becomes a genuine, Christian, conservative hero. Cathy’s unborn child is an obstacle to the devil’s reign on earth. Preventing her from having an abortion will save humanity. He fails. Mrs. Baylock, whom we’re continually amazed hasn’t been fired, arranges for Damien to run into Cathy Thorn while she’s standing on a stepladder overlooking the balcony at their estate. She falls 20 feet and has a miscarriage.
Jennings contacts Richard Thorn. For the past several weeks, he’s been taking his photo, stalking the American ambassador through the streets of London. He’s taken several photos of Father Brennan, all of which have a thick, black line going through Brennan’s neck, getting more and more pronounced as time goes on. The next morning, Thorn sees the front page of a tabloid. Father Brennan is dead. After their meeting, the devil had whipped up a storm and pursued Brennan through Bishop’s Park. Brennan is impaled him with a metal flagpole. Jennings’ photographs had clearly predicted the future. What’s more, Jennings also predicts his own death. When he photographed the dead Father Brennan’s apartment, which is lined with Bible pages to keep out the devil, he accidentally photographed himself in the mirror. The negative has a thick line through his neck. He will be beheaded. He wants to get to the bottom of the mystery before he dies.
Thorn can no longer deny the obvious, his five-year-old son is the son of the devil. Like John List, he’s convinced that the voices in his head telling him to kill his children are telling him to do the work of God. Richard Thorn and Keith Jennings become a team. They go to a monastery in Italy and track down Father Spiletto, who gives them the name of a cemetery north of Rome. Thorn and Jennings find the grave of Cathy’s real son. His skull was bashed in. He wasn’t a miscarriage. He was murdered. They find the bones of Damien’s real mother, a jackal. They also get attacked by a pack of vicious Rottweillers, who greatly resemble the Rottweiller who was hanging around the grounds of the American ambassador’s estate in London. They travel to Jerusalem, where they meet up with an archaeologist/exorcist, who tells Thorn what he must do. To kill the anti-Christ, he has to drag Damien to the alter of a church, and kill him with a series of knives, placed in the shape of a cross. Thorn has now become Abraham and Damien a satanic Issac. Jennings, not incidentally, is beheaded. Back in London, Mrs. Baylock finishes off Cathy by pushing her out the window of her hospital room.
After recently viewing the last 30 minutes of The Omen, I found them more shocking than I remembered. The film has put us into the head of John List. If Thorn doesn’t kill Damien, he will grow up into a man, inherit the Thorn millions, and appoint himself dictator of the European Union. It’s up to the family annihilator to save us all from the devil. Thorn goes back to the estate to grab Damien and bring him to a church. He’s attacked, first by the Rottweiller, who he locks up in the basement, and then by Mrs. Baylock. Mrs. Baylock may not fight like the devil, but she’s vicious enough. Thorn overpowers her, but not before she puts up a gigantic struggle. We are rooting for a deranged man against a woman fighting bravely to protect the life of a 5-year-old boy. But he fails. Thorn gets Damien to the Church, but he’s shot by the police before he can kill the little boy at the alter. Damien is adopted by Richard Thorn’s old college roommate, the President of the United States.
If this film traumatized me as a child, then it’s probably because I was rooting for Ambassador Thorn right along with everybody else. I was convinced that a 5-year-old was the devil, and that he had to die. I had internalized the same voices John List had. I was rooting for my own destruction. There was something in the air in the 1970s. Conservative, Christian America was starting to punch back against the counter culture. I very clearly remember my father, no conservative or Christian but definitely someone who hated hippies and the counter culture, telling me that if he ever caught me smoking pot, he’d murder me. It was for my own good, obviously. The Omen, along with the Exorcist, had revived the Puritan idea that children, far from being innocent, were in fact the limbs of Satan. The 1970s were not a good time to be a little boy. All over America, people were cracking down on all the spoiled little minions of the devil. The 1980s, in turn, were not a good time to be a teenager, as a flood of slasher films — girls who had sex always died and the virgin always lived — continued the right-wing onslaught against the counter culture and the sexual revolution.
Jean Vigo, the director of L’Atalante, has always had a certain mystique.
“The ranks of the great film directors are short on Keatses and Shelleys,” Andrew Johnston of the New York Times writes, “young artists cut off in their prime, leaving behind a handful of great works that suggest what might have been. But one who qualifies is Jean Vigo, the French director who died of tuberculosis at age 29 in 1934.”
Jean Vigo was also the the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda.
Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was given as “suicide,” but Almereyda, who had enemies ranging from Léon Daudet on the far-right to Georges Clemenceau the social democratic left, was almost certainly murdered.
The stress of Jean Vigo’s childhood probably contributed to his early death. He and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, and he had to go to boarding school under an assumed name. Sometime in his early 20s he contracted tuberculosis. His first film, Zero for Conduct, was banned in France for 13 years.
Getting banned in France, like getting banned in Boston, is more often than not the sign of genius. Godard’s first movie, Le Petit Soldat, and the revolutionary epic The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo both shared that honor. Had Vigo died even before he made L’Atalante, Zero for Conduct would have assures his place in the pantheon of cinematic rebels.
At first glance, L’Atalante is no Zero for Conduct, Le Petit Soldat, or Battle of Algiers. It’s an intimate, seemingly apolitical film about a working-class couple who marry in haste, quarrel, separate, and, in the end, fall into each other’s arms to live happily ever after. But L’Atalante is no more apolitical than one of Joyce’s Dubliners. A quiet slice of life that leads to an epiphany can be just as revolutionary as a riot, or an NLF bomb in the European quarter of Algiers.
Dita Parlo plays Juliette, a village girl. The film opens with her wedding to Jean, a riverboat captain. There is no wedding banquet. They barely even know the wedding party. What’s more, the bride and groom go straight from the alter to L’Atalante, the barge Jean pilots up and down the Seine from Paris to L’Havre. It’s a working honeymoon. Dita Parlo was 28 when she starred in L’Atalante, but Juliette seems more like 18 or 19. She had no real idea of what she was getting herself into. L’Atalante is no luxury liner. It’s not one of Mark Twain’s Mississippi riverboats. It’s Jean’s workplace. To put yourself in Juliette’s shoes, try to imagine going to your husband’s office, shop, or factory every day to watch him work, but not having a job there yourself.
Juliette has little to do but stare at the riverbank and make a nuisance of herself. Soon, L’Atalante’s crew, a young man known only as “the boy,” and Pere Jules, an eccentric old sailor played by the 39-year-old Michel Simon, begin to resent her presence. She’s disruptive. She hates the old man’s cats. She tries to take control of the housekeeping. They call her “the boss lady,” partly to mock her, but also partly in acknowledgement that she’s a genuinely formidable character under her initial naiveté.
Jean, in turn, resents Juliette when she succeeds in making friends with Jules. She listens to his stories. She looks through his more experienced eyes as the window into the world of travel and adventure she had dreamed about. She sees a photo of a good looking man in his 20s and initially thinks it’s a young Jules. Jean bursts into Jules’ cabin, surprising his wife and his employee. He shoves Juliette. He starts breaking Jules’ keepsakes. He’s no longer a loving young husband. He’s an abusive boss.
L’Atalante shows how in many working-class families there’s no distinction between the workplace and the home, no difference between sex and the economy. What’s more, it does it so subtly that halfway through the film we’ve half forgotten Jules and Juliette are on their honeymoon. Jean and Juliette aren’t the poorest of the poor. Jean has a job during the Great Depression. But the more you think about L’Atalante, the more you realize that Juliette has the patience of a saint. At times she seems too beautiful to be married to a dull, river barge captain. Jean doesn’t seem to know how lucky he’s gotten. She wants to play a game where you look into a bucket of water and see your lover’s image. Jean makes fun of her. She’s excited about hearing a radio broadcast from Paris. Radio was new in 1934. Jean doesn’t think it’s a big deal. When they finally get to Paris, Jean offers to take her out for a night on the town, but Jules spoils it by sneaking off L’Atalante first to go visit a fortune teller/hooker. When Jean finally takes Juliette out to eat — he seems to think it’s an extraordinary act of generosity to take his wife out to eat on their honeymoon — he resents how much she’s entertained by an itinerant street musician/magician and flies into yet another jealous rage.
Yet Jean isn’t a horrible person at all. He’s just a working-class guy so consumed with his job that he neglects his wife. After he assaults the street musician, and Juliette jumps ship to explore the city for the night, he continues on his way to L’Havre. It’s an extraordinary act of selfishness and cruelty, but he soon realizes just how much he’s lost. Juliette, in turn, realizes that while Jean isn’t exactly Prince Charming, she genuinely loves him. A few days of separation feel like a lifetime. They start to dream about each other, their dreams complete with a very frank depiction of them masturbating while they think of each other, a scene that surely never would have passed the Hays Code in Hollywood. They reunite. We realize that they won’t separate again, that Jean and Juliette, like my grandparents’ generation, have decided to make their marriage work in spite of all of the difficulties. There’s no fairy tale happy ending in L’Atalante, just two working-class people who have decided to see the beautiful in their mundane proletarian existence.
Vigo’s camera reflects Jean and Juliette’s sense of “poetic realism.” Indeed, he’s credited with founding the tradition. The light and shadows on the Seine, the fantasy sequences underwater, the city lights along the riverbank, even the radio news bulletin from Paris, ordinary life becomes wondrous and enchanted. The working-class will not only survive, Vigo is telling us. Jean and Juliette will raise a family, have grandchildren, grow old and die together, a practical utopia that Vigo, with his playboy radical father, life on the run, and early death by tuberculosis, never got to see for himself.
I first became aware of Russ Baker’s history of the Bush family during the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Baker, an investigative journalist who has written for the Christian Science Monitor and the Village Voice, had dug up an intriguing, but little known historical anecdote. George H. W. Bush had almost certainly been in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Yet to this day, he “cannot recall” what he was doing.
The Kennedy assassination, Baker argues, was a coup d’etat against the most liberal President of the 20th Century. John F. Kennedy was not the centrist cold warrior of the mainstream historical consensus. On the contrary, he and his brother Robert were a serious threat to what Eisenhower termed “the military industrial complex.” Even though John Kennedy allowed the Bay of Pigs operation to proceed — it had been designed under the Eisenhower administration — he fired Allan Dulles, the powerful and extraordinarily well-connected CIA director, after it failed. He eventually intended to demand FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s resignation. Least known, but perhaps most important of all, he campaigned to repeal the “Oil Depletion Allowance,” a United States government handout to the oil industry that allowed capital investment in drilling or mining to be written off as a “wasting asset.”
While George H. W. Bush later developed a reputation as a moderate Republican, in 1963 he was involved in some way with each and every one of John F. Kennedy’s right-wing enemies. In vast detail, Baker makes a very strong case for three things. First, George H. W. Bush was involved with the CIA long before being named as its director in the 1970s. Second, the CIA and the Texas oil interests have always been closely intertwined. Third, the Bush family had close ties with the man who was almost certainly Lee Harvey Oswald’s CIA handler, the White Russian exile George de Mohrenschildt.
I don’t think Baker’s circumstantial case tying George H. W. Bush to the Kennedy assassination would hold up in a court of law. He is confident that “Poppy” Bush at least knew of the conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. He strongly believes that Bush also had a hand in George de Mohrenschildt’s death. In 1976, de Mohrenschildt had written a terrified letter to then CIA director Bush essentially asking him to “call off the dogs” — de Mohrenschildt had been talking more openly to journalists about Oswald and the Warren Report – but was coldly rebuffed. A year later, after Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, approached him for an interview, he blew his brains out with a shotgun. Baker suggests that it wasn’t a suicide, that a man named Jim Savage, who had ties both to the oil industry and to the Bush family, murdered de Mohrenschildt. But he never proves anything beyond a reasonable doubt, or even comes close.
Russ Baker’s frustration at the ability of the Bush family to keep their fingerprints off the Kennedy assassination, and to manipulate the “official story,” is palpable. It’s part of the reason Family of Secrets goes off the rails in the second half. Unable to make any single accusation stick, Baker piles on detail after detail. He overwhelms the reader with an avalanche of information about the Bush family’s ties, however tenuous, to almost every important event of American history after 1945.
Baker argues, for example, that Watergate was not what it seemed, that, like the Kennedy Assassination, it was a coup against an elected President. Nixon had also threatened the Oil Depletion Allowance. His account of the “Townhouse Operation,” a campaign ostensibly about raising money for Republican Senate candidates, but in reality a plan to muddy up Richard Nixon’s reputation, is fascinating. He succeeds in tying it to Texas oil money but not to George H. W. Bush. It’s fairly well-known that the Watergate burglary was intentionally amateurish, that Nixon suspected the CIA and the Cuban exile community was trying to frame him, but, once again, while Baker raises strong suspicions about George H. W. Bush, he never quite puts him at the scene of the crime.
Baker’s claims about the Bush family become so broad, yet so shallow, the book gets tedious. The more he piles on, the thinner it gets. Family of Secrets ends up as just another liberal rant about George W. Bush. It’s all familiar. George W. Bush’s National Guard service, or lack there of, was crucial to the 2004 Presidential campaign, but by this point, Baker sounds like a Daily Kos diarist circa 2005. If you want a quick, well-written introduction to the travesty that was the George W. Bush administration, the final chapters of Family of Secrets work pretty well. But we’re a long way away from the book’s intriguing first half.
Was Kennedy murdered by a nexus of the CIA, the Texas oil interests, and the Bush family? The first half of Family of Secrets proves that it’s certainly possible, even likely. The second half proves almost in spite of itself that we’ll probably never really know.
Perhaps the book’s biggest flaw is Baker’s lack of attention to what the Kennedy family thought. If, as Baker argues, the Bush family was at least partly behind it the assassination, why didn’t the Kennedys expose them. You can’t just murder the two favorite sons of a ruling class family without at least some consequences. Perhaps the Kennedys knew no more about the Bush family’s ties to the events of November of 1963 than the American people. But what if they did? What if they covered up for the Bush family and the CIA out of class loyalty, out of some sense that exposing the truth to the American people would undermine the social order? That would be the most interesting story of all.
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