Archive for the ‘World War II’ Category

Human Smoke

August 24, 2014

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Lately I have been reading Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker’s pacifist history of the beginning of World War II. Although I don’t find Baker’s main argument – that Britain might have provoked Germany into war – convincing, I find the book interesting nonetheless. Among other things it’s always good to be reminded that Roosevelt and Churchill were not the saints that are often portrayed in popular culture.

One thing that Baker makes clear is that going back to the First World War, and possibly even earlier, military planners regarded the aerial bombardment of civilian populations to be a legitimate tool of warfare. Indeed, some of them seemed to eagerly look forward to this prospect. (Churchill once expressed disappointment that World War I ended before Britain could try out its new bombers.) The idea was that bombings will break a people’s will to fight. Yet if there is one thing that we should have learned from the twentieth century, it is that bombings do not break a people’s will to fight. Britain’s bombing of Germany did not break the Germans’ will to fight, nor did Germany’s bombing of Britain break the will of the British to fight. The US’s bombing of Japan did not break the will of the Japanese to fight. The US’s bombing of North Vietnam did not break the will of the Vietnamese to fight.

And so Israel’s bombing of Gaza has not broken the will of the Gazans to fight. We seem to learn nothing from history.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

March 20, 2014

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The Criterion Collection has released a restored version of the 1943 British film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. The title refers to a recurring character in the cartoons of David Low: an elderly Army officer who spouts reactionary nonsense. This film’s main character, Gen. Clive Wynne Candy (Roger Livesy), is clearly meant to be associated with Col. Blimp.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tells, in flashback form, the life story of Gen. Clive Wynne Candy, from the Boer War to the beginning of the Second World War. In the film’s early scenes, Candy is on leave from the Boer War, where his courage has earned him a Victoria Cross. On his own initiative, Candy follows a German agent named Kaunitz to Berlin. Kaunitz has been spreading stories about British atrocities in the Boer War, inciting anti-British feeling among the Germans. Candy is determined to stop him. What makes this part of the film a bit icky is the fact that the British did commit atrocities in the Boer War. This is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the film implies that Candy is a bit self-deluded, although this is never made explicitly clear.

However, in the next section of the film, detailing Candy’s experiences during World War I, we learn that his biggest fault is actually that he is too decent. He is reluctant to resort to the ruthless measures needed to defeat the Germans. This problem continues into the Second World War, when everyone around him becomes exasperated with Candy’s niceness. Even his Prussian friend, Theo (Anton Walbrook), lectures him about the need to get tough with the Germans.

At this point, I had to begin to question this film’s honesty. It seems to be saying that the main fault of the British is that they are too nice to their enemies. I suspect that many people in India and Africa and Ireland might beg to differ about this. (No doubt, Gandhi had the British in mind when he made his famous quip about Western Civilization being “a good idea.”) Early in the war, Noël Coward recorded a “satirical” song titled Don’t Let’s Be Beastly Towards the Germans, which also argues that the British are too nice to their foes. This idea of the British being “too nice” to their enemies strikes me as a back-handed form of self-flattery. (Sort of the way we’re often told that the U.S. is “generous” towards its enemies, even though it actually isn’t.)

What the film also seems to be saying is that Col. Blimp – and by extension all the “Blimps” in England – is not really a bad person after all. (The filmmakers apparently did this with David Low’s blessing.) This is in keeping with the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric of the British government during this period.

So, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is actually wartime propaganda, albeit of a subtle and sophisticated kind. What is odd is that this film was the subject of much right-wing criticism at the time of its release. (Churchill tried to prevent the film from being made.) One of their objections seemed to be that the film contains a sympathetic German character. In the U.S. at about this time, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was harshly criticized for the same reason. War demands the dehumanization of the enemy.

This movie is gorgeously filmed. (The technicolor was lovingly restored for the DVD.) I was impressed by the high production values, considering that this was made during wartime rationing. The acting is superb. Livesy is impressive, convincingly aging over the course of the film. Deborah Kerr acts as the Eternal Feminine, playing three roles over the course of three generations. Her characters illustrate how women acquired greater personal freedom during this period.

One other thing that I found icky about this film is that the directors indicate the passage of time by filling up Candy’s house with the heads of animals that he killed while on hunting trips all over the world. At first, I thought this was meant to be satirical, but I gradually had the disturbing realization that this was something that the audience was supposed to find endearing about Candy. Ah, for the good old days when the British upper hunted species to the verge of extinction. Nostalgia can be a bitch sometimes.

Auto Focus

March 9, 2014

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I remember seeing the network premiere of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a kid. I liked the throbbing beat of the opening drum roll. I liked the sight of the POW’s rushing to get in line. I liked the haughty look of Werner Klemperer as he put a monocle to his eye under the opening credits. And then my mother turned the TV off. She was indifferent to my protests. I subsequently learned that my parents considered the show to be in bad taste – which it was. I was, however, too young to understand the concept of bad taste. Also, the fact that my parents forbade it made it attractive to me. I managed to find ways to watch it on the sly. I have to admit I found it pretty funny. Years later, though, I read in the newspaper that Bob Crane, the show’s star, had been found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona. The article noted that the police had found dozens of videotapes of Crane having sex with various women. At that moment I had the weird feeling that perhaps my parents had comprehended something that had eluded me.

One of the things I found interesting about Paul Schrader’s 2002 film, Auto Focus, is that it seemed to me to suggest that my initial response to Crane’s death was correct. The film begins in the mid-1960’s, when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was the morning disc jockey at a radio station in Los Angeles. He has ambitions of working in movies; he sees himself as another Jack Lemmon. The best his manager, Mel Rosen (Ed Begly, Jr.) can do for him, however, is get him a role in a TV comedy set in a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. Crane initially expresses reservations about this, but eventually he decides to do it. On the set of the show one day, he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sells video equipment. Carpenter takes Crane to a strip club, and he and Crane begin double dating. They start taping themselves having sex with various women. Carpenter comes across as a sordid Mephistopheles, who introduces Crane to a world of casual sex and narcissistic voyeurism. Over time, though, they gradually switch roles, with Crane becoming the dominant partner, since his status as a TV star makes it easier for him to attract women. Carpenter becomes increasingly insecure as a result of his growing reliance on Crane.

Crane’s womanizing leads to the break-up of his twenty-year marriage to Anne (Rita Wilson). Crane subsequently marries Patricia (Maria Bello), his co-star on the show. Patricia is aware of Crane’s womanizing and accepts it. After she becomes pregnant, however, she gradually changes her mind and begins demanding that Crane spend more time with her.

After six years, Hogan’ Heroes comes to an end. As often happens to actors who are in a successful TV series, Crane has trouble finding work afterwards. He ends up doing dinner theatre. When Crane tires of this, he goes to Mel Rosen for advice. Mel tells Crane he needs to change his way of living if he wants to revive his acting career. Crane decides to sever his relationship with Carpenter and tells him so. Later that night, someone enters Crane’s apartment and bludgeons him to death. The film implies that Carpenter is the murderer, though it leaves some room for doubt about this. (In real life, Carpenter was tried for Crane’s murder and was acquitted.)

The final joke of the film is that Crane carries his lack of self-awareness into the after-life. As police officers gaze at Crane’s bloody corpse, we hear Crane’s voice, presumably coming from the grave, cheerily remarking, “Men gotta have fun.” One is reminded here of Taxi Driver, which Schrader co-wrote, in which Travis Bickle remains self-deluded to the very end. According to his Wickipedia biography, Schrader was raised in the Chrisian Reformed Church, which is described as Calvinist, meaning, I suppose, that they believe in predistination. Perhaps this explains why Schrader presents us with a world in which people are not redeemed.

Hannah Arendt

March 1, 2014

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Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, deals with the writing of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ensuing controversy that it caused. The film is fictional, but it includes actual film footage of Eichmann’s trial. Arendt’s book was controversial because of its notion of the “banality of evil”, which many historians objected to (and still object to). This idea has remained in currency, however, perhaps because it doesn’t seem far-fetched to a generation that grew up under the cloud of a nuclear arms race. The book also angered people because of its criticism of Jewish Leaders in Eastern Europe during World War II.

This film is mostly sympathetic in its portrayal of Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa), but it does not portray her as flawless. She ignored pleadings that her comments about the Jewish leaders were insensitive and should be left out. (She felt she had to discuss it, because the issue came up during Eichmann’s trial.) Some of the characters accuse her of being arrogant, and the film subtly implies that there was some truth in this.

There is also a sub-plot about Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher, Heidegger, who was once her lover. This part of the film was unsatisfying because Trotta doesn’t seem to know what to say about this aspect of Arendt’s life.

Hannah Arendt is that rare type of film that deals with the life of the mind. It is also interesting portrayal of the German-Jewish emigre community in the U.S. following World War II.

Downfall

June 25, 2013

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Downfall is a 2004 German film about the final days of the Third Reich. It was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote the screenplay for The Baader-Meinhof Complex). The film mostly takes place in the bunker where Hitler(Bruno Ganz) and other members of this government are hiding out as the Soviet army surrounds Berlin.

Ganz’s performance in this film caused some controversy. Some people objected to the idea of portraying Hitler as human. This argument doesn’t make sense to me. Hitler was human. Does it make sense to portray him as a supernatural monster? Would that help us to understand what happened? Obviously not.

One thing that struck me as I watched this film was how out-of-touch with reality the German leaders seem. (Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) talks about negotiating a ceasefire with Eisenhower. He wonders whether he should give him the Nazi salute or shake his hand.) The generals talk about “loyalty to the Fuehrer”, even after he accuses them of betraying them. At the end of the film, reality finally asserts itself in the form of Russian soldiers swarming over the city.

More than any other film I’ve seen, Downfall brings home the sheer lunacy of Nazism. Children and old men are sent into battle. Civilians are shot or hanged as “traitors”. We see Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) methodically murder her own children, because, she says, “life is not worth living without National Socialism”. Some of the scenes in this film have a surreal quality to them. We see drunken officers laughing and playing cards outside Hitler’s private quarters, while their Fuehrer is planning his suicide. And we see a drunken orgy in a hotel lobby while the Russians are closing in on the city. The scene is almost like something out of Bosch.

Downfall is a great film, and arguably the best film about World War II. Watching this film, however, I kept thinking “How did people like this come to rule an entire country?” It would be interesting if someone were to make a film about how Hitler became the Fuehrer.

Hangmen Also Die

March 9, 2013

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Hangmen Also Die is an entirely fictionalized account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany. This 1943 film was directed by Fritz Lang, from a screenplay by John Wexley, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. This was the only Hollywood film that Brecht worked on for which he received an on-screen credit. Lang had originally intended to have Brecht write the screenplay, but he apparently changed his mind due to aesthetic, political, and personal differences between himself and Brecht that made it increasingly difficult for them to work together.

The film is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) has just assassinated Heydrich, and he is fleeing down a street. Mascha (Anna Lee) sees him. When the Gestapo ask her where he went, she points them in the opposite direction. Svoboda, who is hiding nearby, observes this. Desperate for a place to hide, he follows her to her home, where he manages to persuade her to take him in, even though he knows that by doing so, he is placing her and her family in danger of retaliation by the Gestapo.

Lang and Brecht did not get along well when they were working on the story for Hangmen Also Die. Brecht thought some of Lang’s story ideas were unbelievable. He complained, for example, of one scene in which Lang had the leader of the Czech resistance evade the Gestapo by hiding behind a curtain. (I found this hard to believe myself.) Yet Lang was right to reject Brecht’s idea that the mistakes of the underground “are corrected by the broad mass of the people”. Brecht’s, influence, however, can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the film’s chief villains is a Czech collaborator who is also the wealthy owner of a beer brewery. And there is some dark Brechtian humor in the moment when, in the midst of interrogating someone, a Gestapo officer pauses to squeeze a pimple on his face. (That’s something you don”t often see in Hollywood movies.)

John Wexley and Hanns Eisler (who composed the music) were both later blacklisted. Eisler was eventually deported because of his left-wing political views. Brecht left the country after being questioned by the HUAC.

Despite its contrived and melodramatic moments, Hangmen Also Die does touch upon some complex moral and political questions, such as whether terror tactics, like assassinations, are ever a good idea. In the film, the Gestapo begin carrying out random executions in retaliation for the assassination. What happened in real life was even worse. The Nazis destroyed the Czech city of Lidice, killing most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps.

Although it is not one of Lang’s best films, Hangmen Also Die is nonetheless one of the more interesting films to come out of World War II.

The Fog of War

January 6, 2013

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I just got around to watching Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. I didn’t see this film when it first came out, probably because 2003 was a busy year for me. I found it somewhat disappointing. Much of it consists of McNamara trying to justify his actions. I should have expected that, but the reviews I read led me to believe it would be much more than that. Still, the film does have some interesting moments, and it gives some insight into the way one member of the ruling class thinks. I don’t think this is a minor thing. I think that perhaps the reason so many people on the Left are suckers for crackpot conspiracy theories is that they don’t have much understanding of how the ruling class thinks.

The film begins with McNamara, who is shown in tight close-ups most of the time, discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara repeatedly points out the U.S. and the Soviet Union came extremely close to a nuclear war. McNamara uses his account of the crisis to illustrate one of the “eleven lessons” he talks about in the course of The Fog of War; in this case, “empathize with your enemy”. McNamara tells how a diplomat named Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev well, persuaded a skeptical Kennedy that the Soviet premier would be willing to cut a deal over Cuba, which turned out to be the case. This raises the question of why there was a crisis at all, though, unfortunately, Morris doesn’t ask this question. McNamara also uses this incident to illustrate another one of his “lessons”: “rationality will not save us”. McNamara insists that the governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Cuba all behaved in a “rational” manner, even though they brought their countries to the brink of nuclear annihilation. So, if this is rationality, then what is irrationality? And if rationality will not save us, then what will? Morris doesn’t ask, and McNamara doesn’t say.

The Fog of War then goes into a discussion of McNamara’s early years. During the Second World War, he served as an analyst for the Army Air Corps. Under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people. This leads to the film’s most startling moment: McNamara frankly states that he and Gen. LeMay were war criminals. Still, he expresses no regrets about what he did.

The largest section of the film is devoted to the Vietnam War. McNamara doesn’t say much about the strategic justification for the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam; he seems to consider this to be self-evident. McNamara admits that there was some confusion over what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; nevertheless, he and President Johnson used it as justification to launch an intensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. McNamara also gives a discussion in which he tries to distance himself from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. To illustrate his “lesson” of “empathize with your enemy”, McNamara talks about how years after the war he met the former foreign minister of North Vietnam. McNamara says he was surprised to learn from this man that his government viewed the U.S. as a foreign colonial power trying to take control of their country. Reall? It never occurred to McNamara that the Vietnamese might view the U.S. in this way? If McNamara was being honest here, then he was every bit as self-deluded as the people who led us into the Iraq War. (It so happens that this film was released the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)

McNamara casually discusses the deaths of millions of people, yet he gets choked up when he recounts how he helped pick out the grave-site for John F. Kennedy. One is reminded here of Stalin’s dictum: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t think it is a stretch for me to say that McNamara had some of Stalin’s bureaucratic mind-set.

Another of McNamara’s “lessons” is “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”. One wonders if McNamara ever questioned whether what he was trying to do was actually good.

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

The Master

October 1, 2012

Scientology was a logical product of post-World War II America. In a society flush with an extraordinary military victory and enjoying an unprecedented economic prosperity, it seemed inconceivable to anyone that there could be any excuse for not being prosperous and happy. It was not unreasonable then for people to look for the solutions to their problems inside themselves. Psychoanalysis enjoyed its greatest popularity in the U.S. during this period. Scientology, with its roots in pulp fiction (Hubbard was sometimes called the “King of the Pulps”), was a sort of pop culture Freudianism, albeit with religious overtones that were understandable to Americans who had been exposed to evangelical Christianity.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film has a character who is obviously modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, although Anderson insists that the film is not actually about Scientology. Fred Qwell (Joaquin Phoezix) is a World War II veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (In those days, it was called “combat fatigue”.) He is severely alcoholic, and he is unable to hold down a job. One night, hungry and desperate, he stows away aboard a yacht on which a party is taking place. When people on the yacht discover him, they treat him kindly. They take him to the yacht’s “commander”, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd takes a liking to Qwell, and he begins to treat Qwell as though he were another one of his guests. We learn that Dodd is the leader of a movement known as The Cause. He has developed a form of analysis that he believes can make people achieve happiness and ultimately solve all of mankind’s problems It becomes clear to the viewer that Dodd is suffering from megalomania, but Qwell finds him charming, likable, and impressive. Dodd uses Qwell as a test-subject for his theories. Qwell develops a strong emotional attachment to Dodd, so much so that he sometimes physically assaults people who criticize “The Master”. The film subtly suggests that Dodd, for his part, develops a psychic dependence on the fiercely loyal Qwell.

When I went to see The Master, I was under the impression that it was going to be mainly about Dodd. The advertising seems to indicate that. In fact, it turns out to be essentially about Qwell and his efforts to make sense out of the world. I’m afraid some people may find it disappointing for that reason. However, I found it fascinating to watch and emotionally compelling. Hoffman’s performance is amazing. This is the best American film I have seen so far this year.

Signs of Life

July 29, 2012

Werner Herzog’s first feature film, shot in black and white in 1968, deals with themes that were to reoccur throughout his later works. Signs of Life is set during World War II. Stroszek (Peter Brogle) is a German soldier who is severely wounded in an attack by partisans on the island of Crete. To give him a chance to recuperate, his officers transfer him to the small island of Kos. There he is stationed at a Venetian fort that was built in the fourteenth century, where an ammunition dump is now kept. It is on a hill overlooking a town below. He is accompanied by his Greek wife, Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) and by two other solders, Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann) and Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg). Meinhard is obsessed with killing cockroashes, while Becker is fascinated by the ancient Greek tablets that the Venetians embedded along with the stones in the fort’s walls. They find various ways to try to deal with the heat, isolation, and boredom of the place, such as building fireworks.

Strozsek is deeply unhappy in this place, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. One day he goes into town and asks the commanding officer of the island to send him out on patrol, just so he can have something to do. The officer agrees. The next day, Stroszek and Meinhard go on patrol. They come across a valley that has windmills in it. Stroszek has a sort of breakdown at this point, but Meinhard eventually brings him to his senses. The next day, Stroszek learns that Meinhard has reported the incident to their superiors. He goes berserk, and he chases the others out of the fort with a rifle. He then begins shooting at the town below. A delegarion of solders, along with Nora, cautiously approach the fort to try to reason with Strozsek. He tells them that he is now “alive”, and that if they try to capture him, he will blow up the ammunition dump, which would destroy the town. The town is evacuated, and an uneasy stand-off ensues. From time to time, Stroszek sets off some of the fireworks that he and the others made. One night, while he is doing this, some soldiers sneak into the fort and overpower him. They take him away to a hospital. At the end a voice-over tells us: “thus it always ends with people of his kind.”

A recurring theme in Herzo’s films is the world’s indifference to the fate of the individual. In an early scene in Signs of Life, the camera moves through a narrow winding street on Crete. It suddenly comes out on a broad street running along the ocean. We see people moving around in the far distance. The camera suddenly pans over to two dead German soldiers lying on the ground, presumably killed by partisans. After a moment, the camera pans back to the scene in the distance and lingers on it. The deaths of these two men mean nothing to the world at large.

In one scene, a gypsy gives Stroszek a small wooden owl figurine. Its eyes and ears move. Determined to find out how this is possible, Stroszek finds that there is a fly trapped inside the figurine. This foreshadows Storszek’s won fate. After he rebels, we only see Stroszek in long shots. He looks like an insect while making his way around the huge fortress. He is trapped like the fly in the figurine. His attempt to liberate himself from the boredom and routine of his life has only puts him in another kind of prison.

Herzog’s grim fatalism doesn’t offer us much hope, but the breadth and originality of his work make him one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.