World War II in Europe had come to a horrible end. The ashes of homes, roads, and people covered a once lush countryside of an epoch healing within the bruised and blushing scars of WWI. Survivors faced an unimaginable future in 1945. According to historian Eric Brose, “the infrastructure of an entire continent – roads, railroad tracks, tunnels, train stations, bridges, port facilities, and airports – lay in ruins” (Brose, 267). The casualties were beyond imagination, and among the maimed and broken soldiers, the women murderously raped and rapid suicide following wars end, Europe peered into the same mirror Elie Weasel once did after the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, and watched the reflection of a disfigured corpse crying out for retribution, contemplation, and atonement. Europe was torn apart and reassembled according to new existential principles. In the years following 1945, Europe’s old consciousness was forced to occupy a new paradigm and marched unsteadily from post war malaise, through the Cold War and the atomic age, and terrorism. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we will peer into the mirror ourselves and ascertain how postwar Europe’s displaced, suppressed, and reshaped reassembly was sadly unsuccessful. But we’re talking nearly sixty years of history here! How could we possibly cover so much time and so much history in is meager blog? Simple, we can’t. Instead, we’ll cover the evolution or devolution (depending on how you interpret events) in each decades most predominate historic theme.
The beginning in the end…1945:
In the autumn of 1944, Käthe Kollwitz, a preeminent German sculptress who had attempted to convey the bitterness and helplessness felt during the post war years following World War I, lamented regarding the resurgent bestial realities of the new age when she said, “I am dying in this faith [in humanity]. People will have to work hard for that new state of things, but they will achieve it” (Brose, 266.) Kollwitz held out, despite the unimaginable devastation, “the life of the world might move forward” (266), that somehow the dignities of the individual could be elevated above the authority of the state, that people would avoid mechanized-obedience and become ethical, moral creatures, concerned with the suffering of others. However, in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, the political landscape darkened once again and old motifs, such as: Nazism and Fascism will prove hard to eradicate. According to historian Eric Brose, with communism sweeping into Eastern Europe uninvited, “Understanding reality and coping with life’s dilemmas became even more difficult as the Grand Alliance came apart along ideological seams and the far more frightening image of atomic Armageddon appeared on the horizon” (Brose, 267). In the midst of the atom, Europe picked the pieces of her crumbled and fractured landscape.
In the aftermath of 1945, as displaced people huddled together in Red Cross camps, dreaming for the return of normalcy, Europe struggled in understanding the causality of WWII and the Holocaust. In doing so, Europe reassembled according to new existential philosophical principles in the growing shadow of countless mass graves and post war malaise. According to Brose, philosophers and the great thinkers of the post war age, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, struggled to understand the “authentic state of being.” Basically, these thinkers were motivated in answering the question of war, why it happened, again, and why the Holocaust happened in a modern society by understanding the reality of a hostile and threatening world and the complexity of human problems and moral dilemmas. These “existentialists” urged that “individuals controlled their own density by the choices they made” (Brose, 268). The pursuit is understandable, but the determinations, I think, are harder to grasp, especially for those of us who never experienced Europe at war, and the generations that did are rapidly fading from memory. To help future generations understand the determinations those existentialist thinkers were searching for we can look at the films of the era these dilemmas were actually being grappled with, which is the struggle between existentialism and the pessimistic and optimistic qualia of human nature. In films, such as, The Bicycle Thief (1948), audiences confronted the existentialist understanding of á priori morality, the existence of a self-evident moral, law-abiding society where certain values are taken seriously (Goldstein, 489), juxtaposed with the grim images of grisly, ruined lives; thus becoming an issue between morality verses reality.
Furthermore, consider the evolving relationship between father and son in The Bicycle Thief, during which the father obsesses to find his stolen bicycle, an important symbol of individuality during an era of overcrowded cities. In the pursuit to regain his independence, the father’s relationship with his son changes drastically throughout each episode. Before the bicycle was stolen, when the father’s individuality was intact, smiles abounded, the mood was carefree and light, and there was purpose despite the apparent dirtiness of the city and the chaotic state of employment. With the bicycle, the family dynamic seems normal and fluid; when the bicycle is stolen, and when the father loses his chaotic pursuit, outnumbered by the thieves, outnumbered by the protective neighborhood, outnumbered by an unsympathetic police presence, outnumbered by the disassembled bicycle parts at the market, the same family dynamic and their dreams for a better life become swallowed whole into the faceless sea of the crowd. The Bicycle Thief tares apart and reassembles existential principles in the reality that the individual cannot overcome the larger nature of society where in desperate situations people will act accordingly to desperation. A society in which individuality as become faceless in the overcrowded cities; where the human connection with each other has become twisted and malformed.
The loss of individuality and community were at the epicenter during Europe’s progression toward reconstruction. It was the ambiguous care of refugees in displacement camps, where Jewish and non-Jewish survivors, laborers, and German nationalists who fled the Red Army in Eastern Europe, who converged together in a cesspool of disillusionment and desperation, and although Allied forces worked diligently to provide the necessities of life for the uprooted souls that numbered in the millions, who had “no alternative but to remain day after day” (Perry, 273), the remnant of “death, physical injury, loss of human dignity, and material destruction left most Europeans bereft of energy for anything other than piecing their lives back together” (Perry, 269). It was during this period when Germany faced criminal and moral guilt for justification and/or rationalization regarding the commission of the Final Solution and other atrocities of war as simple acts of patriotism (Brose, 274). This is the backdrop where the precarious geopolitical differences between the Soviet Union and the United States collided. When Hitler’s crumbing house finally fell in the early spring hours of May 1945, as German High Command, General Alfred Jodl, surrendered unconditionally, the need arose within the Allied ranks to push German political, diplomatic, military, and industrial leaders toward a nationwide effort of denazification, disarmament, and democratization. According to historian Brose, the first step in this program was to “somehow [deal with] Nazi War criminals [and] to set a postwar example of rule of law” (Brose, 282). However, despite all the overall agreement to bring justice to Nazi leadership for “war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity,” the continuity of chaos proved divisive between the United States and the Soviets. While the Americans wanted an international law against future acts of aggression, which had already been established in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, the Soviets hesitated to condemn aggression as an initiation of war (as their own government was born from “aggressive liberation” during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917).
Nevertheless, the Nuremberg Trials began in November 1945. The first docket showcased twenty-two Nazis considered to be “top level defendants,” including: Hermann Goering, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Julius Streicher, and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Brose, 283). Among the cohorts there remained an empty seat reserved for Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private sectary. Bormann made an excellent candidate for the first round of executions for his part as a major player in the collaboration of the mass murder of millions; however, Bormann had been mysteriously disappeared after his May 1945 escape from the Fuhrerbunker in his attempt to evade the approaching Red Army. The Bormann myth has been queerly popular in the decades following the Nuremberg Trials. Told like a monster story, various and conflicting sightings across the globe were reported, adding to a strange and abundant fascination with the at-large war criminal motif. At-large Nazi fascination reflects, in a way, an innate desire to separate oneself from the actions of perpetrators. As if to say, the monster is out there in the unknown, an unordinary entity, and as such, controlled by an unordinary fate. However, in the late 1990’s, scientists tested and confirmed the DNA of skeletal remains discovered at the bottom of a mass grave in Berlin in 1972. It was Martin Bormann, who committed suicide mere hours after leaving the Fuhrerbunker, unable to escape the chaotic streets of a crumbling Berlin; a banal and uninteresting demise for such a wildly popular myth. In the end, the Nuremberg Trials witnessed the execution of 486 Nazi perpetrators, a majority of which was hanged.
The Atomic Age and Cold War Malaise 1950’s-60’s:
The Cold War had effectually swung in from the gallows of Nazi perpetrators, ushering in a new paradigm with the old consciousness torn out from the nerve steam of Fascist ideology, grinded and reassembled into a grotesque machination of something that once was. There is no other movie that recants this strange new creature other than Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). Considered by many film historians and critics to be Stanly Kubrick’s best work, Dr. Strangelove provokes “laughter through tears” in a nightmare comedy designed to stir a response toward nuclear strategy and weapons (Maland, 190). According to historian Charles Maland, the “American consensus to which Dr. Strangelove responds was rooted in the late 1930’s and in the war years [when] Americans began to feel more threated by the rise of foreign totalitarianism” (Maland, 190). The paradigm of fear was solidified after the Axis defeat during WWII and the “economic prosperity fostered by the war [effort]” (Maland, 191). Dr. Strangelove shows us a world unaware of this continued paradigm dominating the American “social and political life through the early 1960’s” (191) using dark comedy in a dramatic world that no longer made sense. Kubrick describes making Dr. Strangelove during an interview in 1970, he stated:
“It occurred to me I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy, or better, a nightmare comedy, where the thing you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible” (Maland, 196-197).
According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove utilizes nightmare comedy as a method of satire to expose four dimensions of the Cold War consensus: “anti-Communist paranoia, the culture’s inability to realize the enormity of nuclear war, various nuclear strategies, and the blind faith modern man places in technological progress” (Maland, 198).
The comedic use for illustrating technological mishaps of a nation can be somewhat disturbing, if not entirely revealing. Consider the scene in Dr. Strangelove where the distraught American President Muffley attempts to call Soviet leader Kissov and the back and forth parodical small talk is mixed in with talk of a renegade American B-52 inbound for the Soviet Union to unload its cargo, the bomb. According to Maland, Dr. Strangelove challenges the fundamental assumption of the fear paradigm, where the nearsighted nationality “[and] human death instinct leads man first to create machines, then to use them for destroying human life” (Maland, 205). Kubrick prods a contemplative stance on technological marvels: has technological means surpassed the bounds of human rationality and morality? Though Dr. Strangelove does not suggest that Soviet leaders are any better, it does, however, suggest that perhaps “no nation-state has a monopoly on foolishness and that the backstage strategies of military and political leaders are simply exercises in paranoia” (Maland, 206). But what does this say of Dr. Strangelove himself, the man who the film is named after? Dr. Strangelove doesn’t say much during the movie, not until the end at least, but his character is carefully crafted and shaped to represent the grotesque surviving mannequin of fascism. When Dr. Strangelove speaks his poorly hidden German accent comes through and becomes more obvious the closer the bomb is to being launched. Dr. Strangelove’s broken and crippled body moves sporadically in quick violent jerks as he attempts to contain something bubbling within. And when the bomb becomes inevitable, Dr. Strangelove bolts his arm upward, eerily reminiscent of the Sieg Heil (German hail to victory) salute.
The character Dr. Strangelove represents the monster once thought destroyed, a fascist creature devoid of feeling, horribly cold, and calculating (Maland, 202-203); the film Dr. Strangelove gives voice to Käthe Kollwitz’s 1944 lament, that though people would have to work hard, a better state can be achieved. Kubrick’s astonishing work, Dr. Strangelove, evokes her passion for a resurgence of social justice and social awareness in a society that has embraced, if not utterly conformed to the paranoia enabled by the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, and the growing discontent of the late 1950’s, a decade plagued by othering, a symptom indicative to the historical context that spawned, according to historian Konrad Klejsa, “[the] impulse which led to the decision to start developing an atomic bomb [in the first place]” (Klejsa, 438). However, Kubrick also begs the question: do people want to work to achieve a better state or what is the better state? By 1968, it was becoming apparent that denazification could not shake the old ghost of National Socialism. The voices of those maimed by the machinations of war were becoming extinguished in the great wind of militant indifference toward world destruction, the bomb, nuclear holocaust. This disconnection really shows the disenchantment and horrible calamity of the era.
Europe’s Uncertainty during the 1970’s:
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: Or How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead, is the story of a young woman who is scrutinized and harassed by police and tabloid (sleaze) press after she spends the night with a suspected terrorist. Film historian Jack Zipes begs the question regarding the political reality and repression in the Federal Republic of Germany (Bunderrepublik) during the 1970′s using both the film and novelization of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. Zipes first illuminates the reality in which these two depictions are attempting to criticize. According to Zipes, the reality of theBunderrepublik of 1972-75 is “on one level the entire history of the student movement or extra-parliamentary opposition [which] provides the subject matter of the novel and film” (Zipes, 75). Basically, the history these two forms of the same story attempt to bring to light depictions of social political attitudes and conditions regarding the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the SPD uber-conservative government (75). The political situation in Germany seems to be volatile during this period, especially due to the actions of a few militant terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Group, aka the infamous RAF. Because of the actions of the few, according to Zipes, the conservative forces of the German state and mass media made it appear as if the entirety of the “Left,” the progressive forces of the Bunderrepublik were associated with terrorism. An incredible swing on the American-esk McCarthy pendulum, ushering never-ending witch-hunt bonfires stacked with the stench of 800,000 progresses and reformers who were no longer fit the state’s “legitimate” government program (76).
According to historian Zipes, Heinrich Böll’s writings are concerned with gross human rights violations and origins of violence (77). The novelization of the story, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, for better or worse, urges for the reformation of mass media, of the press, radio, and TV. Considering Zipes interpretation of the novel, a strange dual world emerges where the fictional narrative is more truthful than the non-fictional reports carried out by the corrupted mass media. Though, according to Zipes, Böll does not create a perfect explanation of the “socio-political dynamic of violence in the Bunderrepublik” (78); however, it nevertheless a straightforward participatory revelation of a moralist’s case for political resistance (79). In Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of Böll’s novel, Zipes mentions a more distinguishable focus on a cohesive left movement that was nearly nonexistent in the novel (81). According to Zipes, director Schlöndorff “focuses [his film] on the power relations in the case of Katharina Blum in order to facilitate the viewer’s comprehension of how the police and mass media conspire to victimize private citizens” (81). Basically, where Böll focused on the power in the use of words, Schlöndorff gives greater attention to the unfolding of human drama in the interpersonal relationships of his characters. And while the film is somewhat of a bore, the character development and the unshackling of Katharina toward the end is an important conceptualization of the possible effects of extreme othering and incredible swings on the pendulum.
Moving into a new era (1990’s-2002):
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1994 seemed like a sunbeam cast on a dreary landscape haunted by ghosts and monsters for nearly a hundred years. However, throughout the post-WWII years, with the stream of immigrants coming into Europe, old animosities and ideologies resurfaced (Brose, 457). As the iron curtain fell over Moscow, once restricted communities were once again able to move toward the “imagined good life in the West, and labor shortages soon [followed] giving way to sluggish [economic] growth and high hovering unemployment after the 1970’s” (Brose, 457). During the 90’s, the European Union sought to make labor movement within Europe easier, whilst simultaneously making immigration stricter. In 1995, Jacques Chirac stated a common sentiment among Europeans, “France cannot accept all the wretched of the earth” (Brose, 457). In Germany, the ressentiment against “outsiders” seems even more staggering considering their contextual history, with, according to Brose, “10,037 hate crimes” committed in 1999. After a century of othering, it would seem old motifs have survived for the dawn of the 21st century.
In the film, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), director Gurinder Chadha tackles the growing issue with xenophobia in a post 9/11 world, where, according to historian Brose, terrorist attacks “ushered in a period of intense cooperation on security and defense between Europe and the United States” (Brose, 459), which in no small way exasperated tensions between migration and emigration. Throughout the film, dual characters Jess, an orthodox Sikh, and Jules, a seemingly average white female Brit, deal in similar situations that confront the complex limitations of society. Gurinder Chadha’s film, much like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, also calls back to the 1944 lament of Käthe Kollwitz, as Jules and Jess challenge multicultural barriers that surround them in their place in 21st century history. The best illustration for this positive call for change can be seen in the final montage sequence in Bend It Like Beckham, after Jess’ father tells her to fight boundaries, but simultaneously is unaccepting of Jess’ love interest with couch Joe, an Irishman. Demonstrating with each boundary overcome, there are still more boundaries to cross. The final breakdown at the close of the film shows Jess and Jules “spotting” famed soccer player David Beckham at the airport, representing the resurgence of Englishism, followed by Jess’ sister’s pregnancy, representing family and tradition, and followed at the end with Jess’ father playing lacrosse with Joe. The finality of the film gives audiences the impression that there doesn’t need to be a stereotype “British,” or “American,” or “German,” culture, but that a melody of multiculturalism could work. As we look back at the close of the 20th century, we can see evidence of the failure of accepting the other; however, the 21st century is still in front of us.
The mirror Elie Weasel peered into after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, when we saw himself as this ghostly apparition, a reflection completely unfamiliar to him, his body tortured by all he suffered during the Holocaust, we too must beg the question of our own reflections and the reflections made in history. The physicality of Europe was in no small way torn asunder. But when Europe was reassembled according to new existential principles, was she born again or was she tragically the same entity forced to occupy a new paradigm, a sown monster marching rigidly from post war malaise, through the Cold War, into the atomic age, and eventually facing new forms of terrorism and xenophobia. In the popular and controversial films of Post-WWII Europe, such as: The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), and the particular history each film reveals, we witnessed the continuity of old ideologies that originally gave birth to the maiming machines of war that gnarled a post WWI generation whose voices had been extinguished in the great wind of Russian Revolution, the complete and utter failure of the Weimar Republic, the rise and fall of the Nazis and ultimately the horrific revelation of the Holocaust. The history archived in films, such as: Battleship Potemkin (1925), M (1931), and Jud Süss (1940), along with novels like, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), demonstrate the progression of chaos in Europe, while films like, The Bicycle Thief (1948), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) demonstrates, sadly, how the fabric of fascism and extreme othering were simply ripped from one body and sown onto another. For the most, this was a 20th century history; what can be said of the 21st? Will the monster continue to terrorize the countryside? Or can we hold out for hope, as Käthe Kollwitz once did, and “believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” (Anne Frank, 1944)?