Friday, October 17, 2014

T. S. Eliot and the Zombie Apocalypse: On Abel Gance’s J’accuse

French director Abel Gance was perhaps the first European filmmaker to create movies on the epic scale achieved by D. W. Griffith in films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  The Americans had the advantage over their European counterparts in that their country had not been devastated by the First World War, which had consumed Europe just as epic cinema was coming into existence.  It is perhaps not surprising then that the first European film to employ this similarly epic approach, Gance’s J’accuse (1919), took WWI as its theme.  J’accuse tells two stories, really: the first, a melodramatic love triangle involving two men and their love for the same woman; the second, a harrowing and remarkably realistic depiction of the experiences of those two men fighting on the Western front.  J’accuse pioneered the use of location shooting: much of its war scenes were filmed directly on the recently vacated battlefields of WWI and, in some cases, while the war was still in progress, thusly blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
Now, there are several aspects of this film that I’d like to touch on.  First, J’accuse grapples with an issue that would confront David Lean decades later during the production of Dr. Zhivago: how does one depict a poet on the screen? How do we “show” poetry? Is it enough to just have the poet read his or her poetry, or is there some aspect of filmic language that can present a poetic worldview?  The hero of J’accuse, the virtuous Jean Diaz, is a poet, and Gance’s treatment of his poetry is quite beautiful.  Near the beginning of the film, Jean recites a poem called “Ode to the Sun,” and rather than presenting the words in the intertitles, Gance presents us with a series of beautiful images of the sun, reflecting in calm oceanic water, rippling across a rushing stream, and warming a grassy field.  Jean’s words are thusly alchemically transmuted into pure imagery.
Later in the film, when Jean’s soul has been destroyed by war, he returns to his “Ode to the Sun” and rereads it, and this time Gance accompanies the tranquil images of happier times with the actual words of the poem onscreen.   And it serves as a devastating contrast to the realities that Jean has confronted in battle; as far as Jean is concerned now, the words of the poem, and the beautiful images that they create, are lies.  As one of the intertitles tells us, the “soldier in him destroyed the poet.”
Shifting our focus a bit here, I want to discuss the climax of the film, which is as memorable as anything you’ll ever see in cinema.  A deranged Jean, having returned to his hometown in Provence, becomes obsessed with the idea that the survivors must render an account of their conduct to the war dead.  This is part of where the title, J’accuse—“I accuse”—comes into play.  Jean accuses the survivors, be they civilians or fellow soldiers.  In fact, he accuses all of France, and the entire world order, for the irrevocable slaughter that has been perpetrated.  Now, the phrase “j’accuse” would have deep associations in France; it is the title of the polemic with which Emile Zola reopened the Dreyfus Affair which tore apart French society in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.  J’accuse is the refrain of the just, venting their spleen on all the corruption and malignity hidden beneath the façade of polite society.

So Jean levels his “j’accuse” at the survivors and summons up the dead as his witnesses.  And, casting all pretense of realism aside, the dead awaken.  We see a field of wooden crosses scattered across a battlefield fade from view, supplanted by the bodies they rest upon.  And the bodies rise up, a veritable army of the dead, and flood into town to confront the living.  One is reminded of the climactic scene in Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, where the militants, faced with surrender or fighting to the death, consider the latter option because they have to somehow justify themselves to their comrades whom they’ve murdered or driven to suicide.  Europe found itself facing the same conundrum after WWI.  How could they justify themselves to the millions of young men they’d sacrificed to Moloch?  I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think Gance really did either as, in his film, the dead are quickly contented by the sight of their loved ones and return to their graves, while the living are left to ponder whether what has just passed is a dream or a hallucination.

This image of the war dead as a surging crowd is best conjured up by T. S. Eliot in one of the most memorable passages of
The Waste Land: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” In the event of a zombie apocalypse, perhaps the risk is not that they’ll eat out brains; perhaps the real risk is that they’ll judge us.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Rendered in Woodblock Prints: On Masahiro Shinoda’s The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan

*spoiler warning*
The vast majority of uprisings throughout history have gone down to ignominious defeat.  From the revolt of Oshio Heihachiro against the Tokugawa regime in 1837 to the Japanese student protests of the late 1960’s, this has been true of modern Japanese history (I say “the vast majority,” not “all,” mind you; the Meiji revolt was certainly successful).  But in many cases it’s the gesture of revolt that counts more than its efficacy.  This is the argument advanced in Ivan Morris’s book The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan.  He wrote it in the wake of his friend Yukio Mishima’s quixotic “coup attempt” and subsequent ritual suicide in 1970.  This same year saw the release of Masahiro Shinoda’s carnivalesque study of the futility of revolution, The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan.
Masahiro Shinoda rose to fame with the Japanese New Wave in the early 1960’s and his prolific and varied output included noir, domestic dramas, rebellious youth movies, and period pieces (jidaegeki), including Assassination (1964) and Samurai Spy (1965), which have to be some of the most convoluted samurai movies ever made.  But by the time 1970 rolled around, the Japanese movie landscape was beginning to change dramatically, with the old studios going bankrupt (Daiei) or shifting to increasingly pornographic fare (Nikkatsu).  A lot of the other Japanese New Wavers were either turning to documentary (like Oshima and Imamura) or drifting out of the industry (like poor Seijun Suzuki, who was fired by Nikkatsu in 1967 and subsequently blacklisted for the next ten years).  Shinoda was one of the few filmmakers of his generation to keep up a more or less uninterrupted output of increasingly strange films through the 1970’s, which saw him eventually turning to an exploration of folk and mythological subjects in bizarre films like Himiko (1974) and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975).
So The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan comes at what is in many respects a transitional period for Shinoda; the same can be said of Japanese cinema and Japanese society, where the radical left was more or less defeated and a capitalist consensus settled into place.  Buraikan reflects many of these tensions and transformations.  The film is set in decadent late-Edo Japan, where Mizuno, a high-ranking administrator with a moralistic streak, has set out to reform society through a series of puritanical laws banning: prostitution, fireworks, most forms of theater, flamboyant dress, etc.  The various entertainers and denizens of the pleasure quarters find themselves out of a job and, as one of them puts it, “What’s the point of being alive if we can’t do what we want?” A revolutionary atmosphere begins to obtain in Edo (as Tokyo was called at them time) and it draws together a ragtag group of unlikely insurgents (as tends to be the case under these circumstances): Naojiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), a would-be actor with a meddlesome mother who keeps coming between him and the prostitute he loves; Kaneko, an assassin/psychopathic killing machine who wishes to murder all those in power; Ushimatsu, a poor painter whose wife has killed herself and whose son has been sold to an itinerant acting troop; and Kochiyama, a high-ranking government official who wishes to harness the power of the discontented masses to unseat Mizuno and restore theaters and prostitution to the people of Japan.
Of these diverse figures, Naijiro seems the most emblematic of the hedonistic spirit of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.  Largely apolitical, he joins the conspiracies of the revolutionaries for fun and because it gives him a larger stage than he can secure for himself in the theatrical world (where there seems to be no place for him; he’s not a professional actor, he’s a dilettante).  In his domestic life, his sole concern is his own pleasure, and so he abuses his mother when she harasses him about his conduct.  When his frustration with her reaches the breaking point, he literally picks her up and hurls her off a cliff into the Sumida river (she gets rescued and comes back to bicker with him some more).  As the movie reaches its climax, Naijiro has left his revolutionary friends to spend time with his prostitute lover and as the insurgents are slaughtered, he picks up his mother to throw her off a cliff again.  Because these things are cyclical, and the rising up and rising down (as William T. Vollmann would phrase it) of popular violence is just as inevitable as the changing of the seasons or Naijiro attempting to kill his mother.  In the background, the local coffin-maker continues to hammer away at a product always in demand.

Post-script: As far as I can tell, nobody in this movie is named Buraikan.  So I have no idea where the title comes from or what it’s supposed to mean.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Soldiers in the Land of the Buddha: Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp

As a person who enjoys classifying people and things, I am always happy to place filmmakers within specific categories and movements.  In the Japanese context, there are the Golden Age directors (stretching from the thirties through the late fifties/early sixties): these are filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi.  Then there are the members of the Japanese New Wave (the Nuberu Bagu) of the early sixties: Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Yoshishige Yoshida.  But there are certain filmmakers who fall somewhere in between these neat categorizations: filmmakers like Masaki Kobayashi and the subject of today’s post, Kon Ichikawa.  Too late on the scene to belong fully to the Golden Age (in my more or less arbitrary definition, a Golden Ager has to have begun making films before or at least during WWII) but maintaining too much of the technique and the aesthetic of the Golden Age to qualify as New Wave, Ichikawa and the filmmakers of his generation occupy a transitional period in Japanese cinema.
Ichikawa, like many Japanese filmmakers, is unfortunately only spottily represented on DVD in the United States.  Criterion has released two of his WWII films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain (more on these presently), Tokyo Olympiad, a well-regarded documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which now appears to be out of print, and The Makioka Sisters, an adaptation of the Tanizaki novel of the same name.  Criterion has also made available on Hulu Odd Obsession—another Tanizaki adaptation, this time of his late novel The Key, which hints at the more explicit sexual concerns of the New Wave—It Isn’t Easy Being Two, a film about early childhood, and Princess from the Moon, which, as far as I can tell, narrates a Close Encounters-style version of the classic Japanese tale of “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter.” I haven’t seen these last two because they don’t appeal to me, I haven’t seen The Makioka Sisters because I want to read the novel first, and I haven’t seen Tokyo Olympiad because I can’t find it.  This means that my entire experience of Ichikawa’s cinema is confined to The Burmese Harp, Odd Obsession, and Fires on the Plain.
In his prime—the late fifties and early sixties—Ichikawa’s films were all scripted by his wife, Natto Wada, who became disillusioned with Japanese cinema in 1965 and retired, allegedly triggering a marked decline in the quality of Ichikawa’s films.  However, in 1956, when The Burmese Harp was released, the Ichikawa-Wada partnership was still going strong and the result is one of the most enigmatic war movies you’re ever likely to see.  Set in Burma at the end of WWII, the film depicts a close-knit Japanese army unit as they surrender to British forces.  The unit’s captain is a musician and he’s turned his force into a choir and they frequently raise morale by joining together in song, all to the accompaniment of the titular Burmese harp, played by a soldier named Mizushima.  For reference purposes, a Burmese harp looks like this:

Upon discovering that Japan has surrendered, Mizushima’s unit promptly surrenders as well.  However, there is another Japanese army unit nearby holed up in the mountains and intent on fighting to the death.  The British send Mizushima, armed only with his harp, to try to negotiate the surrender of the hold-outs, while the rest of his unit is sent down south to an internment camp.  Now, one of the striking things about this movie is how little we really know about our Japanese protagonists.  We have no idea what their experience of the war has been like prior to the opening of the film.  How long have they been in Burma?  Have they been in other theaters? What horrible things have they seen?  What horrible things have the y done? This all remains a mystery.  But what happens next to Mizushima, regardless of whatever came before, is a psychic catastrophe.  Because Mizushima fails to convince the Japanese hold-outs to surrender, and they are promptly massacred by the British, their bodies left to rot.  Mizushima, injured but alive, is discovered by a Burmese monk, who nurses him back to health; Mizushima repays him by stealing his robes.  He shaves his head and wanders the land as a mendicant monk.  His initial intention is just to head south to rejoin his unit in captivity, but as he travels, he is repeatedly confronted by the unburied, decomposing bodies of Japanese soldiers, and they exert a strange spell on him, and he finds himself unable to rejoin his comrades.
Now, the exact nature of Mizushima’s problem is left unclear for most of the movie.  But he seems to have been cast in the role of an everyman confronted with the violence of historical forces beyond his control.  And, one drop of water in a sea of human suffering though he may be, he takes it upon himself to try to restore peace to the world, or at least to the little patch of Burma where he finds himself.  One is reminded of the naïve/idiot character played by Jim Caviezel in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line who, in an unlikely poetic outburst, asks, “What is this war within nature? Why must the land contend with the sea? [etc., etc., typical Malick pseudo-philosphy.]” But Mizushima is asking the same questions and Ichikawa’s film is similar to Malick’s in that it places its human drama within a broader landscape of great natural beauty (although they’re both tropical, Burma possesses an austerity lacking in the unimpeded fecundity of Guadalcanal).

The Burmese Harp
climaxes with Mizushima asking why such suffering has to exist in the world and concluding that it is not for humans to know the answers to such questions, but merely to do their best to alleviate that suffering.  And this is where they lose me.  Because the suffering experienced by millions upon millions of people in the Second World War was not inexplicable; it was the product of concrete, readily understandable historical processes; first and foremost—in the Asia-Pacific theater—the rise of Japanese militarism and imperialism.  To ascribe the war to unknowable mystical forces is a cop-out and it undermines the deeply felt humaneness that animates much of Ichikawa’s film.  There is great compassion and even optimism on display here, in marked contrast to Fires on the Plain (1959), an unrelenting nightmare about the few survivors of a Japanese army unit trying hopelessly to evacuate from a Filipino island while being picked off by unseen American forces and ravaged by starvation.  In The Burmese Harp, Mizushima’s comrades want to survive the war in part so that they can return home and rebuild Japan.  In Fires on the Plain, nobody is thinking that far ahead.  There will be no recourse to mysticism in this film, nor will there we be any trace of hope.  Perhaps, if one were to sit down to watch the two movies, it would be good to watch The Burmese Harp last, so that one might retain greater hope for humanity.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Postwar Fantasy Impromptu: Keisuke Kinoshita’s Here’s to the Young Lady

Amongst the titans of Japanese cinema’s Golden Age, Keisuke Kinoshita is probably one of the least recognized in the United States.  Now, Japanese directors of this period were nothing if not prolific, and Kinoshita, who made scores of movies, is no exception.  He is the most represented director in the Criterion Collection on Hulu, where dozens of his movies, from the 1940’s through the ‘80’s, have been made available.  Whenever I don’t know what to watch—which happens sometimes, as I’m not terribly keen on making decisions—I can always fall back on Kinoshita.  Over the years, he worked in virtually every genre except the pink film: costume drama (The Ballad of Narayama), ghost story (Yotsuya Kaidan), interpersonal drama (Thus Another Day), comedy (Carmen Comes Home, which is also the first color film in Japanese cinema).  Now, Kinoshita—in my experience, anyway, and there are still plenty of his movies that I haven’t seen—never rises to the heights of contemporaries like Ozu or Kurosawa (although he comes close with The Ballad of Narayama (1958)), but his films demonstrate a consistent quality and sensitivity to the things that make us human that certainly makes them worth seeing.
This evening I watched one of his earlier films, Here’s to the Young Lady (1949).  I was attracted to it because it stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s leading lady, and I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the screenplay was written by Kaneto Shindo, who would go on to become a major filmmaker in his own right, best known in the U.S for horror/period pieces like Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968).  Here’s to the Young Lady finds Shindo working in a very different mode: it is a comedy-drama (or perhaps drama with strong comedic overtones?) set in Japan under American occupation.  Yasuko Ikeda (Setsuko Hara), a well-educated young woman from an upper-class family fallen on hard times, is forced by economic necessity to pursue a marriage with Ishizu, a kind-hearted auto-repair shop owner with a lot of money.  Their relationship is interesting in the way it shows how social class and economic status don’t always align: Yasuko’s family is upper-class but impoverished, whereas Ishizu is lower-class (and apparently grew up in poverty) but, if not rich, at least certainly comfortably off. 

Yasuko’s family, we hear, spent the war in China—we’re never told any details of their activity there—and has been undergoing staggered repatriation to Japan over the past few years.
  Now, prior to Japan’s downfall, when they were doing well for themselves in China, they probably wouldn’t have had anything to do with Ishizu on a social level.  The extent of their connection with him would have been limited to getting their car fixed.  It would have been delusional for him to even think that he had a chance with their daughter.  The marriage they seek to arrange between Yasuko and Ishizu stems from economic forces beyond their control.  And everyone, including the two would-be lovers, is well aware of this, but etiquette constrains them from acknowledging it.  And so their interactions are predicated on pretending that this issue doesn’t exist, until things come to a head and it becomes unavoidable.

It’s a very affecting film.  The Ikedas have been forced to sell their piano, so Ishizu buys them a new one for Yasuko’s birthday.  And when she plays a piece, he inquires of one of her relatives, “Is that Beethoven?” Because that’s the only Western classical composer he can name.  When he’s told, “No, it’s Chopin:
Fantaisie Impromptu,” he goes out and buys the record, determined to like it and “appreciate” it.  In another noteworthy scene, Yasuko and Ishizu go to a ballet performance and Ishizu finds himself moved to tears for reasons he can’t articulate.  In another post from not too long ago, I quote Akira Kurosawa’s famous assessment of Mikio Naruse, whose work he described as being “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” Such a description could just as well be attached to Ishizu as he pursues his unlikely romance with Yasuko.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On the Independent Chinese Documentaries Distributed by dGenerate Films

In the 1950’s, during the so-called Hundred Flowers movement, in which intellectuals were encouraged by the Chinese government to air their grievances against the regime, and were subsequently persecuted when they did so, a young dissident named Lin Zhao was incarcerated for her convictions.  While in prison, she did not have access to paper, so she wrote her essays and poems—and she had much to say—on the cell walls.  As she did not have pen or pencil, she wrote thousands of words in her own blood.  She is the subject of Hu Jie’s moving documentary film, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), which is distributed in the U.S. by dGenerate Films.
Some of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years have been brought out here by dGenerate Films.  Their subject is Chinese independent cinema and their catalogue encompasses both documentary and feature films.  What is especially striking about their documentaries is the amount of overt dissent that they show taking place in China.  Whether protesting against the illegal confiscation of their homes by the government and shady property developers in Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (2006) or preventable disasters in Xu Xin’s Karamay (2010), there is a remarkably amount of overt dissident activity taking place in China.  And this contradicts the narratives being advanced by both the Chinese government—which is terrified of its own people and seeks to present the façade of a harmonious, economically vibrant society—and the Western media, which tends to focus on a few causes célèbres like Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, to the exclusion of much broader social movements.

Let’s take the case of Meishi Street.  Filmed in the streets of Beijing in 2005, the movie depicts the efforts of residents of the titular Meishi neighborhood to prevent their homes from being eminent domained to make way for the 2008 Olympics.  In protest at the injustice to which they’ve been subjected, the residents regularly put up slogans and protest signs on their property, decrying the corruption of the government and the real estate companies.  When the police show up and take down the signs, the protestors just put up new ones.  The main subject of the film, a restaurateur named Zhang Jinli, resorts to painting the slogans directly onto the walls of his property.  The courage on display here is remarkable and is something that I fear that most people would not associate with modern China.  And this isn’t to trivialize the real sacrifices made by people like Chen Guangcheng, or the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo; rather, it is my desire to call attention to the broad spectrum of dissident activities taking place in China.
Xu Xin's Karamay (2010).
And now a word about Karamay, undoubtedly one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen.  In 1994, in the Xinjiang town of Karamay, schoolchildren were gathered at the town hall to perform for high-ranking local and regional party officials.  When a fire broke out, the children were told to remain seated while the party cadres evacuated.  Then they were left to fend for themselves.  325 people died, 288 of them children.  Their families felt that they never received proper restitution from the government, and they’ve been protesting at various levels ever since.  The film is remarkably austere in its conception: it consists largely of interviews in which the children’s parents sit facing the camera and talk at length about their experiences.  There is very little that could be considered overtly cinematic about the presentation.  And yet the depth of their sorrow, as it accumulates from one interview to the next, is transfixing and ultimately heartbreaking.  One gets the impression that these are people who are tired of not being listened to, and so the opportunity to speak freely and at length is something they relish.  And do they ever speak freely!  The parents name names of government officials whom they hold responsible for the disaster and they make it quite clear that they don’t care about the repercussions that could come from speaking so boldly, because they’ve already lost their children, and they therefore have nothing else to fear.

So I would strongly advise you to catch a dGenerate film if you have the opportunity.  A number of them are available on Fandor, as well as on Netflix and Amazon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Go Master

The relationship between Japan and China has been so thoroughly blighted by animosity and distrust over the past, say, one hundred twenty years, that it is easy to overlook the rich cultural exchange that has obtained between the two countries for many centuries.  There is perhaps no figure who better embodies this conflicted relationship than that of Wu Qingyuan, aka Go Seigen, who is depicted in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 2006 film The Go Master.

First off, a word about
go for those not in the know.  Go is played on a 19x19 grid.  Two players, one armed with black markers, one with white, place their markers on the points of intersection; the objective is to surround the other player’s pieces, which permits one to remove them from the board.  The player with the most pieces on the board at the end of the game is the winner.  I did not become aware of this until I read Yasunari Kawabata’s novel The Master of Go (which, despite the similar title, is not connected to Tian’s film, although it does include several fleeting references to Wu).
The Go Master presents us with the life of Wu Qingyuan, one of the greatest go players of the twentieth century (some would say the greatest, although I’m not in a position to judge that evalutation).  He was a child prodigy in his native China and in 1928, at the age of fourteen, he immigrated to Japan, then the center of the go world.  Here he resided for the rest of his life, including the bloody Second Sino-Japanese War that carried on into WWII, pitting his country of birth against his adopted homeland.  These divided loyalties, between countries and between the art of go and the exigencies of politics, are at the heart of Tian’s film and they play out with great restraint and ambiguity.  The role of Wu is played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, who presents a picture of dignity and aesthetic refinement but provides few points of entry into Wu’s character.  Tian’s portrait of Wu is deliberately opaque; we see everything in his life at a remove, filtered through go and through grander historical narratives.  In the end, one if left distinctly dissatisfied, as Wu’s motivations remain persistently elusive and the great questions of his life unanswered.  As he begins to suffer something of an emotional breakdown, and is drawn into religious fanaticism, one finds oneself at a loss to understand his actions.  They appear arbitrary and little of what came before in the film can be said to have anticipated them, let alone explained them.
Chang Chen as Wu Qingyuan.
As something of a side note, I would like to mention that this film contains something that I’ve very rarely seen in cinema (and surprisingly so, now that I think about it): a depiction of the explosion of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  On August 6th, 1945, go masters Kaoru Iwamoto and Utaro Hashimoto were playing a game in a house on the outskirts of Hiroshima.  Midway through the game, as depicted in unflinching detail by Tian, a blinding light flashed through the house, followed shortly thereafter by the force of the blast itself.  The house was damaged and those present injured but, dedicated as they were to their art, they resumed the game and finished it that afternoon.  Hashimoto was the victor.

Wu Qingyuan, better known as Go Seigen, is still alive in Japan.  He is one hundred years old.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On Some Morally Troubling Historical Inaccuracies in the Films of Aleksandr Sokurov

Let me start this off by saying that I hold Aleksandr Sokurov in very high esteem.  I think he is one of the greatest living filmmakers and I am especially fond of his so-called “power tetrology,” consisting of Moloch, Tauris, The Sun, and Faust.  Or rather, I’m fond of three of them, as I have unfortunately not been able to see Tauris, as it is not available on Region 1 DVD.  Alas.  Anyway, with the exception of Faust, these films tell the stories of some of the twentieth century’s most notorious world leaders: Adolf Hitler in Moloch, Vladimir Lenin in Tauris, and Emperor Hirohito in The Sun.  They are very beautiful films, rich with detail and shot in the uncanny, vaguely flattened style which distinguishes so much of Sokurov’s oeuvre.  But there are certain interpretations of history in Moloch and The Sun that run counter to a lot of modern historical thinking and which raise vexing moral problems and I would like to discuss them each in turn.

First, let us examine Moloch (1999).  Set at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat in Bavaria, the film follows a few days in the lives of Hitler and his entourage in 1943.  Sokurov’s approach to his subject is resolutely non-moralizing; much as in 2004’s Downfall (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel), Sokurov refuses to depict Hitler as a monster.  And I think that’s just fine.  If Hitler is a monster, then it becomes easy to explain away his actions as the sort of things that a monster would do.  His actions become far more problematic when we view them as those of a human being like ourselves.  Hitler doesn’t become any less evil if we see him doing mundane things, like dining and chatting with his girlfriend, which is where Sokurov places his focus.  So, all is well and good until we get to an exchange about midway through the movie, when one of Hitler’s underlings (I think it was Goebbels, but I don’t recall exactly) jokingly threatens to send another one (Bormann?) to Auschwitz, and Hitler says, “What’s Auschwitz?” And then the underlings become uncomfortable and brush off the question and change the subject.
Now, what Sokurov has presented here is revisionist history at its most pernicious.  There has been a movement afoot for some time now which asserts that Hitler didn’t know about the death camps, and that this was something that lower-ranking Nazis—Himmler and Eichmann, etc.—organized without ever bringing Hitler into the fold.  The notion that Adolf Hitler—the architect and instigator of the Nazi party’s vicious anti-Semitism and its accompanying policies—didn’t know about the existence of Auschwitz is patently absurd, and it also serves to exculpate Hitler in a way that no amount of cinematic humanization could do.  I can’t imagine how or why Sokurov latched onto this piece of revisionism, but his casual insertion of it into Moloch is deeply morally reprehensible and mars an otherwise excellent film.

Sokurov’s treatment of Hirohito in The Sun (2005) is just as vexing.  Set in the final days of WWII and the first days of the American occupation of Japan, The Sun adheres to the widely accepted narrative in which Hirohito was largely a passive figurehead who had little direct involvement in the running of Japan’s imperial wars and who, when he finally stepped up, only did so to bring the war to its conclusion.  This version of events was convenient to the authorities of the American occupation, who found the cooperation of Japan’s much-revered emperor to be invaluable.  However, over the decades and especially since Hirohito’s death in 1989, there has been a tendency to re-examine his role in the conduct of the wars, and scholars have increasingly been coming to the conclusion that the emperor was deeply involved, from the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the surrender in 1945.  Under the Japanese constitution, Hirohito was the sovereign ruler of the country and the supreme commander of the Japanese military.  He was in close consultation with the military and political authorities throughout the war and gave personal authorization for numerous atrocities committed by the Japanese army, including the use of poison gas in China.

Now, as I’ve said, the Americans were interested in suppressing the extent of Hirohito’s power during the war and the Japanese establishment, for obvious reasons, shared in this interest.  So there are plenty of people who would see Sokurov’s depiction of Hirohito in The Sun as uncontroversial.  That said, it’s not like this information about Hirohito’s crimes is hidden away somewhere.  This is public knowledge and it’s been part of a public debate, both in international academic circles and in Japan itself.  One is forced to come to the conclusion that, beautifully elegiac though The Sun may be, it is largely a work of fantasy.  And when you’re dealing with events that impacted so many people so catastrophically, and the ramifications of which can still be felt today, I think such falsification of the facts is morally unacceptable, in the same way as Hitler’s purported ignorance of the existence of Auschwitz is unacceptable.  From a man of Sokurov’s evident compassion and intelligence, I would have expected better.