Things I Have Watched

Red Riding Hood–I couldn’t get through it. Lord it was terrible. It had all the pieces of a great movie, but it seemed not to understand the fundamental power of the myth itself. It’s like, if this movie were a light fixture, the movie makers wired together all the wrong colored wires. I mean, you can have whoever you want be the wolf, but if you don’t understand the power of a girl in her new red cloak approaching someone in bed, trying to tell if they mean her harm or not–if you don’t get that core metaphor–your story just is not going to work. Needless to say, the movie was so busy trying to be some Twilight knock-off that it missed its own core.

Trollhunter–I loved this movie. I imagine I would have loved it more if I were Norwegian and got all the references and recognized the actors. (From Wikipedia, it seems comparable to if Christopher Guest made a fantasy movie.) But even with my limited frame of reference, I found it great. I really love stories that seem like they just shift from reality only a tiny bit. It’s not that there’s some OTHER world where there are trolls, but here’s this beautiful place we love and know, these ordinary sights we’ve seen so often, these legends we’ve heard since we were babies, and here’s a way into them you never noticed before. When they literally drove by a road they’d never noticed before, I was all in. And the trolls are beautiful.

Some National Geographic show about a lampshade that turned out to not be one of the Nazi human lampshades–I have a lot of really mixed feelings about this. And I feel like there’s a kind of wall you hit when you’re talking about something like the Holocaust, where you just have to acknowledge that whatever you say is pretty much immediately swallowed up in a great unspeakableness. But what sticks with me about this show is that it was terrible for the journalist when he thought that he had human remains that obligated him to try to figure out how to recognize and acknowledge them. And that it was terrible for him when he learned it was just a cow. Because as terrible as the first thing was, he was, in his way, bearing witness to this terrible thing. And the second thing rendered all his actions kind of futile.

I was also struck by the footage of the Germans being brought by the Allied forces into Buchenwald to have to face what had been done there. The guy they were interviewing while the footage was being shown was refuting the Germans’ contention that they didn’t know. He said “bullshit, of course they knew,” though that’s not an exact quote. And yet, I think both things are true. The townspeople all had these happy looks on their faces, as if they were just going for a stroll, and then, as they’re confronted by piles of bodies and these horrible trophies and angry troops, they become grief-stricken. They claim they did not know what was going on.

And, absolutely, that’s unbelievable. But I’m struck by the idea that there’s something important about human nature in evidence here. Because I also don’t think that they’re exactly lying when they said they didn’t know. They did too know what was going on. Living close enough to the camp that they could stroll to it? The women in their dress shoes? It doesn’t just strain credulity–it breaks it–to say they didn’t know. But they didn’t know what they would make of it, how they would understand it in the long run.

I mean, if the Nazis had won and those had been Axis troops marching the townspeople into the camp and showing them what they’d done, do we really believe that the majority of people would have been weeping and screaming? That they would have been so distraught? No. The exact same exercise, in the context of victory, would have been a celebration. Perhaps of a grim, but necessary thing. But a celebration.

It seems that there are at least, then, two levels of knowing. The knowing of the thing itself. Did the Germans know what was going on? Yes, of course. Did they know how they were going to live with it? No, of course not.

It suggests to me some scary things about how mobs work. How the actions of a group can carry a person along by pushing back the day of that second knowing or recontextualizing that second knowing into something the mob can live with, something that doesn’t have to trouble the person swept up in it. A mob doesn’t really have a mechanism for self-reflection, for pausing to contemplate what its done. That’s individual work that mob activity actively prevents.

But this also seems to me to argue for the importance of witness. Obviously, the presence of the Allied witnesses, and the presence of the prisoners who lived, and thus who knew–these people outside the mob–changed the group dynamic.

Mobs frighten me. And yet, we do a lot of things in large groups with all these large group dynamics in play. We are pack animals in many ways.

I don’t know. When I was in college, I watched parts of Shoah for a class and there’s a moment when the documentarian hunts down this old Nazi and is surreptitiously filming him and the old Nazi looks just like my grandpa. I mean, exactly. Not that there are that many ways for fat old bald German-ish men to look, and who knows what the resemblance would have been like had the Nazi been filmed with a higher quality camera? Still, in what it is, they look alike.

And that has always stuck with me–that this man, who looks so much like my grandfather is, of course, someone’s grandfather. A grandfather did these things. I’d like to believe that I’m the kind of person who said, “I see what you’re doing and it’s wrong.” And I do think that I am that type of person. But I’m also the type of person who would have walked to that camp, laughing with my friends, until the dawning horror of what I had accepted as ordinary became too obvious to deny.

I don’t know if you know which of your selves you might resolve into until you’re faced with those circumstances.

But I also think there’s another lesson in here–when the townspeople were brought into that camp and confronted with the knowledge that they had been a part of this terrible thing, after the tears came the denial. We didn’t know.

Which to me suggests that the resolution of self–the ability to bring yourself into focus and know yourself for who you truly are–is fleeting. It’s not some light that comes on in a room and stays on. It’s a flashlight with dying batteries. You catch a glimpse. You lose sight. You catch another glimpse. And sometimes, you shut your eyes to what you’ve seen for a second in the dark, because, otherwise, how could you go on?