Monday, December 6, 2010

Too Much for Berlin?

For many filmmakers, the film festival rejection letter is very familiar. It usually includes some florid language about how many great films they've received, how few time slots they have, and how agonizing their decision was to cut your film out of the running. The cliches are carefully constructed so as not to reveal anything at all about what they actually think of the film. It leaves filmmakers with the self-destructive task of second-guessing every decision they made. Every shot, angle, cut, etc. becomes suspect.
I am not immune to this line of reasoning. In fact, I've become a bit of a pro. In the long wait between the film's submission and the festival's decision, I've watched "A Modest Suggestion" numerous times, each time taking careful note of all the tiny problems that only a director would notice and filing them away somewhere in the back of my mind. When news came this morning that the Berlin International Film Festival will not select "A Modest Suggestion" this year, that nit-picked list came to mind, a devilish reassurance that I shouldn't be disappointed by foregone conclusions.
That is how it usually goes. The optimist in me submits a film, the masochistic pessimist prepares in advance to justify rejection. But this time, things are different.
"A Modest Suggestion" is a film about anti-Semitism. The kind of anti-Semitism that swept through Germany barely a lifetime ago. In this case, could there be a reason beyond my self-assessed list-of-doom? Is the film... perhaps... too much for Berlin?
I don't want to dwell on German cultural sensitivities. Having never been to that country, I am just about the least reliable analyst of its tastes and anxieties. That said, what does it mean for a film about anti-Semitism to be "too much" for anybody?
I typically hear the phrase "that film was too much for me" or its shorter cousin, "that was too much!" in reference to violence, gore, and other forms of extreme deviance on screen. For many of us, seeing people getting ripped to shreds on screen is a difficult, unpleasant experience (even though we know it's fake!) Why is it unpleasant? I'm sure there are film theorists who have approached this question before. I've been out of college for a few years, and haven't kept up with the world of film criticism as much as I would have liked, so I'll venture a few suggestions of my own here (with apologies to anyone who has already come up with this stuff before me).
First, there's the obvious: When we lead our daily lives, we typically don't see dismemberments or decapitations. I imagine most of us don't see much physical violence at all. Maybe a scuffle outside a bar now and again? The sight is disturbing because it's unusual -- it's strange, it deviates from our understanding of the world in a way that clearly doesn't bode well for those of us who like our limbs right where they are. Of course, seeing people flying in movies is lots of fun, and that certainly deviates from our understanding of the world. There's a cinema secret here: We love to see optimistic visions of an alternative to our reality, but we're uncomfortable with pessimistic visions of it.
So, why do we still see (and in some cases love) so many films with brutal death, destroyed societies, worlds ruled by robots, etc.? Many of those stories (especially those adhering to Hollywood's narrative sensibilities) always set up those worlds in opposition to what they could be. There is always some sort of hope, some sense of the cinematic world's "upward mobility". Even if there isn't a 'happy ending', we are at least presented with a word of warning, one which (if heeded) will prevent our real world from degrading to become like that of the film.
That leads me to my second thought on the question: We are repulsed by extreme deviance on screen because it is precisely not extreme deviance. Somehow, when we see a bloody dismemberment on screen, or a horrible dis-figuration, we see something real, a hint of our own fragility. Often, these moments pass quickly, moments in a battle. We are reminded not only of how fragile we are, but of how forgettable we are. Godzilla rampages, and no one really cares about the thousands of people crushed by his awkward feet. If we see them, in gory detail, getting crushed, we are forced to remember them, and forced to remember that we don't care, and that if we were there, crushed by the monster's feet, who would care about us? Deviant images come in other forms, of course (and much of it is defined as 'deviant' by culture's expectations). Sexual perversion (and in some cases, merely sexual explicitness) can make people uncomfortable because it may express things whose expression 'polite' society prohibits. We don't want to admit to being human, and therefore subject to all sorts of desires and thoughts that are beyond our control. When we see those expressed on screen, it can sometimes feel like a mockery of our self-control.
These two approaches to understanding our aversion to extreme images and scenes in movies may seem to contradict each other. We don't like them because they are alien to us and because they remind us of ourselves? But I think that is precisely what may be happening with "A Modest Suggestion" in Berlin.
In the film's first few minutes, a character poses the question, "Should we, or should we not... kill the Jews?" In a culture that has worked so hard to grapple with its own history of extreme anti-Semitism, this very question does more than just raise eyebrows. In Germany, the merest hint of anti-Semitism is dealt with in the most severe terms. Such a blatant question is truly alien to contemporary German society. This very line, though, paraphrases a critical moment in German history, calling to mind not only the Wannsee Conference, but the almost scientific developments of Germany's anti-Semitic policies that led up to the Holocaust. But the strength of the film is not just that it is a reminder of a painful past. We are all guilty of framing our understanding of the world in categorical terms. In this very note, I talk of "Germans" as if they are all cut from the same mold, a string of blond-haired, blue-eyed gingerbread men. We have to talk this way, because it is how we learn. We see a pattern repeated once or twice, and extrapolate from that an impression of the whole. What happened to Jews in Germany could happen again anywhere, even in Germany, unless we learn to be self-critical, to acknowledge the coarseness of the definitions we create.
Bigotry is human. It is an extreme expression of the flawed way in which we understand the world. All too often, I've seen mechanical, robotic attempts to overcome bigotry. Celebrities such as Mel Gibson or notable personalities like Helen Thomas are told to keep their mouths shut. "They shouldn't have said that!" I hear. If this is the way Americans react to bigotry, I can only imagine that the censorship is more severe in Germany. But it doesn't change anything. To the bigot, the thoughts remain, and there is no one around to say "no, that's not true. That's a ridiculous statement." A Modest Suggestion attempts to do just that: to undermine bigotry by revealing the fundamental illogic at its core. I had hoped that the film would be welcomed in Germany, but perhaps there is still too much anxiety. Perhaps there is still too much stock put in silencing anti-Semites, rather than in educating them, or at the very least, undermining the foundations of their bigoted opinions. I can only guess. Perhaps someone will respond to this with alternative ideas? For now, I'm left to contemplate the festival's response to "A Modest Suggestion", and to wonder, "Was it too much for Berlin?"