Saturday, July 21, 2007

Europa Europa - The Parameters of Identity

Any film about Jews during the Second World War is ultimately bound to be a film about that darkest period of humanity’s inhumanity in the modern world--- the Holocaust. One may argue that ‘Europa, Europa’ is not really a film about the Holocaust because the main character, Solomon Perel(or Josef Peters) did not really experience the horrors of the Holocaust, but it most certainly is. Just as cinema is a series of pictures interspersed with a series of darkness, so is the film’s narrative not just about what is being shown but is also about what is not being shown.

As we watch Solly’s life unfold, we become acutely aware that it is unfolding in front of a curtain of unspeakable horror. The uneasiness grows in us, and it’s more unsettling than dealing with the graphic horrors of the Holocaust. The feeling is like watching Vivien Leigh in the shower in ‘Psycho’ and we start to say, “Hey, we like this!”, but we say it in a tentative, tremulous voice, knowing that Norman Bates is just behind the curtain ready to hack away at a moment’s notice.

Of course, the attack did not come. But the anticipation made us watch the entire film. Horror without the blood and gore is no less horrifying. A Holocaust film without a holocaust scene is no less terrifying.

But before I delve further in the film’s narrative, I wish to deal with the film ‘Europa, Europa’ as a commodity. In other words, how the film was made to be sold.

It was a film made after an autobiography by Solomon Perel started getting attention. Of course, the “hook” was: how could a Jew fool Germans by pretending to be an Aryan. The public lapped it up and the film, like so many before it, was made to make hay out of that public curiosity. As in the case of many biopics, some details of Perel’s life was glossed over or highlighted to create narrative tension and structure. Also, there are characters in this film such as the strong-willed, independent woman (like Leni who does not tolerate being physically hurt) or a homosexual soldier which I believe wouldn’t have been included or portrayed as such if this film was made in an earlier, more conservative era. I am pointing this out to underscore the fact that a film is a not just an artistic product but also a cultural product. Our appreciation of the film must never forget the cultural context that spawned it. Furthermore, the inclusion of such characters may have a financial motive. As women and homosexuals have asserted themselves as viable and ardent consumers of commodities (including films) in the early 1990’s, therefore there must have been a conscious effort by the film-makers not to gloss over those types of characters in order for the film to appeal to those specific target demographics. Then there is also the change in the title from “Hitlerjunge Salomon” or “Hitler’s Youth Solomon” to “Europa, Europa” which I believe was also made due to a marketing strategy. The distributors wanted to avoid the name “Hitler” which could alienate potential buyers through negative association with that name, and also perhaps to ride on the rising popularity of up-and-coming enfant terrible director Lars von Trier who made a film called Europa also on the same year.

Nevertheless, Europa is an effective film for political socialization, like other more celebrated Holocaust films like ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘The Pianist’ or ‘Fateless’, perhaps more. Holland, Europa’s director, dealt with the main character not as sympathetically as one might expect from a political film. She did not highlight Perel’s virtues or subdued his faults--- she depicted him as mere human--- able to dream, to doubt, to lie and to fall flat on his face. There was a hint of irony running through the film that makes us somehow alternately disdainful and sympathetic to the travails of the main character. The character then morphs into a puppet in the Japanese (or Indonesian) theatre: we may laugh or cry at what it does but the puppetmaster does not try to hide his face in the shadows---because he is the show and not the puppet.

The most moving scene in the movie for me was when Solly saw the true plight of his fellow Jews as he traversed through the ghettoes riding in a white washed tram. Vicariously, we saw the deplorable state of Jews through a small opening in the window. The film has insulated us, has insulated Solly Perel by making us ride in the tram but the reality, we learn, is outside the window and our collective heart bleeds because we cannot do anything about it.

The scene may have no sound or music for all I care but the images have seared my soul. It may not tell us outright like any conventional political film to stop Holocaust from happening again but it has telegraphed that much more powerfully.

The unspoken speaks volumes.

- A. Abeleda

Life as a fraction of it … Set during the onset of World War II in Europe, Europa Europa (originally titled Hitlerjugen Salomon in its European release) is a period film revolving around the story of Solomon Perel, a handsome man of Jewish origins who, by the consequences of the ongoing war, came to be part of the German Army whose main purpose is to follow Hitler’s ultimate goal of liberating Europe from Jewish settlement. The film stars Marco Hofschneider who plays Solly, and Solomon Perel who played a very short but memorable part in the film as himself. It was directed by award-winning European director Agnieszka Holland (who a also directed Secret Garden in 1993) and debuted in 1990.

Solly’s story, like most of ours, are full of trials and triumphs, most of which we sometimes deal with great sensitivity. Throughout his journey, we find that his story reflects one of the most interesting facets of the self in relation to his surroundings: his notion of who he is, who are his friends, who are his enemies. As for every one of us, he has traveled through life in search of his identity. But how did he come to know who he is? I believe it is by how he was brought up, how he lived up to it, and what he has gone through that he had the power to acknowledge who he really is.
Narrating his life in diary-entry fashion, Solly relates what he has been through more closely to the audience, capturing a more intimate relation that seems to penetrate the distance between the film and the real world, which I believe effectively socializes the people watching the film. The point of view employed in the film (first person) may seem to be biased towards the protagonist; nonetheless, it is worth noting that the film is a response to Perel’s autobiography, thus justifying the subsequent scenes shown in the film. There were many notable narrations in the film that carries with it very profound significance, like when he starts the film by introducing himself as someone whose birthday falls on the same day as Hitler’s, and how he said that he unbelievably remembers the day of his circumcision.

By the thematic focus of the film, it is very evident of the political content within it. However, it is through the employment of the situation of war that the discussion on identity is successfully brought up to the consciousness of its viewers. Almost the world over have recognized the inhumane sufferings the Jews have to endure during Hitler’s reign in Nazi Germany, and his ultimate dream of Aryan world domination. Bringing a Jew’s story in the midst of this dilemma most certainly made the story an account of finding yourself from the grotesque situations of ultimate human wickedness. It is very evident in the film of the times when Solomon just wants to be who he really is, for instance, after his friend Robert and other soldiers were killed, he wanted to desert his troop, but his action backfired and was embedded more deeply into the German ideals. But the situation forced him to be drowned, to the point that he pulls his foreskin back just to fit in and avoid being mutilated, charred or triggered to death. Thus, we can say that the setting of the film greatly supports the discourse on how socialization affects an individual’s perception on who he was. Remember the scene where there were two children who were hung outside their house and Solomon was made to believe that their race was the one who killed the Germans, and now its payback time, so he fired to them and burned their home? He was confused then, how could he be so loved, but other people whom he share the same lineage, was atrociously murdered? In effect, he is asking, what will I choose? Live as who I was when I was born and circumcised, or pretend to be someone else to save my life, my future?

This brings us to the importance of socializing factors in the establishment of our identity. The Germans have built theirs, an extreme form of ethnocentrism employing ethnic cleansing by the belief of their superiority. The Jews also have built their own, based on their traditions and customs. These foundations were put together through the ways and processes that surround them, and in return internalize them so that they may appear to be just and normal. In this case, both groups were oriented in different manners, thus resulting to a cleavage that will bring about conflict. Socialization, thus, is a significant factor of building identity.

In my interpretation of the film, there are also other issues that contribute on the discourse on identity, but these do not deviate outside the context of socialization. They also strengthen the point that identity succeeds socialization. During the film viewing, I overheard someone exclaiming something about racism. It is most certainly true, and I think this is self explanatory. Someone mentioned of gender discrimination, like when the class reacted quite negatively on the scene where Robert tries to do something sexual to Solly while he was bathing. It is also true, indeed. Racism and gender discrimination are two main issues that still flood the global community up to now, but more implicitly that before. For example, homosexuals nowadays live in a world of mocking and degradation of dignity, thus experiencing socialization that impinges on their acceptance of the self, making them unproductive and oftentimes looked-down members of the society. Same goes to the issues of racial discrimination. Many people have wished they were Americans so that they do not live off a dollar a day, or wished they were tan and had blue eyes to make it to Hollywood, putting to backdrop their own cultures and ways from which they were raised.

Has the film succeeded in being an effective medium of trying to encapsulate these issues and prescribing them to the viewers? Most certainly, I should say. While watching the film, and more so after, I tried to ask the very same question that lingers throughout the film, a simple inquiry that bears a very complex response: Sino ba talaga ako? Do I really know myself? How have the things I experienced molded me into who I am now, how others think of me and how I think of my very self? Surely, some would relatively find the question easy, if not so ridiculous for anyone to ask. But really, do I know myself? How confident am I that the I that I know is really me? The actualization of the self, which can be characterized by our ability to answer these questions, is an important component of building our own identity.

Leo Tolstoy once said, “A person is like a fraction, whose numerator is what he is and the denominator is what he thinks of himself , the larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.” In the film, Solly was engulfed by the ways of the Germans, to the point were he seemed to forgot his culture, his God, and thought of himself as a true blooded Aryan. In the process, he learned to hate, but in the end he slowly felt that hiding in the shadows does not make him more of a person, but less of it. It is hard to play someone else, but it is harder to play oneself, so says Robert. True enough, identifying your identity depends upon the acceptance of the norms by an individual, how he internalizes it, and how he processes it to be morally upright according to his beliefs. Identity, then, is not just a matter of fitting in; it is also a matter of living out. As Solomon Perel and his journey, the true measure of knowing oneself is finding what is always in your heart to be true and acceptable.

To close, let me share with you one of my most favorite scenes in the film, where, after Solly found his brother Isaak in the concentration camp, they peed together in an open foyer, with the lights on them, without any hesitation.

- M. Delas Alas

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Citizen Kane - Framing The Possibilities

Ever since I got a copy of the film, I’ve watched it for over five times and even memorize several lines. A number of them have something to do with media. From the start of the film until the end, Kane’s life has been presented as if he’s the front cover of a news magazine, researched and written by Mr. Thompson. Each time I watch Citizen Kane, I always arrive at the same conclusion. That is, ever since the media penetrated the lives of the people, it has been, it is and I believe will always be a great influence.

The film itself is a portrayal of how influential the media is, specifically the newspaper. The alleged Mr. Charles Foster Kane, William Randolph Hearst, campaigned using his newspapers against Citizen Kane, demanded for it to be banned, prohibited any form of advertisement and after some time, refused to mention the film at all. As a result, the public was made to believe that it was not a good film. Moreover, Orson Welles, writer, director and actor of the film, was blacklisted from Hollywood because no studio would want to work with him.

Onto the film, even at the start, the media is utilized in different ways to show its influence. In the newsreel, Kane is portrayed as a rich, powerful and a prominent figure for several reasons. He’s a newspaper magnate, owner of radio networks, mines, statues and a lot more. He influenced or made big decisions for his country such as joining and opposing a war, won elections for a president, spoke for millions of the underprivileged, loved and hated by the people, and even married the president’s niece He, himself, is a big piece of news. Certainly, “Newspaper owners became powerful figures.” (Hague and Harrop, 2004 p. 106)

Second, newspaper is described as “engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes and personal desires of [their owners]…What the proprietorships of these papers is aiming at is power and power without responsibility...” (Curran and Seaton, 2003 p. 64, as cited in Hague and Harrop) Owners of media, be it a newspaper, television or radio, have a mandate on what will they show to the public. For an instance, when Kane fight against Public Transit Company, he chose to promote the interests of the underprivileged as the owner of the newspaper not as one of the major stockholders of the company. Another was when he disregarded his principles and told his wife, that people will think what he tells them to think. Also, when he said, “I’m an authority on what people will think. The newspapers for example, I run several newspapers between here and San Francisco.” His intense desire to make his second wife, Susan Alexander, famous, recognized and loved by the people, urged him to manipulate the reviews written about her wife’s opera performances.

Third, “people make political choices […] based on the issues and policy positions on offer […] widens the media’s political influence […] through which information about issues and policies, and therefore political choices, is presented to the public.” (Heywood, 2004 p. 203) The public depends greatly on mass media for information. It is through this information that the public makes their decisions or choices, individually and collectively. In the film, political campaigns and advertisements provide political choices for the public. Kane used his newspapers to publish cartoons with Gettys wearing a convict suit, in a way, projecting to the public a bad image of his rival. The scandal about Kane’s affair with Susan was a compelling one. It ended his first marriage with Emily and his short-lived political career. To save face from the public, his newspaper decided to print, “Fraud at Polls”.

Alongside with being filthy rich and influential, he acquired power. By means of this power, he could almost do everything and have anything in a snap of a finger. But then again, “power tends to corrupt and, absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, as cited in Heywood). He wants to do things only based on his terms. Just like what Susan said, “Everything was his idea.” Even the love his longing for, he wants the people around him to love him on his terms. In the end, he had EVERYTHING and NOTHING at the same time. He even said, “… If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” His life is characterized by lost of innocence, filled with regret, broken marriages and friendships, and failed political ambitions. He found himself alone and miserable. Until the end, all he yearned for was love. Undeniably, wealth and power are not the ones that could make a person feel complete, loved and cared for. There’s more to life than being a man of great influence.

As a conclusion, I believe that the film, Citizen Kane, is effective enough to convey not only political messages but also life’s lessons. It portrayed the media, particularly the newspaper, as an agent of political socialization, the perks and risks involved
with having power, the limitations of being influential and the significance of family and friends. The film was able to provide the means for my mind, as a viewer, to think, to work, to draw conclusions and meanings, to theorize, to anticipate events and to relate it to my own life. Though I do not consider Citizen Kane as the best film I have seen, I wont deny that it is indeed a great one. I’m not an avid viewer of films, be it fiction or non-fiction. I only watch if it’s required, somebody ask me out and lucky enough to get free movie passes, not as a hobby or past time. We all have our distinct sets of criteria, and different levels of exposure and knowledge about films, to judge. Anyone, be it a stranger or a friend, can say that a film is great or even the greatest.

- J. Bartolome

Citizen Kane is about the life of a wealthy newspaper man who hungers for love. Famous for its intriguing line “Rosebud”, CK has dominated the world of cinema. Orson Welles who happens to be the director and Mr. Charles Foster Kane, himself, was considered a genius for making this revolutionary film. At the age of 25, he has made a significant change both in the technical and story-telling aspects of the film industry. He was actually a radio man when he was offered by the RKO Radio Pictures to do a movie that he wanted. Thus, he employed most of his colleagues in the radio industry to make this particular movie.

CK was considered a revolutionary one because of its use of a unique cinematography. The film used deep focus photography, or simply put – this pertains to shots where everything was in focus, from the front to the back; so that the composition and movement determined where the eye looked first. Moreover, CK also used a circular structure which adds more depth in the story. It is not the usual linear structure which is very prominent in those days (1941). The use of the circular structure created an emotional chronology set free from time making the film more elusive or mysterious by flashing through the eyes of many witnesses.

Though the main conflict of the film is the search for the mystery of the Kane’s last word – “Rosebud”, Mr. Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane’s dying word, said that “Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything.” True, it has not really explained anything but it just denoted that not all things can really be explained. Perhaps, Rosebud just helps the film to go on. It basically acts like a weaver of the story about a great man in American history. Without it, CK may not be as intriguing and mysterious as it was. To add to its mystery, it is believed that CK was patterned to a real newspaper mogul in America named Hearst. Thus due to bad publicities brought by Hearst’s media and political influences, the first release of the film was a financial flop. However, there is more to CK than just by its famous line Rosebud and its relation to Hearst.

The film has actually embedded many allegories and political implications. First, it depicts the history of America in the years 1895 – 1941. It covers the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression and the gutter politics. In all these situations, media’s contribution was clearly shown through the success and the downfall of Kane’s newspaper empire. To be specific, Kane’s newspaper has actually contributed much to provoke the government and inflame the people to battle with Spain. If you can remember, Kane said “You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”. In this era, media has really gotten its power and authority to influence political decisions. This Spanish-American War became the Journal’s war same with the Vietnam war which became the television’s war.

On the other hand, media under the Great Depression has also suffered a major downfall. Thus, Kane’s newspaper empire was actually closed to bankruptcy. But, though it has suffered a major economic downfall, Kane’s empire has still gained another chance and thus continues to influence people. Media, in reality, really has been an influential political machine. It creates both great and worst man in history. Kane gained prominence because of his newspaper’s advocacy for the underdogs in society. But media, itself also destroyed him. This was when Boss Jim Gettys, his rival for the governor of New York, blackmailed him to withdraw from his candidacy. His affair with an aspiring opera singer Susan Alexander depicts the end of his political career. Thus, Kane thought that the people whom he has devoted his power, wealth and time, have betrayed him. Actually, this kind of situation is not new to all of us. We have witnessed this situation wherein a certain prominent politician has thrown out in his position because of a love affair scandal. This gutter politics is not just seen in American political history but in the Philippines as well. Notice that Bill Clinton and Joseph Estrada were well-knowns because of their controversies regarding their mistresses. Well, Estrada was actually involved with other scandals but in the Philippine culture, having an affair was an offset to the public which then leads to a politician’s unpopularity. This only means that morality is really an important aspect in determining a political leader. Until now this gutter politics is still embedded in our nature. People still choose political leaders not through their certain skills but through their morale. Many aspiring political leaders could have been great such as Kane if not because of misleading judgments.

Indeed, CK’s prominence in the world of cinema is not just associated with its unique cinematography. The content itself is a powerful instrument to make people realize how powerful media is in influencing our decisions. We may not be aware of it but most of the time we pattern our own decisions based on how media portray a certain situation. Media is an effective tool to change the feelings and views of the people on a certain person or phenomenon. The film shows that ambition and the will to serve the people are not enough to win the election. Morale, as being project by the media, is still an important aspect even in the contemporary period. Thus, I believe that this film really is a powerful instrument to make people realize how media manipulates most of our everyday life’s decisions. Perhaps, this is one reason why Hearst greatly opposed the film so much that he actually attempted to blackmail Welles through sexual harassment or rape accusations. He is perhaps afraid to degrade the image of his newspaper empire and his personality as well. However, the film still gains prominence even after 66 years of its release proving that its worth is more than just by degrading Hearst Newspaper Empire.

- V. Buagñin