Railway Man

Railway Man

If you remember when male potency supplements like Viagra came out, it was clear the companies believed that men had to have their shame of admitting to having potency issues abated by addressing them otherwise as total he-men, totally potent. So we got commercials where a bunch of older guys playing golf are discussing the twenty-year olds they've bedded, and where "Viagra" isn't discussed but just flashed on the screen at the end. This film looked to be going on about the same thing -- except the issue being brought a bit more into common recognition was how experiences during war might never be shucked off.

But we'd hardly need to have Colin Firth's Eric -- a World War 2 British lieutenant -- shown first as a prosperous older man who's just romantically won himself a resplendent wife (Patti, played by Nicole Kidman), before dwelling into what he experienced in war, if what was going to be shown up close was what we've traditionally been directed to allude to when we think of soldiers refusing to discuss what they experienced -- friends being slain before them, civilians … as well of course all their own killing. This is something, quite frankly, which has always served to make soldiers seem somewhat greater than other men -- more broadly experienced, not shallower, or more shrunken -- and therefore something of a cheat: experiences we collectively have insisted on as adding to your manliness also working as an infallible manner of gaining leverage over people. But it is perhaps necessary here, where we're going to deal with what soldiers were reduced to when captured -- ostensibly something a la Abu Ghraib, but worse.

To the credit of the film, we are told that what is hard for a soldier to discuss are things which are embarrassing, not just overwhelming, depressing, terrifying. Certainly when I heard Stellan Skarsgard's Finlay -- the "uncle," the senior member of the troop -- mention this, I suddenly had in mind Abu Ghraib's sexual humiliation of the captives, with their being raped, sodomized and whatnot. It would have been something, if after encountering this highly respectable and attractive man, we were back witnessing him being forced to felatio fellow soldiers, eat his own shit -- or just watched him regress in captivity to be a scared child who couldn't help but gain pleasure in garnering approval from his tormentors. After witnessing that, would we attend to him with the dignity we know he deserves? Or rather just wish the film had made him even more the hero in everyday life, someone so commanding of respect what we had just learned wouldn't be allowed any permanent grip in our consciousness -- like the way nothing we might ever learn about what Nelson Mandela would be allowed to sit there if it couldn't be squared with the attitude we know he is owed?

But what we actually see are him and his fellow young officers beginning their servitude by successfully transforming an episode which was supposed to reduce them into one which showcases their wit, their vitality -- they count themselves off into numbers … until they reach "ten," with the four subsequent counting off as "Jack," "Queen," "King," "Ace." Then we witness them acting in a way indistinguishable from if they'd been an elite team sent in to effect a "Saving Private Ryan" moral boost, but rather for all those still caught in captivity rather than for civilians languishing at home. In "A-team" style, they effect various plausible but still very brave and inventive means to gather all the components to build a radio. And with the radio, they gain information -- specifically, that "Hitler" was repelled out of Stalingrand and that the Americans are bombing all of Germany day and night -- to spread a boost in moral to all the troops building an "impossible" railway for the Japanese.

However, the Japanese do learn what they did, and the guilty fourteen are rounded up. And here they all witness one of their own being repeatedly beaten upon by a rifle, which has them shrink in fear … until Eric steps up and volunteers for punishment. This act was never forgotten by the rest of them; it was the bravest thing any of them had ever seen, in fact, including everything they'd seen by the during the war, and the inverse of what their servitude was supposed to render for them all.

But for this show of undaunted spirit, this defiance/mockery, Eric is isolated, taken into the shack he has spent so much of the rest of his life remembering; and so here, finally, is where the film is going to broach the kinds of embarrassing things there's no way he'd ever be able to share with any one else or shuck off. Only, it turns out -- not so: an interpreter repeatedly tries to daunt him through tersely asked questions but has trouble gaining ground even with that: "I ask the questions, you only answer." And then he endures torture which looks terribly painful -- he's repeatedly pumped so full of water he's near bursting -- but not evidently worse than that awful rifle beating; and this time almost as indication of his hereto inability to be broken -- a weird kind of flattery, but recognition and flattery none the less.

And the truth is, this scene in the shed seems even more concerned to manage how the interpreter is portrayed so that when Eric ultimately later in life befriends this man, it can seem do-able without it making him seem some sort of gargantuanly pathetic, intrinsic kiss-ass. So the interpreter is shown several times reacting to what the Japanese camp officer is doing to Eric with some alarm; he tells Eric at one point -- in good faith -- that he'd best just tell the officer what he wants to hear because they'll get their information out of him anyway, and it'll mean less pain. And he only explodes at him when Eric dooms them in finally revealing what they've been trying to chase out of him, what he learned from the radio: that Japanese industry, towns, hospitals were about to be decimated by attack, that "your hopes are [already] burning, and your families are starving." So when afterwards the Japanese are defeated, it seems fully appropriate that the interpreter not suffer the fate of the those who committed war crimes and instead is permitted to step to the side. And when Eric catches up with him later and is allowed the obligatory turning of the tables, with the interpreter having "to answer, not ask," and briefly submit to being in a bamboo cage -- and further later apologizing and bowing sincerely to him -- it seems very agreeable they end up friends. Two educated, fundamentally decent men, but of different cultures and of differing perspectives during the war … a satisfying bro-mance for the literate baby boomer to enjoy.

But as to the matter of the great shame that has troubled his Eric and his friends for life, it's near literally an aside. For we do end up seeing some sense of it, but not amongst them but in those Eric and his fellow engineering-educated peers were deemed too valuable to be cast amongst. When Eric is passing through the passage being made for the railway deemed impossible to be constructed without slave labor -- for it'd surely killing most of the people involved in building it -- he sees a major working there whom he once served under. He tries to recall him to himself, but the major recoils -- as if he's now at the point where he assumes anyone advancing upon him must be about to beat him. He's a totally broken man -- the intrinsic slave the Japanese assume inhabits the soul of any man weak enough to have let themselves be captured. Whatever they do to Eric, he never, ever, appears recoil-worthy, and this poor man-ghoul mostly certainly is that. If what Eric's wife had to account for in trying to understand him, why he couldn't get past his experiences thirty years before in the camp, was him being broken as badly as this -- then his being otherwise made to seem so comfortably established and identification-worthy would make sense. 

In fact, when later the movie allows the major to be the one who initiates the spreading of the news down the railway line, there almost seems room to assume it something we were all agreeing to simply allow for him after the horror of "meeting" him rather than it keeping in line with the story's otherwise ostensibly truthful account. He was too broken for it ever to have actually happened that way, so in tribute to who he was formerly and in recognition of our inability to adequately ever square his future self with who he had revealed himself as here, we're going to have to collectively agree to momentarily step to the side within this film some, and attenuate the details … in fidelity to something more important than facts or our enjoyment of the film -- to goodness. Then of course, back to the story. 

Eric, however, we're simply to take straight … presumably because the people making and watching a movie such as this are not so interested in dealing with trauma as they are in defensively coping with it. That is, by keeping the person they are supposed to identify with a respected man outside of war and capture, and persistently heroic and empowered during servitude, as we match up our own life experiences with his own, Eric ends up being a kind of sturdy railway overlay of tricky matter in our own minds. In truth, a kind of contagion. 

Someone might object that the repeated beatings Eric endures, as well as the water torture and the -- for awhile -- living in a cage, would be enough to create a traumatic experience he'd never recover from, even if he never knew the shame of capitulation. The reason this is in fact fatuitous is because these tortures are designed by captors so that inmates know humiliations that they, the captors themselves, experienced during childhood -- the unconscious intention behind torture is to shame one's own "guilty" childhood self, whom you've projected into inmates: it certainly means to but doesn't really have "you" in mind. If you didn't experience the equivalent in your own childhood, as physically painful as these experiences would be they would not serve to remind you of how scared and powerless you were when you were infantile -- that shame. The reason many Jews who endured Nazi tortures were able to recover from them somewhat adequately was not simply owing to the fact that they formed terrific support groups afterwards, but because they had had better childhoods than the Germans did. That is, these tortures were essentially new to them, something afflicted upon them now from people outside their family and for the most part outside of childhood -- it was intrinsically foreign to what they had previously experienced in life and to what had gone into shaping their personhood. It could be shucked off, for it was mostly overlain from the outside upon an already solid core. 

The film we really need to see involving an older man still crippled by something he experienced decades earlier, wouldn't let it settle in his experiences as a soldier in wartime, even if shown more honestly than this film is interested in. For "wartime" is in this situation a plank we've set up, way aloof from the age where experiences can really destroy us, presumably for us to further pontificate if we mean to allow the plank to drop lower. It's actually a safe zone, a "simulation room," to maybe prepare ourselves for the leap back into infancy, where the ferocious soldier screaming at us would become our mother and father repeatedly doing so, where being locked in a cage becomes our own being shut into closets, where being beat on repeatedly or sexually used becomes our parents having been these kinds predators. 

Since captors force captives to experience what they themselves experienced in childhood, the film we need to see would explore something along the lines of this passage from psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause. Whether of Japanese war camps, or German ones ...  or otherwise, it would be this

Jews, then, were the main poison containers for the restaging of traumatic German childrearing practices four decades earlier. Every one of the things done to Jews in the Holocaust can be found to have been perpetrated by parents and others to German children at the turn of the century. The precise details of earlier events that were reinflicted upon Jews later are astonishingly minute and literal. Jews were, of course, murdered by the millions, just as German children had watched their siblings murdered in infanticidal acts earlier, using the exact same phrase for the genocide of Jews--"elimination of useless eaters"--as parents had used earlier for their infants and children as they murdered them at birth. Because infanticide rates were so high, the majority of German children would have witnessed the murder of newborn siblings by their mothers, would have heard the murdered baby being called a "useless eater," and would themselves have been called a "useless eater" as children and so could have wondered if they might also be murdered. One can hardly read a single Holocaust book without having to wade through endless accounts of children buried alive by Nazis, "children having their heads beaten in like poultry and thrown into a smoking pit," "babies thrown from the fourth floor and crushed on the pavements," "children's bodies lay around, torn in half with the heads smashed in," "'little Jews' caught on bayonets after being thrown from upper story windows," etc. Even the specific methods German mothers had used for killing their newborn--especially smashing the baby against a wall or throwing it into a latrine--were "a regular occurrence" against Jews in concentration camps:

When mothers succeeded in keeping their babies with them. A German guard took the baby by its legs and smashed it against the wall of the barracks until only a bloody mass remained in his hands. The unfortunate mother had to take this mass with her to the 'bath.' Only those who saw these things with their own eyes will believe with what delight the Germans performed these operations. [Also] SS men used to amuse themselves by swinging Jewish children by their legs and then flinging them to their deaths. He who threw a Jewish child farthest won.

Jews were also regularly tied up and made to live in their own filth exactly as swaddled German infants were earlier. Rarely washed, Germans had spent their early lives covered with their own excreta, addressed by their parents simply as "little shitter." In the concentration camps, Jews were subject to what Des Pres calls a constant "excremental assault," in which they were forced to defecate and urinate upon each other, were often thrown into the cesspool if they were too slow, lived in barracks "awash with urine and feces," walked about "knee-deep in excrement," were forced to eat their own feces, and finally died in gas chambers "covered all over with excrement." In one camp, 30,000 women not only had to use a single latrine, but in addition, "we were permitted to use it only at certain hours of the day. We stood in line to get into this tiny building, knee-deep in human excrement." Holocaust scholars, missing the childhood origins of all these gratuitous excremental cruelties, have been puzzled by how much of the concentration camp routine was devoted to the endless humiliations: "Why, if they were going to kill them anyway, what was the point of all the humiliation, why the cruelty?" Gitta Sereny asked of Franz Stangl. But of course the humiliation was the point, restaging early German childhood exactly. Hitler--himself swaddled and left alone in his feces by his mother--had told Germans in Mein Kampf , "If the Jews were alone in this world, they would suffocate in dirt and filth." In the Holocaust the Jews--"so much like us" (Hitler)--would suffocate in dirt and filth, as all little, helpless German babies did all day long at the hands of their mothers. And since the "little shitter" German babies were also covered with lice, vermin and rodents as they lay swaddled in their cradles, unable to move, Jews too were called "lice, vermin and rats" as they were locked into the concentration camps, told "This is a death camp. You'll be eaten by lice; you'll rot in your own shit, you filthy shitface." Some guards even restaged the rodent attacks "by inserting a tube into the victim's anus, or into a woman's vagina, then letting a rat into the tube. The rodent would try to get out by gnawing at the victim's internal organs." Later toilet training of German children was also restaged, often in precise detail, as by having the ghetto-latrine supervised by a "guard with a big clock, whom the Germans dressed comically as a rabbi and called the ‘shit-master.'"

Incidentally, this film has it that you can visit someone who tortured you thirty years previously and they can be fully recalled to it. As the film shows these two men, this is plausible -- for they're never lost to themselves during the war. But this normally would not have been the case. Wars are periods where people have bonded with their mother nations, set about to destroy guilty villains -- projections of their own childhood "bad selves" -- and thereby nurture for themselves a glorious feeling of purity, of cemented "good boy" or "good girl" status, absent contaminants. Once this madness is over, like the postwar 1950s after WW2, people are mostly detached from whom they once were -- literally, a map of their everyday mental life would be completely different; have it lorded over by more regular areas. They'd be back to whom they were previous, the Weimer Germans who were all set about their regular bourgeois life before they became the 1930s-40s Volk, would be back simply to "shopping" and building families, not ganging up on Jews on the streets, which they -- not just the Nazis -- collectively did. 


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