Saturday, July 16, 2011

American Soviets

Notes on Days of Glory (1943) by Jacques Tourneur:
  • In a war film, the Nazis are always a fuzzy abstraction – there is no enemy to ‘see’ or to ‘speak of’, no single individual we can lay our entire moral blame on, and no one to condemn – because it is to be understood that it the protagonists’ war is a noble one if it is against ‘them Nazis!’. A film, however, may go a step ahead and actually show the only Nazi in the world we actually know – Hitler.
  • Much like Inglorious Basterds, the alignment of our empathy is guided through spoken language – we are to side with whoever speaks a language from ‘closer home’. Therefore, the Soviet soldiers speak in English (a linguistic anomaly) and the Nazis speak in German (a linguistic gambit) because while the former is a move to endear, the latter is a move to alienate. Notwithstanding ofcourse that the Soviets speak English in a Kentucky accent; it doesn’t matter.
  • Days of Glory is a rather American film about a group of Soviet soldiers. A war film is a marketplace of ideas – an Indian war film is about selfless, almost lunatic nationalism, the European war film is absurdist theatre, the Soviet war film is a statement about loss of innocence – the American war-film is, buoyed by imaginary victories in all wars they fought, glorious propaganda. By the halfway mark, the Soviet soldiers get rid of their particularly Communist virtue: a lifeless and almost militant devotion to an intangible ideal, and embrace the American idea: one says to another, ‘You have taught me how to live again!’, thereby restoring humanity in the human. There are also the stout comic sideys who keep pulling off visual gags now and then. 
  • The end of the film, however, restores far-leftist insanity in the film – the merry band of soldiers begin delirious sneering and sloganeering and oath-taking as a Nazi tank approaches their stronghold. Such madcap adherence to meaningless ideas (Tourneur makes the sound of the approaching tank so loud that we cannot even hear what the soldiers are saying) in the face of imminent death suddenly converts a dreary, boring, messy American war film into a vital, thriving, animated European war-satire. The heroes are converted into total yuppie-idiots who ride the nuclear warhead while ‘yippie-ki-yaying’ their way to death.
  • There is also one of the strangest shots in all of cinema - almost serene and definitely surreal - as Vladimir looks in the far distance from within the foliage, a Nazi plane is engulfed by anti-aircraft fire. Small dark-grey ruptures around the distant plane suggest misfired projectiles, until one gets the plane – it explodes in the sky and out of it, supported under a neon-white parachute, a pilot descends to safety, until ofcourse, as soon as a hysterical Vladimir wishes it – a projectile gets the pilot too. It is a picture of incredible devastation – and yet, we do not know either the pilot, or the man who fired at him from the ground. Our investment is purely sensual; much like Vladimir's. In the next scene, a comrade admonishes himfor beginning to enjoy 'violence', much like we just did.

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