I love stories. It's safe to say that I'm probably addicted to them. Whether it's books, movies, history, poems, songs, people with interesting lives or thoughts, the crazy guy on the street corner, my own bizarre, half-cocked ideas and fantasies, or even television, I love stories. Sometimes I make up stories about people's lives when I don't know much about them, just because it makes the ho-hum moments of the typical day a little more interesting. Sitting next to a weirdo who won't stop talking to you about God knows what on your morning bus route? Well, what if that weirdo was really an undercover agent playing up his cover to blend into the type of scenery we commoners expect on a city bus, such as the typical weirdos who won't leave us alone, no matter how far we shove our noses into our books or how loud we crank up the volume on our iPods? Well, what if he was a secret agent on some sort of risky, confidential mission that only people in the higher echelons of politics and crime know about? What if he knows all the things that conspiracy theorists have wet dreams over, and he's just in disguise because he has to keep his holy-shit-worthy knowledge to himself until he gets paid a gajillion dollars to get that information into the right hands?
|You know, like Val Kilmer in The Saint.|
This scenario gets weird and borderline creepy if you let it run away with you, and you have to remember that the smelly meth-head on the bus is, well, just a smelly meth-head on the bus...as boring as that is.
|But what if...okay, just hear me out. What if the meth-head was like Val Kilmer in The Saint, and you're totally missing your chance to be his Elisabeth Shue love interest? What if?|
Yeah, that's right. The Twilight Zone. The late 1950s-mid-1960s television show about all things creepy and bizarre. The paranormal, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic world scenarios (we were in the throes of the Cold War then, after all), mind over matter, life after death, missing time, and that creepy motherfucker that William Shatner saw out on the wing of the plane, all have their special place in the stories of this beloved classic television series, and in our psyches.
|Seriously, WHAT THE FUCK?|
But what I really love about The Twilight Zone, is not just that it can legitimately give its viewers the creeps 40+ years after its airing, long before our culture decided to dive off the deep end of the creep factor and into the gratuitous gross-out, sociopathic, depraved cheapness that are movies such as Hostel, The Human Centipede, and other over the top cinematic crap that I refuse to waste a second of my life indulging in. (Yes, I have an opinion about those movies, and I've never seen them. When a movie or story is known more for its reputation of ickiness rather than what it actually is, like say, American Psycho, which I have seen and don't care to read, then I think I can skip the hour and a half of mindless brutality masquerading as something deep and profound, and get right to the judgment and condemnation part of the movie-going experience). No, what I love most about The Twilight Zone, is that it goes into the depths of the human psyche and explores our fears, emotions, memories we'd rather forget, and really, the darkest parts of our humanity--the things that, for better or worse, make us human. It does a damn good job of doing this, too. It's impressive that a show dating back to the infancy of a new storytelling medium, the television, can so consistently and successfully examine difficult human experiences and emotions in both a nuanced and bizarre fashion. Or maybe not. Perhaps I give modern television too much credit. While there are some good series out there today, so much airtime is dominated by the never-ending stream of "reality" television shows that basically have millions of viewers watching to see who will fuck who at the end of (or during) whatever stupid competition they are involved in. Seriously, these shows are all an elaborate mating ritual for us to watch like a bunch of voyeurs who forgot that you can just as easily access free porn on the internet, and get to the final outcome of the show's premise, and in more detail to boot. The existence of these shows are only here to feed us a sad slice of the crap pie that we've made of our pop-culture. It's all so hollow.
So the other night, while I was staying up way too late yet again, I was looking through the premises of the Twilight Zone episodes available on Netflix, and came across the one called "Death's Head Re-visited." This episode is not quite like the other episodes, at least for me and probably many other Jews, because of it's subject matter: the Holocaust.
"Death's Head Revisited" was written and aired in 1961, during the infamous Eichman Trial. In the story, a former SS officer returns to the Fatherland from his exile in South America, convinced that enough time has passed for him to return and wax nostalgic over his days as a brutal officer at Dachau during WWII. The officer, Gunther Lutze, checks into a local inn and the woman at the front counter is clearly shaken by his presence. She reluctantly admits to him, after he intimidates her, that he reminds her of an SS officer from the war, as the SS commonly used to stay at the inn. Lutze insists that he was battling on the Russian front during the war, and she must have him mistaken for someone else. Still, clearly getting off on her obvious fear of him, he implies rather heavily that he is that former SS soldier that she suspects him to be, but what is she going to do about it?
Lutze decides to go to the Dachau camp to revisit his glory days of absolute power. A true sadist, Lutze wanders about the ruins of the camp, and reminisces fondly of hangings, denying water to a dehydrated man begging on his knees, and rousing exhausted prisoners from their slumber early in the morning in freezing temperatures to go outside into the snow and do "some exercises." The imagery used during Lutze's recollection of the days from the war are quite convincing. By this time, seventeen years after the end of the WWII, the world knew what those death camps looked like, and what the prisoners suffered through within their walls and electrified fences. It's somewhat alarming to see it in the context of a Twilight Zone episode.
|Lutze imagines his victims as they were in their last moments.|
Then Lutze encounters a familiar face when a former inmate, still clad in his striped prisoner's garb, shows up. They discuss the war and the past a bit, with Lutze nonchalantly considering the past to be nothing terribly offensive, that a few silly mistakes were committed, and of course, he was only following orders, just like any good soldier would. The man from his past, Alfred Becker, is calm in his demeanor...as calm as the dead. He reminds Lutze that ten million human lives were extinguished in the camps and that the tortures and inhumane evils they were subjected to are a bottomless pit of human depravity and injustice. When Becker informs Lutze that he's there to be put on trial, and Lutze suddenly remembers that Becker was among the many victims killed by his brutality, he panics and tries to leave. The Dachau gates close; Lutze can't leave, because you see, he is to be put on trial for crimes against humanity by the very people he tortured and killed.
Lutze, of course, flips out. But there's nothing he can do, and within the blink of an eye he finds himself on the floor of one of Dachau's bunkers. As he looks up, the camera lingers on his horrified expression before revealing to the audience what he sees:
Gripped with panic, Lutze attempts to plead his case ("Let me go! This is inhumane! I was following orders!"). He tries frantically to escape while Becker reads from a list of charges, all that Lutze is on trial for. He numbers the murders, the tortures and the human experiments while the faces of the victims look on solemnly and hauntingly real. Lutze begins to scream in protest as Becker continues to read, almost drowned completely out by Lutze. His screams are so piercing, so convincing, that there's an uncomfortable moment as the viewer, where you almost feel sorry for him. Almost: "What, feel sorry for a Nazi? What's wrong with me?" But that's the point: most of us, I like to think, have a heart, and naturally deplore the sound of the tortured screams of another human being. And yet there's some satisfaction in it as well, because we know what kind of man Lutze is. Many like him got away with murder and so much more after the war, and were never brought to trial. This realization makes the whole story that much more compelling. Lutze, of course, has no remorse for his actions. The remorse he feels comes from being caught and to face punishment for what he really knows was beyond wrong.
Lutze passes out, and when he comes to, only Becker is there. Lutze begins to run all over the camp like a wild animal caught in a cage, while Becker reads him his sentence: a lifetime of insanity. What's more, is that he can feel the pain he has inflicted upon his victims; he feels the bullets that pierced their bodies, he feels the fear that gripped them and he feels the torment of the medical experiments. He writhes and screams while Becker tells him, "This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice. But this is only the beginning, Captain. Only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from God."
|Lutze writhing in pain while Becker looks on.|
At the end of the episode Lutze is found on the grounds of the Dachau camp and has to be sedated before they take him away to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, doctors try to understand what could make a man unravel so quickly. As they stand in the Dachau ruins, the doctor wonders aloud, why Dachau is still standing. The innkeeper from the beginning also mentions wanting to burn the place to the ground. In Rod Serling's closing monologue, he states, "There is an answer to the doctor's question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes - all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth."
I sometimes have a difficult time with anything revolving around the Holocaust. I've never completely explored Yad Vashem despite my year in Jerusalem; one walk through the Children's Memorial after visiting other parts of the museum knocked my spirits too low to continue through the rest of the place. I attended only half of the day of classes at Pardes on Yom HaShoah, knowing that there is only so much I can stomach. I am consistently disappointed in, and sometimes disgusted with Holocaust movies. I have accepted that Hollywood is not in the business of telling historical truths or striving for accuracy, nor should it be. And I am, for some reason, more receptive to theater productions that touch on the Holocaust. But most movies, no matter how well-made and well-acted The Pianist is, no matter how sensitive and respectful Schindler's List is, I just can't watch them with any sort of cathartic satisfaction. What actually happened is too awful for me to wrap my head around, so watching a movie about it seems ultimately absurd.
But I do also recognize that people tell stories, whether through cinema, stage, music, text, or conversation, to try to understand, analyse, describe and express the wide variety of human experiences and emotions. We're complicated, we do complicated things for complicated reasons, and we don't always fully understand why. And yet, isn't that what people are always trying to answer? Who, what, when, where and how are easy enough most cases. It's the why that we understand the least, but try so hard to.
I was really surprised by and impressed with "Death's Head Revisited," perhaps because it doesn't ask why. It's simply the story of a sadistic brute who thought he got away with murder a thousand times over, but was ultimately caught, tried, judged and punished. That is satisfying catharsis. I had the same feeling, (but a bit more exhilarated), when I watched Inglorious Basterds (the many times I've watched it). Sometimes, I just want to see Hitler get his face blown to bits by a machine gun, and clap my hands in triumph over a theater full of Nazis exploding. Sure, it sounds awful, but hey, I'm human. We can be pretty awful. Better to satisfy that desire for revenge via fantasy and storytelling, especially when feeling so powerless. Revenge stories help us cope. We get to imagine taking down evil and bringing it to justice. It's great a story, and we tell it over and over again.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some more stories to watch, read and listen to. I'm always living my story, so I might as well escape from it for a bit and tell myself another one. Storytelling and fantasizing, if you do it well, can be rather illuminating and thought provoking, after all.