Michael Verhoeven's Courage

It’s easy to be opinionated about a big frivolous Hollywood entertainment. It’s easy to be opinionated about a small earnest non-Hollywood non-entertainment. But Michael Verhoeven’s My Mother’s Courage doesn’t fit neatly into either of these categories. It’s certainly small, earnest, non-Hollywood. But it is also entertaining. One day last May I watched Claude Lanzmann’s nine hour Holocaust documentary Shoah. My friends thought I was crazy. Here was yet another proof of my melodramatic melancholy. But I was strangely entertained. And not because I am in any way an anti-Semite. I was entertained because I was moved. Moved as many people were by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, another terribly sad but strangely watchable Holocaust movie. But My Mother’s Courage is not entertaining in this way. My Mother’s Courage is entertaining in a more traditional way. Entertaining because it is funny. Frequently very funny. But this funniness, this entertainingness is disturbing. Disturbingly non-traditional. Because My Mother’s Courage too is a Holocaust movie. And traditionally, Holocaust movies just don’t make you laugh.

“We now know that a man can come home in the evening, read Rilke, listen to a Beethoven Sonata, and go to work in a concentration camp the next morning.” - George Steiner

“To write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” - Theodor Dreiser

Verhoeven speaks of his film thus: “It’s an entertaining film - of course - there’s no point in making a film that no-one wants to see. But I think it is not an easy film.” Easiness is what both Steiner and Dreiser are condemning. The sweet sounds that give delight and hurt not of so much art are out. If Rilke or Beethoven can salve the conscience of a guilty man then they too are guilty by association. For both Steiner and Dreiser the Holocaust necessitates an agenda. Art must no longer complacently soothe. Thematically, stylistically, it must shake up, challenge.

The thematically, stylistically challenging art of Third Reich Germany was deemed degenerate. The “Second Viennese school” of serialist composers, taking music where it logically but also frighteningly had to go, was forced to disband. The art of Karl Hubbusch, Geroge Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckstein and Oskar Kokoshka was forbidden. The unnamed SS Officer in My Mother’s Courage, played with sinister insouciance by Verhoeven regular Ulrich Tukur, cannot be bothered with his charges. He much prefers to read his lyric poetry and listen to his lyric music. When Elsa Tabori, the mother of the film’s title, asks for clemency, it is readily granted. But as Verhoeven observes, this is less a case of kindness, more a case of game-playing: “In my eyes he is saving her to show her his power. If he is concerned about people then he would have saved 4000 people.” One is reminded of the advice given by Oscar Schindler in Spielberg’s film. That real power is the power to pardon. The pardoning of Elsa Tabori by the effete SS Officer is the pardoning of the truly degenerate. He can afford to pardon her because she is an amusement to him, just like his pretty music and his pretty poetry.

But if the SS Officer is the epitome of Steiner’s lamented decadent concentration camp worker, then within Verhoeven’s film he plays a more controversial role: “You know in my country people have difficulties with this officer. They ask how I can dare show an officer who is so nice...” The niceness of the SS Officer shakes up and challenges the soothing complacencies implicit in most Holocaust movies: “What I find interesting is that the guilt of the SS in our history is very important so that we can pick a group and say these are the guilty people. Whereas all the other people like the normal soldier of course has no guilt whereas we now know that the German Wehrmacht, which was the regular army, was quite heavily concerned with the killing of the Jews in Russia.”

The filmmaker and critic David Mamet notoriously lambasted Schindler’s List for what he argued was its propogation of these soothing complacencies. Schindler’s List is immoral, he argued, because its good guys are good and its bad guys bad. One leaves the cinema dangerously reassured and dangerously entertained by this reassurance. One leaves the cinema feeling good because one leaves the cinema feeling good about oneself. One leaves the cinema feeling one could never be guilty of such atrocities. According to Mamet, Schindler’s List is too black and white.

My next door neighbour knocked on my door the other day to tell me that he had made a pleasing discovery. He had found his heart. Watching Schindler’s List on t.v., he had caught himself getting quite sniffy. He had only one complaint. He resented the last fifteen minutes of the film, the colour section in which the actors walk hand in hand with the people they have played and lay down stones in remembrance. This, he claimed, was unnecessary heart string tugging. I suspect that Mamet viewed it differently. Perhaps the ending is the only part of the movie he applauded. Part of the problem with Schindler’s List is that it appears to be so objective. Shot in grainy black-and-white and twice the length of most movies, the docu- is stressed over the drama. This is always the danger with biopics, but with a biopic dealing with such serious and emotive issues, it is a danger doubly necessary to avoid. Those colourful final fifteen minutes remind us of this. That what we have been watching is a fictionalisation of fact. They are therefore perhaps the most important fifteen minutes of the entire movie.

I suspect that Mamet would like My Mother’s Courage rather more. The film is based upon a stageplay by the Hungarian playwright George Tabori. Tabori’s play is based upon the diaries of his mother, Elsa. The film is therefore a dramatisation of a dramatisation of fact. It begins with the playwright meeting Pauline Collins, the actress who plays his mother. Pauline Collins was not the first choice: “To always make sure we are not dealing with the real thing I had in mind to take an actress with dark brown eyes because in the film they are always talking about the beautiful blue eyes of the mother. They should have been talking about her blue eyes but what you should see is only the brown eyes which reminds you that this is not the lady. She is only the actress.” Throughout the film Verhoeven takes care to remind us of the artifice behind his art: “This is merely a film. This has nothing to do with a documentary. We are only a film. Nobody here really is in danger. Don’t forget that the real suffering and the real experience is far away from what we can show you.”

In Tabori’s stageplay, the two officers who arrest his mother are Laurel and Hardy. In Verhoeven’s film, we also find allusions to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and to Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete. And to the ‘forbidden’ paintings of Dix and co.. The allusions again remind us that what we are watching is a fictionalisation. And watching this unreal world, based as it is upon three comic masterpieces, we cannot help but laugh. But the laughter is dark and uneasy: “The humour and the slapstick means that the people who are involved and are in their way victimisers don’t think they are... In Jour de Fete Jacques Tati plays a postman who does not really see what happens in the town because he is is so concerned with his success he had. And that is why I wanted to have the figure of this person in my film. He is one of the people who brings the Jews onto the train and he does not even think about what he does because most of the energy of bringing people to their deadly fate was only had by doing a little duty a little thing which did not look like murder or something but still was. I wanted to have that slapstick which also deals with very dangerous things. And so I took these little scenes in my film first to make sure it belongs to a genre which is film and not the real Shoah and then also to give a new view because most of the films I have seen are very sentimental and I wanted to avoid this.”

My Mother’s Courage certainly avoids sentimentality. It is the most unmoving Holocaust movie I have ever seen. But I mean that in a good way. My Mother’s Courage makes you think, and perhaps only after deep thought can one truly begin to feel.

Clive Johnson

Review of My Mother's Courage from Issue 5

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