Monday, January 26, 2009

Valkyrie

On Rotten Tomatoes Bryan Singer's latest film has a 66% tomatometer with the following consensus: "Given the subject matter, Valkyrie could have been an outstanding historical thriller, but settles for being a mildly entertaining, but disposable yarn."

I think that Valkyrie was one of the most underrated films of the year. I'm not saying it was snubbed by the Academy or anything like that but it was a good film. And I am going to use this film as a jumping off point for something that will become rather regular here: the integration of theology/philosophy with film. And also to further my examination of what I believe should be the only truly neutral film aesthetic: pure cinema or what has recently become my personal mantra “Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.”

As a Christian I do not think that it is appropriate to switch off my Christianity while watching movies. I think that many Christians think that it is at the very least permissible to do this, and at the very worst required if one is to make any serious attempt to be an objective and intelligent cinephile.

But there are also many Christians who refuse to watch and/or enjoy films that are not explicitly Christian. 

This seems to be the two sides of the Christian Cinephile coin. Either film is totally separate from their Christianity or it is so enveloped by their Christianity that they do not allow themselves to experience virtually any truly great films. How do we spin this coin? In other words how do we find the balance? Or even more appropriately how then should we watch film? A synthesis is not always the appropriate or necessary response to any two clashing ideologies. 

For clarity sake let's call the more conservative approach fundy and the more liberal approach libby. So we have fundies and libbies and now we need to figure out what to do with them.

Well let's start with Valkyrie. There isn't really anything in this film that would reach out to other the fundy or the libby. It isn't particularly artistic and it isn't overtly Christian. It was directed by a Jew, who also happens to be a homosexual so if there is anything "Christian" in this film it was most likely not intentional. That isn't meant to imply that Jews and homosexuals can't believe in Jesus, but I'm pretty sure Bryan Singer does not fall into this category. The subject matter does seem like it would be of interest to a Jew or a homosexual. After all this is a film about Hitler, which also happens to be Singer's second film dealing directly with the events surrounding the holocaust, and technically his third or fourth considering that the first two X-Men films are directly (Magneto is a holocaust survivor ironically with a genocidal bent who just happens to be played by a homosexual) and metaphorically about the events surrounding the holocaust as well.

So Singer is clearly interested in films that portray the human struggle against not just tyranny but the kind of tyranny that seeks to not only subjugate minorities but obliterate them as well. So we're starting to see a trend here. At first glance and taken on its own Valkyrie may seem to be a "by the numbers" thriller. But when placed into Singer's Canon we see it may have a deeper pro social meaning. I think it is always important to look into a director's self made context as well as his general context when trying to interpret the meaning of his films. 

Another interesting connection can be made between Superman Returns and the four films that we've already seen have an underlying thematic connection. Superman was initially a response to the Germanic Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch (over man). When Shuster and Siegel (also Jews by the way) created Superman part of their intent was to respond to this idea of the over man. Their character would in fact be a super man, a servant instead of a king. This was even more heavily reinforced when Mario Puzo and Richard Donner created the first Superman film intentionally using Christological language to describe Kal-El's journey to earth and his relationship with his father Jor-El as well as his mission on earth. He was supposed to be a messiah in the mythological tradition of Christ. In Singer's film this was again reinforced in language and in action throughout the film. In any case this whole ideology contradicts the very essence of the holocaust that those who are better (or worse believe they are better) than the rest of society should subjugate and rule. Superman is far more powerful than anything Nietzsche or Hitler ever envisioned man could or would become and yet he only acts to protect others. He does not fall prey to the Ring of Gyges, he submits to truth and justice and serves his homeland and the rest of the world as best he can.

I am not trying to make the case here that somehow Singer is a closet Evangelical or Christian filmmaker. Simply that his films contain a common theme, a theme which Christians can and should celebrate. In fact out of all his films Valkyrie may be the most beautiful in light of the Christian aesthetic. 

This film is essentially about one thing: martyrdom. We all know that this plot to kill Hitler doesn't succeed because we all know that Hitler committed suicide. We know before the film even begins that what we are about to watch is at least 2/3 tragedy. We are watching a tail of doomed men. And as becomes more apparent towards the end of the film these men know they are doomed. 

The concept of martyrdom is described differently by different religions. Classic Islamic martyrdom was death while fighting in Holy "Struggle" against the infidel. For Christianity it was death at the hands of your persecutor's for refusal to deny Christ. For some it takes on the connotation of death to self. In any case martyrdom has always involved meaningful death. A true martyr is not someone who has simply thrown his life away. He has given it up for something far more valuable than life itself.

When Christianity spread to the Icelandic Nordic tribes of Europe it was accepted without a great deal of struggle. There are probably many explanations for this but I think the one that makes the most sense is that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ not only met but fulfilled and completed the highest virtue of the Norse worldview: "The hero who goes freely to his death in a battle that he knows is unwinnable." The Nordic myths were all about continuous cosmic conflict that ultimately ended with the good guys losing. Ragnorok or as it is called in Wagner's Ring Cycle: Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods). And this wasn't just defeat. This was the end of the world as we know it. But Jesus Christ meets this virtue and then does the Nordic gods one better. After he loses, he wins. God dies and then miraculously turns utter defeat into complete and total victory. And he wins because of his defeat at the hands of evil, not in spite of it. He freely and knowingly commits himself into the hands of death in order to defeat death itself.

How could these people resist The Christ? Maybe he didn't carry a sword or ride goats around killing frost giants but he did what was most important to them. He martyred himself not just for honor's sake but for our sake. The dark cold world that bred the Norse gods created deep despair in the hearts of those who believed in these myths. They had to believe that fighting against what were literally insurmountable odds was a good thing. They never imagined that there might be a way to do both. To lose, and by losing to win. Christianity allowed them (for lack of a better idiom) to have their cake and eat it too!

The small band of German insurgents that pull together to try to beat Hitler are direct descendents of these people. After trying to figure out the best way to kill Hitler and yet escape the wrath of the Nazi's they decide that in the end it only matters that they act. Regardless of whether or not they are successful they must act in order to tell the world that not all Germans were like Hitler. And in acting they secure their own deaths, deaths that prove to the world that not all of Germany was evil. They act as true patriots. Giving their lives for the sake of their country. In other words by dying they win.

Some of the criticisms of the film were along the lines of characterization. The characters were not fully fleshed out. Well, this wasn't a story about characters. It wasn't a deep study of humanity. It was a story about sacrifice. They could have drug the film out for another hour but instead Singer showed us the events (pretty much as they happened) and gave us the justification: Valkyrie. This reference to Wagner's opera is important. And we know it is important because Stauffenberg's light goes on while listening to The Ride of the Valkyries. The camera zooms in on the record spinning round and round keying us into its significance. The average viewer couldn't possible understand all the implications of this. Which is unfortunate. But by tying in these Germans to their Nordic heritage through Wagner we see that these men are acting in line with an ancient heritage and tradition. A tradition that became easily synthesized with Christianity. 

So do we love this film because of its genetic roots to Christianity? I don't think you even need this background to understand what this film is truly about. I think we can love this film because of its portrayal of self-sacrifice. All of the parts are well played. The script and direction are solid. But it is really the content that raises this film out of the tomatometer's gutter.

I think properly applied this Christian aesthetic should be able to please the fundies and the libbies, but it probably will not. In spite of this I think I have demonstrated in this review and commentary that we can be Christians and yet be good film goers. I will eventually deal with other films that seem even farther from the Christian world view and I will do my best to show their true value.

I think this was a very good film. Completely in line with the Christian aesthetic and the aesthetic of Pure Cinema. And now I leave you with the most important line of the film:

"We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler's Germany."

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