(This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for several days, but since it mentions The White Ribbon, which I just named 2009′s best film, I thought I might as well share it.)
I just got around to reading Timothy Snyder’s brilliantly lucid article Holocaust: The ignored reality, fittingly after recently seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Snyder’s piece puts a fresh face on what we take for granted and don’t much think about anymore.
One of the things that struck me while reading it was the absolutely systematic nature of the Nazi death factory. Snyder’s analysis is like a historian flying over a war zone long after the battle, drawing connections that one couldn’t have possibly made from the ground. For those who were caught up in it, none or little of this may have been visible: glimpses of horror, and of humanity, are what make a war for those living it (which is why even the brightest individuals, like Martin Heidegger, can say they knew little of the things we know now). After the fact it’s less helpful to assign blame than it is to try to understand what happened and why it happened. Those causes have been much discussed and debated, and Haneke’s film, while not making an original argument, is probably as good a cinematic distillation of one of those arguments as any. Specifically, The White Ribbon is a kind of Freudo-Reicho-Foucauldian dissection of the repression that makes us enjoy the violence of authority and that nudges us toward the fascism in our hearts. (I say “us” and “our” because Haneke has said he doesn’t mean for the film to be just about turn-of-the-century Germany.)
The other things that struck me in Snyder’s article concern the territories, those soft pieces of dank earth, that were most bloodied by virtue of their being caught between the two great bone-crushing machines (the Red and the Brown): Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. (I have some familiarity with those areas, in addition to ancestry, and understand the difficulty of exhuming their pasts and dealing with their ghosts.)
Despite the deadliness of the Nazi machine, both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were systematic attempts to realize a certain political ecology, that is, to organize its production of material goods (food and fuel) from the ground up so as to feed and sustain a certain organization of social power and authority. Understanding the way such a social organism, such a body politic, comes to life remains one of the challenges of our time. That understanding requires taking into account not only social processes, but affective, somatic, and ecological processes and the ways these all interact. One might think of this as a kind of golem construction, the making of an artificial creature out of production practices (the ways the earth is turned into food and fuel), somatic and affective orientations, and social structures, all of them premised on certain delineations between an inside and an outside, an us and a them, a certain identification of the enemy, and certain local and global goals. As Snyder writes: