For the first four decades of my life, the world seemed uncertainly balanced on the edge of oblivion, the arrows of nuclear Armageddon hovering in their missile silos only a pushed button away from rendering the earth uninhabitable for ten millennia and longer. And then humankind took a step away from the abyss. As the fresh air of freedom swept through central and eastern Europe for the first time in half a century, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union disintegrated and apocalyptic warfare faded into the realm of science fiction.
But we did not really beat our swords in plowshares; rather, we melted them into bricks of bullion and made ourselves unfathomably rich. When we might have tilled the fields of a hungry world, instead we scattered the globe with our indifference and therein no doubt sowed the seeds of bitter neglect now polluting the world with the poisonous fruit of cultural hatred. It isn't that we always behaved well during the long, frightening years of the Cold War, but the realities of geopolitical chess required that we pay attention to peoples in Africa and Asia, even if we regarded them as mere pawns in our struggle against international Communism. As the fifties gave way to the sixties and seventies, leaders of developing nations became skilled in playing the superpowers off one against the other, and that strategy both gave them stature and brought them aid. But when Moscow laid down its king, the game was also over for the developing world.
The doomsday clock of nuclear holocaust has been set back from its quivering position one tick from midnight. But for many, the world has not become a safer place. In the last decade we have seen ethnic rivalries flame into vicious fighting in east Africa, in the former Yugoslavia and over and over again in the Middle East. "Islamic fundamentalism" spreads terror through the Algerian countryside. A "Christian" policy of ethnic cleansing validates the murder of unarmed Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. As I write, Muslims and Hindus massacre each other by the hundreds in west India while the Israeli army fires missiles into shanty towns and Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up with the vengeful satisfaction that their own deaths are purchased with the suffering of so many of their enemy.
Where do we go from here?
One would wish to say to church, or to mosque, synagogue or temple. But since so much of world strife revolves around religious differences, since people (at least in pretense) are killing each other in the name of the God they think theirs alone, one hesitates before adducing a religious approach. But to put a contemporary linguistic spin on Luther's Ich kann nicht anders, "I can't help myself." Still, the guidance I recommend is not found in a conventional place of worship but in your local video store, in Robert Benton's Places in the Heart and in Jan Hrebejk's Divided We Fall.
Dream of Redemption
Released in 1984, writer/director Benton's Places in the Heart is beautiful in the way only the most heartfelt works of art can be. The film is appropriately quiet, and its digressive narrative about a young Depression-era widow's struggle to keep her family together and her small homestead from foreclosure is paced to approximate American farm life in the 1930s. Seldom in its long history has Hollywood produced a film with as much compassion for and insight into the vanishing culture of the rural American South, a culture of poverty and hardship in many respects, particularly in the era of the movie's setting, not so very far removed from those in developing nations today.
Sally Field stars as Edna Spalding, the Waxahachie, Texas, housewife whose sheriff husband is accidentally killed one day in the line of duty. Like all of the more than a half-dozen characters Benton creates here, Edna is multi-dimensional and exceptionally well-drawn. When her husband dies, she is so totally ignorant of the "man's" world that she doesn't even know how to write a check. But she learns. And she learns too that marrying imagination to determination can sometimes hold off the savagely indifferent forces in American society which routinely crush those unfortunate enough to be born female or poor or black.
But to his considerable credit, Benton doesn't allow Places in the Heart to become just a pedestrian tale about "human courage." The picture is too much about flesh and blood characters to settle for being merely "inspirational." And, in fact, the film is finally pessimistic about our being able to devise even a fleeting paradise in this world. But Places in the Heart can bear the weight of its gloomy world view because it makes us care in an immediately personal way about so many characters, characters for whom Benton has such respect that he assiduously avoids a condescending idealization and instead reveals them to us warts and all. In addition to Edna, two of these characters are worthy of especial examination: Mr. Will (John Malkovich), the blind boarder who takes up residence in Edna's house and thus helps her defray the expense of her mortgages, and Moze (Danny Glover), the itinerant black beggar who stays with Edna for a season and helps her plant and then harvest a crop of cotton.
A disabled veteran from World War I, Mr. Will seems a haughty and coldly self-pitying loner when he first arrives in Edna's house. But almost against his will he is drawn into the fabric of Edna's family until he is indistinguishable from an actual blood relative. A similar process happens with Moze. Moze arrives at Edna's doorstep offering to perform odd jobs to earn a meal and an opportunity to bed down in a shed. Moze is strong and proud, but he's also a survivor. He'll work if he can, steal if he has to. Part of Moze's strength is that he doesn't try to fight battles he can't win. However much it scalds his insides, he shows white men the deference they insist upon as the price of avoiding their senseless wrath.
Benton evolves several themes from the lives of these characters. In political and economic terms, Benton shows us the ways in which men adhere to certain principles of behavior in the face of what surely must be their more human instincts. The banker who threatens Edna with foreclosure is a deacon in his church. He's not particularly likable; he's humorless, patronizing and self-serving. But he's not a stereotypical hypocrite. And he takes his Christian duty to be charitable with some seriousness. Yet he's able to confront Edna with the unblinking suggestion that to honor her obligations to the bank she should break up her family. Similarly, in social terms, Benton depicts the historic racism of the South as vicious but almost unconscious. Its consequences are unspeakable, but its practitioners commit their atrocities with little enthusiasm and less public approbation. It's no accident, in other words, that the Klan conducts its activities under the cover of darkness and wrapped in the shrouds of its hooded white sheets. In this connection Benton evinces a depth of subtlety that is uncommon among men working in American cinema. He tries to repudiate the racist deed while harboring the hope of redemption for the doer.
And so in the final analysis, Places in the Heart is a profoundly religious film. It begins with a hymn and a family saying grace and ends with a church service. It suggests that men are better than the institutions they create, better even than the ideas they adhere to. God's creatures, they have fallen from the garden and now abide in a cacophony of moral chaos, often blind to their own ignorance. And yet, God's creatures still, God's grace shines upon them. In a scene echoing Faulkner, Edna's son casually refers to Moze as a "nigger." But Frank is ignorant rather than cruel. This fact hardly makes it easier for a bristling Moze to accept that he lives in a world where grown black men can be off-handedly insulted by white children. But it does provide the context out of which Moze can forgive Frank even though the boy never realizes that he's committed a transgression. Complicit with this strategy, Benton attacks stereotypical notions at almost every turn. Edna's lawman husband, Royce (Ray Baker), is not at all the "redneck" our prejudices lead us to associate with men in his profession. And his death at the hands of a drunken young black man is a particular tragedy, because in the moments before Wylie (Devoreaux White) accidentally shoots the sheriff, it becomes clear that they know and are fond of one another. Black and white, townsmen and farmer, banker and debtor, they are all God's children, and though they frequently fail to understand their connections, they are all in the "it" of their conjoined lives together. This is the abiding lesson that Places in the Heart offers from the time of its making nearly two decades ago to our contemporary world so riven with violent notions of otherness.
Co-written with Petr Jarchovsky, Hrebejk's 2000 Oscar nominee, Divided We Fall, is a film so chock-a-block with insight into the human psyche and so pregnant with wise advice about human behavior, the viewer inevitably wants to see it twice. In what seems an almost incidental scene about a set of minor characters, a sneering mother holds a series of children aloft so they can slap the face of a prisoner. The mother and her children are Czech, and the prisoner is a German Nazi who has been toppled from power near the end of World War II. The children do not know the man they strike and so do not inflict much physical damage. But harm is done, not immediately to the prisoner, but perhaps forever to the children, for they have just endured their first lesson in what can be the sad self-righteousness of hatred.
Divided We Fall is the story of a group of small-town Czechs, trying in their several ways to survive the Nazi reign of terror across their country during World War II. Childless and somewhat emotionally defeated, Josef (Boleslav Poivka) and Marie (Anna Siskova) Cizek hope that the Nazi menace will burn itself out and leave them unscathed. Before the war, Josef was director of sales for a large, prosperous company owned by a Jewish family. But the Jews have all been carted away to concentration camps in Poland, and the company has gone out of business. As the guns and bombs of combat boom within earshot, Josef and Marie lie low, craving anonymity, hoping that in not being noticed they might survive. Josef's former employee Horst Prohazka (Jaroslav Dusek) takes an entirely different tack. A native Czech, but an ethnic German, Horst becomes a flamboyant Nazi collaborator, much to the dismay of the Cizeks who have long tolerated Horst out of pity far more than they ever actually liked him. Some of the Cizeks neighbors, such as Frantisek Simacek (Jeri Pecha), behave like chameleons, denouncing Jews to curry favor with the Nazis but later outing Nazi sympathizers to ingratiate themselves with the victorious Russians.
While the Nazis still rule, life becomes breathtakingly dangerous one night When Josef encounters David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), the son of Josef's former boss. David has borne witness to his family's murder at Auschwitz, to the unspeakable horror of watching his sister taunted with the offer to save herself if only she'd club her parents to death for the amusement of sociopathic guards. Now, miraculously, David has managed to escape from the concentration camp. Without sanctuary in a hostile world, he has returned home, hoping to find refuge among the people with whom he grew up. But he's betrayed immediately and barely escapes anew when Frantisek alerts Nazi soldiers to his presence in town. Josef does not do likewise. He remembers David with fondness and remains grateful to David's father for his friendship and long-time employment. Josef might wish that this duty not fall to him, but he does not shirk it. He takes David home and secures a place for him in the attic of his tiny house.
Divided We Fall bills itself as a dark comedy, and the picture stages certain scenes for ironic humor. Josef and Marie have managed to buy a whole smoked pig on the black market. But there isn't room in their hideaway attic for the contraband pig and David both. So they have to cook and the eat the pork in a gluttonous orgy. Unfortunately, the smell of roasting meat calls them to the attention of the authorities, the last thing they desired. Horst helps them out of this spot, as he does others, and helps himself to ample portions of their roast pork in the process. Subsequently, in an almost farcical sequence, David hides under the covers in Marie's bed when Horst and a Nazi official show up uninvited one afternoon. Joseph Heller's great "Catch-22" has proven that riotous laughter can even be extracted from the idiocy of war, and though mass murder and comedy are an uncomfortable mix, Mel Brooks has proved with the "Springtime for Hitler" nonsense in The Producers that we can even laugh at the Holocaust. Thank God.
Like Places in the Heart, Divided We Fall is unusually adept at developing its characters in depth. Josef is a hero, but he's neither a natural nor uncomplicated one. He's mostly kind to David's face, but he grumbles behind David's back, resents fate for making him feel obliged to risk his own life to save David's. Late in the film Josef selfishly demands that David not make another attempt to escape from town because Josef needs to produce David at some point to save face with his neighbors. In the hands of other and lesser filmmakers, Horst would have been a monster. Yes, he's a Nazi, and yes, at a pivotal moment he allows his longtime infatuation with Marie to metastasize into attempted rape. All the same, Hrebejk and Jarchovsky make Horst a profoundly human figure. As a boy Horst was the target of Czech prejudice against Germans and derided with the nickname "Wurst (Sausage)." But Horst's decision to join the Nazi Party is forthrightly made for personal advantage, not out of any allegiance to racist Nazi ideology or even remote affinity for the notion of Deutschland über alles. On the contrary, Horst retains a sense of loyalty to his Czech homeland and never sinks to hating all Czechs because some were cruel to him. He remembers with true gratitude the kindness Josef showed in hiring him when others would not. And to repay that debt, in his busybody, ever obnoxious way, Horst is always doing Josef favors. He brings food for the Cizeks, gives Josef tips on how to keep from drawing SS attention to himself and even gets Josef a job. And at a critical juncture and at considerable personal risk he instinctively chooses friendship over politics, protecting Josef and Marie when failing to do so would cost them their lives.
Even the minor characters in Divided We Fall are afforded development in depth. The vicious Nazi official who sneers that one German is worth 20 Slavs and 100 Jews, subsequently, and genuinely, apologizes to the Cizeks. By that time, he is a broken man, devastated with sorrow for the battlefield deaths of his sons, his youngest child, 15 at the most, shot by his own comrades when he tried to desert under fire. Meanwhile, Josef's neighbor Frantisek, once a man hysterically determined to save himself by denouncing Jews, has joined the Resistance. More important, knowing the lesson of his own perfidy, he is willing to revise his views of others rather than hold fast to earlier impressions based, perhaps, on less than complete evidence.
This careful layering of character sets the stage for the film's stunning last quarter which delivers its themes as if from a choir of angels. Divided We Fall was made and released before the events of September 11, 2001, but the implications of its title seem a foretold response to some of our reactions to that traumatic event. The phrase "United we stand" is often invoked to rouse people to action. And we heard it often on the lips of Americans in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on our homeland. It is, then, telling that in Hrebejk's movie only Horst says, "United we stand," and by the picture's end even he has switched to the more defensive and communitarian, "divided we fall." Upon signing America's Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is said to have joked, "We must all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately." That's the mindset Hrebejk is trying to communicate with his title and in the action of his film. Survival depends on embracing one another, even those we have come to regard as enemies. We have to set those differences aside, look away from the past and toward some more hopeful future where all can be included and all can prosper.
Divided We Fall is forthrightly about World War II and Nazi genocide, but can a motion picture's theme conceivably be more relevant to the violent world we inhabit in the winter of 2002? Yugoslavia has divided and fallen into chaos, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, most recently in Macedonia. Civil war under another name rages in Israel. A fragile peace threatens to shatter in Northern Ireland. All too readily we remember our own suffering and point fingers at those who wounded us. But this film in its conscious symbolism asks that we heed Jesus' advice that the first stone be cast by someone without sin.
Divided We Fall and Places in the Heart conclude in strikingly similar ways, and the endings of both films pack the emotional wallop of a freight train. In both, the dead are risen and miraculously reconciled. At an instructive early moment in Divided We Fall Josef studies the framed Madonna which hangs over his living-room sofa, and as he examines the image, the Virgin Mother's face transforms into that of his own barren wife, who has long prayed before this painting for a child the couple has never managed to conceive. In short, Josef and Marie have not been named accidentally, nor is it mere casual circumstance that at the film's climax they become parents of a Jewish baby. And this newborn, brought into the world amid a program of genocide greater even than that of Herod, arrives as a unifying force heralding the incredible power of second chances, of forgiveness.
In Places in the Heart, after the narrative events of this world have been played out to their inconclusive but nonetheless somber end, Benton cuts to a church service which at first we presume to be taking place in Waxahachie, but which we shortly discover could only occur in the kingdom of God. A communion is taking place, and as the parishioners pass the wine amongst themselves, we find in attendance the dead as well as the living. The white sheriff Royce and the drunken black gunman Wylie, who have been responsible for one another's deaths, speak to one another: "Peace of the Lord." The people of the town are in attendance, including those newly arrived, Moze and Mr. Will. Only at this brilliant moment does Benton's insight fail him. Hrebejk's concluding vision makes room for all, but in Benton's church service, the members of the KKK are not afforded seats in the pew. Benton's likely point is the Biblical observation that "many are called but few are chosen." By their actions on earth the klansmen have squandered their hope for salvation. But at the same time the exclusion of the klansmen represents a less courageous vision than everything else in Places in the Heart. For if indeed God shines his grace on the just and the unjust, if indeed there is such a thing as the kingdom of God, then surely it could encompass something even as unfathomable as redemption for the KKK.
In these horrifying days in which Pakistani madmen identifying themselves as devotees of Islam videotape themselves decapitating American reporter Daniel Pearl, my own heart is stubbornly resistant to the peace of forgiveness. And yet I know that forgiveness is our only hope, that blood begets only more blood. Both Divided We Fall and, somewhat less completely, Places in the Heart make this point as effectively as art can. In the end I am reminded of what my friend Will Campbell replied when asked if he believed in heaven. "Heaven is where Anne Frank chases Adolf Hitler around for a thousand years," Will replied, "until finally Hitler stops and lets her pin a star of David on his shirt." My prayer for peace is that in some millennium to come I might want to take communion with Mohammed Atta.