Yearning for the Hand of God
Fredrick Barton

“We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway."
Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly

THE DEBATE CAN TRACE ITSELF TO MAN'S EARLIEST endeavors to understand himself. What kind of creatures are we? Seventeenth-century philoso­pher John Locke and such eighteenth-century fol­lowers as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson believed that humans are fundamentally good and left to their own devices will settle them­selves in free and politically just societies. Thomas Hobbes, Locke's great intellectual rival, had a rather more sour view, maintaining that the natu­ral condition of man is that of the "war of every­one against everyone" and the state of ungoverned life as being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

The politically conservative columnist George F. Will, a writer with whom I seldom agree on matters other than baseball, generally sides with Hobbes. I am reluctant to agree, and yet largely unable to refute his evidence. A couple of years ago Will called attention to a horrifying incident that took place in Poland during World War II. The Nazis captured a small Polish town where Catholic and Jewish citizens in about equal num­bers had lived peaceably side by side for centuries. With the storm troopers no doubt goading them on, the Christian Poles fell upon their Jewish neighbors and slaughtered them, men, women and children, the hale and the infirm alike, the aged and the infant.

Will acknowledged in his reflections on this incident that he presumed there were years of irritation between the two groups, aggravated inevitably by ethnic, cultural, and religious differ­ences. But the genocidal violence, of course, was utterly out of proportion to whatever resentments may have simmered between the two groups before the Nazis arrived. So why such merciless violence, he wondered. Why did those who prac­ticed a faith that believes Jesus is the Messiah murder those who didn't? Because, Will asserted, they could. Because it was permitted.

As I write, Congress has just approved anoth­er $87 billion dollars for America's continuing campaign in Iraq. The total number of Americans who have died in Iraq since the war was "over" now stands at more than 100. Four more died yes­terday in a firefight with the armed guards of a militant Shiite cleric who opposes America's pres­ence in his country. Meanwhile, the American news media give us little to no information about how many Iraqis have died since hostilities com­menced, not even how many armed Iraqi combat­ants, much less the innocent bystanders caught in crossfire or slain by American bombs.

Weapons of mass destruction, our excuse for invading a country that otherwise posed us no immediate threat, have yet to be found; nor has Saddam Hussein. But we are now confronted with a guerilla campaign by Islamicists of various kinds, Saddam loyalists and those who were his victims, native Iraqis and an increasing number of foreign­ers who have snuck across Iraq's long desert bor­ders from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. A recent poll shows that Iraqi citizens are glad to be rid of Saddam but that they admire the French, who opposed invasion, far more than they do Americans. We might resent this attitude for its inconsistency and seeming ingratitude, but we should also recognize it as a remonstrance against our arrogance.

So why are we in Iraq? One's answer will per­haps depend on one's politics. Noble motives like freeing an enslaved people. Base motives like oil. More complicated motives like the official "pre-emptive defense." However you react to any of these explanations, they all have a common quali­ty. We are there, "the coalition of the willing," because we can be, because no one has the power to stop us from doing whatever we choose to do. Like every other American, I am glad we possess such power. But unlike those in the Bush adminis­tration, I worry immensely about the way we are using our power. The events of September 11, 2001, certainly made clear a vulnerability we had not previously appreciated. But our self-interested goal should be to reduce the hatred of those who would do us harm. And current evidence suggests that we are moving away from our goal rather than toward it; we are creating more enemies than we are eliminating.

Two recent films, one celebrated with Oscars and other awards, the other barely known, speak to the issues of human nature as we ponder what kind of creatures we are and what kind of strategies we should undertake in relating to our fellows who call God by a different name. The first film is affecting and true and tells us things we dare not forget. The second film takes us places we have not gone and forces us to face things we have not seen.

Never Again

Roman Polanski's The Pianist is a film that stimu­lates one to makes lists. Beautiful things: a play by Shakespeare, a sculpture by Rodin, a painting by Manet, an aria by Beverly Sills, a symphonic composition by Aaron Copland, a poem by Adrienne Rich, a novel by Charles Dickens, a song by the Beatles, a performance by Meryl Streep, a film by Francois Truffaut. Horrible things: the Turks' genocide against the Armenians, the cold-blooded slaughter of American Indians, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, the massacre at My Lai, the Hutus' attempted eradication of the Tutsis, the Holocaust. People of enormous selflessness and courage: Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. Monsters: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic. Human beings and human creations. Beauty and blood. Who are we? What have we done?

Written by Ronald Harwood, The Pianist is the true story of Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as adapted for the screen from his memoirs. Born in 1912, Szpilman was a pianist known throughout Europe when Hitler's army invaded Poland in September of 1939. We meet him during a Polish radio performance as Nazi tanks roll into Warsaw. Unmarried and still living with his parents, brother, and two sisters, Szpilman is a man of mild disposition and few political interests. He loves his music, and he's got a crush on a pretty blond cellist. But he's Jewish, and, caught in the crush of psychotic race hatred, he will not be allowed to live a normal life.

First, like all the Jews in Warsaw, Szpilman is forced to wear a star of David on his sleeve and is forbidden access to most public places. Restrictions are placed on his income. Then, he and his family are evicted from their comfortable, middle-class apartment and crowded into two rooms in a Nazi-created Jewish ghetto. A scene of chilling claustrophobia shows a wall being erected around the Jewish quarter, making a huge prison of what used to be a city sector. The ghetto residents are forced to do manual labor for German companies. Later they are packed into boxcars headed for Treblinka. In a miracle of happenstance, a Jewish policeman collaborating with the Nazis saves Szpilman moments before he is shoved aboard the death train. But Szpilman will never again see any member of his family.

Polanski gives us all the horror we can handle and delivers it with a casualness that proves all the more affecting for its lack of emphasis. A young Nazi officer beats an old Jewish man for the sin of walking on the sidewalk instead of in the gutter. For the sheer thrill of humiliation, Nazi guards make Jews dance in the street. Gestapo thugs arrest a family around their dinner table and order them to march to the street. Because the grandfather is confined to a wheel chair, they throw him off a fourth-story balcony. Once outside, they gun down the others and crush the victims under car wheels.

In a scene recalling that of the murder of a young architect in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, a young woman is shot in the face for the affront of asking a Nazi a question. Jews may be spoken to, but they do not have the unbidden privilege to speak themselves. At random and without bothering to allege an offense, a Nazi psy­chopath selects a line of Jewish workers, makes them lie in the street, and shoots them one after the other. When he exhausts his ammunition and his pistol's hammer clicks on an empty chamber, we think for an instant that at least one man will be spared, a random act of fate. But we are wrong. The Nazi officer simply pauses to reload and shoots the last man as he has the others. In three and a half years, the Nazis reduce the Jewish pop­ulation of Warsaw from over half a million to fewer than 60,000.

In the ghetto, Jews are starved until they steal from each other; they lick spilled food from the street like maddened animals. Some collaborate with their tormentors in hopes of saving themselves. A mother smothers her baby trying to hush his cries lest the child alert the Nazis to their hid­ing place. Before being forced into a boxcar, the Szpilmans are put to work sorting the belongings of other families who have been sent to the gas chambers before them. People try to bolster them­selves with false hope. The Germans would never squander such a large labor force, they assure each other, even at the eleventh hour failing to appreci­ate the cosmic irrationality of Nazi hatred.

But Polanski gives us the other side of Szpilman's story too. In the ghetto, Jews exploit the black market to gather weapons at the risk of torture and death for every man or woman who hides a pistol in a potato sack. Eventually, they rise up against their persecutors with the force of arms. But resistance proves as fruitless as collabo­ration and self-deception. The powerful obliterate the weak whatever posture the weak adopt.

Still, though the numbers are statistically insignificant, surviving Jews sometimes encounter a humane face. Several Polish gentiles risk hanging by hiding Jews in their attics and cellars. And, per­haps miraculously, even some in Nazi uniform risk themselves to extend the hand of mercy to those they have been taught to despise. The film's climax comes when Szpilman, seemingly days, perhaps hours, away from freedom, is suddenly confronted by Nazi Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann). Hosenfeld's decision to spare Szpilman is as random and deeply complicated as anything in the movie. But in the end, is it enough to tug us from the abyss of despair?

Though The Pianist presumably lies closer to the historical truth, it doesn't pack quite the emo­tional wallop of Schindler's List. Neither is it as sophisticated nor as daring in its radical call for forgiveness as Jan Hrebejk's Divided We Fall. In that regard, despite its protagonist's survival, The Pianist is a film of stoic resignation rather than determined optimism. Its detachment is carefully chosen and central to its core theme. The Pianist stands the evil beside the good and offers little rea­son to hope that those who live to express beauty, like Szpilman, will ever prevail, save through the random accident of survival.

Summoning the Hand of God

Dealing with another oppressed people forced into such ghettos as the Gaza Strip and the curfewed towns of the West Bank, Palestinian writer/director Elia Suleiman's resolutely metaphorical Divine Intervention mixes bizarre comedy with cartoonish action and hard-edged realism to deliver a consciously provocative and deliberately elusive picture that produces only the barest of a narrative. It begins as if in a dream sequence that will barely be revisited save as an emblem of what is to come. A red-suited Santa Claus runs through a sun-lit landscape outside the town of Nazareth. He huffs through tall brown grass amid the gnarled trees of an olive orchard and up a rocky, terraced slope. He is chased by modern Palestinian teens in T-shirts and jeans, their hair close-cropped as if barbered on the cheap, their eyes full of hate. Santa pauses in des­peration and throws wrapped packages from his toy bag. The boys kick them aside in contempt and continue their pursuit. At the top of the hill Santa is surrounded. Though he neither screams nor bleeds, he is stabbed in the heart with a butcher knife. We don't see who does it.

I interpret the opening scene in this way: Santa stands at once for the collapse of Christianity into materialistic excess and the fail­ure of the West to address the true needs of the vast, impoverished, and angry Third World. Santa's baubles cannot begin to appease the fury of Middle-Eastern, in this case Palestinian, youth who have not tasted the fruit of the very freedom that has made the West so rich. These Palestinian youngsters are chasing Santa because, even as they yearn for what he represents, they also despise it. So maybe they kill him. But maybe in his panic and his blindness to the Palestinian boys' humani­ty, he kills himself, as the West may destroy itself by not engaging the rest of the world.

The film is largely a series of such scenes. Many are comic. A tourist in Jerusalem stops a policeman to ask for directions to an ancient site. The policeman doesn't know the way, so he gets his blindfolded prisoner to help the tourist. Throughout the picture, almost everyone smokes, all the time and everywhere. In a hospital, the doc­tors and nurses smoke. Men in neck braces smoke. A man with an amputated leg and another man in a wheelchair smoke. Other things are conspiring to kill us, but we can't wait to participate in the process of killing ourselves.

Some scenes are designed to illustrate our propensity for hatred and our reliance on vio­lence. A man stores bottles on a roof so that he can hurl them at people passing in the street. At night, he destroys road construction so that cars are needlessly damaged. When a gifted young soccer player accidentally kicks his ball onto the man's roof, the man destroys it rather than simply toss it back. Why is this man so maddened and mean? We never find out. All that matters is that he is. In another scene a man drives through an Israeli city and comments on his neighbors with sneers and curses. They don't seem to do anything to provoke his contempt; he seems to hate them just for being there. Elsewhere, a man asks a neighbor to move a car that is blocking the first man's garage. Rather than responding quickly and politely, the second man delays and becomes legalistic. The first man reacts to his neighbor's lack of cooperation by attacking the second man's car. No doubt he feels justified in this act of retributive violence, but if the car ever gets moved, we don't see it.

In still another recurring sequence, a man rises each morning and takes his day's plastic bag of trash and throws it over a fence into his neighbor's yard. For a time, there is no response. Finally one day, however, a woman throws a dozen or so bags back. When she does so, the man chastises her and calls her shameful. But the garbage she's throwing into his yard is only the very garbage he's thrown into hers, she points out. She's still shameful, the man maintains. Before throwing the garbage back, she should have talked to him. "Isn't that why God gave us tongues?" he complains. This scene can be understood to address the foundation of Israel. The stateless and disorganized Palestinians voiced few objections when Jews began to settle in the area. But the final establishment of the Israeli state was accomplished through force of arms, though against little resistance and with compara­bly little bloodshed. A coalition of Arabs attempt­ed to strike back in 1967's Seven Day War. The Israelis won, but their continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank has made them not more secure, but less. In more recent times, as hos­tilities between Israelis and Palestinians have esca­lated to horrific proportions, the Jews have sought the high moral ground of negotiation without ever acknowledging their own role in the roots of the dispute.

THROUGHOUT DIVINE INTERVENTION, SULEIMAN blurs distinctions among his characters. A number of young men hide their faces behind sunglasses. Sometimes they loiter about other scenes with an air of menace. At times they wait for a bus that no longer runs. Are they sinister? We don't know. A series of bald men includes the one who curses his neighbors, another who enters people's houses and delivers severe beatings, and a third, a beloved father who does little other than sort his mail. We can barely tell the men apart. And that's precisely the filmmaker's point.

Insofar as Divine Intervention has a narrative core, it centers around the story of two West Bank Palestinian lovers who live on either side of an Israeli checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The checkpoint makes their getting together difficult and sometimes impossible. Often, when they do get together, they sit holding hands and watch the routine harassment of their countrymen by frightened, but sometimes abusive Israeli soldiers. One night an officer (perhaps drunk) relieves the regular checkpoint squad and proceeds to torment a line of Palestinians need­lessly. He makes them wait for no reason. While subjecting them to questionable searches, he cri­tiques their clothes. Finally, he will allow them through the checkpoint only if they first play musical cars and drive across the arbitrary border in vehicles belonging to someone else. The securi­ty rationale for why the Israelis have established these checkpoints is not acknowledged: to try to diminish wave after wave of Palestinian violence. But the scene makes clear that the casual humilia­tion the checkpoints inflict may be as much a cause of the violence as its solution.

The male lover (Suleiman) seems a gentle soul, in love and otherwise worried about the health of his aged father. But the indignity the lover suffers is wearing, and at one point he releases a balloon bearing the face of Yasser Arafat. The Israeli sol­diers at the checkpoint become obsessed with the balloon. Suleiman's point is that Arafat is a dis­traction that has blinded the Israelis to what they are trying to do. While the soldiers consider whether to shoot at a painting on a piece of rub­ber, the lovers are able to slip through the check­point illegally.

LATE IN THE FILM, WE FEAR THAT THE LOVERS have become radicalized. The man has a violent fantasy of his lady friend (Manal Khader) turning into an Arab-Ninja Wonder Woman who defeats a corps of Israeli commandos, first by pelting them with rocks from a slingshot (think David and Goliath), and then by deflecting their own bullets back on them. They use ever bigger weapons to attack her, finally even a helicopter gunship, but she is more than equal to their assault. At the film's end we see the male lover wearing sunglass­es like the sinister figures we've met before. At a stoplight, he contemplates a man in the car next to him wearing a yarmulke. We can sense an act of violence about to burst out.

Instead we hear the infectious lyrics of a song: "I put a spell on you/ 'Cause you're mine/ You bet­ter stop the things you do/ I ain't lyin'/ I can't stand it: your runnin' around/ I can't stand it, when you put me down/1 ain't lyin' and I love you anyhow." With that bit of rock wisdom the film ends, and we are reminded of Will Campbell's observation in Brother to a Dragonfly, that "we are all bastards, but God loves us anyway." There are good among us. But in the long term, what little can be said in the defense of most of us? Yet God loves us anyway.

The Holocaust taught Jews that they must have a homeland where they can protect them­selves from those who would slaughter them sim­ply because they have the power to do so. A per­fectly understandable sentiment. From World War II, Americans learned that evil men like Adolf Hitler can only be toppled with the force of arms. No doubt, sadly true. But in building a state and exercising our power, both Israel and the United States need to walk about in the shoes of people whose lands we share and have chosen to occupy. We must surrender our self-righteousness and our moral certainty so that our enemies might surren­der their arms. Can we and they do what is neces­sary? In The Pianist Roman Polanski offers us little reason for optimism. Will is largely reduced to the tool of luck. Hope is foolishness, though the alter­native is no better. Like Polanski, Elia Suleiman seems to share Thomas Hobbes' ancient sentiment about the corrupted nature of our species. So Divine Intervention summons the hand of God to resolve what humans seemingly cannot. Since so much blood has been shed in the name of the Almighty, however identified and understood, I am little heartened by Suleiman's solution.

But what other chance do we have?

Fredrick Barton is a professor of English at the University of New Orleans where he currently serves as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost. His fourth novel, A House Divided, won the William Faulkner Prize in fiction. His award-winning first novel, The El Cholo Feeling Passes, has just been re-released in a new trade paperback edition.

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