Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2014

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

If picking out a movie to go see at your local Cineplex is as hopeless a task as finding a novel to read in an airport newsstand (now what did they do with the Lawrence Durrells?), help is on the way at least for those fortunate to be a city civilized enough to have theaters catering to those with a taste for something more substantial than a Judd Apatow comedy or Iron Man Part IV.

The first is “The Banshee Chapter”, an X-Files style thriller based on the MK-Ultra experiments with LSD conducted by the military between 1953 and 1964. If you are in Los Angeles, you can see it starting today at Arena Cinema. It is also available as video on demand on Time-Warner and Itunes, a growing outlet for indie films that allow those of you living in places like East Jesus, Nebraska to keep up with what’s new and hip. And this film is pretty damned hip.

Anna (Katia Winter) is a young journalist trying to track down an old friend who took part in MK-Ultra type experiments. Video recordings of the experiment reveal strange mutations that suggest the body as well as the mind is being transformed. She enlists the help of a middle-aged writer named Thomas Blackburn who has been researching the experiments, very possibly as a former participant. Blackburn, who still medicates himself heavily with drugs as well as booze and lives in the Rockies, is also a gun nut. If this sounds familiar, it should since the character is obviously based on Hunter Thompson. In a brilliant casting choice, Ted Levine plays Blackburn. If you’ve seen him as the serial killer in “The Silence of The Lambs”, you know that he has a flair for the unsavory even though the Blackburn character is much more self-destructive than destructive toward others.

The final twenty minutes of the film takes place in the creepy testing grounds of the military. Even though the film operates on too low a budget for CGI monsters to materialize, it more than makes up for it in atmosphere. It is one of those films, like “Silence of the Lambs” actually, where you expect the worst at any moment.

As strange as it seems now, the MK-Ultra program explored whether LSD could be used as a way of controlling the mind of enemy soldiers after the fashion of “The Manchurian Candidate”. If LSD has always seemed to evoke love-beads, bell-bottom pants, and groovy feelings, there’s another side to the story. In the 1960s government agents fostered its use among American counter-culture and radical milieus. This is covered in mind-blowing detail in Martin Lee’s “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond”, excerpts from which are available at http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/index.html, including this eye-opener that alludes to a drug far more powerful than LSD and that resembles the one in “The Banshee Chapter”:

Robert Bowen, a former air force enlisted man, felt disoriented for several weeks after his exposure. Bowen said the drug produced a temporary feeling of insanity but that he reacted less severely than other test subjects. One paratrooper lost all muscle control for a time and later seemed totally divorced from reality “The last time I saw him,” said Bowen, “he was taking a shower in his uniform and smoking a cigar.” During the early 1960s the CIA and the military began to phase out their in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ, which became the army’s standard incapacitating agent. By this time the superhallucinogen was ready for deployment in a grenade, a 750-pound cluster bomb, and at least one other large-scale bomb. In addition the army tested a number of other advanced BZ munitions, including mortar, artillery, and missile warheads.

Opening at the Film Forum in New York on January 17th is a two-part film titled “Generation War” that appeared originally as a German television miniseries. It is the story of five friends who meet on the eve of the invasion of the USSR for a going away for two are brothers who are in the Wehrmacht. One is a lieutenant named Wilhelm who wants to make a career out of the military; the other a sensitive poetry-reading private named Friedhelm who does not believe in the Fuhrer even though he has no interest in resisting him. A young woman named Charlotte loves Wilhelm but is too shy to admit it to him, even though he must sense her longing for him. Like him, she is gung-ho for the Third Reich and is headed toward the eastern front to serve as a nurse. Greta is less interested in Nazism but, like Friedhelm, not so anxious to resist it. Being lovers with Viktor—a Jew—and playing swing music records are what amounts to a personal statement. As they are dancing wildly to the music, the cops bust in and charge Greta with owning degenerate music.

When she shows up at SS headquarters to be interrogated, the officer—one Dorn—gives her a choice. If she sleeps with him, not only will the charges be dropped, he will make her a star in sort of a malevolent version of the Hollywood “casting sofa”, which was malevolent enough on its own terms. He promises to help her fulfill her dream of being the “next Marlene Dietrich” even though Dietrich is an enemy of the Nazis. As Greta Del Torres, she becomes the rage of Nazi radio and visits the eastern front to perform for the troops as a counterpart to our Bob Hope USO revues.

Meanwhile, Viktor is being sent to Auschwitz while the bullets are flying around the brothers’ head. Simultaneously, Greta and Charlotte end up hanging out together in the field hospital that is treating the severely wounded soldiers who the Russians are making mincemeat out of, including Friedhelm. Eventually Friedhelm gets released from the hospital and volunteers to fight with a crack anti-Partisan unit in Poland, a decision that eventually leads to him to an armed stand-off with Viktor who has joined the partisans after escaping from a railroad car headed toward Auschwitz.

The coincidences that keeps putting the friends into unexpected and dramatic encounters with each other is the stuff of television nighttime soap operas and hard to take seriously. What the series lacks in realism, it more than makes up for in confronting the legacy of Nazism and the bad choices made by young people such as the lead characters. When Viktor ends up in Berlin after it has been liberated, he discovers that Dorn has gone to work for the American military helping them weed out subversives—a touch far more realistic than the staged coincidences.

Although I think the creators of this work had their hearts in the right places, there are a couple of things that troubled me in terms of historical accuracy. To start with, it is almost inconceivable to me that a Jew would have remained friends with a group of people united to one degree or another around support for the Third Reich. I imagine that the character was necessary for the purposes of shedding light on the concentration camps, a key element of Nazi barbarism but it would have been better if the screenplay depicted him as having broken with his old friends long before 1941.

The film also depicts the Polish resistance as violently anti-Semitic, approaching the Nazis in terms of their backwardness and cruelty. Not only did I find this objectionable but also so did many Poles who protested the film.

All that being said, “Generation War” is an important work and deserves consideration by any filmgoer who is looking for a serious examination of Germany’s dark past. One day, when the USA also suffers a humiliating defeat, we can only hope that we will see our own “Generation War”. That will take a new Hollywood, one we should remember that was eager to do business with the Nazis in the 1930s.

“In Bloom” opens today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and  Angelika Film Center in New York and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles on February 7, 2014. This is the second film I have seen from the former Soviet republic and a testimony to the power of film in revealing the innermost sufferings of a nation wracked by war and economic disintegration.

Using a neorealist style that is supremely adapted to depicting societies living on the edge, “In Bloom” is the story of two fourteen year old girls—Eka and Natia—who are both classmates and live in the same run-down apartment building in a rough neighborhood in Tbilisi in 1992, when the war with Russia was raging. In many ways, the lives of Georgians is the same as the British denizens of council housing depicted in Ken Loach’s films.

When the film starts, there is no mistaking the psychic tolls that economic collapse and war are having on the Georgians. When Eka and Natia stand on line for rationed bread, you sense that violence can break out any minute over who gets to the head of the line. This is a nation in which force rules. One of Natia’s suitors, a lank young man named Lado, presents her with a pistol, explaining to her that it could come in handy if someone gives her trouble.

Eka’s father is in prison, apparently for killing another man for reasons we never learn. When she makes her way home from the bread line, a couple of boys a few years younger than her bully her and threaten to stab her if she gets too far out of line.

Despite the grim nature of the surroundings, the friendship between the two women is war and nurturing. This is a “coming of age” film more sensitive and more real than any I have seen in ages.

“In Bloom” is Georgia’s selection for best foreign language film of 2013 at the Academy Awards but it was not nominated. It is filmmaking of a very high order and a reminder that the best narrative films are being made outside the U.S. today.

I should mention that the documentary “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, which was made in Georgia, is now available on Amazon.com streaming. It premiered in N.Y. in August 2013. The title refers to a young and attractive Georgian woman’s longing for an end to her misery. She would like to see a machine that could make unhappiness disappear forever. Seen together, the two films are a reminder that the collapse of the Soviet Union has not quite resulted in the capitalist utopia predicted by the Western press.


  1. “One day, when the USA also suffers a humiliating defeat, we can only hope that we will see our own “Generation War”. Excuse me…whether its the Holocaust of American Indians at home or the American Indochina Holocaust
    the latter you are brainwashed to call “The Vietnam War” …Americans along with us Brits and the Spanish are biggest Holocaust denialists on the planet. So you build a Holocaust Museum in Washington DC only its about someone else’s Holocaust and not the one that happened right where it is built in the city named about Washington and Columbus two of the leading figures of the Americas Holocaust that cost 90 million lives across the Americas.
    That is like calling your capital city the City of Himmler in the District of Hitler. Yes there is melodrama in GENERATION WAR it is very enjoyable just as DANCES WITH WOLVES is very enjoyable but WAR contains way more honesty than DANCES. I reckon had the Nazis won the war the output from Hollywood would be little or no different after all what is LORD OF THE RINGS if not recycled Wagnerian cultural fascism. Take BLACK HAWK DOWN a total whitewash of events in Somalia that went through numerous Pentagon scrutinised script drafts and received billions in military hardware and men as a gift for pushing American Imperialist propaganda.

    Comment by Howard — May 24, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

  2. […] film I have seen now with a Georgian provenance. Based on the evidence of “Tangerines”, “In Bloom”, and “The Machine that Makes Everything Disappear” , I am ready to conclude that this […]

    Pingback by Guns for Hire in Abkhazia » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — February 6, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

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