Films for Class: The Battle of San Pietro and Der Fuhrer’s Face


220px-der_fuehrers_face_posterA little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.

Der Fuehrer’s Face

Among Disney’s most infamous cartoons, reapportioning Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi, Der Fuehrer’s Face is gloriously disreputable and unexpectedly (or expectedly, if you’ve studied Disney’s early shorts) experimental in its exploration of desire, imagination, and fear. Casting our fine feathered friend as a Nazi conscript of sorts, Der Fuehrer’s Face coagulates around a broader question of the mechanization of the human consciousness not unlike Chaplin’s Modern Times. Donald is pushed and pulled around physical space, the old squash-and-stretch style manipulated to explore the liminal space between the existential terror of lacking consciousness and the comedic potential in upending similar notions of individual agency (after all, both comedy and horror are reactions to the uncanny, and what is more uncanny in our individual-fetishizing America than losing one’s willpower).

Primarily following Donald as he barely survives Nazi drill routines and work in a factory, Der Fuehrer’s Face unravels into more abstract zones in a stunning visual disintegration late on when representation is thrown out the door in a “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence where the limits between bullet, worker, machine, and duck corrode before our eyes, each melded to the other. Our (in this case pitiful) rational categorizations for sentient subjects and unthinking objects transgress their respective demarcations, intimating the fundamental fragility of categories like human and “object” in an age of capital. (Obviously, Chaplin’s plea was more socialist and center-left, since Disney’s version is inextricably tied to the fear of communism as well as Nazi fascism and rooted in classical Liberalism rather than Chaplin’s social democratic principles). Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. would explore the limits of how Western minds compartmentalize the physical self and physical space a decade later in Duck Amuck, but the conservative Disney (by no means conservative as a formalist) was further along the way by 1943 than you might think.

Really, the ostensibly untroubled but actually deeply unsettled ending is the final push on the path to greatness here, as Donald Duck awakes to a shadow of Hitler, almost reflexively enters into a salute, and realizes that the image of his worst nightmare is actually a miniature Statue of Liberty. Now awoken, he is back in the good old US of A. Although containing and thus resolving the terror, the finale is also unmooring in its proposition that our most cherished national symbol of freedom (or among them) can so easily be mistaken as the most hated man in the world. Resonances abound, especially in the notion that a US citizen at home (no indications suggest that the newly awoken Donald is a soldier of any kind) can still experience nightmares about the war abroad. Happy or not, the question looms large: might Americans be interpreted as, or feel like, Nazis as well?

Score: 10/10

tumblr_nui64tmfrl1re1poeo1_1280The Battle of San Pietro

The American soldiers “fought the hard, uphill way with the enemy looking down our throats”, uttered by an oddly peppy and deliciously didactic John Huston narrating in The Battle of San Pietro, might very well double as his mantra and the title of his life story. And with this contribution to Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series of morale-boosters during WWII, Huston’s fight was to stare down the rabid dog of war head on, the enemy – not Nazism but Hollywood  – looking down his throat all the way. Commissioned as a 30 minute cheer-fest for Our Boys, The Battle of San Pietro is a rather devilish concoction, a tribute to – or study in – the monotony and repetitious circularity, even possibly the emptiness, of The Last Moral War.

Now, Huston doesn’t go quite that far, and the subversiveness is coded exclusively in imagery and tone rather than diegetically stated, but it’s certainly no surprise that the film’s release was fought by the military and hardly shown to anyone at the time. Detailing the titular Battle of San Pietro on the Italian Front during WWII, Huston’s film is astoundingly unstable for a wartime rah-rah trumpeter. It’s also a formalist’s wet dream, impressing its transgressive self-contradictions and ambivalences about the war into the very fabric of its image flow. A thunderous volley of US cannon and tank fire gloriously showcased in montage becomes a hollow barrage of “causal” shots with no corresponding effects; we see nearly three or four dozen volleys in the montage, interspersed with so few shots of the fire hitting anything that you could count them on one hand. The continuity logic of classical Hollywood – that the virile agents, the US army in this case, will be validated and legitimized by reaction and “effect” shots – is ruthlessly upended in a gesture that makes it seem as though the America’s wartime might is implicitly serving no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. The erect cannons are, in essence, firing blanks.

Elsewhere, Huston’s editing is devastating, cutting from the driest of pasty-white battle maps (with a pseudo-lecturer pushing pieces around in a simulacrum of order and forward-progress) to chaotic semi-verite shots of instability and pandemonium during the actual battle, undercutting the fictive sense of order the map provides in the process. And as the map falters, so too does the US’s forward push to transgress this land; rather than contiguous shots of movement from space to space, Huston’s imagery is repetitious, reconstructing the war as a fundamentally circular, almost monotonous limbo of repeating the same actions ad nauseum.

Soldiers are halfheartedly personalized with a name here or there, a concession to Hollywood individualism maybe, but the visuals raggedly contradict by reimagining war as a dehumanized, impersonal hellscape devoid of individuation. Even worse than torture, the documentary conjures war as, perversely, matter-of-fact reality, vividly neutering the expected thrombosis of grand despair by depicting the battle as, essentially, another day on the job. Throughout, Huston’s unreservedly detached, academic, even dryly glib and jaunty tone suggest a self-conscious reflexiveness, sonically treating us to the relaxed tonal resting pulse we might expect from other propaganda films from the time. The dissonance between the images and the sounds ask us to reconsider other documentaries as constructs. (Something furthered by seemingly overtly artificial instances of Huston intoning about how happy the Italian villagers are underneath the valor of the US presence; one such comment is matched to an Italian villager looking directly at the camera and nodding as if reading a cue card rather than genuinely experiencing something akin to human happiness).

The narration ( along with the movement across the abstracted, dehumanized war map) both suggest the banality of war and contradict the images with a stuffy glibness that registers as Huston exploring the frailty and fragility of attempting to smooth over the volatile war with an academic, almost scientific sense of “order”. (After all, what else is a map but an attempt to order, understand, and thus mentally control?) Any sense of linear flow exhausted from the beginning, Huston’s film, deviously and much to Capra’s chagrin, asks us not only how we glorify war but how we can dare to narrativize it at all.

Score: 10/10

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