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How the Movies Saved My Life

Seeing the world in black and white (with subtitles).

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 5:40 PM EST

Under the Mushroom Cloud

But before I go on, a caveat. Perhaps the reason memoirs are so often written by the young these days is that, once you reach a certain age, only fiction might allow you to truly make your way back to childhood. I have not the slightest doubt that those hours in the dark profoundly affected my life, and yet I find it difficult indeed to conjure the boy who first slipped into those movie houses on his own. Much of the time, it seems to me, he belongs to someone else's novel, someone else's life.

Trying to make my way back to whatever he thought when he first saw those films, I feel like an archeologist digging in the ruins of my own life. When I view the same films today, I sometimes get a chill of recognition and I'm still won over, but often I wonder just what he saw in them. What in the world could my teenage self have thought while watching Hiroshima Mon Amour, parts of which—apologies to Duras and Resnais—are unbearably pretentious? ("You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing... Hiroshima, that's your name...")

A film about a one-night stand between a French actress making a "peace" movie in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima (who had once loved a German soldier in wartime France and paid the price), and a married Japanese architect who had been in the army in World War II while his family lived (and perhaps died) in that city—what did I make of that? What did I know? There was flesh to be seen, however obliquely, in bed, in the shower—and back then that was something. But there were also those dismally incantatory lines from Duras.

Here's what I don't doubt, though: that film gave me a gut-level primer in nuclear politics and nuclear destruction available nowhere else in my world. No mutant monsters, spaceships, or alien superweapons, just grainy, graphic glimpses of the victims from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and of other "victims" being made up—burn patterns and keloids being painted on bodies—for the actress's antinuclear "peace" movie, the film within the film.

It was there that I watched my first antinuclear demonstration—again for that other movie—as protesters marched by with signs that offered a little lesson in atomic politics and some basic information about nuclear weapons. Above all, I was, however briefly, taken under the mushroom cloud to see something then essentially taboo in this country: the real results of our "victory weapon," of what we had done to them, of my father's war as I would never otherwise have seen it.

If the scenes of the two lovers titillated me, those brief glimpses under that cloud haunted me. Certainly, the dreams I had in those years, in which the bomb went off over a distant city while a blast of heat seared my body, or I found myself wandering through some bleak, atomically blasted landscape, owed something to that film.

Like all of us, I wonder what made me the way I am. What left me, as a book editor, able to slip inside the skin of someone else's words? What gave me, as a critic, the distance to see our world askew? What made me, never having been in the military, create a website that focuses a critical eye on the American way of war?

There are, of course, no answers to such questions, just guesses. But I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't believe that those hours in the dark had something to do with it. I wouldn't be focused on a movie I can now barely watch if I wasn't convinced that it had a hand in sending me, as a book editor, on my own Hiroshima journey. (In 1979, I would publish in translation a Japanese book, Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, which, I believe, was the first time any sizable number of images of the experience under Hiroshima's mushroom cloud made it into mainstream American culture.)

Consorting With the Enemy

Compare all this to the war I saw at my local RKO, the one John Wayne led, the one in which the highly decorated Audie Murphy played himself on-screen mowing down Germans by the score. And then, right down the block, there was the other war I sat in on, the one our enemies fought, the one that lacked my father. As a boy, I was undoubtedly typical in imagining the defeat of Hitler as essentially an American triumph in Europe—until, that is, I walked into the Fine Arts and saw Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying.

Part of a post-Stalinist cinematic breakout moment, its heroine and hero, Veronica and Boris, are young, in love, filmed at arty angles, and in the movie's early scenes might as well be frolicking on the banks of the Seine. But that mood only lasts until the Nazis invade. Boris volunteers for the army and, finding himself and his unit in a swamp surrounded by Germans, dies heroically but miserably in the mud. The news of his death never reaches the waiting Veronica in Moscow, who goes into shock on finding her apartment destroyed and her parents dead from a German air raid, is raped (so the film implies) in that state during another air raid by Boris's cousin, a pianist and draft evader, and grimly marries him… and that's hardly halfway into the film.

There is also the child Veronica saves from being run over just as she's about to commit suicide, who also turns out to be named Boris. Yes, call it an absurd war melodrama, but it was also passionately filled to the brim with mud, fire, overcrowded living quarters, rooms full of wounded soldiers, slackers, and high-livers in a panorama of wartime Russia.

Grim, shocking, and above all youthful, it was the Russian film that not only took Europe by storm and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1958, but took me by storm as well. The Russians—the Reds, the Commies—were then our mortal enemies. So imagine my surprise on discovering, up close and personal, that they had fought a monumental, terrible war against the Nazis, and that they couldn't have been more human—or winning.

A year or two later, I would watch Ballad of a Soldier, another Russian war film, this time about a kid hardly older than I was then who gets a six-day pass from the front for wiping out a couple of German tanks (in a paroxysm of fear). In an odyssey through a devastated landscape—city buildings blasted, trains blown up, bridges down, amputees visible—he makes his way home just in time to greet his mother, kiss her goodbye, and head back to the front (where, you've learned as the film begins, he dies). You simply could not see such films and hate the Russians.

Then, on the theme of teenagers at war, there was The Bridge, a fierce 1959 antiwar film directed by Bernhard Wicki that genuinely shocked me, perhaps as much because I found myself identifying with those German boy soldiers as by the brutality of the fighting into which they were plunged. In the last days of World War II, a group of small-town, high-spirited high school classmates, no older than I was then, are ushered hurriedly into the army, given the briefest training, and (while Nazi officials flee) rushed to a bridge of absolutely no significance to stop advancing American tanks.

They are patriotic and absurdly eager to defend their town and country. All but one of them die for nothing, as does an American trying to convince them to stop fighting. ("We don't fight kids!" he yells before one of them shoots him.) The film ends on these words, which then chilled me to the bone: "This happened on April 27, 1945. It was so unimportant that it was not mentioned in any war communiqué."

To see that war through German eyes, even briefly, was to enter forbidden territory. Nonetheless, those boys were, to me, as unnervingly human as the French pilot in Serge Bourguignon's 1962 film Sundays and Cybele, suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder after killing a child in the French version of the Vietnam War. Back in Paris, he strikes up an "innocent" relationship with a 12-year-old girl (which, I can now see, had surprisingly sexual overtones), is mistaken for someone out to kill her, and shot dead by the police, the sight of which passes his trauma on to her.

These films and others like them gave me a space apart where I was privileged to absorb secrets no one in my world knew (which, to a lost teen, was nothing less than life preserving). They confirmed in me a sense that the world was not as we were told, nor was ours the single most exceptional way of living on Earth.

Like that perch by the stairs above my parents' fights, those films helped turn me into a critic—of Hollywood certainly, of our American world more generally, and of my own world more specifically. And the space they opened for a child who despaired of himself (and the triumphalist American future everyone assured him was rightfully his) would prove useful decades later.

After all, I now write about our American wars without ever having visited a war zone—except, of course, in the movies. There, in the 1950s and early 1960s, I advanced with the marines and the Russians, bombed Tokyo but also experienced (however briefly) Hiroshima after it was atomized. I took out Panzers, but for two hours one afternoon was a German boy waiting to die at a bridge of no significance as American tanks bore down on him.

So let me now, for the first time, offer a small bow of gratitude to Alain Resnais, Mikhail Kalatozov, Serge Bourguignon, Bernhard Wicki, François Truffaut, and all the others I met at the movies so long ago who turned my world inside out. You saved my life.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published momentarily. This piece first appeared in slightly different form in the October issue of Harper's Magazine. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses American exceptionalism in his childhood and now click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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