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Friday, Feb. 11, 2000


The legacy of the Reich and Sam Peckinpah

There's a scene in "Cross of Iron" in which Sgt. Steiner (played by James Coburn), recovering at a field hospital from war wounds, goes berserk when some pampered visiting generals order the walking wounded back to the front within 24 hours.

After he trashes the place, Steiner's doting nurse Eva (Senta Berger) tries to calm him down, telling him to stop the violence. The war-weary sergeant looks at her with incomprehension, barely able to mouth the words: "Stop the violence . . . ?" He tosses his head back and erupts in cynical laughter.

That could well be the epitaph for Sam Peckinpah, the director who made his name on the cathartic quality of cinematic violence, all the while hoping to shock people with its inhumanity.

"Cross of Iron," originally released in 1977, wasn't the director's last work before his death in '84, but it was his last film that mattered. In a way, the film is emblematic of Peckinpah's career, a delicate balancing act between finding work with B-movie scripts, while trying to rise above them with a clear artistic and philosophical approach. With his best films -- "The Wild Bunch," "Straw Dogs," and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" -- Peckinpah succeeded in completely infusing the work with his misanthropic, elegiac vision.

"Cross of Iron," however, is more of a mixed bag: Peckinpah was clearly struggling to make a gut-wrenching condemnation of war and human cruelty, but the money men were expecting cathartic action-schlock, with an explosion every 60 seconds. The producer on "Cross of Iron," Wolf Hartwig, was the Euro-king of exploitation flicks, the kind of guy who saw nothing wrong with casting both himself and his current starlet girlfriend in bit parts, or making sure that Berger's brief cameo included a bit of flesh.

Hartwig's dream was to make a German war film on the technical level of Hollywood, and with a cast that would make it play internationally. To do so, he brought in Peckinpah, stars like James Coburn, James Mason and Maximillian Schell, and a budget big enough to blow up half of Yugoslavia, where "Cross of Iron" was filmed.

Based on a cynical, almost existential novel by German war vet Willi Heinrich, "Cross of Iron" follows a platoon of retreating German soldiers on the post-Stalingrad Eastern Front in 1943, as they are overrun by Soviet armored assaults and trapped behind enemy lines. Sgt. Steiner (Coburn) is a bitter but resourceful vet whose only concern is for his men. Capt. Stransky (Schell), his nemesis, is an aristocratic Prussian who only wants a quick in-out on the Eastern Front to pick up an Iron Cross, and will stop at nothing -- short of actually exposing himself to combat -- to get it.

The conflict between the two men on issues of class, discipline and moral leadership becomes an allegory for the postwar German rejection of the Third Reich. Of course, there was the little problem of making viewers manage to sympathize with members of Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht, even anarchic ones like Steiner. This was mitigated somewhat by the Cold War climate of the times, where Russian "commies" were hated even worse than the Nazis, now that the Germans were part of NATO. (A trend that reached its apogee when former U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited a war cemetery for SS soldiers in 1985.)

What attracted Peckinpah to the situation, no doubt, and what gives the film its power, is the utter hopelessness that these men have to face. These conscripts know they're fighting a losing battle, and -- unlike the doomed GIs of "Saving Private Ryan" -- they don't even have the solace of imagining that they're fighting for some sort of greater good. For these men in this war, there are no illusions -- just the dim hope of helping each other somehow survive the carnage.

Peckinpah creates some very powerful moments, particularly an incredibly tense scene where Steiner's platoon have to cross no man's land back to their own frontline; disguised in Soviet uniforms, they're liable to be gunned down by either side. (And there's a statement if you're looking for one.) Still, there's no escaping the sense of revisionism that surrounds this work. The film tries almost too hard to convince us that not all German soldiers were bad, as Steiner's platoon spare women and children, while their evil superiors do the dirty work.

"Cross of Iron" is also interesting in terms of the ongoing debate on film violence. This critic is old enough to remember the ballyhoo about spurting blood and bodies crumpling in slow motion that accompanied the release of "Cross of Iron." And, in truth, it was shocking at the time -- but not for long. Watching the film now, especially in the wake of "Private Ryan," it's apparent how quickly we become immune to visual representations of horror.

Which brings us to "The Specialist," a documentary assembled from the long-lost footage shot of the 1960 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, which seeks to show us just how mundane horror can be. It would almost be amusing, if it were not so utterly grim, to watch one of Hitler's top officers -- Adolf Eichmann -- claim that he was just a poor, powerless bureaucrat doing his job when he deported millions of Jews, Poles and Gypsies to their deaths in the Nazi concentration camps.

"The Specialist" captures him doing exactly that, and is a silent condemnation of what Hannah Arendt best described as the "banality of evil." It came as a surprise, however, to find that Eichmann's cold, clinical testimony -- taking refuge in procedures and figures in the face of survivors' testimony -- was not as shocking as expected. The reasons for this are obvious, but extremely depressing: In this age, the sight of a career politico explaining away some unspeakable atrocity in cynically evasive language is all too common -- it's not just movie violence to which we are becoming desensitized.

Just think of the euphemisms "comfort women," "collateral damage," or "retaliation against terrorists" (generally meaning the indiscriminate aerial bombing of villages), and the reasonable-looking men who mouth them, and one may be forgiven for supposing we have learned nothing from the Holocaust. This may seem a criticism of the film, but I rather suspect that this connection was foremost in the minds of the filmmakers, Rony Brauman, former chairman of Medicins sans Frontieres, and Eyal Sivan, an Israeli antiwar dissident.

Eichmann's plea that he himself was blameless, just "a drop in the ocean, an instrument in the hand of superior forces," certainly holds relevance to Baumann's experiences in Rwanda, and the merciless Israeli bombardment of Lebanon that Sivan strongly opposed. In a day and age where mass death and destruction is only a laser-guided missile away, it is more possible than ever for seemingly rational men to distance themselves psychologically from the gruesome consequences of their actions.

Prosecutor Giddeon Hausner called Eichmann the devil incarnate, but the terrifying thing is that he was an ordinary man, and the harbinger of more such ordinary men to come.

A fresh print of "Cross of Iron," dialogue in English, opens tomorrow at Cine Amuse East/West, Shibuya. "The Specialist" is now playing at Box Higashi-Nakano; dialogue in German, Hebrew, and English. Subtitles in English and Japanese.

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