Life during wartime is stressful, and the effects of war can be devastating. Two recent movies at the Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater explored the possible and real effects of World War II.
In Diplomacy, which screened at the DFT on August 25, 2016, a German general and a Swedish diplomat debated about whether Paris should be destroyed by the German army when it evacuated the city in 1944.
In The Innocents, which I saw at the Michigan on August 28, 2016, several nuns in a Polish convent became pregnant after being raped by German and Russian soldiers.
The films exposed me to different systems of morality and ethics—military and aesthetic in Diplomacy, and religious and medical in The Innocents. These systems of thought and action played out in clashes between two kinds of expertise and authority.
The Swedish diplomat in Diplomacy used all of his negotiating skills to try to counter the military logic of the German general. In The Innocents, a French Red Cross worker worked hard to convince the Mother Superior of the convent that outside medical intervention was needed to help the pregnant nuns.
Much pressure was on the two main authority figures in the movies—the German general in Diplomacy and the Mother Superior in The Innocents. In both cases, you saw them suffer both emotionally and mentally over their decisions to do what they thought was right.
In Diplomacy, the general pondered the possible historical effects of destroying such famous Paris landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe. The Mother Superior in The Innocents made a difficult and controversial decision about the fate of the babies born to the nuns.
At the ends of both movies, these two characters were seen suffering the pain of their final decisions, as other characters moved on with somberly happier lives.
Both films made excellent use of facial closeups to communicate the stress, mixed emotions, and mixed thoughts of the main characters.
The face of the Swedish diplomat in Diplomacy was a precarious balance of guile and desperation. The often wordless faces of the nuns in The Innocents helped the viewer understand the fear and challenges of their situation.
In tandem with the closeups were explorations of small worlds of human activity.
Viewers of Diplomacy became familiar with every detail of the large room in the luxury hotel where the German general and the Swedish diplomat talked. In The Innocents, the peaceful restraint of the convent came alive, as well as the medical facility of the French Red Cross worker.
The movies were linked by the French Red Cross worker when she talked about how her work during the liberation of Paris helped harden her to the realities of the world.
This link helped show how the postwar world of Paris was much more comfortable and glamorous than the postwar world of Poland in which the Polish people exchanged one totalitarian regime (German Fascism) for another (Russian Communism).
Diplomacy was originally screened at the DFT in November 2014 as part of the DFT’s regular programming. The free August 25 screening was part of the Senior Thursdays programming of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which includes the DFT.
As I waited on the main floor of the DFT auditorium for Diplomacy to start, I overheard this exchange between an older couple who had just walked in:
Man (looking around the auditorium): “Wow, this is neat. I’ve never seen this before.”
Woman: “I never have either. I wonder what they’re showing?”
Diplomacy was also the second DFT movie this summer to show how the French worked to protect their cultural treasures from the invading Germans in World War II. Francofonia in June showed how art in the Louvre was saved (Museum Pieces).
The Michigan’s screening of The Innocents was also part of a larger community effort. It was sponsored by two University of Michigan organizations (the Copernicus Program in Polish Studies and the Weiser Center for Europe & Eurasia).
Both Diplomacy and The Innocents were fictionalized treatments of real events, and they made history come alive in ways that complemented what is in books. After both movies, I walked out of the theater with a better appreciation for the human side of war, which sadly is still with us.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.