Shaking Hands with Other People’s Pain

Gaza, July 2014

Gaza, July 2014

“Nous n’avons pas toujours assez de force pour supporter les maux d’autrui.” 
LA ROCHEFOUCAULD (1613 – 1680)

Here’s the trouble with solidarity, altruism, compassion, brotherhood and other values we often pay lip service to, while practising them so shabbily: it isn’t always easy or pleasant to join in a common struggle with some human being or community who is suffering a terrible fate. As the French moralist said: “We don’t always have enough strenght to bear other people’s sufferings.” (La Rochefoucauld) Let’s not idealize human beings: egotistical as we so often are, we would rather turn a blind eye to other people’s pains and keep paying attention only to our tiny little selves. Human as I am, when confronted by events that would disturb my peace-of-mind, like these who are flooding the news during the last weeks, my first impulse is to run for cover in the comfort of blissful ignorance. Why should I care if the Israeli army is bombing Gaza to a heap of ruins? Why should I look at the photographs of dead babies, injured women, dismembered elderly? Why shouldn’t I be allowed to choose the easiest path and retreat from these horrible occurrences, refusing to acknowledge their existence? Am I to blame if I’d rather act like an ostrich that hides its head in the sand?

Voltaire (1694 – 1778) once said that “every one is guilty of all the good he did not do”. That sounds to me a much more courageous and demanding statement than the one quoted in the epigraph. La Rochefoucauld’s phrase sounds like someone who uses a personal weakness to justify his choice of indifference. Voltaire wants us to take responsability on our hands and act on behalf of others; doing nothing may be sometimes considered a criminal cumplicity to the perpetrators of oppresion or genocide. La Rochefoucauld’s comment, on the other hand, seems to excuse a behaviour of inaction and voluntary ignorance and lassitude, when we’re confronted with “les maux d’autrui”. Myself, I can’t help but feel some contempt for the attitude of those who don’t give a damn about other people’s miseries and care only about their private little matters. My heart fills with admiration by people like Arundhati Roy or Joe Sacco, Simone Weil or Che Guevara (to mention just a few), highly sensitive and creative persons, who devote their life-works to shaking hands with other people’s pain. And acting in order to diminish human grief in our Samsarian planet (good planets are hard to find). Empathy, methinks, is a praiseworthy virtue, and one of the best definitions of it I know of is by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara: “feeling anguish whenever someone was assassinated, no matter where it was in the world, and of feeling exultation whenever a new banner of liberty was raised somewhere else.”

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Such thoughs have been fermenting in my mind during insomnias and daytime anxieties, as the numbers of injured and dead keep getting higher and higher in Palestine. But let’s not take numbers too seriously and forget the real heartfelt human suffering that numbers tell us nothing about. Let’s not allow our minds become numb with an overdose of tragic numbers. Each number is to be perceived as flesh-and-blood, as sentience and conscience, as beating heart and thinking brain, torn apart by war.

From a safe distance, I follow the news and they tell me a lot about other people’s miseries – “gunshot injuries, broken bones, amputees” (Sacco, pg 30). I feel powerless as I witness this horrors brought to me by Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and the Blogosphere. I feel impelled to do something, even though I know quite well how little difference I can make by sharing Al Jazeera videos, sending to my friends the photos of demonstrations, or writing a post in a tiny little corner of the World Wide Web. A bitter taste of powerlessness and despodency nails me down to the chair as I witness the Zionists’ latest massacres in Gaza. Then I remember Voltaire and he inspires me to decide: the fact that one person can’t do much isn’t a reason to do nothing. If only everyone did this tiny bit, perhaps it would add up to something powerful enough to bring down from their bloody pedestals all these Masters of War?…

palestine-covers

Sitting at home, far from refugee camps, I take a journey aboard Joe Sacco’s compelling graphic novel Palestine. Sacco takes me to see a re-presentation of what he himself has witnessed in Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza etc. In Sacco’s pages, I see kids  throwing stones against tanks and getting shot at by soldiers armed with M-16s and other hi-tech rifles. My brain fills with some sort of psychic vomit when I picture such scenes. If I had been born in Gaza, if I was a Palestinian kid, wouldn’t I be the one throwing stones against the invading army? Wouldn’t I howl in rage against these grown men in uniform who only speak the language of violence? Which language would I learn to speak, in such an environment, if not the language of precocious rebellious stone-throwing? And if my best friend’s life had been taken away from this world by a bullet in the heart, wouldn’t I be angry enough to, a few years later, join a jihadist group and become a suicide-bomber on the road to glorious martyrdom?

gandhi_-_an_eye_for_an_eye_will_make_the_whole_world_blind_-_quote_large_poster__gn0097Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight for Intifadas, I fear, because no community will accept without resistance the sort of life conditions imposed by Israel in the occupied territories. Too many wounds have stirred too much rage, too much hunger for revenge, for any peace to be something reasonable to expect in the short term. Fuel keeps getting added to the fire of mutual hate. “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”, said the barefoot bald-headed pacifist Mahatmas Gandhi. But neither Zionists nor Jihadists seem to give a damn about Gandhi, especially when the wounds are fresh and the heart screams for vendetta.

I can’t begin to understand how and when all this mess began. I look back into the past, trying to get a grip of the historical roots of the conflict, but History looks like a mad circus of chaotic antagonism. It seems to me that Israel was born as a consequence of one the hugest tragedies of the 20th century – the Holocaust. The Nazi’s III Reich almost wiped-out the Jews from the face of the Earth, and when Hitler’s regime fell in 1945 it was mandatory to find the survivors a Safe Home,  in which they would be protected from ever having to be victims of such a mass-scale massacre. The “ideal” Israel would be a nation for the victims, for the survivors of that “Industry of Death”, to quote Steven Spielberg, which the Nazis set in motion in their collective psychosis of anti-semitism, racism, blind nationalism and totalitarianism.

But an old and un-answered question I’ve got is this: why should the Palestinians pay for the crimes of the Nazis? If Germany, infected by anti-semitic ideologies and imperialism, went on a killing frenzy against the Hebrews, why weren’t the Germans obliged, as the main perpetrators of the Holocaust, to offer some just compensation? Why shouldn’t Germany be made to concede, let’s say, one third of their territory for a Jewish State? Yeah: I see perfectly well that this solution wouldn’t work out. These neighbours, I suspect, wouldn’t live peacefully side-by-side with such monstruous memories of past bloody deeds haunting their coexistence. Despite the fact that Holy Jerusalem is considered a conditio sine que non by Jews: there’s no Israel without it.

Reading about these matters, I also discover, in the works of Joe Sacco and Arundhati Roy, that the plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine pre-dates the II World War. In 1917, the English minister of Foreign Relations, Lord Balfour, signs a Declaration in which the British Empire makes a commitment to create a nation for the Jews in Palestine – a place which, according to a deceitful Zionist slogan, was a “land with no people for a people with no land”. Which, of course, is bollocks. Big time bullshit. At least 700.000 Arabs were living then in this land which the Zionists’s cynicism claimed to be a desert – and promised to them by God himself. But, as Bob Dylan sang in the 60s, “you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side”.

Sacco1 Sacco2 What awes me is also how yesterday’s victims can metamorphose into today’s oppressors. How was it possible that the people who survived the Nazi Holocaust became perpetrators of a new “Palestinian Holocaust”? What Israel is doing in Gaza – bombing schools, hospitals, UN-shelters; killing hundreds of babies, children, women, elderly, civilians… – isn’t this reducing a whole community to a status of Subhumanity? People in Gaza know today how it felt for Jews in Auschwitz to be treated as less-than-human and devoid-of-basic-rights.

One could argue that Jewish experience in Europe was far from sweet and didn’t teach them much about gentleness between different cultures and nations. Pogroms, persecutions, concentration camps, gas chambers – these were some of the tragic cards the Jews were dealt throughout their wandering existence of chronic sufferers. In 1948, when they declared “Independence” and Israel was born, maybe they dreamt of Peace, finally? Anyway, if they did, the Dream has been shattered over and over again, for decades. There was never any peace. Israel is born into war and the nation’s first events, the first steps of this new-born child, have been tough as hell. Israel’s first breath was still sailing in the wind and the country was already dealing with the 1948 invasion from the Arab’s armies. After the defeat of the III Reich – who was supposed to last for a 1.000 years, according to the Nazi’s megalomania, but crumbled apart after 12 years – the Jews wouldn’t be allowed no peaceful retreat into well-deserved tranquility. They still felt endangered, they still feared annihilation, there were still enemies to fight. If they didn’t defend themselves, they feared that the Arabs would drown them all in the Sea.

Sacco3 I would argue that fear and violence often go hand-in-hand: a frightened animal is much more likely to attack than a tranquil, unafraid one. The human animal is also capable of bursting into terrible violence when he’s terribly afraid. When I look back at History’s madness, I see the Jews, after the II World War, trembling with fear and shocked with trauma. They had lost 6 or 7 million to the Nazi’s machinery of mass murder. And yet their survival instinct, their conatus (to speak in Spinozean language), was surely alive and kicking. To survive this tragedy they would need some radical means to establish themselves in some sort of safe spot. They would a massive Police State; one of Earth’s strongest armies; why not some atomic bombs? The U.S. would provide the means for Israel to become a military power whose self-confidence would be boosted by the  possession of weapons of mass destruction. Israel, then, was born like a Bunker State, warmed to the teeth, with one of the world’s most rigid and paranoid Defense Mecanisms of any nation on Earth.

But did they really believe they would build a safe haven in Israel after kicking out almost a million people from their homes in 1948? I’m sorry for my language: I’m quite aware that kicking out is not quite the right word. They did much more than kick out – they burned entire villages, they massacred entire populations, they created a huge mass of refugees, pushed very ungently, at gun point, into Gaza and the West Bank. Israel’s masterminds certainly don’t like this comparison, but this is how it feels to me: just like the Nazis deported the Jews from their homes and pushed them into the trains headed for the concentration camps, the Jews kicked out the Palestinians from their homes and pushed them into Palestine’s open-air concentration camps. Now it’s July 2014 and the world is asking in horror: is Israel applying the Final Solution? Is there anywhere or anyone in Gaza that isn’t a target?

gaza

In the occupied territories, most of what we take for granted as civilization’s basic gifts to citizens simply don’t exist – right now, as you’re reading this, more than 1 million people in Gaza have no access to proper drinking water. Almost no one has access to electricity – especially after the only power plant in Gaza was bombed to ashes in July 29. In Joe Sacco’s book, I discover that, in the Palestinian schools, it’s forbidden by the Israelis to teach history or geography with any book that mentions Palestine – it’s not supposed to exist in the textbooks. Israel would like to erase it from the maps. Is Israel trying to accomplish in fact the lie that has been written in textbooks, that is, “Palestinians don’t exist”?

In a clinic, Joe Sacco meets two doctors who reveal that they see “a lot of respiratory illnesses from bad ventilation and overcrowding, problems related to political and social conditions” (p. 48). Life in Gaza and the West Bank can be quite cruel, unealthy, insecure, always threatned to end precociously. But the web of everyday violence is woven by acts of cruelty not only to people, but also to their means of existence. Joe Sacco draws, for example, a heartbreaking scene with decapitated olive trees, cut off by the Israelis, and then gives voice to the Palestinians’ suffering:

Joe Sacco2

“The olive tree is our main source of living… We use the oild for our food and we buy our clothes with the oil we sell… Here we have nothing else but the trees… The Israelis don’t give people from our village permits to work in Israel… The Israelis know that an olive tree is the same as our sons… It needs many years to grow, six or seven years for a strong tree… Two years ago the israelis cut down 17 of my trees… my father planted those trees… Some of them were 100 years old… They obliged me to cut the trees myself. The soldiers brought me a chainsaw and watched… I was crying… I felt I was killing my son when I cut them down.” (Sacco, pg. 62)

This personal wound may seem tiny, but we need only to multiply it to get a picture of the collective wound inflicted by 120.000 trees up-rooted by the Israelis during the first four years of the Intifada.  Besides the massive bulldozing of trees, Palestian homes were also demolished in great numbers: 1.250 of them were brought down to the ground during the same four first years of the Intifada; in the same period, no less than 90.000 Palestians were arrested and put behind Israeli barbed wire, watched by soldiers with their fingers on the trigger (Sacco, pgs. 69 and 81). All those who dared rise up against Israel were crowded into prisons, put into cages, treated not so differently than the Nazis did with the inmates of Dachau or Auschwitz. One man interviewed by Sacco remember the time he was arrested in an overcrowded tent, “a sort of hell”, “3×4 meters with 21 persons”, in which “the ventilation was very bad, just a coin-sized hole in the door for injecting gas in case of a riot.” (Sacco, pg. 84)

Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer
Toronto, July 2014

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(TO BE CONTINUED IN ANOTHER POST…)

Recommended reading & viewing:

THE RAPE OF EUROPA – The fate of Europe’s art treasures in the Second World War

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THE RAPE OF EUROPE. Documentary, 2006, 117 min. Download Torrent.

The Story

The Rape of Europa tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during the Third Reich and the Second World War.

In a journey through seven countries, the film takes the audience into the violent whirlwind of fanaticism, greed, and warfare that threatened to wipe out the artistic heritage of Europe. For twelve long years, the Nazis looted and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history. But young art professionals as well as ordinary heroes, from truck drivers to department store clerks, fought back with an extraordinary effort to safeguard, rescue and return the millions of lost, hidden and stolen treasures.

The Rape of Europa begins and ends with the story of artist Gustav Klimt’s famed Gold Portrait, stolen from Viennese Jews in 1938 and now the most expensive painting ever sold.

Today, more than sixty years later, the legacy of this tragic history continues to play out as families of looted collectors recover major works of art, conservators repair battle damage, and nations fight over the fate of ill-gotten spoils of war.

Joan Allen narrates this breathtaking chronicle about the battle over the very survival of centuries of western culture.

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Blochbauer

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Blochbauer

Historical Background

According to U.S. estimates, the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the known artworks in Europe. While the Allies returned most of the displaced art in the decade following the war, much of the loot is still missing. Tragically, unique masterpieces were destroyed and lost to posterity forever. Other works of art – the last, forgotten victims of the war – survived but remain unidentified, traceable only with costly and difficult investigation.

By the mid-fifties the initial, massive restitution effort by the Allies had lost its priority and momentum to the pressures of the Cold War. Hundreds of works of art, their owners unidentified, still lay in government storerooms across Europe, or remained in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited for years before disguising their origins and feeding them slowly into the market.

But this long quiet period is over. The end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives of Eastern Europe revealed that many works believed lost had survived. The commemorations marking the end of World War II and the development of Holocaust scholarship also led to the re-examination and declassification of forgotten records, inspiring those who had long since despaired of finding their lost possessions to search again. Instrumental in bringing worldwide attention to this long-neglected story was the 1995 publication of The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nicholas’s landmark book on which the film is based.

The documentary film by Actual Films builds on her scholarship by incorporating the latest historical research, examining the legal and political problems presented by contemporary restitution claims, and assessing the lingering effects of this massive cultural displacement, an aspect of the war that still haunts us today.

The revival of interest in the subject of looting and restitution has had dramatic results. American museums from Seattle / Washington to Raleigh / North Carolina have had to explain how stolen paintings ended up in their collections after the war. In France, a catalogue of unclaimed art held by the national museums and ignored for years is now available online. Other nations, feeling the pressure, have also revisited the often unjust decisions made by their governments after the war concerning ownership of looted art. Perhaps most notable is the case of the five paintings by Gustav Klimt, long held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, that were awarded in 2006 by a panel of Austrian judges to Maria Altmann, the 90-year-old Los Angeles niece of a Viennese Jew from whom the paintings were stolen in 1938. She subsequently sold the pictures, one of them- the famed Gold Portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer – to Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million.

Pillage and looting during warfare are not, of course, activities that originated with World War II. Even before the epics of Homer, human history recorded the time-honored tradition of victors seizing plunder from the vanquished. But the massive scale, the unprecedented bureaucratic organization and the legalistic rationalizations offered by the Nazis set their accomplishments apart. Not hundreds or thousands, but millions of visual objects were bought and sold, confiscated and transported around the continent of Europe.

Just as the Nazis sought to impose their race-based morality onto the diverse population of Europe, they also sought to redraw the cultural face of Europe by rearranging or destroying its great artworks. Even in the upheavals of war the Nazi leaders devoted precious time and energy to the gathering of works of art. They carried out multiple operations with cross purposes. While Alfred Rosenberg’s propaganda unit (ERR) appropriated artworks that would buttress the Party’s racist ideology and pilfered the great Jewish collections of Europe, Hitler employed distinguished art historians and corrupt dealers to steal masterpieces that would confer prestige and symbolic legitimacy on the German nation.

However diverse, these operations were all linked by an underlying, racist effort by the Nazis to use the expropriation and destruction of cultural property as a means to dehumanize their victims. The Holocaust has become a symbol of the dark side of humanity, and we have spent decades trying to understand what it means to live knowing that average people are capable of complicity in such a horror. The history of what happened to Europe’s great art during and after the Second World War provides an important new lens through which to examine these seemingly imponderable themes.

"Monuments Men" (2014), a film by George Clooney

“Monuments Men” (2014), a film by George Clooney

In contrast to the wholesale looting of Hitler and the Nazis, the western Allies worked to mitigate the tragic, inevitable toll exacted on art and historic cities during their invasion of Italy, France and Germany. Central to this history is the unprecedented mission of the Monuments Men, mostly American art historians and museum curators who, drafted into military service, mounted a miraculous effort to protect monuments and recover millions of pieces of displaced art.

Moving back and forth in time, the film links investigations into looted art back to their wartime origins, tracing the remarkable journeys of individual masterpieces from wartime confiscation to present-day recovery by the families of the original owners. The Rape of Europa offers a privileged entry into the exclusive circles of the contemporary art trade and explores the little-known legacy of World War II that lured many post-war collectors and dealers into a Faustian bargain that continues to present day.

We live at a time when the common cultural heritage of humanity continues to be vulnerable to the threats of ideologues and the assaults of armed conflict, from the wanton destruction by Serbs of centuries-old mosques in Bosnia and Kosovo to the televised demolition by the Taliban of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan and the rampant looting that accompanied the American invasion of Iraq. The Rape of Europa is an emotional witness to the destruction wrought on culture and art by fanaticism, greed, and warfare. But it is also a hopeful film that demonstrates how it is possible for humanity to protect the integrity of cultural property in armed conflicts.

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Perspective on the film by Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa

My interest in the issue of art looting began quite by chance in 1980 when I saw the obituary of a Louvre curator, Rose Valland, in the Herald Tribune. It said, among other things, that she had been a Resistance heroine and responsible for saving and recovering thousands of works of art both during and after World War II. I was living in Brussels at the time, without any particular commitments, and my curiosity having been aroused, I decided to look into just what had happened to all the works of art in Europe during the war. Despite the fact that I had long been involved in the American museum world, I had never given any thought to the issue, and apparently no one else had either, at least not for a long time.

I started slowly, in Brussels, asking people at the museums there what they had done during the war. As the story slowly emerged, all the Europeans were astonished at my ignorance and kept directing me to people who, by the late 1970’s, held high positions in US museums. And so it was, that upon my return to Washington in 1984, that I began the real work. As it turned out, no one had ever asked any of the “monuments men”, as those who dealt with the rescue of European art treasures during the war are called, about their work. I was very lucky. Since I had worked in museums for years, I did know many of them, and without exception, they were delighted to share their memories, letters, and photos with me.

These personal papers were just the beginning. At the National Gallery of Art, I found the day to day correspondence of the Presidential commission set up to deal with art looting. The National Archives was another revelation: here were not only all the Allied records and photographs of damage, recovery and restitution, but tons of German documents recording the looting of Hitler and his cronies. It is hard to describe how exciting it was to find the files containing the actual correspondence related to this activity, often annotated by Hitler and Goering themselves.

I soon realized that the amazing exploits of the Monuments Men – and I include those from all nations including Germany who protected works of art, could not be understood without considerable analysis of Nazi thinking and policy. For example – the items that the Nazi collectors bartered and sold as opposed to those they confiscated and bought could only be explained by their theories on the degeneracy of races and cultures which were exemplified by the purges of their own museums before the war.

I was also well along with my book before the issue of what had NOT been recovered even occurred to me. Although vast amounts of movable art had been returned at the end of the war, thousands of items remained unaccounted for and tracking them down and reuniting them with their original owners has become a hot topic. Politics and world events have made an enormous difference to the development of this research–most especially the demise of the Soviet Union, the opening up of Eastern Europe and the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, with its reexamination of what had been done in the first years of peace–much of which, when revisited, did not seem quite right. As things thought lost forever came to light, families and governments began to look back at dusty records and memory was revived. All this was further fuelled by the gigantic increases in the values of many of the missing objects, with the result that many a lost work has been identified and returned its proper place.

The history of looting is not just about objects. It is a story full of personal tragedy and loss, of bittersweet recovery of the fragments of vanished cultures and lives. The combination of devastating destruction and the most beautiful objects of civilization is very powerful and is made even more so by the visual medium of film. I was quite overwhelmed by actually seeing images of the stories I knew so well. With great sensitivity the filmmakers of The Rape of Europa have added new dimensions and brought this whole history to life in an unforgettable and exciting manner.

Source: http://www.rapeofeuropa.com/

LYNN H. NICHOLAS, The Rape of Europa. DOWNLOAD E-BOOK.

LYNN H. NICHOLAS, The Rape of Europa. Vintage, 1995, 512 pgs. DOWNLOAD E-BOOK.

 

 

Theather in Toronto: a review of Bertolt Brecht’s “Rifles” @ Next Stage Festival, January 2014, Factory Theathe

Rifles

Synopsis: “In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Senora Carrar refuses to pick sides: her husband died in combat and she’s determined to keep her two sons alive and out of the conflict. But as Franco’s army marches towards their village, her resolve is challenged.”

RIFLES
Based on Bertolt Brecht’s
Señora Carrar’s Rifles

Written by Nicolas Billon and directed by Michael Wheeler.
Cast: Kate Hennig, Ben Sanders, Cyrus Lane, Araya Mengesha and more.

Seen at The Next Stage Theatre Festival,January 18th,
at The Factory Theatre in Toronto.

Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:

Bertolt Brecht‘s work is almost unanimously considered one of the best in 20th century’s dramaturgy. In 1952, Hannah Arendt hailed Brecht as “beyond a doubt the greatest living German poet and possibly the greatest living European playwright”. She was not alone in praising him: an intelectual of the stature of Walter Benjamin also cherished Brecht’s oeuvre and these “independly-minded Marxists” met in the 1920s, becoming involved in a dialogue and correspondence that is really worthwhile to get acquainted it. Toronto’s 2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival has honoured Brecht accordingly with an intense and lively staging of his 1937 play “Señora Carrar’s Rifles”.

Orwell2Rifles is an one-act play with a minimalist setting: the whole action takes place inside a Spanish household during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Inside this house, wounded by a bullet and with a broken arm, lies in bed a British writer, Eric Blair, worldwidely known by his nom de plume George Orwell (1903-1950), who would publish Homage to Catalonia about his experience in war-drenched Spain. In Brecht’s play, while Orwell waits to be taken to a hospital, he spits words of rage: “I would fight the fascists with only one arm!”

In Carrar’s home, while the sound of bullets and battle are heard all around, a heated controversy arises. In an historical situation such as this, with Fascism gaining terrain in Europe (Hitler was in power since 1933 in Germany, and Mussolini since 1922 in Italy…), what would be the best decision for the common people: to take arms and join the militias that are resisting the fascists? Or to stay unarmed and neutral, just observing the events without actively engaging in them?

If Rifles was a movie, it could be shot in one single take, inside an apartment, similarly to Hitchcock’s Rope or Tommy Lee Jones’s The Sunset Limited. But, despite the fact that Brecht’s play focus his attention only at the Carrar’s home (this play could be called a “chamber piece”), it’s amazing how public matters flood in from all sides, attacking the Carrar’s house like a snowstorm, until it becomes impossible for the family to retreat into private life.

The drama is centered on the mother of the family, recently widowed by the civil war: her husband has been killed in combat by Franco’s soldiers, and now she’s determined to forbid their two sons of following the same path. Señora Carrar has had enough of emotional loss and is convinced that her family should completely withdraw from battle. Then enters the scene Señora’s Carrar brother, who has joined the anti-fascist militias: he comes to get the rifles that are hidden in a trunk of the Carrar’s household. Brother and sister then engage in a heated debate, until bloody events leads them to agree on the necessary course of action.

The ethical dilemma proposed by Brecht is one of the enduring virtues of this work-of-art, which still has so much to say to audiences nowadays. One of the greatest dialogues in the play opposes Señora’s Carrar brother and the priest of the village, Francisco. The warrior in the militias, defending the need for the people to rise in arms against General Franco’s killing machine, clashes against the pacifist of the clergy who praises resignation and unresistance. This debate is still alive today – for example, in Mexico, where the Zapatista uprising has resorted to armed struggle against neoliberalism, imperialism and ethnocide since January 1st, 1994: the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), according to its leader Subcomandante Marcos, has decided that the only way they had to be heard was to get armed, an defends this choice by claiming this the path to empowerment that the powerless had to take in order to no longer by crushed by capitalism’s devastating powers.

Brecht’s message, in Rifles, seems to be that pacifism can’t be seen as an absolute ethical value, to be defended in all circumstances, with no possible exception. This play written in the 1930s seems to state that there are historical circumstances in which it’s almost impossible to discern between pacifism and complicity with a genocidal dictartoship. Those who do nothing are being simply “neutral”, or is neutrality a fallacy, a mask that cowardice hides behind?

todorov  In an excellent study about concentration camps and gulags, Tzvetan Todotov’s Facing The Extreme, the author asks the question: could the genocidal machinery of the III Reich be stopped by any other way than by the an armed struggle against it? What would have happened to Europe, and especially to its Jewish population, if France, England and U.S.A. had chosen the path of pacifism? Todorov’s impressive description of the up-rising in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, in 1943, leads the reader to a similiar state of mind than the one aroused by Brecht’s play: is it better to walk sheepishly to the slaghterhouse, or is it better to fight until death in the resistance?

In Brecht’s Rifles, Señora Carrara starts the play believing that the fascists “can be reasoned with” and that pacifism (or neutrality) is the best course of action. But when innocent and beloved blood gets spilled all over her face, once again, she experiences a sudden transformation, not unlikely the one that Lars Von Trier’s Grace (Nicole Kidman) goes through by the last acts of Dogville (2003) – perhaps the most Brechtian movie filmed in our century. After witnessing too many murderous acts by Franco’s genocidal regime, she finally decides that the rifles shouldn’t be left rusting inside the trunks. In an Orwellian twist of events, she goes outdoors to fight the fascists with her whole family. What will happen from this moment on, Brecht prefers not to reveal us: we’re left to wonder and debate about it after the curtains have dropt. 

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