War and Remembrance

Picturing the past: The Execution of the Traitor Ernst S.

Watching a Richard Dindo documentary is like seeing memory constitute itself before your eyes: Words, intonations, gestures, and especially silences are ordered into some approximation of what whirls inside our heads, both individually and collectively. The 16 films the Zurich-based director has completed since 1970--two of which will be introduced by Dindo at U Film Society this week--share several preoccupations, notably the contours of the artistic sensibility and Switzerland's mostly unspoken complicity in wrongdoing. Like Claude Lanzmann, Dindo contrasts placid tracking shots with unsettling reminiscences; like Errol Morris, he's intuitively sympathetic to oddballs, rebels, and outcasts. Yet his goals are more morally fraught than either of his peers'. What do we do when we remember, he asks, and how does remembering change us?

Dindo's 1976 The Execution of the Traitor Ernst S. is a Kafkaesque parable of not-quite-innocence sacrificed for not-quite-dubious reasons: a novelistically complex study of moral complicity and power politics. Ernst S., the classic untermensch of a generation of Central European literature, was a frivolous, politically naive goof-off who bounced from one hoped-for future to the next--"a poor devil who had to look for shelter again and again." At worst a good boy gone wrong, he might well have blossomed into a classic bildungsroman hero and one day discovered his calling.

Instead, however, a headstrong cantankerousness--essentially a generalized resentment for the rich--led him to furnish information to the German Embassy in the midst of a war his nation was struggling mightily to stay officially out of. (From what we're told, he offered "imprecise sketches" of artillery positions, five grenades, and the key to an unguarded ammunition depot, for which he received not a great deal of money.) Ernst spied with the same expertise he had applied to every previous employment, which is to say very little: He walked up to friends in the street and urged them to join in. Denounced by a fellow lodger in his rooming house, Ernst readily admitted all. Denied clemency, he was the first of 17 killed to convince the Swiss population of its government's stern opposition to Nazism.

And yet, Dindo observes, high-ranking members of that same government happily consorted with the Third Reich, refueling their war machine with well-stocked trains or offering to demilitarize the entire country, the better to unlock Switzerland for easy takeover. (Upon its initial release, Dindo's film reawakened debate about Swiss collusion during World War II, to which recent disclosure of Swiss bankers' complicity in the theft of Jewish wealth adds another layer of complexity.) Ernst himself was shot (a process recounted during a spooky nighttime visit to the exact location, by a former neighbor who tied Ernst to the tree and released him after the execution) by a special detail that included a factory owner, a dentist, a chemist, and an insurance agent: the better orders, protecting their own.

In the face of such complicated historical and moral issues, where do "guilt" and "innocence" reside? Dindo spends much of his time probing how Ernst's siblings, many of whom were ruined by association with a traitor, have answered such questions. One of Ernst's brothers, a lifelong Marxist, feels continual embarrassment over this betrayal; another lost a fiancée, who shuddered from "marrying into such a family." The family skirts the issue, professing ignorance of "this thing" and doing their best not to learn what actually happened. They register a somehow passive grief, for him and themselves--as if by now this burden has become as natural as breathing--as well as sporadic anger at their famously well-manicured nation's quick smoothing-over of such inconvenient mounds of dirt.

Her voice breaking, Ernst's sister recounts a conversation with an officer who was punished for treason by being "degraded," the worst castigation he could imagine. We are left with people destroyed by impulsive actions over which they had no control, but for which they bore all the onus; their country, meanwhile, congratulated itself on its impeccable deportment and carried on with business as usual. As a result, The Execution of the Traitor Ernst S. leaves the viewer no clear point of sympathy, no rooting interest. All we can do, it finally seems to suggest, is to record the past as honestly and completely as possible: recall as salvation.

Dindo's newest film, Genet at Chatila, strikes me as somewhat less satisfying. Tracing a dying Jean Genet's visit to the Chatila refugee camp in 1982, a day after brutal massacres of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese militia, Dindo honors Genet's sympathies with the underdog--he termed himself "a black who is colored white or pink"--without quite asking whether such uncritical romanticizing deserves to be lionized. ("I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholly and without judgment," Genet wrote. "They are right because I love them.") The film works best when it plunges into empathy with the numbed survivors, who hunger for some resolution of an issue they know is well out of their hands: One mother vows to "fill some sacks" with her children's bones and carry them wherever she's sent; a young woman recalls her sister dying in her arms. Dindo's vision of the unnerving lack of traction that accompanies statelessness is unforced and moving.

Yet by focusing so insistently on Genet's retelling of what he has seen, to its service as his literary and personal inspiration--on a visit in 1970, he grew so enamored of the fedayeen, freedom fighters who took to the hills, that a planned eight-day visit lasted two years--Genet in Chatila replicates the colonialism it detests. The Palestinians become fodder for Genet's speculations on reality (can his mere marks on a page sum up what has happened?), his struggle to choke out more words before death claims him, and thereby lose their place once again. They become instruments of narrative and imagination rather than actors themselves. But Dindo plays that contradiction so deadpan that it's hard to discern any critical distance: He seems as enchanted by Genet's outlaw poses as Genet was by boys with guns.

The result is a problematic excursion--sometimes intriguing, sometimes self-undermining--through politics, memory, and the politics of memory: Can any text fully capture the texture of so fraught a reality, Dindo asks, or does it inevitably leave us holding mere shards of experience? Even when he's not at the top of his form, Dindo is a demanding filmmaker who answers some, but not all, of the questions he poses. Leaving the theater, you want to argue with him rather than yell at him. And how many directors offer that much generosity these days?


Richard Dindo will be present at U Film to introduce and discuss Genet in Chatila Wednesday at 7:15 p.m and The Execution of the Traitor Ernst S. Thursday at 7:15 p.m.; (612) 627-4430.

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