… and now for something completely different… or maybe not that different.
This may be of little interest to anyone other than diehard Terrence Malick fans (there must be at least one of you out there). Although if you skip to the end, you will find at least an attempt at a general reflection to conclude this post.
It was suggested to me recently that there may be allusions in Terrence Malick’s fillm Badlands to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis starting in 1933 in Germany. (see the comments section at: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/seeing-clearly/#comments)
The suggestion was so provocative that I could not resist returning to Malick’s 1973 film and seeing if I could find traces of imagery that might allude to Nazism.
I suppose it is almost impossible since 1945 to view any film that centres on a lone crazed male figure who embarks on a meaningless and senseless killing spree, leading an innocent victim in his wake, without feeling there must be some echos of the mad architect of Nazism. And it is true that Malick films are so rich in imagery that it could be possible to see allusions to almost anything in his films.
But, with those cautions in mind, what evidence might there be in Badlands to support a connection to Nazism?
Here are the images I found that might be seen to point to events prior to and during World War II, or that at least reinforce themes of senseless violence, death and destruction:
1:31 – dead German shepherd dog
6:03 – Kit performs what could appear to be a Nazi salute
6:06 – Holly’s father is a sign painter and an artist. Hitler worked occasionally as a sign painter and considered himself an artist
7:16 – unemployment office. Hitler came to power in part due to the painful reality of unemployment in Germany where by 1930 15% of the population was unemployed
10:36 – feedlot where cattle are penned and prepared for slaughter
12:20 – dead fish
12:56 – dead cow
15:39 – Holly’s father shoots her dog and dumps it in the river
16:17 – the billboard Holly’s father is painting carries the name Kauzer in large letters. According to Guy Walters, in his book Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them To Justice, there was an SS officer named Kauzer working in the Janowska labour, transit & concentration camp in L’viv, Ukraine
20:59 – Kit sets a house on fire. Admittedly it is tiresome to see allusions to Kristallnacht in every burning building. But in this case the scene of the home engulfed in flames is preceded two minutes earlier by a vision of a shattered glass door on a recording booth where Kit has been making a recording explaining his actions. While the building burns, the musical sound track is German composer Carl Orff’s “Passion”.
51:18 – empty railway car in the middle of the prairie, into which Kit dumps body of Cato
1:06:44 and 1:24:59 – trains. Again it is a stretch to see every train in any movie as an allusion to the Nazi transportation of Jews to their destruction. But it is not possible in the context of the violence of “Badlands” to completely dismiss the possibility that the arbitrary appearance of trains, as Kit and Holly flee from the law and after Kit’s capture, may be a visual hint of the horror of the Nazi concentration and death camps.
So, if Badlands carries even slight echos of the events that surrounded Adolf Hitler during the horrifying years of 1933 to 1945, is there any point that we might draw from the connection?
Whether or not Malick intends this is impossible to say. But it does seem worth observing that in Badlands, the character who performs evil deeds, and who we would normally be expected to despise, does not conform well to our usual caricature of evil.
Kit is handsome, winsome, funny, and engaging. To the very end of the film, Kit charms even those who are fully aware of the horrors he has committed. Like Kit’s companion Holly, the viewer is carried along throughout the film by the weight of Kit’s appealing, if psychotic and off-kilter personality.
Badlands may serve as a sobering challenge to those who look back at the rise of Hitler in the early 1930’s and wonder, how could so many people have been duped by the man we now know as a murderous madman. The reality is that Hitler did not come accompanied by horns and a forked tail, any more than Martin Sheen burst onto the movie screen as Kit, oozing green slime to make sure the viewer did not miss the message that he is truly a bad dude. Hindsight is 20/20 vision; things are not always quite so clear in the heat of the moment.
Whenever people fail to stay close possible to honesty, compassion, and deep respect for all forms of life, it is easy to wander off after some appealing presentation of power and charisma leading down a road no one would voluntarily take.
Let Badlands be to us a serious warning of where our journey may lead when we fail to pay close attention to what is actually going on and silence those who tell the truth we do not want to hear.
nb: Martin Sheen: When you’re playing a character, good, bad, or different, you’re not really permitted as an actor, as an artist, to make a judgment on a character, because if you make a judgment, it’s a preconceived notion, and the audience sees right through it. Even if you play Hitler, this infamous villain of all villains, you can’t make a judgment on him. You’ve got to be free of judgment in order to play him so that you come to some understanding, some insight into that character. Maher, Paul Jr. (writer & ed.) One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick. Paul Maher Jr. 2014, p. 61.