Someone parks a beautiful Citroen outside my front door. It’s a lovely car and immediately reminds me of a moment in the past when the world was still an enchanted place. It also reminds me of a charming retro film ‘Les femmes du sixieme etage’: there’s a gorgeous Citroen in that too – a film that is set in the year 1962. ‘Les femmes du sixieme etage’ recreates the atmosphere, class divisions and distinct aesthetics of Paris in the early sixties. I always like the way such films serve as micro-case studies that both re-describe the past and raise questions about the way we live now.
Another film, a brilliant film – this time set in 1980s East Germany (but with beige Trabants rather than slinky Citroens) – has a particular power to make me think about the culture of England. The film is called ‘Barbara’. Even though it’s about some of the experiences of living within a paranoid and cruel regime I think it surfaces some fundamental issues about life and culture, now, in England.
The first issue concerns the relationship between the individual and the state: a telling dialogue between two doctors (one of whom is Barbara) highlights the fact that the making of a doctor is not possible without the arrangements, the structures and systems of the state. It is the state that provides the education, the security and the resources which ensure that the theory and practice of effective medicine is possible. It follows that the individual has some sort of obligation to the state. But, as far as I can see, England is not a place where any such sense of obligation is felt. Yet it is the state that has educated us and kept us safe. The schools in England are wonderful places; by and large our social arrangements ensure that the environments in which people learn, study and get their skills are enabling rather than disabling. The state has, in fact, served us well.
The second issue that the film Barbara profiles concerns the value choices that an individual makes. There’s a basic choice – between care-for-others (or, at least consideration for others) and the pursuit by the individual of the psychological and material benefits offered by the ‘free world’. In the end, Barbara, despite her wish to escape the paranoia, constraints and dreadful surveillance of the communist regime, suppresses her own desires in order to help a desperate and helpless person. I admire her for it.
The third issue is about human ingenuity: in the film we discover that one doctor has created a laboratory in which he can make his own serums. The other, Barbara, is a gifted pianist. She mends her bicycle, outwits the informers and the secret police. The film tells us about the basic resourcefulness and creativity of human beings. So, how, is it that so many people in England, instead of building things, making things, or changing a part of their world for the better are sitting passively in front of stupid television programmes – just waiting to be entertained and getting fat?
And lastly there is a moment in the film where we are invited to consider a painting by Rembrandt. The painting, ostensibly depicting the dissection of a dead man by a group of medics and anatomists, shows us, instead, ways of looking at the world: the dead man is, in fact, a victim of a rotten system of justice. He’s not just a thing serving the interests of others. He’s where he is because of the sociology of a time and place. So, I ask myself: ‘How are ‘we’ looking, how are we seeing, in England?’ – and it seems to me that most of the enchantment has gone: the world, for so many people, now seems a resource to be ‘set upon’ and exploited.
Ca donne a reflechir.
Barbara is a 2012 German drama film directed by Christian Petzold. The film competed at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2012 where Christian Petzold won the Silver Bear for Best Director. The film was selected as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, but it did not make the final shortlist.
Of course it should have won the Oscar.
And here’s that Citroen parked outside my front door …