The Changing Face of Enemies

Many of the earliest Hollywood films overflow with denigrating images of "the other." Chinese "dolls," "barbarous" Arabs, "lecherous" blacks were portrayed as dirty, demonic, and despicable peoples. Perhaps most famously, in 1915, director D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (which champions the Ku Klux Klan as "rescuers" of the downtrodden South after the Civil War) depicted African Americans as either childlike individuals with limited mental abilities or depraved creatures who lusted after young white women.

Both Hollywood and World Cinema have continued this practice of vilification. For decades, Hollywood Westerns stereotyped Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages. Then, in 1956, John Ford's "The Searchers" was the first to "revise" our long-held myths of the American West. A series of revisionist Westerns followed, with Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves," arguably, the quintessential case in point.

But what about Nazis; WWII Japanese military; the Stasi, East Germany's secret police; drug-addicted high school teachers; and, currently, the most abhorrent factions of all: child predators and Middle Eastern suicide bombers? Other than their own minions, who would dare put a favorable face on any of these reviled groups? Well, visionary filmmakers, of course.

In 2005, Bruno Ganz starred in "The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich." The film was attacked in Germany for encouraging the audience's sympathy to gravitate toward some of the Nazi characters.

Last year, three Oscar nominees--"Joyeux Noel," "Tsotsi," and "Paradise Now"--invited us to identify with, respectively, WWI German soldiers during a Christmas Day truce; a ruthless South African thug; and Said and Khaled, two life-long Palestinian friends, coerced into undertaking a suicide mission in Tel Aviv.

Humanizing Axis soldiers, African criminals, and suicide bombers in a movie risks offending some viewers in the same way that humanizing Hitler and his associates does. Aren't demons more convenient villains than complicated people with their complicated biographies and motives?

This year, Oscar-nominated films and roles offered many worthy alternative perspectives on our perceived "enemies."

I wasn't surprised when "The Lives of Others" won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. The story (which takes place in 1984 East Germany, during the reign of the German Democratic Republic) focuses on successful playwright Georg (Sebastian Koch), his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mhe), a Stasi officer who spies on them. At first we are appalled by the invasion of privacy, but as Wiesler's sympathy for the couple increases, so does ours for him, until we view him as a powerless cog in the Socialist machine.

"Little Children" carries an undercurrent of Lynchian darkness. Beneath the sun-drenched lazy afternoons at a playground and swimming pool lurks a threat far worse than mean-spirited suburban women and adultery. Jackie Earle Haley is haunting and disturbing in his role as Ronnie McGorvey, a pedophile recently released from prison. Watching Haley turn an inherently despicable character into a sympathetic human being was one of last year's true rewards of film viewing.

When our children reach school age, we entrust them into the care of individuals whom, we hope (if unfairly), will not only educate them, but also serve as moral compasses. In "Half Nelson," Ryan Gosling portrays a tortured Dan Dunne, a disillusioned junior high history teacher and crack addict with a death wish. A complex relationship develops between Dan and his black female student Drey (a knock-out performance by Shareeka Epps), which provides the opportunity and support for Dan's redemption, and, once again, our sympathy.

In Clint Eastwood's harrowing, contemplative "Letters From Iwo Jima," the director dares to make heroes out of the enemy. Pearl Harbor defined Americans' hatred toward the Japanese. But "Letters" turns the tables and effectively presents the U.S. as the adversary. Without doubt, as with the afore-mentioned actors, Ken Watanabe's stellar performance (Academy: Where was his Oscar nom?) provided the sensitivity, complexity, and sense of intimacy that renders him a believably sympathetic human being.

Published in Cathleen's "Santa Cruz Sentinel" column, Cinema Culture, on 23 March 2007.

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