“Survival” As War-making – When Fight For “Survival” Intensifies, Human Soul Dies

The only meaningful way of relating to the stories of Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz’ novel “Fatelessness”, Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” or Herta Muller’s novels and short stories from totalitarian Romania is to read them as testimonies of a total collapse of human conduct and responsibility: a collapse of such a nature and on such a scale that it transcends any attempt to explain them exclusively in terms of historical, political or psychological concepts; a collapse that is like a contagion, and like a contagion penetrates our self-knowledge at all levels… There are no unblemished witnesses, as it is perfectly possible to be a victim yet not wholly blameless. And there is no language… through which pure, unsullied experience could find expression.
Steve Sem-Sandberg, “Even nameless horrors must be named”

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Mother (about the daughter) – She was seen in the woods with Monblat’s son.

Father – So what? He is rich. His father made a bundle during the occupation. The kid joined the Resistance at the last moment. Now he‘s a businessman, like his father. That why she likes him. Am I right? It’s sad but it’s true. The only thing that counts in life is money. Your mother agrees! If you (to the daughter) marry him, she’ll forgive you.

Mother – Marriage? He is just playing around!

Father – A smart girl can gain a lot by being a rich man’s mistress.

Mother – Even if she’s pregnant?

Father – That should be avoided. Kids are expensive and cause trouble. You (to the daughter) have time. You want to go to Paris, be an actress. Do it. You flanked out of school, but you’re pretty. Anyway, actors don’t need a diploma. Your mother is right. Stay out of woods. Do it in a room.

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Leopold (to his wife) – We got into beer in 1933, went to war in 1939 and got bombed in 1944 just so that I could become a poet!

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Archambaud – I feel dirty deep down in my gut. I have been a part of so much slime and crime.

Watrin – By staying silent. And so have I. We are hypocrites, like most people. The times demand it. Do you know a lot of brave people, heroes, friends? But men are still wonderful. If a man lives to see a single daisy it’s all worth it. And there are woods, elephants…

From the dialogues in “Uranus”

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The characters in “Uranus” represent variations of condition of the human soul in circumstances when humane life is impossible. On this poster, from left to right, we see in the background: an engineer Archambaud (a sympathizer, during occupation, with Nazi ideology), a teacher of poetry Watrin (a man “not of this world”), his son who has returned after the end of WW2 from a German camp for French POWs, communist railway worker Rochard (a scoundrel, motivated by hate), Gaigneux (a “pragmatic” communist), Jourdan (a militant communist), Archambaud’s daughter (intelligent girl trying to be a decent human being), Mme Archambaud, Maxime Loin (Petain loyalist), Monblat (a “multibillionaire”), Leopold’s wife, policemen, right wing fanatics; and in the foreground – a jingoistic boy with a toy-machine gun, jingoistic girls with French flags, and Leopold (the pub-owner and drunkard – personification of the human soul lost and trapped in impossible circumstances).


This shot represents Dr. Archambaud, a senior engineer at the local plant, as a person who saw something terrifying, something that is unbearable for the human eyes to see, what wasn’t meant for the human soul to witness. What can that be? – The war that recently ended with the German capitulation? – The bombing of his town by the allies that killed so many innocent people? – Human cruelty towards other people? Yes, but he saw more than that. What he discovered is that in order to “survive” people will do everything, that they can “swallow” their fellow humans without any or with only minor torments of conscience. It is this knowledge that is reflected in Archambaud’s gaze we observe in this still. Is he looking at us, the viewers of the film? Is he looking only at his contemporaries or at us in the beginning of 21st century?


Reaction of Watrin, teacher of literature at the elementary school, on seeing the corruption and corrosion of the human soul (moved by ideological idolatry and human desire to survive and be saved by any price), is even more radical than in Archambaud. While Archambaud still keeps the ability to look at the world (with a terrible price of hypocrisy and cynicism to balance the unbearable reality: hypocrisy is a sign of split between positive self-image and the objective truth of how we really are – of our immoral behavior), Watrin completely lost the ability to see the truth. He looks through the factual world – at the sun and the moon, at the good potentials of our human nature, at the very innocence of human sinfulness, at embarrassing but redeeming coexistence of human naiveté and human criminality. If Archambaud becomes psychologically fragmented (loses human wholeness), becomes “post-modernistically” schizoid, Watrin is maniacally, absurdly, saintly, insanely positive and “optimistic” in spite of everything


Archambaud helps Watrin to put on an optimistic bowtie for the event of celebrating the return of the French POWs released by Germans after the end of war. Amongst the returning soldiers is Watrin’s son who doesn’t know yet that his mother is killed during one of the bombing raids on the city by the allied forces.


The absurdity of cheap (completely imaginary) joy that war ended (when narcissism of self-assertion and egoistic joy of individual survival prevail over compassion and the ability to assess what’s happened) is emphasized in this shot by the clownish attire of Watrin and mixture between the Communist, French and festive flags. A psychologically defensive need of the French masses to vengefully cheer the defeat of Germans, who earlier prevailed over them, makes people turn away from questioning and analyzing what happened with the world and them.


Jourdan is a French communist dogmatic and militant fanatic presiding over the post-war hunt after Collaborationists and Petain loyalists. This small, thinly framed and personally timid creature who still needs his old mother’s emotional encouragement and who in his letters to her often confesses about his political ordeals, has an inflamed socio-political passions. He prepares himself for the ultimate battle for the “communist’ heaven against the “capitalist” evils. This personage is Berri’s parody on numerous “positive” heroes (meant as role models for the viewers) of Soviet propaganda movies. With his irrationally obsessive political “activism” Jourdan is responsible for many mistakes in judgment and for many innocent victims wrongly accused of collaboration with Germans. Jourdan is an explosive mixture of political idolatry and a fundamentalist inability to differentiate between logic of the ideas and logic of the social reality.


Here we see Jourdan in between two portraits of his mother, behind him on the wall and in front of him on the desk, in an epistolary contact with her. His political fanaticism cannot be separated from his psychological infantilism, from being emotionally completely inside the imaginary (covered up by his blind belief in communist doctrine). His deductive thinking (neglecting complications and ambiguities of reality) is completely “geometrical”. His psychology is very close to the American “theoreticians” of economic “shock therapy” and “austerity measures” who apply combinations of concepts to reality without taking into consideration their real price in terms of the human deprivations as a result of implementation of their “theories”. For Jourdan victory of communism is beyond human cost, like for today’s Wall Street schemers and today’s corporate entrepreneurs their perfumed profits.


Gaignaux is a “communist pragmatic”, a moderate/rational political believer, the type that in Soviet Union was completely destroyed during Stalin’s purges of late 30s – early 50s. Following Marcel Ayme (the author of the novel the film is based on) Berri provides Gaignaux with four characteristics meant to emphasize his ordinary humanness and not being fanatic and dogmatic. It is his love for children, his amorous need (both features are absent in the dogmatic/fanatic politicians for whom their children are an extension of themselves and love is reduced to sexual victories), absence of vengeful feelings, and loyalty not to a political doctrine as such but to an existential stance of political fight.


Gaigneux is not a sexually promiscuous type. He like almost everybody reacts on beauty and purity. He is not a particularly humane person, he is also a political functionary, but he is without a psychotic streak of people like Jourdan.


Instead of using the return of the peace for trying to understand better what’s happening with people living under inhumane conditions, the world after the war occupies itself with new rounds of political propaganda and pop-entertainment, and, of course, with feverish money- and career-making. Pay attention to the co-existence of Christian symbols and entertaining movie-ads (psychologically, cousins – both exploit the human proneness to prefer imaginary bliss on the swings of identification to facts, analysis and truth) in Archambauds’ bedroom.


Why Archambaud’s wife couldn’t resist “emotionally helping” Maxime Loin, a conservative political activist under Vichy government, when her husband moved by humane impulse let him to hide in their place? She herself refers to Christianity as a religion of forgiveness. But more detailed impressions from her personality tell us another, less noble story. Maxime Loin is doomed. Earlier or later he has to surrender not to endanger even more people who helped him. Like Gaigneux he is in love with Archambaud’s beautiful and intelligent daughter. Maxime Loin knows he will be executed by the Communists; he trembles with fear and dreams of what will never happen in his destiny. He is an ideal person to be used as an existential stimulation (on somebody’s despair it’s possible to harvest passion that is the last flash of life, last outburst of vitality). Mme Archambaud feels predatorily triumphant around Loin (like a female spider eating her mate).


Monblat is a crushing power from behind his desk (that is the 1945 equivalent, for example, of the office of Goldman Sachs’ CEO today). Pay attention to several phallic symbols around him including the angelic figurine keeping the light – financial power is means of wealth but its goal is to reach the godly might dressed in angelic kindness.


Monblat is a successful business dealer under any system of power. He made money under Nazis; he will make more under French Communists. Politicians and administrators always love wealthy people (they need money) and this gives Monblats of the world incredible advantage. For them money/profit is priceless. Money, like god, is beyond human frame of reference.


Rochard represents in the film a type of communist who is ready to try anything immoral not for the sake of success of his political belief but for the sake of being ahead and above others. He is ready to intrigue, to lie, do anything just to win. Stalin’s KGB guard in the late 30s was made of Rochard dough. Bush-Rumsfelds and Rove-Cheneys belong to the same category. Rochard is tragically a universal type of lout under the mantilla of political righteousness.


Rochard deserves to be treated like Leopold treats him (after he lied that he saw Maxime Loin hiding in Leopold’s pub), even though Leopold is wrong to treat him like this.


Claude Berri is rehearsing a scene with Gerard Depardieu.


Leopold is worried because of Rochard’s open menaces to report him to the Communist authorities for the crime he didn’t commit.


When a person is innocent of a crime he is accused of he is worried even more than when he knows that he is actually guilty – the guilt is not primarily a matter of legality, the Law, prosecutors, judges and Jury. The guilt/innocence is, first of all, connected with the truth of our identity. This truth is what makes us what we are; it is our personality, our very essence. To be accused wrongly drives us insane exactly because it’s crumbling our personality, distorting and violating it, making us, as if, not-existing.


Leopold escapes into poetry – so unbearable is for him the world that insinuates his identity. Yes, he wasn’t rebellious against German rule, but so the majority of French. Yes, he had his small business. But Rochard just to revenge him for being successful represents him as a pro-Nazi.


In magnificent constellation of personages in “Uranus”, Leopold plays a similar role as the double of Shingen in Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” (1980). Instead of being one of the characters Leopold personifies the very condition of the crumbling soul in all of them. Gerard Depardieu acts the agonizing death of the human soul in those who survived the WW2 – exactly what so frightened Archambaud and what made Watrin turn away from the reality. With each war we become more and more inclined to start the next one.


The death of Leopold signifies the death of the soul of the modern man who in order to survive has lost with his humanness his humanity. The scene of Leopold’s death is one of the most impressively acted scenes in the history of intellectual cinema.


Claude Berri with his youngest son, the film actor – look at Berri’s gaze, it’s not like Archhambaud’s and not like Watrin’s. It is a gaze of a person who has taken to himself all the burden of truth about the condition of human soul that he is trying to describe in his films to make a difference. And his son respects and loves him for this incredible courage.


This is a commercial poster of “Uranus” with reduced quantity of characters. Pay attention to how the right wing insignia in the upper right corner of the poster is symmetrically contrasted with left wing banners.

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In the very beginning of the film we see a man’s big fat rear pulling itself up from the prostrated body of a beautiful girl with a gaze of compassionate distance. The faceless, flabby guy is pulling up his pants as if after using toilet. The connotation here is that the survivalism under extreme conditions is destructive for the human psyche (only calculating mind is left from it), and then only body can be a channel for human self-expression and self-realization. Fat guy steps away from the place of sinful embrace. He is a billionaire Monblat’s son, and the girl with him is the daughter of the engineer Archambaud. Both fathers during the occupation sympathized with Nazi ideology and Monblat did more than that – he collaborated with the right wing pro-Nazi French government and had business relationships directly with German entrepreneurs. But what is the significance of the fact that Berri starts the film with a sexual intercourse in the forest on the outskirts of the town? Is he making a point about animalization of love – its reduction into sex as a result of war and pauperization? Or is he trying to say about the necessity to hide whatever it is – love or sex, from other people because of fear of enraged gossip among neighbors polarized by ideologically enhanced mutual hate? Or the point here is that love that people are unlearning (because of over-occupation with “hate, fight and survival”) hides not only from gazes of others, but hides from itself behind/under sex? Is war achieved “sexual revolution” – freedom of sexual self-assertion by the price of destroying the very ability for (disinterestedly) loving?

“Uranus” classifies the types of people whose souls were either completely or in a substantial degree destroyed by the “tough times” they were moving through. The analogy with Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain” (1959) may be helpful here. Watching this film about the predicament of Japanese soldiers at the end of WW2 we cannot avoid noticing a similarity with today’s American life – comparison of times of actual war with so called peaceful life in US. Like Ichikawa emphasizes the intensity of a naked fight for survival amongst the Japanese soldiers trapped in the Philippines in 1945, like Berri underlines the condition of brutalization and atrophy of the soul in the French population in the same historical period, the both directors on the level of semantic (deep) structure address the desperate fight for survival in general (including fight for financial “survival” according to the norms of American life in 21st century). Brutal behavior of the American right wing corporations taking away from their fellow Americans the right to work and sending American jobs to other countries, recent administrative and political attacks on American education, pensions for elderly and help to an enlarging segment of the poor – create similar psychological effects on American life today as what is described by Ichikawa and Berri.

Berri provides a detailed criticism of both – collaborationists and communists because he sees the same moral degradation in both mutually antagonistic camps. The film is about immorality of the both sides involved into a hateful fight for an unconditional victory of their side in the fight.

For people who joined hate (regardless of which side they are on – extreme right or extreme left) to morally survive the war is no brainer. These people are always on the moral side of the universe in their own eyes, even when (and especially when) they behave immorally. That’s what pop-morality is – the person takes refuge in the alibi provided by the political system which guarantees that our sins and crimes, as soon as we are committed to official jingoistic ideology, are no longer considered sins and crimes and by the very magic of the political/ideological belief are transformed into heroic deeds. That’s what “Uranus” is all about – it shows how severe conditions of life and tricky cultural clichés neutralize our moral consciousness and then we become “tolerant” of our behavioral immorality in the name of our political/ideological fetish, be it belief in the Communist future, in superiority of the Third Reich or in “American democracy”. Feeling of hate to whoever it is then is a proto-immorality, a psychological trigger of immoral behavior.

In one of the most important scenes of the film (when after the end of war the city celebrates the return of French POWs from German camp) we see violence unleashed by the French right-wing nationalists celebrating final triumph over the “krauts” and their contempt for the French POWs who “surrendered to the enemy” – we feel that lessons of war are not understood once again, that war is interpreted not in term of its tragic results for everyone, but in the spirit of the primitive right wing hate and competitiveness for the place of winner over loser. Barbaric emotions which have led to war in the first place are unleashed again, after the war is over.

According to the film, six basic motivations determine human behavior during “hard times” – trying to succeed in survival and salvation by any price (everybody), money/profit/power idolatry (Monblat), political ideology idolatry (Jourdan, Gaigneux, Rochard, Maxime Loin), intolerance: sharpening teeth for revenge (Rochard), common sense (Archambaud, Watrin), compassion (critically problematized by Berri) complicated by egoistic psychological motivations (Archambaud, Watrin).

“Uranus” is an impossible (admirable) cinematographic poem about the (terrifying) deadening of human soul.

Review of “Uranus” posted on Aug, 2014 –   “Uranus” by Claude Berri (1990) by Acting-Out Politics