Birdman: Riggan, Mike and Adolf Eichmann
In a previous blog I spoke of doubleness and the dramatic tension between Riggan and Mike as the core of the tension in the movie, Birdman. The film has been nominated for nine Oscars this year. The form, theme, cinematography, soundtrack, characters are so at odds with a movie that thirty years ago won Oscars for best movie, best direction and five other Oscars – Out of Africa that we watched again last evening. I quote from the 1937 memoir by the Danish Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym of Karen Blixen) upon which the movie was based.
“Two homogenous units will never be capable of forming a whole… Man and woman become one… A hook and an eye are a Unity, a fastening, but with two hooks you can do nothing. A right-hand glove with its contrast the left-hand glove makes a whole, a pair of gloves; but two right-hand gloves you throw away.”
Before I return to the movie of thirty years ago, I want to introduce a third character, one from real life. I know you will be puzzled by the inclusion of Adolf Eichmann when discussing a Hollywood film that, on the surface, has absolutely no connection with an organizer of mass murder, but I beg your forbearance as I develop my theme. I am currently completing the reading of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth, a German philosopher who has written a brilliant work of scholarship. It is a heavy tome at 579 pages, 155 of them endnotes. Don’t worry, I do not intend to review the book in this blog, even though it is a tour de force and hopefully will win a number of additional scholarly prizes now that it has been translated into English. It has already won the German NDR award for best non-fiction book. The reviewer of the English translation will require a far greater scholarly acquaintance with the field than I will ever have.
It is rare to read a philosopher who wrote her PhD thesis on Kant’s concept of radical evil and ever since has been researching a theory of the lie, but who has also become a scholar on anti-Semitism and the National Socialist philosophy. It is rarer yet for that scholar to produce such a brilliant case study of a personality who embodied radical evil. Stangneth, as I do, belongs to a school of philosophy that believes that philosophers have to sink into the mire of the empirical to undertake proper philosophical work.
One of the virtues of the book is the grace but thoroughness with which she totally buries Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolph Eichmann as an expression of the banality of evil, not only by the thoroughness of her research and the skill of her analysis, but by clearly showing that Arendt was duped by Adolf Eichmann’s deliberately cultivated deceptive self-portrait in the courtroom in Jerusalem. Though Stangneth lauds Arendt for her courage and the conviction of her clarity in portraiture, though Arendt knew far too little, and for her meticulous work, Stangneth overwhelmingly demonstrates that, “even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” An ability at self-critique is still the ultimate virtue of a first class philosopher and Hannah Arendt ultimately fails that test.
Stangweth demonstrates definitively that Eichmann was a man of vaulting ambition who did not inadvertently become a member of the SD as he proclaimed, but wanted with a desperate passion to enjoy the respect from others because of his membership in the SD [the SD stood for Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service in Nazi Germany and was distinct from the Gestapo). For his deepest desire was to experience the deep dread he could then inspire in others.
Eichmann was not the epitome of the bureaucrat who followed rules and kept meticulous records. He was disorganized and often tardy. More importantly, he believed in smashing conventional bureaucracy in the name of both a higher ideal, National Socialism, but also to set in place a system that was speedy and more effective by not following inherited rules. He was Mr. Fixit when it came to invention for extermination. He coined the phrase, “Final Solution”. Nevertheless, though not a bureaucrat in the ordinary Weberian sense, he meticulously kept records of denunciation files as he wrote, with his crude and simplistic ideology, anti-Semitic screeds. Unlike either Riggan or Mike in the Birdman, he sought to exude faceless power (akin to a Gestapo man in a long leather coat with his face in the shadows) rather than the desire for facial recognition of both Riggan and Mike, each in very different ways.
Not that Eichmann disdained recognition; he craved it, but for his name rather than his face. Riggan and Mike wanted recognition, the former for his face that had previously been hidden behind a bird costume, and the latter for his body of work as an actor. All three wanted and craved a reputation, but Eichmann for one that inspired fear while Riggan wanted respect and Mike wanted recognition for brilliant artistry. But all three were poseurs, Mike deliberately, for that was his art, Riggan to cover up his lack of artistic skills, and Eichmann to project power and status (hence, the black SS uniform and the riding crop) as well as erudition. For he was brilliant at convincing others that he was an authority on both Judaism and Zionism and that he had mastered both Yiddish and Hebrew when he only learned a smattering of each, but just enough about all four to deceive others.
“A glance at the modest means with which Eichmann managed to present himself as a perfect Hebraist, even to his colleagues, teaches us something about his use of role-playing and image-making. Eichmann spoke no Hebrew and only a little Yiddish.”
Riggan, Mike and Eichmann were not shy, were not retiring, and did not want to be subordinate to anyone else. Each wanted a place in history, a very different place for each, but a lofty position nevertheless. Riggan wanted to achieve fame and recognition out of costume. Eichmann wanted fame in costume. In contrast to both, Mike achieved fame by baring all. He did not even wear underwear when he had to change in the fitting room. The biggest difference between Riggan and both Mike and Eichmann is that Riggan was always uncertain and full of self-doubt. In contrast, both Mike and Eichmann were convinced that they had been chosen for greatness. Eichmann wanted fame as the exterminator of the Jews. Mike sought fame as the exterminator of himself. Riggan wanted fame for being an actor rather than a comic book character in costume.
All three men were known for barking orders. As the leaders of the Jewish communities that met with Eichmann attested, he “attacked them energetically, shouting and screaming and threatened to send them to a concentration camp.” He was no self-effacing bureaucrat who simply followed orders. None of these three men were capable of simply following orders. They were all artificers in their very different ways, obsessed with invention, primarily of themselves, though only Eichmann conceived of himself as the manservant of death who carried the sickle obsessed with the extermination of Jews. While he accused Jewish leaders of portraying him as the bloodhound who wanted to kill the Jews, he collected those reviews as if he were a director of plays taking great pride in both that reputation and his achievements. Riggan’a orders, unlike those of Mike and Eichmann, though he barked as loud as the others, were just as often ignored, Eichmann and Mike barked orders that were always obeyed, but Mike, unlike Eichmann, rarely obeyed orders given to him. For Mike could not tolerate constraints.
Pride. Ambition. Self-aggrandizement. Arrogance. Role-players. Image-makers. These descriptors characterize all three. But Riggan and Mike are Lilliputians compared to Eichmann who boasted, “Nobody else was such a household name in Jewish political life at home and abroad as little old me.” Paradoxically, a contradiction of which he was totally unaware, Eichmann was determined to exterminate that very polity in which his greatest fame was to be found. But the key is not the polity on which he focused his obsession with extermination, but his obsession with his reputation and the need for an image and public performance to sustain and enhance his role on the stage of world history. All three were united in an inability to hide in the shadows, an inability that would lead to Eichmann’s identification, kidnapping, trial and eventual execution.
What is often overlooked is how the audience is complicit in the deceit. Look at the raves Riggan’s play received from both the audience and critics in the film, Birdman – though it is clear that the play is a dramatic mess. The plaudits were for technique, for the ultra-realism of actually shooting himself at the end. The movie incorporates the laugh-line of The Producers, who, in contrast to Riggan, were intent on, rather than bumbling toward, failure. The production was a smash success. In every case, not just in theatre but in real life, deception can only succeed in partnership with the mindblindness of an audience. Even Eichmann’s Jewish victims helped enlarge the symbolism of his name as that name became more than that of an individual person, but was projected onto every jack-booted leather-coated Gestapo agent his victims ever encountered.
People who have experienced suffering, humiliation, and loss do not want to have been the victims of someone mediocre: that a mere nobody has power over us is even more unbearable than the idea that someone has power over us. This mechanism blocks our view of the perpetrator. It gives more power to the dynamic of symbol creation and strengthens the sphere of power by limiting our capacity for making clear judgments.”
Hence the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Hence the diatribe in the Torah against idolatry as the worst sin. Hence, false memories and projection of the deceived. This was true of even an intellectual as smart as Hannah Arendt. So why fault the audience who went crazy over the play Riggan wrote, directed and acted in? Why fault the audience who watch Birdman or those who nominated it for awards and will eventually cascade the movie with honours?
Am I putting down my wife and children who so loved the film? Not at all. They were taken in, as the vast majority of people are, by the artifice of technique and deception, by the magic of the movies, by brilliant and sparkling dialogue, by inventive and skilled cinematography and, most of all, by inspired acting and role-playing. Our great love of precisely those elements also help to deceive us about everyday life and of history. For artistry for its own sake, the preference for technique at the expense of substance, invention divorced from creation, is just magic.
Isn’t this an assertion of arrogance? Not at all. It is merely pointing out, what Mike was passionate about pointing out, that we all are small, meaningless and naked ultimately as we play our roles in time, and even more pitiful when we play a role obsessed with standing out and above history. These are but acts of enormous vanity. While we exert enormous efforts at playing a role that will raise us to greatness, that will give our life meaning, it is just as important, if not more so, to be always aware of how small we are and how fleeting and ephemeral fame is. Further, if fame is only to be gained by stepping over the bodies of others, better to bury fame.
Eichmann at the pinnacle of his success as an exterminator of the Jews is only a Mike turned inside out and directed outward at the Other. After the war, as he hid out in Germany and in Argentina, as he made plans to re-appear on the public stage, Eichmann did return to the world public stage, not as he envisioned it, but in a courtroom in Jerusalem where he was required to play his greatest role, that of a faceless bureaucrat that is only a cog in a murder machine that was the precise obverse of his performance in history. In the courtroom, he had his ideal critic as he played his new role for the most intellectually significant drama critic at the time, Hannah Arendt, who was totally taken in by his performance, proving what a superior thespian he really was.
Eichmann had to play the humble and pitiful actor rather than the costumed hero of his greatest fame, and though he clearly, in retrospect, bungled the writing, the directing and the performance itself, he nevertheless succeeded in earning an even greater status in history than he ever imagined by playing the role of self-diminution in a so-called banal murder machine. Eichmann desired and dreamt of being Birdman, soaring like an eagle, and not reducing himself to ordinariness, humiliating himself in his own eyes, but, paradoxically that inversion won him a role in history far beyond any that he imagined, as the purveyor of banal evil.
Mike and Riggan are hollow men. By bombarding the image of Eichmann with electrons in a super-collider, each is revealed as infinitesimally small positive and negative quarks, as the two very different faces of a monstrous Adolf Eichmann. Miniscule characters are magnified and revealed when we can see Riggan and Mike writ large as Adolf Eichmann. Even more important, the absence of the Higgs boson particle allows them to disintegrate before our very eyes. This can best be illustrated by sitting Birdman side-by-side Out of Africa, the star-studded Oscar-winner of thirty-years ago.
It would be hard to find two films as radically different as Birdman and Out of Africa. Birdman is set in the small cluttered dressing rooms, narrow corridors and small theatrical stage of a Broadway theatre. Out of Africa is as expansive as Birdman is claustrophobic. Set on the open veld at the foot of the Ngong hills in Kenya southwest of Nairobi, Out of Africa juxtaposes nature and the artifices of civilization, primitive Masai warriors and herders with ex-pat aristocrats largely from Britain, hunters with farmers, and the role of the Kikuyu workers and Somali Muslim house servants caught between these radically different periods in human history. There is NO nature in Birdman, not even human nature; it is all artifice, brilliant artifice, but artifice all the same.
The pace of Out of Africa is languorous while that of Birdman is frenetic. The sound track of each is radically different. The Music of Out of Africa combined traditional tribal music from Kenya and orchestral works by classic composers (Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto” for example) with a brilliant original score by John Barry that communicated the transition from the tension between a tribal world and a feudal aristocratic order into the modernism of the twentieth century. In Birdman, sound designer Martín Hernández enhanced tension with Antonio Sánchez’ atonal “jazz” playing. Percussion had been taken full circle from the beat of the Masai warriors as they run across the Serengeti to a regular beat, through the background percussiveness of a European orchestra, back to drumming that paces a rapid transition into modernity.
In Birdman, instead of providing a steady beat for the warriors, the beat is very irregular and varied, tuned to reflect the subtext of each scene in the movie rather than set a constant pace for the performance. The drumming stops and starts, resuming at a very different pace to enhance the erratic performances of the characters. Instead of crisp, clear tones, the fractured and broken drumming signals disfunction, irregularity, tension and disintegration. The veld may have been relatively dry in the Serengeti, but was never emotionally dry. The drums in Birdman reflected the dirty realism of the Carver stories brought to a radically new pitch sometimes bordering on and other times breaching the insane.
In Out of Africa, the main tension is between a female and a male, initially between Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and her philandering aristocratic husband, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and then between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a man who refuses to be owned or possessed, but who deeply connects with the immediate other in imitation of the Masai way. He is as direct and honest as the Baron is deceiving and a reprobate. Whether, between the Baroness and the Baron, or in her love affair with Denys, the differences are clearly there, but, in each case, the love that unites them is clear. This is also evident in Karen’s connection with her Somali overseer, Farah (Malick Bowens).
In Birdman, we have a tension between male and male, not as in a boxing moving as a test of strength and skill, nor as in a buddy movie as a test of contrasting characters, but as a competition between two different forms of fabrication with radically different intentions and goa,ls. What we never have is love. What we never have is the injunction of E.M. Forster to “Only Connect” What we cannot find in director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s script and direction is a Higgs boson particle.