The Problem with Archetypes

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Lately I’ve been reading all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and, looking past the deliciously pulpy swords & sorcery genre-​ness of it all, many of the tales wrestle with the tensions between civilization and barbarism. Lately I’ve been thinking a bit regarding how media of all sorts (newspapers, television, online, video, video games, et al.) portray real people as archetypes in a tacit narrative. I recently finished a game called The Saboteur in which the player takes the part of an Irishman in Occupied France, killing Nazis. As you play the game, you end up killing a lot of Nazis. And, as I played, I began to realize that Nazis & Nazism have become the archetypal standard of evil in our culture. I see two problems with this kind of thing, one general, one specific.

The general issue is that archetypes are, by their very nature, resistant to nuance, immutable, and less than real. Archetypes are easily packaged and media creators of all types should consciously avoid packaging each story that comes along into an archetypal dichotomy: hero/​villain, good/​evil.

The specific issue, in the case of the game The Saboteur, is that, by treating Nazis as the archetype of evil, the true horrors of Nazism in the Third Reich can be simply ignored. Nazis become monsters instead of men. You don’t need to understand a monster. You don’t try to understand a monster. You don’t ask “Why a monster?” You just kill them.

Plenty of media narratives fit this bill. Yesterday, when, about a half mile down the road from me, 3 women were saved from a life of rape, abuse, and captivity, the archetypal narrative was immediately placed upon the scene. Charles Ramsey: Hero; Ariel Castro: Monster; Gina deJesus, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight: Damsels in Distress. It’s all too easy. You can make a story out of anything by imposing archetypes and then adding flourishes, like, in the case just mentioned: fake satellite news reporting.

When it’s easy, you get lazy. People who are convicted of crimes are treated as monsters. Every person who works in public safety or in the military is automatically a hero. This kind of laziness does serious damage to peoples’ lives, gut-​level public opinion, and to critical thinking skills of the people who propagate it. I hope adding just one layer of complexity can make this point stand out a bit more.

Instead of saying that convicted criminals are evil, let’s just say they’re barbarians. So, people who are in, or have been in jail are barbarians, and people who aren’t and haven’t are civilized. There’s no good or evil here, just a level of social sophistication. In this context where is there space for good or evil? Well, who would the barbarians kill? Child molesters and rapists. Why? A barbarian would say “Because they’re evil. Monsters.” and leave it at that. But that’s still wrong. A society in which rooms full of children are murdered by a gunman, athletes and spectators are shredded by bombers, and a trio of brothers enslave young women for a decade is not a society that can afford to rely on lazy narrative archetypes. We have to be willing to exert ourselves enough to ask earnestly uncomfortable questions. Archetypes worked in pulp fiction fantasy stories in the 1930s, but this isn’t the Hyborian Age. Evil doesn’t look like a crazy frog beast. It looks like everyone. And, more importantly, so does Good.

A barbarian has no need for nuance: if it’s a monster, kill it. A civilized person must ask “Why a monster?”

The Night Porter

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #59: Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.
There is a picture of a naked woman at the end of this review. If you or your workplace has a problem with that, you should probably not read this or wait until you get home.

The Night Porter is a film about a sadomasochistic relationship between an SS officer and a concentration camp prisoner. The film takes place in 1957, but neither Max [Dirk Bogarde] or Lucia [Charlotte Rampling] have moved on from their old lives as Nazi and prisoner, respectively.

Max is the night porter at a Viennese hotel, still proud of his Nazi past, perhaps subconsciously wracked by guilt, and now forced to “wipe people’s asses;” a taker of orders, not a giver of them. Lucia, emotionally needy and by a twist of fate, is staying at the hotel with her conductor husband. They run into each other and, out of fear and obsession, stalk each other until the husband leaves town. Then Max slaps her around a bit and they have a rip-​roaring good shag.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Max, he and his SS compatriots are performing some sort of psychoanalytic mock trials on each other, in attempts to assuage [or fully repress] any guilt they feel for their actions during the war. After each person has had their trial, any witnesses that remain alive are “filed away” and all paper trails completely destroyed. These men still feel that the Nazi dream can be fulfilled, and they know there is still at least one woman alive who knows about Max. Unfortunately, Max is in love with her, and the feeling is returned.

The Nazis lay siege to Max & Lucia, by keeping a 247 watch on his apartment. If either of them leave, they will be killed. They’re okay with this at first, Max chains Lucia up so “they can’t take her away” and they play their power and pain games with each other. When they are almost out of food, Lucia starts gobbling jam, they wrestle over it and then have a rip-​roaring good shag. Then, after their power is cut, they escape by night and are still assassinated.

The film is ostensibly about power dynamics, especially capture-​bonding, a mechanism related to Stockholm syndrome. While it was controversial at the time, for its portrayal of concentration camp culture and debasement, this setting, and the subsequent Viennese aftermath, are well suited to weaving together the interests of competing groups.

The bond that binds Max & Lucia is one that is still very misunderstood and taboo. Max always has the power, but sometimes he submits to Lucia, his captive, after he has trained her. She also fights back on her own, but only in order to up the ante, to see how far they can push themselves into cruelty. If you can call it cruelty, since they both love it. Similarly, the Nazis seek to control every possible loose end of their lives, to eradicate any threat to preserve themselves. Throughout, I get the sense that all of the players are under the control of their desire for power, instead of controlling the power of their desires. There are likely quite a few references that I missed, such as the applicability of Mozart’s The Magic Flute [with which I have only passing familiarity] and the German song that Lucia sings for the SS officers in the cabaret.

Overall, I thought this was a superb film, with excellent acting and extremely poignant dialogue [at times]. The camera work was interesting, as lots of shots hug the frame or seem like the camera could be tracked out just a bit. There are long reveals and lingering shots that create a strong sense of impending catastrophe. This one is worth a watch, if you aren’t too prude.
Criterion Essay by Annette Insdorf
Images Journal review by Shane M. Dallman
The Criterion Contraption’s review.