Monday 20 May 2024

Martha and Me (and Starmer and the Scum)


I don't have Netflix these days, partly due to the cozzie livs and partly due to the fact I have no desire to give some of what little money I do have to transphobic pricks like Ricky Gervais or Dave Chapelle, so I haven't actually seen Baby Reindeer. But I have seen the poster for it, and when I saw it it's fair to say I did a double-take because really, what the fuck? That looks like me, right? All the way down to the shade of lipstick, fat forearms, three-quarter-length sleeves and the cropping of the photo to hide a high forehead. There I am, walking to the supermarket of a Monday evening, confronted with what looks to all intents and purposes like a picture of me caught in the act of suffocating a Borrower. What is going on here? 'A captivating true story'? I've never even met this Richard Gadd bloke! Why would Netflix want to do me like this? Most of the stuff I've been most scathing about has been on Amazon Prime...

Obviously I Googled the show as soon as I got home. This was a little more reassuring, as while the Wikipedia entry informed me Gadd's show was semi-autobiographical, I didn't recognise anything of my own behaviour in that of his self-insert's antagonist, Martha: all my experience of stalking has been on the receiving end. But it didn't reassure me much, because I know the modern-day media environment too well to kid myself that the true-crime-brained gumshoes of the Internet weren't going to burn lean tissue long into the night trying to track down the 'real-life Martha', and all it would take to make my life even more of a living Hell than it already is would be one dickhead posting a pic of me side-by-side with the poster online. Sure, Gadd himself had pleaded with fans not to engage in digital vigilanteism, but when has pleading ever stopped the mob? 

In this version the part of Richard Gadd is played by a Fire Ant figurine

So, to my shame, I have to admit that I was somewhat relieved when the real Martha, Fiona Harvey, announced herself to the world via the medium of an interview with Piers Morgan. Only somewhat relieved, though, because I knew the resulting spectacle would be far from edifying and, more than that, I consider it irresponsible journalism. The kind of stalking which Harvey claims Gadd is unjustly accusing her of engaging in (as opposed to the sort of stalking engaged in by the kind of reporters employed by the likes of Piers Morgan) tends to be the result of a form of romantic obsession called limerence, and it is, to say the least, not mentally healthy behaviour. Revealing Harvey to have been the inspiration for Martha in this manner, whether or not she volunteered her identity readily, is extremely reckless as we don't know what Harvey might try to do to Gadd, or to herself, never mind the fact that it presumably leaves her open to reprisals from members of the public looking to punish the villain from one of their stories. In the past, actors have been abused and attacked by members of the public just for playing villains in TV soap operas: it's all too easy to imagine the bloodlust that might be inspired in the kind of person who does that if they found themself face-to-face with a real life television villain. 

Not that Martha is the only villain in Gadd's series: as well as experiencing stalking and sexual assault at the hands of Martha, his protagonist is also assaulted by a theatre producer, called Darrien in the show, whose identity, according to the presenter Richard Osman, is something of an open secret in the comedy industry. Tellingly, Osman doesn't say whether or not the real-life Darrien has faced any consequences, although Gadd's friend Sean Foley ironically wound up having to go to the police due to being misidentified as the culprit by the online investigators. If I had to guess, I'd imagine there have been no consequences for the real rapist: my own experiences in the poetry scene have taught me that most of the real dangers escape any reprisal beyond being outed on a need-to-know basis by the whisper networks. I'd like to think that's what Osman is referring to when he says everybody knows the identity of the real-life Darrien. 

One reason for that, of course, is that rape is effectively legal in the UK. As the campaigning organisation Women Against Rape points out, only 6.5% of reported rape cases result in a conviction, 45% are no-crimed, and 90% of rape victims never even bother reporting their crimes to the police. And why would they, when doing so can leave them open to the charge of making a false accusation? The stigma of being labelled a false accuser is compounded by the fact that the police follow a policy of prosecuting victims who are unable to bring a successful prosecution against their rapists, and allows the same organisation that for years protected the likes of Wayne Couzens and David Carrick to bully women and girls into dropping the charges. Women Against Rape met with the then Director of Public Prosecutions and current Leader of the Opposition, Kier Starmer, asking him to end this damaging practice - but instead he rejected their advice, and doubled down on the existing policy of prosecuting victims. With a record like that, is it any surprise that Starmer provided such a cheery welcome to the Tory turncoat Natalie Elphicke, who allegedly interfered in the trial of her rapist ex-husband, and is on record as having said that his only crime was 'being attracted and attractive to women', and made disgusting comments about his victims? Between that and his work defending Silvio Berlusconi, anyone might think rapists are Kieth's kind of people. No wonder he's dogged by those rumours about Savile and Worboys...

So it's beyond ironic to see Starmer, or someone in his office, trying to present himself as a victim and steal a little valour from Gadd by briefing the press about his own harassing emails from Harvey - which I assume is what happened, because as undoubtedly unwell as Harvey may be I don't think it's likely she would willingly tell the Sun about how fun it was for her to call Kieth a 'stupid little boy' and 'a free loader on the public purse'. It's hard to say what's more sickening about this really - the blatant attempt to ride the coattails of a media sensation, however sordid, is of a piece with the cargo-cult Blairism of pretty much everyone buzzing about the LOTO office these days, and of course there's the fact that whoever leaked these emails on Kieth's behalf is more than happy to throw a mentally ill woman even further under the bus than Piers Morgan did, but for me it's definitely the simpering attempt to present this man who has done so much to make life worse for rape and sexual assault survivors as the real victim in all this, while Gadd, who has much stronger grounds to feel ill will towards Harvey, has shown an admirable degree of empathy and forbearance towards her. 

It certainly makes me feel much less bad about writing that poem where I describe Starmer allowing his body to be used as the flesh-vessel for the spirit of Jimmy Savile to fuck the corpse of Maggie Thatcher, anyway. Maybe I should email it to him. At least The Sun won't be able to make sarcastic remarks about my 'punctuations' (yes, the spelling of 'Cercle' is deliberate; ask Nadhim what it means). You'd think at least one of their subs would have heard of Muphry's Law...

Monday 13 May 2024

Barbican Garden

Alone in the Barbican garden,
every muscle aching from the fight the night before,
I remembered hard words in Victoria station,
an overnight bus ride, your body, the walk
through the builders’ yard, the cheap hibiscus
shower gel I’ve never found anywhere since. 

Sitting on concrete I wrote in my notebook
(my small joints hurt less than my shoulders),
not about you because you were too present for
words, might still be now: present in the pain-
tings you had recommended, which I made a note
to see. Now, with exhausted pain less of a novelty,

I see how they inspired your own, and I see
why you said what you said to me, what
you saw in a body like mine, how the way 
I held back had frustrated you. But there,
in that Brutalist garden, all I knew
were the bruises you left me with

and my resentment of the fact 
that they would fade.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Card Counter Coda: Major Gordo and the Vanishing Israelis


When I write this blog, I often turn up things during research that are interesting, but which I have to leave out because they complicate the main thrust of my argument or just represent a tangent that I don't have time to go down. In the case of my essay on The Card Counter, there were quite a few such things, mainly to do with the technical aspects of making the movie. For example, one of the reasons the film feels so claustrophobic is that Schrader and his Director of Photography, Alexander Dynan, used an unusual focal length for most of the shots, to leave out as much of the background as possible. That's an interesting thing to know from a technical standpoint, and if I was writing a piece where questions of technique were more relevant (as with Zone of Interest, say), I would have included it, but that essay was more focused on the writing of the movie than how it was filmed, so it gets left out. 

Sometimes, though, things come up which mean you have to return to the material you left out. One such thing, this week, was the revelations from Israeli whistleblowers and former Palestinian detainees at Sde Temain detention centre, as reported by CNN. The tortures described in the report will be familiar to anyone who's seen Schrader's film, or is familiar with the Abu Ghraib case: detainees kept for hours in stress positions, menaced by dogs, subjected to sonic bombardment and physical beatings, piled semi-naked on top of each other...The torturers in this case at least seem to have avoided being photographed giving thumbs-up gestures beside naked prisoners, though. Perhaps some of them still have a sense of shame. 

This pinged something I'd read while looking into the background of Janis Karpinski, the officer in charge of all Iraqi detention facilities at the time of the atrocities who, I wrote in the essay, also got gender-swapped by Schrader, into the extravagantly-moustached John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. Like everyone else in the film, though, this isn't a one-for-one correspondence: for one thing, Gordo is only ever presented as having been in charge of one prison, rather than the three Karpinski was responsible for; for another, and more crucially, in The Card Counter Gordo escapes prosecution by virtue of being a so-called 'independent contractor', while Karpinski, being part of the chain of command, was prosecuted. 

Such are the exigencies of creating drama out of history, of course: you collapse a number of real life figures into one person to create an Aristotelian unity; you fudge some facts and leave out others - it's not verbatim theatre. Gordo's getting off scot-free is the primary driver of Schrader's plot, after all: it's why Cirk wants to get revenge on him for what his father was ordered to do, and why he feels Tillich should help with his scheme. The thing is, though, that there's a little bit of Karpinski's testimony which maybe - maybe - gives us a better analogue for the mercurial Gordo. 

In an interview with the BBC, Karpinski claims to have met an Israeli individual at Abu Ghraib, who told her he did 'some of the interrogation here'. Which Israeli organisation, if any, that this guy belonged to, Karpinski never specified; the journalist Seymour Hersh, corroborating Karpinski's story by reference to his own sources, believes he would most likely have been with Israeli intelligence, who were interested in accessing Iraqi detainees to find and interrogate Iraqi intelligence agents who specialised in spying on Israel. Here we have a figure, not part of the official chain of command, like Gordo, who, also like Gordo, is employed to 'assist' with the interrogations and who, again like Gordo, slips out of the story discreetly and is never prosecuted. Officially, this guy was never there. 

Just as, officially, Derek Chauvin never learned the specific choke he used to kill George Floyd during an official 'seminar with Israeli secret services', as claimed by Maxine Peake in an interview with the Independent. Rebecca Long-Bailey's enthusiastic sharing of this interview - off the back of other comments Peake made in it about socialism, rather than this alleged collusion between Israeli secret services and racist US cops - was seized on by Kier Starmer's media outriders as an excuse to force one of Kieth's only major challengers out of the Labour Leadership race; while others in the media ran cover for the Israeli regime by focusing on the nice distinction that Chauvin personally could never have been told about that particular choking technique officially. The denial presented to the Indie by an Israeli spokesperson is actually quite revealing in this regard: 'there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway'. There was no tactic or protocol which called for detainees at Abu Ghraib to be smeared in human faeces and forced to masturbate in front of US soldiers, but it still happened.

However, as Antony Loewenstein points out in his book The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, 'the IDF routinely uses this suffocating move on Palestinians' regardless of whether any official protocol 'calls for it', and it is a matter of record that the ADL runs a program to send US police officers to Israel, where they can learn about the techniques that country's authorities have pioneered in how to oppress a rebellious population. While the ADL's stated aim in facilitating this exchange is to build support for Zionism among US cops who, as Loewenstein points out, hardly 'need Israeli training to make [them] violent or racist', the interest in these programs from the police themselves is far more about learning about tactics and techniques than it is about gaining an insight into Zionist ideology. Revealingly, despite the official line that there was no connection between these programs and Derek Chauvin's knee, the ADL themselves discussed the possibility of ending them in response to the death of George Floyd, writing in an internal memo that 'we must ask ourselves...whether we are contributing to the problem...We must ask ourselves if, upon returning home, those we train are more likely to use force.' Don't worry, though - they kept the programs going. No force on earth can stop pigs enjoying a junket. 

Pace Hersh, this perceived expertise is probably the real reason an Israeli intelligence agent might have been at Abu Ghraib. As Loewenstein documents meticulously, for repressive Western security forces Palestine serves a role similar to that which Northern Ireland served for the British police and army during the years of the Troubles - a place at the imperial periphery where troops and cops could be sent to get a taste of the mindset and tactics they could then bring back home to use in suppressing internal dissent. One wonders if, in a few years, we'll learn that techniques like those in use at Sde Temain are also being used on the Bibby Stockholm, or the camps our government wants to set up in Rwanda, or the ones they'll probably eventually get around to sending all of us queers to. 

Monday 6 May 2024

God's Clubbable Woman: The Card Counter, Paul Schrader, Lynndie England and White Feminism

Recently, inspired both by reading Jack Graham and Elizabeth Sandifer's excellent essays on the Star Wars movies, and the fact my Disney+ subscription is coming to an end, I decided to embark on a project of watching those movies in what some fans call the Machete Order (or rather a variant thereof which I devised in order to include the Andor TV show and Rogue One). Between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, however, I found myself somewhat sick of the series' cookie-cutter morality and needing an injection of cynicism. I got that cynicism in spades when a family movie night saw me having to bear witness to the fourth iteration of the Expendables franchise, a film which pussies out of its one interesting idea in its final moments and doesn't even have the decency to give us the Iko Uwais/Tony Jaa duel I assumed would be its only highlight. What I realised, I needed, wasn't the cynicism of roided-up Hollywood pensioners, but the cynicism which comes from ideals disappointed, with having to live with and in a world which you know to be fallen, where the possibility of redemption isn't offered hope, but sharpened torture. 

You can always depend on Paul Schrader for that sort of thing. 

The Card Counter is a 2021 film written and directed by Schrader in the aftermath of the more successful and comparatively bigger budget First Reformed, and, like that film it follows another of Schrader's favourite type of protagonist, 'God's lonely man', a reclusive and walled-off individual who spends his days passing time in a fallen world and his nights furiously journalling in an effort at making sense of it all. Where First Reformed's Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a faithless saint contemplating the commission of an act of eco-terrorism, however, The Card Counter's William Tillich, played by Oscar Isaac, is very much a sinner. An Iraq War veteran imprisoned for a decade for acts of torture committed in Abu Ghraib, when we first encounter Tillich he is eking out a living as a low-rent gambler, practising the trade he taught himself in prison at the blackjack tables and always peacing out just before the pit bosses make him. Eschewing the casino hotels - and the surveillance that comes with them - he prefers to sleep, sometimes fully clothed, in anonymous motel rooms he methodically strips of what little identity they still possess, pulling pictures off the walls and wrapping all the furniture in grey sheets he carries with him. Tillich begins the film by telling us he would not have considered himself 'suited to a life of incarceration', but it's clear that he is recreating the conditions of his prison cell in the 'free' world he's been released to, confining himself to quarters and wrestling with his guilt and his God in the pages of a notebook. 

It isn't a happy life, but it's one he's in control of, until a chance encounter at a security convention, and the ministrations of a poker stable boss, appear to give him the shot at redemption he's given up on. When the son of one of his former army buddies tries to inveigle Tillich into a scheme for revenge against his former commanding officer, whose status as an 'independent contractor' allowed him to get off scot-free while Tillich languished in Leavenworth, he makes a counter-offer: asking the boy, Cirk, to accompany him as he makes the rounds of the celebrity poker circuit, a Faustian endeavour Tillich barters himself into in the hope that he can wipe out Cirk's debts, see him reconciled with his estranged mother, and put him on a path to something other than revenge. 

Of course it all goes wrong, but that's not what I'm interested in here. What has preyed on my mind about the movie since watching it is something the film never draws much attention to, but which is obvious if you remember the events it's based on, which is that Tillich is, essentially, a genderbent Lynndie England

You could argue otherwise, of course. While England is the name and the face most people remember from the Abu Ghraib torture photos, she didn't serve a decade in jail for what she did - neither did the only member of her happy band of sadists who was sentenced to ten years, Charles Graner, come to that. And she wasn't even the only woman in those photos, smiling at the camera and giving a thumbs-up while pointing at naked and humiliated Iraqi men: Sabrina Harman was another, and although she claimed, in a letter to her wife, that she wanted the crimes documented as a warning, both her mouth and eyes are smiling in the photos; and so was Graner's eventual wife Megan Ambuhl, though she seems to have been smart enough to keep her face out of the pictures. But England is the headline name, the one that sprang most readily to the minds of the people I asked in my admittedly unscientific survey of Facebook and Bluesky associates when I asked if they remembered anyone involved. 

Interestingly, Tillich's CO, Major John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe, is also a gender-swap: the officer in charge of all detention facilities in Iraq was Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski, who was demoted to Colonel as her punishment for overseeing these enormities. Like many of those involved, Karpinski has sought to minimise her own role in events and shift blame onto others, and she isn't entirely wrong - as the torture memos told us, the buck stopped with Rumsfeld, if not Bush, and one of those men died comfortably in bed while the other is being rehabilitated in the media as a sort of qlipothic Jimmy Carter who paints charmingly naive portraits. 

This game of passing the buck is, of course, one of the key things which indicates that for all the grittiness of his character, Tillich is a fantasy on Schrader's part: none of the people involved in the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib has wholeheartedly embraced their guilt, and certainly not to the extent that Tillich does. But Schrader's transformation of Tillich into his preferred gender of protagonist gives him an easy out in another way, too 

You see, one of the things I remember with shame about the revelation of those photos is that there were some women - and it goes without saying that these women were white and cisgender, though I've met enough racist white trans women in my time to know some of them probably thought this too - who got a thrill from those pictures. Who saw them as revenge on Evil Misogynist Muslims like the Taliban, who had forced women into burqas and much, much worse in Afghanistan. That this position was politically incoherent as regards the secular Ba'athist state of Iraq ought to go without saying, but white fantasies of racialised revenge have never really cared for nice distinctions. 

And it's that element Schrader loses the opportunity to address by turning England into one of his trademark Lonely Men. For one thing, a female card counter would have to spend a lot more time dealing with men in casinos hitting on her. It's not that Tillich's world of casinos is entirely homosocial: the stable boss La Linda, played by Tiffany Hadish, is the person with the most power that we see in that world, though even she is just a middle(wo)man for her own financial backers. But, even though it's clear from the beginning that La Linda's interest in Tillich is more than just monetary, it would have a very different dynamic if the genders were flipped. But what interests me much more is how the meet-cute between a female Cirk and Tillich would go. 

Because Islamophobia and transphobia tend to be comorbid ideologies. The loudest voices fantasising about violent revenge on us trannies are the same voices which exult in philosemitic abandon at every Israeli atrocity (hi Julie! *waves*). And I can't help but wonder about the story you could tell if a female version of Schrader's imagined protagonist found herself sat next to one of those women in a hotel conference auditorium and got to talking. That would be a very different story - one in which the temptation proferred to the hero is not redemption but reintegration, acceptance into a twisted social fold made all the more tempting by its acceptance in the so-called 'mainstream' media. A female William Tillich would be even more marketable than her male equivalent - women in professional gambling acquire a glamour simply by virtue of their comparative rarity, and in a world where transphobes have seriously attempted to rehabilitate bigot and serial paedophile-befriender Mary Whitehouse, is it really far-fetched to imagine them doing the same for a war criminal? Especially in times as mask-off as our own with regard to which war crimes count...

I don't fault Schrader for not wanting to tell that story: it's pretty clear from his filmography that he's just not really into girls. But I can't help but wonder about the story that could have been told. 

Who knows? Maybe one day I'll write it. If this fallen world gives me the time. 


Tuesday 26 March 2024

Injurious Visions: The Zone of Interest, Sniper Elite, and How We Look at Nazis


I was trying to work out why Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest made me want to play Sniper Elite 5. There are a couple of obvious answers to that question: for one thing, the Sniper Elite series is about killing Nazis, and Glazer's film, with its tight focus on the family life of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoss, follows a particularly dislikable bunch of those guys; for another, there is a scene fairly early in the film which is extremely reminiscent of the environmental kill for Major Jaan Trautmann in the Desponts sur Douve mission in SE5. But I think the similarities between the two texts go a little deeper than the surface, and those similarities can tell us a lot about where Glazer chooses to focus his camera in this extraordinary film, and why he places focus there. 

Focus itself, of course, is a key concept in the Sniper Elite games - focusing binoculars to tag targets, emptying the lung to focus shots and guarantee lethality. Jim Morrison's poetry is on the whole not very good without Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore backing him up, but the erstwhile navy brat did come up with a really good line about sniping: 'the sniper's bullet is an extension of his eye. He kills with injurious vision.' Rebellion's WW2 game series does an excellent job of making protagonist Karl Fairburne's scope feel like exactly that kind of lethal ocular extension. 

Glazer and his Director of Photography, Lucas Zal, wanted to do something similar in The Zone of Interest, the latter telling IBC365 that 'we wanted the camera to be like an eye'. To achieve this, they rigged up a network of ten partially hidden 6K digital cameras in their reconstruction of the Hoss' home and garden, a process which Glazer wryly describes as 'Big Brother in the Nazi house', then retired to a concrete bunker from which they relayed directions to a team of focus pullers working in the house's basement. Another similarity between the film and the game there: just as the player of a Sniper Elite game spends most of their time moving Karl around the map in third person perspective, so Glazer and his crew remained at one remove from their actors, resulting, as the IBC article puts it, 'in a uniquely disembodied form of authorship'. 

Watching the film, it's immediately obvious that Glazer and Zal were successful. As the camera(s) guide(s) us around the Hoss villa and garden, or on the family's trips around the countryside, we feel like a lurker, a voyeur. We feel as if we, too, are in the surprisingly narrow corridors of the Commandant's house, or following him through the tunnel that connects that house to the camp (secret tunnels, of course, are also a feature of the SE series). That house and garden are another of the major achievements of Glazer and his crew. In an interview with A.Frame, producer James Wilson described 'how to make the physical place' as one of the biggest challenges they faced. Initially planning to film in the historical Hoss haus, they quickly found that venue unsuitable, and so decided to renovate a derelict house near Auschwitz (still within the actual 'zone of interest', or interessengebiet, surrounding the todeslager) as a stand in. As Wilson puts it: 'I've never seen a set like it. The entire garden was built and grown out of nothing. Trees, plants, beehives.' The house, too, is lovingly recreated: if you came across it, shot with the photographer's back to the death camp, on an Instagram like Modernism in Metroland or Architectonic Travels, you'd give it a heart react immediately for its clean lines and use of glass. In this way, by painstakingly recreating their environment, Glazer and his crew not only recreated the experience of the Hoss' themselves (Rudolf is described admiringly as 'an ideal settler-farmer', and Hedwig boasts about her garden to her visiting mother), but they also once more echo the Sniper Elite series, one of the key visual pleasures of which is its loving recreation of World War 2 era environments. 

In Sniper Elite 2, the earliest entry in the series most players will encounter these days, that visual pleasure is somewhat muted and melancholy, the game's action being mostly set in the ruins of immediately post-war Berlin. Things begin to get more colourful in the next game, set in the North African campaign, with Karl palling around with the Long Range Desert Group and exploring some impressively arid environments, but there is still something harsh about them. Sniper Elite 4, though, in which the action moves to Italy, moves into full pastoral mode. From the first level, in which Karl takes a delightful evening walk on the Mediterranean island of San Cellini (a walk enlivened, of course, with plenty of opportunities to creatively dispatch those goddam Nazis) to the conclusion of its Deathstorm DLC, in which he destroys a nuclear reactor in the picturesque (and fictional) South German city of Steigerloch, the maps really are a pleasure to traverse, enhanced by little touches like the movement of the long grass where Karl takes cover, the recreations of Italian buildings, which run the gamut from simple peasant dwellings to ornate monasteries, and the way in which the game renders light. By the fifth and most recent instalment in the series, set mostly in France and around the German Atlantic Wall, graphical improvements make the environments - which include a French chateau and its extensive grounds, a Mont St. Michel style abbey (for my money, the best single map in the entire series), and the island of Guernsey - a positive joy to spend time in. At least, until you see the swastikas. 

Because, of course, as beautiful as these environments may be, they're also riddled with evil. Steigerloch, for all its timber-framed charm, is sitting on top of a reactor tasked with producing radioactive dust to scatter from the air on the D-Day landing parties. On charming, picturesque Guernsey, an officer from the Organisation Todt is building an artillery battery using slave labour. The farmland around Desponts-sur-Douve, the very image of la France Profonde, has been ripped up with Nazi trenches, where Karl finds the body of a tortured Allied radioman. And everywhere, again and again, you see the symbol of the greatest evil of the twentieth century. The games tend to avoid any direct mention of the Holocaust itself, but it is there, lurking behind events, just as it is in Glazer's film. The Nazi officers Karl takes out might instal themselves in fine chateaux, but however ornate their surroundings, they can't hide their true thuggery. The ballroom in Oranienburg, where Hoss attends a party towards the end of The Zone of Interest, is a dead ringer for a ballroom in level 2 of Sniper Elite 5 in which the player has a chance at pulling off an impressive triple kill. To Hoss, who has just been informed that the operation to exterminate the Hungarian Jews will be named after him, those are rookie numbers: he spends the time in his ballroom musing on how much Zyklon B it would take to kill all his fellow partygoers. 

This is the most profound similarity between Glazer's film and the Sniper Elite games: the way in which they visually seduce us with pastoral imagery while the true evil squats just out of frame. And the fact that the pastoral is what's used to seduce us is important, because pastoralism was a key element of the Nazi aesthetic. When Hoss, the ideal settler-farmer, goes horse riding or kayaking with his children, he is LARPing as a Romantic Aryan aristocrat, a man at home in nature, whose keen ear for birdsong can make out the cry of a heron against the interessengebiet's constant hum of industrial murder. When Hedwig points out all the different plants with which she (or, more likely, her slave labour gardeners) have made the wasteland bloom, and boasts to her mother about how her Rudy calls her 'the Queen of Auschwitz', she positions herself as the embodiment of the Nazi Lebensborn (literally 'Fount of Life') program, drawing an implicit parallel between her personal fertility and that of her garden. When we, as Karl, stop for a moment and listen to the sound of a river in the Rough Landing DLC, we may not be buying in to the illusion to the same extent as Rudolf or Hedwig but we, too, are allowing ourselves to be seduced, to imagine ourselves for a moment as the subject of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a wanderer above a sea of blood, imagining that some core, higher aspect of ourselves remains untainted by the dirty business of killing. We home in on the sounds of nature and tune out the sounds of death, just like Hoss hearing his heron. And then, just like Hoss, we get back down to business.

It's easy to say, of course, that it's different for us. For one thing, we aren't killing real people. But then again, neither were the Nazis. Their whole ideology was based on denying the humanity of their victims, reducing them to an inferior status, whether as 'degenerates', 'useless eaters' or 'lower races', to make them easier to kill. In the scene where Rudolf brags to Hedwig about being brought back for his namesake Aktion, it's frighteningly clear that if he ever did see the inmates of his camp as being human, he now sees them only as numbers he wants to increase. And as his comment about gassing the other guests makes clear, he may have crossed the line to seeing even his fellow Nazis as a chance to increase his high score. Nothing, for Rudy, is real anymore but the numbers. The line has to go up, and if that means, as Aktion Hoss meant, killing 450,000 people in three months, that's just a challenge. If it means running the crematoria continually, that's just German efficiency. What does it matter to you? When you got a job to do, you gotta do it well. 

So no, pointing out the people we despatch in all their gory, kill-cam glory are simulacra won't get us very far off the ethical hook. And we won't get much further off by pointing out that those simulacra are very much the baddies. We're still playing a game about killing, and we're still enjoying the thrill. 

I played Sniper Elite 5 for the first time in a long time after watching The Zone of Interest, partly to research this article, partly just to scratch an itch. The question I was trying to answer in returning to the game was, largely, the one I've tried to answer in this essay. But I also, quite by chance, got an answer to another question which I wasn't expecting. One thing that's kept me away from this series in recent months has been the main context in which, of late, I've encountered the word 'sniper', in reports of the atrocities in Gaza - something which, as Glazer's Oscar acceptance speech made clear, was on his mind as he filmed The Zone of Interest. To quote from James Wilson's interview again, the film seeks 'to put you in that perspective and ask the viewer, ask us - including me - are we closer to that perpetrator perspective? To look for the similarities rather than the differences in that perpetrator, rather than the perspective of the victim. Which, of course, should be uncomfortable and a dangerous question.' 

I hadn't wanted to play the Sniper Elite games much in the past few months because I didn't want to spend my leisure time occupying the perspective of the kind of soldiers who take potshots at injured people outside hospitals. I didn't feel much like getting the Vehicle Buster award when it would remind me of the people who blew up the ambulance which tried to save Hind Rajab. I didn't want to think of myself as being close to someone who takes pleasure in shooting to maim - who takes pleasure in shooting children. I didn't want to ask if I was closer to that perpetrator perspective. But I got the answer anyway.

Shortly after seeing The Zone of Interest I replayed 'Spy Academy', the SE5 level where you infiltrate the Abbey of Beaumont St Denis, on it's Mont St Michel style island. At one point, I had a tricky shot to make, on an enemy sniper who kept moving from side to side, his head disappearing behind the crenellations of the turret he occupied. I got Karl into cover, then engaged the scope, switching from third to first person mode. I zoomed in the sights on the modified Mohsin-Nagant as far as it would go, then focused, releasing air from Karl's lung until the cursor hanging over the target turned red. And then, just as I fired, the bastard moved. I knew I'd missed. But the kill-cam engaged anyway, and I followed the bullet on its trajectory, until it collided with the thinnest sliver of the sniper's head as it ducked behind the stone, his body now gone transparent so I could see in X-ray clarity as it burrowed through skull and brain to exit through his cheekbone. And I cheered, because I had made an extremely difficult shot. And then I stopped cheering, and logged out, because I realised something. 

Why shoot children? 

Because they're smaller targets, and a smaller target is harder to hit. It requires more skill. Why shoot children? To show off that skill. It's just a challenge. What does it matter to you? When you've got a job to do, you've got to do it well.  Why shoot children? For the bragging rights. 

And if you don't think of them as human, it's very easy to do that. As easy as it is to look at a ballroom full of people and work out how much gas you'd need to kill them, or to tell one of your servants you could have your husband scatter her ashes in a moment of rage. Or to make TikTok videos mocking the kids that your snipers are shooting for bragging rights. 

Focus. Perspective. The vision to injure. It's a question of where you choose to look, and what angle you look from. 

Hollywood has been looking at Nazis for decades now. The Polish artist Piotr Uklanski's piece The Nazis consists of 164 photos of famous actors like Rutger Hauer, Harrison Ford, and Clint Eastwood dolled up in SS uniform to play Nazi officers. Not everybody included in the artwork appreciated this - the Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski, angered by what he saw as Uklanski's insinuation that he was an actual Nazi, slashed some of the photos, including his own, with a sabre borrowed from the set of a historical drama, in an act of vandalism which itself comes close to being a weird kind of performance art. But Uklanski's intention was never to imply that actors like Steve McQueen or Ralph Fiennes held secret fascist sympathies, it was to make a point about the way cinematic representations of the Third Reich lull us into a false sense of security, by taking its crimes and turning them into entertainment; by putting a matinee idol in a fascist uniform, do we imbue thugs like Hoss with a glamour they don't deserve? 

Avoiding that glamourisation was one of Glazer's key goals in making The Zone of Interest. A lot of reviews of the film have referred to Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil in discussing the way in which Hoss, Hedwig and their families are depicted. Hoss isn't the classic Hollywood image of the SS officer with duelling scar, eyepatch and Wagner obsession, as gleefully parodied in the Smith and Jones 'Nazi Generals' sketch: he's a boring, pallid weirdo with a crap haircut whose wife only stays with him for their big house at the edge of a death camp, and the fur coats the guards take from the inmates. He's a loser. 

The Sniper Elite franchise also tries hard to avoid glamourising Nazis. Unlike, say, the Far Cry series, the games steer away from the idea of opposing Karl with charismatic villains. Indeed, the one time something like this was tried, in the DLC for the series' third instalment, which ends with Karl fighting a duel against his German equivalent, a sniper planning to kill Churchill at the Casablanca Conference, it wasn't entirely successful: the villainous Raubvogel is simply nowhere near as interesting as the labyrinth through which you pursue him. Instead, the antagonist characters in the series tend to be fulminating functionaries or duplicitous sneaks, whose role is to deliver exposition in cutscenes while the real challenge comes from Karl having to make near-impossible shots, and the nearest thing to end-of-level bosses are the occasional tanks Karl has to take out. The real challenge isn't the enemies, but the environment, because when you get down to it, these games are not so much action shooters as puzzle games which involve shooting. Perhaps that's why Rebellion recently branched out by launching a board game version of the series, which actually goes even further down the road of deglamourising its antagonists by removing any Nazi iconography, and referring to them simply as 'the enemy', a decision which has not been uncontroversial. 

Glazer's film, too, has been criticised for its omissions, with both politics professor Peter Rutland and Israeli film critic Avner Shalit describing it as 'a Holocaust film without any Jews'. It's hard to see these as good faith criticisms, however, with Rutland in particular only writing after Glazer's Oscar acceptance speech, and dropping in frankly perplexing lines like 'What the satiric movie Saltburn does for the English upper classes, The Zone of Interest is doing for National Socialism', a sentence which strongly suggests Rutland fails to understand not only Glazer's film but also Saltburn, the English upper classes, the Nazis, cinema and the basic concept of satire (I hope, for his students' sake, that he's stronger on politics than film criticism, but that's a lot to get wrong in one sentence). 

But even if we assume critics like Rutland and Shalit to be objecting to the film, rather than Glazer's speech, this is an absurd criticism because the fact we rarely see any of the camp's inmates is the whole point of the film. Hollywood has looked at the Holocaust for decades now, and it has always struggled to depict it, because such an enormity is as hard to face truthfully in cinematic grammar as it is in the grammar of video games. One thinks about what Stanley Kubrick is reputed to have said about Schindler's List: 'The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List was about six hundred people who don't.' Sources close to Kubrick dispute the quotation, which appears in the memoirs of his Eyes Wide Shut co-writer Frederic Raphael, but it haunts us because it gets at a truth about the difficulty of depicting the Holocaust in cinema, which is that, fundamentally, you can't. The industrialised murder of over six million human beings is too big to depict in the terms of conventional narrative. You have to choose a part of it to focus on, and tell only that story. 

One of the only other Holocaust films which comes close to depicting the real horror, Tim Blake Nelson's The Gray Zone, does so by focusing on the sonderkommando, the Jewish prisoners who helped operate the gas chambers and crematoria, and the moral, physical and psychological trauma this causes them. There's a sonderkommando in The Zone of Interest, too: he's the guy with the wheelbarrow who delivers clothes taken from executed inmates to the Hoss house, including the fur coat Hedwig tries on and poses in. The fact he is one of the few Jews we see in Glazer's film is part of the point. Rudy and Hedwig have built themselves a perfect little world, with a nice big wall around it. And on the other side of that wall, people are starved, and abused, and suffer, and are murdered systematically. And the only people from that side of the wall who are allowed to pass, briefly, into Rudy and Hedwig's perfect little world are those who provide them some service, and even then only temporarily, and on the condition that they keep their mouths shut and do as they're told. 

And, because their world was so perfect, I wanted, in a way, to join them there. I wanted to climb over the wall, or out of the secret tunnel, or from their jetty by the river, and creep through the long grass, and the smart corridors of their house, and pour poison in Hoss' birthday schnapps; or slit his throat on the stairs in Oranienburg; or zero the sights of the Mohsin-Nagant on his absurd little head as he swam with his family. Because I, too, was seduced by their perfect world, and wanted, for one beautiful moment, to be the most important person in it. 

Friday 22 March 2024

Video Verse

 Because I am an extremely disorganised individual who sucks at co-ordinating things, I forgot to add video for my last few poems, so here they are, direct from YouTube: 

First, and most recent, here's my newest poem, from today, Keep Lists:

Second, here's Paycheck (The Ballad of Workplace Psychosis):

Here's Slough, which I note I haven't even got the text of on here yet: 

And finally, from all the way back last year because I am such a ding-a-ling, here's English Sounds Like Injury in Arabic

I will, I promise, get around to posting some of my bizarre synth/sampling experiments on here, but they can also be found on my YouTube channel if you want to hear the results of me faffing around recording and remixing rain, rubbish, and random gibberish. I recorded something weird AF the other night, which I will be posting up as soon as I come up with a video which fits. 

And remember: if you appreciate my work and would like to reward me for making it, you can do so by donating to my tip jar

Keep Lists


Keep Lists

No paper could be taken off the floor,

so scraps were torn theatrically

and tossed in plastic bins:

contraband confetti scattered

in the name of confidentiality - 

but we committed house numbers

and postcodes to our memories,

browsed Google Maps and bus times,

wrote things down in breaktime notebooks;

looked for patterns in their spending,

for political donations or the papers 

that they took. We built up profiles,

checked their local papers’ websites

for photos showing how they looked,

obituaries of relatives we could obliquely

reference and listen for the slight

catch in their breath before we moved on

to the next stage in the bullet-pointed script

our bosses called Real Conversations.

Others copied out the letters in their names,

reshaped them into glyphs we ripped

between their hang-up and the next shriek

through our headsets set us copying

again. No paper could be taken

off the floor. In India, the management banned pens.