New York

Krieg Und Frieden/War And Peace

Krieg und Frieden/War and Peace is a thoughtful critique of the escalation toward nuclear war. Made by a collective comprised of Stefan Aust, Heinrich Boll, Axel Engstfeld, Alexander Kluge, and Volker Schlöndorff, it joins the growing list of film and television projects that unfortunately seem to be merely prefacing the upcoming apocalypse. Combining conventional narrative segments and current-events and war footage with an unusually intelligent and facetious voice-over, it focuses on the American plan to “entertain” the “European theater”—or, in other words, on the enactment of a “limited nuclear skirmish” in rural Germany. On a broader level, it is a forthright indictment of American military manipulation and its potential concretion in the final big bang.

Two segments of the film are particularly chilling. Schlöndorff and Böll picture two teams of astronauts, Russian and American, as they orbit the earth after the nuclear war, both desperately trying to make a connection with other living beings. When they finally locate each other through radio transmission, they disagree on who won the war and proceed to somberly report to one another the demise of the earth’s cities, and, in turn, of all civilization. Schlöndorff also shows footage of the June 1982 NATO Summit Conference at Versailles, and gives a glimpse of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stalking the palace grounds like Frankenstein and his bride. And Kluge’s scavenging of the CBS series The Defense of the United States (including its lunatic commercial breaks) makes for a potent collage of American insolence, of the U.S.’s cavalier plans for the mass elimination of the European population. In fact, in late September of 1983 U.S. soldiers conducted a “mock mass burial” as part of a military exercise near Frankfurt. Code-named “Confident Enterprise,” the Army exercise trained soldiers to use bulldozers to prepare mass gravesites in case of war in Europe. It is both horrific and ironic that forty years after the war, Germany is once again the site of planned mass burials. Again, it’s not the singer, it’s the song.

Another glimpse at the fallout from this moribund chorus could be seen in Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After, broadcast by ABC. Suffice it to say that it was not the intelligently critical film that it should have been. Public Television could undoubtedly have come up with a more strident product, but tucked within the velvet fog of their “cultural programming,” it might have merely preached to the converted. Clearly, a politically explicit depiction of the palpable horror of nuclear war could not surface on ABC without undergoing a thorough drenching in the conventions of melodrama and in demographically sanctioned soap-opera maneuvers. And although the effects of a nuclear detonation were soft-pedaled, the terrible finality of it all was still broadcast into millions of American homes (but ironically less than were tuned in for the last installment of MASH). Hopefully, all this hoopla will serve to remind the public that behind all the government’s recitals of statistics and techno-rant rubrics is a scenario that unfolds amidst a terrain of destruction, death, and its attendant putrefaction: a stench strong enough to invade even the corporate board rooms and inner sanctums of George Shultz, Ed Meese, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If images can work to either perpetuate or displace the constructions of power, then surely critical current-affairs programming, powerful documentary work, and strong political narrative can work to steer us off our crash course with oblivion. Krieg und Frieden/War and Peace is a modestly intelligent work which (in America) will reach a relatively small audience. The Day After, seen by millions in North America, Europe, and perhaps even the Soviet Union, has worked to reactivate public concern over the total elimination of human life. Perhaps these projects and others like them can work to reverse Hollywood’s conventional political representations. Hopefully, those artists, filmmakers, and producers up to the task will show their colors before we’re all just an ash in a cadaver’s eye.

Barbara Kruger