Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tomorrow belongs to who?

I re-watched two of my favourite films on consecutive nights this week, while I was away on my writing break, and they presented an interesting juxtaposition. Firstly, there was The Tin Drum, Volker Schlondorff's faithful adaptation of (the first part) of Gunther Grass's masterpiece. Little Oskar, as I've said before on here, is as close as I have to a hero. He is even tattooed on my arm. The scene where he disrupts the Nazi rally by sitting beneath the bandstand and beating out a waltz rhythm on his little tin drum, so that gradually the Hitler Youth band do likewise and one by one (or two by two, I suppose) the audience start to dance, is simply wonderful, a funny, anarchic, individualistic way of confronting that most humourless and repressive of regimes. It made me howl with laughter when I first read it in the book over 25 years ago, and it still makes me laugh whenever I re-read it or watch it on film. The hope it engenders. It shows us what humanity can do, if we work together and, simply, permit pleasure.

And then. The next night the BBC had Cabaret on. I haven't watched it in a long, long time, so I gave it another viewing. It's always the same bit that gets me - and, I suspect, many people: when the angelic boy starts singing a beautiful, slow air and, just as he starts to sing "Tomorrow belongs to me" the camera pans down his body to reveal his swastika armband. By the end, it has becoming a rousing anthem for intolerance, with the entire audience of ordinary German citizens on their feet, bellowing out those bellicose words. It is a terrifying moment. It encapsulates what can happen to a society that loses touch with its humanity. There is only one person who is ill-at-ease, an old man in a black cap who shakes his head and clearly glimpses the terrible truth of their hideous future. But he is impotent.

That man was Oskar, shorn of hope and wonder. These two brilliant films, The Tin Drum and Cabaret, show what happens when we lose our sense of hope and wonder.

Erik Satie, another man of individualistic brilliance, wrote: 'wonder about yourself'. That is so important. Totalitarianism operates by reducing humanity to a mass, with no scope for individuality. It is non-conformists, like little Oskar or Erik Satie, who can ensure these grey men with ugly souls cannot again rise to prominence. We could all do with wondering about ourselves a bit more.

The Tin Drum rally scene can be seen on YouTube here (about two minutes in)
Tomorrow belongs to me can be seen on YouTube here.

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