South Dakota and the Movies: Part V — World War II, Mental Illness, and ‘The Master’

I realize that these posts about films are, like so many of my posts, overlong. I appreciate all of my readers who take the time to read my rather extensive thoughts on numerous topics. It means a lot to me that you read my posts. I’m going to stop writing about five films at a time for the rest of this series, but the posts are still long. Again, thank you for reading this blog!

In this series of posts, I reflect on twenty-five movies that were released between 2012 and 2021, when I lived in Brookings, South Dakota. These movies provided a cinematic backdrop to my years in that cold, sparsely populated place. This was a period of my life that wasn’t particularly happy but that nevertheless shaped who I am today. The films are organized in alphabetical order. Here is the next installment:

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Part One: …by way of Terrence Malick; or, Some Films about Nazis

For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3:3

I have a more intense relationship with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson than I do with those of nearly any other filmmaker. Each of his films means something very personal to me. From my vantage, few filmmakers have such a diverse body of work, dabbling in so many different tones and genres, while making near-perfect movies every time. The Coen brothers come to mind, because their career spans so many different genres, but they maintain one or two consistent tones across their films. The only thing that unites Anderson’s many films, as far as I can tell, is their incredible consistency. He hasn’t made a single film that I don’t love.

The only American filmmaker who moves me as much as Anderson is Terrence Malick, but my relationship to Malick is less intense, more spiritual, more rarified, and just very different from my relationship with Anderson…

…alright alright alright, I’m going to get to Anderson and The Master in a bit, but let’s get my thoughts on Malick out of the way.

I sometimes forget to remember that Malick is a guy who makes movies. He doesn’t make movies, really: he has a set of aesthetic and religious concerns that he happens to write down and put on film, working with some amazing actors, cinematographers, editors, and composers, all of whom do their best to apply their talents to Malick’s unique vision of the world. A Malick movie is like a collaborative, multi-media collage. He doesn’t just direct movies, he curates a cinematographic/photographic/high-dramatic/musical multi-sensory experience. I get the impression that he could produce paintings or operas as epic poems instead of movies, and they’d all be part of the same conversation he’s been having with God his entire life.

The Malick movies I’ve seen and loved (everything from Badlands through The Tree of Life) mean more to me than 99% of the films by my other favorite filmmakers. But it says something that, while I lived in South Dakota, Malick released five movies and I only saw one, A Hidden Life (2019).

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is about the Third Reich and the early years of World War II, which, for me, does not work in its favor. I don’t really like World War II movies anymore, at least not those set in the European theater. I believe that filmmakers (especially American filmmakers) have said quite a lot already about that war, the Nazis, and the Holocaust…and what they’ve said isn’t usually compelling to me. Schindler’s List was an important milestone in the popular memory of the Holocaust, to be sure, but…I mean, c’mon. Saving Private Ryan was a harrowing 45-minute short film about D-Day with a cartoonishly sentimental, Frank Capra-style propaganda movie attached to it.

Insofar as there are new and interesting things to say about the European war and the Third Reich, I don’t discover those perspectives from movies; I find those perspectives in research on the Holocaust from the past twenty years, conducted by historians like Timothy Snyder (his Black Earth was controversial but absolutely fascinating). Very few filmmakers seem willing to explore these novel interpretations the Third Reich and its crimes.

Among the great Nazi and Holocaust films, there are the well-known classics like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog. Those are excellent and important movies, but they feel more like vital cultural artifacts than compelling cinema. As for the rest, I haven’t seen very many good takes on the Third Reich since I watched István Szabó’s Mephisto in college, and that was released in 1981. Werner Herzog’s Invincible (2001) had some interesting elements, particularly its focus on the popularity of the occult in Nazi Germany (although even that was pretty ham-fisted). But as far as I’m concerned, the majority of Nazi and Holocaust movies are sentimental rubbish, particularly those produced in nations that were least affected by the Nazi’s crimes.

One recent exception, which I saw while living in South Dakota, is Hungarian director László Nemes’s Son of Saul (2015), which explores the complex social ecosystems that emerged within the Nazi concentration and death camps. A taut film, Son of Saul captures aspects of the Holocaust that haven’t been captured in roughly seventy years of films on the subject. It focuses on the experience of the Auschwitz Sonderkommandos, the death camp prisoners who were forced to clean the gas chambers and maintain the orderliness of the Nazi death machine. Because cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s relies so heavily on closeups, we don’t see all the horrors of Auschwitz in the film, but we hear them, just off-frame, and we process them through the faces of the living, especially the protagonist Saul. Nemes said that most films about the Holocaust focus on survivors, who constitute roughly one-third of the Jewish population of the camps. He wanted to tell the story of the two out of three Jews who didn’t survive. In just over 100 minutes, Nemes quite effectively undertakes that painful task.

Son of Saul

I saw one other devastating movie about World War II while living in South Dakota. Although it’s not technically a film about Nazis, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole (2019) is an extremely painful movie set in postwar Leningrad, when the city was still reeling from the 872-day German siege that killed over one million people, most of them by starvation. Beanpole absorbs the numb shock of Leningrad’s population by focusing on the experience of two Soviet women, one a veteran, the other a civilian survivor of the siege. What Balagov manages to elicit from his actors is the degree to which the Soviet war experience twisted and damaged, permanently in most cases, the psyches of everyone involved. He also portrays aspect of the Soviet war experience that will be unfamiliar to many American audiences. Early in the film, a group of wounded soldiers entertain a young boy by soliciting animal noises from him. “What does a dog say?” one of the soldiers asks. The boy stares back at him blankly. “How would he know what a dog sounds like?” another soldier interjects. “They’ve all been eaten.”

Beanpole

Compared to these harrowing depictions of the Third Reich, A Hidden Life is tame. The story centers on Franz Jägerstätter, a real-life conscientious objector from rural Austria who was murdered by the Nazis for his refusal to fight. Jägerstätter did not protest or agitate; he simply objected to the war, despite knowing little about the vast crimes being committed elsewhere by the reich. The film takes place far away from the frontlines, from the concentration camps, from the centers of Nazi power, and (until the end) from any actual uniform-wearing party-membership-card-carrying bonafide Nazis.

It does, however, get the details of rural mountain life in Nazi Germany right (at least as I imagine it). We see the mayor of Jägerstätter’s small town descend into paranoid madness as he gradually adopts a Nazi persona. We watch Jägerstätter communicate, almost in code, with a priest about whether and how to defy the Nazi war machine. Most powerfully, we witness a secret exchange between Jägerstätter and a Nazi judge (the late Bruno Ganz), who reveals his innermost reservations about the Nazi party to Jägerstätter because, well, who else is he going to reveal them to? “Do you judge me?” the judge asks. Jägerstätter judges no one but himself. Still, his conscience evokes fury in nearly every Nazi who confronts him, not because it defies them but because it unnerves them and reveals to them their own deteriorating consciences. The final scenes capture the quiet terror of a Nazi execution as well (i.e. as terrifyingly) as any movie I’ve seen. The quiet realism of the scene is shocking even to viewers who have extensively read about and studied Nazi executions.

But A Hidden Life isn’t really a “Nazi movie.” Like most of his films, A Hidden Life allows Malick to utilize the Nazi setting and subject matter in order to meditate on the themes that have haunted his entire career—themes so broad that they defy easy denomination, themes that Malick renders concrete only through the fluid montage of his images. At first, the film seems like a complete mess, especially in its use of language. The characters speak in German but the voiceovers are in English, an effect that disconnects their inner thoughts from their native language, and that ultimately disconnects the voiceovers from thought itself.

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is a demanding film, even for Malick. It is extremely slow and meditative. To say it “takes its time” is an understatement. It is not merely a movie about a brave man but a thorough examination of the nature of bravery itself.

In his review of my favorite Malick film, The Thin Red Line (1998), Roger Ebert complained that Malick had made a war movie about “war movies,” about “the idea of war,” instead of making a movie about the war (something, Ebert absurdly claimed, that Steven Spielberg accomplished in Saving Private Ryan). Malick’s defenders claimed that The Thin Red Line was in fact one of the most technically accurate war movies ever produced. Whether or not that’s true, Malick does capture aspects of war that I’ve never seen or thought about before: the dull months of boredom and ordinary life that crawl by, which are punctuated by sudden, intense, life-threatening situations that cause you to totally disassociate as they’re happening and then traumatize you if you survive them, followed by more days or weeks of boredom, reflection, and repression.

Similarly, A Hidden Life captures an ordinary German farmer’s experience of Naziism, and so captures aspects of Naziism that we typically don’t think about in biographical films about the great heroes, villains, and victims of Hitler’s Reich. Imagine being a white man living in an insular, all-white community in, say, rural Vermont during the rise of a fascist regime. The rhythms of your life would likely be unchanged by events in Washington, at least for the first several years. Your “normal” life in the country would constitute a kind of silent complicity in the regime, and your local politicians might grow gradually more extreme, but you wouldn’t notice enormous changes…until, say, you were drafted into an immoral war or asked to engage in some other crime. All at once, you’d be compelled to make a dramatic moral choice with extremely high stakes. That’s what Malick captures very well in this movie.

A Hidden Life received extremely positive reviews in conservative media outlets like First Things, and rightfully so. This is a film made for Catholics who desire an honest and respectful portrayal of their faith. It seemed to go unnoticed in most other media; those critics who reviewed the film respectfully noted it as another installment in Malick’s strange but compelling career, gave it a very high rating, and moved on.

Part Two: Paul Thomas Anderson—a career

Like Malick, Anderson has unique aesthetic and spiritual concerns, but Anderson is a genuine and committed filmmaker. And PTA (as we call him) is one of the few filmmakers about whom I can say, “I have seen all their movies.” Well, that’s true if you don’t consider Cigarettes and Coffee (1993) and his other short films a part of PTA’s “official” filmography. Cigarettes and Coffee was the $10,000-budgeted short film on which his first feature-length feature, Hard Eight (1996), was based. Like most people, I missed Hard Eight in the theaters and finally saw it after PTA became a celebrity director. It’s a great little movie. As everyone already knows, PTA got his big break with Boogie Nights (1997), which I missed at the time because I was a 14-year-old conservative Evangelical Christian. Everything I heard about Boogie Nights at the time focused on the explicit sex scenes, so I assumed it was just another Showgirls (1995) or Striptease (1996). Over the next three years, I discovered European cinema and my dismissive attitude toward sexuality in movies—a combination of prudishness and snobbery toward films about adult entertainment—began to fade (along with my Evangelicalism). By 1999, at age 17, I was enough of a film buff that I saw Eyes Wide Shut in the theater.

And like so many film buffs who hadn’t seen Boogie Nights, I knew nothing about PTA until Magnolia (1999). My closest friend, a fellow movie guy, saw Magnolia in the theaters. As soon as it came out on DVD in 2000, he hosted a screening for me. The film resonated with me deeply. After that, I watched Boogie Nights at my friend’s house, I watched Hard Eight on my own time, and I saw Punch-Drunk Love (2002) in the Old Capital Mall theaters in Iowa City. I saw There Will Be Blood (2007) in Harvard Square upon its release. After seeing Licorice Pizza (2021) at FilmScene in Iowa City, during an effusive conversation with my wife at our post-screening dinner (an upscale Mexican restaurant near the theater), I realized that every PTA film is different from every other PTA film except in one regard: each film operates according to its own narrative logic, and you have to discover that logic gradually as you are watching the movie. This narrative maneuver—this style of writing/directing that creates the sense of a narrative structure and logic being assembled right in front of your eyes—is what sets PTA films apart.

While living in South Dakota, I saw The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). Of those three, The Master made the strongest impression on me. The Master wasn’t the first movie I saw in South Dakota (that was Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s collaboration, Lincoln, a cheesy movie but probably Spielberg’s best in a long time). The Master was, however, the first great movie I saw in South Dakota, as well as the first new PTA film any of us had seen in five years. I’ll say more about The Master and its themes below, but first I want to dwell on the other two PTA films that were released during my time in South Dakota.

Phantom Thread

I saw Phantom Thread at the Brookings movie theater. Throughout most of the year, the Brookings theater was not a place for cinéastes. You’d go to catch the latest Marvel movie, or whatever. But during Oscar season, the managers—who were otherwise troglodytes who posted signs with messages like “we stand for the flag”—did a good job screening the year’s most well-reviewed “highbrow films.” My wife and I went to Phantom Thread and loved it. Nearly all of PTA’s films are period pieces, and I don’t think he gets enough credit as a director and writer of period pieces. But what impressed me so much about Phantom Thread is not only how well he captures another period (the 1950s), but another culture (England in the 1950s) and a niche industry within that culture (fashion in England in the 1950s). To successfully direct a film set in this world is impressive; to successfully write a film set in this world is…just crazy.

Inherent Vice

I got around to watching Inherent Vice, probably my least favorite PTA film (which is to say, I really really really love it), during my last month living in South Dakota. I studied and wrote about Thomas Pynchon a lot in graduate school and in my dissertation, so I had a very intimate relationship with the source material. But within the first few minutes of the film, I instantly forgot about the novel and became wholly immersed in the weird world PTA created for this film. As I said above, PTA is unique in how each of his films differs from his others. He’s a master world-maker on the level of the best science fiction auteurs. Each world operates according to its own rules and its own tone, and is completely consistent within the world that PTA has created. The early ’70s SoCal that PTA constructs is Pynchon-inflected but, beyond that, is entirely his own creation. It’s a strange, diverse, and compelling place to inhabit for 150 minutes.

All that to say, nobody has a career like Paul Thomas Anderson right now. I’d be willing to say that no filmmaker has ever had a career like Paul Thomas Anderson. Filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, or Andrei Tarkovsky cover a wide spectrum of genres, a wide spectrum of kinds of movies, but their tone, themes, and concerns are all recognizably their own. It’s unclear to me what PTA thinks or feels about anything, except for the general sense that narrative itself—the device with which we structure our lives and make sense of the world—is always, always unfolding.

Part Three: The War

Let’s return to World War II.

I’ve written on this blog about Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), which may be the most difficult-to-watch movie ever made and also perhaps the greatest film I’ve ever seen. It is undoubtedly the ultimate film about the Soviet experience during the war. I don’t know what the “ultimate” film about the German experience of WWII might be; I’m a huge admirer of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), about Hitler’s last days in the bunker. As for the American experience of WWII, I would argue that no film captures it better than The Master.

Immediately upon seeing it, I realized that The Master is the quintessential American World War II film, but I’m not the only person to make that point. Matt Christman said as much on a recent CushVlog (CushVlog is the livestream that Christman, of Chapo Trap House, broadcasts every week or so). To understand the arc of postwar American history—everything from popular acquiescence to Cold War foreign policy, the rise of the suburbs, the rise of youth culture, the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, and the cultural turmoil of the ’60s—you have to consider the fact that the whole of American society was conscripted in a geopolitical project of unprecedented scale. The United States was arguably the most individualistic society in history, and suddenly, out of sheer geopolitical necessity, every member of the body politic was forced to suppress their individual goals and desires to a common purpose. Even given the sacrifices Americans made during the Great Depression, the experience of WWII upset the entire culture…particularly to the young men who were separated from their families for four years, many of whom witnessed the trauma of battle firsthand, something that none of us could adequately prepare for. Over 418,000 Americans were killed during the war.

Of course, the U.S. experience in World War II was nothing compared to the British, French, German, Japanese, Soviet, or Chinese experience. As many as 27 million Soviets died in WWII; roughly 20 million Chinese died. But we can’t measure the toll of the war in deaths alone. The war utterly devastated the economies and infrastructure of the combatant nations, and they would take decades to recover. None of this applied to the United States, which, after a brief recession, underwent an historically unprecedented period of economic growth, economic equality, and general prosperity.

The prosperity of the 1950s and ’60s—indeed, the whole structure of the U.S. economy during those decades—were designed as a kind of reparation for American men who had sacrificed four years in the war. The reward was wildly disproportionate to the sacrifice, and what’s more, it didn’t do much to exorcise the trauma that many men (and many women) had experienced during the war. But a culture-wide contract had been quietly signed. In a culture without a sophisticated understanding of mental health, you were expected to suppress your trauma. But in exchange, you basically won an historical lottery: complete social and economic security. Previously unimaginable wealth and prosperity. Stable careers with union wages. A secure social safety net. If you were a white man in the United States during this period, you had it made…at least, there was tremendous cultural pressure to believe that you did.

The Master convincingly argues that American men had two different responses to this postwar social contract. The film portrays these two responses in their most extreme forms. The first is embodied by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a character loosely based on Scientology-founder L. Ron Hubbard. You can read about Hubbard’s strange military career here. Dodd’s response to the postwar compact is, on the surface, to accept its terms. He subscribes to the cult of self-sufficiency, he invests deeply in the cult of individualism, and he organizes a stable, highly centralized domestic life around the cult of marriage and the nuclear family. I use the word “cult” here because a) Dodd quite literally creates a cult, i.e., a “new religious movement,” and b) each of these institutions—the self, the individual, the nuclear family—was a cult, an object of fetishization around which postwar American society was organized.

Dodd takes the terms of the postwar social contract to a bizarre and unbalanced extreme. He doesn’t simply accept the idea of self-sufficiency and individualism. He designs an erratic new philosophy around these ideas, a mishmash of psychology, pseudoscience, and religious belief. He doesn’t merely create his own nuclear family, his own little kingdom on a plot of land in the California suburbs. He builds an entire armada of his own nuclear family (based on Hubbard’s “Sea Org,” a fleet of ships that kept his closest cult members perpetually at sea), and from there he makes a network of new nuclear families that are subservient to him.

Opposite Dodd is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), whose response to the postwar social contract is much more straightforward than, if just as extreme as, Dodd’s. Freddie copes with his wartime trauma by drinking to such an extent that he is functionally useless to the larger society. The Master is, if nothing else, a portrayal of a hopeless alcoholic. One could argue that Freddie is a man who has followed the path of American individualism so deeply into his own traumatized self that he is incapable of inhabiting any human network, be it a family, a society, or a cult. He is the self cut off from all necessary connection to others.

These are the two extremes toward which men who had experienced the traumas of World War II could swing. Most American men balanced these two tendencies, remained functional members of society, and went on to build the largest economy the world had ever seen, a global colossus unlike any other. But as American literature from this era suggests (think Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, J.D. Salinger, John Updike, the Beats, etc., etc.), the stability of postwar American life entailed a kind of psycho-social breakdown.

Part Four: The Life of the Mind

Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite filmmaker and The Master is my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film. Of all the films I watched in South Dakota, it’s probably the best. And of all the films I’ve ever seen about mental illness, it’s easily the best.

Throughout my time in South Dakota, and for much of my life before that, mental illness was a recurrent presence in my life. I’ve struggled with extreme depression and crippling anxiety since childhood. (I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, which explains the roots of a lot these recurrent problems.) For a long time, I conceptualized my struggles with mental health—what some today would call my “neurodivergence,” a term I dislike—in very personal terms. My mental illness was my condition. It was part of my identity. It was rooted in my biology, my genetic lineage, my unique psychological structure. My mental illness reflected my unique experience in the world.

But toward the end of my time in South Dakota—as the long contrails of the Great Recession gave way to a meager economic recovery, new focus on economic inequality in the national conversation, the election of Donald Trump, the manic and unsustainable economic boom of the Trump years, and finally the collapse of the economy during COVID—I began to conceptualize my mental health in social and economic terms. Like a lot of older millennials, I began thinking about the structure of capitalism and American liberalism whenever I sought to understand why I felt so maladjusted. I began taking more seriously terms that had been purely theoretical for me in graduate school, terms like “reification” and “economic alienation.” I began to investigate sociological explanations for mental illness. I began to think of mental health in terms of social relations.

The Master is all about the social dimensions of mental illness. At first, it frames mental illness in terms of its effects on a person’s ability to function in society. From the film’s beginning, it is clear that Freddie’s role within the wider social sphere is dangerously tenuous. Because of his debilitating alcoholism, he quickly and terrifyingly loses control of his every encounter with other people, whether he is trying to photograph a family at his job in a department store or simply pick up a woman. When he meets Dodd, the relationship is framed as that of a patient and his therapist. And like any film about such a relationship, it is quickly implied that both patient and therapist are equally troubled. As their shared taste for moonshine suggests, Dodd and Freddie have something very deep in common. In many respects, they are mirror images. Like Freddie, Dodd struggles to function as a social animal. Whereas Freddie’s struggle manifests itself in a total lack of control, Dodd’s struggle manifests as an inexhaustible appetite for control.

My favorite scene in the film (above) takes place in a jail, with Dodd and Freddie in separate cells. Dodd stands calmly in his cell while Freddie goes berserk and, in a moment improvised by Phoenix, destroys his cell’s toilet. (The real toilet, like the rest of the set, was historic; PTA didn’t realize Phoenix would try to destroy it, and Phoenix reportedly had no idea he could destroy it.) The scene is a microcosm of Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances in the rest of the film. Everything about Hoffman’s performance—his voice, his physical presence, his attire, even his haircut—is an exercise in control. Phoenix’s remarkable and terrifying performance is a pure expression of the complete absence of control. Even when the two characters shout the same line, “fuck you,” over and over at each other, their delivery conveys their different relationships to control.

But a person’s mental health and their relationship to society, to the wider social fabric and to their individual place within that fabric, cannot be understood solely through their ability to control their inner turbulence and put on a good face. Psychological turmoil (the “inside”) is not necessarily an innate force that disrupts one’s place in a stable social sphere (the “outside”). Rather, the social sphere could represent a disruptive set of conditions that destabilizes an individual’s otherwise stable psychological condition.

Of course, both of these perspectives represent the reality of the human condition to different degrees, but the latter is arguably more relevant in a society that, like postwar America, prizes stability above all else. In The Master, both Dodd and Freddie’s response to life in postwar America is deeply reflexive, and the reflex is the same for both of them. They represent extreme responses to a society with a profound destructiveness, a kind of social violence, at its core.

Perhaps this destructiveness and violence of postwar America is rooted in the trauma of the Great Depression and the subsequent experience of war. Perhaps it is rooted in much deeper American histories of mass immigration, industrial capitalist exploitation, slavery, and genocide. Perhaps the fruition of these histories, a domesticated and prosperous life in the suburbs, always contains a germ of the violence that made it possible. Perhaps postwar American society found its purest expression in urban riots, anti-Black violence, and genocidal wars in Korea and Vietnam, all of which occurred while WWII veterans nestled into the postwar economy. However you want to interpret the history, a cult of the individual is a fundamentally violent institution. It severs the organic social networks that undergird a healthy human existence.

The Master is a social drama, a film about the weaknesses of a society that is organized around extreme individualism. Both Dodd and Freddie are anti-social characters, but anti-sociality always contains a certain social logic within it. As Michel Foucault and innumerable thinkers before him observed, to understand the logic of a society, you have to look at the fringes: how a society organizes its prisons, how it defines aberrant sexuality, and how it demarcates madness.

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