What happens when humans bombard the planet into an entirely different state of being? Do we own up to our participation in the destruction or do we go on with our lives under the new circumstances, adapting to our changed environment? What is the defining factor of our response: powerlessness, guilt, shame?
We only have to go back as far as World War II for some answers. It marked a turning point in human history when our ability to destroy each other became absolute. In a matter of hours, we could undo billions of years of biological life striving to adapt to an ideal planetary environment. The stage was set; we were just waiting for the play to begin.
Our lack of action or acknowledgement during the beginning and continuation of any such devastation results in our inability to properly deal with the consequences. Inaction during a crisis leads to powerlessness. Germany during World War II provides a perfect example. Once the juggernaut of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party) took control, those who merely stayed out of the way in order to pursue their own livelihoods soon found themselves struggling to eek out a daily existence.
Two films released shortly after the war handle the struggles of German people from a pre- and post-war angle. Both films focus on a single family dealing with the crisis of being trapped by powers out of their control. In Rotation (1949), directed by Wolfgang Staudte, a young family strives to build a decent life for themselves before the war, while in Germany Year Zero (1948), directed by Roberto Rossellini, a family tries to stay together in the aftermath of the war’s devastation.
The German writer W.G Sebald, during a series of lectures that were published under the title On the Natural History of Destruction, explored why, in the aftermath of World War II, German writers failed to acknowledge the massive destruction of their cities and people during the war. Even many of the personal recollections that Sebald read did not adequately address the horrors of what happened or what the survivors endured.
People’s ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time [World War II]. The population decided–out of sheer panic at first–to carry on as if nothing had happened…”One day we came to a suburb that had not suffered at all. People were sitting out on their balconies drinking coffee. It was like watching a film; it was down-right impossible.” (Sebald, p. 41)
Sebald does not portray the Germans as victims but as a people unwilling to ultimately face the consequences of their actions (or inaction). Inaction is also the primary theme of the film Rotation . The film’s protagonist, Hans, and his young family struggle to make ends meet when Germany was still reeling from the aftermath of the first world war. As the Nazi Party rises to power, they disdain its politics and tactics but also do not actively do anything to prevent its ascent. Hans’s brother-in-law Kurt, however, does actively resist and has to go underground to avoid imprisonment.
In the following scene from Rotation, Hans cleverly avoids offending the visiting Nazi group leader in order to maintain his position within society.
Hans, in order to continue providing for his family, eventually gives in to pressure and joins the party to appease his boss. Although Hans has no admiration for or loyalty to the party, his son Helmut joins the Hitler Youth and becomes fully indoctrinated by Nazi ideology. Hans is troubled by his own son’s beliefs but does nothing to confront him.
The disturbances of the family idyll become a cataclysm in the third segment when the Nazi war regime uses its power overtly to subordinate the family to its political goal of domination. Whereas in the first two segments Kurt represented the antagonist–the nagging conscious of political responsibility to whom Hans turned a deaf ear–and his son Helmut justified the personal compromises necessary for a stable family life, the last segment reverses the equation’s terms. The reversal is underscored by the juxtaposition of a series of scenes alternating between Helmut’s Hitler Youth training and his growing susceptibility to Nazi ideology with Kurt’s resistance activities. Han’s descision to help him repair a printing press for anti-Nazi pamphlets is motivated less by political conviction than by emotional commitment. Helmut, however, turns in the illegal leaflets he finds at home out of political conviction (i.e., ideological indoctrination), which results in Kurt’s execution. That betrayal becomes the first step toward the complete disintegration of the family unit and Hans’s insight into his social responsibility. (Silberman, p. 108)
With the family broken apart, they become physically separated at the end of the war. Hans is imprisoned, his wife killed, and Helmut taken prisoner. Helmut eventually returns to his father, who forgives him.
At the end of Rotation, Helmut relives the past, meeting his girlfriend at the same spot where his father met Helmut’s mother before the war. Helmut tells his girlfriend about the meeting of his parents at the same spot. She says that history has a way of repeating itself. Helmut insists that they can make sure that it doesn’t, although they continue lounging around in the sun, just as Helmut’s parents had done years before. It doesn’t provide a reassuring message that, once the young are comfortable, they would do anything to prevent another catastrophe. Staudte himself became jaded as he witnessed Germany settle back into familiar patterns during the post-war years.
Similarly, Sebald, who admits that while he was only a year old when the war ended and that his family was not directly affected by any bombing raids, always felt that the devastation of Germany hung over him. As a child, he played in areas that were still in ruins, yet while growing up, he could not find any deep explanations for the destruction in the books he read. It was as if people were unable to speak about the experience. In Sebald’s words, “…they cast some light on the way in which memory (individual, collective, and cultural) deals with experiences exceeding what is tolerable.”
In Roberto Rosselini’s Germany, Year Zero, released a year earlier than Rotation, the theme is precisely how one family attempts to deal with an intolerable experience. The film takes place directly after the war and focuses on a family trying to survive amidst food shortages, power outages, distrust among neighbors, and lack of health care. The youngest, a boy named Edmund, does all he can to provide for his family, which consists of an ailing father and an older brother and sister. Unlike Helmut in Rotation, Edmund was not a member of the Hitler Youth, although his older brother, Karl-Heinz, “did his duty” and fought in the war. Karl-Heinz refuses to apply for a ration card, afraid that he will be imprisoned for having been a faithful Nazi soldier. He merely sulks around the apartment, contributing nothing but anger over his personal loss of purpose.
Edmund’s lack of ideological brainwashing doesn’t, however, keep him from getting bad advice from a former member of the Nazi party (and obvious pedophile). When Edmund decides to take matters into his own hands and do what he thinks will help his family based on that advice, it all backfires on him, leavng him isolated from his family. For Edmund, his world has been turned upside down and he doesn’t know how to set it right. He is constantly reacting to events around him, bouncing around in a game he fails to understand. Whereas Helmut understood his mistakes and vows to prevent them from happening again, Edmund decides there is no future worth striving for anymore.
“Is the destruction not, rather, irrefutable proof that the catastrophes which develop, so to speak, in our hands and seem to break out suddenly are a kind of experiment, anticipating the point at which we shall drop out of what we will have thought for so long to be our autonomous history and back into the history of nature?”
(Sebald, p. 66)
Unlike war, climate change is a much slower process and causes destruction that often slowly builds from year to year. Contrary to the route that Edmund took in Germany Year Zero, the other children adapted to life among the rubble and did whatever was necessary to get by. It is a well-worn cliche that children will adapt to anything.
In the United States, a significant percentage of the population either don’t believe climate change is happening or they choose to not let it bother them. For many people who are struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis, they, like Hans in Rotation, don’t have the time nor the energy to do anything about it. Even if they did recognize climate change as a threat to life on the planet, they may feel inadequate to effect any sort of change, but the poor will be those who will be most affected by rising food and energy prices, as well as those who might be directly affected by more extreme weather events.
The recent decline in the amount of media attention devoted to climate change and the continued denial of the science by a large percentage of the population in the U.S. indicates that we are treading the same path as the many Germans who put aside their worries about the threat of danger in order to maintain their way of life. Are we as powerless against the machinations of climate change as the individual Germans civilians were against the Allied air attacks? We have already let loose a force that is beyond our control. Now we must sit back and watch the skies, hoping that the next bomb misses us.
Maybe a hundred years down the line, nobody will look back at climate change as the most important issue of the early 21st century, because the damage will have been done, and the idea that it might have been prevented will seem absurd. Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers, there’ll be no moral dimension at all. We will have wrecked the planet, but our great-grandchildren won’t care much, because they’ll have been born into a planet already wrecked.
The Economist (Dec. 12, 2011)
- On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald, Modern Library, 2004
- German Cinema: Texts in Context, Marc Silberman, Wayne State University, 1995