The Curmudgeon


Saturday, October 04, 2014

I, Mengele

An extract

On 23 April 1941, while Mengele is in Poland, he is told of the British request for an armistice and, listening illicitly to the BBC, hears Winston Churchill's official broadcast stating that the war "has not developed necessarily to the advantage of Great Britain and her Empire" and urging co-operation in Europe's fight against Bolshevism. This brief scene elicited much amusement from critics in both the Reich and the United States, who assumed that Churchill's plummy tones had been unintentionally caricatured by an inept actor; in fact, an authentic recording was used.

Churchill's wish was, of course, swiftly granted: Operation Barbarossa began on 1 June, less than six weeks after the Anglo-German truce. Mengele is posted to the Ukraine as a medical officer in the Viking division of the Waffen-SS, and the transition to the battlefield is handled with all the portentousness such a moment deserves.

The news that Barbarossa has begun is conveyed in the short scene where Mengele is shown informing his wife of his transfer. His face shows exhilaration, although in one shot he appears both guilty and hesitant. Significantly, this occurs when he is in the bathroom, looking in the mirror: alone with himself and with his image. Irene displays both pride and concern for his safety; when Mengele departs, the camera lingers poignantly on her half-outstretched arm, poised in mid-gesture as if undecided whether to wave farewell or try to call him back. The camera then cuts to Mengele as he is driven away; his eyes wander and eventually are drawn towards the sky. The camera follows his gaze and stops for a moment in the empty blue, which slowly turns a dull, threatening grey as William Jacks' orchestral march music fades into the distant noise of the Wehrmacht's engines. A magnificent eagle descends into the frame, hovers for several seconds and then disappears as a vast, brown leathery form obliterates the sky from screen right. Blood-curdling screeches fill the soundtrack as the monster flies away from the camera, accompanied by eight more monsters of the same type. The film crew called the species a "death ray" because Tod Blount's effects team based their design on that of a deep-sea predator: almost the whole body consists of a wing made of soft pulpy flesh, from which a long tail projects at the rear, ending in a complicated bulbous appendage bristling with stings and spikes. At the front, as the approaching aerial dogfight will reveal, is a horizontal row of eyes, each set above a flexible limb on which a gun can be mounted; and on the underside is a set of anus-like orifices which excrete explosive pellets full of poisonous gas and corroding slime.

Keeping perfect formation in three sets of three - a grotesque and haunting detail, imputing to the forces of racial chaos an evil discipline - the nine monsters flap slowly into the distance, where the careful viewer will observe that the eagle has retreated. But the pursuers are themselves pursued: a flight of Luftwaffe fighters attacks the monsters, and the film plunges into the first of its two major battle sequences, in which troops, tanks and Stukas are pitted against the subhuman yet demonically powerful Slavonic horde.

This battle scene is both a bravura visual performance and a clinical display of horror. Although a number of specimens have been visible during the earlier scenes, it is here that the racial threat is first shown in its full, epic scale. Perhaps the most unexpected detail is in the individual soldiers: far from attempting to surpass the deformities already seen in Munich and Leipzig, the film shows the enemy troops with smooth, pale skin and normally proportioned bodies. Of course, the film-makers exercised this restraint partly in order to avoid diluting the impact of the Auschwitz inmates later on; but there is a symbolic logic at work too. With their wide cheekbones, their rudimentary noses, their lack of individuality and their relentless, emotionless fighting style, the creatures demonstrate their Asiatic blood and robotic, communistic pseudo-culture.

Additionally, there are huge pale-grey four-footed creatures like giant naked bears, which can absorb incredible quantities of bullets and shrapnel before they fall; their skins are equipped with pouches in which the enemy troops apparently ride, and their heads have strange bridle-like deformities which accommodate weapons controlled by the creatures' jaws and teeth. All the different creatures are apparently able physically to combine and separate according to the requirements of the moment, leading to the climactic sight of a vast, shapeless mass of ever-changing flesh bearing down on the troops. "We walked quite a tightrope with these creatures," the director said. "We didn't want people to look at them and shrug, thinking they'd seen it all before in The Lord of the Rings. And we also didn't want these creatures to resemble the creatures in the later scenes at the KZ. So we decided to take our cue from the location and the history. We tried to come up with a specifically Slavonic fighting force." In this Atkins and his colleagues resoundingly succeeded; even the Völkischer Beobachter, which had little else good to say about I, Mengele, praised the "authentic racial vision" of its monsters.

Mengele disappears from sight as the battle rages. A few critics objected to this, accusing the director of losing sight of his plot among the special effects. However, it could equally be argued that Mengele's temporary disappearance has a wider meaning in itself: Mengele has at last found a way to escape the dilemmas and uncertainties of his life by dissolving his individuality in the great adventure of conquest, so it is quite appropriate that he should appear on screen, if he does appear, as a single indistinguishable unit among thousands of other field-grey units. Perhaps another reason for Mengele's absence from the screen is that the audience is, as it were, looking through Mengele's own eyes at the various degradations and perversions of the human form which now confront him.

When Mengele reappears, in the aftermath of an engagement between two of the bear-creatures and half a dozen tanks, he does so more as a doctor than a soldier. In bringing down the monsters four of the tanks are destroyed outright and only one remains in a condition to advance further; the sixth is crippled and is still under fire from surviving enemy troops in one of the fallen bear-creatures. As Mengele's unit approaches, another bear-creature can be seen advancing over the horizon. Mengele's men attack the troops in the dying bear-creature (leading to the horrid revelation that they are biologically fused with it), while Mengele himself enters the crippled tank and finds two of the crew still alive. With the help of a subordinate, he gets them out and administers medical aid, despite having been injured while inside the tank. His injuries result from being repeatedly bitten by yet another species of monster, a sort of over-sized rat which scavenges among dead soldiers, both for their flesh and for whatever ammunition and valuables they may be carrying. The bites appear trivial at first, but quickly grow worse: his flesh blackens like gangrene, acquiring a texture tellingly similar to the skins of many of the creatures he will soon be seeing at Auschwitz.

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