Tuesday, July 10, 2007

3.09 "Deaths-Head Revisited"

Season Three, Episode Nine

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Milford

Wrathful and plaintive, vicious and humanistic, Deaths-Head Revisited (the title is a rather dark and coarse play on the title of Evelyn Waugh's famous comic novel), is, specifically, a pointed and poetic assessment of Nazi barbarism during World War Two, but also an examination of war in general, using the Holocaust symbolically as simply the most egregious example of modern warfare; that is, the episode's sympathy for the victims of war does not stop at European Jews. Porcine, in stature and in character, and gleeful, erstwhile Nazi officer Captain Lutze (Oscar Beregi), alias Herr Schmidt, takes a trip to das Vaterland from his safe South American hideout, a nostalgic vacation down memory lane; he visits, specifically, Dachau, the quaintly, charmingly scenic town now synonymous with human cruelty, where he was once stationed in his days as a merciless officer. (The episode is notable not least for its set design, a recreation of a concentration camp that, for low-budget television, is surprisingly palpable.) Feeling no shame, guilt or remorse, he wanders the grounds, enthusiastically re-envisioning the horrors he inflicted there; hallucinated corpses appear, for a moment, hanging from dusty gallows, and Lutze shows hints of a satisfied grin. Ah, the good old days.

Soon, however, the flashbacks take on a tactile nature; Lutze's memories are anthropomorphized in the form of a former inmate, Becker (Joseph Schildkraut), who appears to the erstwhile captain in ghost-form. Lutze mistakes him for the grounds' living caretaker; in a way, Becker acknowledges, he is—minus the "living" part. Becker proceeds to berate Lutze with effusive, accusatory speeches that in the hands of a lesser actor would've descended into pretentious speechifying; here, they sting, and director Don Milford knows how to keep the nightmare afloat: without spatial consistency, as in the logic of a (bad) dream, Lutze is transported around the camp and into the old barracks where he is confronted by a ghostly pack of former inmates. Seen in large groups and in canted angles, dressed in white against black backgrounds, they pose an awfully frightening image, even for me and I had nothing to do, personally, with National Socialism or the Final Solution. For Lutze it proves to be unbearable; he is driven mad by the overwhelming guilt, both personal and legal, handed-down to him by his spectral victims/judges, who, following the "fair trial" they have the decency to give him (while he is unconscious), cosmically sentence him to insanity. Though it claims otherwise—"this is not hatred," Becker explains, "it is retribution. This is not revenge, it is justice"—Serling's script is vicious and vengeance-minded, though not unduly so.

Broadcast during the Adolph Eichmann trial, Deaths-Head Revisited offers a scoffingly sharp rebuke of the "Nuremberg" defense that was Eichmann's mode of exculpatory apologia, as it was for many of the captured and tried post-war Nazis. "I was a soldier," Lutze declares in passionate defense. "You were a sadist," Becker counters as the howls of Lutze's victims bellow in the background. The ghosts of war's victims can never be put to rest, placated and sent away; they are a permanent fixture on the cultural and psychological landscape of the world we've wrought with constant combat. Deaths-Head Revisited works well on a very specific and literal level, but it also hints at a commentary on the essential nature of soldierhood, that war never has the benefit of moral clarity or justifiability, and soldiers rarely have the opportunity to exercise the power of their consciences.

When Becker levels charges at Lutze for killing and torturing not only men but women, children and infants, it evokes, in my modern mind, thoughts of Vietnam's My Lai massacre, and though that atrocity succeeded Deaths-Head... by eight years, the horrific violence of the War in Southeast Asia couldn't have been far from Serling's mind, as the Vietnam War is a frequently recurring subtext in The Twilight Zone. Serling closes-out the episode with one of his most moving final narrations, which explicitly, and uncharacteristically, announces the episode's moral in relation to the real world:

"...All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes—all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth."

Of course men turning the earth into a graveyard has hardly stopped in the decades since the Second World War, nor was it particularly new to the Nazis, and Deaths-Head Revisited is all the more effective, and devastating, for its apparent timelessness.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 6 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.


Laurie said...

I truly think that Captain Lutze was not driven mad by “overwhelming guilt”. He was incapable of feeling any kind of guilt, and was mad with rage at being treated so unfairly! Serling in driving his point, created his bad guy evil to the bone. Captain Lutze, being completely devoid of conscience could therefore never experience any feelings of guilt.

You are certainly right about Serling’s epilogue. It is both profound and chilling.

“All the Dachaus must remain standing… - all of them.”

I feel the same way about the World Trade Center. The only thing that should be erected on that sight is a memorial which will also serve as “a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the earth into a graveyard.”

H. Stewart said...

Thanks for the comment! Nice connection to the World Trade Center, I feel the same way and Serling's epilogue is a great summation of the point of view. But of course, graveyards don't make money.

Anyway, back to the episode, you might be right about Lutze's inability to feel guilt, but that's not the way I felt watching the episode; his sentence of "insanity" I thought was the inmates' way of forcing him to realize the pain he inflicted, to confront it head on and, as such, feel guilty about it. The arc of his character, if you will, was of a carefree Nazi being forced to come to terms with what he'd done, and the realization leading to madness. Guilt's all wrapped-up in there, for me!

Anonymous said...

Lutze was forced to experience the tortures he so gladly inflicted upon his victims —feeling psychosomatically the agonies of the hangings, the shootings, the beatings, the inhumane experiments. That was what drove him mad. Agony he could not endure and he would suffer it for the rest of his life.

Anonymous said...

Every time I watch this episode, I find myself substituting Captain Lutze with Benjamin Netanyahu, Avidgor Lieberman or whoever is in charge in Israel at the time and picturing the Palestinians as the prisoners. That depection doesn't get any more accurate than what is happening there right now! How the abused has turned into the abuser, the victim into the bully. How very sad!