Irrational Man

Irrational Man (2015). Dir. Woody Allen

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Abe (Joaquin Phoenix): “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”.

Irrational Man. Wow. Such a movie. A delight for anyone who loves philosophy, especially existentialist philosophy, my favorite!

The beginning of the movie is amazing. You can only hear a car and, right after the opening credits, Ramsey Lewis’ amazing funky jazz. The first word, pronounced by Joaquin Phoenix, is “Kant”. Woody Allen seems to have made Irrational Man for philosophy lovers: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Dostoevsky, and Hannah Arendt’s thesis dance in this film. Anxiety, despair, the meaning of our existence, choice, morality, suicide, and murder are the film’s main themes.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is stunning. Really brilliant. Phoenix gained 33 pounds for the role of Abe, a controversial philosophy professor, anguished, depressed and a nihilist who talks to his students about how cruel and frustrating human existence is. Phoenix appears like a man made of blood and flesh, vulnerable and tormented, who prefers to live philosophy than to talk about.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Emma Stone. I find all her performances basically the same. Nevertheless, her performance in Irrational Man is convincing thanks to Woody’s amazing writing. Still, she could have bothered herself and take some piano lessons if she was going to play the role of a piano student. Oh, well, those young divas…

The other woman is Rita, performed by Parker Posey, an awesome actress. Her performance is fresh, elegant and very real.

Ethan Phillips (who played the nasty IRS agent Gorsky in the 90’s comedy Green Card) has a small role in the movie and plays Jill’s father. I read some negative reviews about Jamie Blackey’s performance, who plays Jill’s boyfriend, Roy, but truthfully I think that he plays his role to perfection (a simple guy in love, plain and zero exciting).

Irrational Man has a bit of Match Point and a lot of Cassandra’s Dream, being at the same time original, genuine, and surprising. The end is unpredictable and has a taste of Hitchcock. Woody had already used Crime and Punishment in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Ramsey Lewis (who, I must admit, I didn’t know –I have already bought several CDs of his) accompanies us with his amazing funky jazz during all the film. Woody’s taste in music is definitely the best.

The Adair University (fictitious), where Abe taught before, is the same University that honours Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry and where Sondra Pransky studied journalism in Scoop (how funny).

Irrational Man is the last movie produced by Jack Rollins (Woody’s producer for over 45 years). Rollins died in 2015, age 100.

Abe brings to the extreme the first principle of existentialism: human beings are what we make of ourselves (“l’homme n’est rien d’autre que ce qu’il se fait”, argues Sartre in L’existentialisme est un humanisme). Man is what he decides to be, in complete freedom. Sartre argues that we don’t have freedom, but that we are freedom. Our freedom can never be renounced. Even if we decide not to be free, we are deciding in complete freedom not to be free. That’s what reflects Sartre’s explosive sentence “l’homme est condamné à être libre[1]. We are free and we are completely responsible of what and who we are. There is no God. We are alone in the Universe. We are the solely owners of our own existence and the only responsible ones for our own choices.

Sartrean existentialism is a philosophy of freedom and action. To think about doing something, to hope, to wish, does not count at all for Sartre. Only to act has real value, and Abe knows it. If we wish for somebody to be dead, the only coherent action is murder. But what about morality? Well, are all men worth living? Really cruel people are parasites, are they not? Wouldn’t the world be a better place with less parasites?

When Abe decides to kill the corrupted judge, his life makes sense again. He starts enjoying life: he has big breakfasts (not only back coffee), is able to make love again, writes poetry again, and feels strong and alive. Suicide is not an option for Abe any more. His life has meaning. His murder plans are what give meaning to his existence.

Man is a being in search for meaning. That was brilliantly said by Viktor Frankl in 1946 in his heartbreaking book Man’s Search for Meaning (originally written in German and untitled …trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen. Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager). Frankl’s thesis is a yes to life with capital letters. His message: an unconditional faith in the meaning of existence: “meaning is available under any conditions, even the worst conceivable ones“[2]. Life has always meaning, until the end (“life has a meaning to the last breath[3]) and it’s our duty to look for this meaning. Our main task is to have to give a meaning to our own existence.

Frankl argues that a person who has found the meaning of his life is able to give his life for that meaning, and a person who has not found the meaning of his life can easily commit suicide. At the beginning of the film, Abe suffers from existential vacuum and does not mind at all to die when he demonstrates to his students how to play the Russian roulette. But when he starts planning the murder and finds a meaning for his existence, he rejects suicide and embraces life.

Frankl argues that life has always meaning. Sartre, on the contrary, argues that nothing has real meaning: everything is absurd (like Camus). We are alone, without God and without excuses, and we have to carry courageously the emptiness of our human existence.

Frankl defines man as freedom, responsibility and meaning. Sartre defines man as freedom, responsibility and anguish. In the first half of  Irrational Man, Abe follows Sartre, and, afterwards, follows Frankl. Frankl’s thesis is less dark than Sartre’s. Nevertheless, I have always found an answer (even if a hard and depressing one) in Sartre’s philosophy, and, for what I’ve read, I think that Woody too.

In an interview from 2010, Woody was asked about his vision on life, and said: “I have a very grim pessimistic view of it. I always had. Since I was a little boy. It hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself (…) One must have one’s illusions to live. If you look at life too honestly life does become unbearable because it is a pretty grim enterprise“[4]. I agree completely. I think that neither life nor death have real meaning, so we have to create, love and grow as much as we can in order to not to succumb to despair.

Irrational Man is an absolutely brilliant film. A delightful masterpiece. 10 / 10

The best: the huge dosis of existential philosophy, Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning performance, Parker Posey, and Ramsey Lewis’ funky jazz.

The worst: Emma Stone’s perfectly combed hair.

cropped-antonia-dalit-2.jpg Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, August 16, 2018

NOTES

[1] Sartre, Jean-Paul. L’existentialisme est un humanisme, p. 39

[2] Frankl, Viktor E. The Unheard Cry for Meaning, p. 41

[3] Frankl, Viktor E. “Introduction”, The Doctor and the Soul, p. xix

[4] Allen, Woody. Press conference You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Cannes, May 2010

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Frankl, Viktor E. … trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen. Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. München: Kösel, 2014 (2009), pp. 7–191

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning (trad. Ilse Lasch). Boston: Beacon, 2006, pp. ix–165

Frankl, Viktor E. The Doctor and the Soul. From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (trad. Richard y Clara Winston). New York: Vintage Books, 1986, pp. ix–318

Frankl, Viktor E. The Unheard Cry for Meaning. New York: Touchstone, 1978, pp. 13–191

Frankl, Viktor E. TV interview, Toronto, 1972. THE WILL TO MEANING.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L’être et le néant. Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. France: Gallimard, 2010 (1943), pp. 11–676

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L’existentialisme est un humanisme. France: Gallimard, 2003 (1945), pp. 9– 109

Die Fälscher

Die Fälscher (2007). Dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky

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Atze (Veit Stübner): “Warum ist Gott nicht in Auschwitz? Der kam nicht durch die Selektion!

Die Fälscher is one of my favorite movies about the Holocaust. It’s an Austrian film where the German pigs bark in German (not English) and the victims speak, cry and pray in German, Russian, and Hebrew (not English). I think it’s really a pity when Holocaust movies are not made in their original language, no matter how good the movie is. That goes for Schindler’s List and many others (the only exception is probably The Pianist, an excellent film that if it were in Polish and German would be a real masterpiece).

In Die Fälscher one can really breath the brutality of the small Nazi concentration camps (there are no extermination camps shown here). Viktor Frankl wrote that in the ordinary small concentration camps most of the extermination took place. In Die Fälscher we see a German pig kicking to death a prisoner in Buchenwald and we see how little life was worth in Sachsenhausen (you could be shot any time and for no reason). The elegant and cultivated Germans could kill and torture as much as they felt like.

The film focuses on the biggest con operation of the entire history: Operation Bernhard. Operation Bernhard managed to counterfeit more than 134 million British pounds and some American dollars. Created in 1942 by the Germans and developed in Sachsenhausen’s Blocks 18 and 19 by 142 Jewish prisoners who were forced to forge millions, Operation Bernhard could have given a dramatic turn to the war. The Germans counterfeited not only British pounds and American dollars, but also many passports, identity cards, birth and marriage certificates, other official documents, and stamps. The Germans were not only cruel and monstrous (we know that they loved to gas men, women, and children, and that they enjoyed massacring people and burning babies alive), but they were also great thieves (they stole many Aryan-looking Polish children –after having killed their parents, of course–) and they were also the greatest common criminals: they organized the biggest con operation of all times (but, luckily, too late). The Germans possessed all of the disgusting and lowest attributes that a human can have: antisemitism, racism, violence, cruelty, and dishonesty. And all that beautiful pack came from one of the most cultivated countries of the entire world. Yes, the Germans, with their amazing philosophy, their amazing poetry, their amazing music and their amazing art produced the most horrific monstrosity of human history: the Holocaust.

Die Fälscher is loosely based on the memoirs of Adolf Burger, originally written in Czech (Komando padělatelů) and first published in 1983. The translation into English was published only 26 years later (in 2009) under the title The Devil’s Workshop: A Memoir of the Nazi Counterfeiting Operation (I didn’t read the book, but I just ordered it). Burger was a Jewish Slovak typographer and Holocaust survivor born in 1917. He was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau together with his wife when he was 25 years old, in 1942. At that time he was making fake baptism certificates to save Jews. In Auschwitz-Birkenau he was tattooed with the number 64401. His wife perished in Auschwitz that year. He survived 18 months in Auschwitz-Birkenau and was then transferred to Sachsenhausen (April 1944) to work in Operation Bernhard. In 1945 he was transferred to the Ebensee concentration camp (a camp within the Mauthausen network) until its liberation by the US Army on May 6, 1945 (that isn’t shown in the movie). Burger died 10 months ago in Prague, age 99 (yes, 99!), in December 2016. 

The casting of the film is superb. Karl Markovics (who portrays Sorowitsch, a character based on the real Salomon Smolianoff, an Ukrainian Jewish professional counterfeiter who died in Brazil at age 76) gives an outstanding performance. I really love this actor. He’s amazing. August Diehl (the famous SS whom Fassbender blew his balls off in Inglourious Basterds) plays the real Burger. His performance is stunning. Sebastian Urzendowsky plays Kolya, a young Russian painter also involved in Operation Bernhard. His performance is breathtaking (Urzendowsky gave an impressive performance too in the German film Berlin’36). Devid Striesow plays Herzog, to my taste a too nice and soft character. Herzog is based on the real Bernhard Krüger, a murderous SS who led Operation Bernhard (the operation was named after him). As the vast majority of German and Austrian murderers, Krüger got off scot-free (after a brief period of detention) and died peacefully in Germany at age 84. Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter (Dolores Chaplin) makes a small appearance in the film.

The tango music of the film (written by Marius Ruhland) is truly amazing. The details of the film are really painful and really well made: the apple, the bloody hands, the second hand clothing, the touching of the clean bed sheets, the reaction of Kolya at the beginning of the shower, the huge humiliation in the toilet, the walking-corps after the liberation of Sachsenhausen…

I am currently working on my Phd in Philosophy. My thesis is about Sartre and Viktor Frankl and their different existential approaches to religion, and about the death of God after Auschwitz. In Die Fälscher I have found one of the best explanations to the absence of God while millions of innocent men, women, and children were being massacred. It is a cruel joke that one of the inmates tells laughing to the other inmates. He says: “Why isn’t God in Auschwitz? Because he did not pass the selection” [Warum ist Gott nicht in Auschwitz? Der kam nicht durch die Selektion!“].

Around 134 million counterfeit British pounds were produced at Sachsenhausen. In 1945 Operation Bernhard moved to Mauthausen. In 1959 some of the boxes with counterfeit British pounds were discovered at the bottom of Lake Toplitz (in the Austrian Alps), and in 2000 the same company who discovered the Titanic pull out from the lake many boxes with counterfeit British pounds and some counterfeit American dollars.

Die Fälscher won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language (Austria). After it won the Oscar, Burger said that he felt happy because now more people would see the movie and will know that the Germans were not just murderers but also common criminals.

The worst: some small factual errors.

The best: everything else.

 

Some articles and news about Operation Bernhard:

Shifting from Wartime to Peacetime Intelligence Operations (The CIA Library)

Counterf-Hitler: Examples from the £134million in dodgy bank notes Adolf hoped would ruin the British economy expected to fetch £2,000 at auction

Nazi fake banknote ‘part of plan to ruin British economy’

Los Angeles Times: Adolf Burger, World War II prisoner forced by Nazis to forge millions in fake money, dies at 99

DALIT-ANTONIA-JOKER-2016 Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, October 11, 2017