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Changing the Dynamics of ‘War Cinema’ using ‘Conflict’ as the Lens

have a stereotyped expectation around them which most of the filmmakers only manipulate with creative liberty but never muster the bravery to transcend it beyond the war cries, dark settings, patriotic soldiers, hyper-nationalism etc. The other attempt is the parodic and satirical representation of war with slapstick comedy which is used as a device to dabble into but not allow an immersive confrontation for its viewers. This is something I say without any prejudice toward the genre of film as a whole. However, what Movies and film makers more often than not fail to ask themselves is, ‘Where is the War?’ and ‘Who are the subjects of the War?’. The lens generally focuses on ‘What is the War?’ leaving a perspective that is claustrophobic for it is born and dies on a territory of its manifestation when the landscape of its repercussion lies out of it.

At the core of a war lies the innumerable conflicts of individuals who do not dawn a camouflaged uniform but rather try to live such a life with a semblance of hope. Behind the cataclysmic events depicted through audacious decibels and explosions, there is a stilted quiet, a convoluted and monotonous silence that mechanically operates behind the scenes. It is these silences that nurture the peace from its extinction. The Horrors of war are not always painted with the hues of blood spilled on the battlefields, it also ricochets off the refugee camps, evacuation operations and the vessels carefully arranged in the kitchens.

The Biopic Genre has brought about a change in the narrative of war movies which now focus the lens on the individual around whom the war is revolving. However, even in these movies, the chosen individual epicentre for all the obvious reasons would be a Political Personality whose decisions are pulling the triggers. Steven Spielberg in 1994, Roman Polanski in 2004 and Morten Tyldum in 2014 have created movies that have used the epicentre to shift the gaze and broaden the horizons of a ‘War Cinema’.

1. Schindler’s List (1994)

Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a movie that in the words of Cesar A. Cruz can be said as a depiction of what ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ would translate on the screen. Adapted from the novel Schindler’s Ark by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the movie is bound to make you confront the realities of the Holocaust through visuals that in no manner intended to mask the sufferings. The movie shows the extent to which Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist went to save the lives of Polish Jews and in doing so what treacherous waters he had to tread. The movie is also an ode to the personal loss of Oskar Schindler as an industrialist and a resident who had migrated to Poland to reap the benefits of the war. The layered character of Schindler, his motives and what is this compass that guides his actions creates investment. The stark contrast between Privilege and Suffering is the circumference around which the camera revolves. The Lens here captures the conflict of individuals, the traces of humanity that were yet to be buried under the fear and oppression rather than the War which doesn’t escape as the omnipresent backdrop. The discomforting experience of watching this movie comes from the positioning of the perspective which doesn’t intend to be remote. The general technique that is employed in movies to avoid discomfort and inconvenience is to create a distance between the viewers and the suffering, which is contrastingly used by Spielberg. Violence is shown from distance not to alienate but to make it a matter of fact which leaves a lingering sense of shock. The distance is reduced when it is capturing the individual conflicts, beliefs and struggles of the characters. There is an immense level of trust that a director must place in the viewers to employ the bold strokes of his craft and Spielberg takes that leap of faith.

2. The Pianist (2004)

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist further expands the possibility of War Cinema by exploring the attempts of an Artist to live with his passion while the war threatens the death of both. Władysław Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist, though the Protagonist of this movie is a metaphor for the cynicism, compassion and survival instincts of a civilization caught in the storm of its own worst demons. A movie whose opening scene involves the bombing of the Warsaw Radio Station manages to keep it in the background over the course of the movie.

Unlike Oskar Schindler, whose character is embedded in a narrative of heroism, Władysław Szpilman is shredded of all these accolades throughout the movie, leaving behind a human living by animal instincts. Yet again what distinguishes it from mainstream war cinema is the focus of the camera being the struggles of survival of a common man through the devastation inflicted and constantly shown to remind the viewers where the origin of the struggle lies.

The movie is a narrative of escape, not a rescue, of clutching the reins of life while riding the horse of death. The movie in its single person gaze talks about a class that is mostly marginalised in a stellar show that every war cinema aims to create - the ordinary. Those who are shy of donning the brave hats and holding the batons of revolution. It depicts the vulnerability of humanity under duress. War marauders not just the members and material possessions of a family but also its individuality, dignity and identity. The Ghetto on the screen is not only a representation of racial oppression but is the womb from which its inhabitants hope to be born alive. As Szpilman sees the Ghetto Uprising from a secure apartment you realise that he is the desperation and helplessness of many who tried to isolate the war as a means of survival rather than neutrality or non-alignment.

climax of the movie also brings a paradox where there is an intrinsic conflict of emotion as a Nazi soldier is shown to not let the training and uniform strip him off his humanity. Some may not appreciate the climax and their reasons can't be put under the labels of right and wrong but if we choose to see it as creative liberty perhaps, it's possibly the most dangerous conflict the soldier attempts to conquer without violence. The movie doesn't patronize or romanticise war and suffering but brings to the forefront the experiences which are often side-lined for they lack a compelling grandeur that is expected in war cinema. There is an irony mixed with absurdity layered in each scene attached to the most natural act turned into a conflict - survival.

3. The Imitation Game (2014)

In 2014 Morten Tyldum yet again redefined the outlines of a war cinema through The Imitation Game. At the outset, whether the movie should have been much braver in accepting the sexuality of Alan Turing rather than just offering it a cursory acknowledgement is a point of separate discussion. The scope here is only limited to the breaking of sultry confines in which war cinema has always been imprisoned.

The Movie set in the backdrop of World War II swarmed Britain, is mostly capturing the cryptography team where a bunch of people are hired to solve the German’s Enigma machine. Alan Turing who is the centre of the movie is the odd one out of this group in terms of his demeanour and approach towards the task assigned to them. Despite being in the midst of a war, the movie is creating an investment in the efforts went into solving the German puzzle of Enigma.

The movie is a celebration of the attempts of a bunch of people who successfully fulfil their tasks. Their attachment to the war is not as patriotic as is ambitious. The movie spans into three-time frames, the pre-war, the war and the post-war period capturing Alan Turing battling his own conflicts of sexuality, loss, humiliation and agony to which he is subjected.

Another scene that best captures the layered conflict is when despite having decoded the enigma and knowing the target ship which is on the line of fire, the conscious decision to not save those onboard especially when the brother of Alan's team member is on that ship ensues a scuffle. In it lies the frustration at the helplessness of being unable to save your loved ones and yet it is this very helplessness that is instrumental in emerging victorious in a war. It speaks of the futility of war and victories for they always come at the cost of defeats on other fronts. Wars fill the pages of history with losses which are written between the lines of defeat and victory, a no man’s land.

It may be said that War Cinema as a genre has produced some amazing masterpieces without having to break the norm. However, these movies and indeed there are others such as The Reader, Atonement etc. have made a similar attempt to capture war from a lens of conflicts that are interplaying with the war. These cinemas not only showcase war as an event but it sees war as an influence and aims to gauge the response.


Written by Shama Mahajan

Shama Mahajan is a corporate lawyer by profession and currently based out of Udaipur.

She says "My love for language stems from my eternal love for reading which is what I am best at being an ambivert. The only means of expression for me is Poetry and anything that involves stringing a bunch of words to make coherence. "

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