Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 18 May 2012
Source Netflix VOD
More than three decades after the end of the Holocaust, Canadian anthropologist Frances Henry returned to her German hometown – the one she and her family fled in 1939 – to ask its non-Jewish residents why most of them, after living alongside Jews in peace before the rise of the Nazis, had turned a blind eye once their persecution had begun, as though the decades of neighborliness and cooperation had meant nothing. Most expressed the same bewildering sentiment, which was a level of detachment and apathy heretofore unseen in such mass numbers. And while there were some in Henry’s hometown who did in fact help out the Jews, most of the citizens claimed they had felt “powerless” to stop what had happened and therefore did nothing. Suddenly, thousands of German citizens had found themselves without any recourse to stop what was happening, and so they didn’t. What could we do? they seemed to ask, and since no answer came to them – because of fear, because of apathy – they didn’t seek one out. However, as more and more people began to investigate complicity by non-Jewish citizens both before and during the reign of Adolf Hitler, they encountered similar reactions. It’s as though hundreds of thousands of German citizens, upon seeing their Jewish neighbors and friends being persecuted, exiled, and murdered, all contracted a case of severe ethical amnesia.
In her studies, Henry refused to name the exact German town she visited, the same one where she’d been born, grew up, and eventually fled; instead, she referred to its as “Sonderburg,” a Germany word meaning, ironically, “special town.” And while the actual name of her subject and hometown is unimportant – as many point out, similar things were happening in towns and cities across Germany – what matters to us today are the lesson we’ve never learned from events such as this. In any act of subjugation, persecution, or genocide, the motivation of the perpetrators toward the victims are clear; the motivation of the bystanders, however, are not. Why don’t they get involved, rise up, demand justice, stand as one? They’re all cliched ideas, to be sure, but they can also be effective when done immediately and with consistency (hence the success of recent revolutions in places such as Egypt and Libya). It’s troubling that, in studying the reactions of millions of Europeans who had more than a decade to react, there are only a handful of stories – a few thousand out of tens of millions – in which everyday people actually affected some sort of good. People like Irena Sendler, Nicolas Winton, Raoul Wallenberg, the Scholls, Chiune Sugihara, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as thousands of others, stand out as examples of the good that individuals can do. And yet, contrasted to the millions of others who could have done something but chose – for whatever reason – not to, it’s startling.
Watching all of this unfold as a doctoral student in France was Eugene Ionesco, who would soon become one of the world’s most recognized playwrights. What he witnessed in Europe – during World War II, the rise of Communism, and so on – inspired what is considered his greatest play, Rhinoceros, in which the people of an unnamed European town slowly transform into rhinoceros. But that change – from man and woman into wild beast – is only the first of two transformations Ionesco highlights in his play. The second transformation happens beneath the surface, as one person after another becomes something more base and animalistic. And what I mean by that is unrelated to their change into rhinoceros—a transformation that is important, yes, but irrelevant overall to Ionesco’s purpose. The animal he chose could have been anything, really—elephants, flamingos, toads, tsetse flies. His focus in writing the play was not the end results of the transformation but the transformation itself: the notion that someone could so willingly and easily let themselves be corrupted by something – anything – is the focus of his mockery. The fact that they’re transforming into massive pachyderms only adds to the absurdity with which Ionesco views these kinds of people. Rhinoceros the play is political allegory and satire at its best, and even today, more than a half-century after it was first published, it remains embarrassingly relevant.
As powerful and relevant as Ionesco’s play might be, even today, the 1974 film adaptation starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel is not. Yes, it’s a promising little film, and at times it seems determined to retain much of Ionesco’s purpose. But certain changes to the play, not to mention the casting itself, render the film version an ineffective, messy, and almost counterproductive interpretation, if that’s even the right word for what it is.
The film starts off promisingly enough in an unnamed American city. Two men rise in the morning – the portly, finicky, ever-so-fortunate John and the lanky, disheveled, drunkard Stanley – and meet up for a quick lunch. Almost immediately the two fulfill their contradictory personalities; Stanley has been sitting at the restaurant’s bar for some time, and yet when John arrives he pronounces Stanley late, as usual. Stanley tries to explain, his wild hair and unkempt appearance barely masking the fact that he’s hung over, and ends up begging his friend for understanding and forgiveness; in response, John lectures his friend on culture and appearances, basking in his own pomposity and self-appointed wisdom. Obviously the two men are opposites – the casting of Wilder and Mostel alone suggests this emphasis on differences – and considering the time in which the film was made, this seems like a promising start. After all, the country itself was fracturing alone a multitude of lines – political, generational, racial, sexual – and any film in which differences were a focal point didn’t suffer from sources of inspiration.
Unfortunately, the film’s writer never explores these America-specific possibilities beyond a few slapdash allusions to the instability and changes of the times. One of Stanley’s office-mates is a raving conspiracy theorist, and along with a few others they work for an African-American boss. And yet Julien Barry’s screenplay doesn’t even address their significances. When Stanley meets up at John’s apartment to check in on his friend, who’s slowly begun to change into a rhinoceros, we discover a portrait of Richard Nixon hanging in a closet behind John’s fold-down bed. And yet, besides the gentle kiss John lays on Tricky Dick’s photograph, the importance of that picture is never explored.
On top of this, the transformations into rhinoceros are at first treated with paranoia – and rightly so – but eventually people begin to see these changes as alluring, beneficial, and even sexually exciting. (In one scene, a woman falls onto the rhinoceros that was once her husband and rides it through the streets in what can only be seen as sexual over-abandon.) As more and more people change, Stanley retreats into his own world, adamant that he will not change with the others. Eventually, John transforms completely, as do his co-workers, his girlfriend, and pretty much everyone else in the United States. Stanley stands his ground, assures himself that he will never become like the others, many of whom give themselves over willingly to the transformation as though brainwashed by the grunts and groans of all the rhinoceros roaming the streets. He is clearly the hero, the everyman, the lone figure standing up to insurmountable and immoral problems.
And yet, the film’s ending doesn’t portray Stanley as the lone holdout in a world gone mad and corrupted. Instead, he comes off as a man afraid of change—one of those raving, Tea Party types who sees the shifting culture, the changing times, the move towards progress, and refuses to budge. Which is what the ending reminded me of. As Stanley scales the fire escape of his apartment building and takes shelter on its roof – essentially appointing himself above the discord down below, in the streets and alleys – he ends the film resembling someone who is taking refuge from the world out of fear rather than someone whose morality has lifted them above the dregs of the immoral. Perhaps it’s just the film’s poor production values, the casting of Gene Wilder – who seems to be on the brink of composure in most of his film roles – as Stanley, or the fact that the writer and director never want to go beneath the surface and make any kind of tangible connection to 1970s America beyond a portrait, but Rhinoceros has little merit in terms of sending a message about perseverance and individuality. In fact, there are times when the film seems to argue the opposite, and it’s startling to wonder if that’s due to timeliness or incompetence.
Almost seventy years have passed since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. The youngest survivors – that ever-thinning number – are now in their early 80s and dying away fast. And for all that we’ve done to lionize and celebrate their accomplishments – books, movies, museums, monuments, awards, talks of Peace Prizes – we as an ever-growing population of more than 7 billion have learned nothing from what they endured. Even as I write this, there are humanitarian struggles throughout the world in which one group attacks, persecutes, or kills another. Only now, in the age of cell-phone videos, Twitter accounts, Facebook campaigns, and YouTube channels, the audience of bystanders has grown much larger than in 1930s Germany; today, living in a world that is connected through signals and devices and internet connections, we’ve all become apathetic onlookers who, if asked years from now why we did nothing to stop them, will probably answer in much the same way those German citizens of Sonderburg did: What, we’ll ask out loud, could we do?