Reza Mirkarimi

Films of Reza Mirkarimi:

“A Cube of Sugar” - by Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi (2011)

A Cube of Sugar (Ye Habe Ghand aka One Cube of Sugar, 2011) is a domestic drama  set around a marriage ceremony that has been arranged for a young woman from a traditional Iranian family.  Directed and co-scripted by Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi (aka Reza Mirkarimi), the film takes a broad look at this multi-generational family, devoting considerable screen time to a large number of the characters making up the family on the intended bride’s side.  This has the feature of giving the viewer a sweeping view of domestic Iranian family life and for some moviegoers may by itself supply the film’s raison d’etre, perhaps in the spirit of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).  There are some extra wrinkles in the story of A Cube of Sugar, however, that make things a bit different.

The central figure is Pasandideh (played by Negar Javaherian, who also starred in Gold and Copper, 2011), and we are introduced to her the day before she is to be married to a Mr. Vaziri.  Marriages are important social events everywhere, but in Iran particularly so, because they present one of the few occasions when an entire extended family gathers for the ceremony.  (I attended one such Iranian marriage which was the first time the entire far-flung family had gathered together in 28 years).  Pasandideh’s family, which is from Yazd, is very traditional, but  they are not isolated from the effects of modernity.  In this case, for example, the marriage is to be conducted by proxy, since the bridegroom is evidently in the US and unable to come to Iran for the ceremony [1]. In addition almost everyone seems to have a mobile, camera-equipped  smartphone.

Over the course of the story, Mirkarimi employs the narrative technique of slow disclosure so that the viewer only gradually discovers some of the significant attitudes and relationships among the principal characters.  For example, it takes some time for us to learn that Pasandideh’s Uncle Ezzatolah (Saeed Poursamimi) is something of a stepfather of the family, since Pasandideh’s mother is a widow.  We also learn that Uncle Ezzatolah was not in favor of Pasandideh marrying Mr. Vaziri, but instead preferred his own stepson, Ghasem, who is currently away serving his military obligation.

The story of the film is quite scattered, covering as it does the various mini-dramas of a number of characters, but it can be divided into two main sections.

1.  Preparing for the Upcoming Wedding

The film begins with family relatives arriving at Uncle Ezzatolah’s traditional family villa on the day before the engagement party and wedding ceremony are to take place.  These include Pasandideh’s four older sisters, all of whom are married and have families.  The four husbands to these sisters are all well-acquainted with each other, but they are all different. 
  • Hajji Naser is very religious and has just returned from a pilgramage to the holy city of Karbala.
  • Hamid (Hedayat Hashemi) is the belligerent and sometimes abusive husband of sister Mahnaz.
  • Hormoz (Asghar Hemmat), who is similarly delinquent and a close friend of Hamid’s, has recently spent several years in prison for some undisclosed criminal activity.
  • Jafar (Reza Kianian, who played in The Wind Carpet (2003), The Fish Fall in Love (2006), and The Maritime Silk Road (2011)) is loquacious and outgoing. He provides some of the social glue among the men.
The wives of these men, i.e. the four sisters, gather together indoors and spend their time gossiping about their past experiences with men, and married life in general.  They represent one of the social groups focalized in the film.  There are also some other groups with their narrative threads in this section.
  • Hamid and Hormoz believe that there are some valuable books that have been buried in the family stock-house.  They plan to secretly dig them up in the evening so that they can sell them at a big profit.
  • Later the four men sit down in the living room to watch a football game and engage in typical male posturing.  There are moments of reflection, however.  Hamid, for example, mentions that if he had extra money he would like to “buy” a second wife and rhetorically challenges the other men as to whether they are not all bored with their marital lives.
  • Hajji Naser phones his doctor and learns that recent medical tests reveal that he has cancer.  He keeps this a secret from those around him.
  • Some of the sisters’ young boys have heard that there are ghosts living in the family stock-house.  They are busy daring each other to go there one night and investigate.
  • Two teenage children seem to show some diffident interest in each other (when the boy is not preoccupied with his phablet).
  • The generally benign Uncle Ezzatolah is evidently currently disgruntled about the marriage and keeps to himself.  He charms one of the young boys who is scared of ghosts, though, when he shows him how he can toss up a cube of sugar and catch it in his mouth.
Meanwhile Pasandideh seems almost a background figure as she watches in wonder at all the goings on around her.  The overall celebratory mood is suddenly shattered about an hour into the story by a seemingly trivial act.  While in the act of catching one of his tossed sugar cubes, Uncle Ezzatolah chokes on the cube and dies. 

2.  The Funeral
Now the marriage ceremony has to be postponed and a funeral must be held.  This involves not only obligatory expressions of grief, but also rapid practical preparations for the funeral ceremony.  For example, Hajji is shown surreptitiously using a mechanical click-counter as funeral guests arrive so that he can tell the ladies how much food to prepare for them.  And, of course, routine electrical power outages have to be accommodated.

All the previous narrative threads have now been interrupted and set aside, as that one cube of sugar seems to have changed destiny.  Uncle Ezzatolah’s stepson Ghasem gets a one-day leave from his military service to attend the burial.  Upon his arrival it is evident that there may still be something between Ghasem and Pasandideh, although nothing is explicitly expressed. 

At the end of the film in the middle of the night, the electrical power comes back on and awakens Pasandideh.  She lovingly surveys her extended family, who are all sleeping on the floors of various rooms.  What and of whom she is thinking about is a matter for your speculation.

Your appreciation of A Cube of Sugar will probably depend on how much you get into the social milieu presented in the film.  The broad tapestry of various interacting social types creates an atmosphere that dominates the scene and casts Pasandideh as primarily a witness. However, although the general commotion concerning what is presented suggests near chaos, it is evident that the shooting script of the film has been very carefully structured.   In fact the cinematography is striking – with many hand-held moving camera shots that shift in-frame from closeups to medium shots and then end on a different closeup. These are not particularly long-lasting shots, however, and most are less than twenty seconds in duration.

In this connection much of the cutting between these shots is on-action, and it is generally smoothly performed.   Thus the acting in the film must have been necessarily very carefully rehearsed in order to accommodate this visual approach.  And yet I would say that the acting performances appear to be spontaneous, natural, and convincing in their various representations.

This dynamic visual landscape of A Cube of Sugar reflects Mirkarimi’s professed view that the film is more about space than about an event [2].  It brings to mind Antonioni’s approach of using the physical environment of a scene to participate dynamically with the social interaction presented.  After all, our perception of space is always conjoined with the narratives that we remember or imagine that take place there. 

In fact narrative and space are always connected.  We understand narratives in the contexts of the spaces in which they take place.  And we inevitably understand space in terms of the narratives connected to it.  A house might be understood by an architect quite differently from the way a potential resident might understand it; and that difference is in terms of the narratives associated  with that house.

Though I believe Mirkarimi has the right idea here about space and its connection to narrative, I do not believe that he has succeeded in effectively merging the two the way Antonioni did.  Much of the dynamic mise-en-scene in A Cube of Sugar seems to me to be affected and artificial.  The interposed lyrical scenes (e.g. showing Pasandideh moving on a swing as she reaches up to pick an apple off a tree) feature evocative music (from veteran Mohammad Reza Aligholi), but their appearances are unmotivated and seem to be almost random insertions.

The various narrative threads in A Cube of Sugar come to nothing, and we are just left with the simple notion that “life goes on”.  There were ingredients here for something more than that.

  1. Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada, “Iran: Information on whether proxy marriages exist in Iran, and if so, on the procedures, steps and details of a proxy marriage”, (1 July 1996). 
  2. “A Cube of Sugar, a sweet Iranian Film”, Parsology, (11 August 2012).

“Street of Shame” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1956)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai, 1956) offers a last look at one of his recurring themes – the difficulties that women without resources have always faced in the world.  In fact throughout his film career, Mizoguchi’s sympathies and focalizations were usually with women. However, unlike some other male directors who tended to romanticize their female protagonists, Mizoguchi often had a more nuanced view of how women struggle to come to terms with their male-dominated surroundings.  In fact, far from romanticizing women, on many occasions Mizoguchi examined the fates of women for whom circumstances had forced them into a low life of prostitution, and examples of these films include, Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936), Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936), Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952) – and here, finally, Street of Shame.

In fact Mizoguchi could presumably draw from his own personal experiences with the netherworld of brothels, since his own sister had been sold into prostitution by his destitute family when he was a young boy, and in his early days he himself was a frequent client [1].  So, although bourgeois Japanese society presumably looked down on brothels as shameful, Mizoguchi probably saw them a bit differently.  Thus the English title for this film, “Street of Shame” may stray somewhat from Mizoguchi’s intent, and we should probably keep in mind the literal meaning of the Japanese title, “Akasen Chitai”, which is simply “Red Light District”.

As was customary with MIzoguchi’s mature films, the camera work in Street of Shame features extended, carefully composed shots that maintain balanced framing as the camera pans and tracks.  His meticulous mise-en-scene made the movement of both the characters and the camera seem natural for the dramatic actions, and so the camera’s eye became a particularly organic element of the narrative.  However, Mizoguchi’s camera aesthetics in this film are not as deliriously beautiful as in some of his earlier work, and in general the visual side of the film is not a major feature and is more of a matter-of-fact element of the production.

Note that although women are the focus as usual, on this occasion the main social theme of the film, which is based on the novel Susaki no Onna by Yoshiko Shibaki,  is the very nature of prostitution, itself.  To tell this story of Akasen Chitai, Mizoguchi and scriptwriter Masashige Narusawa follow the fates of five prostitutes working at a brothel in Yoshiwara, Tokyo’s famous red light district.  These women have distinctly different temperaments and outlooks, and together they survey the possible options available for women in these situations
  • Yasumi (played by Ayako Wakao).  She is young and pretty, but she is also a selfish and manipulative opportunist who looks out for her own future.
  • Mickey (Machiko Kyo). She is a young, sexy hedonist who lives only for her own immediate self-gratification.
  • Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a middle-aged women from the countryside who, after becoming a widow, found prostitution to be the only option in order to sustain her young son.  Her son is now a young adult.
  • Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) has similarly become a prostitute in order to feed her seriously ill (and hence unemployable) husband and their young child.
  • Yorie (Hiroko Machida) is another woman from the provinces who has received a marriage proposal from a man who operates a clog-making shop.  So she has a way out.
Note that we don’t see these women falling into prostitution in the film; they are already practitioners of their trade at the start of the drama.  In addition these women have not been physically coerced into prostitution but have more or less chosen to be prostitutes because of their impecunious circumstances.  They each have their own stories, and these are presented in the film over the course of its three main sections.
1.  Licensed Prostitution
The beginning shows the madam, Tatsuko Taya  (played by Sadako Sawamura), of a licensed brothel  discussing an upcoming bill before the Japanese National Diet (Japanese parliament) that would outlaw prostitution.  (In fact at the time of the making of Street of Shame, such a bill was being discussed in the Diet, and the reaction to this film may have contributed to its ultimate passage later that year.)  Tatsuko grumbles why the government would make such a change, since the Yoshiwara district has been around and accepted for 300 years.  Then some of the other girls at the brothel are shown discussing the implications of the bill. 

We also see the pretty young courtesan, Yasumi, talking to a man, Aoki, who wants to marry her.  In an effective 97-second shot, she seductively urges him to pay her debt of 150,000 yen [2] before she can accept his offer.  We will later learn that most of the girls in the brothel are heavily in debt, and that is the main reason for why they must ply their trade.

A pimp, Eiko, then arrives with a new recruit for the brothel, Mickey, who is seen to be a lascivious and rebellious young showoff who bow her head to noone. Tatsuko explains to Mickey that the pay rate at the brothel is “40-60", which seems like a pretty high take for the house. By the end of this sequence, the viewer has been introduced to all five of the prostitutes highlighted in the film.

2.  The Dreamland Salon
The film’s second section shows the relatively complicated circumstances of the five women.  There is another effective 90-second shot showing the newcomer and more sexy Mickey trying to steal one of Yorie’s regular clients – a violation of one the fundamental house norms.  This is one of the rather infrequent occasions where the separate story lines of five women happen to intersect.

Then the brothel proprietor Mr. Taya arrives and, in a two-minute shot, tries to rally all his working prostitutes concerning the national debate concerning the proposed law banning prostitution.  Yumeko voices one side of this long-standing debate by asking rhetorically, “what’s wrong with selling what you own?” 

Mr. Taya assures them all that he is their ally.  But a major problem for the women at the Dreamland Salon is that the brothel takes advantage of them and keeps them interminably in debt by issuing them short-term loans at exorbitant interest rates.  The crafty Yasumi does the same thing to the other women.

Later and separately the more pragmatic Hanae is shown trying to deal with her ill and suicidal husband.  Their destitution had once led them to consider a joint suicide, before Hanae decided to commit herself to life and support their family by becoming a prostitute.  After interrupting another of her husband’s suicide attempts on this occasion, she tells him,
“We’re not going to die, no matter what you say.  I’ll live to see . what will become of a prostitute. I’ll see it for myself.”
Afterwards, the emotionally exhausted Hanae comes back to the main salon, where Tatsuko complains to her,
“Can you not look so worn out?   You’re merchandise.”
Yorie, sick of the humiliation of being a prostitute is then encouraged by the other women to run away and marry her clog-maker fiancé.  They all throw a good-bye party for her and send her off to fulfill her dreams.

The guileless Yumeko goes back to the provincial home of her in-laws to visit her seldom-seen son, but discovers that he has moved to Tokyo and now has a job at a toy factory.  She wonders why he has not come to visit her and worries that he might be ashamed about her profession.

3.  Disappointing Outcomes
The women have their aspirations, but the final phase of the film shows that things can only get worse for all five of them.

  • Yorie soon returns to the brothel, having fled her failed marriage.  It seems that her husband only wanted a housemaid and a cheap laborer for his clog-making operation.
  • Mickey is visited by her father, who urges her to return home.  He tells her that her mother recently died and that he has taken a new wife.  But Mickey concludes that her father only wants her to return in order to uphold “face” for his business operations.  So she renounces him and throws him out the door.
  • Yumeko finally meets her son, but in an excellent 146-second shot, he tells her that she has humiliated him.  Then he renounces her and says he never wants to see her again.  So much for Yumeko’s long self-sacrificing efforts to financially support her son’s upbringing!  The disappointment for Yumeko is so great that she soon lapses into madness and has to be taken to an asylum.
  • Hanae learns from her dismal husband that they have been evicted from their flat, and so she now has to borrow more money to try to keep them going.
  • The crafty Yasumi, who has wangled large sums from would-be fiances by leading them on, is finally seriously beaten up by one of them.
In the end, though, Yasumi recovers from her injuries and turns out to be the only one to have enough money to leave the brothel.  By seductively swindling the owner of a futon shop, she takes it over and now has her own business. 

In the final shots Tatsuko is shown grooming and preparing an innocent newly recruited teenage virgin from the countryside for her new job as a prostitute.  Like all the other women, the new girl has been socially compelled into this role by her family’s indebtedness.  And so it goes.

As with all of Mizoguchi’s cinematic tales, the men depicted are self-centered and generally weak.  It is the women who make difficult decisions and take some action.  Here in this film they are shown to have chosen to sell their bodies and survive rather than to submit to some even more destructive practice such as ritual family suicide. 

Thus there is a certain ambivalence about prostitution in this story. Perhaps it is better regulated than left to operate in the criminal underworld.  It even seems to offer the women better options even than lifelong servitude to an unfeeling and exploitative husband.  Unfortunately, however, the only person who succeeds in this story is the equally exploitative Yasumi.

What was and is needed is not just external prohibitions, but some form of regulation from a compassionate perspective that can give people more wholesome options for autonomous engagement.

  1. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Akasen chitai/Street of Shame”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, XIX:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (29 September 2009).
  2. The conversion of the yen in terms of modern US dollars is about 13 yen to the dollar.

Lars von Trier

Films of Lars von Trier:
  • Europa (Zentropa) - Lars von Trier (1991) 

“Europa” - Lars von Trier (1991)

“For the first time, you experience the fear of being on a train . . .
 . . . with no possibility of getting off
 . . . and no idea where the journey may end.”
These words to the protagonist from the hypnotic voice of the narrator during Europa (aka  Zentropa, 1991) provide a clue as to why the film is so evocative of our darkest dreams.  The railroad train metaphor has been used by other cinematic masters, such as Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest), Josef von Sternberg (The Shanghai Express), Jean Renoir (La Bête Humaine), and Wim Wenders (The American Friend), but here in Europa the narrative poetics of the train ride reach their fullest expression. 

Directed and co-scripted by Lars von Trier, the film won three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but I would say it has not received its due recognition from the critical community [1].  Part of the reason for this general critical neglect may have been in reaction to the flamboyancy of both the film’s cinematics (it features a vast array of visual pyrotechnics) and its director (he added the ‘von’ to his name in emulation of Josef von Sternberg).  More specifically, complaints have focussed on Europa’s presumed overemphasis on retro-imagery and artificial technical effects (superpositions, distortion, back-projection, mixed black-and-white images with color, etc.) at the expense of a coherent narrative. In my mind, though, Europa, although not flawless, is still one of the all-time greatest cinematic dream rides, and as Leonard Maltin remarked "makes one feel privy to the reinvention of cinema" [2].

I am not going to go much into the technical effects here other than to remark that von Trier –  in collaboration with those who worked on the cinematography (by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski, and Jean-Paul Meurisse), music (by Joachim Holbek), and editing (by Hervé Schneid) – has effectively employed a number of effects to achieve a powerfully expressionistic atmosphere.  And in many respects this is what the film is all about. What we are immersed in when watching this film is an extended existential nightmare that is conjured up by these expressionistic effects.  In fact von Trier explicitly had Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika in mind, and the Europa title is an allusion to that work.  If you wonder whether Europa is a a horror film, a film noir, or a venture into expressionism or existentialism, the answer is – all of them.

One expressionistic effect that does merit explicit comment is the narration.  The narrator oversees the film’s action and serves as an ambiguously omnipotent inner voice speaking to us (and to the protagonist, with whom we are intended to identify).  The voice could be that of our father, or our inner conscience, or God, or Fate, or just that of the Eternal Mystery behind existence.  It is brilliantly presented by Max von Sydow, who somehow seems perfect for this role.

There are also spectacularly dramatic expressionistic camera angles and other effects throughout the film – sometimes showing things from Leo’s perspective and at other times looking down at him from the top, as if from the aerial point of view of the narrator puppet master.

As far as the story of Europa is concerned, I would say there is a compelling and coherent narrative.  The key to understanding the narrative is to have in mind five groupings depicted in the film:
  • Romantic Idealists.  These are people who believe in high principles and ennobled actions on behalf of the common good.  The embodiment here is the film’s protagonist, Leopold Kessler.
  • Legalists.  They are rule-obsessed pedants who see all of human existence only in terms of an endless set of dictums that must be strictly obeyed.  These sticklers reject the slightest variations from the established rules. An example is Leopold’s uncle.
  • Oligarchs. They are the privileged elites who invoke questionable notions of commitment, dignity, loyalty, and patriotism to justify their own empowerment and privileges. 
  • Opportunists.  They are people who are willing to cooperate but primarily see everything in selfish utilitarian terms. 
  • Nihilists. They are ruthless oppressors who seek the annihilation of those who oppose them.  Their primary emotion is hatred.  In school, these are the bullies.  In Europa, they are the Nazi “wervolves”.
No matter where in the world you may live, it seems that many a boy that first goes to school is the romantic idealist who must confront a social world made of the other four groupings.  And on a naive boy’s first encounter with these other types, it can be a nightmare. 

Note also that I offer the above grouping breakdown only as a guide, and the film’s narrative is not overtly organized according to the above schematic outline.

There are three main phases to the nightmare story of Europa.

1.  A New Job
The voiceover narrator intones sternly but soothingly,
“I shall now count from one to ten.  On the count of ten, you will be in Europa.”
 . . .
“You are in Germany.  The year is 1945."
Leopold Kessler (played by Jean-Marc Barr) is a young American of German descent who has come to Germany just after the end of the war in order to make a contribution to a war-ravaged society.  He was a pacifist during the war (we later learn he was charged with being AWOL), and now he wants to help make the world a better place – “it’s time someone showed this country a little kindness,” he says.  Clearly Leo is a romantic idealist, and in this section he encounters each of the other four social groupings separately.

Leo first meets his German uncle, who is a severe example of a legalist – he is a fussy stickler on everything.  But Uncle Kessler, who works for the Zentropa railway, gets Leo a job as an apprentice sleeping-car conductor and puts him straight to work.

Right away on the job he meets a wealthy passenger, Katharina Hauptmann (Barbara Sukowa), whose family owns the Zentropa railway.   While cordially conversing about Leo’s pacifism, they look out of their train car and see a number of corpses hanging from trees and identified as “werwolves”.  These are so-called “partisans”, who are actually part of a post-war underground group seeking to perpetuate Nazism (hence they are nihilists).

Later Leo is invited to a dinner party at the Hauptmann’s villa, where he meets Katharina’s father Max (Jørgen Reenberg), her brother, and a Catholic priest (Erik Mørk) who is a friend of the family.  Among these oligarchs, there is an interesting conversation.  The Catholic father talks about God rewarding those who fight for their country.  Leo akss what about those who fight for the other side?  How can God reward both sides?  And the priest assures him that God is on the side of all warring parties – He does not forgive those who remain lukewarm and who do not take sides.  This is the creed of the oligarchs.

Another friend of the Hauptmann family joins the party, Alex Harris (Eddie Constantine), who is a colonel in the Occupying US army.  The American military personnel in this film are opportunists.  For example, Alex takes Leo aside and whispers that he knows about his AWOL history, but he can overlook that if Leo will help him keep an eye out for werwolves that are threatening American-led reconstruction.

After the party Leo is back on the job and is fooled into allowing onto his sleeping car two very young boys who are brought by alleged friends of the Hauptmann family.  In fact, though, they are agents of werwolf terrorism, and they proceed to murder a newly appointed Jewish mayor who was a passenger on Leo’s sleeping car.

2.  Love
Now the interactions with the four groupings become more complicated.  We see Leo at a party with the Hauptmann entourage, as the camera voyeuristically circles completely around the dining table examining all the guests.  Katharina flirts with Leo and kisses him when noone is looking. 

Ever the opportunist, Colonel Alex wants to exploit the Zentropa railway for American-led economic reconstruction of Germany, so he needs to ensure that Max Hauptmann is not suspected of past Nazi affiliations.  To do this he coerces a Jewish peasant into testifying that Max helped him hide from the Nazis.  In fact, however, it was just the opposite – Max’s Zentropa railway was the primary conveyor of Jewish prisoners to the concentration/death camps.  The reminder of his culpability leads Max to commit suicide in his bathtub.  At the same time that evening, Katharina leads Leo to a hidden chamber in the family villa and confesses that she used to be a werwolf but has now reformed and regrets that part of her past.  Then she lies down in the bed and seduces him.

Later, after more bizarre encounters with legalist train conductors and oligarchs arranging a secret funeral to dignify the death of Max, Leo is brought before some werwolves and told that he must do another “job” for them (the first one was his unwitting cooperation with the boy assassins on his sleeping car).  He thinks of Katharina and her apparent vulnerability at the hands of the werwolves.  The mysterious internal and controlling voice soothingly speaks to him in almost a whisper:
“You love her. . . .She is so strong and yet so vulnerable. . . “
. . .
”I want you to go forward in time.  Go forward one month in time.  Be there on the count of three. . . “
It is now Christmas time in Munich, and Leo sees Katharina devoutly taking communion during a midnight mass.  On the street later, he approaches her.  She abruptly asks him to marry her, and he willingly accepts.  In short order they are married, have a honeymoon, and share marital bliss in a small apartment.

Clearly Katharina is an enigma.  She is an oligarch, apparently was a werwolf nihilist, and now joins Leo as a romantic.  These have the makings of a femme fatale.

3.  Convergence
In the final phase of the film, all the disparate social forces come together to hound Leo simultaneously.

Leo is grabbed by the werwolves and told that Katharina is their captive.  To save her life, he must plant a time-bomb on his sleeping car while it is passing over the Neuwied bridge, thereby killing everyone on board. 

As the train sets out on its fateful journey, Leo’s legalistic train-conductor examiners decide to conduct their on-sight qualification examination, thereby getting in the way of his concerns.  Colonel Alex is also onboard, further complicating things.  From his train-car window he sees  his beloved, the captive Katherina, calling out to him from another train car that momentarily moving on a parallel track.  She beseeches him to carry out the bombing instructions in order to save her.

Leo goes ahead and places the time-bomb under his sleeping car and jumps out off the train as it heads for the Neuwied bridge.  As he lies on the ground, he hears the voiceover of his inner consciousness speak to him,
“You have carried out the orders.  Now relax. . . . “
But then the voice shifts course and reminds him that what he has just done is not true to who he is  – he must run back to the slowly moving train and deactivate the bomb. This sets the stage for the final dramatic sequences which you must see for yourself.

Throughout most of Europa, Leo Kessler is the naive and manipulated idealist, victimized by more assertive personalities and social forces around him. When the world finally implodes around him near the end of the film, he does blow his stack and finally takes over. 

But the world is not always simply there for the taking.  There are sometimes complexities which we cannot master.  Katharina, for example, embodies our true understanding of a werwolf.  By day she is a normal, loving daughter and wife; but in the night she becomes a savage animal.  There is nothing Leopold Kessler can do about that. 

In the end, the voiceover narrator resignedly intones,
“Follow the river
 As days go by.  
 Head for the ocean
 That mirrors the sky.”   
 . . . .
“You want to wake up . . . to free yourself of the image of Europa.   But it is not possible.”
  1. There is, however, a noteworthy exception.  See  
  2. Leonard Maltin (ed.), Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, (2010), Plume (Penguin), p. 1586.

“United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost” - Martin Smith (2014)

United States of Secrets comprises two linked, but separate, documentary films produced for the US Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline program and aired in May 2014.  I have earlier reviewed the first installment, Michael Kirk’s United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program; and the present article reviews the subsequent and shorter film, United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost, which was produced and written by Martin Smith.  Although it can help to have seen Part One, the Part Two under discussion here can stand on its own.

The subject matter in both films revolves around the concerns that were aroused when top-secret documents of the US National Security Agency (NSA) were leaked in 2013 revealing the extent of the agency’s massive surveillance of its own citizenry.  The agent behind these links, of course, was Edward Snowden, and there have been several films made that have covered the story from that angle, including Citizenfour (2014), directed by Laura Poitras, and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015), directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth.  United States of Secrets, though, is not about Snowden; it is about what Snowden revealed: the increasingly perilous state of privacy in our modern world. 

In many ways that is where our focus and concerns should lie, and that’s what Snowden wanted, too.  He didn’t want himself or his fugitive status to overshadow the real issue: the nature and extent of the NSA’s surveillance.  So United States of Secrets examines
  • in Part One: how two US Presidential administrations (those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama) both (a) authorized massive NSA surveillance and (b) strenuously bullied whistle-blowers and hid the surveillance activities from public scrutiny, and
  • in Part Two: just what it is that the NSA is doing and how does it work [1].
In fact when it comes down to it, Part Two is really about the most important stuff.  Even though there may be technical complications difficult for the ordinary viewer to at first understand in connection with this side of the story, there are important implications about the NSA’s activities that directly affect even the most mundane circumstances of everyone.  So we all need to learn about this material in Part Two and make public decisions about it.  Unfortunately, Part Two doesn’t grab the viewer like the other mentioned NSA surveillance films, and that is primarily due to its lack of a gripping narrative.

All presentations, whether in public or via the media, need to be cast in terms of a narrative(s).  It is in terms of narratives that we best remember the ideas and arguments.  That is why religions almost always present their moral and spiritual messages in terms of memorable narratives.  And political messages are also often understood in terms of narratives – in the US, for example, people usually think of their guiding governmental principles in terms of the narratives about the Founding Fathers. 

In connection with the particular issues at hand  – government surveillance and the loss of privacy – there are some human narratives that have been leveraged in the other films:
  • The Edward Snowden Story.  How a lone operative managed to convey top-secret documents to international journalists and then get away from a massive governmental pursuit.  This is the story of Citizenfour and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden.
  • Stories about Governmental Whistle-blowers.  The accounts of frustrated professionals inside the US government – Diane Roark, William Binney, Thomas Drake, Thomas Tamm, and Jake Goldsmith – provide the narrative traction for United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program.
However, in United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost there are no analogous accounts that can provide that kind of narrative backbone.  For that, we probably need something like what George Orwell did in his 1984.  It is true that there are brief personal narratives about  Mark Klein and Nick Merrill (see below), but the technical details are what are important  in those cases, and those are not intrinsic to the mini-narratives presented.

Nevertheless, Part Two does cover a number of important aspects of NSA surveillance that came to light as a result of Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

After a brief background overview about Edward Snowden’s disclosures of US government surveillance overreach to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in June 2013, the focus moves to one of the first items that was published – an article about the PRISM surveillance program that appeared in the Washington Post.  PRISM collects massive amounts of user data (both metadata and content) from at least 9 major Internet companies (including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Paltalk,  Youtube, AOL, Skype, and Apple) [2].  The news caused an immediate uproar, and President Obama quickly appointed a panel to investigate the legality of this and similar programs.

Interestingly, many of the disclosed companies issued statements angrily rejecting the idea that they would turn over user data to the NSA.  Evidently they were denying the truth. 

When Snowden in Hong Kong watched Obama on TV denying the extent of PRISM’s surveillance, he realized the President’s were a total misrepresentation, and he decided to come out and reveal his identity.  Snowden immediately had to go underground, and soon managed to head out on a jet that would stop over (and where he would be stranded) in Moscow.

The next topic of interest is MUSCULAR, the NSA code name for a program to secretly extract data from fiber-optic cables that provided private data links inside the operations of Yahoo and Google. Google was shocked at the news; they thought they had been leasing secure data lines (but why wasn’t Google bothering to encrypt its internal data transfers? – at least now they know better).

MUSCULAR is a joint program run by the NSA and The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ – Britain’s equivalent of the NSA).  Unlike the PRISM program, MUSCULAR surveillance does not require a warrant, not even the rather dodgy warrants afforded by FISA courts.

In connection with this kind of massive data collection, the film discusses how a technician at  AT&T in San Francisco discovered that the NSA was splitting off and spying on all data that passed through their San Francisco node.  Fearful for his own job security, the technician, Mark Klein, remained silent for a couple of years, but went public when he read a New York Times  article about unauthorized NSA surveillance in 2005.

But the big Telcos seemed oblivious to public concerns.  The film shows AT&T chairman Edward Whitacre, Jr., obstinately refusing to answer questions posed to him at a Congressional hearing and only repeating over and over that his company does not break the law.

3.  National Security Letters
Then the coverage moves to National Security Letters (NSL), which are administrative subpoenas usually issued by the FBI to a company demanding that they turn over vast amounts of sensitive data.  These NSLs usually include a gag order that prevents the recipient from even disclosing to anyone that they had received a NSL.  These letters are not court orders and are not reviewed by any court.  They are simply demands made by any FBI office, and they cannot be challenged or even disclosed. 

Naturally there have been doubts raised concerning the Constitutionality of NSLs, but the recipients have usually been so intimidated by the gag orders that such letters never came before public attention.  In 2004, alone, we are informed that 56,000 NSLs were issued.  Finally the CEO of an Internet company, Nick Merrill, filed a lawsuit in 2004 about the gag order of a NSL that he received.  After a lengthy legal process, an appeals court ruled that the NSL was unconstitutional, and the FBI withdrew the letter.  Even so, the litigation proceeded slowly, and it was only last week that Merrill was legally allowed to reveal the contents of the NSL he had received more than a decade earlier [3].

4.  The Internet Companies’ Own Surveillance

Finally we come to the important topic of the for-profit surveillance activities that the Internet companies are doing on their own.  This is surveillance on a vast scale, because Internet companies like Facebook and Google can collect so much information about you in two ways:
  • Metadata.  By means of metadata, they can track where you go and all the transactions you undertake.
  • Content.  By combining the collected metadata with message, voice, and visual content, they can track your intentions and come to conclusions about the narratives in which you are engaged.
This is accomplished by making statistical correlations with all the content and metadata they have collected from hundreds of millions other people. 

It is natural for the NSA to ask: if those companies can do that for profit, why can’t we do the same thing to save lives?  In fact the NSA has gone ahead and piggybacked off the Internet companies’ surveillance by looking at cookies that are deposited on everyone’s computers when they browse the Web [4].
In the end we are left wondering what should be done. In the other films about NSA surveillance mentioned above, the viewer is informed of government lawbreaking, particularly in the panicked period just after 911.  But under the Presidency of Barack Obama, the “Lawyer-in-Chief”, efforts have been made to ensure that what the government is doing is technically legal.  But the same old intrusive, privacy-diminishing activities have been ongoing nonetheless.  Nothing has changed under Obama except attendance to the legal niceties [5,6].  There is still the basic problem of privacy and how to preserve it. 

It is not just that we have more questions than answers; we don’t even know enough to ask the right questions.  As The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman says at the film’s close,
“We can’t hold our government accountable, because we truly don’t know what it is doing.”

  1. Corey Adwar, “Briefing: Here's The Most Surprising Revelation From An Eye-Opening Documentary On NSA Spying”, Business Insider, Australia, (16 May 2014).
  2.  “PRISM (surveillance program)”, Wikipedia. (accessed 2 Decebmer 2015).
  3. "Following Major First Amendment Victory, National Security Letter Recipient Nicholas Merrill Able to Reveal Previously Undisclosed Scope of FBI Warrantees Surveillance Tool"Information Society Project, Yale University, (30 November 2015).
  4. Ashkan Soltani, Andrea Peterson, and Barton Gellman, “NSA uses Google Cookies to Pinpoint Targets for Hacking”, The Washington Post, (10 December 2013).
  5. Charlie Savage, “Barack Obama, Lawyer-in-Chief”, Politico Magazine, (9 November 2015).
  6. Glenn Greenwald, “TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Charlie Savage on Obama's War on Terror Legacy”, The Intercept_, (11 November 2015).

“United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program” - Michael Kirk (2014)

The US government’s current massive collection and monitoring of everyone’s communications, first revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden in June 2013,  is the subject of the fascinating two-part documentary, United States of Secrets.  Produced as part of the US Public Broadcasting Service‘s Frontline program and aired in May 2014,  the two parts are really two separate films:
They look behind the scenes at how the US government engages in massive, indiscriminate surveillance and how it has tried to suppress information from coming out about these activities.  The review presented here covers the first of the above two films, which specifically concerns the super-secret surveillance project that was known inside the US National Security Administration (NSA) as “The Program”.

As I have described earlier, there are at least three different and equally important angles from which we can view the amazing revelations of Edward Snowden:

  1. One angle is the story of how the lone 29-year-old Ed Snowden (a) managed to make a large number of secret documents about the NSA’s unlawful surveillance activities available to journalists (so that significant portions of these documents could be made available to the wider public) and (b) how Snowden managed to escape capture from his vindictive US government pursuers.  This is Snowden’s story, and it is well-covered in two recent documentary films: Citizenfour (2014), directed by Laura Poitras, and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015), directed by John Goetz and Poul-Erik Heilbuth.
  2. Another angle of the story concerns the very nature of mass surveillance and how massive collections and correlations of communication content and metadata pose a threat to privacy and the proper functioning of a free society.  This is briefly covered in all the films I have mentioned so far, but the interested reader might also wish to consult Bruce Schneier’s book, Data and Goliath, for more detailed discussion [1].
  3. A third angle on this overall theme concerns the efforts on the part of intelligence operatives and senior officials inside the US government to subvert legal safeguards in order to install what were essentially illegal surveillance activities.  This is what is primarily covered in the film under discussion here: United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program.
In order to appreciate this latter film, though, one needs to have some acquaintance with the tripartite structure of the US government.  The founders of the US republic who framed the US Constitution were inspired by 18th century French legal scholar Montesquieu to establish three quasi-independent branches of the new American government:
  • Legislative.  This is a parliamentary body of democratically elected representatives that establishes the laws of the country, allocates how taxed money is spent, and has the exclusive power of declaring war.
  • Executive.  This is headed by the President,  and it executes the laws that have been created by the Legislature.  The Executive branch essentially carries out the day-to-day administration of the government, including the operation of the military.  It can also prosecute law violators (through its Department of Justice) and establish foreign treaties (through its State Department).
  • Judicial. This branch interprets and adjudicates the degree to which the laws are in conformance with the Constitution. 
This structure is set up so that there are “checks and balances” across the three branches – each branch has some authority over the other two branches:
  • The Executive branch may veto laws.  It also appoints the justices of the Supreme Court (of the Judicial branch).
  • The Legislative branch may override Executive vetoes, may impeach the president, and must approve treaties and presidential appointments.
  • The Judicial branch can judge both laws created by the Legislative branch and actions undertaken by the Executive branch to be in violation of the Constitution (and hence unlawful).
So even though the US President has enormous powers, he or she must act in conformance with the oversight of the other two branches.  This is where United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program is interesting (although some of the subtleties of the US government’s tripartite checks and balances may be lost on some viewers).  Essentially, this film reveals how  two US presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) tried to install activities that were seen by some people in the government to be in violation of US laws.  In particular, such actions were seen to be in violation of the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights that dates back to 1791), which reads [2]:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
In other words, it is illegal to conduct massive, indiscriminate surveillance. The government must secure specific warrants from the Judicial branch to carry out surveillance.  This Constitutional provision has been significantly modified by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which was an attempt to provide more Judicial and Congressional oversight of the Executive branch’s covert surveillance activities after US administrative government excesses during the Nixon administration came to light.  Since the 911 events, the FISA act, itself, has been modified several times.  An important  mechanism created by the FISA act is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which hears evidence provided in secret by the Executive branch’s Department of Justice requesting FBI surveillance authorization.  The judges of the FISC are appointed by the Judicial branch (the US Chief Justice).  However, there is no adversarial debate before the FISC justice, so how can a balanced judgement be rendered [3]?  All in all, the FISA Court strikes me as a legal artifice to get around true Judicial oversight of the Executive branch.

The film as presented is largely a textual narrative account that is told by some of the key participants, both significant insiders and reporters.  Among the government operatives who are given ample testimonial opportunities are
  • Alberto Gonzales, a former Attorney General;
  • Michael Hayden, a former director of both the NSA and the CIA;
  • NSA security specialists William Binney, Thomas Drake, Edward Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe, all of whom came to doubt the legality of what their own organization was doing,
  • Administrative lawyers Jack Goldsmith and Thomas Mann;
  • Diane Roark, a Congressional attorney in charge of oversight of the NSA
Key reporters involved in getting the original story out and who testify here include
  • Barton Gellman of The Washington Post
  • Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Luke Harding of The Guardian
  • Jane Mayer of The New Yorker
  • Siobhan Gorman of The Baltimore Sun
  • James Risen, Eric Lichtblau, and Bill Keller of The New York Times
  • Interestingly, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was a key figure in the original interactions with Snowden, is not shown in the United States of Secrets films, nor did she appear in Terminal F.  This seems to be in keeping with Poitras’s cinema verite aesthetics, according to which the reporter’s subjective persona is removed so that the objective reality of what is portrayed can come forth.
All this textual testimony is artfully mixed with evocative imagery in order to lessen the repetitiveness of a “talking head” presentation.

The story of United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program has four threads to it as it gives an account of NSA surveillance overreach.

1.  The Outer Story – Edward Snowden’s Revelations
The film’s first ten minutes or so detail how, starting in December 2012, NSA security contractor Ed Snowden initially contacted Glenn Greenwald, and then Laura Poitras and Barton Gellman in his hopes of secretly leaking the NSA’s wrongdoings. Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill went ahead and secretly met with Snowden in Hong Kong in June 2013; and the big news story came out.

The rest of the film is essentially a flashback account of the events that led up to Snowden’s revelations.

2.  Concern Inside the NSA
A signal event, of course, was what happened on September 11, 2001 (911), which sent the US intelligence community into a state of shock.  Veteran NSA cryptologists Binney, Loomis, and Wiebe felt that an existing NSA program that they had worked on known as ThinThread could have been used to gather foreign intelligence that might have helped to head off the 911 attacks.  ThinThread had built-in anonymizing provisions that protected privacy, so they felt it adhered to US laws.  Shortly after 911, though, they learned that a new NSA project had been launched, which they were not a part of, that was variously called “Stellar Wind” and “The Program”.  This new program used ThinThread at its core  – but with its privacy protections stripped out.  When their internal protests were ignored, they all resigned from the NSA in October 2001.

William Binney approached Congressional attorney Diane Roark about “The Program”, and she was appalled by what she heard.  Roark goes in protest to Michael Hayden, who assures her that “The Program” is legal because it has been authorized by Presidential fiat.  Legislative oversight of the Executive branch was dismissed out of hand.

Another key figure, Thomas Drake, was a newer NSA employee who came on the scene just after 911.  He was also upset when he learned about “The Program”, but he was rebuffed when he expressed his concerns. When he writes a letter to NSA director Keith Alexander about it, he finds himself stripped of his authority and left as just a placeholder. 

3. Concern Inside the Department of Justice
Meanwhile there are people inside the Department of Justice (DOJ) worried about the legality of “The Program”.  Although they and other legal professionals work inside the Executive branch, they are specialists in defending the legality of Executive branch activities.  Here the story casts its focus on Thomas Tamm, who was working with the FISA court, and his discovery that “The Program” was spying without first securing FISA warrants.

Also James Comey, who was working as a key assistant to Attorney General John Ashcroft, came to believe that “The Program’s” activities were illegal.  Comey, and then Ashcroft, refused to give their DOJ authorization for continuance of “The Program”.  So Vice President Dick Cheney then convinced President George W. Bush to simply authorize “The Program” without DOJ approval.  Bush even went on TV and misrepresented its activities, assuring the public that the government always gets warrants before spying.  When this happened, many top-level DOJ staff members threatened to resign (including Goldsmith and Comey).  To head off a pubic-relations disaster, Michael Hayden managed to talk a FISA justice into giving her authorization to “The Program”.

Thomas Tamm meanwhile anonymously contacts The New York Times about what is going on.   When The New York Times warns the government that they are about to publish on this issue, Bush and Hayden summon publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller and threaten them.  They cave in and withdraw the story [4].

However, New York Times journalist James Risen decides to go ahead and publish what he knows independently in a book.  So, after a lengthy delay, the waffling New York Times does go ahead and publish some revelatory material authored by Risen and Lichtblau.  Again there is a public uproar, and George Bush goes on TV and admits that “The Program” exists and that it is needed.  But he still effectively misrepresented what was going on by making no reference to “The Program’s” mass, indiscriminate collection of domestic data.

About this time Thomas Drake leaked some unclassified information to the Baltimore Sun.  So Dick Cheney finally ordered the FBI to crack down on suspected leakers.  In 2007 the FBI, with guns menacingly drawn, conducted early morning raids on the homes of Binney, Wiebe, Loomis, and even Diane Roark.  They confiscated their computers and personal documents. 

Shortly thereafter Drake wass also raided by a dozen FBI agents.  Although they could not prove that he leaked any classified material, they ded find a classified document on his computer and proceedws to charge with him a felony under the Espionage Act with a potential jail term of 35 years [5]. 

4.  The Continuation Under Obama
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 gives the ThinThread team (Binney, Wiebe, Loomis, Roark, and Drake) some hope.  But, disturbingly, even before the Presidential election, Senator Obama chose to vote for alterations to the FISA law authorizing additional government surveillance powers.  And once in office, Obama’s legal team, led by Eric Holder, investigated those earlier punitive FBI leak-snuffing investigations, but has done nothing to stop the prosecutions.

It is later discovered that the document found on Drake’s computer was classified secret only after the FBI raided his home.  This idea of arresting a person first and then looking around for a reason to place criminal charges is something we hear about in autocracies like China [6] and Iran, but not commonly in countries that are supposed to recognize freedom or privacy.  The government’s case against Drake eventually fell apart (but only after the three-year legal ordeal  damaged Drake’s personal life and left him impoverished).  After all this he is eventually ruled only to pay a $25 fine and perform a year of community service.

Unfortunately, encouraging people to be afraid of potential terrorist acts so that they will endorse punitive wars and acquiesce to the diminution of their rights seems to be the favored political tactic these days [7].  An apocalypse is always claimed to be just around the corner, and the "Commander-in-Chief", leading the Executive branch, increasingly claims unrestricted powers to invade your privacy in order to "protect the American people".  And in support of this trend, almost everyone seems to concede that there must be a strict tradeoff between liberty and security.  The more you have of one, they say, the less you can have of the other.  But such a claim is not always borne out by the facts.  Consider the fact that China, Russia, and Iran are all autocracies with severe limitations on personal freedom and privacy – and they are all still frequently beset with terrorist acts.

Meanwhile “The Program” continues to grow, and the "checks and balances" continue to shrink.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program shows how we are allowing it to go on.

  1. Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, (2015), W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. The U.S. Constitution.
  3. Stepen Braun, "Former Judge Admits Flaws in Secret Court", Yahoo News, (9 July 2013).
  4. Edward Snowden was allegedly mistrustful of The New York Times; and given Bill Keller’s past support of US military intervention, it is not surprising that Snowden passed over Keller’s paper and chose The Guardian and The Washington Post to be his conduits to the public.
  5. Jane Mayer, “The Secret Sharer”, The New Yorker, (23 May 2011).
  6. Perry Link, “China: Inventing a Crime”, The New York Review of Books, (9 February 2015).
  7. Glenn Greenwald, “For Terrorist Fearmongers, It’s Always the Scariest Time Ever”, The Intercept, (2 June 2015).