White, Red and Topkapi

Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story, Michael Haneke, 2009)

Topkapi (Julius Dassin, 1964)

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018)

The White Ribbon has the same slightly frustrating and unnerving feel as Happy End, this time set in Germany (or possibly Austria) in the year leading up to World War One. An unnamed teacher (played by Christian Friedel) narrates (Ernst Jacobi) his memory of a time in a small village, where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) fills the children with fears of sin and damnation, forcing the guilty parties (including his own children) to wear white ribbons as a symbol of wrongdoing. This seems to invite wrongdoing — an attempt to kill the doctor, vandalism, masturbation, violent revenge — and presumably is building a narrative that will lead to the Second World War. The right people aren’t necessarily punished.

Meanwhile, Topkapi is a much lighter confection — for which Peter Ustinov won his second Academy Award. Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) hatch a plan to steal a treasure from a museum in Istanbul. Simpson (Ustinov) is meant to be a patsy, but gets recruited into the scheme. There’s some odd fourth wall breaking, especially at the beginning, and Mercouri, presumbaly not acting in her own language, can’t quite carry the film. Schell, meanwhile, is handsome in a way I’d never noticed before, knowing him better for The Black Hole (1979). But Ustinov steals every scene he is in and the whole thing is almost a dry run for The Italian Job, with a less clever ending. I really ought to read Eric Ambler one of these days.

I watched Topkapi knowing nothing about it — it popped up on BBC iPlayer. This led me to Red Joan, which takes the real story of the exposure of an old woman, Melita Norwood, as a Soviet spy. Here she is Joan Smith (Judi Dench), initially defended by her son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles, who I keep confusing with Ben Miller), arrested for sixty years earlier leaking of atomic secrets and occasionally has to look like she has indigestion so we can flashback to 1949 and Sophie Cookson being Young Joan. The politics is frankly botched and the sexism of the the 1940s is a little underplayed. Dench is always worth watching — and Iris did a more interesting double casting and flashback (although Kate Winslet was still less interesting). 

Publication: Chapter on District 9, Race and Racism

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

There is a moment in a review of District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) when Joshua Clover anticipates that the film will be ‘a neat allegory of apartheid, with the marooned race of repulsive and sad-sack aliens standing for the dispossessed’ (2009: 8). Similarly, Eric D. Smith suggests that the film ‘at first seem[s] an allegory for the suspension of constitutional law during the officially declared South African State of Emergency in the latter days of apartheid policy (1985-1990)’ (2012: 149). In this essay I want to map District 9’s representation of inter-species hybrids within the complex situation of apartheid-era South African interracial relations and discuss some of the issues surrounding science fiction as allegory. I will consider “race” as being an ideological category and, following Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, a psychological construction that nevertheless has a material existence. I will be posing the question of to what extent District 9 is itself racist.

Alien Imaginations Cover

Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl and Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury)

I got home from Eastbourne on Friday to find a package that I took to be some medium-awaited DVDs but was in fact a copy of Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl, Graeme Stout (eds) (2015) Alien Imaginations Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism (London: Bloomsbury). I have a chapter in it called “Human Subjects/Alien Objects? Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9“, which began from the sense that there was something racist at the heart of District 9 — the dangers of using aliens as metaphors for racial difference, made more problematic by the representation (with subtitles) of Nigerians. There’s an interesting couple of paragraphs in Adilifu Nama’s Black Space when he argues:

At its best, SF cinema is an allegorical site that invites the audience to safely examine and reflect on long-standing social issues in an unfamiliar setting, providing the possibility of viewing them in a new light.
At its worst, the process of allegorical displacement invites audiences to affirm racist ideas, confirm racial fears, and reinforce dubious generalizations about race […] without employing overt racial language or explicit imagery.

It’s a dangerous ploy. The episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Angel One” (25 January 1988)) that used gender to explore Apartheid is a case in point. Ouchy.

There was a point in writing this chapter where I hit a wall and needed something more — I confess to reading the chapter on race in Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction (2000) and the light dawned. I typed a keyword into the library catalogue and two articles on District 9 were the top results. I swear they had not been visible before. From there, thankfully, it flowed.

Oddly enough, on the train journey to and from Eastbourne I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), which is, among other things, a response to District 9 from a Nigerian perspective. I shan’t blog about the novel for now, but I know I will come back to it. Another chapter in the collection, I think Bianca Westermann’s “Meeting the Other: Cyborgs, Aliens & Beyond”, also discusses District 9 and comes to different conclusions, so I will be very interested to read that.