The Rear-View Mirror: Shadow of the Colossus and Psychonauts (2005)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Video games are the cosplayers of modern media. They like to dress up as other media, in particular movies and comic books. Look at the biggest-selling games of almost any year and you’re likely to see games dressed up as Michael Bay movies or as the latest Marvel extravaganza. In some ways early video games had more of a unique voice, not least aesthetically, because when you’ve got pixels the size of pomegranates and harsh bleeps and bloops it’s futile to try and look like a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick. There was an abstraction to the classics, the Space Invaders and Pac-Men of yore, that came with technical limitations. At least since the modern days of real-time 3D graphics, and especially in the last ten years, video games have come to look less and less like abstract art and more like what we see at the cinema, a big bucket of popcorn in our lap.

Space Invaders
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Nazis. I hate these guys.

In the meantime, we’ve finished watching Band of Brothers. Since I’d avoided it at the time, thinking that it would probably be Saving Private Ryan extended over 10 hours (due to Spielberg and Hanks’ involvement), I must say that I am positively surprised and very impressed. Yes, there was some pathos and sentimentality, but these need not be bad. The series does try to give an impression of what it was like for the soldiers, and there is room for these emotions. It’s silly and not a little arrogant to condemn all instances of sentimentality in war-related films, series and books, as some European critics would seem to do.

Clearly, the winning countries would seem to be more comfortable with war nostalgia, and at its most extreme I do find it rather distasteful – and dishonest. Rhetorics of “honour”, which usually go along with war sentimentality and nostalgia, so often gets in the way of an honest, complex discussion that addresses the darker aspects of the winning side’s engagement as well.

This is one thing that Band of Brothers does really well. Especially the last episode makes it clear that, yes, there is heroism in the men who fought, but that doesn’t make them infallible good guys. You get Liebgott going off on vigilante missions, shooting the people suspected of having been involved in the running of concentration camps. You understand his anger and hatred, clearly, but even Webster (whose occasional glee at killing ze Germans has been chilling at times) can’t bring himself to go along with Liebgott’s making himself into judge, jury and executioner.

At this point, after the German army has surrendered, many of the men have become their own worst enemy. But then, throughout the series, the Germans as such haven’t really been the enemy. The soldiers on the other side of the line – the people who will kill you if you don’t kill them (and it’s the same for them) – are the enemy. The sheer randomness of artillery fire, explosions, whizzing bullets is the enemy. Bad commanding officers, bitter cold, gangrene – those are the enemies. In that respect, the series has been consistent in providing the perspective of the men fighting – a perspective curiously, at times uncomfortably unaware of the larger context.

Which is why the ninth episode, “Why we fight”, was so important and so uncomfortable. It’d be too reductive to call it “the concentration camp episode” (echoes of “They call me Concentration Camp Erhardt!”, but that might just be me). It’s the episode that addresses the Germans’ culpability, the way none of the civilians, when facing the soldiers, seem to have been Nazis or Nazi sympathiser. They all claim to be innocent bystanders. But faced with the incomprehensible horror the American soldiers find when they happen upon a work camp (not even one of the more gruesome concentration camps), it’s difficult to swallow that line of “It wasn’t us, it was the others, the bad Germans, and anyway, we’re as much victims as them!”

What made the episode, and the series, for me is how Band of Brothers very rarely makes explicit comments and judgements. It leaves that to the viewers. In the last scene of “Why we fight”, as Nixon watches the German civilians bury the decaying corpses (some of the Germans clearly physically sick, others crying – some still children, some too old to have done anything much) , he sees the proud, if not even arrogant elderly woman he’d happened upon earlier. There’s defiance in her face as she looks back at him. Does she judge him for this collective punishment? Is she telling him, “Yes, I accept our culpability. Would you do the same?” Is she simply showing him that she – and by extension, Germany – can’t be broken? Or perhaps a combination of all of these? We don’t know, Nixon doesn’t know, perhaps she doesn’t even know.

The last episode has a similar moment – not quite as strong perhaps and rather simpler in terms of good/bad/right/wrong, but still very effective. The US soldiers watch as a German general addresses his troops. The general’s demeanour is arrogant, yet what he tells his men (in German, translated by Liebgott) strikes a chord in the paratroopers: “Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

Out of context, the speech may come across as “Yeah, we know, yadda yadda, blah blah”. Within the episode, and coming at the end of ten episodes, it works – and it is interesting that it was put in the mouth of a German general, speaking to his soldiers. At first this way of melding the two sides – Allies, Axis – felt uncomfortably apolitical to me, but I’ve accepted that the series chose to represent the perspective of the fighting men, and that perspective is different from that of the history graduate looking over from a comfortable distance of fifty years.

I’m very curious about the follow-up project that HBO is working on now, covering the war in the Pacific. I remember many of the (sometimes angry) reviews of Letters from Iwo Jima, denouncing Eastwood’s inadequate relativism (see for instance the review). But the discussion of why it’s worse to humanise the Japanese soldiers than the Germans will have to wait for another time. Otherwise we’ll still be here by tomorrow…

P.S.: I apologise for the lack of photos – there simply don’t seem to be any good pictures of the last two episodes to be found, and I didn’t have time to make screen captures. If I get around to writing a short review of Iron Man, though, there’ll be pics and videos. Yay!

Airborne, tumbling down…

I resisted watching Band of Brothers for a long time, just as I still haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan and am not planning to do so any time soon. While I acknowledge Spielberg’s skills as a director, I tend to mind those films of his that purport to be “important”, because usually he mistakes pathos for importance. (I’m excluding Schindler’s List from this, though.) Band of Brothers came out in the wake of Spielberg’s Omaha Beach Party, and I assumed that it would be more American WW2 pathos.

When we watched the first episode, I was afraid that my expectations would be proven true. The main theme of the series, without the context of the actual episodes, dripped with solemn, righteous pathos, like a particularly constipated John Williams on Fourth of July. The episode itself neither confirmed or rebutted my fears, though: it concentrated on the battalion’s training in England, so there was little space for outright heroism. The episode was interesting enough, although it was hampered a bit by casting David Schwimmer as a bullying instructor. Schwimmer did a good job, but it’s more or less impossible to look at him without thinking “Ross! From Friends! and wanting to smack him in the gob.


It was only in the second episode, “Day of Days”, that I came to realise that my fears were unfounded. Yes, there may still be lots of soldierly pathos in the remaining eight episodes, but there was little to none of that here. It’s extremely difficult for a war movie – even for a supposed anti-war movie – not to make scenes of warfare exciting, so the implication is “War is hell… but it’s a bloody adventure, innit?” Instead, the first scenes we get of the characters involved in an actual battle is them sitting in the planes, waiting for the jump, as flak fire shoots several planes to bits. The soldiers are powerless, and whether they live or die isn’t down to their heroism but rather to sheer luck.

We were eating lunch when we started watching the episode, but both of us stopped digging into our sandwiches pretty soon as horrible, frightening, saddening things started to happen on the screen: as a plane went up in flames, and you saw little human specks on fire tumbling from the conflagration to fall to their death. The surviving soldiers’ first direct encounter with the enemy was no more heroic, as they shot a group of Germans on a horse cart from the safety of an ambush, riddling the horses as much as the enemy troops with gunfire. At this point, you got the impression, wartime reality for these men was probably not that different from that of the German soldiers: you point your gun at the guys in differently coloured uniforms and you hope that they die before you do.

This impression that even the Good Fight is a pretty crappy fight became even stronger when Sgt. Malarkey gets to talk to a prisoner of war, a German-American born in the States whose parents decided to move back to the Fatherland. Just after he stops chatting to the young man who, but for the accident of family might have been wearing the same uniform as him, all the POWs are rounded up and shot. Can’t waste time and men on protecting these prisoners.

Right now I’m impressed at the lack of “Rah, rah, Allied Forces!” pathos and very curious as to how the series will continue. After a pretty gut-wrenching second episode, will it be able to maintain this level of intensity?

And, perhaps more importantly, will I manage to remember the names of all the soldiers (looking so similar under their over-sized helmets, where you haven’t even got hair colour to go on) before we get to the end?

P.S.: Talking of distracting cameos by TV comedians – there was this little guy in one of the scenes in the first episode, and I thought, “Man, he looks just like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead… but it can’t be him, because why would they want to cast a Brit for an American?” Well, turns out that Simon Pegg is far from the only Brit playing a US soldier in Band of Brothers. Is this payback for all of those villainous Germans played by British actors?