Leonardo da Vinci mastered the technique of sfumato. In simple terms this is the blurring of outlines – to most accurately represent how we see. “Between light and darkness there is infinite variation, because their quantity is continuous…The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object – it occupies no space.” The ‘enigma’ that is the Mona Lisa was carefully crafted by Leonardo as an ‘effect’. Here, above all, lies the animosity between him and Michelangelo whose own paintings were influenced by his much-preferred sculpture – with sharp outlines signifying solid substance and certainty of form Both were masters of narrative humanism and engrossed with how we represent nuance. Each in their own way pioneered exploration of how the eye both sees and interprets. But it was sfumato that allowed art to truly represent the struggle we have to delineate, to discern the inner qualities of who we are. Uncertainty and ambiguity lay at the heart of Leonardo’s precision in representing humanity.
In 1964 a film was produced by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, It Happened Here. The Nazi regime had conquered Britain. The film explored the implications and the impact on all ways of life. Given military pressures on the East, Germany could not afford anything but a small holding force in Britain. Echoing what has since been discovered from the archives of the SS, the Nazi Secret Police, few German officers were required to impose a regime of control and terror. The task could safely be left to local people. So was the case in It Happened Here.
The main thrust of the film was the ease with which a class of people emerged willing to take on the National Socialist project and to exert control on behalf of the Third Reich. The theme was, more precisely, ‘It Could (easily) Have Happened Here’. It is chilling to watch the movie and to feel so little resistance to the idea of England embracing the Fascist ideology and pursuing their ethnic cleansing project against Jews, Gypsies, gays and others. We see the power of the simple idea, of drawing sharp outlines distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’. The movie is about us – it questions deeply who we are – and might be.
On its release, the film was accused of anti-semitism and a segment of it was censored. That segment has been restored for a modern re-release of this outstanding piece of cinema (which, in terms of cinematography, owes a great debt to Orson Welles, a subject of more than one of my, these Blogs). How, why so? From where come the accusations of anti-semitism against a movie so clearly and explicitly framed as a warning against the awful consequences of prejudice and arrogance?
The makers of the film, Brownlow and Mollo, explain how they wrote the screenplay – those parts dealing with, for example, Nazi treatment of the Jews. They tried writing dialogue, but quickly discovered that to write dialogue that promotes genocide with authenticity one had to know and believe the words and where they come from. So they interviewed ex-Nazis and used their utterances as text for the film. The result is jarringly powerful.
Accusations of anti-semitism were focused on the fact that the film offered no opposing voice to these racist statements. In fact, there is the voice of a doctor who is part of the resistance movement, but that is the voice of Humanist reason, saturated with dismay and moral apprehension – it is not the oppositional voice that was demanded. It was a voice of sfumato, a voice of uncertain reason. Brownlow and Mollo responded, to little effect, that they chose strategically to leave the Nazi voice to condemn itself for the insane contempt it so clearly is.
And so the film does. But it does so in a world of nuance and tonality. The cinematography does not try to persuade us into these prejudicial beliefs, but it tries to lift whatever veil of dissimulation and disbelief we may have as film-watchers – to make us see with clarity just what it is that is being represented, in all its brute and sometimes confusing reality. This is achieved with visual nuance, using light and camera angle, as Orson Welles so powerfully taught the film world. The film helps us to distinguish the clown-ish from the menacing, the comedic from the political. There are subtle shifts from high-blown vitriol of English Nazis to German soldiers lolling on the streets of London arm-in-arm with women, strolling and chatting with police officers. Not only do we see Nazi racism in its awful, theatrical malevolence, we see where it finds its roots in the everyday, the routine, the unnoticed.
It can happen here.
Accusers of anti-semitism missed the nuance, lost the artifice. For them, the veil was not lifted, they were condemned to see the movie and the world in the same harsh hues as the racist. The stridency of the accuser overwhelms the delicacy of what is being accused; it misses the cleverness of the form and the power of its artifice.
They say, in politics, that if you are having to explain yourself you have already lost. This is the territory Jeremy Corbyn finds himself in. Brute accusations – not all groundless – miss the nuance of important events and utterances. Even the author of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism argues that we have to deal with it and its ‘examples’ in a nuanced way, not use it as a rigid test or stipulation. Labour has been trying to improve on some of the ‘examples’, to make them more applicable and respectful of fee speech. But the debate does not allow anything other than blacks and whites, sharp outlines, the denial of interpretation or explanation. In a chilling way, this is how resistance to prejudice gets shaped and distorted by it. It is the racist who benefits most from a sharpening of outlines and a denial of nuance.
So we lose what would otherwise be a useful debate about how Left and Right in politics cope with the searing paradox that is Israel and Palestine, about how we frame our moral responsibilities to ethnic minorities whose interests are in collision. We cannot talk about Israel’s moral obligations to Palestinians, much less of a solution to that chronic wound – because we cannot talk of their inner complexities. The wall separating Israel from Palestine, and the walls of the Settlements are stolid reminders, cast in stone, that those who dominate the argument are those who resist enlightenment and who insist on certainty in an uncertain world.