Satan Doesn’t Exist

شیطان وجود ندارد

Aka (German): Doch das Böse gibt es nicht

Aka (English): There Is No Evil

My ticket!

This past weekend I attended the Fünf Seen Filmfestival which is held every year — this is the 15th year — at various little towns around the Starnberg Lake (Starnberger See) in southern Bavaria, about 25 kilometers from Munich. It’s a summer resort for both the rich elite and the proletarian masses that live and work in Munich. For the proles, it’s easily reached by S-Bahn #6 (surface train) that travels every 20 minutes both out to the lake and back into the city.

Starnberg’s fame is derived from Ludwig II of Bavaria (of the Disney castle fame) and “Sisi” the Austrian Empress Elisabeth. Ludwig was engaged to Sisi’s younger sister Sophie, but the marriage never happened. Sisi’s castle in Possenhoffen is where all the action was in those days and the tragedy and comedy of these members of the aristocracy has been described in numerous books and films, the most notable films being those directed by Ernst Marischka. He gave the starring role to a teenage Romy Schneider and it made her famous worldwide.

Sisi’s castle in Possenhoffen seen through a hole in the hedge

Photo: Danny Antonelli

I was there because I was invited to come and see the premier of an oratorio film of which I am the librettist: Our World is On Fire. As is the custom at these events, the composer and I did a Q&A after the showing of the film and, speaking on behalf of all the librettists through the ages, like the ones who worked for Mozart and Verdi and numerous other famous composers, I can report that the two questions I was asked, and the 30 seconds I used to answer them, went down extremely well in an audience that at least understood the meaning of the word “libretto.” My previous experience with a much younger crowd, after I mentioned the fact that I wrote the libretto, was: “Uh, huh. What’s a libretto?” And I suppose that’s not an unfair question to ask in this day and age, since not one of the older people at the premier could actually name a librettist attached to any of the opera composers. I know, because I asked them.

But this isn’t about me, though I seem to have smoothly made it partially about me. It’s about a film I saw on Friday evening, a film that I knew absolutely nothing about and was curious to see because, well, I am a fan of Persian culture, I like the people, I traveled through Iran twice back in 1971, by bus and train, and I heard that this film had raised the hackles of the ayatollahs and that the director had been jailed because of it. “Ha,” I thought, “sounds like something that will happen soon in the USA when the Christian Taliban take control.” Let me have a look.

So, with the memory of the black and white jiggling camera of the film about the Chilean coup, The Battle of Chile, which I saw at a midnight screening in Los Angeles at the Nuart, I went into Doch das Böse gibt es nicht with patience and the expectation of having to sit through some rather sneaky camera angles and dangerous situations on the street with soldiers and police.

I was very wrong. The camera work is professionally excellent, the lighting in the interior shots, the technical aspects, the shots in public, the framing, the acting, everything was flawless and was of the highest standard for a contemporary film. The exteriors were remarkable, the midnight streets of the capital, the extraordinarily beautiful countryside, the forested hill country, nature in its unadulterated beauty. It was simply full of beautiful pictures. And the atmosphere, with sparse musical accompaniment, was kept thick with tension and foreboding.

If you know the Italian singer, Milva, and her version of Bella Ciao (text in translation here), then you can imagine how well that song fit into the various scenes in which it was the main theme.

And the actors? Superb. I had to read the German subtitles because my knowledge of Persian is non-existent. However, since it is an Indo-European language I was able to hear some familiar phonemes from time to time and so my auditory comfort level was assuaged. Although the writing now used in Iran is an Arabic script, the language doesn’t have harsh guttural sounds common to Arabic and German or, for instance, Dutch.

Both the men and women acting in the film made me feel that what they were saying and feeling was absolutely real. Their facial expressions, their tone, their gestures, perfect, not at all artificial. Not “acting.” It didn’t have the documentary feel of The Battle of Chile, but I was and still am convinced that everyone in the film had either been directly in the situation on view or had experienced the situation from an extremely near perspective.

The film is about the death penalty in Iran. It was directed by Mohammad Rasoulof and won the Golden Bear at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. I didn’t know any of that beforehand. And I’m glad I didn’t. In fact, if you’ve read this far and really want to see the film, then I suggest you go now and try and find a place where it’s possible to see it, either in a cinema or online.

Photo by Danny Antonelli

It’s a combination of four short films on the theme of the death penalty and its effect on people. There are some almost-spoilers coming, so beware.

Because I went in without preconceptions, the first of the four films (at the time I didn’t know there would be four) got a bit boring. I was waiting for something to happen. There was this middle-aged man, balding, a greying beard, going home from where he worked in this walled place, with sliding metal gates and an underground parking garage. He gets home with the huge bag of rice they gave him from work, goes out to the mall to do some more shopping with his wife and small daughter, their conversation limited to the banalities of everyday life. I kept waiting for the point, the action, my American film nature demanding a car chase or an explosion. But nothing. His daughter falls asleep in his arms at home. His wife sleeps quietly next to him in bed.

At 4 a.m. his alarm rings, he gets up, washes, gets in his car and goes to work in this strange place with the huge metal doors and the underground garage. He walks down some narrow corridors to a small room where he makes tea and has a sparse breakfast while behind him on the wall a row of lights turns red and a buzzer sounds. He looks through a small window in the wall next to the row of lights. He pours his tea and drinks and eats and then the row of red lights goes off and a row of green lights beneath them comes on and the buzzer sounds again. He looks through the small window again and then his hand moves to a large button under the rows of lights. He presses it.

This is where I have to digress to Hannah Arendt for a moment. In her long report and discussion of the Eichmann trial in Israel, she brings up some very interesting questions regarding guilt and the feeling of being guilty. How did Eichmann feel about what he had done?

Eichmann’s own attitude, it appeared, was different. First of all, the indictment for murder was wrong: “But I had nothing to do with the killing of the Jews. I never killed a Jew, or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew—I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” Or, as he was later to qualify this statement, “It so happened . . . that I had not once to do it” — for he said explicitly that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect. Thus, he repeated over and over a statement that he had first made in the so-called Sassen documents — an interview that he had given in 1955 in Argentina to the Dutch journalist Willem S. Sassen, a former S.S. man who was also a fugitive from justice, and that, after Eichmann’s capture, was published, in part, by Life in this country and by Der Stern in West Germany. He said that he could be accused only of “aiding and abetting” the almost successful annihilation of the Jews, and in Jerusalem he declared this annihilation to have been “one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.” The defense paid no attention to Eichmann’s own theory, but the prosecution wasted much time on an unsuccessful effort to prove that Eichmann had once, at least, killed with his own hands (he was supposed to have beaten to death a Jewish boy in Hungary). It spent more time, more successfully, on a note that Franz Rademacher, the Jewish expert in the German Foreign Office, had scribbled on a document dealing with Yugoslavia, made during a telephone conversation, which read, “Eichmann proposes shooting.” This turned out to be the only “order to kill,” if that is what it was, for which there existed a shred of evidence.

Eichmann in Jerusalem—I
By Hannah Arendt
February 8, 1963

In Doch das Böse gibt es nicht one must question whether guilt should be felt if someone is forced to actually carry out the death penalty. In the film there are at least two instances where guilt is such an overriding factor that it induces actions that are in themselves extreme and which we, as observers (or at least I, as an observer) felt were completely justified. One action involves a soldier trying to escape his predicament, and another involves a woman who breaks off true love because of the predicament a soldier was in.

In the final story of the four we are shown how a young girl, about 20 years old, who has grown up in modern Germany, tied to her cell phone and happy to be visiting her “uncle” in Iran, reacts to the truth of the predicament her “uncle” was in and his reaction to that predicament. She cannot understand, cannot forgive, and yet one has the feeling that perhaps understanding will come to her in the end because of her strong connection to the life of animals in the natural world. She reminded me of all the “Eco” people and “vegans” here in Germany who are so self-righteous in their indignation at anyone who doesn’t live according to their standards. And yet, they cannot dispose of their mobile phones or give up their holidays on “Malle” (Majorca), not to mention all the other trappings of a comfortable 21st Century life.

By the way, Doch das Böse gibt es nicht could be translated into English as Of Course There is No Evil. But the actual transliteration of the Persian title Satan Doesn’t Exist is to my mind better than the titles crafted to sell the film to the western audience. Because of course Satan doesn’t exist, even though in Iran the United States is always referred to in the state-run press as The Great Satan.

The film deals with real people like you and me and with the state’s hold over us and how we react to this hold over us. The system is so large and so all-powerful that it is practically impossible to escape its demands. In Iran military service is obligatory if you want a job or to get travel documents. While you are in the military you must follow orders, no matter how gruesome they may be. It’s no different for us here in the democracies that tout freedom of speech and freedom of action. The United States has the largest military in the world, incarcerates more people than any country on earth and its soldiers can face dire consequences if they bring injustices to light (Bradley Manning, Reality Winner, etc.). Besides that, the United States also carries out the death penalty whenever possible. Here in Europe the death penalty has been eliminated, but our economies are absolutely dependent on selling armaments to despots all around the world. And our comfortable lifestyles depend on those arms sales, and the chemicals used to destroy the planet, etc., etc.

How guilty do you feel? Is the fact that I ride a bike instead of drive a car OK and should make me feel less guilty of destroying the environment? Why haven’t we, over 7 billion people on this planet, forced the relatively few thousand billionaires to give it all up and change the system so that there is no war profiteering and no destruction of the environment for profit? Is there a difference between a Dick Cheney or a Bush or an Obama and an Eichmann? What about the people who give the legally approved lethal injections to prisoners on death row? What about policemen who kill? What about all those wonderful “thank you for your service” guys who kick down doors and destroy families and take home fingers or ears as souvenirs? Are they that much more guilty than the administrators of the system?

Satan Doesn’t Exist.

Or…?

EVIL EYE – REVIEW AND INTERVIEW

By Karen Lloyd

Artist: Danny Antonelli
Album: Evil Eye
Vinyl collector’s item: 8 tracks
Streaming: 13 tracks (8 album tracks + 5 Bonus tracks)
Featuring: Matthias Strass, Freddy Schlender, Christian Sass, Andy Nock, Peter Pollmann, Ulrike Esser, Julius Esser
Released by: ATMAN LC 01692
Streaming version: UPC/EAN 198000578039

The Evil Eye vinyl album opens with Notes From Underground, a sleazy story about drugs and crime, with biting guitar lines laid down by Matthias Strass. It’s a blues song that comes really close to the razor cutting edge of metal music, but the story keeps it firmly in the blues genre.

Blessed with a warm, fluid voice that is at home with talking the blues, Antonelli found his ideal backing musicians when he connected with the four featured guitarists and Peter Pollmann. Their technical excellence, wide range and expert backing are all on display in Evil Eye.

All of the tracks on the album are self-written. The inspiration obviously comes directly from Danny’s life and from the blues artists he grew up with during his life in the United States. The overall ambiance of the album is darkness with irony and humor thrown in, you might say like storm clouds overhead, but all of them with a shimmering silver lining that let’s you hope for better times after the clouds pass. The album has a raw nerve blues vibe throughout.

The album was recorded during the pandemic year, so the musicians mostly had to play from home. The live track Lookin’ For Someone was recorded at Peter Pollmann’s art atelier, with Ulrike Esser and Julius Esser contributing. On most of the songs, Peter Pollmann is on backing vocals. Andy Nock contributes backing vocals on the songs where he is also featured as guitarist.

Highlights abound, but the bouncing Lonely Man – with Christian Sass providing the guitars – could make anyone want to get up and dance, while Beware of the Evil Eye – with Andy Nock’s subtle almost jazzy arrangement – is an object lesson in how to meld mystery and superstition into a dark tapestry of warning. Antonelli’s vocals on Gone With The Wind – with Freddy Schlender’s virtuoso performance on guitar – is a good example of his Sprechgesang style of delivery. Sprechgesang is an expressionist vocal technique between singing and speaking and Antonelli uses it to enhance his particular art of storytelling.

Evil Eye is a superb release and a fitting tribute to the blues which has been carried lovingly forward by so many fine artists everywhere. Magnificent stuff.

An Interview with Danny Antonelli
By Karen Lloyd

Danny Antonelli

Tell me about what inspired you to write a blues album?

My mother had a great collection of jazz records, with people like Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and of course Louis Armstrong, and through all of those voices I could hear the roots that the music came from. Later, when I went to university in Durban, South Africa, the student union had a vinyl record of John Lee Hooker. I must have played that record at least a hundred times. There he was, the man, the guitar, him alone, with his foot keeping time on the floor, and he was telling stories. Most of the stories were not happy-ending stories. And being an introverted kid, I felt I understood him and he understood me.

Was that in the 60s or 70s?

Of course it was the era when the British bands broke through into the world of popular music, so I was getting blues and rock and roll from them as well, even though they were processing it through their own life experiences, mostly growing up in working class Britain. So though they slicked up the sound a bit and added youthful enthusiasm, they were able to bring the message across.

Later, when I got into the Chess recording artists, especially Willy Dixon and Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley, and all those other wonderful singers and players, I was able to understand the superstitions that suffused so many of the songs. I was born from an Italian mother and an American father. Superstition is a part of life from both of those cultures. So I guess the title of the album, Evil Eye, comes from the Italian side of the darkness, but there are plenty of superstitions from my father’s side too because he came from West Virginia, near the Ohio and Kentucky border, in moonshine country, and good luck and bad luck were real to those people. Unfortunately for most of the people living there – still today – bad luck is the norm.

What have you learned about the blues?

You don’t learn about the blues. You experience the blues. It’s in a song and it has an emotional impact. Maybe you learn from the emotions that the song pushes around inside you, maybe you don’t. But in any case, you feel the lightning strike and you know when a spell has been cast and you’re glad when you wake up from the dream, especially when you are bathed in sweat, soaking wet, and you are happy when the song is finished and you have been able to express your pain and worry and the reason for your depression. Getting it out there is the therapy you need for your soul, and if it works for you then maybe it will also work for some of the people listening to you deliver the news. John Lee Hooker did it for me. He delivered his news and I understood what he was talking about. I felt it. That’s all there is to it.

What was most surprising to you about making this record?

How helpful and enthusiastic the guitarists were who brought this record to life. All four of them are incredible musicians. Matthias Strass and Freddy Schlender are top-notch professionals working in musical theater and in various bands, and they heard the songs I offered, chose one each and really got into the music and delivered fantastic guitar tracks. And they are really nice guys as well. I’ve worked on other projects with them, mostly country music stuff, and you can always count on them to deliver their best, no prima donna bullshit. Solid friendly guys.

Christian Sass has played in blues bands all his life. He feels the music completely. He knows just how to get to the core of the beat, the root of the riff, and delivers the correct feeling every time. He’s the guy you want with you on stage because you know his rhythms, his riffs, his solos are going to fit perfectly into the weave of the song.

Andy Nock. What can I say about him? He’s been a friend of mine for more than 20 years. We met while he was still living in Hamburg and we played together on various projects. I understand the songs he writes. He understands mine. We give each other the most helpful criticism we can. And neither one of us is offended if the advice isn’t taken. But mostly it is taken. That way we help each other get better as songwriters. Andy is an exceptionally skilled musician. He has played all kinds of music, but the blues has always been woven into his being. He gets it. He gets me. We get each other. What could be better than that?

And Peter Pollmann? I understand he helped you produce the album.

Peter and I worked together in the 80s when he was the singer for First Affair. Then in 1989 we recorded a track – Deutschland, Deutschland – that was the inspiration for a number one hit by the German band Fantastischen Vier. Our best collaboration was when we performed as O Zone, a trio, with Ulrike Esser who plays cello and violin on the Evil Eye album. By the way, Peter’s son Julius also plays percussion on the album, so the generational leap is there as well.

Peter graduated from art school and was extremely helpful in the design of the album cover. His ears are excellent too, so he was able to listen to the mix of each song and give his input. Of course his background singing on the album gives it that little extra that makes each song complete.

There is a streaming version as well as the limited edition vinyl record, is that right?

Yes. Peter and I were determined to make a high quality vinyl record that could then become a collector’s item for people who love actual physical records and who love the blues. We picked out the 8 tracks that would fit within the time limits of the vinyl record and ZIS, the record pressing company, also provides download cards for all the songs on the record. So you can either play the vinyl on your record player or save the disk and download the 8 tracks for play on your phone or whatever other medium you use to listen to music. By the way, there is an insert in the vinyl record with all the lyrics and pictures of the musicians who made the dream a reality.

Obviously there also had to be a streaming version so that a wider audience can enjoy the music as well, so we crafted together 5 Bonus Tracks. That makes 13 tracks for the streaming version – magic and superstition again! Of course the streaming version is available on all the platforms you can think of, Spotify, Apple Music, TikTok, Deezer, Amazon, all the usual and unusual suspects.

Is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?

You mean for the album or for my life?

For the album.

The song By The Time I Get To Heaven is special because it’s only me with Peter backing me up. He’s a real singer, so it makes those moments in the song when he’s there very special. Also, the song itself is special because it gets to the heart of my world view. Listen to the lyrics. I’d love to hear a real soul choir do the song. That would be an experience!

Thank you for talking with me.


Thank you!