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.



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