Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Holocaust and The Dirty Dozen

At the Imperial War Museum in London, they have a vast, stark-white miniature model of a Jewish concentration camp, complete with train and masses of people herded out of boxcars and into buildings. When I recently visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., I saw a similar white miniature. In this one, however, we are graphically shown the four-step process of the extermination: Jews ushered into buildings, forced to strip, gassed to death, and the bodies finally shoved into ovens.

As emotional exhausting as the rest of the museum is, this piece got to me most. Perhaps it was because it was three dimensional, and brought forth a reality that even graphic B&W photos could not. Perhaps it was seeing the artist's depiction of the Jews in their death throes, crammed in the underground "showers", their faces twisted into Munch-esque screams, and climbing over each other for some non-existent means of escape. Perhaps it was, in the format of the sculpture itself, how the museum showed the killing of millions as a "process", mechanical in it's execution, as the Nazi's themselves must have viewed it. I think it was all of these and even more that I simply cannot convey in words.

So, what in the hell does this have to do with The Dirty Dozen?

Well, in the miniature, the Jews being gassed is shown in a cutaway. Above ground, we see a Nazi soldier placing the gas container into a vent that will dispense it to the underground chamber. This tiny detail jogged something in my memory. As those of you who have seen the film might recall, the ultimate mission of the Dozen is to blow up a French chateau used by the German high command and their wives for R&R. Something goes wrong and the Germans, for their safety, lock themselves into an underground bomb shelter. The remaining of the Dozen barricade the door and toss explosives into all the squat air vents of the shelter. We see those in the bunkers fruitlessly pawing at the vent gratings where the explosives sit and we know they will be unable to do anything to prevent their imminent death.

When I first saw this scene, the only thing that I remember thinking was how the filmmakers were able to shrewdly include Jim Brown's biggest talent (i.e. running) into one of the last big action scenes. Now I look at those air vents and wonder if the writer wasn't trying to draw some parallels here. Obviously, you're not going to find many people who will mourn the deaths of Jewish prisoners and German soldiers equally, but when you take into account how these Germans were (a) unarmed, (b) trapped and (c) accompanied by their civilian wives, the difference between the two becomes murkier.

Perhaps I'm a bit slow when it comes to understanding some film subtext, but it didn't occur to me when I first saw this years ago how "Dirty" referred to more than just how the Dozen weren't allowed to bathe during their training. These military criminals were given a chance to be soldiers again. Not only soldiers, but heroes. And you can sense some of them truly gaining confidence and pride in themselves for the first time in years. Then they were told of the mission, and they realized that they were simply being given the dirty work. Their not needed because of extraordinary talent, but rather because any other self-respecting soldier would find such a mission as noble as shooting someone in the back.

Somehow that film is going to have a whole different feel to it the next time I sit down to watch it.

(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)

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