Notes on Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon

Fenster writes:

Two movies on the personal and the political.

Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon. Is the personal the political? And if it is should it be?

Sure sure history is a human enterprises driven by people, so politics and the personal are theoretically seamless from the get-go. But there’s a tendency in a two hour film given the vocabulary to which we have been accustomed to simplify the peculiar characteristics of groups over time down to matters of morality that fit inside the individual human brain (the audience member reverberating with the protagonist) or melodramatic romances that use pretty backdrops (the audience member desiring Lena Olin against the backdrop of tanks in Prague).

Barbara and Night Train to Lisbon are a step up IMHO. Both grapple with how real people struggle and are shaped by larger forces. In turn it becomes apparent that too heavy a dose of “the personal is the political” is often less to be celebrated than regretted.

Barbara is a doctor in 1980 East Germany coming to grips with what it means to be stuck in “this shit of a country.”

I thought Night Train to Lisbon was going to be a moody piece about a lonely old guy coming to love late in life. While it had those elements they were skillfully interwoven with a story about others, late in their own lives, coming to grips with the roles they played in the downfall of Portugal’s dictatorship in the 1970s. There are lessons in both movies but the lessons cut both ways, and in neither case are the lessons preachy.

We are built to experience morality from the inside out, as a done deal, and film takes advantage of that human feature. But morality (IMHO) is just another work in progress. It derives from and is constantly fed by knockabout experience. So the lessons individuals learn about good, bad, love and hate come from the actions of those individuals in a world that is far more complex than one person, a world that by its essence holds ambiguous lessons for us poor individuals seeking entertainment or yearning for answers.

Both films feature a doctor who is chastized for treating a bad guy: a communist apparatchik in one and a fascist thug in the other. Not that that makes too much difference. What we are talking about here is not communism or fascism per se. We are talking about the claims of the state (or the group, or the community) over the individual. The personal and the political are in a permanent tension, and we in the Free World are hardly immunized from that tension, despite the Aquarian call for no boundaries a few decades ago, during the good times.

In that regard both films (and especially Barbara) provide some hazy lessons for the US. What happens when the tools available to the few can operate with little restraint to convert a citizenry into a managed population? Sure, it can be done and no one can really stop it. . . but in East Germany’s case since the system was too strong to be overthrown it just ended up collapsing from within, after enough frustrated people decided it was a shit country that nothing could be done about.

Our rulers in the Free World now have tools that would be unimaginable to the Stasi, and that would have turned them green with envy. And it’s only going to get better and better and better for our betters! Even now it is clear they have taken the bait, and for sure they will indulge themselves with more and more efficient tools for control going forward. After all, they’re human too, at least for now.

What I don’t know is whether at some point a breakthrough technology will allow control over a longer run, outpacing any plebian pushback for a very long time or, effectively, forever. The new tools on offer have the benefit of being more gentle than cruder modes of control while at the same time being more, perhaps infinitely more, intrusive.

Perhaps we will find ourselves in entirely new terrain in which the past few centuries of historical experience are no longer ready guides. If control is sufficiently gentle and intrusive at what point does control simply morph into the way culture does business? Cultural institutions are always in tension with our inner selves and maybe advanced control will make for fewer such tensions.

On the other hand we may find ourselves moored to the ambiguities of history as we have come to know it, and new modes of control will just hasten the day when all but a very few realize we’ve become a shit country. What then?

I for one think the managed populations movement is likely to suffer the same fate in the 21st century as command economies did in the 20th. A few people cannot outwit the many on what to hold dear just as they could not outwit the many on what to buy and sell. We should be wary of any attempt to fuse the personal with the political just as culture ought to remain suitable upstream from politics.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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