Flame and Citron – A Review

World War II is more than the savagery of armies and its layers of inhumanity provides an endless source of stories and meditations on the goodness or its lack in man. It is also a place to celebrate national resistance to such evil, which can have the effect of both celebrating the nation, obscuring the questionable.  Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008)  enters this area with the true story of two assassins in the Danish resistance. They are efficient killers who assassinate Danes who collaborate with the Germans, showing little mercy when they strike. They seem to enjoy the life of the spy and get a rush from it. They are also motivated by a hatred for the Germans and a national pride. In one scene, Flame (the code name of one of the killers) recounts the day the Germans marched into Denmark and how sick he felt watching them march in. Eventually, it all comes to an end as the intrigues become more and more complicated and Flame and Citron do not know who to trust and the members of their group begin to be arrested by the Gestapo.The movie is an excellent thriller, although it is never clear how Flame and Citron could meet with their group in the same bar time after time, nor how they can just take of to Sweden so easily, but those are small quibbles. The film is solid and the tension of the occupied is palpable; in other words, a good World War II film with a web of complexities that go beyond the war.

The more interesting question is what happens after the movie, when the text that explains what happened after the war begins appearing on-screen. It turns out that Flame and Citron were national heroes, they were given a national funeral and buried with honors, and they were even awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in the early 50s. These details are historical, but they are also about national pride. It is a pride that comes from defeating a great evil. Yet at the same time in a war that was, among other things, a war of extreme nationalism, it seems a little off-putting. The film doesn’t celebrate taking a page from the Nazi’s and there isn’t a moral equivalence between the two sides, but there is that hint. But what are war movies for? occasionally testaments, sometimes opposition, but often a source of pride, even in those that were meant to be in the first two camps.

No, Flame and Citron isn’t Danish propaganda; it is a spy movie, complete with shifting allegiances and a femme fatal who out lives everyone, showing the justice, even when one is victorious, is not always served. At its best it is a reminder of war’s brutality, but also its intoxicating effects.

The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal – A Review

The German Mujahid
Boualem Sansal, pg 227

Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid tries to link Islamist violence, the Holocaust, and the Algerian police state into a larger statement about totalitarian regimes and intolerance. In one way it is an ambitious idea: link seemingly disparate historical events like the Holocaust and Islamist violence in Paris suburbs, while creating a narrative that can plausibly hold the elements together. On the other hand, a book with such themes could easily veer into didactic sermonizing about the evils of totalitarian regimes, lumping them all into one group and not exploring what made them so horrible. While The German Mujahid does put together a plausible narrative, it also suffers from the later problem so that at times it seems as if Sansal can’t afford to wait any longer to tell us about how horrible these regimes are and has to shout it. If I lived in Algeria as he does perhaps I would be shouting, too. But as a work of literature it has a few deficiencies that don’t make it a bad book, just one that doesn’t understand subtly.

The German Mujahid is about two brothers, Rachel and his younger brother Malrich. They have lived in France since childhood, but their parents still live in rural Algeria, the Bled. Their mother is Berber but their father is German, a veteran of the Algerian war of independence.  In 1994, in the midst of the Islamist war in Algeria, their parents and several other villagers are murdered. Rachel returns to the village to take care of the estate and he finds a box with his father’s papers, which indicate that he had been, among other things, an SS officer at Auschwitz. It is a damning realization and Rachel sinks into a depression as he slowly untangles his father’s involvement in the Holocaust and then his subsequent flight to Egypt and Algeria. It is too overwhelming and Rachel sizes on the idea that he has to pay for the sins of the father.  Since his father died without atoning or facing justice, he will do it for him, dying in his garage overcome by car exhaust fumes.

Malrich, a petty criminal living in one of the high rise residences on the outskirts of Paris, follows the same investigation as Rachel. Using Rachel’s diary, Malrich also comes to terms with his father’s past. But Malrich, instead of wanting to pay for the sins of the father, internalizes the role of the victim and sees around him in the residence and in Algeria just more Nazis using whatever ideology they can to control and brutalize. Malrich sees the local imam and his thuggish Islamist  toughs as just a new incarnation of the Gestapo. He wants to take them on, fight them before they can start new death camps, which he fears the residences will become. Yet the French government seems unwilling to take on this fight at the end of the book he gives his summation of the state of things.

The Islamists are already here, they’re settled and here we are,  bound hand and foot, caught in the trap. If they don’t exterminate us, they’ll stop us from living. Worse still, they’ll turn us into our own guards, deferential to the emir, merciless to each other. We’ll be Kapos.

It is clear that Sansal sees the Islamist’s goals are not too dissimilar to those of the Nazi’s. He is not subtle about this at all. He also extends his criticism, though, to the government in Algeria, whose socialist state has been repressive from the beginning, only getting worse when it put down the Islamist terror campaign in the 90s.

While equivalency between horrors is wasted math, the totalitarian traits of all the groups is not in question and Sansal is right to make the links. In the context of Arab and Algerian literature, too, the book is important because it addresses topics that have either been avoided, or baned. Sansal it seems is trying to break the Islamist and Algerian issues from their respective religious and nationalistic imperatives, and make a comparison that is outside of the specific grievances that make for easy justifications, and say, look, you are doing the same.

The question, then, is how well does Sansal do this? Does he address the responsibility for guilt? Does he link the themes together adequately? In many ways he doesn’t succeed. The problem is the two brothers are so extreme they become embodiments of an inflexible rhetorical position that seems everything in black and white. Their approach to confronting these issues is to either die or to become paranoid, which could be called a psychic shock as the confront the past, but in reality makes them unable to actually confront the horrors they want to confront. Suicide is a private act that redeems no one and Malrich’s street tough persona doesn’t yet have the ability to organize and confront what he fears. And this is Sansal’s problem: he describes the problem, but doesn’t know what else to do but collapse in desperation.

The sense of desperation is partly from the literary device he uses: each brother writes their own journal entries. The journals are detailed and move the story along quickly, but they also create a myopia that places the individual’s experience at the center of the story and becomes a self reinforcing set of complaints, so that instead of seeing their lives in a larger context (even against the third person description of a street) you only have the one frame. While no writer has to put a story in context, Sansal seems to want to make a larger point, but what he produces is panic. A personal panic set against shadowy terror. Perhaps panic is the emotion you would feels if you were Malrich, but in the book it comes across an author more interested in warning the world than writing literature.

Perhaps given Sansal’s theme that is not a bad thing.