It is well known that conversations about films or books with “problematic” characters often get confrontational, depending on ideological stances, identity politics, or personal triggers. For one among many possible examples, if you’re a male reader or viewer expressing any degree of empathy with a character who exhibits “toxic masculinity” (and who is therefore judged exclusively along those lines), then you can expect to be informed that the only reason you felt that way is because of your gender privilege; or because (Sweeping Assumption Alert) you have never yourself been on the receiving end of such toxicity. White Saviour allegations are routinely directed at films or books about caste oppression that were created by upper-caste people. Entire theses have been built around the idea that it isn’t okay for an author to write an underprivileged protagonist whose experiences he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of – and that, by extension, a reader who lacks such experience is also an inadequate reader.
These are strange positions, given that one of the often-stated functions of art is to put yourself (and “yourself” here can mean both artist and audience) outside your comfort zone, and to at least temporarily occupy the mind-space of someone whom you would ordinarily not identify with, someone whom you might even find repulsive.
The life of a ‘former’ Nazi
I was thinking about all this while reading a reissue of Emeric Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls, a book I hadn’t heard of until last year (despite the fact that Pressburger is half of my favourite filmmaking collaboration The Archers, aka Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger, who made a stunning series of British films in the 1940s). Because here is a deeply involving portrait of a murderous former Nazi (assuming one can ever be just a “former Nazi”) in hiding in England – a book whose effectiveness as a thriller depends on the author making us identify with and even care about this protagonist. And yet…The Glass Pearls was written by a Jewish man who spent his life tormented by the memory of his mother dying in Auschwitz, and haunted by the thought of Nazis coming for him. (In the words of Pressburger’s grandson, the film director Kevin MacDonald: “When, delirious after a bad fall towards the end of his life, he was taken to hospital, he fought against the ambulance crew, thinking they were taking him to the gas chamber.”)
Briefly, this is the story of an unobtrusive middle-aged German named Karl Braun who is working as a piano tuner in London in the mid-60s, but who also – we learn early in the narrative – conducted grisly operations on concentration-camp victims 20 years earlier. Karl – formerly Dr Otto Reitmuller – is constantly in fear of being caught, constantly looking at the papers and despairing at news of Nazi trials and the extending of the deadline for prosecution of war criminals (at one point he thought he would be safe once he made it to May 1965, which was the initial deadline; now he realises he will probably never be out of harm’s way).
We follow him as he lives his new life: bantering with his flatmates and with his colleagues at work, displaying courtliness and humour, beginning a reticent semi-romance with a much younger woman named Helen. Yet he has to be alert all the time, antennae raised, prepared to be suspicious of everyone around him, holding arguments and counter-arguments in his head about the potentially suspicious behaviour of this or that person, analysing the workings of his own mind – all the while having recurring nightmares about a trial where he is eventually set free (except that he then finds himself in the dock again the next night, night after night). And he must contend with the possibility of having to escape to South America to join the rest of the fugitive Brotherhood:
“He shuddered at the thought of spending the rest of his life among disgruntled sexagenarians who had one single purpose in life: to become octogenarians. Still there might be others like himself, interested in the sort of life he was, who loved books and music […] on Sundays they could make music, take long walks, the air would be clean and sharp – suddenly he knew that all he was yearning for was peace. Rest, after twenty years of running.”
It’s very likely that anyone who becomes involved with this narrative will, at some point, at least, feel for Braun. The success of The Glass Pearls as a paranoia-story – an excellent one in my view – hinges largely on this. How does Pressburger pull off this empathy? There are a few possible answers. One of them is simply that when a good novelist leads us deep into a character’s inner space (and does this with conviction and honesty), our moral senses take a back-seat to the process of becoming interested in a particular individual, in the many conflicting facets and impulses that can make up a life.
Since this narrative is subjective third-person, we are tied to Braun’s thoughts and feelings (except for a closing chapter that serves as a sort of coda, allowing us to draw back and take a look at the whole canvas). Keeping us thus latched to his consciousness, letting us feel his fear, Pressburger leads us through a series of pulse-racing incidents. Hearing from a colleague about the complaints of a xenophobic visitor who doesn’t like the idea of foreigners being given jobs when so many Englishmen are unemployed, Braun worries that this mysterious man may be a spy trying to ferret out Germans. Arriving at the Albert Hall for a tuning job, he thinks he hears footsteps followed by a whispered “Herr Doctor!” from the shadows; shaken, he is nonetheless willing to dismiss this as a phantom of his fevered mind…until he learns from the doorman outside that someone had indeed come asking about him.
If there are famous cinematic examples of a viewer being manipulated into the “wrong” moral position (hoping, for instance, that the car with a murdered woman’s body in Psycho sinks all the way into the swamp), The Glass Pearls builds such moments through Braun’s valiant effort to escape his pursuers while trying to stay composed. In one passage, when he finally reaches the Zurich bank from where he has to withdraw his secret hoard of money, he can’t locate the building, and briefly panics at the thought that the bank may have gone bust. I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader who experienced a momentary sinking of the heart at this.
At one point Pressburger matter-of-factly drops in an important piece of information about Braun’s past – the fact that his beloved wife and his infant daughter were killed in an air-raid in 1943, that he loved them and mourns them still. This is not done as a sentimentalising device to “explain”, much less “justify” his actions – it is simply there, a testament that it’s possible to have done hideous things and to still have loved deeply, or to be human and vulnerable in other ways. In his own way (very limited, of course, compared to the suffering he caused), Braun has also gone through a sort of penance: living his new identity over the previous two decades meant giving up things that were hugely important to him once, such as practising medicine, or playing the violin, which he was addicted to. (The poignancy of this comes through in a scene where he unexpectedly has to move a violin out of the way while at work, and we realise what it means to him to even touch the instrument after so many decades.)
The very process of humanising Braun raises the stakes in some ways, makes what he has done in the past much more disturbing, and sets us up for the carpet to be pulled out from under our feet. How different the effect would have been if he had been presented, unambiguously, as a monster whose ethical compass or sense of “values” or “humanity” was completely different from ours – or missing altogether, like a psychopath without an empathy gene. Instead what we get is a man who is capable of love, grief, self-pity, indignation, or the excited, school-boy-like feeling that can arise even in much older people when the possibility of a romance arises.
One can also point out, pedantically perhaps, that the book never exculpates Braun. Towards the end, as he thinks the net is closing around him, he does something that allows us to see how self-centred and merciless he can be when the stakes reach their highest point. But, wait… might this not be true for most of us as well, Nazi or non-Nazi?
In the films that he wrote for Michael Powell in the 1940s, Pressburger repeatedly gave us morally ambiguous situations as well as characters who lived across a conservative-progressive spectrum: in A Canterbury Tale, a man who uses a very questionable, even criminal, method to preserve “tradition” in his village is a sympathetic figure by the end (even as the film as a whole is on the side of the forward-looking young people in it); in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the protagonist goes, over four decades, from being a likable and charming young soldier to a harrumphing old walrus mocked by youngsters; a celestial trial in A Matter of Life and Death celebrates the English way of life but also finds time for a pointed statement about the evils of colonialism (even making the chastening remark “Think of India” – this in a British film made in 1946!). Crossing the line between reality and fantasy, and exploring the strange and unknowable workings of the mind, these films remain unclassifiable. In its own special way, with its loathsome but recognisably human protagonist, The Glass Pearls belongs with them.