Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon:“The Last Illusion” and “Teresa”

Nathan Glick here discusses two recent films which throw some degree of light on the relations between Americans and Europeans. 

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In two recent films—the American Teresa and the German The Last Illusion—America’s legendary innocence and optimism are again contrasted with Europe’s intimacy with evil and immersion in tragedy. But instead of proving irreconcilable—as they usually do in the popular press—the differences turn out, in the context of the films, to be complementary, both pictures ending on the symbolic note of trans-Atlantic marriage. It is true that these marriages promise a degree of conflict; but they also offer the hope, contained in the statement of an American student in Germany in The Last Illusion, that nations that have fought one another can be better friends once they have been reconciled than they could be if they had never been enemies. This Spinozistic formulation unfortunately does not take into account the manner in which the fight was conducted. Gandhi was shrewder: he knew that the atmosphere of a struggle largely determined the possibilities of subsequent amity. And we have learned that the experience of extermination camps, saturation bombing, and atomic annihilation cannot so easily be repaired by the workings of natural compassion.

But it is precisely the achievement of The Last Illusion that its makers can continue to love while recognizing the full extent of the evil in the beloved object. The English title is misleading, unless it intends a warm, mild irony. This is not the story of the shattering of a homecoming German Jewish professor’s final illusion about his mother country, but of the ambiguity and refinement of his illusions—for there is always another “last” illusion beyond the one just dispelled. Der Ruf, the original German title, is more properly open to interpretation. Taken literally, it refers to the “call” of the homeland and in particular to the “invitation” extended to the professor by the German university at which he had taught. But it contains the further implication of a “calling” in the religious or destined sense, and here it implies a vocation not merely to teach but also to be a witness.

Having decided to exchange his peaceful, comfortable, admired position in a university in Los Angeles for his old philosophy chair in Germany, Professor Mauthner finds it consoling to believe that now he is wanted and needed. He is unwilling, he tells his disapproving fellow exiles in actor Fritz Kortner’s culture-laden croak, to condemn a whole people: “There is no nation of criminals nor one of heroes.” He does not know how he himself would have behaved under the same pressures. And apart from professional and political impulses (or rationalizations), he is drawn irresistibly to Germany because it is his home and the Germans are, in spite of everything, his people. These make up Mauthner’s “illusions,” or perhaps they can all be subsumed under the single illusion that while governments change, people do not; at the very least, one can depend on one’s family and old friends.

The scene on the cold, foggy gray ship taking Mauthner across the Atlantic, coming directly after the sunshine, music, and camaraderie of his Los Angeles home, establishes a premonitory feeling of the ominous, as if he were being vaguely lowered into some version of hell. As Mauthner stares out at the dense wall of mist that is all he can see of Europe and recites Heine’s moving poem about the exile’s return, he is approached by an anonymous whitebeard dressed somewhat incongruously in a sports cap. Since the film is generally so direct and unpretentious, I hesitate to read a deliberate symbolism into this character, but in the context of the phantom-like ship it is perhaps justifiable to view him as the Wandering Jew; or an agent of some spiritual orthodoxy like the ubiquitous messenger of God in The Dybbuk. When in response to several monosyllabic questions Mauthner reveals that he is going neither to France nor to Switzerland, but to Germany, the stern old man turns away, still impassive, but with a fleeting shadow of disapproval on his face.

Arrived in Berlin, Mauthner looks up the elderly couple through whom he has been sending food and clothing to his wife in Germany. He discovers that, instead of trying to find his wife, they had sold his packages to raise money for a pregnant daughter. This is the moment of his first disillusionment But despite the fact that his friends have proved shifty and not quite loyal—yet not quite disloyal—there are extenuating circumstances, and besides, they know and are ashamed of their guilt, even as they justify it Mauthner meets his wife by chance in a black-market coffee shop, and before they have finished absorbing each other’s appearance with sad hungry eyes, they are back to the old quarrel that had separated them even before Hitler. We learn that she is a Gentile and that under the Nazis she raised their son to accept an expedient Aryan husband as his true father. Mauthner’s pent-up bitterness spills out in a rush of recrimination: she has always resented his being a Jew, she has betrayed him and her son. But again: what would he have had her do, she asks, expose their son to Nazi persecution?

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With this scene an ambiguity is introduced into the film’s treatment of the theme of personal guilt. For the first time, Mauthner is revealed as capable of hysterical flare-ups, and his wife reminds him that it is this propensity, added to a morbid suspicion of her feelings toward Jews, that broke up their marriage. Played by Johanna Hofer (Kortner’s wife in actual fact) with sensitive dignity, softened by mild vulnerable eyes, the wife is at least as persuasive as Mauthner himself. On its subtlest level, which evokes the underworld of suspected motives, the quarrel remains unresolved. The surface quarrel, however, is made up, and it is, significantly, the wife, sick of the bitterness that has been the constant atmosphere of her life in Germany, who makes the first conciliatory gesture.

Mauthner has by this time been characterized as a man of feeling, urbane, idealistic, aware of his own faults, tolerant of others—in short a typical representative of civilized Europe. So we are unprepared for the violence and prophetic fury with which, in his opening lecture at the university, he lashes the Nazis and those implicated in Germany’s guilt. For a few moments the film departs from its tone of private, domestic intelligence, its sensitive and deft notation of small-scale pleasures and exacerbations, and aspires to the stern grandeur of Old Testament judgment. It is evidence, I think, of the moral resilience of The Last Illusion that Mauthner should argue against the idea of collective guilt to his fellow exiles in California, but turn about, when addressing the Germans who stayed on, and insist on the complicity in the deeds of the Nazis of even those who did nothing at all. He has accepted the obligation of the civilized man to reveal each person’s special blindness and so to encourage a spiritual balance.

The response of the students to Mauthner’s talk is thematically the climax of the film, for it tests not only the sincerity of Germany’s invitation to him to return, but whether he any longer really has a “calling” to teach this new generation of youth. Here, too, the makers of the film show the courage of their ambiguity. The camera withdraws into the objectivity of a sustained long shot of the lecture hall, leaving the professor isolated on his small exposed podium, while the sound track allows the walls to echo the occasional falsetto of Kortner’s high-pitched jeremiad. But the closing words of the speech are suddenly touched with a new note of charity, at which point the voice becomes lowered and paternal, and the camera relents sufficiently to study in close-up the impassive faces of the audience. The small organized Nazi contingent leads the exodus, followed by a troubled majority of students, who seem uncertain whether their departure is a political gesture or just the customary filing out at the end of the class. They are still uncommitted, but vaguely hostile since they have not yet overcome the need to sneer at the come-lately democratic pedagogues from overseas. They have been through a cynical school: war, Russian occupation, and then Western occupation. In this context, the weight of the small group of idealists, with their serious moved faces, who remain to applaud by tapping on the seats in front of them, seems greater than their numbers. What is most admirable in this scene is the refusal of the director to reassure the audience, as Hollywood almost always feels compelled to do, that the sound track and all good movie workers are on the side of the idealists, that the wicked will be punished and defeated, and the waverers see the light.

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In the end, Mauthner dies from the shock of his return. His body cannot endure the intensity of emotion evoked by the combination of the familiar and the terrible. At a university reception in his honor, he hears the same bloodthirsty anti-Semitic taunts, and witnesses the same mindless violence which more than a decade earlier made Germany for him a nightmare to be fled. But his despair is personal, not political: he can no longer maintain himself spiritually in an atmosphere so overwhelmingly devoid of love. He has, in exile, been drained of nourishment by separation from the roots of his culture and from his personal attachments. He turns for consolation, during his illness, not to the young American, assistant who appears to be in love with him—a role played with perhaps unintentional appropriateness by Rosemary Murphy, daughter of the former political adviser to General Clay—but to his German wife. In a passage of bitter-sweet melodrama, Mauthner’s Nazified son, still unaware of their relationship, tells the unconscious, dying man of his change of heart, a conversion which takes place under the influence of the American girl—whom he is destined to marry. For while the older Europeans sought an asylum in America, the European youth looks to it for a revival of innocence and a new kind of experience.

In the version of The Last Illusion shown in the United States, the short final scene of Mauthner’s funeral cortege following a hearse emblazoned with the Star of David was omitted. It is a grim procession, summing up the physical and spiritual tragedy of Germany; but, in keeping with the film’s sorrowful optimism, the most fanatical Jew-baiter in the university Nazi cell silently falls in line behind Mauthner’s family and friends. One can understand how the makers of the movie were tempted by this final contrivance to provide it with a consoling solution. But for most of its doggedly intelligent, at times brilliant, and continuously moving length, The Last Illusion has been saying something more modest and more honest, namely, that the situation in Germany is still open because the human element is unpredictable.

The Last Illusion, however, is not primarily about the Jewish problem. It is intended as a tentative portrait of a nation in extremis, an exploration of the play of social and human forces in postwar Germany, against the background of an American experience. And while it does not flaunt its realism, it puts to shame the fatuous tourist’s view of A Foreign Affair, the slick pseudo-documentarianism of Berlin Express, and even Rosselini’s bleak and merciless Germany, Year Zero, which expresses in its pure form a distinctly European kind of pessimism. The realism of The Last Illusion is not a stranger’s note-taking but the modulated, insidiously persuasive accuracy of the disabused lover.

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In contrast to The Last Illusion, Teresa may be described as an exploration of postwar America against the background of a brief but crucial European experience. Where The Last Illusion is concerned with people who, however they may be buffeted about by politics, at least influence their cultural environment, Teresa has to do with the uneducated, the unsophisticated, and the uninfluential, who are simply acted upon by their culture. The official Americans in The Last Illusion are conquerors without a calling: good-natured young civil-affairs officers almost sublimely unaware of the complicated difficulties created by the occupation in the lives of the native population; whose use of capitalized initials (meaningless to most Germans) as a way of publicly designating the jumble of government agencies symbolizes the inhuman impersonality, neither kind nor sadistic, of victorious bureaucracies. The American plenipotentiaries of Teresa are raw infantry soldiers who respond to the natives—in this case, Italian villagers living in the area of battle—with greater directness, whether of generosity or hostility, than the bored young men of the occupation staff in Germany.

The inarticulate, confused boy played by John Ericson is an interesting reversal of the Hollywood version of the GI, and particularly of the soldier from New York. Ericson is neither sharp nor comic; he is moderately simple-minded, moderately sensitive, and more than moderately baffled by his emotions and by the women around him. He has been a mother’s boy at home, and adopts a similar filial relation to the European women, to whom he appears a strange image of the conquering, powerful American. He is treated by both the Italian girl and her mother as someone in need of love and protection. Under their traditional, tactful acceptance of this role he flourishes into manhood, whereas once back in New York his own spiritually predatory mother again drains him of self-respect and self-possession.

This contrast in the role of women is not the deliberate theme of the film, but it is its strongest overtone. The American women—the hero’s nagging mother and irritable sister—are domineering types who lord it over their weakling men. Teresa, played by Pier Angeli, wants to reverse the situation, to make him accept the role of head of the family. Although she has lived in a small Italian village her whole life, she seems all-knowing and worldly. She has absorbed stoicism and resignation and a tired affectionate wisdom from her parents and her culture. When she is aggressive or firm, it is only in order to earn her decent traditional submissive role. She has something of the preternatural sagacity of the city urchins in Shoeshine and Paisan. On arriving at the tenement home she is to share with the boy’s family, she senses the psychological relationships among its members with a directness and clarity the boy has never felt. She wants to show love and respect to the boy’s ineffectual father and moves to embrace him, but Philip, accepting without question his mother’s negative opinion of his father, stops her.

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The discovery of such an actress as Ingrid Bergman by Hollywood reflected the need for a kind of woman that America, or at least the American movie industry, seemed incapable of nurturing. This was a woman who could love generously, loyally, in defiance of convention if necessary, and who did not use her attractiveness as a weapon with which to dominate men. Pier Angeli, the heroine of Teresa, is in this tradition of European woman. Someone has called her a sparrow version of Ingrid Bergman, but she is more than that. Bergman always had about her an aura of cultivation; her simplicity seemed the result of complicated artifice. Pier Angeli is thin and small, giving the impression of being undernourished and very young, but her face has an ageless wisdom and dignity.

When Teresa shows disappointment at her first sight of the slum apartment in New York, she is shedding her illusion of a fantastically rich America along with her earlier illusion of Philip’s ability to take care of her. This disappointment is particularly revealing since she makes such modest demands on life. (The coy words of the script-writer, “I am very capable of love,” are transformed by the quality of Pier Angeli’s face and speech into a touching expression of self-knowledge.) The contrast of the physical landscapes in the Italian and New York sequences reinforces the film’s sympathy with the European as against the American mode of life. In Italy we are shown open fields and traditional architecture: even during their Roman honeymoon, the couple look out on a magnificent public square. Of New York Teresa gets to see, besides her tenement block and the view from the roof of clotheslines and radio wires, Central Park, a rectangle of nature stuck into the asphalt heart of the city, and Jones Beach, a man-made desert on the edge of the ocean.

In The Last Illusion, Europe is portrayed as in a condition of ruin and despair from which only an infusion of the American spirit can redeem her. Teresa, on the other hand, finds the greater physical and spiritual lack in America, and looks to the warm and tolerant European tradition represented by the heroine to balance American immaturity and crudity. It is part of the generous absence of provincialism in both films that the European film-makers should overrate American virtue and the American filmmakers exaggerate the wisdom of Europe. To the extent that each is a persuasive work of art, it refutes its own self-criticism. We should be fortunate if we could settle for a combination of the seasoned culture that went into The Last Illusion and the fresh, spontaneous good will of Teresa.

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