A Simple Substitution

By Cyberquill 03/19/20127 Comments

On the Late Show a while back, Academy Award winner Christopher Waltz responded to David Letterman’s question about how to play such a profoundly evil character as that of SS-Standartenführer Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds:

I’ve been asked, ‘How is it to play a Nazi?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I never played one.’ … I disregarded this whole Nazi thing completely and just put the uniform on and let that take care of it.

David Letterman replied he was not certain he understood.

So let me explain. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not familiar with Mr Waltz’s performance, as I haven’t seen the movie, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion.)

Some years ago, I worked at a café in the Village in New York City. Once a week—I believe it was Wednesdays at midnight—the exterminator stopped by to cleanse the establishment of unwanted critters.

Among all the exterminators I’ve encountered, I remember this particular one on account of his strikingly affable personality. He always shook hands with everyone, asked about our work, all smiles at all times, and generally epitomized the image of a genuinely nice guy.

Then he went downstairs to place glue traps and poison pellets in as strategic and efficient a manner as possible so as to ensure maximum lethality with zero concern for the pain and suffering caused in the process.

When he was done, another round of cheerful small talk ensued, and he left for his next assignment.

Imagine yourself being stuck on a human-sized glue trap, unable to move and with no food and water for a day or more, and then some giant comes along, picks you up, the trap still stuck to your skin, and throws you in the trash, where you will expire as unceremoniously as it gets. There is no rational basis for believing that such an experience might be any more enjoyable for a little mouse than it would be for any of us.

Granted, though, we’re really just talking about mice and roaches, not people. Creatures, in other words, we place no value upon, and who we’d better be off without.

This, of course, is precisely the mindset of a genocidalist. All it takes is one simple substitution: replace mice and roaches with any class(es) of humans, present some kind of rationale as to why the world would be better off without them, and voilà—here’s your Nazi.

Some readers may now be incensed at my apparent suggestion that terminating millions of people is no different than terminating millions of mice.

Well, to the person terminating millions of people, it certainly isn’t.

And no matter which way you turn it, the assumption that a difference indeed exists rests on the notion that certain types of sentient beings are valuable and thus have a right not to be killed, whereas others are expendable and can therefore be dispatched without further ado or fear of karmic repercussions. Absent such line-drawing, no one would balk at comparing the extermination of people to the extermination of mice.

“But mice are JUST MICE!!!” you may exclaim in exasperation. Exactly. Now replace “mice” with “gypsies,” and that’s all you need to play a Nazi.

Sometime in the 1990s, one of Adolf Hitler’s former secretaries was tracked down and interviewed by an Austrian filmmaker, resulting in a fascinating documentary titled The Blind Spot. She’d apparently been working out of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin and experienced the war mainly by way of her interactions with Hitler himself—hence the title The Blind Spot: due to her proximity to the center of command, twinned with limited access to alternative sources of information, her knowledge of what was happening outside her personal perimeter was rather theoretical, at least until the Allies had come within earshot of the bunker.

Anyhow, she said she’d been a little nervous at her job interview, as she’d only been familiar with Herr Hitler through news reel footage that showed him barking fiery orations into a microphone as if he were the type that ate little children for breakfast. And then in walks this very friendly—and very, yes, soft-spoken—man, concerned about whether her chair and the temperature in the office were comfortable enough for her.

She described him as a well-mannered and courteous boss, who loved his German shepherd, and retailed anecdotes such as when he sincerely apologized for being unable to give her a nicer farewell present than the cyanide capsules he was handing out to his staff shortly before his suicide.

After all these years, the lady still seemed a bit dazed, having trouble reconciling the man she’d known personally with the genocidal maniac from the history books. By all accounts—aside from his warped views on certain issues, the disastrous orders he gave, and his buffoonish on-camera rants—there seemed to have been nothing particularly demonic or threatening about Hitler’s demeanor in person.

So there’s really no reason to play a Nazi mass murderer one iota more “evil” than one would play a congenial exterminator doing his job in a restaurant.

Identical mindset, only applied to different kinds of beings.

My tables — meet it is I set it down. That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain …

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  • Testazyk

    Have you read War of the World by Niall Ferguson?  He talks about how the preconditions for genocide are (1) the establishment of a group of people as “other” (i.e., different) and (2) efforts, however misguided, to dehumanize the group.  And that’s it.  It suddenly become OK or even a good thing.

    I once read an account of the interrogation of a guy who worked for Dr. Spanner at the Danzig Anatomical Institute during WWII.  That is the place where they were experimenting with making soap from human corpses.  It was a terrifying read mainly because the guy was so clinical in his discussion.  He was only worried about quality control and complained about how careful one had to be to get the temperature and consistency just right.  Just like he was manufacturing something and not at all aware of what he was actually doing.

    So what you say makes a lot of sense and I think this is a valuable (and brave) post because it reminds us that the world is a lot more complicated than we are often willing to admit.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      Haven’t read War of the World by Niall Ferguson, but I’ve seen War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise. Probably unrelated.

      The world is certainly complicated on the surface, but sometimes the deeper you dig, the more all this complexity reduces to a handful of simple principles that govern it all. 

      We shudder at the dehumanization of certain classes of humans, yet we are constantly surrounded by mass exterminations and cruelty accompanied by a complete lack of empathy and the very kind of clinical detachment attributed to Dr. Spanner.

      Just think of modern slaughterhouses, animal experimentation, and cats and dogs being put down by the thousands every day—or deer being shot—to stem overpopulation. Most of us would recoil at human beings being dealt with in such manner, but given that it’s “just animals,” it’s OK or “not so bad.” 

      But in the end, sentient creatures with eyes and heartbeats are sentient creatures with eyes and heartbeats. Yet we do a marvelous job at humanizing some (such as people and our pets) while classifying others as pests, vermin, or otherwise fair game to be hurt and killed as we deem most conducive to our personal comfort with nary a twinge of conscience.

      • Testazyk

        Yes, and here’s a good example of hyper-humanizing:

        http://nz.news.yahoo.com/a/-/top-stories/13233067/dead-dog-on-a-crate-in-poor-taste-school/

        I love the last line.

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

          Happy to hear no disciplinary action was taken, but frankly I don’t see any “humanizing” aspect (neither hyper nor otherwise) in draping a dead dog over a beer crate as a tribute to the animal, unless NZ has a tradition of draping deceased humans over beer crates. If so, I’m unfamiliar with the practice. 

          There’s this scene in A Fish Called Wanda where a concrete block comes crashing down on the sidewalk and flattens the pooch on an old lady’s leash. Apparently, the depiction of this act of cruelty against an innocent little dog sparked quite a flurry of angry letters.

           Needless to say, had the cement block flattened the lady instead of the dog, no one would have batted an eyelash. To me, that’s an example of hyper-humanizing an animal relative to a person. 

          • Testazyk

            We are agreeing.  By hyper humanizing I was referring to the overreaction of the crowd to a sculpture of a dead dog rather than the use of the dog in the sculpture.  The Fish Called Wanda example is exactly on point.  If the student had made a sculpture of a dead human on a beer crate he would have been hailed for having keen insights into the dangers of alcohol or something like that.

            • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

              A broken beer bottle on a human coffin would cause street riots by infuriated brew lovers.

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