Screenings never take place in a vacuum, to which the Berlin screening of ‘Human Terrain’ paid ample testimony. It took place at the beautiful Babylon cinema, a 1920s picture place, originally built in what used to be the Jewish quarter of Berlin. After the Wall went up it became, along with the adjacent Volksbühne (People’s Theatre), the cultural centerpiece of the East German government, which renamed the street and square after Rosa Luxemburg, co-founder of the German Communist Party, leader of the short-lived Spartacist uprising, and martyr at the hands of the right-wing Freikorps in 1919.
The large theater was packed, thanks mainly to the publicity blitz and an illustrious panel put together by the American Academy in Berlin, my current perch on the shores of the Wannsee (yes, that lake, where the Nazi leadership planned its ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’; history lives in Berlin like no other city). The panel, moderated by Susanne Koelbl (Middle East expert of Der Spiegel ), included Professor Harald Wenzel (a sociologist from the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Freie Universität, who specializes in military studies), Ambassador Michael Steiner (Germany’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who introduced himself to me as ‘the German version of Holbrooke’), and Mitchell Moss (Press Attaché from the US Embassy Berlin, who was about to take on the same posting in Kabul).
I opened the event by noting the how remarkable it was, for an American, to be able to screen a film on a street named after Rosa Luxemburg. Probably the closest equivalent in the US would be to show the film on ‘Emma Goldman Street’ in Washington DC. Not going to happen. I thought at least one aspect of Human Terrain would have met Rosa’s approval, who famously wrote that the most important freedom of all was the freedom to dissent.
I shared with the audience my fascination over Berlin street names. A couple of weeks earlier I had written an op-ed for the Berliner Zeitung. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell speech when he warned the U.S. public about the dangers of a ‘military-industrial complex’. But what had really triggered my interest was the discovery that Truman and Kennedy each get a Strasse in Berlin, but not Ike. In Human Terrain we try to honor Eisenhower, with our own warning of what happens when the military gains an ‘unwarranted influence’, not just in public policy but also in the universities.
In my intro I decided to take my psycho-geographic drift to the edge of the Berlin Stadtplan. On the way to my gym I regularly cross Kracauer-Platz, named after Seigfried Kracuaer, one of the first and still one of the greatest film critics. Kracauer was fascinated by picture palaces like the Babylon. He called them ‘optical fairylands’ where ‘the uncontrolled anarchy of the world – is festooned with drapes and forced back into a unity that no longer exists.’ In the making of Human Terrain, we wrestled with this dilemma, how to represent the anarchy, chaos and contingency of war without resorting to some kind of fake, cinematic narrative?
This dilemma hits you full in the face if you walk a few streets further east from Kracauer-Platz, where you run into Clausewitzstrasse, named of course after Carl von, who knew a thing or two about war. He’s best known for saying ‘war is continuation of politics by other means’. But he also was aware of how the fog and friction of war can undo the best-laid plans, the most virtuous of intentions. He said ‘war is a realm of chance’. We try to get Clausewitz and Kracauer right in Human Terrain.
Believe it or not, just two streets down from Clausewitzstrasse, is Walter-Benjamin-Platz. I mean, who names these streets? Benjamin was perhaps the keenest observer of the interwar, when the arts of politics, war, and cinema become one and the same (a period not unlike our own). I told the crowd that I considered Human Terrain to be an interwar documentary, investigating a period when the spectacle of a war devolves into a permanent war of spectacles. Which of course gave me the opportunity to present my favorite Walt quote: ‘In times of terror, when everything is a conspiracy, everyone must play the detective’.
Being in Berlin, being here, at the Babylon, could not help but influence the interpretation of the film that emerged from the Q &A that followed. I’m not sure if it produced a better understanding of the film so much as it confirmed the warnings of Eisenhower and Kracauer, Clausewitz and Benjamin, that no single explanation, no stadtplan, no Human Terrain System could possibly make sense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which reason played so little part.
But the final joke was on me. One month after my Berliner Zeitung op-ed, one week after the Human Terrain screening, a campaign was launched to rename Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of another US President, a pre-emptive strike was staged: the street signs in front of the Babylon were papered over with a new name, ‘RonaldReagan Strasse.’