Torture at the Movies

In the beginning is torture. We confront a man being slowly and systematically brutalized by fellow men. The victim’s gaze is flattened, his body is battered, and his dignity is crushed. All the while the torturer regards his work with an unperturbed matter-of-factness, succeeded by satisfaction when the victim finally offers information critical to a nation’s security.

Zero Dark Thirty? No. The Battle of Algiers.

Nearly half a century divides the making of the two movies. (The Battle of Algiers was released in 1966, but due to resistance in official circles, was not shown in France until 1971.) More than the passage of time, to be sure, divides the two films. One is (deliberately) grainy black and white, the other color (as well as, toward the end, an otherworldly greenish-yellow); one is based on a war, the other on a manhunt; one was made by an Italian resistance fighter and Communist, the other is the work of a glamorous Hollywood figure; one is hailed by the Left, the other is embraced by the Right.

What the filmmakers Gillo Pontecorvo and Kathryn Bigelow have in common, however, is a preoccupation with torture. For both artists, no other issue goes deeper into the dark heart of their times as does our deliberate and studied infliction of intense pain on other human beings—an act memorably described by Elaine Scarry in her study The Body in Pain as “world-destroying.” At first glance, Bigelow and Pontecorvo treat the ways in which we destroy another’s world in similar fashion: dispassionate, clinical and, above all, neutral. But a closer look suggests important differences that speak to the growing debate over the film.

When it was released in the United States, The Battle of Algiers opened with a caveat: No newsreel footage was used in the film. The notice underscored, of course, how fully Pontecorvo had realized his artistic goals. With his cinematographer, Marcello Gatti, Pontecorvo recreated the immediacy and spontaneity of events that had not yet grown cold.

In his quest for realism, Pontecorvo went even further. Apart from the actor Jean Martin, who portrays Colonel Mathieu, Pontecorvo filled his movie with nonprofessionals. In fact, some of them had acted in the actual events recreated by the film, most notably the Algerian revolutionary Saadi Yacef, the National Liberation Front leader whose memoir partly informs the film. Pontecorvo described himself as working under the “dictatorship of truth”—a dramatic but odd metaphor for someone who fought against Mussolini.

Moreover, as any metaphor necessarily recalls, reality is always mediated by art. The art, in this case, is studied artlessness—the choreographed spontaneity of documentary film. Every frame of The Battle of Algiers reflects Pontecorvo’s sustained effort to disguise his role as director. Yet this simple truth was lost on many viewers. This includes the American military and intelligence officials who watched The Battle of Algiers as the 2003 invasion of Iraq began to stumble. As a flier for the showing suggests—“The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film”—the film had documentary value. At the screening, the audience was asked to consider “the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.”

The film’s opening scene seems to support the argument that torture works. As the shivering victim, wearing only white underpants, sits on an operating table, his torturers are carefully putting away their tools of the trade. Among the utensils used by French torturers were magnetos, or electrical coils that delivered a high-voltage shock, and waterboarding. In this particular case, the victim’s scorched chest suggests a blowtorch was used. Whatever the means, however, they apparently justified the results in Algiers. When Colonel Mathieu strides into the room, he learns from the elated torturer that the prisoner has craché (spat out) the hiding place of Ali La Pointe, the last of the FLN leaders.

In an interview shortly before his death, in 2006, Pontecorvo observed: “When faced with the choice of distancing oneself from reality or using an effect that might be used to win the popularity with the public, I always renounce these possibilities and stay close to reality.” But as he knew, reality is rarely straightforward. The posttorture scene, in this regard, is telling: the neutral framing tempers our horror at what has taken place with the belief that it was necessary and effective. For the torturers—and audiences—the agony of the tortured evaporates in the heat of the torturer’s motivation: to save lives and win a war.

But a funny thing happened on the way from reality to screen: That episode never occurred. Realistic, the scene most certainly is; real, it most certainly is not. The French military found Ali La Pointe thanks to its extensive network of double agents and informers. While torture did help the French crack open the FLN’s pyramid scheme of militants, a recent wave of memoirs and histories reveal that the French military under Jacques Massu—Colonel Mathieu’s real-life model—gathered most of their information from les bleus, the double agents whose (blue) workers’ dungarees allowed them to pass unnoticed in the Casbah.

Why, then, the invented scene? Pontecorvo may well have thought this is what transpired. As Darius Rejali notes in his remarkable work Torture and Democracy, the “real significance of The Battle of Algiers is rhetorical. It dates the startling moment when modern democracies began official torture apology.” But this possibility is trumped by Pontecorvo’s deeper concern: The relentless regard of his camera reveals that torture may have helped win the battle but that it lost the war, as well as part of France’s soul. Not long before his death in 2002, Massu made this same point, telling the newspaper Le Monde that “Torture is not indispensable in time of war, and we could have gotten on very well without it.

In the end, Pontecorvo’s realism obliges us to reflect on torture’s real costs. Is there a similar space for reflection in Zero Dark Thirty?

Even for those like me who have not yet seen the film, advance reviews suggest a crucial parallel between Bigelow’s and Pontecorvo’s aims. Zero Dark Thirty declares at the outset that it is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” while the soundtrack echoes with the recorded phone calls of men and women trapped in the maelstrom of the World Trade Center. Bigelow describes her approach as “almost journalistic” and, in a recent interview in The New Yorker, double-downed on this claim: “The film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” Or, as Maya, the film’s hero, reportedly tells a tortured prisoner: Just be truthful.

Just be truthful: Bigelow’s ideal no less than Pontecorvo’s. Does Zero Dark Thirty comfort or contradict those who believe torture was a necessary evil? Once the film opens nationwide, we will have the chance to answer the question. But we already know one truth, offered by Jean-Paul Sartre during the Algerian bloodbath: “Torture is neither civilian nor military, nor is it specifically French: It is a plague infecting our whole era.”

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010). His next book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will be published next year by Harvard University Press.

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