The Ennobling Embittering Struggle

The Human Condition: No Greater Love (1959)
The Road to Eternity (1959)
A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Playing at the Film Forum, July 18-August 2

In life man faces three roads. If he takes the road on the right he will eat up the wolves. If he takes the road on the left the wolves will eat him. And if he takes the road in the middle he will eat up himself. —Anton Chekhov

The highlight of the Film Forum’s Nakadai retrospective, The Human Condition showcases Nakadai’s capacity for suffering. No character in the history of cinema suffers as much as Nakadai’s Kaji in The Human Condition.

Kaji suffers like Hamlet, from being unable to make up his mind. He suffers from performing good deeds in environments that guarantee he will be punished for each one: a desolate iron mine in Manchuria; the brutal killing fields at the end of World War II, and the impenetrable forests and forced-labor camps of the aftermath of the war. Kaji suffers from idiot superiors, enemies with grudges who re-surface at the worst possible moment, being smarter than everyone else and reminding them all the time, seeking virtue where virtue will get you killed, a deeply confused political ideology and an unbending will. His character is his fate, and his fate springs from so many tiny, un-nameable moments. In that regard and many others, The Human Condition presents a wholly unsentimental and accurate depiction of life and its rhythms.

The Human Condition is a rare masterpiece with Nakadai at its center, a Tolstoyian, Beckettian, Dreiserian broad-sweep narrative presenting the fate of a country in the life of a man and the life of all of us in that man’s fate. It is impossible not to recognize every moron boss that ever persecuted us, every wrong turn that seemed like such a ripping idea at the time, every unforeseeable betrayal and every transcendent, tiny moment of peace, like Nakadai watching a refugee prostitute splash fresh spring water onto her face in the brilliant morning sun.

The Human Condition is ten hours long. Let me rephrase that: The Human Condition is ten hours long! I sat through it rapt. You don’t often (or, like, ever) experience a film that takes longer to sit through than to read the book from which it was adapted. This is the most obsessive adaptation ever made.

Kobayashi’s visual style is epic. Epically epic. He shoots in massive wide-screen compositions, full of rich contrast and starkly defined horizon lines. Seeing The Human Condition is like looking through the Hubble Telescope: you realize that everything you know is wrong. Kobayashi is the major source of composition and tone for Bergman and Kubrick and I would suspect Tarkovsky. There are frames (figures on dark slag-heaps against a brilliant sky) that seem to later re-appear in Bergman’s films and entire scenes (a drill sergeant beats his recruits in a grim barracks) that show up in Kubrick.

The director’s formal genius bears the weight of the film and drives the story, but the heartbreaking sense of connection to Kaji’s struggles derives from the natural, realist dialogue. This new print has astonishingly idiomatic, conversational subtitles, and they prove the universality of language, especially when someone is being a dick or someone hasn’t a clue what they think of their lives as they live. Kobayashi is light-years beyond Kurosawa or almost any other contemporaneous director in his depiction of women (Bergman and Antonioni are exceptions that come to mind). The women are on the sidelines of the story as they are on the sidelines of the war but are never reduced to Noh caricature. They live as complex inner and outer lives as the men. The story presents them as matter-of-factly flawed and perverse as the men, and their equality in lust and determination to survive has no cinematic equal.

Contributor

David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.

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