It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018. One hundred years and a few hours ago, the first World War concluded with an armistice. The use of the word “concluded” is rather unwarranted here, because twenty years later a conflict that strode on a more technologically advanced basis shook earth and its inhabitants. The use of the word “shook” is not allegorical in this sentence, as the second world war did indeed end with the massive eruptions of two nuclear detonations.
Last night I watched in horror the despair of the German submarine soldiers onboard a U-Boat that was under attack by British soldiers during World War II. I had found the film a few days earlier, and I need to admit that it took me a substantial amount of time in order to sift through the heap of what constitutes the common stock of Netflix’s offerings, before I landed on anything that appeared to have some notion of value and content.
The film is narrated from the perspective of the “aggressor” and that makes it particularly interesting. Here I am seeing the victimization of the victimizers. That is a particularly interesting vantage point as it rips the discourse off of its use of victimization as a justification for the criminality of the war. Too many films and books, especially of the type that mainstream Hollywood loves to utilize as a cash grab, hone on into the scapegoat of portraying armed conflict as an evil act imposed from without. That, inherently, makes it unnecessary for the capitalist-artist to have to address the controversial question of “why do we fight?” Das Boot is void of that. The tormented souls whose life and misery is chronicled in the film are the aggressors, they are the bad guys, they attack an already burning Allied tanker and then watch in shock and awe as burning human figures jump into waters that are covered with oil that is ablaze. And they watch in horror as the sailors swim towards their boat, which intentionally distances itself from the inferno and makes itself unreachable by the dying men.
I can almost never watch a film from start to end in one sitting. When I arrive home, generally past sunset, and after I hurriedly take care of the usual chores, I have a mere hour to dive into life as it must be lived. The rest of my time is, mostly, occupied by the necessities of survival: sleeping, making money, and transitioning from one to the other. Such is life of a bourgeois white-collar mental labourer in the last decades of the reign of Capitalism. Hence, I had to pause the film and then it slipped off of my mind until I stumbled upon it again on a list published by CBC, carefully scheduled to show up on the website a few days before the Remembrance Day, and leave no trace behind on the day in which no one is supposed to dare to ask about the futility and criminality of the concept of military conflict and the supposed valour encoded and experienced in it. Alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist, Das Boot is another testament to the validity of the question “why do we fight?”
I am in Stratford, a small town one hundred and fifty kilometers west of Toronto. I have never been this far west. I used to live and work in Waterloo a few years ago and, thus, the first half of the road brought in notable memories to me. I approached, and passed, Shakespeare, an even smaller town in the eastern outskirt of Stratford, and then I found myself in the usual scenery that identifies almost any small town in Ontario. There is always a singular busy road that is crossed by dirt roads and other more commonly commuted paved passages that lead to farms and cemeteries in the horizon. Antique shops, diners, rundown houses, and the usual car that advertises on its windshield that it is up for grabs, are the ever-present decorations along such roads. Then the town erupts into the view. There is always an elaborately erected and neatly maintained core to the town, where the main diners are and which is the place to go for the dwellers of the urban area as well as the passing tourists and curious individuals who travel from a distance to soak in the exquisite vitality of the town people.
And that is where I am. Seated in a Balzac’s Cafe on Ontario street. I had been to Balzac’s cafes, in Toronto for sure and also possibly in other towns in Ontario, but B. told me that this is where the action started. This is the first Balzac’s cafe, according to her. “It used to be a hardware store, and that gives it its rustic charm”, B said. B’s comments are preempted by my inquiry into what I can do in Stratford. She has just poured my second cup of coffee and I have just told her that the steak and eggs was fascinating. “Fascinating? A breakfast being called fascinating?” she asks and then leaves me in order to respond to another customer. When she comes back to the bar, my place of choice in small diners like the one that I am in now as well as larger pubs and eateries in the city, she tells me about K., “the only other person that I know that uses this word in this context”. We are a gang of three, I think, but before I can utter these words, she starts combing her mind in search of an attraction in Stratford that she can guide me to. She is short of ideas and, therefore, stares into my eyes and asks me “what do you do?” Her eyes are gray or blue, I cannot recall, as I was absorbed into the deep glister of the spheres of life that sent out waves of livelihood and mischievousness for the entire time that I was with her. She must be in her fifties. I imagine that she has had a full life. One spotted by lovers and hardships and moments of desperation and elevation, intermittently shaking her vessel to the core.
“You mean what I do for a living?” I ask. “Well, that, and also other things; what attracts your attention?” she replies. “I read, and watch films, and go to plays, and while on that topic, what’s up with the festival?” I am referring to the Stratford Festival that I have heard a lot about and have never attended. “They are only doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on December 2nd this year”, she says. I remember watching the film, or rather the communal performance that included it at the Apollo Theatre in Kitchener. The sight of people throwing toilet paper in the air and the request from the owner of the cinema to avoid targeting the screen by the water guns. I even took one of the playing cards that were dispersed on the cinema floor with me when I left. “I have watched the film, it was hilarious” I say. “You need to watch the live performance, or you haven’t seen anything” she says as I bathe in her irises.
Back to the topic, she is warmly inquisitive of the lone man who has driven one hundred and fifty kilometers to have a non-remarkable breakfast that is the staple of any diner in the one-thousand-kilometer radius around where I live. “What do you do in life?” she is now asking about my packcheck, I reckon. “I am a Machine Learning scientist, I replace people with machines, I am disgusting.” I give her my canned response. “How fascinating, that is indeed disgusting!” she stares back into my eyes and after a pause that takes a few seconds to converge into any tangible thought she tells me about the Balzac’s Cafe.
I want to pay a visit to the cafe and, therefore, I decide to get back to my car, take out the laptop from the trunk, and spend a while in the cafe doing what I do in these circumstances; a hard-to-explain combination of life and work. I don’t need to think about it, it always comes to me when I install myself behind a table in the cafe and before my latte starts to consider letting out the heat that makes its oily bitterness so deliciously desirable.
I need to cross Ontario Street before reaching the church parking lot that I decided to let my compact SUV squat in. The lights are red and I have a few seconds of existence that are void of any purpose. As I casually canvas my surroundings, I notice that a cat is staring at me. The gray feline is taped into a pole and is advertising the Feline Film Festival. It seems to have happened two days ago in the basement of a Presbyterian church, and as the signage appears to be suggesting, it featured the “Best of the Best” short cat videos. Did anyone tell her friend, “hey I am going to this FFF thing, do you want to check it out?” Or is that an unintentional harmless ploy by the mad random generator that governs the world? Is it a mere coincidence that the three f’s are lower-case? I don’t know.
I approach the car and for the umpteenth time take pleasure at the fact that the hatch opens upon my touch. Wonders of technology! I am carrying a pendant that belongs to this iron and plastic creature in my pocket and therefore it listens to me without the need for me to ask it to. That is enjoyable. I am a master and the black bent down piece of technological marvel is my obedient servant. And what’s more, I don’t need to feel any agony when I make it accelerate and maneuver as I wish. Which slave owner of the eighteenth century would have hesitated upon learning about this possibility?
As I feel and enjoy the inner warmth that is sliding on my skin in this cold November day, I feel something else bubbling up inside me. B., K., the triple F, words start spilling out. I run into the cafe and start typing “It is 2:37 pm on Sunday November 11st, 2018”.