Monday, October 20, 2008

Gentlemen's Disagreement

Elia Kazan was a Greek-American theater and film director who, aside from introducing Marlon Brando to the screen, ratted on a number of Hollywood lefties to the notorious HUAC, or House of Unamerican Activities Committee. Kazan was able to keep working in films, which is probably the only reason he did the ratting. Somewhat ironically, he also acquired a reputation for socially committed films.

In 1947 Kazan made a film called Gentleman's Agreement, about a newspaper reporter who poses as a Jew in order to find out if there is any anti-Semitism in America. As incredible as this premise may sound, the film ends on an unfortunate false note of triumph. The reporter, having found anti-Semitism everywhere he goes, comes out from under his Jewish alias as a born-again Gentile. The unintentionally (it is to be hoped) ridiculous moral of the film was Thank God I'm a goy!

Everyone, whether on volunteer work or professional assignment, who observes and reports on the conditions of ordinary life in the poorest places of the world carries around with him his own diplomatic immunity in the form of a foreign passport and a return ticket to places where injustice is merely a gentleman's agreement rather than national policy. No matter how hellish the lives of the people he lives among may be, for him there is at least the promise that it is not his life, that sooner or later he can go home to the comforts of his developed world, to the conveniences and orderliness of an up-to-date post-industrial consumer society.

Then there was Moritz Thomsen. After his four year stint in the Peace Corps was over, he, too, went home to the States. But what he had seen and endured in Ecuador with the handful of people he had befriended and immortalized in his great book Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, was too much for him to simply put away like so many photographs into an album. Personal disappointments, such as his dying father bequeathing his entire fortune to the Humane Society, helped to make up Thomsen's mind to sell off what little was left that bound him to his homeland and return to Ecuador, to Ramon and his family and to the farm on the River of Emeralds.

In 1976, Joseph Losey, himself a former blacklisted Hollywood director, made a film called Mr. Klein, which is a kind of anti-Gentleman's Agreement. Set during the German occupation of France, it is about a wealthy art dealer named Robert Klein who becomes confused with a Jew who goes by the same name. He spends the duration of the film searching for the other Mr Klein and clear his name. The film concludes when, having pursued his Jewish doppelganger into a stadium where Jews are being herded onto trains for transport to a concentration camp, Klein follows the Jew, swept by the crush of the crowd, into one of the train cars. It is only when the door closes on him and the train begins to move that Klein realizes where he is and where he is going. Surprised, perhaps, by the determination with which the "authorities" were seeking to destroy him - the Jew - Klein decides to join him, to subsume his fate with the Jew's.

In effect, that is what Moritz Thomsen did on returning to Ecuador. After many misadventures, triumphs and disasters, he died there in 1991, of cholera.

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