Total War: A Film Reminiscence

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In those days, the only way to see David Lynch’s early, short films was to start or join a film club, pool resources, and rent them from some place like Facets in Chicago. It must have been around 1978, or maybe earlier, when they finally arrived, in turquoise colored plastic cases: The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970). 16 mm prints, threaded through the projector by the President of the Bowling Green Film Club. Because shipping was free, we had also ordered a third film, from 1948, called Total War. It didn’t star anyone famous. It turned out that after the Lynch films screened, everyone wanted to go outside to talk about them, so I stayed behind and was the only one to watch Total War.

It was in black and white, except for the flashbacks, which were in color. Maybe colorized. An American pilot crash-landed in a wet field outside a French village and was taken in by a family whose daughter, the pilot came to suspect, was a Nazi collaborator. She was beautiful, and not in a movie actress way, and I remember thinking that maybe this was an Italian neorealist film, but it didn’t make sense that it was set in France and that the dialog was in English. There was a dog with a limp, I remember, that was poisoned and that died terribly and melodramatically, clawing at its own stomach, and that’s when the pilot began to suspect that the daughter was on the Nazi side, and that she had murdered the dog—her own dog from childhood—to prove her allegiance to the Reich somehow.

There was a castle-like factory, I think, not far from the farm house that sheltered the American pilot, and that’s where he and the girl went to have long, philosophical conversations (the French girl speaking English in a beautiful, broken, menacing way that suggested she knew English better than she was leading on), conversations that inevitably turned into Production Code-era love-making scenes that were interrupted by machine-gun fire or the breaking of dawn. That’s when the flashbacks happened, for some reason, at dawn, as the factory engines began to ramp up for the day (it was a secret factory where bullets were manufactured for the French Resistance, although I can’t remember how the film conveyed this). In the first flashback, Total War switched suddenly to color, and it wasn’t a nostalgic flashback like you’d expect, but a bloody one that showed the slow, methodical slaughter of a pig by two men whose faces were obscured on a farm from what appeared to be the American pilot’s childhood memory, although why his dreams were presented in color in the film was never clear. (One suspected that the filmmakers were secret experimentalists or avant-gardists subverting the war-movie genre from within.)

Then the dream switched without warning to something very simple, so simple as to be terrifying. An open meadow bathed in orange sun, a blue sky, the meadow-grass and wildflowers moving in the wind, and a man on a black horse slowly crossing the meadow from screen left to right, the camera stationary. One thing that’s always bothered me about that scene: it was silent except for what appeared to be a gunshot. At least that’s what I remember from that night, watching the film that no one else wanted to see because it wasn’t by David Lynch. The gunshot. But no corresponding action in the scene. Neither the horse nor the horseman reacted to the sound, as if it was meant only for the audience, some sort of secret signal from the filmmakers to us.

After this, the film fell back into the expected patterns: the American pilot, on the mend, began to suspect with more confidence that the girl was a Nazi sympathizer; he lied and told her that he was Jewish in hopes of catching a reaction from her, and that his presence at the farm endangered her family; the girl went out for a walk in the woods in the middle of night, unaware that the pilot watched her from the window of his room. Just then a shot rang out in the forest and, although the pilot’s first thought was that this was a trap, and that perhaps the girl had indeed seen him watching from the window, he pulled on his wool coat and dashed out into the cool night. For the next several minutes, the film went black. Instead of images, there was nothing except the sound of the pilot running blind through the night, his labored breathing, his footsteps across the field, the call of an owl. Twice the pilot called out the girl’s name breathlessly as he ran, until another shot rang out, and the moon cleared from behind the clouds. There at his feet was a young man in a torn soldier’s uniform that appeared to be German, although it as hard to tell in the dark, and the uniform from what I could tell wasn’t even World War II era. The soldier grasped his throat, obviously dying from gunshot wounds. The pilot leaned down to listen to the man’s dying words, in the moonlight.

“She can’t . . .” said the German soldier before breathing his last in a gurgling whisper. Before the meaning of this settled in, the screen grew brighter, in flickers, and the pilot look back over his shoulder to see—in a point-of-view shot—a fire in the distance. He took off running back to the farm, and within a few seconds it became clear that all was lost. By the time he arrived the farm house was engulfed in flames and the pilot fell to his knees and slumped forward. Then something very strange happened: the film switched to color again, but not because it was a dream or flashback. Bathed in the yellow light of the fire, the pilot remained hunched forward in sorrow and despair as a shadow—the shadow of a human being—emerged from frame right.

It was the girl, in color, wearing a bright red beret. For the first time you could see that her eyes were blue. She kneeled down beside the pilot and put her hand beneath his chin and gently lifted his face toward hers. By this time the color had become almost psychedelically saturated, with both the girl and the pilot bathed in the hellish, red light and black leaping shadows from the fire. The camera slowly panned down, revealing her clenched fist, which she slowly opened, palm up. In her hand she held a small, silver swastika, which gleamed in the light. It seemed to move imprecisely in the palm of her hand, as if animated. Then film switched again back to black and white, and the familiar Hollywood music began, signaling the end. The camera slowly panned back up to pilot’s face, which wore an expression of agony or ecstasy. After holding there for a moment, the camera continued panning up to the sky, revealing the moon, partially obscured by the black smoke from the smoldering farm house.

At the time, I thought the ending was clear: the girl had torn the swastika from the uniform of the German soldier she had shot in the woods. She was a double agent, working for the Resistance, and murdered the German before he had a chance to sneak into the farm house to murder the pilot. But later, as I thought more about the film (which I only watched that once) I wondered if the swastika might have been the girl’s confession, an affirmation of what the pilot had suspected: that she was a Nazi and worse yet, a Nazi out of choice, not coercion. There was also the fact of the burning farm house, which seemed to me symbolic of the irrational terror of total war. But back then we found symbols in everything. Afterwards, I tried to explain the film to my friends, but the more I talked about it the more confused it became in my mind. I’ve never really searched for the film. I have no desire to see it again. In a way, it was the most horrifying film I’ve ever watched, and I watched it alone.


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →