March to nowhere
Two men pass through the Atlas Mountains: one has been arrested as a murderer, the other is guarding him. An existentialist drama unfolds against the backdrop of the Algerian war of Liberation. “Far from Men” opens on 9 July in German cinemas. Our author Phil Butland has seen a preview.
In Albert Camus’ 1942 novel “The Stranger”, the French Algerian Meursault shoots a nameless Arab Algerian and is sentenced to death. The author describes the inner thoughts of Meursault, without showing any obvious interest in the wider social situation. The Arab population of Algeria remains a backdrop for Camus’ existentialist drama.
The work shows the contradictions in the political thought of the philosopher and writer. On the one hand, Camus was a member of the French Communist Party and comrade of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; on the other hand he opposed the national liberation movement in his native Algeria. As a member of the French colonial class, he lacked empathy for the Arab population.
In 1957, Camus published the short story “The Guest”. It lacks the literary sophistication of “The Stranger”, but contains the same contradictions. This story revolves around a French schoolteacher, Daru, and an Arab Algerian, who is only referred to in the story as “the Arab”. Once more, Camus is only interested in the moral dilemma confronting the French protagonist. The Arab is important only inasmuch as he creates the dilemma – he is not a human capable of acting or thinking independently.
David Oelhoffen’s new film “Far from Men” is based on this short story. In the film, the Arab is named – as Mohamed. There is also some recognition of the political situation in revolutionary Algeria.
United against fascism
It is the year 1954. Less than a decade earlier, French colonialists and Arab Algerians fought side-by-side in the same army regiments against fascism. Now the Algerian independence movement is fighting for the same freedoms in their own country. Colonial France’s response is brutal repression against the uprising. The film explicitly shows war crimes committed by the French army.
Former French soldier Daru (Viggo Mortensen) is now a teacher in a remote Algerian village. He tries to stay out of the conflict and sides neither with the occupiers nor with the oppressed. He tries to carry out thus even-handedness in his school, which also contains Arab children – Daru is indeed one of the few colonists who maintains social contact with the Arab population.
As the film unfolds, we learn that Daru’s family is from Spain. This adds to his outsider status amongst the French colonial class. Nevertheless, he obviously enjoys many privileges and the outbreak of the war upsets his quiet life. He was born in Algeria has no other place to which he could flee. But he is also unwilling to join his Arab former army comrades in their fight for independence.
The story begins with gendarmes bringing the prisoner Mohamed (Reda Kateb) to Daru. They order Daru to accompany Mohamed to the jail the next town, where Mohamed will be tried for murder. They cannot do this themselves as they have been drafted to quell the uprising.
At first, Daru refuses to collaborate with the occupiers – not out of principle, but because he’d prefer to stay in his classroom and avoid having to take sides.
Mohamed explains that the only alternative to going to jail is for him to return to his village. His return would inflame existing tribal conflict and could result in new bloodshed. This statement shows certain Orientalist undertones (witting or unwitting) from the screenwriter. Even though the film has clearly positioned itself against the colonial occupation, it also gives the impression of an Arab population which is unable to govern itself.
Daru and Mohamed make their way towards the jail. They can’t trust anyone that they meet, whether Arabs or French settlers. This includes a group of insurgents – including former members of Daru’s old army unit – who are indeed shown in a positive light and treat the teacher and his prisoner with respect. At the same time, they make it perfectly clear that they would kill Daru without hesitation, were he to support the occupying army.
On the wrong side of history
At the end of Daru offers Mohamed the choice of going to jail or hiding in the desert. He himself turns around and returns to his village, although he can no longer teach there. This is one of a number of decisions made in the film which are made not through choice but through the absence of any credible alternative.
Daru is a decent man and tried to remain true to his principles. But in his desire to remain neutral, he places himself on the wrong side of history. The US American activist and professor or “history from below”, Howard Zinn, coined the slogan: “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train”. This is true for liberal members of a colonial class – whether in Algeria the 1950s, South Africa in the eighties or in Israel today.
“Far from men” raises many questions and – quite correctly – doesn’t try to answer them all for us. Unfortunately, for all the questions that it raises, the actual content of the film is quite sparse. In the end, most of the film consists of a prolonged conversation between two men wandering through a barren landscape. It is only when the insurgents appear that the level of discussion reaches a level that allows the film some space to breathe.
Towards the end, the film hits one sour note for me. The men visit a brothel to reward themselves for their struggles. The occasion is far from joyful, and brings up the pain and alienation endured by Mortensen’s character. Yet he is allowed to experience such complex emotions – the role of the women is just to illuminate the ennui suffered by their male contemporaries.
Nevertheless, the acting is excellent throughout. Mortensen’s superb performance also includes impressive linguistic skills. “Far from men” was filmed in French – although Mortensen speaks English, Spanish and Danish more fluently. To show that he hasn’t been slacking, he also speaks a little Arabic in the film. Mortensen is at his most expressive, though, when he remains silent. The film is worth seeing for his body language alone.
“Far from Men”, Directed by David Oelhoffen, France 2014. In German cinemas from July 9, 2015
The original version of this review appeared on the marx21 Website on July 8, 2105: http://marx21.de/den-menschen-fern-wanderung-nach-nirgendwo/