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Feminizing Torture

Hitler’s Women and Ours

by CLANCY SIGAL

When I attended the Nuremberg war crimes trial in the U.S. zone of defeated Germany I looked at the 22 indicted top Nazis, all men, and wondered, where are the women?

As a young GI I didn’t know much about what would later be called the Holocaust – the industrialized murder of Jews and other “subhumans”.  But around my home barracks I’d see masses of German women working incredibly hard to clean up bomb rubble and dig out the corpses.  They were so humble and submissive to us their friendly American conquerors, I kept thinking, what were they up to just a year or so ago?

Now, due to such scholarly books as Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies, we know much more about how widespread was German young women’s active complicity in mass murder, especially in the “bloodlands” of eastern Europe.

At least half a million German women, the baby boomers of the World War One,  eagerly went into Nazi-Occupied lands not only as concentration camp guards but in the “female” occupations as teachers, nurses, lovers and mistresses of SS killers.  Patriotically they even volunteered to shoot, stab and torture prisoners.

In other words, aside from infamous camp sadists like Elsa Koch and Irma Gries (hanged for their crimes), masses
OR Book Going Rougeof German ordinary girls saw what was happening – systematic mass murder – as a career move, a form of female liberation.  (If you watch old newsreels, note especially the women’s hysterical Nazi salutes and over-the-top approval of a preening Hitler.)

Jump to today.  I’ve just seen Katherine Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty as well as some episodes of the immensely popular, award-winning TV series Homeland.

The heroines of both the TV series and movie are young attractive CIA woman agents, single (apparently) and about the age of the German women who “went east”.  In Zero Dark Thirty asexual “Maya” is played by Jessica Chastain as a female fury fanatically, cruelly, patriotically obsessed with capturing and killing Osama Bin Laden.  (“Bring me somebody to kill,” her CiA boss demands and she complies.)  Part of her job is to witness and encourage the sadistic torture of Arab prisoners.  These brutal film sequences spare us nothing and go on for a tortuously long screen time allowing us – and the wincing heroine – to enjoy the pain.

Zero Dark Thirty is torture porn.

I’m so intimidated by Homeland’s Emmys and fan loyalty, not to mention almost unanimous critical praise, I hesitate to connect this show and its reckless, self-confessed “bipolar” CIA heroine with Bigelow’s austere heroine with her taste for sadism.  And – what a stretch, right? – to Hitler’s furies.

Homeland did three full seasons of multi-episodes.  So it’s no spoiler to reveal that the heroine “Carrie” (Claire Danes), a creepy, ethics-challenged, guilt-scarred young CIA counter-intelligence employee, has a “crazy” womanly intuition that a returned Marine hero (Damian Lewis), who has been an Al Queda captive for eight years, is actually a sleeper double or is it triple agent?

Carrie’s bi-polarism is a brilliant ploy that attracts female audiences who can identify with her “rapid mood cycling” (which seems in real life to affect more women than men).  I’ve seen Homeland fan blogs where female viewers express heart-wrenching sympathy for Carrie’s mental problem.  These women fans are intensely curious about the particular med she takes to control her unstable moods because they wonder how Claire Danes can stay so slim on a pill that makes most real women put on weight.  Almost no fan seems to have a problem with Carrie’s enthusiastic six weeks of electro-shock treatment to bring her back to normal.  (ECT is coming back into fashion.)  Fans swallow whole implausible plot twists that would put a daytime soap opera to shame.

The feminizing of torture probably is here to stay on our screens.

As with Jessica Chastain’s Maya, Carrie’s all-male bosses doubt her intelligence and (with some evidence) her sanity.  Her main agency supporter is a bearded Jew brilliantly underplayed by Mandy Patinkin who seems the nicest and most reasonable of spooks.  Did I say that the show was originally conceived in Israel and made by the same team that did 24?

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.