Doubt, Denunciation and Denial: The Jewish Experience In Post-Holocaust Europe

In the years following World War 2, the Jews of Europe faced an uphill battle to gain reparations for, and even recognition of, the ordeal that they had suffered through. Whether it was having governments fail to accommodate their needs and acknowledge the horrors they had endured–as in the Soviet Union and the Netherlands–or being unable to reclaim their lost children–as in Belgium and France–European Jews faced hardship at every corner following the Holocaust. In several countries, such as Poland and the Netherlands, support from foreign aid organizations was all that they could rely on, and in many cases, that wasn’t enough, as thousands left their native Europe for Israel or the United States. Some countries had very distinct reasons for adopting such similar policies to one another, while others–like Germany–had completely unique policies and circumstances of their own. All of these situations and motivations combined to form the multi-layered map that was Post-Holocaust Europe, and understanding why all this denial, denunciation, and in some cases, violence, occurred is crucial to ensuring that such appalling re-victimization never again arises in the aftermath of future genocides.

In the decades after World War 2, authorities in several countries refused to accommodate Holocaust survivors, and acknowledge that the Jews had been treated any differently than other people. This took place in the USSR, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Each of these nations had very distinct reasons for doing this, beyond simple anti-Semitism. In the USSR, for instance, the Communist government was trying to “normalize” its citizenry–i.e. to eliminate diversity so as to ensure loyalty to only the State. This was a policy that dated back to the 30s, and continued into the 50s, when all the Jewish theaters, writers associations, and schools were either closed or integrated into the Communist framework. To the Soviets, setting up monuments in honor of, or establishing aid organizations for, the Jewish victims of Nazism would be marking the Jews as a separate, special group, and this, supposedly, would lead to them breaking away from the USSR, something that the Communists couldn’t let happen. Belgium, by contrast, had a very different reason for not supporting Holocaust survivors. They wanted to return to their pre-war liberal policy–a policy that didn’t discriminate based on race or religion. The problem with this policy was that it left nationality as the only criteria by which to distinguish and accommodate people, and since nearly all the Jews living in Belgium weren’t citizens, they couldn’t rely on the State for help. Not only this, but as Frank Caestecker points out in The Jews Are Coming Back, the Belgian government, “classified all (former) citizens of enemy states indiscriminately, even if they had been persecuted by the Occupation authorities.” The worst example of this lack of sensitivity towards the Jewish experience came in the form of the Belgian authorities arresting, monitoring, and confiscating the property of German-born Jewish refugees on suspicion of having Nazi sympathies. But if Jews couldn’t expect help from the Belgian government for not being citizens, they likewise couldn’t expect to get it from the Dutch authorities, and for the exact opposite reason. Unlike Belgium, where most of the country’s Jewish residents lacked citizenship, in the Netherlands, 89% of the 140,000 Jews living there were fully integrated citizens. And yet, in one of history’s great tragic ironies, nearly 50 % of Belgium’s Jews, who weren’t naturalized, survived the Holocaust, while in the Netherlands, where they nearly all were, only 35,000 of the original 140,000 were left after the war. This was due to the fact that Holland had the highest level of Nazi collaboration out of any Western European country. After 1945, the Dutch government did its best to sweep this fact under the rug. Because of this, and because nearly all of the Jews who survived were Dutch citizens, they weren’t given any special treatment. They were regarded as victims, but in the way that all people at that time were. Their unique experience of being deported and exterminated was not taken into consideration when the government was deliberating on how best to reconstruct Dutch society. Dienke Hondius, also writing in The Jews Are Coming Back, asserts that this lack of assistance derived from “a patronizing attitude of a government towards a minority in Its society, determining what is good for the minority, and as such controlling the relations between the majority and the minority.” Whereas the Dutch government refused to compensate Jews because of a sense of guilt over what individual citizens had done, the French government’s adoption of a similar policy following the Holocaust was born out of shamed for its own actions. Unlike most other countries occupied by the Nazis, in France there was a direct participation of the state in the Holocaust. Following the country’s invasion in 1940, anti-Semitism became very open in France. French Parliamentarians started debating, not if they should restrict the rights of Jews, but how. In 1942, the Vichy government officially enacted anti-Jewish legislation that, among other things, dismissed them from the civil service and banned them from professions associated with finance. It even overturned the famous law of 1870 that granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews. As a result of all this collaboration, there was a great deal of reluctance to discuss the Holocaust and prosecute its perpetrators following the war. Doing so would essentially involve putting the entire French Army, Police Force, and even Railway System, on trial, something that the government simply wasn’t going to let happen. Thus, the French authorities, along with those in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the USSR, refused to accommodate Jewish Holocaust survivors, and acknowledge that they had been treated differently than other people during the war.

Another serious difficulty European Jews faced after the Holocaust was getting back lost children. In many countries–most notably France, Belgium and the Netherlands–Jewish parents hid their children in Christian Orphanages, or with Gentile families, to ensure their safety. After 1945, however, the question arose; who would these children stay with? In several cases, the biological parents of the children weren’t even alive, and the children themselves could only remember their foster families. But, to many Jews, these youngsters were necessary to the survival of the Jewish people, and therefore needed to be raised in a Jewish environment. As a result, several custody lawsuits ensued. Some of them lasted for years. Though each case was specific, certain patterns in how the judges ruled did emerge. In Belgium, for instance, the authorities, in keeping with their liberal worldview, rejected the Jewish demands that these children be brought up in their “native” environment, as this would entail the introduction of the category “Jew” in Belgian public law. Nevertheless, as Frank Caestecker points out in The Jews Are Coming Back “the courts […] ruled frequently in favor of the return to the child’s traditional (Jewish) environment.” Even so, many foster families and Orphanage heads fought the biological parents or their representatives to the bitter end, arguing that the children had a right to choose where, and with whom, they lived. The situation in France was, for the most part, quite similar. Though initially glad to see the Jews be stripped of their citizenship and positions, believing that they were “undesirable elements” who had “little by little invaded public institutions and the liberal professions in France,” as Renie Poznanski puts it in The Jews Are Coming Back, French Gentiles drastically changed their opinions once the Nazis started taking children. They now felt it their moral obligation to help. So, they started taking Jewish children into their homes. They started hiding them in Catholic institutions. This, in turn, lead to a great deal of conflict following the war over where they belonged. Unlike Belgium, however, where courts frequently ruled in favor of returning Jewish children to their biological families and traditional communities, in France, Jews had little success in reclaiming children who had been “adopted” by Gentiles. Many Christian parents had baptized Jewish children entrusted to their care during the occupation, and when efforts were made by Jewish relatives to regain custody of the orphans, many such parents argued that it would be unfair to tear the child from an environment in which he or she felt comfortable. Christian leaders generally echoed this sentiment, and, in some cases, so did Jewish leaders, who believed that returning the children would be a slap in the face of the families who had risked their lives to save them. The case in Holland was much the same as in France, with the War Orphans Commission oftentimes ruling that the children in non-Jewish homes should remain where they were. So, even if biological relatives were still alive, Jews faced considerable difficulty recovering children from Gentile families and Christian institutions that had sheltered them, adding just another hardship to the long list of ones Jewish survivors had to bear in the years following the Holocaust.

In many countries after the war, such as Poland and the Netherlands, foreign support from aid organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, was all that Jews could rely on, and oftentimes wasn’t enough to keep them there, since immigration to Israel and the United States from these places was extremely common. In each case, the reason for these organizations provision of support was slightly different. As aforementioned, in the years following the expulsion of the Nazis from their country, the Dutch government refused to acknowledge the unique experience of the Jews during the war, and likewise failed to provide specific compensation for them. Because of this, the JDC was one of the few organizations that Dutch Jews could rely on for support. Alas, this wasn’t enough to keep most of them in the Netherlands. With only 35,000 of them left in 1945, and the government reluctant to help them, many Dutch Jews felt that there wasn’t any point in staying. The Zionists, barely a force in pre-war Holland, became the new leadership of the Jewish Community there, and organized massive waves of immigration to Israel and elsewhere, leaving behind a mere 14,000 people in 1947, a number which failed to grow by 1960 due to continuous movement from the country. The story in Poland was quite similar. There too, foreign aid organizations like the JDC and ORT, Organization For Rehabilitation Through Training, played a huge part in reconstructing the Jewish community. Initially, they were more concerned with providing locals with skills and trades. During the war, they operated within ghettos, training prisoners to be tailors and shoe makers. This helped save thousands of lives, since the Nazis needed people with such skills. Then, after 1945, They helped create Communal structures. This was necessary because most of the people who survived were younger and had no education. So, the JDC and ORT helped set up Co-Ops to give these people skills. Equipment was brought to Poland from the US and Canada. They also set up a number of Department stores. Roughly 6000 people were employed within this system. These individuals, while a minority, helped to re-build the Jewish community in Poland. They sent their children to Jewish schools, they read Yiddish newspapers, etc. And all of this happened due to American aid. But, alas, as with Belgium, this support wasn’t enough to keep most Jews in Europe. Disillusioned by the events of the Holocaust , and fearful for their lives following the pogroms in Kielce and Krakow, the Jews of Poland viewed the country more as a stepping stone to either Israel or America, rather than as a place of permanent residency. Up to 70,000 people left in the immediate aftermath of these acts of violence alone. Now, to be fair, certain pieces of research, such as David Engel’s “The Reconstruction of Jewish Communal Institutions in Postwar Poland” indicate that there had been a Zionist movement with some support in the country prior to the war. Still, this movement’s existence doesn’t change the fact that, in Poland, the aid of groups like the JDC and ORT wasn’t enough to keep them there. Thus, even in countries where foreign aid was the only help available to the Jews, it oftentimes wasn’t enough to keep them in Europe.

As many commonalities as the countries in Post-Holocaust Europe had with one another, many more of these places–most notably Germany and France–had circumstances and policies completely unique to themselves. In addition to being one of the few places with Displaced Persons Camps–temporary facilities that housed thousands of homeless Holocaust survivors, many of them Polish–Germany was also one of the only places where there was a substantial effort made by the Jewish community to not have Jews settle there. To them, it was the “Land Of The Perpetrators,” and those who chose to stay, or return there, or take German spouses, were seen as somehow perverse. This, of course, didn’t stop several DP’s from taking German wives, or prevent the German government from trying to make amends by offering jobs, social benefits and homes to Jews who had either survived the Holocaust, or left the country before the war. As Michael Brenner points out in his article, “We Are The Unhappy Few,” some people–such as the actor, Fritz Kortner, and the writer, Wolfgang Hildesheimer–did answer the call and return to dear old Deutschland, but they were branded as pariahs by their peers, and never truly felt welcome there. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, which sent a massive wave of Russian immigrants into the country, that Germany’s Jewish population started to grow again.. France’s story Post-Holocaust, by contrast, is almost the polar opposite of this. Unlike Germany, which did just about everything it could to cut down on anti-Semitism and re-integrate Jews into society after the war, levels of anti-Jewish sentiment remained high in France following 1945. The reasons for this were threefold. First, many French Gentiles were convinced that, if Germany, a modern, democratic nation, had done such horrible things to the Jews, then there had to be something wrong with them. Second, there was a great deal of competition between returning Jews and French Gentiles for high-paying positions. And thirdly, many of the Jews who arrived in France after the war were from Eastern Europe, and were thus fleeing Communism, and so, very often, French Christians associated them with the doctrine. And yet, despite all the animosity that Jews faced there–which, to a great extent, still exists to this day–they kept immigrating on mass to France, first from Eastern Europe, and then from France’s North African colonies in the 50s. Why, though? Why would Jews continue to go to a country (France) where they were openly discriminated against, when there was another country (Germany) where the government would welcome them with open arms? The answer is probably stigma. France had the reputation of being the first European country to “emancipate” the Jews back in the 1790s, and Germany, alas, had the reputation of discriminating and exterminating them. It didn’t matter that France was now the bigoted country, and Germany the tolerant one. History was a powerful factor in guiding where people chose to settle. Thus, fact was overlooked in these nations after the War, and this helped make their stories Post-Holocaust completely unique.

After World War 2, the Jews of Europe faced considerable hardship gaining reparations and rebuilding their communities. In several countries, the governments didn’t legally compensate them, and in others, they had great difficulty recovering lost children from Gentile families and Christian Institutions that had sheltered them. Oftentimes, support from foreign aid organizations was all these survivors could rely on, and, just as many times, this wasn’t enough to keep them from immigrating elsewhere. In some countries, this lack of commitment to helping the Jews was done out of guilt for collaborating with the Nazis, while in others, it was done for very specific political reasons–i.e. to eliminate Nationalist sentiment. Understanding these various motivations is crucial to preventing such suffering in the aftermath of future genocides from ever occurring again. No one should have to wait 50 years to get an apology, or some financial compensation from the government, as the Jews did. So, let us learn from their experience. Let us ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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Rebellion In Our Blood: An Analysis Of China’s Long Tradition Of Revolution

There is a commonly held, rather racist notion in the West that Chinese people are naturally docile and rule abiding. It is a stereotype that has been replicated in countless forums, most notably in the cliché of the Chinese child bowing down to the overbearing Tiger Parent. It is a vast and unfair generalization to say the least. However, unlike most other ethnic and national stereotypes, it is one that, theoretically, can be supported. So much of Chinese history and literature deals with the establishment of order, the implementation of rules, and the respecting of authority. Figures like Qin Shi Huang, Liu Bang, Sun Zhongshan and Mao Zedong are praised for unifying the country and creating laws for all to follow. Similarly, Confucius, the ancient philosopher whose teachings influenced Chinese government up until the twentieth century, states over and over again in his writings that people should respect parental and governmental authority. “When your parents are alive,” he says, “comply with the rites in serving them; when they die, comply with the rites in burying them.” What all these various elements do is solidify an image in the Western mind of the Chinese as a passive, obedient people, who, without question, will always bow down to whatever power happens to be in place.

This, of course, is far from the truth. The truth is that China, as a society, actually has quite a long-standing, well-established tradition of rebelling against authority. The country’s history is overflowing with revolutions–three took place within the last hundred years alone–and it’s literature and philosophy positively preach insurrection. One need only look at the poetry in The Book Of Songs, the philosophy of impermanence put forth in the Tao Te Ching, and the supposedly rule-loving Analects of Confucius to find proof of China’s rebellious blood.

The protest-oriented poetry found in The Book of Songs provides evidence of the Chinese people’s tendency towards insurrection. Compiled thousands of years ago, and widely believed to have been edited by Confucius himself, The Book Of Songs is the oldest collection of ancient Chinese poetry in existence, comprising some 305 works from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE. The content of the book can be divided into two main sections: the “Airs of the States” and the eulogies and hymns. The “Airs of the States” are shorter lyrics written in plain language. Simple folk songs for the most part, they are widely believed to encapsulate the thoughts and feelings of the common people. As such, they largely concern themselves with such mundane matters as farming, childbirth, housekeeping and love. However, there are several pieces within the “Airs” that act as political satire and protests against governmental authority. A particularly powerful example of this latter type of poetry is “Big Rat.” A harsh critique of the rapacious government of the State of Wey, the poem describes the peasantry’s desire to leave the country for a better, more just land. “Big rat, big rat,” it begins, “do not gobble our millet! Three years we have slaved for you, yet you take no notice of us. At last we are going to leave you and go to that happy land: happy land, happy land, where we shall have our place.” Whether the peasants literally mean they are going to leave Wey for another kingdom, or else metaphorically leave it by committing mass suicide, the message is the same: the government has abused them, and they will no longer tolerate it. The fact that so many poems like this, poems in which people express frustration with, and a desire to overthrow, the government, made it into a collection of works designed to represent the thoughts of the multitude, illustrates how common place the desire for revolution was in China back then, and shines a light on the rebelliousness of the Chinese people.

Lao-Tzu’s assertion in the Tao Te Ching that nothing is permanent, and that the common people must be kept happy in order for governance to be maintained, both illustrate the Chinese people’s long-standing inclination toward revolution. A text studied for well over two thousand years, the Tao Te Ching, along with the writings of Chuang-Tzu, forms the foundation of the philosophy of Taoism. An alternative to the Confucian school, which asserts that there is, in fact, a single, right way to rule and govern, Taoism argues that nothing is permanent, and therefore, no ideology, or authority, should be viewed as absolute. The text actually begins with Lao-Tzu, the author, asserting, “the way that can be spoken of is not the constant way.” The fact that this kind of philosophy, a philosophy that rejects absolute authority and the idea of permanent systems of government, was developed in China over two millennia ago, and has continued to be studied by countless numbers of its citizens since then, illustrates a pronounced, and well-established, strain of rebellious thinking within the Chinese population; because if no government is truly infallible or everlasting, it becomes that much easier to overthrow them. A more direct demonstration of the Chinese people’s rebellious nature in the Tao Te Ching comes later on when Lao-Tzu states, in governing the people, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act,” To Lao-Tzu, the only way to govern China effectively is to keep its people happy and ignorant of what the authorities are actually doing. This, in turn, unconsciously reveals the rebelliousness of the Chinese people, because if the only way a ruler in China can hope to govern effectively is to keep his subjects happy and stupid, then those subjects must have a bad, and well-established, reputation of rising up against their superiors.

The seemingly rule-loving system of Confucianism, as espoused in The Analects, actually contains provisions for the masses to rise up against the government, thus illustrating the Chinese people’s intrinsic insubordination. As aforementioned, the teachings of Confucius influenced China’s ruling elite for thousands of years, beginning in the Han Dynasty, and continuing until the early twentieth century. As a political system, Confucianism is extremely hierarchical and rule-oriented. Everyone has their place, and everyone follows the duties assigned to their specific caste. Princes have a higher standing than commoners, parents have a higher standing than their children, sons have a higher standing than daughters, and so on. Such a system seems highly static and unfair to modern Western observers, but actually makes a fair amount of sense given the circumstances in which it first arose. Confucius lived during The Spring and Autumn Period, approximately 771 to 476 BCE, a time in Chinese history where the feudal system of the Zhou Dynasty had become largely irrelevant, and where there was frequent, and intense, fighting between various smaller kingdoms and principalities. It therefore made sense for him to want to reunify the various Chinese states under the old dynasty’s rules and principles. And yet, this conservative, almost reactionary system of governance he promoted actually contains several radical, revolutionary ideas. Throughout The Analects, a book of Confucius’s teachings collected by his students, he constantly asserts that, if there’s anything more important in governing a nation than rules, it is benevolence. If a government fails to be benevolent, it loses the right to rule. “What can a man do with the rites,” Confucius asks at one point, “who is not benevolent?” What Confucius is saying here is that, if there is no benevolence, there is no government. If the common people feel that their ruler is treating them unfairly in any way, shape or form, then they automatically have the right to overthrow that ruler. They don’t even need to wait for political reform, because simply by mistreating his subjects, the ruler has lost the way, and is therefore no longer qualified to govern them. The fact that this kind of invitation to rebel against any and all authority exists within one of the most hierarchical, order-obsessed schools of thought in Chinese history illustrates that the Chinese, as a people, are actually quite defiant.

Contrary to the commonly held Western notion of the Chinese as being submissive and rule-oriented, in reality, the people of the Middle Kingdom have a well-established, long-standing tradition of insurrection. One need only examine the protest-themed poetry in The Book of Songs, the assertions of no authority being absolute in the Tao Te Ching, and the invitations to overthrow unjust rulers in The Analects, to find proof of China’s revolutionary heritage. Such knowledge, while seemingly trivial, is imperative to today’s Western politicians, for in a world where China has the second largest economy on Earth, as well as a permanent seat on the UN Security council, one cannot hope to prevail while continuing to harbor misguided notions of the Middle Kingdom’s people.

Should We Still Have “Guilty” Pleasures?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game!

We’ve all used the saying “it’s my guilty pleasure” at some point in our lives. Whether we’re including it in our description of a song that we like that everyone else finds annoying, bringing it up while referencing a TV show we still enjoy even after its lost its mojo, or mentioning it while paying tribute to that movie we love and no one else does, the phrase has become a quick and easy way for people to identify things that they like, and no one else does. But my question is, should we still be using this colloquialism? Should we still be categorizing certain pleasures as “guilty” and others as not?

I personally don’t think so. I don’t believe that people should have to defend or justify their interests to anybody. We all like what we like, and there’s nothing else to say. Plus, isn’t the fact that we enjoy certain things that other people don’t part of what makes us unique? Imagine how boring it would be if everyone liked the same things–if everyone’s favorite book was War and Peace, and everyone’s favorite movie was The Godfather. That would be horrible! Noe one would stick out. No one would be able to connect with anyone else on a truly intimate level. Everyone would dress, talk, and look the same. Everything would be bland and uninspiring.

But, besides the fact that having “guilty” pleasures is part of what makes us unique, I’ve noticed that a lot of the things that are categorized as such tend to be graded both harshly and on a slightly unfair scale. For instance, lots of movie critics hate the Transformers and Twilight film series. They say that these films are misogynistic, that they’re poorly written and dreadfully acted, and that, in many cases, they are downright idiotic. And while these critics might not necessarily be wrong in saying these things, they often forget that both film series are made for a very specific audience–that being 13 -year-old boys and girls. These people don’t necessarily have as sophisticated tastes as the critics. And even if they do, odds are, they just want a little mindless escapism. I have several friends who are now full-blown feminists, and yet, when they were 12, loved the Twilight movies. Why? Because these films offered them a chance to just sit back and experience certain fantasies that society wouldn’t ordinarily permit them to indulge in. And that’s okay. Let the kids have their fun for now. They’ll grow out of it soon enough. I certainly did. When I was 10 years old, I loved a film called Batman and Robin, which most critics describe as the worst superhero movie ever made. They hate its campiness, it’s goofy plot, it’s over-the-top action sequences, and all I can think when I hear them say this is, “You know this is a kid’s movie, right?” Of course it’s campy! Of course it’s got over-the-top sets, fight scenes and costumes! It’s supposed to! It’s a movie that’s made for 10-year-old boys who want to see their favorite cartoon get put on the big screen. No one else. The filmmakers weren’t trying to craft an Oscar-winning epic that would stand the test of time. They just wanted to make a film for a demographic who would watch it, enjoy it, and then, once they’d grown out of it, move on with their lives. And as a person who saw it at the age when I was supposed to, I can tell you, the movie did its job just fine.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “Nathan, isn’t describing something as ‘just a kids movie’ kind of condescending? Doesn’t that demean both the people who made the movie, and the people who went to go see it? After all, there lots of mature, smart, and interesting kids movies out there, and lots of mature and smart kids who don’t like to be pandered to.” Yes, there are plenty of family friendly movies–Toy Story, Up, FInding Nemo, The Incredibles–that are very well done and can appeal to adults, as well as plenty of kids out there who do have sophisticated tastes in art, but I think you might be confusing kids movies with movies for all ages. See, kids movies, as well as chick and dick flicks, are films that are tailored to a very specific demographic, and, as such, tend not to try to appeal to anyone else but members of that demographic. The makers of these films try to include all the things that studies have shown that this group enjoys–for instance, if it’s a movie for 13-year-old boys, it’ll likely include things like a scantily clad girl running in slow motion–and not much else. That’s part of the reason why I don’t think we should force those who like such things to describe them as “guilty pleasures.” After all, most of the people who go to see Transformers are 13-year-old boys–the target audience–so they’re not doing anything wrong when they like it. They’re just enjoying what’s been made specifically for them. And you know what? In a few years, when they’ve grown up a bit, they’ll forget all about those films. Thus, no real harm will have been done.

So, loved ones, don’t call that book, that movie or that song you like a “guilty” pleasure. It’s just a pleasure. The fact that you like it is just one thing that makes you distinct from everyone else. And, on top of that, it’s probably something that was made for people of your specific demographic, and that you will likely forget about very soon. So, stand up! Say it proudly! Tell the world that you like what you do! No one can hurt you if you own it! Let’s change the world together, one admittance at a time!

From Screenplay To Screen: Alex Proyas’s Dark City

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And thank god for editors!

What? That doesn’t make sense to you all? All right then, let me start from the beginning.

In my first edition of “From Screenplay To Screen,” I discussed how frustrating working as a screenwriter is sometimes. I explained that, in order to get paid, you must sell your script to a studio, which can change and edit it however they like–in many cases, sacrificing creativity and originality for tropes that have worked in the past. This tendency of film companies to “mutilate” scripts is a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that three Oscar-nominated writers–Jeffrey Caine, William Nicholson, and Steven Knight–actually went on record in a Guardian article saying that the only way for up-and-coming screenwriters to ensure the sanctity of their craft is to either direct their own films, or write for television, where they have much more power. Man! If that doesn’t show you how big a problem the studio’s editing of our scripts is, I don’t know what does.

And yet, while I agree with these writers, and stand by my previous assertion that studios need to be more open to new plot lines and methods of storytelling, I recently came across a script that helped me realize that this insertion of the big wigs’ into the creative process does, in some cases, serve a purpose. The script in question was Alex Proyas’s Dark City, and before I can discuss it any further, I feel it necessary to provide some back-story on a few details.

In 1998, a whole year before the release of The Matrix, another Australian sci-fi film dealing with the notion of our world being an illusion hit the big screen. That film was Dark City, a Neo Noir Crime Thriller about a suspected murderer with amnesia uncovering the horrible truth that his world is nothing more than an elaborate construct, used by alien creatures to study our behavior. While receiving much acclaim for its intricate plot, philosophical undertones and stylized aesthetics, Dark City failed to become a financial success, barely breaking even with its $27 million budget. Many of the film’s fans claimed that mainstream audiences just weren’t ready for something as new and original as it–that it was, to put it bluntly, too smart for its own good. The irony, though, is that the version of Dark City that actually got turned into a movie was a significantly dumbed down, highly altered work that bore scant resemblance to the original script. I got the chance to read an early draft of the screenplay, and not only was it almost nothing like the movie I’d grown to love–it had a bleaker ending, the characters were different, it was a lot more violent and racist–it straight up made no sense. I have no doubt that if that script had been turned into a movie, it would have made even less money at the box office than it actually did, and probably not have gotten nearly as much critical acclaim.

This got me thinking. Studio executives’ practice of altering writer’s scripts is an evil. There’s no doubt about that. But is it a necessary evil? Does it, in some cases, actually make the scripts better? That’s a loaded question, but, on the whole, one that I would answer, “yes” to. And before any of my fellow writers out there accuse me of selling out, I want to reiterate that I only said that SOMETIMES the intervention of studios into the creative process makes screenplays better. For the vast, vast majority of the time, however, I believe we should be given more respect, more freedom, and more artistic license.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to explore is that tiny fraction of time where changing a script to be more palatable to a wider audience is a good thing. See, when studio executives alter a writer’s work, its because they’re afraid that the public isn’t ready for something like this, and they don’t want to potentially waste lots of money on a product that won’t sell. In some cases, however, their doing so actually improves the work’s narrative and/or literary quality. As I mentioned earlier, critics and intelligent moviegoers loved the edited version of Dark City that got produced. They still found it thought provoking. They still found it original. It was just more hopeful, and made more sense plot-wise. To illustrate my point, let me go through some of the differences between the film and script.

So, the plot of the movie goes something like this. One night, a man named John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel bathtub, suffering from amnesia. He receives a telephone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber, who urges him to flee the premise to evade a group of men who are after him. During the telephone conversation, Murdoch discovers the corpse of a brutalized, ritualistically murdered woman, along with a bloody knife. He flees the scene, just as the group of men (known as the Strangers) arrives at the room.

Eventually, Murdoch learns his real name, and finds he has a wife named Emma. He is also sought by police inspector Frank Bumstead, as a suspect in a series of murders, though he cannot remember killing anybody. While being pursued by the Strangers, Murdoch discovers that he has psychokinetic powers–which the Strangers also possess, and refer to as “tuning”—and uses these powers to escape from them.

Murdoch explores the city, where nobody realizes that it is perpetually night. At midnight, he watches as everyone except himself falls unconscious, as the Strangers stop time and physically rearrange the city as well as changing people’s identities and memories. Murdoch learns that he comes from a coastal town called Shell Beach, though nobody knows how to leave the city to travel there. Meanwhile, the Strangers inject one of their men, Mr. Hand, with memories intended for Murdoch in an attempt to predict his movements and track him down.

Murdoch is eventually caught by Bumstead, who recognizes that he is innocent, and has his own misgivings about the nature of the city. They confront Dr. Schreber, who explains that the Strangers are endangered extraterrestrial parasites who use corpses as their hosts. Having a collective consciousness, the Strangers have been experimenting with humans to analyze their individuality in the hopes that some insight might be revealed that would help their race survive.

Schreber reveals that Murdoch is an anomaly who inadvertently awoke during one midnight process, when Schreber was in the middle of fashioning his identity as a murderer. The three embark to find Shell Beach, but it exists only as a billboard on a wall at the edge of the city. Frustrated, Murdoch breaks through the wall—into outer space. The Strangers, including Mr. Hand, who holds Emma hostage, confront the men. In the ensuing fight Bumstead, along with one of the Strangers, falls through the hole, revealing the city as an enormous space habitat surrounded by a forcefield.

The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory, believing Murdoch to be the final answer to their experiments. Schreber betrays them by inserting false memories in Murdoch which artificially reestablish his childhood as years spent training and honing his psychokinetic abilities and learning about the Strangers and their machines. Murdoch awakens, fully realizing his abilities, frees himself and battles with the Strangers, defeating their leader Mr. Book in a psychokinetic fight high above the city.

After learning from Dr. Schreber that Emma’s personality is gone and cannot be restored, Murdoch exercises his new-found powers, amplified by the Strangers’ machine, to create an actual Shell Beach by flooding the area within the force field with water and forming mountains and beaches. On his way to Shell Beach, Murdoch encounters Mr. Hand and informs him that the Strangers have been searching in the wrong place—the mind—to understand humanity. Murdoch tilts the entire habitat to face a sun, so that the city experiences daylight for the first time.

He opens the door leading out of the city, and steps out to view the sunrise. Beyond him is a pier, where he finds the woman he knew as Emma, now with new memories and a new identity as Anna. Murdoch reintroduces himself as they walk to Shell Beach, beginning their relationship anew.

Pretty cool story, huh? I certainly thought so the first time I saw the film. But, as I said before, that storyline is almost NOTHING like the one put forth in the script. That one is closer to something you might find in a shitty, b-grade psychological thriller. How so? Well, why don’t I show you?

So, the script also begins in a hotel, with John Murdoch–who, in this version, is named John White–waking up in a bathtub next to a murdered woman. However, unlike the film, he doesn’t get a phone call from Schreber, telling him to get out while he still can. He simply sees the woman’s corpse, gets scared, and flees. He also does something that, to most people, might seem kind of trivial, but to me, was a major plot flaw. See, in both the film and the script, when he wakes up in the bathtub, he realizes that there’s a fish in the water with him. When he gets out, the fish tries to follow suit by jumping out of the water. Now, in the movie, John picks up the fish and puts it back in the tub, thus saving its life. This is partially what leads Bumstead to later believe him when he claims to be innocent because, “What kind of cold-blooded killer stops long enough to save a fish?” In the script, however, rather than saving the fish’s life by putting it back in the water, John decides to do something gross by instead sticking it in his pocket. In so doing, he both kills the little creature, and takes away any room for doubt that Bumstead might have about him being a murderer. This, in turn, makes Bumstead’s decision to team up with him later in the script seem nonsensical, because there’s nothing about John’s behavior to indicate that he didn’t kill anyone. It’s subtle details like this that can make or break a screenplay.

But, I’m getting sidetracked. Back to the story! So, in the script, after John leaves the hotel, he is pursued by The Strangers, who, here, are referred to as Mystery Men. Now, in the film, when John first confronts them, he discovers that he has psychokinetic powers, which play a significant role later on in the story. In the screenplay, however, John doesn’t exhibit any kind of superhuman abilities when he first sees them. In fact, no indication whatsoever is given throughout the script that he might be telekinetic until the climax, when, out of nowhere, he suddenly decides that he can fly and move objects with his mind. This both confused and frustrated me when I first read the screenplay, and I personally find it to be one of the script’s greatest narrative weaknesses. Now, don’t get me wrong! I don’t think you have to explain everything that happens in a movie. But if the things you aren’t explaining are major plot points–like a protagonist’s sudden acquisition of super powers–that’s not good writing. In fact, that’s the polar opposite of good writing. That’s lazy, amateur writing.

But, once again, I’ve gotten sidetracked. Back to the script! So, after John manages to evade the Mystery men, he goes on an extended tour of the city–visiting places like a Barber shop, a Chinese restaurant, a Church where he meets a mute Japanese prostitute, and then finally, the prostitute’s house. Neither he nor the audience really learns anything particularly important from these episodes, other than that, one, John might be schizophrenic, and two, the screenwriter, Alex Proyas, really doesn’t like Asian people. The former detail is indicated by the fact that, every five minutes or so, John has a weird hallucination of some kind. While he’s hiding in the prostitute’s house, for instance, he dreams that she suddenly learns how to speak and then calls the cops on him. And this is only one of many more, incredibly odd, fantasies he has throughout the course of the script. The latter detail, Proyas’s seeming dislike of Asian people, is indicated by the fact that none of the Asian characters in the screenplay have names, can speak English, or speak at all, and have incredibly stereotypical roles–restaurant owner, sex worker, etc.

Anyway, while John’s at the prostitute’s house, an unnamed woman comes in and claims to be his wife, but John, of course, does not recognize her. This leads her to start weeping, and, as is common in a lot of trashy movies, there is a gratuitous sex scene, where the prostitute tries to make her feel better by taking her into the bedroom and performing cunnilingus on her. Why was this lesbian episode included? I don’t know. Maybe the screenwriter just wanted to distract the audience from the fact that he’d written a really weak script. It certainly didn’t add anything to the story. Neither John’s wife nor the prostitute is given a name, and they both end up dead in the next scene, so, honestly, you could just have easily not included this segment at all, and the story would have been just fine. Except, it wouldn’t have actually been just fine, because the story itself doesn’t make any sense.

As I mentioned earlier, both the prostitute and John’s wife wind up dead after he falls asleep and has another dream. This forces him to, yet again, flee the premise. One thing you notice very quickly while reading this script is that it’s highly repetitive. Almost every scene follows the same basic pattern–John goes to some place, he meets a person who tells him a little bit about himself, but doesn’t answer most of his questions, he has a dream, and then he wakes up to find them dead. This is what happens with the prostitute, it’s what happens with Schreiber, and it’s what happens with Bumsted. Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t I show you? After John leaves the prostitute’s house, he finds the card for Dr. Schreiber’s office in his pocket, goes there, doesn’t learn much, falls asleep and then, wouldn’t you now it, wakes up to find that Schreiber’s been killed. This same scenario plays out again when, later on in the script, John is apprehended by Bumstead and his men. Bumstead interrogates John, who tells him about the Mystery Men, Bumstead decides to believe him for no reason, John falls asleep, and then, like clockwork, Bumstead ends up dead. A big chase scene through the city follows, with John being pursued by a robot that the Mystery Men have created specifically to hunt him. It’s really silly.

Anyway, the Mystery Men finally catch John, and put him on trial, where they bring out the re-animated corpses of all the people he supposedly killed–the woman from the hotel room, the prostitute, his wife–as witnesses. Now, I’ll admit, the idea of having a murderer go on trial, and be forced to hear the testimony of all the people he killed, is a pretty creepy, and pretty cool idea. It’s inventive, it’s effective, and it’s highly unsettling. But, alas, the screenwriter decides not to dwell on this interesting premise. Instead, he has John suddenly remember that he has this little hand-written book in his pocket, which contains evidence of the Mystery Men being aliens, and the city being an elaborate construct. The script makes no effort to explain where this book came from, or who wrote it, but again, this whole interesting plot thread is abandoned almost instantly when John, deciding that he can take it no more, acquires super powers out of thin air, and blows everything up. After the dust settles, we find ourselves on a beach, where John, and an unknown woman, meet on the docks, and John, after telling her his name, strangles her to death. The script ends with the camera panning down to the little hand-written book that he used to defend himself in his trial. The wind blows it open, and we see that it’s blank.

So, that’s Dark City, the screenplay, and, well…it’s terrible. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to sugarcoat it. It’s bleak, it’s racist, there are whole major plot threads that are introduced without ever being explained, and the narrative itself is drastically different in tone and theme from the film. Are the Mystery Men actually aliens studying our behavior, or is John just insane? Is the city really an elaborate construct, or did he just imagine the whole affair? Is the point of this screenplay to tell us that the world in which we live is an illusion, or is it to convey that this one character is off his rocker?

I don’t know, and in the end, I don’t care. All I do know is that I’m glad the studio executives got involved when they saw this mess of a script. They recognized it’s potential, but realized that no one would go see it unless drastic changes were made. So, they brought in several other writers–such as David S. Goyer–gave the story a happy ending, explained certain details, expanded upon others, and, in the end, gave us the contemporary classic that we now know and love. All I’m trying to tell my fellow writers here is that, just because somebody says that they want to edit your story, don’t automatically assume that they’re going to turn your work into garbage. Odds are, they’re just trying to make it more palatable to a wider audience, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, if you want to keep selling your scripts, it’s actually quite a good thing. So, it might be in your best interest to be open to the idea.