Last Words of Mr. Kurtz
By Rajko Radovic.
A trip up the river ends with a strange voice that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. You might feel that you’re becoming a victim of some sort of feverish delusion, connected with the tropical environment. It is precisely this unsettling river-voice that seems to hover ominously over the immaculate decorum of The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as General Ratko Mladic takes his seat in a bulletproof glass box.
Two guards in blue uniforms are at his side. Not so much, it seems, to guarantee his safety as to prevent that strange voice from the distant, dark river, from creeping up on the courtroom proceedings. Firmly on their toes they keep a watchful eye on the general as though he could be one of those Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary monsters – a half human, half fanciful mirage. But Mladic hardly budges. Dressed in a gray suit and a funny blue cap he leaves an impression of a paperless asylum seeker, someone out of place, stuck between two doors, one that’s closed behind him and the other that won’t open. And there, in that transitory, in-between space, he appears anxious and confused, like someone rudely awakened in the middle of the night and brought half asleep into the glaring spotlight full of nightmarish echoes.
To process his case and define his status the authoritative voices on the other side of the bright light need basic facts, exact dates and witnesses; but all the general can come up with are grim fairytales from the front lines. He is full of vivid accounts from blood-soaked Bosnian hills, sickly ghost town yarns, the jokes, anecdotes and itinerant poems of bombed-out cities. He could talk for hours if only they would listen. Yet belligerent foreign voices do not let him do it. They keep on probing him harder, working relentlessly on his case. And under pressure the general gets accustomed to the punishing exposure of elaborate legal procedure. Little by little, he collects himself. He sees through the high-minded lustre and precious luminosity of his captors. But what he sees makes him even more downcast and sombre.
There is no place here for his side of the story, for his truth, the way he sees it. The reality he has known is perilously slipping away and slipping away fast. Instead, he is faced with a web-like structure made up of strict rules where he is expected to behave himself, come clean, and, with a bit of luck, break down in tears of remorse and confess. What shocks him and further compounds his overall state of drowsy surprise are the painstakingly managed and minutely choreographed settings of the courtroom in the Hague, something he has never seen before, neither in the army nor in the bush. Hostile, cold faces, angular blank looks with some warped, byzantine music in them meet his weary gaze. And there is no way of escaping the obdurate procedure, the cell block routine, days like hungry dogs, in and around the court, endless stacks of paperwork that keep on piling up like treacherous towers in a legalized inferno.
Deep inside he is seething with palpable anger. For over the years of mercurial exile, changing safe houses and running away from persistent enforcers of International Law, he has enveloped himself in an invisible cocoon. In it, his personal image, his heroic double, his legend on two staunch peasant legs is a formidable cloak of megalomaniac myth that no weapon can pierce through. From that place of severe seclusion, he is of course unable to fathom how an outrage like this could be permitted to take place. Accusing words, an endless stream of monstrous charges, a show trial, a dismal charade all made up of insidiously twisted facts pulled out of context and bent, sexed-up gutter scenarios fitting Hollywood political thrillers go on and on. Forced to listen to this breathtaking litany of gruesome accusations linking him with massacres of innocent civilians, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, he grows impatient. Against the judge’s solemn warnings he takes his headphones off and demonstratively puts his blue cap back on. He does it out of sheer spite. Let these nabobs of progress, these ignorantly duplicitous lovers of decor play all their cards. And let those among them who are not guilty cast the first stone. Let them try.
And suddenly, we are back on the river into the curled up snake of the wild stream, into the bush. A prolonged cross dissolve from the General’s cold blue eyes to the fleeting reflection of a shadowy warrior in dark water could signal the beginning of an apocalyptic noir or a war epic. Ghostly sound transforms surroundings. There is gunfire in the distance. Wanton and harsh mixed up echoes belong someplace else than the reality we are accustomed to. There delusions pile up, visions, visitations reign supreme, shadows grow fangs, banks narrow and bushes threaten with prying eyes and firearms. And the voice calls from the deep. At the frayed bottom of the world the voice is hard yet broken, full of desperate longing, sounding like a howl but verging on a sigh, fighting for air in that most haunted of places in the tropics – the ailing body of a delirious mass murder.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mr. Kurtz is an excessive adventurer and brinkmanship virtuoso caught between places. Just like General Mladic he is a transitory phenomena, a twilight anti-hero. He is never completely visible. He is just like the jungle he finds his true destiny in, a mess and a maze, a vision of formidable force and inscrutable purpose. Rumours precede him. Urgent hints, inconclusive clues are on his trail. Both those who admire his remarkable exploits, and those who fear his diabolical drive, his outlandish ambition, spread wild stories. But he sends ivory downstream, lots of it, more than anyone could possibly expect in their wildest dreams and that is all that matters. So worldly success disguises in Conrad’s novella a more disturbing hidden truth, the dismal diagnosis of complete personal disintegration, of fall from grace.
A Belgian trading conglomerate on whose behalf Mr. Kurtz explores the jungle and trades in ivory turns a blind eye on the tropical outrages of their best agent as long as precious raw materials keep on coming in and astonishing profits are made. And the downfall of the white fortune hunter with messianic vision lies not in the crimes against humanity he had committed, but in his inability to maintain the same level of business success. The company sends Marlow, a fellow adventurer and “follower of the sea” to travel up the Congo River to relieve Mr. Kurtz of his duty. But what he finds is beyond his ability of comprehension.
Once he reaches the farthermost civilized outpost in the bush he encounters a ghost-like sight on an improvised stretcher in the tall grass. This unsavoury figure does not bear even a remote resemblance to the previously formed mind’s eye vision of the great man of outstanding talent, let alone a human being. And there is black humour in it. Mr. Kurtz, Marlow sees, is on the verge of losing the last vestiges of human makeup, his feeling of balance, of perspective, his place in the world, in spite of his supreme military and business triumphs. He is dying in the most pitiful way, gasping and flailing, fighting with memories and haunted by spirits. Yet around that scantily dressed, exhausted creature that looks more like a crazed shadow in fading daylight there is a savage army of silent and proud foot soldiers. In their eyes, the madman on the stretcher is much more than a ferocious tropical warrior, a paragon of jungle success touched by some unfathomably rare divine hand. He is a divinity himself. And this is where the brewing battle between what is seen and what is believed culminates in absurdly frenzied images that for many critics make Conrad’s narrative a stylistic predecessor to film noir aesthetics, to classic movies such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1951).
In Conrad’s book, we see the man who has reached his last breath and faces the hereafter; he cannot believe that death is so banal yet so overwhelming – a dismal gasp out of step with time, a pause, a tremor, a word, and one is already on the other side. And confronted with such a dire prospect Mr. Kurtz cannot help but want more out of earthly life than what he already had. He desperately, insanely fights back the darkness that mysteriously consumes all living lights no matter how blinding or how strong they may appear to be. That deceitful ambiguity of the last moment, the uncertainty of human experience that is in the centre of Mr. Kurtz’s character and in the narrative, is the key to our modern condition and is found in Mr. Kurtz’s final words that Marlow hears, just in time, as he makes his final confession, his delirious death rattle that can be summoned up in a word: horror.
And that word comes back to mind as one watches Mladic struggle with his own savage legacy and his dark past. For in the heart of his heinous war crimes, just like in Conrad’s astonishing jungle tale, lies a warped notion, a terrible misreading, of the world we live in. Mladic is the man who went all the way, pulled all the stops and went for broke. Yet he had not come far enough. Documentary footage of the fall of Srebrenica, a small Bosnian town that became the gory sight of the worst civilian massacre in post Second World War Europe, shows his true face. It shows the general in his prime. Some of that footage of his triumphant entry into the bombed-out Muslim enclave had been used for the outstanding BBC documentary A Cry from the Grave (1999). And some of the footage the filmmakers used to reconstruct the bleak events is hard to watch. For what one sees in it is how far the human being can go astray in pursuit of the holy grail of complete power and worldly success, without seeing the dire consequences of his actions. Or even worse: see the dire consequences in stark light and yet believe he can get away with it. In a way, the carnage the film shows is a universal metaphor for atavistic excess, for lust for the forbidden fruits of colonial domination, new business opportunities, Caesarean laurels of military glory if only one would know how to read them. For we know that since then similar atrocities to those in Srebrenica have continued to plague humanity while taking place on the sly and below the radar as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By assembling the missing pieces of a gruesome mosaic, A Cry from the Grave attempts to bring closer to surface the chaotic reality of Srebrenica in those brutal days of July of 1995. For that purpose a wide variety of available footage from different sources had been gathered. And unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where for the longest time imbedded journalists’ reports would show stage managed visions of a nightmarish war, here one sees shots made by both professional cameraman and terrified amateurs alike. On one side there is the triumphant Mladic in his own film, strutting through deserted streets of the ghost town emptied of its inhabitants. On the other side, often filmed with shaky hand-held camcorders, are his victims. Their faces are distorted by the dreary anticipation of what comes next in a sequence of horrifying events. Their body language and the atavistic fear in their eyes hark back to medieval times. And suddenly the images show the true nature of the savage bloodletting. One sees the devil that is not in the violence itself but in the numb anticipation of it. Wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and surrounded by his boys, his ragbag army of dishevelled warriors with gaunt, hard faces, scared to death of dying but still hungry for kicks that only war can deliver, General Mladic finally enters the conquered Muslim safe haven. He struts his stuff as though he is a modern day embodiment of Napoleon at Austerlitz.
And at one point he turns towards the camera that follows close behind him. It is a breathtaking moment, surreal and devastating. All around him are ugly ruins charred with sorties from military hardware but in his mind’s eye the general is floating on the glittering clouds of his own immortal glory, there are fanfares and nationalistic angels, iconic bursts of heavenly approval, a secure place in the patriotic pantheon, military perks and benefits, medals, TV specials, the works. He is brimming with excitement. He is on top of the world, alone, special and untouchable. He is the star of his own inner movie, not Mr. Kurtz from the book, but a fanciful fairy hulk in green uniform, Marlon Brando in Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (1979), the insane colonel, all chiaroscuro poses, portentous banter and grim make-believe.
And he stares directly into the camera and says: “I give this town to the Serbian people as a gift. The moment has come to take revenge on the Turks in these parts.” And there one sees the real heart of darkness, the disaster that cannot be averted or stopped, the pitiful massacre in offing. For the general the time stands still. It is always the same groundhog day. The Second World War still rages on. Ottoman Turks still ride agile ponies and threaten Orthodox Christians in villages and forests. The world is flat. It is a mirror where he sees only more of his own dark reflection and in the crooked shadows moving with stealth are traitors, mercenaries, flunkies, sell-outs and home grown pig brothers wanting to smash the noble image of the original warrior, the blood splatter gilded messiah with the playful, boyish smile.
Rajko Radovic is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Canada.