From Nazis

Today in Feminist History: On Lee Miller

Word came this week that Kate Winslet will star in a movie about Lee Miller. It’s certainly a life that begs for cinematic treatment: Miller was a young model, a muse and collaborator to Picasso, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau who became one of the most important photographers and war photographers of the century.  Her work ranged from abstract treatments of the Egyptian landscape to the war photographs she is most known for. A while ago, I published a poem inspired by a photograph of her in Hitler’s bathtub at his house in Munich, where Miller and collaborator David Scherman arrived a few days ahead of the American troops. She and Sherman came to the home from Dachau, where they were among the first photographers to arrive. There’s so much about that picture I love: the boots and dirty bathmat seem more beautifully irreverent and darkly hopeful than Mel Brooks’ dancing Nazis could ever hope to be. Given Winslet’s somewhat well-known penchant for movies that ask for tasteful or meaningful artistic dis-robing, I can’t help but wonder if this photograph will play a role in the movie.

I got interested in Miller after reading a chapter about her in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. It’s a collection of short biographical essays, probably my favorite genre, and not only because I usually get overwhelmed by shopping-list level of detail in full-length biographies. It’s also the perfect genre for the women Prose writes about, all of whom struggled in one way or another with their own creative ambitions, the politics of the artistic circles in which they travelled, and the not insignificant calculations behind whether, how, and for how long, to sleep with the artist in question.  (Prose goes on a bit defensively in her introduction about defending her subject from the charge that the muse is anti- or at least non-feminist, but the stories themselves are universally fascinating looks at sexual politics, although I did wish she’d mixed it up a bit with chapters on Neal Cassidy, Alice Toklas or Natalie Barney, to name a few.)

In the bathtub picture, Miller plays both roles: she didn’t take the picture, obviously, but she had the idea for it, and you don’t have to have read Laura Mulvey to realize there are worlds going on in her look.

The war divided Miller’s life. Her life after the war was marked by heavy drinking and depression, likely related to her war experiences. She was also a legendary hostess whose farm was a legendary salon for artists and others. Her only child was born in 1947, when she was 40. Throughout the 40s and 50s, MI-5 spied on  her for communist tendencies.  There being no evidence of espinoge, her communism is described as “more of a mental outlook.” Her boss at Vogue told the spooks: “She is eccentric and indulges in queer food and queer clothes.”

The film is based on a book by Miller’s son, who was born after her artistic working life had ended and knew little of it until after she passed away. Given the well-known dangers of the bio-pic, I dread watching Winslet play drunk in bad aging makeup, or some movie of the week tripe about the conflict between work and family. If I were making it, (call me!) I would be tempted to have two unconnected scenes: one around the making of the one film she was in: Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood of Poet,” in which she played a statue, and one on the day in that apartment: show them coming to the idea, show her and Sherman talking: what more “tensions” do we need than that distance?


Vanity and Despair

So I was so absorbed by Downfall, the 2004 Hitler’s bunker movie and father of the father of internet memes, that I subscribed to London Review of Books just to read this amazing review by Bee Wilson of a new biography of Eva Braun.
Before watching Downfall, I hadn’t thought of Braun as much more than a Woody Allen punch line. As Wilson tells it, she was a throughly apolitical person, enamored with Hitler from their initial meeting when she was seventeen. She took endless photos of their life together, and mostly wanted the same things any younger mistress of a powerful man might want: more time, more attention, nice clothes and nice parties. As Wilson notes, she didn’t fit the Nazi’s propaganda of the selfless self-sacrificing wife and mother, but her apparent sentimentality and complete lack of self-reflection make her very recognizable. How different is gleefully cheering for your man and clinging relentlessly to the idea of your relationship, with all the photos to prove it happened, from being any kind of functionary? Sentimentality is the ideology, just like the bureaucracy was for Arendt.
Looking at the reviews of Downfall it was funny to see echoes of the tired debates about whether or not art should “humanize” Hitler or other Nazis to help us understand “how such things happen,” and whether viewers need to be reminded that the Nazis being portrayed were really, really bad people. The whole thing is particularly funny when film critics take this on, as if any three hour film could “explain” anything. Shoah is nine and a half hours and it only works because it sticks to its own dictum to describe rather than to explain. Anyways, Arendt had the last word on this a long time ago.
“Vanity and despair” was a phrase Robin Morgan once used to describe the dominant subjective conditions of patriarchy. Reading about Braun is particularly unnerving because there’s so much vanity and not enough despair, at least not until the bunker. I didn’t know before seeing the film that they got married 36 hours before they killed themselves together. Guess the apocalypse is one way to get a commitment. It makes me think of the end of Shaun of the Dead, when the main character laments having to kill his zombified mother, best friend and girlfriend in the same day. “What makes me think I’m taking you back?” the on-again off-again girlfriend asks. “You don’t want to die single, do you?” he answers. Wilson ends her review by noting that she may have also been trying to persuade him to have children, posing him for pictures with the children who came to call. But charm and sentiment only got her so far.