“The appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. The success of The Passion of the Christ notwithstanding, that sounds a bit hyperbolic—still, if Sontag is correct, there should be a line around the block at Anthology Film Archives this week for Oh! Uomo (Oh! Man).
The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Oh! Uomo is the final panel in their World War I triptych. The previous films dealt with the massacre of civilian populations, but Oh! Uomo is more viscerally horrifying, focusing largely on the effects of modern warfare on the human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy. Da Vincian too is the scientific interest in human anatomy.
War has no rationale here. Oh! Uomo naturalizes carnage in its first shot with graceful biplanes wheeling through a bird-filled sky. (Even before World War I broke out, Italy had used this new invention—another da Vinci idea—as the means to bomb the restive natives of their colony Libya.) The arrival of a military band cues music: Ghosts already, soldiers on horseback are shown riding out of the stables toward the battlefield, while priests make an offering. The officers, shown in negative, include Mussolini (perhaps a flash-forward). Then shells explode and the earth is consumed in the conflagration. So much for combat.
Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi have been making archival films for nearly 20 years—the encyclopedic actualité compilation From the Pole to the Equator remains their most widely seen work, but their style has been widely imitated. The couple treats each scrap of unearthed footage as though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing.
“The gruesome invites us to be spectators or cowards, unable to look,” Sontag notes in apparent self-contradiction. So it is with Oh! Uomo, once pain arrives in the form of maimed children and starving war orphans. Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel the need to up the sensory ante. The choral keening that accompanies the image of one bedridden girl escalates into a rhythmic mock wailing that grows increasingly abusive with footage of a dead child atop a mountain of corpses. (The filmmakers have made this mistake before—accompanying People, Years, Life, their account of the 1915 Armenian massacres, with a discordantly cloying requiem.) Sound is intermittent throughout Oh! Uomo, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing musical counter-irritant.
The underlying question, of course, is, will these sights turn people against war? The Bush administration must think so—at least to judge from its news management style, blocking images of American casualties, let alone those of civilians or enemies. “The Face of War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded survivors. (These “broken mugs,” as the French called them, also appeared in Abel Gance’s 1938 anti-war feature J’accuse.) A similar gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh! Uomo: Eyes are surgically removed, ears repaired, jaws refastened.
The filmmakers end their terrifying exposé on a strangely positive note with the production of heroic cyborgs. The wounded learn how to screw on their new hands or fit into prosthetic legs. Many are cheerful; they smile as they model their afflictions. Humanity has successfully turned itself into an object.