September 3, 2009
The Visit – an interesting take on humans, justice and revenge…
This is more of a movie review with my own reflections on it. I strongly recommend the movie, but I doubt it will be easily found given that it’s a 1960’s production, so you can just read the review and my reflections for easier access!
I watched that movie on TV with my father years ago; I am not even sure how old I was then, all I remember is that my dad was impressed by its production (French, Italian, German co-production) and cast (Anthony Quinn & Ingrid Bergman), and I, I was impressed by the plot, which I found out later it was adapted from a German play. I researched the play, but I found a few critical differences that make me prefer the movie more for the philosophical meaning behind it. The main theme might seem to be revenge (I did mention that I had such awe for the concept of revenge in this post, but to me, it was about a lot more.
I am not exactly sure what made me want to see the movie again. I’ve been nostalgic to decades where I never lived for quite a while, and in that strange sense of nostalgia, I googled the web until I found the torrent and downloaded the movie (it took me 2 weeks to finally have it on my laptop!). I was afraid that I’d find the movie rather dull and cliché after watching it years after I first did. I am glad I was still taken my every word and every gesture.
I will try to be short yet accurate about the details, at least the ones that got to me, but I make no such promises because the movie is too intense for me to shorten it, and well, let’s face it, I have an entire blog that shows how talkative I am!
Oh and you can skip the whole thing and go straight to the part after the second set of dashes (-----), it will probably be the bottom line that would spare you my nonstop babbling.
It starts in a small town in central Europe called Guellen (German for manure), a town that was once wealthy on account of its mine, factory and culture, but facing a serious economic crisis and on the verge of bankruptcy. Everyone in town is in anticipation of the arrival of Klara (Ingrid Bergman), a town girl who left 20 years ago and returned as a wealthy woman to whom they referred Madam Zachanassian. On his way to the train station, the Mayor stops at the town wholesale store owned by Serge Miller (Anthony Quinn) to accompany him. He asks Miller’s wife to stay in the background given that Karla and Serge were romantically involved in the past.
The train stops, Karla descends of it and people receive her with awe as she makes a grand gesture to one of the train crew by giving away a thousand dollars for a non-existing widows’ fund that she asks the man to make. It makes the people of Guellen more optimistic of Karla giving them the money they need for the re-rise of their town.
Awaiting her outside the train station, were three fancy cars, a big one to carry her luggage, a sort of sporty on with two men the Sheriff almost recognized he’d seen before, and one with a panther in a cage where she rides with Serge hanging from her arm.
They drive to a secluded hut on the side of the town and they reminisce a night of romance they once had. He seems very responding to the memories she spoke of, yet she seems rather vague. They part to meet at the town dinner arranged for her honor later that night.
After the entire town well known men (the Mayor, The Sheriff, The Pastor, the Town Teacher, the Town Doctor) introduce their wives to Karla, they sit at a table looking at the glamorous woman whom they had once known as a poor little girl. She gives permission to the Mayor to say his word in form of an order and the man rises and talks about her dad the architect, her mom, and how Karla herself was known for her school-smarts and generosity for she once gave an old widow a sack of potatoes.
After people’s applauses, Karla rises and says that her dad was a drunken worker who refused jobs on buildings too high because he knew he’d fall, that she must have been a bad student for being constantly beaten by the Town Teacher, and finally declares that she had stolen that sack of potatoes and gave it to the widow as rent for her own room where she could sleep with Serge, “the barn was romantic, but the bed was far more comfortable” she said, causing everyone to fall in deadly silence that was only broken by Serge’s embarrassed laugh as he affirmed “yes, far more comfortable” and everyone tries to laugh away the awkwardness.
She then promises the township a million dollars in addition to another million to be divided equally on the people of Guellen on one condition. People cheer and praise her name, until she repeats that she has one condition. The people ask. That’s when a man walks in the hall and declares himself as the Town’s former Judge from when Karla left town as she says that her one condition is “Justice”.
The judge explains that there was a paternity law suit filed by Karla to prove that Serge was the father of her unborn child. He introduces two men in black suits (the ones the Sheriff thought looked familiar) who had previously testified back then that they had slept with Karla after Serge had bribed them to taint her name and prove that she was promiscuous, hence deny his paternity. They acknowledge their false testimony, and then Karla says she was forced out town in shame and forced into a life of prostitution after her baby was taken from her, the crowd falls silent. The judge asks her about her demands, to which she answers “I demand Serge Miller to be dead, I want his life”.
The people go loud as they refuse and accuse her of being a murderer. She walks towards the stairs with her head high and stops as she asks them if they are really willing to refuse that much money. They confirm, she smiles and says that she’d wait, and then she leaves the room.
The next day, the Town Men make a meeting including Serge just to show their support to him. On the other hand, people come to his wholesale store to buy his finest of imported goods on credit, always on credit.
The persistent theme is that you can see Karla gazing from her Hotel balcony at Serge’s shop, driving him and his wife mad. It never helps that people’s expenses go higher and higher on credit, making Serge panic as he starts having doubts about them expecting money for his head quite soon.
The Town Teacher visits Karla in her hotel to advise her that her request will never be answered and that the good hearts of the people of Guellen that he had educated for years will never succumb to her sinister agenda. She replies to him in cold blood that those good hearts were of the same people who drove her as a 17 year old pregnant girl out of the town and labeled her as a whore, then she smiles viciously at him as he challenges her with his life that the people will not condemn Serge Miller.
The day after, the Guellen tribune issues an article saying that it is not for capital punishment. Serge rushes to his friend the Mayor and yells at him saying that that article is nothing but an encouragement for people to go after his head, then rushes to the Sheriff’s office and tells him that he’s afraid the people of Guellen would be after him for the money.
At the same time, Karla’s Panther escapes from its cage and the town goes in chaos as the Sheriff gives the good men of the town guns to pursue the panther. She screams from her hotel window that she wants the panther killed without pain, a bullet between the eyes is what she said would kill it instantly. Gun shots everywhere, gunshots seem to be chasing Serge rather than the panther. He goes to his house where his son says that the shots were after him not the panther, and then his wife tells him it’s better that he leaves so not to endanger them.
He goes to Karla and threatens to kill her. They have a long dialogue on how he betrayed her when he refused to marry her after she got pregnant. He tells her that he loved her but that he had to marry his wife for the money and that she didn’t leave him much of a choice but to make a liar and a whore out of her after she sued him. Their conversation is interrupted by continuous shots, they run to the window to find Serge’s wife shooting the panther dead.
The same night, Serge decides to leave town on the one train that leaved Guellen until the next week. His fellow town people harass him and stop him from leaving town. He falls on the floor in desperation as the train leaves town for he realizes that Karla’s plot was finding its way through.
Different scenes with him commenting on how his friends are wearing new clothes and boots freak him out. It doesn’t make it any easier that days and days later big cars come with more and more goods to be bought on credit, cars belonging to Karla. People buy more goods on credit, including his own wife, who buys a new fridge with glass display for their shop and a new dress.
The Town Council gathers again (this time without Serge) to issue a new law, a law stating that crimes of murder, rape, and misleading of justice would be punished by the deathsentence. The only two people who seem to disagree on the implication behind the new law were the Town Teacher and The Town Doctor.
The Teacher and the Town Doctor go to Karla in her Hotel and ask her to spare Serge and propose to her investments in the Town instead. They offer her to buy the mine and the factory and all the Town’s resources for a far less amount of money than she had offered for Serge’s life, and promise her that the mine is good for the money and that they have no idea why it was shut down. That was when Karla bursts in laughter as her lawyer (the former Judge) declares that she is the current owner of all the Town’s resources, and that it was her who practically drove the Town to bankruptcy by shutting all of it down.
During which, the Mayor and the Sheriff pay Serge a visit and inform him that he will be subject to an open trial in front of the Town for his previous crime and ask him if he would accept their verdict. He looks them in the eye and tells them that he would. That was when the Mayor urges the Sheriff to help him present to Serge the idea of ending his own life. Serge stares them down as he says that he would accept the trial as a form of atonement, but he would not spare them having to live with judging and condemning him only for the sake of the money rather than justice.
He goes to the hut that night and finds Karla. She tells him how she knew about her baby girl died. She says in the most profound words of how she had walked with two corpses (hers and her child’s) out of that town and that it was him who had sentenced them to death and it has been her only drive for the past 20 years to make him feel the same way. She looks away as she says that after tomorrow she will have no purpose in life.
The next day, the trial is held where everyone voted against him, even the Town Teacher and the Town Doctor who says “it’s just one vote, what difference would it make if it were for you”. Serge was condemned and sentenced to death. Kalra’s lawyer gives the mayor the two cheques, one for the township and the other to be equally divided amount the people of Guellen.
In the midst of people’s cheering, Karla stands and asks them if there was one, just one person who would beg for Serge’s life even if it meant they would not get the money, no one answers. She looks around as she waits some more for someone to rise from the crowd, only no one does.
She says that they accused her long ago and forced her out of the town, and that now, they condemn and sentence the man they befriended for years to death for her money, that they were all the same, murderers. She screams at them and tells them that she bought Serge’s life for money and that she could have bought it for a lot less if she wanted.
Then, she tells them that she wants Serge to remain alive, because if he died, they would forget their crimes with time. She said she’d rather have him live among them to remind them of their cruelty and immorality day in and day out and to be reminded that his own people, friends and family, not one of them stood in his defense.
She then declares her visit over and fires the Judge and the two witnesses and asks them to stay in Guellen for it is where they belong since she could no longer use them.
I love the movie. I ached and sympathized with every word Karla said, and neither could I help but feel sorry for Serge when he was prosecuted by everyone for the wrong cause.
Yes, he was the bad guy, he ruined her life in a sense, and he was a coward about it for he could have run away from town if he could, only he couldn’t; he only surrendered to his fate when he was left no other choice. Nonetheless, imagining what it would be like to have everyone turning against you, not because they are moral and seem to disapprove of what you did, but because it lies in their own best interest. To know that those people would have behaved the same even if you did no wrong, and that after years of breaking bread with you, they would spare you that way, it’s more than capital punishment to me.
And Karla, she went out of her way and literally bought a whole town to bring it to its doom so that she would get her revenge. One can say she went beyond ethics and morals herself buying the life of a man and turning his own people against him that way. Yet, if I were her, it would probably be the only thing I’d want myself; only I really doubt circumstances could be in anyone’s favor that way.
The sense of revenge versus justice is so mixed up in this movie, perhaps because it’s so messed up in real life as well. In theory, Karla was the one who was wronged by Serge and the Town, but 20 years later, she managed to do them all wrong and put them by her own painful shoes and acheiving her revenge in the name of justice.
But what I really admired the most was the ending, how she understood people’s tendency to forget their own cruelty and managed to remind them by asking that Serge would live. She wanted him to live every day of his life reliving that trial and how abandoned he was, the same way she was when she left that town. She did not have his blood on her hand, she had it on theirs, and she left him to look them in the eye for as long as he would live. She did not gloat in a false sense of victory; she did not look or seem happy or fulfilled, she was miserable as everyone else if not more.
It was poetic despite its cruelty, but aren’t we –people- cruel that way; we turn against one another when faced by our self interest rather than stand for what’s right or wrong. We lose sense of justice until we turn it into heartless revenge and then we do it all over again simply because we forget.