My former commander in the Israel Defense Forces, a gruff but funny paratrooper with an overdeveloped sense of the macabre, was fond of quoting the saying, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
I thought about him last weekend as I watched the most recent offerings from two of cinema’s contemporary masters, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski. In The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s first film in nearly a decade, a young and bewildered scribe, hired to pen the memoirs of a former British prime minister, soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy involving the International Criminal Court, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Kim Cattrall’s desperate and futile attempts at fashioning something resembling a British accent. In Shutter Island, Scorsese’s biggest hit in many years, a young and bewildered federal marshal, charged with solving a mystery in a creepy mental asylum on a remote rock off the coast of Boston, soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy involving the Office of Strategic Services, the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ben Kingsley’s shiny, bald head. Both films are permeated by a thick mist of paranoia, enshrouding both sky (dark! rainy!) and soul (burdened! terrified!).
Leaving the theater after this daunting double-header, I was a shaken man. What, I couldn’t help but wonder, if the the film’s eponymous ghost writer and I had more in common than I’d previously realized? What if I were called upon by my publisher to spend stormy afternoons watching Pierce Brosnan work out? Or what if the doctor’s office I’m slated to visit soon for my yearly physical turns out to be a Shutter Island of sorts, an institution so grim that the most cheerful conversationalist around is Max von Sydow?
Such is the power of paranoia. An inmate at Shutter Island puts it best: reaching out from behind the bars of his cage, he asks a frazzled-looking Leonardo DiCaprio a piercing question. “Do you know what fear does to the mind?” he spits out. “Corrodes it. Rusts it.”
But the lunatic is preaching to the choir. DiCaprio portrays a heaving federal marshal who was among the first Americans to liberate Dachau, and the sites he’d seen there—arranged by Scorsese as obscenely beautiful tableaux vivants of bony death and writhing Nazis—have returned to haunt his dreams. Soon, his mind corrodes and rusts as well.
The death camp connection injects the otherwise baffling movie with one fascinating element: not only is the film a paean to paranoia, but its brand of paranoia is a distinctly Jewish one. When DiCaprio meets von Sydow for the first time, he immediately detects the doctor’s faint German accent and scornfully accuses him of having been a part of Hitler’s killing machine. This is very poor police work—the marshal has no evidence—but it’s the sort of visceral distrust that we’ve all seen in grandfathers, in elderly friends, perhaps even in ourselves.
We’ve certainly seen it in Polanski. Having escaped the Krakow ghetto and lost his mother to Auschwitz’s ovens, the famed director dedicated his career to exploring what could be called the Homo Roman: a man with no past or commitments, trapped in a menacing and strange place, doing his best to survive the wrath of forces beyond his control. J.J. Gittes of Chinatown is such a man, and so is Trelkowski, the terrorized protagonist of The Tenant. It’s no coincidence that the latter is played by Polanski himself—the director, too, is a Polanski character, in real life as much as on-screen. He’s never stopped looking over his shoulder.
This week’s haftorah nicely complements this spirit of paranoia. It’s largely about Amalek, the desert-dwelling descendants of Esau who attacked the Israelites as they were marching out of Egypt. For their crime, the Bible more than once prescribes stern punishment: “Now, go, and you shall smite Amalek, and you shall utterly destroy all that is his, and you shall not have pity on him: and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Before we get wrathful with any asses, however, it might help to know just who today’s Amalek is. By most historical accounts, the ancient tribe is no longer with us, at least not in any pure and recognizable form. They’ve been diluted into nonexistence by centuries of wars and intermarriage. This fact—in addition to the inconvenience of dealing with a direct exhortation to commit murder—has led many rabbis and scholars to interpret the animosity toward Amalek either as a historical non-issue (now that Amalekites no longer exists, no smiting is necessary) or as a metaphor (Amalek as code for all the nasty things we’d like to change in ourselves).
For some Jews, however, Amalek is real, and he’s around every corner. A few years ago, for example, Tablet contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an essay in The New York Times, describing a bris he was attending in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
“I am looking at our life today,” said the newborn’s father, “and what Amalek wants to do is swallow up the people of Israel.”
A young woman attending the service agreed. Her name was Ayelet, a teenager in a long skirt carrying an M-16 rifle; when asked if she thought Amalek was still around, Ayelet didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” she replied, pointing towards a nearby Arab village. “The Amalekite spirit is everywhere.”
Naturally, those who see Amalek everywhere are always inclined to try and stamp him out. This is the logic that guided Baruch Goldstein as he celebrated Purim in 1994 by massacring 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. And this, alas, is the logic that still guides so many of us, in Israel and America alike, who see doom around each corner and sanctify violence as the only available cure.
My commander, then, had it just right: just because we’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us. But he left out one important reminder, namely that a life spent parsing conspiracies isn’t much of a life at all.