Film Notes: Conspiracy (2001)

Conspiracy is a film about an hour-and-a-half meeting.

In this time of social isolation, watching a film about an hour-and-a-half catered meeting might actually have some appeal, if only on nostalgic grounds.

Conspiracy is not a documentary. It's fictionalized, but based on as many facts as possible. The original German version, Die Wannseekonferenz (available online here) is very good, but loses something in subtitles, and possibly in subtlety of language (though the camera work, lighting, and pacing in Die Wannseekonferenz are superb). They're different films.

I don't intend to summarize Conspiracy. If you can, watch it, then read this post. If not, read a summary and try to keep up, but please don't comment until you've seen the film.

"Fridge Logic" is the term for continuity errors and leaps of logic that only occur to an audience after the film is over, and when they're at home staring at the fridge. It worked in the theater, but an hour or so later it stopped making sense. J. J. Abrams is a master of fridge logic. Most GMs are the same; as long as the players nodded along and rolled some dice, internal inconsistencies are unimportant.

Conspiracy has reverse fridge logic. Instead of staring at your fridge thinking of inconsistencies, you'll be thinking of parallels. A turn of phrase. An implication. An eye movement. The way a character lurks just outside a conversation. A moment you recognize from real life.

Terror and Horror

  • Terror: feeling of dread and anticipation. The tell-tale heart, the looming presence, the slow walk up the stairs. Your heart pounds
  • Horror: feeling of shock and fright. The jump scare, the crash of lightning, the scream. Adrenaline surges.
There are no moments of horror in Conspiracy. No special effects. Barely any tension, as conventionally shown in films. It's just a meeting. Artillery and barbed wire fences are imagined, not shown, and that makes it all the more terrifying. The coldest possible dread.

I am fascinated by stories that aren't stories. Conspiracy is a superb example. I've been trying to cite it properly for years; instead, I merged all the notes into this article.


The Devil and the Law

"And when the last law was down and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"
There are two theories about what the Law, with a capital L, is for.

The first theory says the Law should apply to everyone, without bias and without prejudice. The king and the peasant, devil and the deep blue sea. The fact that it does not is a failure of society and a failure of the Law. 

The second theory is that there must be in-groups whom the Law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the Law binds but does not protect.1

The second proposition is, in a world without divinely appointed kings, indefensible. It's also remarkably useful as a predictive tool. If people subscribe to the second theory - and many people do, often without realizing it - any apparent inconsistencies between their goals and their actions disappear when this axiom is applied. Choice here, but not there? Freedom for us, but not them? Who gets human rights? What speech is free? It's not hypocrisy, it's the oldest possible belief system. For us, not for them.

Conspiracy has everyone behaving as if they subscribed to the first option while transparently following the second. Sometimes willingly, sometimes accidentally. "Any legal code worthy of the name restricts the enforces of the law as well as its subjects; there are some things you cannot do." So says... Wilhelm Stuckart, in the film at least.

Believing you follow the first theory while secretly cleaving to the second is extremely dangerous.

The Law and the law

One of the supreme ironies of humanity is that virtually every awful event has been perfectly legal. The law is a tool, and like a hammer it can be used to drive a nail or split a skull. Almost every positive change, in the modern world at least, has been due to illegal action.

The recognition that the law is not just is ancient. Consider the story of Noah (not that Noah, the other one).

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” 
Moses brought their case before the Lord. 

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them.
-Numbers 27 or Numbers 36 or Joshua 17. 2
The Book of Numbers, with all respect, can be really fucking boring. But this story is important. It's so important it was included three times. Five women said the law was not just. And God, the wrathful Old-Testament God if you're into that sort of thing, who not 11 chapters earlier dropped Korah and his followers down the express elevator to Sheol, changed the law. Even if it's just a story, it shows it was important to the authors.

Or if you'd prefer a more modern interpretation, consider Sir Robert Peel's Principles of Policing.

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Or everything Terry Pratchett wrote.

The Law, with a capital L, lives in peoples' heads. And when the law, as written, with a lowercase l, or the implementation of the law, clashes with the Law in people's heads, people will seek redress.

I'm cynical enough to believe that the Law in people's heads is just as subject to propaganda, pressure, time, and trickery as anything else. It runs on the same meat; it evolved from the same lizards. Fascist rhetoric often seeks to divide the world into people who listen to the (i.e. our) Law and people who don't, and it usually works. But for good or for ill, the law and the Law match, or face the consequences.

A Chain of Inevitability

Wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception, is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” 
-Tuchman, The March of Folly

If you work, you have been at a meeting where something was presented as inevitable. And perhaps it was. In the grand scheme of things, very few events are actually inevitable, but it is often convenient to frame them that way. Starting from a position of inevitability allows focus. We are opening a new branch office in Omaha; how should we go about it? Climate change is a threat facing humanity; how should we combat it? Etc.

But for every useful application of inevitability, there is a dark application. X is a threat to our security, therefore we must. X meets our criteria, therefore we must. X is vital to our interests. And so the chain of inevitability proceeds, marching towards terror and disaster, because if the first cause if inevitable, no one wants to break the chain. No one wants to force a fundamental reevaluation of priorities, a complete rewrite, a total overhaul. Just sign your name on the dotted line, do your part, and move on.

It is difficult to combat self-deception in an organization if people in the organization are willing to be deceived. Since self-deception can lead to success - as gamblers know all too well - it can be difficult to step out of line. It's still a useful principle to keep in mind.

I Could Have Sworn This Was An RPG Blog

Yeah yeah yeah. It's not like your monitor is running out of ink.

Watching a film with actors displaying the peak of their skill is valuable. Watching a story that isn't a story is valuable. Grappling with an idea that defies acceptance is valuable. Watching superbly crafted language - nobody actually spoke the way people in the film speak, but nobody spoke the way Shakespeare had them speak either - is valuable.

Knowing is not the same as acting. Woe unto you, etc.

1. As formulated by Frank Wilhoit here, and cited by Fred Clark here. You don't need to agree with the conclusions Wilhoit draws to appreciate the succinct formula.

2. Or Sesame Street, 1983, if you'd prefer.

1 comment:

  1. Conspiracy is an excellent movie.

    I think there are many people who perceive the law as the second proposition and seek to redress it or keep it to advantage their specific purposes, many with good intentions. These people scare me.

    It was also hard to avoid reading between the lines for this article. Keeping my views out of this is difficult. The tone you’ve struck with synthesis is very nice.