On Remembering Or Repeating History

Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, image: bbc.co.ukHistory shows that a war which follows on the heels of a Serbian assassination doesn’t go well for anyone involved.
As I’ve written before, one reason I chose a WWI battlefield as an object of my first film, Souvenir (November 2001), was because it had been “forgotten.” Practically speaking, there is no one left alive who has direct experience or memory of WWI in general and the Battle of the Somme in particular. At best, it’s taught, analyzed, considered, memorialized, but it is not remembered.
Generally, in the US, if WWI’s known at all, it’s as dim, dusty, unfortunate history, where “history” translates as “has nothing to do with what’s going on right now.” In this absence of memory, attempts to liken the current political/military situation to WWI are countered with pious promises to “never let such a horror happen again.” But those promises are almost never accompanied by an understanding of why or how WWI unfolded, or even what such a horror actually comprised.
Thiepval Memorial, image:firstworldwar.comSuch benign ignorance afflicts the New Yorker protagonist in S(N01), whose “search” for The Memorial to The Missing at Thiepval is driven by his own involvement in the “most horrible violence ever.” He ambles in a naive daze across the modern era’s first “most horrible violence ever,” and finds not just one memorial, but hundreds: countless markers and cemeteries; fields still yielding up remains; razed and rebuilt towns; and rare, preserved sections of battlefied What’s more, though, as he drives his German car across France, he finds people–French locals and British caretakers–who show the 80-years-on effects of the war, which–they’re painfully aware–are nigh-unbearable, even when your side “wins.” They also show the New Yorker a welcoming-but-pained sympathy, as if he’s rushed home with bad news, only to find a passel of neighbors and friends waiting to tell him something even worse.
Lochnagar Crater, image:firstworldwar.comLutyens’ Memorial to The Missing of The Somme is powerful; visiting can be an overwhelming experience. But its power pales in comparison to the concerted efforts to teach about WWI that take place in every school in the UK. The Lochnagar Crater now sits alone as a souvenir in the landscape, a scar that–according to those who visit it or live around it–still aches, recalling them of old wounds. But its influence pales compared to the effect of a lifetime where every errand you run in your entirely-post-war village takes you past half a dozen cemeteries, and where, spring after spring, you turn up mortars and rotted boots when you plant your flowers.
When I made S(N01) exactly a year ago, I was nervous about drawing false parallels between the attacks on New York and an “actual” war. Tragedy was tragedy, loss was loss, but a terrorist attack was not The Somme. 2001 wasn’t 1914, I mean, how could it be, when the civilized world was united? I expected the need for S(N01)‘s solace would pass: we’d learn to deal with the loss of September 11th, and move gingerly toward a safer, more peaceful future. The movie’d become a time capsule, a sad-but-nostalgic reminder of the moments of our resolve. Instead, I wonder if I’ve unintentionally remade someone’s film, Souvenir (July 1914).