(Note: This piece contains spoilers for both films.)
There is a scene late in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), the last entry in Chan-wook Park’s searing and unforgettable trilogy of revenge films, in which the “hero” has finally succeeded in destroying the preternaturally evil predator that is the source of all her pain and anger and sadness. And she stands there as his ravaged body is laid to rest forever in a grave at her feet, the camera slowly closing in on her face. A tentative smile emerges, a glimmer of minimal redemption; and yet there are tears in her eyes that speak a deeper truth — that of a life barred from happiness, of a soul irredeemable.
She is the avatar of all the abused children in the film, and of those parents whose anger seeks a target — anything outside of the deep wounds of memory — that it can never fully obliterate. In this film, as in its predecessors (2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and 2003’s Oldboy) writer-director Park stares revenge unblinkingly in the face and depicts its violence and tragedy with a bleak and consuming determination. The protagonists of these twisted tales are shattered individuals whose sole purpose is to seek some kind of meaning in one last act of vengeance; whose lives are nothing but this overwhelming and intractable desire.
They are films of extremes, of absurdist, blood-soaked fantasy and monstrous violence. But we empathize with the compromised characters that anchor them; indomitable forces that push through to the end no matter what, tearing down anything that gets in their way. They personify an unswerving commitment to justice — even if massively distorted and radicalized — that animates a superhuman or subhuman dimension, unleashing the forces of mythic drama.1
The last film in the series carries the greatest emotional resonance, as we see the innocence of children and the protective safety of motherhood violated by the worst kind of terror. The “hero” of the story relentlessly persists in the dark shadow of this bleakness. She must. And in her persistence, with her power, some kind of redemption can be found, despite the frightening depths she goes to in order to find it. In her deranged pursuit of justice, we hear the primal scream of our anger at the life-crushing crimes perpetrated on the innocent of the world; of the scars that can never fully heal. And we feel the protagonist’s pain; in the void that is her soul, we see a tiny flame of goodness and hope. Its presence remains invaluable. We may be haunted by the terrible evil in the world, but this lost character, crying in the street as the film ends, haunts us even more than the choking darkness that tried to destroy her, but could not.
Hope in circumstances where it is threatened with extinction; that is the underlying principle of another film from 2005, Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl. This is no fantasy. Instead, it is a true story of a life lived under the tyranny of ascending evil. It takes place in the streets and prisons of Germany in early 1943; violence is not seen but rather heard in air raid sirens and the echo of bombs dropping; and in imagining the continuing destruction of Europe.
We follow Sophie Scholl in her 21st year; her last. She was a member of the small underground resistance group, the White Rose. The organization produced pamphlets that tried to educate German citizens about the ominous nature of Hitler and National Socialism; how the man and the movement can and must be stopped. To do this required the almost impossible task of standing up for principle against evil at its crushing and oppressive centre, where one’s voice remains mostly unheard, considered ludicrous, or distorted beyond recognition. And ultimately silenced. That is Scholl’s fate.
It’s an extraordinary film: simple, stark, sad, and powerfully inspiring. At its heart is not only a young woman who faces death with dignity and certainty, but also a fundamental lesson about the responsibility of a life of conscience and activism; of the pursuit of goodness in the midst of evil.
There is a moment late in the film where Scholl, a believer, prays to God, momentarily doubting the path she has taken: “I may not know a thing about you, but you are still my only hope. I pray to you, please don’t abandon me, my dear God, my dear father.” Her words reference those of Christ’s on the cross: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” As psychologist C.G. Jung noted in 1937:2
If you want to understand the full tragedy of those words you must realize what they meant: Christ saw that his whole life, devoted to the truth according to his best conviction, had been a terrible illusion. He had lived it to the full absolutely sincerely, he had made his honest experiment ... On the cross his mission deserted him. But because he had lived so fully and devotedly he won through to the Resurrection body.
The life and death of Scholl exists in this singular and fulfilled space. Jung goes on to note, referencing the individuation process that is at the core of his psychology, with Christ as a symbol of the self (the whole or complete individual that one seeks to be in life): “We must all do what Christ did. We must make our experiment. We must live out our own vision of life.” This is what gives Scholl, despite moments of doubt and anguish, an ultimately unshakeable confidence in the necessity of the path she has chosen. There is no other way. When we follow our path, as Jung says, “we know Christ as a brother.”3
1. This unswerving commitment to justice — and through it, a monstrous unleashing of violence — can also be found in Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella Michael Kohlhass. Slavoj žižek, in his 2008 book The Monstrosity of Christ, describes it as the story of
Zizek analyzes this story through the Lacanian prism of the “ethics of the Real,” with the horses as an ordinary object “elevated into the dignity of the Thing,” and of a singular Event (a crime) that changes the coordinates of existence itself. Kohlhass “sticks to his sense of civil virtue and justice to the end, whatever the cost.” The story is a cipher for the desire to reform the political landscape; a way to air fundamental grievances when it comes to authority, power and arrogance. Its extreme nature shows the bending of the oppressed to the distorted (violent) call of radical justice.
And there is also this, from Montaigne’s essay Cowardice, Mother of Cruelty:
At the end of this essay, I refer to C.G. Jung’s ideas of the self and individuation. A more thorough look at these psychological concepts can be found in my essay A Transverse Cut, which covers Jung’s 1932 seminar on the Kundalini Yoga.