Friday, February 3, 2012


Grausamkeit is a German word meaning cruelty, ferocity, or savagery.  Presumably, we get the English adjective gruesome from grausam.  A good example of Grausamkeit would be, say, getting ripped apart by ravenous wolves on a frozen wasteland after having survived a subzero climate and hostile environment for a day or two.  For present purposes, I would like the etymological root of Grausamkeit to be grau, or the color grey, but currently I can’t substantiate this connection.  I don’t have a German dictionary at hand.  Through a Google search, I found a blogger who claims the word stems from grau, but he is probably going by the similarity of spelling—a rookie’s mistake.  The words legible and legal, for instance, have different etymologies.  Anyway, I could imagine the connection in the sense of a horrific event or grisly scene turning someone ashen grey.

So why the word study?  As usual, the Army put me up at a hotel for my military weekend.  I decided to go out for a change, so I turned off the news and set aside the colleges paper I was grading.  I drove to a nearby mall, traipsed around aimlessly for a bit, and finally decided to watch a movie called “The Grey” starring Liam Neeson.  I found the flick more entertaining than I had anticipated, as it is largely a man-versus-nature story, not my usual cup of tea.  A plane carrying a ragtag group of hardened oil-rig workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness.  The survivors must fight the cold and some wicked wolves whose territory they’ve presumably slammed into.   The film features a great ensemble cast, though only Neeson is of A-grade stardom.  The landscape and concomitant cinematography was as breathtaking as formidable.  The four-legged beasts looked real, and the chase scenes  were intense.  Yeah, I guess it’s a bone fide guy film; yet it had something more to offer than wolves chasing their hapless biped prey around a winter wonderland.

What struck a chord in me while watching the film was the spiritual or existential questions it raises.  Midway through the film I started reflecting on a double meaning in the title “The Grey,” even if the closing credits informs me that the film is based on a short story called “Ghost Walker.”  Was it the genius of Ridley Scott, the co-producer, to use a more ambiguous title?  The film is not merely about a grey landscape, but a beclouded, agnostic hope for something beyond this life, for an ultimate purpose to suffering.  I suppose for some male viewers, the men's talk from the heart, however brief, is merely filler dialogue between the action scenes, an unnecessary and gratuitous diversion from the fighting and carnage; but action for action's sake, without at least a layman's stab at the philosophical or spiritual questions regarding the human condition, does not interest me.

This spiritual dimension, for lack of a better phrase, came through in a couple of campfire discussions.  In what was for me a poignant and emotional moment (for reasons I can’t fully articulate), the main character Ottway (Neeson) cries to the heavens as he’s the last man standing and the wolves are hot on his trail.  The camera pans the beautifully grey landscape of snow-covered mountains and trees as he yells out something to the effect of: “God, here’s your chance!  Save me.”  But no.  The only response is an earth-shattering silence.  Ottway too will die a horrific death as the alpha male and pack close in and surround him.  I find the implications disturbing, even if they indeed correspond to the hard realities of earthly existence.  The men's painstaking efforts to survive were all for naught. 

Also of interest is the beginning of the film when Ottway attempts to kill himself, for reasons unknown, though his voice-over narrative about his wife seems to give a clue.  His flashbacks of them laying next to each other in bed, and her telling him to be strong, turn out to be memories of his beloved wife dying in a hospital room presumably from an incurable disease.  Just before he meets his fate, Ottway, in a touching moment of  humanity, pulls out the wallets of the men who died, as he had kept them for the sake of the families.  He looks at the family photos, giving him and the audience a window into the lives of roughneck men who had left behind spouses, girlfriends, and children.

I fear I’m elevating the movie too much, for “The Grey” is not spectacularly good.  Moreover, it has a disappointing ending as far as Hollywood movies go: everyone dies.  Usually American movies of this type have the main protagonist survive either because of a clear-cut miracle from on high or because of a more ambiguous set of circumstances that leaves the viewer pondering whether something supernatural had occurred.  Not this movie.  The ending, and a few moments of reflection by the survivors along the way, give the film some depth, but it also raises those painfully incessant questions that confront angst-ridden theists and agnostics alike.