February 3, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 10. Judgment Night


directed by John Brahm
written by Rod Serling
starring Nehemiah Persoff
with Deirdre Owen, Patrick Macnee, Ben Wright, Leslie Bradley, Kendrick Huxham, Hugh Sanders, Richard Peel, Donald Journeaux, Barry Bernard, and James Franciscus

Friday, December 4, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This is The Twilight Zone at its very clunkiest: a single simplistic notion, gracelessly drawn out to length. No story, just a situation. And a situation, at that, whose only justification is: “imagine if God had magically instituted this situation.”

This is highly schematic stuff — one pictures Rod Serling slamming this one out on a pack of cigarettes and no sleep, writer’s block be damned — and I’d like to dispense with it quickly.

The pre-twist unease, such as it is, has to do with one’s sense of place in the world, one’s self-narrative in social life. Having amnesia, or being arbitrarily inserted into a situation that isn’t properly yours, is not so very different a nightmare from something more overtly supernatural like Where Is Everybody? Being socially grounded doesn’t just mean having pleasant or welcoming people around; they have to be the right people. One cannot truly be part of society if one doesn’t feel internally that there is a match between the inner and outer narratives. Mr. Lanser seems to be in the wrong story, which is uneasy-making because it denies him (and us) any natural action. What are his sympathies? What is his agenda? He can’t have one, because he’s been stripped of the basics of social selfhood.

Unfortunately for the viewer, the ultimate nature of Mr. Lanser’s predicament is such that the episode can’t afford for him to make any real headway in dealing with this feeling of social mismatch, so as food for thought, his situation isn’t very rewarding. Mostly he just sits around, waiting for the other shoe to drop, staring into space as though he’s trying to find something between his teeth with his tongue.

The post-war game of pretending to exercise how far conventional sympathies can stretch is, from today’s point of view, awfully dull. (“My god, the Germans were people too?”) Feigning as though such questions were hard and eye-opening and salutary was surely pretty thin soup for even the most propaganda-committed Americans. Watching a straw German undergo this exercise is one degree less absurd, but only just (“Mein gott, ze Allies vere people too?”). Rod seems to understand that this is a nonstarter as a tale of moral growth, and he leaves Lanser’s degree of eventual enlightenment ambiguous. After all, the eternal punishment would start to seem like the work of an evil God, rather than merely a brutal one, if we saw that every night of his endless torment, Lanser learns a lesson of compassion and takes it to heart. So he doesn’t. Nothing happens. And that nothing happens over and over again.

Fear of ultimate eternal punishment by an ultimate authority is about the most psychologically retrograde of devices for creating horror. “What if God, the universe, were a being of infinite malice — and what if that malice were just?” Such hellfire fantasies always strike me as distasteful and inhumane, because as long as we are quaking in our boots contemplating this scenario, we are also endorsing the malice within ourselves. If eternal torment seems in any way like apt “poetic justice” to you, you are carrying the spirit of vengeance in your own heart. The idea that this story is not the pungent fancy of a traumatized veteran’s imagination but, in fact, God’s holy and correct “Judgment Night,” is the flimsiest of all facades to excuse our own indulging ourselves some cruelty. It would have been much healthier to be honest about where these images were coming from.

“That German bad guy only got what he deserved, after all!” A remorseful German “good guy” is dropped in at the end like a kewpie doll to try to wring some sense of moral ambivalence out of an audience already assumed to tacitly approve of eternal torment. But of course he doesn’t show up on the time-loop ghost ship. Unclear what The Twilight Zone had in store for him.

There’s something transparently arbitrary about the fact that the underlying sin is not that Lanser was a Nazi, per se, but that he… didn’t give his victims warning. This is just a technicality with a vaguely “ethical” ring to it, clutched at in attempt to paper over the open secret that war is war and all its victims, by definition, are treated inhumanely.

Rod Serling was in heavy combat in World War II and was scarred by seeing his companions die. Wanting to work those feelings out is only natural, and sharing that process with the rest of the traumatized country, through his TV show, seems a perfectly honorable thing to do. But there’s a big difference between “justice” and “anger,” and you can’t properly work out anger if you insist that it’s actually justice. An episode like this finds Rod (and many Americans like him, no doubt) muddled by his own embarrassment, trying to turn his pain and fury into something neater and more orderly: a system of right and wrong.

That’s a common project, but it never works out. Someone like me, on the outside, with no ax to grind, can see immediately that an equation is being proposed with no solution. Rod is the good German and the bad German and all the victims on the ship and the god whose Inferno this is, and the only way to reconcile it all is through his pain, which is not itself on the table.

To watch this as pure Twilight Zone episode, the audience has to do the work that Rod didn’t manage to do, and connect the dots into something that resembles a well-formed story:

This cold-hearted man doomed the innocent, but there’s no escaping Fate, which thus inflicts that same doom back on him… albeit in a ghostly state of half-awareness. As it must be; such moral inversions can only play out on an inner stage of purely subjective reality. The life of a ghost is necessarily one of constant dream-disorientation, an asocial existence still haunted by the memory of people, and it is that very force, the memory of people, that is having its revenge on him in a state beyond death.

There, see, I understand it all fine. (It’s the same skeleton as Time Enough at Last, in fact.) The show just had to give the slightest indications and the rest was second nature. We’re all eager and ready to dismiss all the stuff that’s extraneous or contradictory. The audience is very practiced at working in tandem with the author to feed itself the nightmares it’s already accustomed to having, overcoming, and then having again. We’re all in this together. Every night. Forever.

Music is stock. Most of it is from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” suites of library music. Sturdy stuff.

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