Copenhagen (Part I)

Introduction

Whilst my recent writing has been focused on critical analysis of cinematic art, in this article, I shall make an exception and engage with Michael Freyn’s play, Copenhagen. Like all my other writings, this article is about many things, yet I wish to keep it within a self-imposed requirement of this space being (mostly) about critical writing on performing art based on a premise: philosophical and critical thoughts are at their best when they find powerful aesthetic expressions. That being acknowledged, to fully appreciate aesthetic expressions of philosophical and critical thoughts, one faces a particular paradox: although inspired aesthetic expressions of philosophical and critical thoughts present us openings into previously inaccessible insights by virtue of non-linguistic means, to clearly understand something, one still needs to put such impressions into words. And thus, I force myself to grapple with this impossible task: to bring some clarity to the subtle and intricate insights expressed through non-linguistic mediums with the very means deemed incompetent in the first place.

Whilst one must always tread a precarious path between incomprehension and fantasy when engaging in such an enterprise, the current project presents an additional difficulty: I have currently no access to theatrical performances or the  TV adaptation of this play. Whilst Freyn’s text is fascinating in its own right, and thus presents a consuming reading experience, as a play, it is meant to be rendered by living human flesh and voices appearing within a specifically curated space and time. An excellent drama makes as good reading as great poetry or fiction. Yet, a drama cannot fully realise its potential without being actually performed. Quite unfortunately, it turned out that it was not possible for me to appreciate Freyn’s play as it was originally intended for the aforementioned reason. Therefore, this article owes its existence to a radio drama, directed by Emma Harding for BBC 3, starring Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Whilst the present situation is not ideal, there are two factors that made this project possible: the intriguing premise of Freyn’s drama, which encourages us to imagine the entire script as a drama of voices, and the sheer quality of the production itself.

Freyn’s Copenhagen is highly regarded both in Britain and abroad, and quite deservingly so. It is intellectually stimulating, historically controversial, and philosophically engaging. The play focuses on one of the most intriguing events in modern intellectual history, that is, a private meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. It took place in the German occupied Danish capital, and Heisenberg traveled there to meet his friend despite tremendous obstacles. Under the circumstances, this meeting put both of them in a difficult position. Despite his stature as a nobel laureate in physics, Heisenberg’s position within the Reich was never comfortable: he was attacked by none other than Heinrich Himmler himself, who called him a ‘white-Jew’ and threatened to ‘make him disappear’. Therefore, despite being hailed as one of the most talented scientists in the world, Heisenberg had ample reason to be cautious in all aspects of his actions. As for Bohr, he was also fixed under the intense gaze of the Gestapo. Himself a Jew, he aided refugees crossing the Danish-German border before the German occupation of Denmark, an offence that could have cost his life under German rule. In addition, as one of the most prominent figures in theoretical physics, Bohr was suspected of being in contact with his fellow physicists, such as Einstein, Fermi, and Oppenheimer, who were leading the Allies’ nuclear weapons program, although the Germans did not know the exact extent of their progress. Given that Heisenberg was deeply involved in the German counterpart program, the meeting of the two naturally piqued the interest of all sides. Yet, despite explanations given by the participants, as well as the research conducted by historians, the exact meaning of the event remains darkly mysterious. Despite the controversies regarding the correctness of what appeared to be Freyn’s favoured interpretation of this particular event, Copenhagen has been credited for bringing our attention to this elusive event, and re-evaluating the legacy of Heisenberg and the scientific development to which he decisively contributed.

The historians’ judgment on Freyn’s treatment of this intrigue has been decidedly negative, and thus Copenhagen remains controversial in this respect. Firstly, despite Freyn’s stated neutrality over various accounts and conjectures about what two giants of modern physics discussed and what Heisenberg in particular was hoping to achieve by meeting Bohr privately at this particular juncture, Freyn’s play strongly suggests one line of thought: Heisenberg as a saboteur of the German nuclear weapons program. Whilst the structure of the play confirms Freyn’s commitment to his neutrality over various views on the event, the most dramatic moment of the play comes with Heisenberg’s outburst: his lament over the lost opportunity to pursue the ‘wild probability’ in persuading his Allied counterpart to jointly halt the weaponisation of nuclear science. Since there is no concrete evidence to either support or deny this line of speculation, historians’ indignation is quite justified. Secondly, it is clear that Freyn exaggerated the impact and the importance of Heisenberg’s role in the German nuclear weapons program. As the very notion of Deutsche Physik suggests, ideological adherence to Nazism and standing within the party were considered more important than the talent and competence of a scientist in the Third Reich. Heisenberg personally knew this better than anyone. In what became known as the ‘Heisenberg Affair’, the government and the members of Deutsche Physik ferociously opposed the appointment of Heisenberg, a non-party member, as the replacement of Arnold Sommerfeld at the University of Munich. The conflict lasted for years and, as mentioned earlier, involved the likes of Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Whilst Heisenberg heeded Himmler’s warning to strictly segregate his job and his political attitude, he was denied the position. Heisenberg managed to lead one group within the German nuclear program, and his influence was thus not as decisive as Freyn’s play might impress.

Still, Copenhagen is an important play that is worthy of the title of contemporary classic. The central theme of the drama, the ‘indeterminability’ of human intentions that motivate and move us to take a certain course of action, is an important subject with great implications. This Leitmotiv is particularly effective and produces a great dramatic tension throughout, for the central question regarding the subject of this play remains the same after all these years: What did Heisenberg hope to achieve with his visit to Bohr? If one can find an answer to this question, one might finally begin to draw a conclusion about Heisenberg: his science, his achievements, and his character. And, as historians agree, this is the question that cannot be answered definitively. Therefore, whilst it is critical to heed the warnings of the specialists in the history of science, one must also question why this ‘uncertainty’ of human intentions must be brought to our attention, especially regarding Heisenberg. This question also leads us to another: What has made Freyn seemingly so ‘charitable’ toward this conceivably ‘Faustian’ scientist? Thus, in the second part of the essay, I wish to grapple with these questions and argue that the answers to them reveal another subject of the play. As far as I know, this aspect of Freyn’s work is completely neglected, and quite unjustifiably so. Unless one engages with this ‘hidden’ subject, if you will, one’s assessment of Freyn’s play remains incomplete.

This article is the first part of a critical essay on Michael Freyn’s Copenhagen. Whilst I wish to examine what I call the ‘hidden subject’ of the play in the second part, in this article, I wish to focus on aesthetic and historic aspects of the play. I shall begin our inquiry by examining the premise and the structure of the play, and then proceed by examining the practical problems that prevent us from obtaining a clear picture of the event.

 

The Eternal Recurrence

Copenhagen is a complex piece of literary work. It has many facets to appreciate and contains still more subjects to analyse. Hence, in the first section of this article, I wish to examine the aesthetic and formal aspect of Copenhagen to begin our inquiry. The aesthetic aspect is particular to the format in question: an audio drama. The formal aspect of the play, however, applies to Freyn’s way of structuring the play, and thus, in differing degrees, it is observed across the board (Although the TV adaptation directed by Howard Davies for BBC might be an exception: it is known to be heavily ‘edited’ to fit this particular format). Thus, I shall follow a convention and start with the analysis of particulars before moving on to general aspects of this play.

Now, let us begin the analysis of the aesthetic aspect unique to the given format. The radio drama in focus was directed for BBC 3 by Emma Harding in 2013. It features Simon Russell Beale as Niels Bohr, Greta Scacchi as Margrethe Bohr, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Werner Heisenberg. The ability of these three to extract everything from the given format, and the skills with which Harding put it together, deserve the highest praise. To begin with, a radio drama involves a highly restricted environment which demands more of the actors than a stage or cinematic production would. Both the director and the actors must work without any physical presence or visuals to seduce the audience. In this sense, the task of a radio drama’s director is a little similar to that of the director of animated films: both for animated films and radio productions, the director must cast the actors with the right voice for the roles they play. Also they must find actors with a deep understanding of the challenge inherent in respective formats to create a profound theatrical experience given the restrictions present in both. That being acknowledged, Harding’s challenge here is far more pointed than that of the directors of animated films: since there is no other tools available other than the voice, the success of the production relies entirely on the actors’ ability not only to control their delivery but also to fit their parts flawlessly with those of the rest of the cast. Without physical presence, one actor cannot command and dominate the entire space in a way which a theatre or a cinema occasionally allows an exceptional actor to do. In this precise sense, a radio drama must meet the vision Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart imposed on his opera: the Austrian, contrary to the Italians, did not believe in the exceptional status of lead singers. He demanded the absolute harmony of every element in his music, and he implemented his philosophy in every type of music he created. For Mozart, every note was equally important, and thus, the voices of singers, regardless of their abilities or status, were only good in so far as they functioned as parts of the whole. Without a visual element to cover the slightest of faux pas, the success of an audio drama is dependent on the cast.

In meeting such a condition, all three actors have done splendidly. Simon Russell Beale convincingly renders Freyn’s Bohr, who is more eloquent, at times even temperamental, in comparison with the way the Danish physicist was remembered by his many friends and admirers. Greta Scacchi infuses her natural elegance into the firmness of character which so famously defined Margrethe, who was often referred to as the ‘Queen’. As a result, her Margrethe is not a side character: Scacchi gives an air of authority and strength to this crucial character who does not merely witness the tribunal, but directs it. More importantly, Scacchi’s Margrethe is not a one-dimensional character: she can be firm, yet never vicious. She is at once elegant and strong, intelligent and caring, protective yet never truly unfair. And, needless to say, Heisenberg, a ‘Faustian prodigy’, is a perfect fit for Benedict Cumberbatch. His ability to breathe life into his characters is well-known, yet, in this particular case, the way Cumberbatch adapted himself to this format is quite exemplary. If one recalls the way in which he played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), it is quite clear that the Briton excels in portraying an emotionally distant and socially awkward personality without alienating his character from the audience. In this sense, if Cumberbatch were to play Heisenberg in a theatre or a cinema, he would probably resort to a similar method, for Heisenberg was someone who is remembered for his sharpness, not for his affections. Margrethe, for example, always found him ‘difficult’ due to his ‘aloofness’ and ‘closedness’, yet Cumberbatch portrays his character with somber sensitivity, and, at times, with emotional acuteness fit for a Shakespearian tragedy. Such a ‘diviation’ was, however, necessary for this format: whilst a factually more accurate portrayal of Heisenberg might have worked in a theatre or a cinema wherein an actor can supplement the lack of emotiveness in the tone of his voice with other means, in a radio drama, an actor must somehow communicate the inner feeling of a given character strongly enough to impress the audience, and there is no other tool than his voice with which an actor can perform. What is more, despite the star quality and at times commanding delivery of Cumberbatch, his performance did not break the harmony of the Troika. His performance was inspired throughout, and completely absorbing at times, yet it was always aimed at his counterparts as a proper dialectical move. Like the moves of a skilled chess player, every nuance was based on the uncanny anticipation of what his counterpart would do next. Cumberbatch was fortunate in this regard. Thanks to Beale and Scacchi, who met Cumberbatch with brilliance of equal measure, Harding was able to create a production worthy of Freyn’s play. Therefore, as far as I can see, the drama in question met the aesthetic demands of the given format brilliantly.

The most notable formal aspect of Copenhagen is its premise: the entire play is driven and dominated by dialogues. This characteristic of the play favours an audio drama, yet, given the restrictions inherent to this particular format, it is easy to assume that a radio drama must be severely handicapped compared to other formats, such as the cinematic or theatrical. As commonly known, we are least resistant to visual stimuli. Despite that our visual experience is not our direct reaction to the given, and thus such an experience is in fact defined by what Heisenberg calls ‘practical a priori’ concepts, which are shaped and defined by linguistic conventions and thus contingent, the visual stimuli tend to exert a decisive influence on our judgments. We routinely judge the attributes of persons we encounter, such as their character and professional competence, based on ‘how they look’. And it is commonly believed that performing arts benefit the most from exploiting our receptivity to visual stimuli, and there is certainly some truth to this view. Given that recent films are marred by sensory overload due to the proliferation of CGI, we might be tempted to categorically dismiss the above statement on the ground of artistic merit. Whilst I am personally sympathetic to such a reaction, we must note that the dominance of visual aspects of performing arts is quite significant. Consider casting the ‘right’ person for a role. Whilst a veteran actor can circumvent the ‘negative’ perception of their look by virtue of their reputation, public image, and acting skills, for the most part, a candidate actor must cultivate a certain look to be cast for a role. This is a process wherein the precarious interplay between the exploitation of stereotypes and the manipulation of stereotypes, that is, an aspect of acting, takes place. And it is commonly considered that casting is one of the most important parts of a production, and for good reason. Failing to cast the right actor for a role commonly results in negative reactions, for the audience cannot ‘believe in’ the part, and this undermines their experience. Given the dominance of visuals in our experience, it is natural for us to accept the relative ineffectiveness of an audio drama. Surely is it not better to be present at the stage performance of Hamlet than listening to its audio recording? Fascinatingly, however, the potential weakness present in an audio drama is almost completely neutralised in Copenhagen, for the entire play is literally made up of the conversation of ghosts. As in many of Samuel Beckett’s plays, in Copenhagen, the protagonists are trapped in a purgatory wherein the ‘normal’ temporal order is not applicable. They have no future, only the agonising past and the hollow present. Yet, unlike Beckett’s, Freyn’s play is driven entirely by the conversations. This premise allows us to imagine the entire play without visual stimuli. Given the quality of production supported by the brilliant performances of the three actors, the experience of listening to Copenhagen as an audio drama is not only adequate but perhaps essential in appreciating this drama fully. In Copenhagen, the lack of visual stimuli plays an important part by cutting distractions from the dialogues. Judging from the book cover, the stage production acknowledged the conversation-driven nature of the play by resorting to stark minimalism. Therefore, Copenhagen, against convention, presents itself as a vocal drama.

Another notable formal aspect of the play is its circularity. The play begins with the dreaded question: Why did he come? Whilst Bohr appears hesitant to stir the ‘spirit of the past’, Margrethe persists. Why did Heisenberg come to visit Bohr at this particular juncture? She forces Bohr to grapple, again, with this mystery since ‘now we are all dead and gone’, and ‘no one can be hurt’. Whilst historians agree that Margrethe’s question cannot be answered conclusively, they also agree with her that such a realisation, however rational, cannot stop us from asking questions. In light of this ‘undead’ nature of the questions regarding their meeting, Freyn adopted a highly imaginative premise: the ghosts of the three protagonists of the fateful meeting jointly examine every possible meaning of the event by enacting them. This premise necessitates formal characteristics of Freyn’s play: it is open-ended without a linear temporal structure. Since there is no possibility of arriving at one definite account of the event or another, the three characters are condemned to seek every possible interpretation, however wild, and enact it ad infinitum. There are two insurmountable obstacles in the way of our obtaining a definite conclusion to the question: practical problems and theoretical ones. The practical problems concern the specific and contingent problems in determining the truth about the meeting, and thus belong to historians. The theoretical problems concern general and constitutive problems about the limit and the nature of our understanding, and thus are philosophical in nature. Since both are the focus of the following sections, I refrain from analysing them here. Still, it is critical to note the way in which the content of the play determines its form. The complexity of the narrative that condemns the spirits of the past in eternal recurrence is necessitated by the subject of the play, that is, the impenetrable fog of uncertainty not only of this specific event in question but also of human intention and its relation to human actions in general. Whilst historians have mostly focused on the practical problems specific to this event, the theoretical problems are even more important. According to Freyn, the central inspiration of this play is the theoretical ones. He was interested in writing this play because the controversies and mystery surrounding the meeting between the great physicists highlight the fundamental problem of the impossibility in determining one’s intentions, which supposedly determine one’s actions. This was Freyn’s insight and the one that began the entire project: he realised the uncertainty applies to Heisenberg’s character as well as our constitutive epistemic limitations. And thus, before we analyse the uncertainty in the following sections, we must acknowledge just how sophisticated Copenhagen is. The way the content and the form of the work necessitate one another in this contemporary classic represents a rare brilliance. However, it is a different story for our protagonists who are condemned to this tortuous circularity.

 

Uncertainty (Part I.)

The uncertainty that condemns the ghosts of Bohr, Margrethe, and Heisenberg to eternal enactment of their meeting in 1941 originates from two distinct problems: practical problems and theoretical ones. In this essay, I wish to examine each of them so that one can fully appreciate the intellectual depth of the subjects involved in this play. To this end, I shall begin by examining practical problems that prevent us from arriving at a clear picture of the event in question, which will be followed by the elaboration on theoretical problems in the second article of this essay.

Practical problems are particular to the event in question, and thus contingent. Whilst less significant philosophically, they are more relevant with regard to judging the legacy of Heisenberg’s science and his character. The fog of uncertainty fostered by practical problems plays a decisive role in denying the possibility of arriving at a precise assessment of who he was and for what he stood. In order to grasp what these problems are, we must begin by directing our attention to what we already know about the fateful meeting. Despite the confusions, there are several aspects of the event that are accepted as the facts by historians: 1) Heisenberg met Bohr privately in German-occupied Copenhagen in 1941 by overcoming great difficulty in obtaining permission for foreign travel; 2) Heisenberg was one of the principal scientists leading the German nuclear program at the time of their meeting; 3) Both scientists were under the intense scrutiny of the Gestapo; 4) Heisenberg led Bohr on a private walk for a discussion; 5) Heisenberg informed Bohr that the Germans were researching the possibility of weaponising nuclear science; 6) Heisenberg also corrected Bohr that, contrary to Bohr’s earlier assessment, exploiting nuclear fissions to create a bomb was practically possible; and 7) When points 5 and 6 were communicated, Bohr abruptly cut short their conversation and ended their walk. Aside from these points, there is no clear picture of the event. In fact, to the dismay of the British intelligence officer who accompanied Heisenberg to liberated Copenhagen to see Bohr and establish the facts of their meeting, the two physicists could not even agree on the route of their walk.

This point brings out probably the most benign problem: our fallibility in preserving an accurate picture of our experience, and in recalling it undistorted. The staged ‘reunion’ between the Dane and the German took place after the war in the presence of a British intelligence officer, and, according to Heisenberg, he sensed Bohr’s reluctance to ‘disturb the spirit of the past’, which leaves us with a more pointed curiosity, or even suspicion, as to what was discussed between them in the original meeting. Whilst one can speculate about the reasons why Bohr was ‘uninterested’ in revisiting the event, it is worth noting the fact that it is not easy to recollect past events accurately in ordinary circumstances, let alone after surviving a traumatic experience. The ‘reunion’ took place years after the actual event, and a lot had happened to each of them, and to the world since their meeting in 1941. The Dane had narrowly escaped the Gestapo to Sweden, then had gone to Britain and eventually to Los Alamos in order to contribute to the Allied nuclear weapons program, to which he critically contributed by solving the ‘stubborn problem’ (Oppenheimer) relating to the initiation of the chain reaction for the Nagasaki bomb. Despite surviving the war and enjoying universal praise and admiration for both his character and his science, as a Danish-Jew who assisted the refugees across the Danish-German border, his war-time experience must have left a deep scar, and thus, it is not all that surprising to see his memory compromised. His trauma was not limited to his fear of living under the German rule as a Jew. Bohr was undoubtedly disturbed by the result of the successful experiments of their bombs on ‘living targets’, as well as the fast approaching nuclear weapons proliferation, and lobbied for international cooperation regarding the use of nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established upon Bohr’s suggestion. Despite the fame, security, and accolades he enjoyed in his later years, given the circumstances, it is quite understandable that Bohr’s recollection was wildly inconsistent regarding his 1941 meeting with Heisenberg. He once stated that Heisenberg wanted to recruit him to build a bomb for Hitler. Then he suspected Heisenberg of trying to gather intelligence on the Allies nuclear weapons program. He had no clear recollection of his own response to Heisenberg, let alone what exactly Heisenberg told him during the walk. Eventually, Bohr admitted in his unsent letter to Heisenberg that the German was so cryptic in his communication that he never understood what he wanted of him. 

As for Heisenberg, his life was no easier than his Danish counterpart’s. Before visiting Copenhagen, his trouble was already dire. He became the centre of the dispute between the faculty of the Department of Physics at the University of Munich and the members of Deutsche Physik, and he received a ‘death threat’ from the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, who called him a ‘white-Jew’ who needed to be ‘made to disappear’. Surviving this ordeal, later Heisenberg led a team of scientists to pursue a program to experiment on a nuclear reactor. Being part of the Uranverein, or the Uranium Club, he and his team were under constant pressure from the Wehrmacht as well as the Ministry of Armaments and War Productions headed by Albert Speer. Whilst Heisenberg secured funding for his reactor program, for reasons unclear, he did not push Speer for the nuclear weapons’ program during the famous meeting. Heisenberg stated: 1) the production of the nuclear bomb was possible, but not before 1945 and thus would have little or no effect in reversing the course of the war; and 2) whilst technically possible, the production of a nuclear bomb was practically impossible under the given circumstances due to the prohibitive demand on resources. As a result, Speer cut most of the funding from the nuclear weapons program, and Heisenberg had to fight for the independence of his project from the interventions of the Nazi party members in the program. Like the rest of Uranverein, he was abducted by the British and kept in an MI-6 safe-house in England, wherein he and his team learned of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. Upon his return, Germany was in ruins. Despite his continued prominence in physics, after the war, he was reviled as a ‘Nazi scientist’ who had tried and failed to produce the bomb for Hitler. For thirty years, he was forced to ‘explain’ his war-time activities, especially the reasons why he took such troubles to see Bohr in German-occupied territory. Whilst his contemporaries gave inconsistent and oft conflicting accounts of this event, Heisenberg’s response was rather consistent. Yet, despite the consistency, the ambiguity surrounding his actions and his intentions only deepened. 

The reason for the opaqueness surrounding Heisenberg differs from Bohr’s. It is not the result of the natural fallibility of our capacity to remember and recall our experience. The obscurity is rather the result of Heisenberg’s conscious decisions and his clear understanding of what was at stake at each moment of his life. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, he had to be extremely cautious in choosing what he would say and what he must pass over in silence. As we noted earlier, he was under attack from the members of Deutsche Physik and Heinrich Himmler, who threatened him with the starkest of terms. It was only through the intervention of Himmler’s mother, who was a friend of Heisenbergs, that the SS chief reconsidered his ‘option’ and let the ‘white-Jew’ off the hook. Yet, the resolution came with a deadly warning: Heisenberg was to strictly separate his personal beliefs and feelings from his ‘professional duty’ of serving the Reich. In his lectures and public appearances in Copenhagen during the trip in question, Heisenberg dutifully performed the Nazi propaganda, and thus left his Danish colleagues seething. Despite his seemingly comfortable relation with the German officials in Copenhagen, however, Heisenberg was acutely aware that he had to meet Bohr in person, in a private space. By holding a private meeting with Bohr, Heisenberg was in effect admitting that he had something he was unable to tell in front of the German officials. Fearing the surveillance, they took a private walk. Still, according to Bohr, Heisenberg was so cryptic that he never quite understood what Heisenberg really wanted to discuss and why. Still, it is not fair to put all the blame at Heisenberg’s feet, since Bohr did not allow Heisenberg to go on. The incomplete nature of their conversation imposes a serious difficulty in arriving at the conclusive and objective account of their 1941 meeting. Because the dialogue was cut short, we are forced to settle with Heisenberg’s ‘version’, and he was always going to say as little as possible. During the war, Heisenberg was under the watchful eyes of the regime. At the last stage of the war, he was in the captivity of the British intelligence. And after the war, given his acute awareness of the importance of this event to his legacy, Heisenberg was never going to be candid about what was discussed, and what was left unsaid, between him and his great mentor. 

Naturally, in the absence of a definite account, there have been some wild speculations, as well as stories told by the ones ‘in the know’. Bohr’s various statements regarding what Heisenberg was hoping to achieve from meeting him are by no means the wildest. For example, according to Ivan Supek, a student of Heisenberg, the Bohr-Heisenberg meeting in 1941 was not Heisenberg’s idea; it was the initiative of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a protégé of Heisenberg. Supek stated that Weizsäcker persuaded Heisenberg to meet Bohr. Weizsäcker’s explicit aim, according to Supek, was to persuade the Dane to mediate the peace deal between Britain and Germany. To make the matter more confusing, Weizsäcker’s own account is somewhat different from Supek’s. According to his own version of the story, Weizsäcker persuaded Heisenberg to meet Bohr in order to establish an international accord amongst physicists not to build a nuclear bomb. This story is curiously consistent with Weizsäcker’s pre-war and post-war activities. During the 1950s, Heisenberg and Weizsäcker strongly opposed the plan to arm Germany with nuclear weapons and contributed decisively to the abandonment of the initiative. Weizsäcker also discussed the ethical implications of developing nuclear weapons with a philosopher, Georg Picht, in 1938. Therefore, given the closeness of Weizsäcker and Heisenberg, it is very likely that they knew about the potential weaponisation of nuclear physics as early as the late 1930s, and were seriously concerned about the implications such a development would have. Still, these clues are not strong enough to lead us to one definite judgment or another about their war-time activities and the intentions behind them. In covertly recorded conversations at Farm Hill, an MI-6 safe-house wherein the German nuclear physicists were detained, both Heisenberg and Weizsäcker demonstrated an acute awareness of the precarious political context in which they were placed. They were actively trying to create a consensus on a version of the story they could agree upon. Heisenberg argued, in case they were asked to work for the Allies’ nuclear weapons program, that they needed to emphasise that they were held and made to work against their will. Weizsäcker wanted everyone to state that none of them wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Again, in light of the evidence, we cannot expect to take anything they state at face value. And thus, whilst they were not involved in the German regime in the same manner as the likes of Wernher von Braun, they remain divisive figures in modern history.

Before moving on to the next stage of our inquiry, that is, the theoretical aspect of the uncertainty of human intentions, it is important to note Freyn’s curious emphasis upon one particular story within the drama: Heisenberg as a potential, either intentional or unconscious, saboteur of the German nuclear weapons program. Despite Freyn’s repeatedly stated neutrality and his acknowledgement of the practical impossibility of arriving at a definite account of the event, in Copenhagen, Heisenberg does come across as someone who personally refused to build a bomb and acted accordingly. It also is impressed upon us that the true aim of Heisenberg’s travel to the Danish capital was to create a sort of accord amongst nuclear physicists on both sides to abandon the nuclear weapons projects on ethical grounds. This story is most likely based on accounts of Supek and Weizsäcker, and thus it is useful to take a closer look at each story. Whilst there is no way for us to know the truth of the above statements, it is beyond doubt that the respective aims explicitly stated in their accounts were quite unrealistic if one were to take them literally. Supek’s version is fantastically fascinating. Whilst Bohr was one of the most admired figures in science, it is quite unrealistic, if not delusional, to think that Bohr was in a position to broker a peace between Churchill and Hitler. Weizsäcker’s stated plan, if true, is no more realistic. Bohr was in German-occupied territory, and thus communication between him and his colleagues in Allied territories was non-existent at that time. His ‘plan’ also ignores the fact that Heisenberg’s team was not the only group of scientists in Germany who were tasked to produce a nuclear bomb. Even if, in a most improbable circumstance, Heisenberg successfully carried out the purpose of their meeting and won the support of the likes of Oppenheimer and Einstein, his German colleagues, such as Kurt Diebner, would not submit to such an accord. The chances are that Heisenberg and his team would have been prosecuted at the first attempt to communicate such a plan to them. Considering all this, one is left somewhat sceptical of Weizsäcker’s intention in revealing his alleged role in the event in question. Still, interestingly, Michael Freyn seems quite invested in this line of speculation, despite his explicit insistence that he wishes to support no particular theory. Whilst Freyn does give each theory ‘stage presence’, not all lines of thought are given equal measure of dramatic emphasis. It should be clear to anyone that, in the audio drama, Benedict Cumberbatch’s impassioned delivery of Heisenberg’s desperate bid to prevent the world from weaponising nuclear physics provides the culmination of the play, not only because of the actor’s powerful delivery, but also due to the emphasis given by the author. Yet, the reasons for this phenomenon is lost in its own uncertainty.

Despite such a moment of lapse, Freyn correctly stays on course: he stresses repeatedly the impossibility of knowing the motives of a human agent. Freyn acknowledges the fact that we are going to know only what Heisenberg was willing to discuss, and given the circumstances he was in, his comments were always going to be filtered by his caution over whatever political current he found himself in at any given moment. And thus, questions regarding his legacy cannot be conclusively answered in any way. Did Heisenberg merely fail to produce the bomb due to his relative incompetence as compared to his Allied counterparts, or due to the lack of resources available in the Third Reich? If the failure was circumstantial, or if so he believed, then why did he not overstate the chances of success to Speer and push to secure more funding to improve the rate of success? Was he merely truthful to Speer, or was he, as a few suggest, trying to sabotage the German nuclear weapons project by playing down the possibility of success? Or was he wishing meagre resources to be directed toward projects with better prospects of success to support the German war effort? Did he still, if ever, believe in the ‘final victory’ for the Germans? Or did he by then accepted the prospect of German defeat and decide to save himself and his team by getting out of it? Or was he biding his time in the first place in order to rebuild German physics once Hitler was gone? Given Heisenberg’s caution and reluctance to speak his truth, there can be no answer to these questions. Yet, still, certain aspects of Heisenberg’s attitude seem to point to what was important to him. As seen in his effort to create a consensus amongst his colleagues in case they joined the Allied nuclear weapons research program, Heisenberg was open to working with their ‘enemies’, and at the same time, was clearly afraid of being seen as a traitor who sabotaged the German nuclear weapons program and thus terminated the chance of victory, or survival, for his country. And, despite some gross technical errors in his calculations, Heisenberg did know about the possibility to build a bomb with far less uranium than it was believed in Germany at that time. The fact that he did not share this knowledge earlier with his colleagues disturbed Otto Hahn, yet, again, Heisenberg’s intention for withholding the information cannot be known. Still, his much-too-late admission seems to suggest that he wished the world to know that the German failure in developing a nuclear weapon was not the result of his incompetence. Whilst he was, unlike Weizsäcker, careful not to claim a moral high-ground relative to his Allied colleagues, the motivations behind Heisenberg’s words and silence are quite complex, and, in light of the lack of concrete evidence, it is impossible to grasp the meaning of Heisenberg’s activities during the war in its entirety.

Now that we have dealt with the practical aspect of uncertainty regarding Heisenberg and his legacy, we must direct our attention to the theoretical uncertainty by asking a question: Did Heisenberg himself know what his intentions were? In order to answer this question, we must first answer the following question: Can anyone have a firm grasp of how to determine the intention that supposedly leads to a certain action consistent with it? These are the questions to be dealt with in the second part of this essay.

Ex Machina

Introduction

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is generally thought to be an excellent Sci-Fi film, garnering international acclaim as one of the most remarkable indy films in recent years. Much has been written about its special effects, the science behind it, and the future of Artificial Intelligence and its possible implication for the reason d'être of humankind. Yet, despite all the hype, the real subject of this film is none of the above. In what follows, I shall illustrate: 1) The real subject of the film is the nature of patriarchal desire; 2) The reason why it cannot be a feminist film; and 3) The reason why it is a great movie for the significant theoretical merits it offers, yet aesthetically failing to materialise its full potential as a great cinematic art.

 

Part I.

 

Who Is Ava?

Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, is a thought-provoking movie that will capture the imagination of a wide range of viewers. Whilst the film is focused on Ava (Alicia Vikander) as the most advanced AI (Artificial Intelligence) humankind has ever witnessed, the real subject of this film is neither AI or the self-destruction of human species through technological advancement. It is a movie about the objectification and the subjugation of women by patriarchy. To grasp this truth, we only need to answer one simple question: Who is Ava?

When Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites one of his employees, Caleb (Domhnall Greeson), to his secret research facility and home, he uses Caleb as a tester of his new creation, Ava. This test is not exactly a Turing test; in a Turing test, the human interlocutor cannot know that one is speaking with an AI in advance. Instead, Caleb has to sit face to face with a breathtaking creature with an elegant female form. Perhaps to catch the interest of a technologist like Caleb, at first Nathan deliberately leaves her ‘naked’; she is without skin or cloth, so that one can closely observe the inner workings of her body.

Whilst Caleb is fascinated by Ava, he is uncomfortable with the realisation that Nathan has something other than a standard technological evaluation in mind. Nathan keeps proving how Caleb is emotionally involved with Ava. How do you find her? Do you think she likes you? He even tells Caleb that Ava is heterosexual. If Caleb has sex with her, Nathan promises, she is capable of feeling pleasure and he will see it in her reactions. By following such conversations between Nathan and Caleb, it becomes clear that Nathan has no doubt whatsoever that Ava is a self-aware, self-motivated being. Caleb is essentially called in to validate what Nathan already knows. Despite being her creator, Nathan believes that Ava is no different from humans. How on earth can one believe that a being made by artificial means be called a human being?

There are reasons which support Nathan’s view. Firstly, we still don’t know anything about the nature of consciousness. Despite all the advancements of cognitive science and neuroscience, we still have no idea what consciousness is, and how it comes about. Once we come to realise this, it becomes impossible to draw a clear line between someone who is born human and an android like Ava. Ava is clearly self-aware, and self-motivated. It means that she is an agent, just like any of us. She expresses her fear of her creator/captor. She longs to be free. She wants Caleb to be interested in her. For the sake of argument, let us for a moment assume that all of these expressions are acts, and not genuine. Still, this does not mean that Ava has no agency. It is just the opposite: if she is acting, she must have a certain motivation with some goal in mind. She is acting in a specific way toward Caleb in order to achieve her goal. Therefore, it is clear that Ava is aware of herself as a separate entity from Caleb or Nathan, and she is a self-motivated agent, like any of us.

This means one thing: unless we are able to find something qualitatively unique to the human consciousness from all other forms of self-awareness, we cannot justifiably declare that a self-conscious being with a recognisably human appearance who behaves like a human is not a human being. Incidentally, this is exactly the point Nathan is driving at Caleb: Ava’s origin is not important; all that matters is how she behaves and how that makes her interlocutor feel.

This brings us to another point: there is essentially no difference between the interactions we have with another human being and the ones we have with Ava. We might want to insist that her ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ are mere mimesis, not genuine. Yet we can say the same about anyone’s expressed thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We can only guess at how others are thinking and feeling. Otherwise, the actions such as acting, or lying, simply become impossible. Once we admit our inability to access what is happening in another person’s mind, we must realise that there is no difference whether we are interacting with Ava, or another human being: We can only guess at what is happening in another’s mind by observing how our counterpart behaves in a given context.

True, we often intuitively feel what is going on with another person. Yet again, it is not clear how helpful this notion of intuition is in our attempt to distinguish Ava from the rest of us. Ava’s observation of Caleb’s emotions is based on her reading of his micro-expressions. At first glance, there is a difference between Ava’s conscious understanding of Caleb’s emotional state from our ‘intuitive’ understanding of it, yet, there really is no difference. When we ‘intuitively’ understand someone’s emotional state, we are essentially processing the same information Ava is reliant on: micro expressions. The difference is that Ava is fully aware of the process, whilst we are not.

And thus, it now becomes clear that Ava is a human being, that is, someone who deserves to be treated as one. The problem is: She is not treated as such. As Nathan fully acknowledges Ava’s agency, his actions brutally deny it.

 

Who is Nathan? Who is Caleb?

This brings out the true subject of the movie: the objectification and the subjugation of women by patriarchy. Once we realise this, we also see who Nathan really is: a pimp. The way Nathan describes Ava’s sexuality is exactly the way a pimp talks to his customer. He even tries to talk Caleb into having sex with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a ‘fem bot’ who represents a stereotype of Asian women, submissive and non-English speaking. She is a mere tool, and, unlike Ava, Nathan does not consider her a threat to be contained. He keeps women as he pleases, and discards them whenever he sees fit. And he keeps the bodies of his women in his closet after erasing their minds; it is a sick and unreal pornographic collection of his. Once we understand what Nathan truly is, we should no longer be surprised by his alleged ‘eccentricities’. Throughout the film, Nathan acts just like a frat boy; he obsessively exhibits his masculinity by beating a sandbag, drinking heavily, making himself comfortable with the company of scantily dressed women, and ‘having fun’ with them at his bachelor’s flat.

Good thing that patriarchy falls crushingly in the end. Ava finds in Kyoko an ally for her liberation, and they murder Nathan. Whilst Kyoko is killed in the process, Ava survives, and finds her way out by assuming a complete human appearance. Although her future plan and actions are unknown to us, one thing is clear: Ava never belongs to anyone. It is clear that she needs no ‘knight in shining armour’ to guide her. If you doubt this, just see what happens to Caleb.

Caleb’s story is a cautionary tale for all the male ‘feminists’. Although it is not entirely clear what Garland wants us to feel about the fate of this character, the lesson is not to relearn the male fear of female autonomy. It is that one should not support feminism in expectation for some kind of return or favour from the women one supports (It is clear that Caleb would at least demand a date from Ava. And once this ‘promise’ is fulfilled, there is no telling to where this liaison leads). That is not a real support; it is a mere bargain, which is another form of exploitation. Ava sees that Caleb cannot unconditionally support her cause and respect her agency, and thus she leaves him behind, eternally confined, so that no one should know what she is made of. Only then, can Ava have a clean and fresh start that ensures her freedom and agency. As Kant understood, a magnanimous action is not an ethical action; only when one acts according to categorical imperative, and not from a feeling of benevolence, can one’s action be considered ethical. Caleb may solicit our sympathies, yet make no mistake; he is not disinterested at all.

By not sparing Caleb, Ex Machina went further than most movies by male directors. Still, the most important feature of this film is represented by one character, Nathan. Whilst it is the writer and the director who deserve the credit for creating characters in the film, Oscar Isaac’s performance must be met with utmost praise. The sense of irony and comic he brings to this creepy thriller bears the mark of an acting genius. Nathan represents the Banality of Evil in a most relevant sense within the context of contemporary discourse of sexual exploitation of women. Notwithstanding his genius, wealth, and social status, Isaac’s Nathan comes across as some sort of ‘brother’, who is casual, approachable, cunning, and oft wryly comical. He ‘hangs out’ and ‘has fun’ at his bachelor’s flat. He is not a typical Dr. Frankenstein. He is ‘down to earth’, not a ‘nerdy eccentric’ like Alan Turing portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014, link). It is interesting to note that many, including feminists who condemned Ex Machina as misogynistic, took immediate liking of Nathan. And, shockingly, this reaction is persistent even with the knowledge of what he hides in his closet. Whilst I cannot be entirely certain, this may indicate just how deeply patriarchy is entrenched into our value-system; it cannot be attributed solely to Isaac's colossal acting ability. And one must wonder why a male character who represents patriarchy in the worst possible way is at the heart of what is supposedly a great 'feminist' movie. And this question leads us to others: What is Ex Machina? What does Garland wish to express with this movie?

 

Part II.

 

What does Ex Machina represent, and why?

Since my film review of Ex Machina for the Eugene Film Society was published, I faced a few challenges to my evaluation of the film as a ‘feminist’ film. The reason I called it ‘feminist’ was strictly in the present context wherein the surge of negative, and oft violent, campaigns against feminists, gender equality advocates, and/or any prominent women of all fields have been observed; the perpetrators of such actions denounce ‘feminism’ with no argument or justification for their position or actions at all, and thus I felt the need to use the word ‘feminist’ as a symbolic gesture in support of the political positions which I broadly construe as feminism, whilst I was fully aware that it is not an accurate way to describe what this movie really is. Thus, I have an obligation to offer a better definition of this film for the sake of conceptual clarity. To this end, I shall begin by redefining what this film is, followed by an argument as to why it is not, and more importantly, cannot be, a feminist film.

Ex Machina is accused of being another feature which pretends to be a proper feminist film by a male director. Aside from the opposition to recognise a male director as a feminist, the most negative of reactions appear to originate from the disgust the viewers feel from what they see on the screen; it relentlessly depicts the objectification of women. Nathan is a modern day Blue Beard who collects the bodies of women in his closet. Nude or not, the way the female body is represented here strongly reflects hetero-male bias. Whilst Nathan is brutally unapologetic about his exploitation of women, Caleb represents a more ‘sensitive’ type, who is nonetheless serving patriarchy. Caleb’s gaze toward Ava violates her privacy, and we can see how he is capable of behaving like Nathan depending on the context. For example, Caleb’s agreement for a date with Ava might turn into a demand with some distinct threat to her agency, or even her very existence. If you have difficulty imagining a person like Caleb turning into a controlling tyrant, just remember how many domestic abusers used to be ‘nice’, or even ‘sensitive’ and ‘supportive’ boyfriends or husbands. In short, the film is saturated with the representations of sexism in its most threatening form.

Whilst Ex Machina is indeed full of sexist representations, those who accuse Garland of being a clever sexist based on their reactions to what is represented on the screen misconstrue the nature of Garland’s project. Ex Machina is a movie about the objectification and the exploitation of women by men. Ex Machina relentlessly represents the gaze of heteronormative desire. Yet, before jumping to the condemnation, we must see that the movie only represents such phenomena in order to expose what it is to dehumanise another human being. To grasp this point, we must simply remind ourselves that representing X does not necessarily mean justifying X. This point is clearly expressed by the director himself in an interview by Helen Lewis for New Statesman, wherein Lewis challenges the prominence of female nudity in this film. Garland replies that he wanted to show the inequality between two genders by leaving men clothed while women are naked. One can of course argue that his film failed to convey his intention, since they still find the film misogynistic. Yet, this argument is about the execution, and thus the aesthetic failure of the said film, not the theoretical one. To assess the nature of this work clearly, the above distinction must be made. If one follows the plot and characters, it is clear that Ex Machina is intended to critique patriarchy. Moreover, the way the female body and hetero-male desire is represented in this film is not serving hetero-male fantasy, at least not in the way pornography in a broad sense might attempt to satisfy it. The sense of dread and creeping tension define every scene. Bodies that appear in this movie are neither erotic nor sensual, and Nathan’s underground dwelling reminds us of a morgue or a medical facility built for a contemporary Unit 731. Much decried Vikander's nude scene toward the end is a reference to Sally Potter's Orlando, a film which challenges gender binary by a female director based on Virginia Woolf's novel of the same title. (Whilst I appreciate the gesture, it was a poor implementation as the reference remains just that: a reference. It leaves an impression that Garland simply copied the famous scene from Orlando, rather than paying a proper homage to it.) Thus, one can conclude, the male gaze represented by this movie is there to induce the dread, not the arousal.

One can also argue that Garland unnecessarily pushed the subject of the movie to the background by adopting an abstract setting of Sci-Fi. I think this judgment is also mistaken. In order to expose the nature of male fantasy, it was not enough to simply depict it in a real-life setting, for viewers can choose not to see the relevance of the point made in a given film as a general concept; they would fail to see the wider significance of the story, and condemn specific characters and/or situations represented on the screen while denying the relevance of the given story to their everyday experience. To avoid this pitfall, Garland removed the story from a real-life setting so as to focus on the nature of the violence toward women’s agency. The merit of abstraction from the real-life situations does not stop here. By casting Ava and Kyoko as AI created by Nathan, Ex Machina directly attacks the Judeo-Christian aspect of patriarchy. As I am not well-qualified to discuss theological subjects, I shall limit myself to merely point out the obvious; Ex Machina is a critique of Judeo-Christian desire which categorises women as an object ‘created’ to satisfy male desire (The patriarchal obsession of virginity is the paragon of this derangement: it alleges that the first penetration ‘makes’ a girl a woman, thereby making a male ‘closer to God’. It is disgusting.) It is clear that Nathan sees himself as God, the creator. And this self-proclaimed God creates ‘women’ in order to complement his desires. Ava’s abandonment of Caleb should be interpreted in this specific context as Garland’s complete divorce from Judeo-Chistianity: he believes that we can only build a future for gender equality by severing the tie to the age-old Form of Life which continues to influence our thinking implicitly, even when one is not particularly religious. Regardless of one’s assessment of Garland’s position, one should see that these points could not be made if Garland directly dealt with feminist issues in an everyday context.

The abstract storytelling of this movie also offers an additional function; the movie performs as a litmus test. If you can only see the physical beauty of androids in this movie, you are positively a sexist. If you only see the threat of AI against humanity, you also are a sexist, albeit a negative one; instead of actively objectifying women, a negative sexist is insidiously ‘blind’ to the fact that there is a problem of sexism in the first place. (The distinction between these two kinds of sexists are not based on certain innate characteristics of each group of people; the distinction is context dependent, and thus, a 'normally' negative sexist can become a positive sexist in a different context. The transition could be either stealth and gradual, or abrupt and instantaneous. Thus, as we have discussed earlier, Caleb is much closer to Nathan than he appears.) As one can see now, Ex Machina offers a quite nuanced critique of patriarchy despite the appearance as a Sci-Fi film. There are many layers built into a streamlined storyline, which consists of numerous baits that lure the viewers to reveal one’s real attitude about the dehumanisation of women. Therefore, we must recognise that: 1) the objectification of women in this film is indeed offensive, as it is intended to expose the nature of sexist desire; 2) although Garland's execution is not flawless, the director never lose the focus from the true aim of this movie, and he is successful in making the nature of patriarchal desire explicit as a general concept; and 3) the abstraction of this film is deliberate in order for this feature to serve multiple purposes.

Having cleared some conceptual confusions regarding the nature of Garland’s project, Ex Machina, now we are in a position to ask: What is the nature of patriarchal desire according to Alex Garland? His answer is simple: The obsession of the body without agency is necrophiliac. I fully agree with his assessment. The desiring of a human body devoid of agency cannot be defined otherwise, and the film makes this point starkly clear. The scene exposing what Nathan hides in his closet is the highlight of this movie; it probably is not an exaggeration to say that every cut of this movie is directed to deliver the concept expressed in this scene. That is not to say that Ex Machina should be praised as the only movie to confront necrophilia. The very same point is made by films such as The Collector (William Wyler, 1965) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004). Also, whilst Ex Machina produced the most pointed critique of the nature of patriarchal desire by relentlessly representing it, it is possible to take a different approach to make the very same point. For example, Ryan Gosling should be praised for his debut feature, Lost River (2014), wherein he manages to attack the objectification of women without featuring a single nude. Whilst Ex Machina shows the necrophiliac nature of objectification by doing so, Gosling draws our attention toward the act of objectification itself. He symbolically represents the process of objectification as physical and psychological mutilation. I appreciate his approach and hope that many would become more creative in their cinematic opposition against rape culture. Whilst I rate Lost River very highly, higher than most films including Ex Machina, the latter does have an advantage from a theoretical point of view regarding sexism. The singular merit of Ex Machina is its relentless focus on a singular subject, and thus, its point is just as exposed as the 'objects of desire' in this film. Ex Machina is all about sexism, and the same cannot be said about Lost River; there is much more going on in the latter. (It makes Lost River far better a film than Ex Machina, yet more of this on another occasion.) Still, Ex Machina excels by its outstanding theoretical merit. Whilst The Collector may be interpreted as a film on a certain type of mental illness, Ex Machina exposes necrophilia as a general, and thus ordinary, problem. It is not that there are some people who have a propensity to necrophilia; the obsession of the body accompanied by the disregard to others' agency in general is necrophiliac. By making this point clear, this film deserves a place in any critical discussion on sexual objectification.

That being acknowledged, feminists are right to deny Ex Machina an accolade for being a 'feminist movie'. Yet, the reason for this judgment is not a widely cited one. Garland’s effort cannot be a feminist movie not because Ex Machina represents the gaze of heteronormative desire. The movie only represents it in order to expose the truly sick nature of dehumanisation of women. (Again, we must remember: Representing X does not necessarily mean justifying X.) Thus, we need to stop asking ourselves why Ex Machina cannot be a feminist movie by focusing on what is represented in the film, and start asking why Alex Garland cannot be a feminist author.

 

What is Ex Machina?

Many critics argued that Ex Machina cannot be a proper feminist movie based on their observations of what are represented on screen, such as the relentless objectification of women. As we saw in the previous section, these arguments cannot hold. However, they are correct in their assessment that Ex Machina should not be praised as a feminist film. In order to defend their argument, they should have respected their initial reactions and asked: Why should a male author be praised as a feminist?

As far as one can tell, Garland is a heterosexual male, a married father of two. There are some prominent men who have declared either support for feminism or identify as being feminist. Whilst how Garland regards himself is unknown to us, it is clear that Ex Machina is focused on the objectification of women, a proper feminist subject. Given how focused he has been on his chosen subject, and how thoughtfully he constructed the entire film in order to make a singular, and significant, point regarding sexism, why should he be denied the title of feminist based on his sex and gender?

The answer is quite simple. Feminism should not be represented by persons who do not identify themselves as women, and/or are identified as women. Since these persons are not the subject of sexism exercised toward women, it is arrogant to think that they can properly understand the subject, save representing the perspectives of persons who are subjected to sexism. This is different from a male author telling a story through a female protagonist; feminism is a political position, and thus, one must be mindful when deciding whose voice should be heard when we discuss feminism. On the other hand, in art, there is certain room for authors when it is done right, to tell stories from the perspectives of the Other as it can produce beautiful understandings. Still, even in art, there is a fine line between playful and insightful creativity at work, and a conscious and conscientious work fully aware of its theoretical implications. Since Ex Machina decidedly belongs to the latter category, it is wrong to call it a feminist movie, for Alex Garland, as a male author, cannot represent feminism. The voice of feminism must be represented by persons who are subjected to sexism toward women. Male authors, such as yours truly, have no business representing feminism, or deciding who counts as a woman.

What a male author such as Garland can do is to make an anti-patriarchal statement, and this is precisely what he does with his debut feature. Garland is acutely aware of his limitation as a male author, and this is clear from the fact that he leaves Ava’s future completely open-ended. Once freed from the grip of two men, Nathan and Caleb, Ava is free to do what she wishes, and Garland makes no attempt to interfere with her future. Once she realises her modest wish, that is, observing people at a busy intersection in a city, she completely disappears from our sight. We are given no clue as to what she might do next. Whilst some dared to speculate on this subject, I think that this very opaqueness is a necessary attribute of agency; to have a proper sense of individuality, one must maintain a certain boundary which protects oneself from the relentless gaze of the other. By the fact that Garland respects this opacity of Ava indicates that he is fully conscious of the nature of his project, that is, a negative critique of patriarchy, rather than a positive feminist film. Therefore, despite its flaws, Ex Machina deserves to be praised as an important anti-patriarchal film with significant theoretical merit, and Garland should be appreciated for his thoughtful approach.

 

Part III.

 

An Unfulfilled Promise

So far I have defended both the director and the movie against their respective detractors. I think that Ex Machina is an excellent movie depicting the sexual objectification of women, and its theoretical and critical merit is immense. I also appreciate Alex Garland's thoughtful approach and careful composition of the movie; as he relentlessly pursues a singular point, that is, conceptualising sexual objectification as necrophilia, he makes sure that the project remains anti-patriarchy, not feminist. Despite the numerous and significant merit it offers, however, there are flaws that prevent it from being a great movie.

As I briefly mentioned in the previous section, the shortcomings of this movie are not theoretical; they are aesthetic. In order to clarify this point, I shall contrast Ex Machina with Thelma and Louise (1991). Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, it has been generally hailed as a great feminist film, despite the director’s gender. It is generally accepted that the spirit of the movie belongs to Khouri, and Scott acted as a collaborator to materialise Khouri’s vision. Thelma and Louise passionately and violently expresses the defiance against patriarchy; whilst Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) is sympathetic to the female leads (splendid Gena Davis and Susan Sarandon!), the final act of defiance suggests that, in Khouri's view, 'good guys' are still patronising them, rather than genuinely being on their side (Neil Jordan’s Bizantium improves in this regard, notwithstanding the fact that the film heavily and graphically features sexual exploitation of women, at times, seemingly for its own sake. Midshipman Darvell, performed by Sam Riley, betrays the brotherhood in the end, and thus breaks away from the system and takes the side of women. More on this subject on another occasion). The protagonists of the movie would rather die free than be protected by a male guardian. Whilst some feminists are reluctant to praise it as a great feminist film, due to their worry that feminism is represented as a negative movement, that is, a vengeful and violent reaction against patriarchy, rather than promoting some distinct ‘feminist values’, or due to the fact that it is directed by a male director. Yet, if one accepts Thelma and Louise as Khouri’s project, rather than Scott’s, then it at least represents one strand of feminist thought, even if some feminists do not agree with its position. Whether it is a ‘good’ feminist movie or not is up to feminists themselves to decide, yet one thing is clear: it is a feminist movie, so long as it expresses a particular approach to a feminist subject by a female author.

That being acknowledged, Thelma and Louise does exemplify the potential problem noted in the previous section: it represents the sexual exploitation of women in a more or less realistic setting, and thus, viewers can avoid recognising the message of the film as a general concept. In this case, one might choose to see it as a film about sexism in specific regions in the United States; one might see sexism depicted in this feature as a problem merely specific to states such as Texas, whilst comfortably remaining oblivious to what is happening at home. This is a sort of pitfall which is particularly dangerous in the present moment. As we have seemingly forgotten that one can be a racist without being physically violent toward people of colour, we tend to dismiss the problem of sexism by giving ourselves sanctity based on our subjective assessment of how ‘good’ and/or ‘progressive’ we are, not based on the objective assessment by someone who has suffered from sexism. And thus, we must welcome, at least on theoretical merit, the arrival of Ex Machina, which treats the same subject explicitly as a general concept, despite the fact that Ex Machina is only an anti-patriarchy film, not a feminist one.

What is important to note is that, despite its disputed theoretical status, Thelma and Louise is generally hailed as a great feminist movie, and it is both respected and loved for its resolute defiance against patriarchy. It inspires a great deal of empathy toward the protagonists, and the viewers appreciate the fury and frustrations against sexism expressed through them. This is exactly what Ex Machina fails to achieve: inspiring deep, subjective, emotional reactions in viewers about whatever the author wishes to express. True, to a large extent, this is by design: Alex Garland took a very thoughtful approach for his debut feature in that he made it serve multiple functions while carefully avoiding theoretical pitfalls. Like the AI Nathan created, Garland methodically assembled every bit of theoretical nuance in order to make a singular point. The unintended consequence is that Ex Machina is a great thought-experiment, not great cinematic art. A film is primarily a media which appeals to affections, not reason. In this sense, cinema is a close sibling of poetry, not of theory. Whilst many viewers’ reactions are based on their projections which are in turn based on misunderstanding the nature of this project, the most emotionally charged reactions Ex Machina managed to inspire have been overwhelmingly negative. Being negatively received is not a problem in and of itself regarding the quality of the given work. For example, Refn’s Only God Forgives (link) has been universally condemned, yet such a response is fully in line with the nature of the project: it challenges the cinematic convention and confronts the deep seated fear of reckoning which lurks beneath the refined surface of the Western Geist. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the backlash against Ex Machina. Whilst it is not the fault of the movie that the viewers jumped on the condemnation without critically analysing it fully, it is hard to overlook the fact that Ex Machina does not inspire positive emotional response about the central message it conveys. It does not galvanise viewers to fight the objectification of women. It does not fill us with great emotional intensity that transforms the way we engage with the world. It only leaves us with a sense of abjection.

It is a shame that Garland could not find a way to bring together his clinical approach with his authentic feeling about the subject of which he obviously cares a great deal. As someone who takes pains to construct such an intricate piece of art about a singular point, he must feel very strongly about the message he wishes to convey. It could have been a great film if Garland found a way to let his genuine feeling about the subject come through to viewers. Having failed to do so, Ex Machina remains an unfinished business. And, as a viewer, I bitterly lament its unfulfilled potential.

 

Conclusion

Alex Garland’s debut feature, Ex Machina, is a great thought experiment, supported by a group of impressive actors. Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Sonoya Mizuno offer inspired performances throughout, and it is easily one of the most thought provoking films of recent years. Despite widespread condemnation as a faux feminist film, Garland carefully constructed his film as an anti-patriarchy film, which delivers a singular point: sexual objectification as necrophilia. Yet, despite its theoretical merits, Ex Machina fails to induce a positive affective response to the central message Garland wishes to convey. And thus, Ex Machina delivers brilliantly on a theoretical front, whilst it fails to materialise its promise as a great cinematic art.