Many are the times when we think Herzog has found his image, only to see him discard it as inadequate; because it is not strange enough to capture both the craziness and the brutality of Bokassa’s regime. Again and again we see the oddest images, but time has eroded much of their effect. The stuff like the Napoleonic costumes, the eighteenth century gold carriage, and the hundreds of male dancers simulating the sexual act on a dusty parade ground, feel more like the folly of Hollywood than the lunacy of an absolutist king. It is kitsch, and produces the usual response: we are like the elegant woman in the royal pavilion who, watching the men pound the earth with their crotches, hides a laugh behind her hand.
This is the problem. We have to take this man and his obsessions seriously, even though both he and they are uniquely bizarre; a black African who wants to be the greatest of white men; and who imposes his vision on a country that must resist it – thus the “traditional” dances in a coronation festival copied from Napoleon’s. Bokassa rules a newly independent African state, yet his mind has been totally colonised by the imperial power; a mental servitude he exhibits to the world, apparently unaware of its absurdist irony. Such things should be impossible! But then… maybe this was the reason for his success: Bokassa represented both the magic of Europe and the man who conquered it.1
The kitchens where he cooked his victims, the fridges where he prepared their corpses to be eaten, are ruins now, and like the remains of his palace are symbols of pathos not horror – it is these buildings that look like the casualties. Indeed the images we see undercut the testimonies we hear; and we find it hard to believe that Bokassa really did eat human flesh, even though his life was one of Roman excess where every whim could be indulged; a psychological state ripe for cruelty and moral transgression. Too much power turns a man into a beast; it reduces him to an animal that lives wholly within the senses, which inevitably become jaded and obese, until nothing is left but an appetite that cannot be satisfied. Was Bokassa insane? Most emperors are. It is their authority that makes them so.
One wife doesn’t believe he was mad. The evidence? “He always knew what he was doing,” she says. This is her story: one day some men turned up at the bank where she worked and took her to Bokassa’s bedroom, where after a friendly welcome he proceeded to carefully remove her clothes. She starts to cry, and cannot stop, which causes him to change his mind; and he allows her to dress and leave the room. On returning home she tells her mother, who panics and drives the family to the border, where they are arrested. They stay in prison for two years until she agrees to sleep with him. Now she is taken to his hotel room where Bokassa carefully undresses her and carries her to a hot tub where she bathes. After two days of sexual intercourse she finds the courage to ask about her family. “Oh! I’d forgotten about them”, he replies. They are released immediately.
The story can be read in many ways. One way is to concentrate on the particular details of the interview – it takes places in Venice with a woman who looks like a member of the European elite. Once again there is that incongruity between what see and what we hear; a tale of teenage horror transformed into a story of social success (we imagine, we speculate).
To meet Bokassa for the first time was like meeting a myth, this woman tells the interviewer Michael Goldsmith. Here is the source of his supernatural power – his subjects give it to him. The result is inevitable: all that he does will seem larger than life because his interlocutors make it so; the microscopic attention given to even the most trivial of details exaggerates out of all proportion their significance.2 In this story, paradoxically, they reveal Bokassa as human; although they do not prove that he was sane; only that he could be a kind and sensitive lover. For despite this wife’s assertion it is probable that Bokassa was mad; the external world a blank canvas onto which he projected his own self; such a diagnosis consistent with his Napoleon fixation, a mental illness common in France. Power gave him the opportunity to act out his fantasies; and he turned the country into an asylum, where he was both the most potent inmate and its governor.
We are told a few horror stories: the ex-president kept in chains; the French journalist beaten and imprisoned; the students killed and eaten. Yet these nasty episodes are lost amongst the eccentric nature of Bokassa’s rule, captured by the contemporary footage, mostly taken during a coronation ceremony replete with the excessive gaudiness of such occasions. Bokassa is a nouveau riche tyrant, who must have the biggest and most expensive accoutrements: the eagle throne, the diamond studded crown, the long train that needs half a dozen soldiers to carry it…
Modern leaders are infatuated with guns and tanks, and fighter planes. Bokassa preferred swords and muskets and horse drawn carriages. He was an antiquarian, who wanted to turn his country into a museum…
He is very odd. Compare him with the intellectuals depicted in Xala. They played contemporary French tunes on African instruments. Bokassa, in contrast, wants to play Beethoven’s Third Symphony with the original orchestra.
Michael Goldsmith was taken to the palace compound. As he waits in the courtyard the emperor walks towards him. Thinking they are going to talk he bows; instead Bokassa beats him with a stick, and when he falls to the ground his guards punch and kick him. Then, as he lies on the floor, Bokassa puts his foot on his glasses and crushes them; “that is done”, he says. Michael tells this story to a group of local children in the very spot in the ruined palace where the assault took place. Clearly he has worked this incident over in his own mind many many times before, and he distils its essence in a few powerful details; and yet this laconic rendering erases the horror. Once again the true nature of this dictator escapes us.
Michael Goldsmith is a French journalist who went to the Central African Republic to write about the coronation. After he had written his piece he sent it by telex to France. The machine malfunctioned and produced gobbledygook, which caused the local officials to panic; thinking this was a secret code they notified the police, who arrested him as a spy; the reason he was taken to Bokassa, who thought he worked for South African intelligence. Many years after the dictator’s fall Herzog follows Michael Goldsmith around Europe and Africa as he interviews wives, ex-politicians, lawyers, and the local population. This produces many strange effects. Thus in the first interview, which takes place in Bokassa’s sumptuous chateau in Paris, the wife is visibly shocked when she finds out that her husband had her interviewer imprisoned and tortured. Michael is so polite and reserved, and they had talked so quietly and sympathetically about Bokassa’s last days in France, before he voluntarily returned to his country to face almost certain death (in fact he was sentenced to a life time in prison), that it doesn’t seem possible that he has experienced such cruelty. Here is a man who appears to be unaffected by his incarceration and torture.
It is this man who interests Herzog. Can he really be so emotionally detached from such terrible experiences? What has gone on inside him? Herzog quotes a letter at the very beginning of the film, in which Michael writes that he was not frightened by the tortures and the imprisonment, but was only curious as to what was going to happen next. He then writes that he doesn’t want to dwell too much on his experiences because that would give the wrong impression that he was somehow advertising them, creating a melodrama where one doesn’t exist.
We begin to wonder. And we start to understand. This film not so much an investigation into the character of Bokassa as an exploration into the inside of Michael Goldsmith’s head; the film a psychoanalytic session where Bokassa’s family and associates, the old places in the CAR, and Michael’s own recollections, are used to release the unconscious truth.
The film ends in Bokassa’s personal zoo. It was here that his victims were fed to the big cats and reptiles. We are told that the crocodiles still live in the pond; though we are not shown them; Michael is not interested in these (rather conventional) symbols of tyranny. Instead he talks to the zookeeper who tells him the history of the place.
The keeper thinks that the chimpanzee who sits next to him is a gorilla; a quiet comment on the poverty of Bokassa’s pretensions – he acquired all the trappings of European civilisation without their substance. Bokassa, it is clear, lived merely on the surface of life; his rule governed by appearances (Michael Goldsmith calls it grand opera), which could maintain their own reality only for as long as he had the power to make others accept them - a zookeeper who is ignorant of animals is still a zookeeper for as long as the state employs him. But expand the belief – try to turn a modern African country into 19th century France – and you risk absurdity. Thus the story about the Romanian tart who married Bokassa because she wanted to be an empress, but was denied the title because she wasn’t native to the country. What a chance! His own Josephine! Yet, when transplanted into the Central African Republic such a fantasy takes on a very different existence. Bored in her palace the woman seduced her guards, whom Bokassa killed when he discovered her infidelities. The ex-president laughs laconically on the number of deaths this Romanian, who may have worked for the Securitate, inadvertently killed through her boredom and lust. What! The deaths of innocent men treated as a joke? We are getting close to the image Herzog is looking for...
The zookeeper asks Michael for a cigarette. He lights it up, has a puff, and then walks to the cage and gives it the chimpanzee who smokes it like some dandy at a soiree. This is bizarre. Suddenly Michael asks if they can stop filming… We see that he is overcome. Herzog says that they need to keep the camera running, “as this is important”; although he agrees that this shot will be the last. We watch as the chimp smokes his fag; Michael standing next to him.
Herzog has found his image. It is the one that unlocks his subject’s emotional safe, to reveal the feelings that have been deposited there. It is an extraordinary moment; the pathos of this absurd act capturing the essence of Bokassa’s regime, where the craziness camouflages but does not hide the brutality and pain.
But there is a cost. In the prologue Herzog talks to camera about how they have lost contact with his subject. At the time we assumed that he was referring to Michael’s imprisonment in the Central African Republic. But this is not so. Now we think, as we leave the cinema, that he is referring to what happened after they finished shooting; the suggestion is that Michael has suffered a mental collapse as a result of Herzog’s explorations. We have no idea if this is true. It is, though, a real possibility; a return trip into the dense jungles of the mind is as likely to bring back horrors as enlightenment; the benign assumptions of psychoanalysis extremely suspect, as we know.3
Has Herzog killed Michael Goldsmith? We hope not, although we are reminded of an earlier case, that of John Berger, whose book on a general practitioner led his subject to change his way of life, which exacerbated his depression, the cause of his suicide. Whatever the consequences, and if we are interested we can discover them on Google, we now find the prologue disturbing. Has the film gone wrong? But then we are left with a documentary masterpiece. Clearly, if we accept the film on its own terms, it has triumphed. But must we agree with those terms, with their high risk to human life?
Our thoughts have discovered hazardous ravines where at first we could see only a picturesque plain. The perspective shifts; the film’s meaning changes… That last scene in the zoo, when Michael asks for the shot to end and Herzog insists that it continue, “for just a few moments more”, is a kind of torture. It is torture. For a few seconds, a minute at most, Herzog is the dictator, and Michael Goldsmith is his victim. Bokassa is alive within the great director himself! And we watch with equanimity; the old emperor’s accomplices.
Art is a form of tyranny, of which the general public is unaware. Indeed, we sell it to the kids as something they should aspire to… Caveat emptor!
(Review: Echoes of a Sombre Empire)
1. Though see the discussion about Nkrumah in W.G Runciman’s Sociology in Its Place. In post-independence Africa there was no established and legitimate central authority. Such situations are conducive to the rise of charismatic leaders who dominate the society through the power of their own personality.
The more unpredictable and bizarre the behaviour, one could argue, the better; because it forces the followers to put their complete trust in the leader, whose actions they cannot predict, but whose decisions will seem right and fateful. The leader thus takes on a supernatural aspect, which is founded on the faith of his believers. For an almost textbook case see Adam B. Ulam’s revealing biography of Lenin (Lenin and the Bolsheviks).
3.Joseph Conrad is a better guide to the unconscious than Sigmund Freud; The Heart of Darkness more realistic than the overly optimistic The Interpretation of Dreams.