August 01, 2011

Ballad Of The Little Soldier (1984)

"Ballad of the Little Soldier" is the record of another Herzog journey, this time to northeastern Nicaragua to the territory of the Miskito Indians, the former allies of the Sandinistas in the revolution against the Somoza regime, but who are now engaged in their own war against the Sandinistas. Originally persecuted by the Somoza Government, the Miskitos joined the revolution in the fond hope of obtaining their own freedom and some sort of guarantee for their culture.

Once in power in Managua, however, the Sandinistas set about to bring the Miskitos into the "new" society. In theory, this meant moving the Miskitos to centralized communities where they would have access to the amenities of civilization. In fact, though, the Government's campaign resulted in the Miskitos being ruthlessly uprooted, their villages destroyed, their crops burned, their livestock butchered and the systematic massacre of all recalcitrants - men, women and children.

Now, apparently equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Miskitos have put together a crack commando troop, about half of whom are boys 10 to 12 years old, trained by former members of the Somoza regime's notorious National Guard. Early in "Ballad of the Little Soldier," Mr. Herzog and his crew accompany a small band of Indian commandos on a raid into Sandinista territory, which, as so often happens in a Herzog film, comes to nothing when the raiders are spotted by Government troops.

Most of the film is composed of interviews in refugee camps with the Miskitos, who tell their first-person narratives of torture and murder with a terrible, placid stoicism. Mr. Herzog, a political skeptic whose initial sympathies, I assume, were with the revolution, records all this with unsentimental sorrow. ''I can't believe,'' he says at one point, ''that the Sandinistas intended this to happen.'' Elsewhere he has been quoted as saying he's convinced the Sandinista Government must collapse, though whether because of its own excesses or outside intervention is not clear.

The most moving moment in the film comes when Mr. Herzog's assistant director, Denis Reichle, after listening to the testimony of 10- and 12- year-old boy commandos who express their willingness to fight the good fight and to die, recalls that this was just the sort of thing he heard in Germany in the last days before the fall of Hitler, when the Nazis were recruiting boys into the army.

"Ballad of the Little Soldier" is not a rabble-rousing film. It's both a lament about the idiotic state or the world and a song in praise of the human spirit. New York Times

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