The last couple of films I’ve seen are in some ways very different from one another: a Hollywood blockbuster and an arty German film. But they both have strong messages about the value of mercy. I’ll start with the one you’re more likely to have seen.
On boxing day, I joined the masses (most immediately in the form of my brother, brother-in-law, niece and nephew) and went to see The Hobbit. The core moral message of the film comes when Galdalf the wizard tells the young hobbit Bilbo Baggins that “true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.”
I am told by my Tolkien expert friend Neal that this speech is not in the book. There it is demonstrated simply by the behaviour of Bilbo when he finds himself in a position to kill the miserable creature Golem (a memorable scene in the film). At this moment Bilbo is wearing a ring which, like the ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, at once makes him invisible and tests his moral mettle. Tolkien’s ring exercises an actively corrupting influence over its wearer, so the fact that Bilbo shows mercy to Golem at this moment is a significant turning point in the story, and a proof of his moral strength.
Perhaps the film-makers felt it necessary to make the message about the value of mercy explicit because so much of the rest of the film contradicts it. The many violent action sequences are hard to interpret as anything but a celebration of killing - one that is both graphically disturbing and repetitive to the point of boredom, or at least considerable frustration that these scenes are allowed to slow the progress of the plot to the pace of a troll’s thought processes. (The evident reason for this is commercial – the makers intend to milk the slender novel for not one but three blockbuster films.) For me, this inconsistency was a major flaw of the film.
But I did like the Gandalf’s message to Bilbo. And as it happened, the idea that true courage is about knowing when to spare a life was also expressed in the next film I saw, which was a clever German film called The Door (Die Tür, 2009, directed by Anno Saul, based on a novel by Akif Pirinçci, starring Mads Mikkelsen).
The Door tells the story of an artist, David, whose young daughter drowns while he is cheating on his wife with a neighbor. Five years after her death, he is a broken man. On the verge of killing himself, he discovers a door into the past: he has the opportunity to go back in time and do things differently. He takes it, of course. (If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to have the plot spoiled, skip the next two paragraphs.)
Like a guardian angel, David arrives just in time to save his daughter. But to relive his life differently – and more lovingly - from this point, he finds he must kill his earlier self (literally). Having done the deed, he buries his younger self in a shallow grave in the backyard. He soon discovers that he is not alone in this radical form of self-rejection. As the plot begins to twist, he finds himself in a bizarre culture of murder/suicide, led by a bullying criminal – he discovers that his neighbourhood is full of people who have found the time-tunnel and taken the lives of their former selves. Only the children are really themselves, in the usual sense.
Just as he has fully taken in the horror of this situation, David’s wife, Maja, arrives from the future. Unlike the others (and more like Bilbo in his encounter with Golem), Maja refrains from killing her earlier self when she has the chance. Instead, she allows this younger self to travel through the door into the future with her child, just before David deliberately destroys the passageway leading to it.
This means that at the end of the film, David is more or less returned to his situation at the beginning. He and Maja share a difficult past they cannot erase, and must live on without their daughter. But now they have consciously chosen to accept these facts rather than fighting or fleeing them. The film ends with a poignant shot of David tenderly taking hold of Maja’s hand as they sit together by the empty pool where their daughter drowned.
The moral message of The Door is left implicit. It takes a while for it to emerge from the mind-bending time-travel and black humour of the plot. But if it were put in the mouth of a wise old wizard, it might go something like this: “true courage is about knowing not when to judge or end a life, but when to accept life just as it is, and go on living – and loving - as well as you can.”