Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Enigma of War

When one thinks of war, the images typically evoked are those of camouflaged soldiers, bloodied or burnt bodies, the flash of gunfire, devasted lands, skies greyed by dust and smoke. Those of us blessed enough to never have witnessed any of this firsthand can imagine these visuals thanks to the media & the moviemakers. But this frontline combat and its horrifying consequences are not the start and finish of any war.

I recently watched a movie called Enigma, based on a book by Robert Harris, starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. Set in the UK's codebreaking center during WWII, its basically about how Scott (the genius codebreaker) has to redecipher Nazi radio transmissions during a radio blackout to prevent the biggest attack on a convoy of Allied ships in the Atlantic, and track down a traitor among his colleagues.

Through the course of the film, the tedious aspects of codebreaking are brought out well. In the absence of today's technological ability, much of the information-gathering & mundane work, like listening to radio transmissions, recording them, filing them were performed by women. I especially liked one scene, where Scott visits a place manned by headphone-wearing women, whose only job is listening to radio transmissions (an endless variety of Morse beeps); one woman pulls off her headphones and asks Scott if they truly are making sense of all these beeps. She says something like, "Our war is only this, beep beep beep." All she wants is a reassurance that their endless hours, days & months of listening to beeps is helping.

The film later moves to a juncture where the codebreaking team realises that the Nazis will only start transmitting once the Allied convoy is within range of their missiles, meaning they cannot prevent the attack, only control its extent. The tensions between the codebreakers and the naval officer in charge come to the fore, despite being on the same side. The codebreakers know that lives will have to be sacrificed for them to gain the necessary number of transmissions to crack the code; the naval officer, himself a survivor of a similar battle, thinks only to minimise the deaths.

Among the film's subplots is a storyline incorporating the horrifying Katyn Massacre - Stalin's brutal killing of thousands of Polish citizens during Russia's invasion of Poland in 1939-40 (a fact that Russia denied till 1990). Scott's character is stunned on learning about this massacre, and even more horrified on realising that his government knows about it, but has chosen not to do anything because they needed Russia's might to stave off the Nazis.

Technically, Engima is an average film. The story has many subplots and demands complete concentration to understand, so I wouldn't recommend it for a leisurely watch. Its not a movie you can enjoy, but I appreciate the effort behind it because it makes you realise the many levels on which wars are fought and that the men and women on the frontline are not the only soldiers, the only heroes. But perhaps the strongest realisation for me was the sheer impossibility of the moral dilemmas thrust on decision-makers. How much will you sacrifice to protect "the greater good"?