I recently went to see the original Godzilla, a Japanese production from 1954. I had previously been coaxed into watching Roland Emmerich’s horrendous remake from 1998 and had just seen the 2014 version (which I enjoyed), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The film showed visible signs of aging, the special effects were almost endearingly outdated, and the storyline jumped from one scene to the next as abruptly as a grasshopper traverses a meadow. Still, it turned out to be an incredibly memorable movie experience.
Gojira – literally: the “gorilla whale” – leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. With radioactive breath it sets buildings ablaze, or crushes them with its massive frame. Conventional weapons seem incapable of stopping the creature on its march through Japan: scores of soldiers are either annihilated or forced to watch helplessly as their bullets fail to penetrate through Gojira’s skin.
(Il-)logic of the Cold War
Nine years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, director Ishiro Honda crafted a visual and artistic commentary on large-scale destruction and on the immense calamitous potential of nuclear weapons. Unlike its modern spin-offs, the original Godzilla movie was classified not as an action movie but as part of the horror genre.
Some of history’s greatest movies chronicle the spirits of their respective decades: Easy Rider captured essential aspects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The German classic The Legend of Paul and Paula became, in the words of the writer Max Frisch, “the symbol of a frustration” that grew only more pervasive as the economic outlook and ideological underpinnings of East German socialism crumbled in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Godzilla seems different: The movie captures the fears and risks of a future that had yet to come at the time of its creation. A full decade before Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, it previewed and anticipated the (il-)logic of the Cold War.
Already in the early 1940s, the two exiled German sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno had penned their critique of the Enlightenment project and thus launched what is today known as the Frankfurt School: a tradition of critical engagement with the ideas and social forces that helped to shape the West in its present form. Writing in the midst of the Second World War and with fresh memories of the social havoc wreaked by economic recession, Horkheimer and Adorno saw the project of modernity doomed to fail. Ideas about progress and enlightenment were torn to bits by the forces of industrial production, mass consumption, and large-scale warfare. But the two writers misdiagnosed a crucial aspect of the present: Industrialization ceased to be the defining paradigm of postwar societies. Two world wars had been planned and orchestrated with industrial assiduousness; twice had the world experienced the darkest sides of industrial production and annihilation. But the world after Hiroshima was different: The greatest threat to global survival was no longer (exclusively) rooted in mass production of war technologies but in the weaponization of advanced physical knowledge.
Man creates a reality he can no longer control
In the original Godzilla movie, coastal fishers are the first to warn against the seaborne creature. Their knowledge of ancient legends stands in stark contrast to the expert knowledge of politicians and scientists, who are clueless at first and powerless when Gojira moves ashore. When (spoiler alert!) a weapon is discovered that can stop Gojira, its destructive potential is so powerful that its inventor prefers to die after a one-time activation of the weapon lest his knowledge fall into the hands of irresponsible and fallible leaders.
In the fight against Gojira, the escalation of risk becomes the only answer to the escalation of destruction. Man creates a reality that he can no longer control.
The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to put an end to the precarious balance of mutually assured destruction. The risks of modernity suddenly seemed manageable again. Then came 9/11, the fall of Lehman Brothers, and increasing scientific certainty about anthropogenic climate change. If someone were to make another movie about the present and future dangers of the 21st century, what monsters would they invent? What are the risks that would rob us of our sleep and politicians of their sanity?
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