THE LARGE SWATHS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE are the domain of the historians. Eras, wars, empires, kingdoms, presidencies, movements — even pandemics — are contextualized and explained, their antecedents and consequences laid out and analyzed that we might understand not only what happened, but also why and how.
The individual players and moments from those times belong to the storytellers — the writers, painters, musicians, playwrights, and filmmakers. Artists deliver us perspective and meaning that help us make sense, at a human level, of the historians’ chronicles.
Sam Mendes’s World War I drama 1917 offers up a simple premise. A British force of 1,600 is about to attack what is believed to be the retreating remnants of the German army. Aerial reconnaissance, though, shows a much larger enemy group massing to catch the British in a trap. There are no lines of communication allowing those at the rear to warn the 1,600 not to attack.
A young soldier named Blake is summoned to a makeshift field headquarters; he enlists a fellow comrade in arms, Schofield, to join him. The pair meet with a grim-faced general who charges them with making their way to the attacking troops before they charge the next day, and delivering a letter ordering them to stand down.
His brother is one of the 1,600.
The wanton destruction and vast suffering wrought by the War to End All Wars — if only — are ever present. But they are brought down to a personal level by Mendes’s focus on two soldiers, painfully young men, fighting their way to the front to save lives. It is a completely engrossing story, in no small part because for Blake, the stakes are as high as possible.
The gimmick of the movie is that Mendes filmed it as if it were a single shot, and that only enhances the intimacy. We are never far from Blake and Schofield; we see what they see and only what they see. The scale is personal, which engages us with their quest even more.
Similarly, Olaf Olafsson’s trim, quiet novel The Sacrament examines the larger issue of child abuse by Catholic priests through the eyes of a middle-aged French nun. Twenty years after traveling to Iceland to investigate allegations made against a school headmaster, Sister Johanna Marie has been contacted by a man she believed was one of the headmaster’s victims as a boy. She is sent by the Vatican, in the form of a cardinal who has long known of a personal secret Johanna Marie carries, back to Reykjavik to meet with the man.
Over the course of her journey, she recalls her life-altering time studying at the Sorbonne, the charming young Icelandic woman she roomed with, and the original investigation, with its intriguing cast of characters.
The themes are overarching — memory, identity, justice, redemption, spirituality. But by giving us the gentle, disarming Johanna Marie to tell the story, and by setting it not amidst the Machiavellian intrigue of St. Peter’s or in bustling America but within the relative obscurity of Iceland, Olafsson forces us to look an appalling travesty with much greater focus than we otherwise might.
Additionally, just as Mendes reduced the scope of his story with the single-shot technique, Olafsson only rarely directly quotes anyone. Dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, as if it is not conversations being reported but Johanna Marie herself pulling up a chair and telling us what happened as she recalled it. We are inside her head, living with her doubts and regrets, and it gives the novel emotional punch.
Journalists have been chronicling COVID-19’s everyday happenings for months, and they will continue to do so in the months and years to come. Eventually, the historians will weigh in, undoubtedly uncovering even more proof that so much awfulness could have — should have — been prevented.
But it will be the artists who will give all it truly human meaning, just as they have always done. | DL