Narcissism, Masochism, and Love after the Holocaust: Paul Mazursky's Film Enemies, A Love Story

Robert S. Leventhal

Copyright © 1995-2002 by Robert S. Leventhal, all rights reserved. This text may be shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. Copyright Law. Redistribution or republication on other terms, in any medium. requires the written permission of the author.

Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, this film focuses on the life of a Holocaust Survivor, Herman Broder, who awakens at the beginning of the film from a nightmare of the Holocaust reality where he is found in a barn by the SS, and senses his impending doom. He awakens from this nightmare into the indecision, conflict and inner turmoil of a life in which he cannot achieve a fulfilling, close, monogamous relationship. Without having sufficiently mourned the death of his two children, only sporadically taking the photograph of them from the drawer and bringing it to his lips, he lives, or rather survives, in a limbo state between life and death: "I am not alive and I am not dead." Without being able to move through the difficult labor of mourning or Trauerarbeit as it has been articulated in Freud's essay of 1917 Mourning and Melancholia, Broder wanders aimlessly the three women in his life and the three boroughs of New York: Tamara, his first wife who returns from the dead of Eastern Europe, Masha, a fellow survivor, and his new wife, Jedwiga, the polish peasant who saved him from the Nazis. The "return from the dead" of his first wife, Tamara, makes this sense of "living dead" palpable, and she quickly recognizes his plight and proposes that he end this form of life by making her his "manager." However, internally broken, ravaged by a past that cannot be bewältigt (overcome; mastered) and not even aufgearbeitet (worked through), Broder exhibits a wound that cannot be managed, a past trauma that defies healing and never ceases never ceasing to disrupt and explode his presence, as is clear in the fantasy scenes in which he regresses and replays his skirmish with death.

In a recent article, Anton Kaes has written: "We also have become perturbed by the unabashed commercial exploitation and trivialization of human suffering as exemplified in such television specials as Playing for Time and War and Remembrance, or in such films as Sophie's Choice and Enemies, A Love Story -- films in which the Holocaust serves more often than not as a mere backdrop to melodramatic private affairs." (Anton Kaes, "Holocaust and the End of History: Postmodern Historiography in Cinema," in: Saul Friedländer, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992): 206-222, here p. 208). In the following, I hope to show that Enemies does not employ the Holocaust as a fetish, and that the Shoah is not a mere "backdrop" to melodramatic private affairs in this film, but rather constitutes the objective structure in terms of which love and desire are played out in the economy of trauma and loss. In this regard, Enemies is far more complex than Kaes allows, and cannot be compared to television renderings of war and suffering mentioned in his argument.

Herman Broder's love is fractured, split, fragmented, as he himself is. His love for Jedwiga is governed by the debt of guilt - a Schuld or debt-guilt that he cannot repay. His love for Masha is an obsession guided by the passion for a lost, eroticized mother, for an ecstatic pleasure that would extinguish his horrible memories and erase the trauma of the loss of his family. Finally, the love of his wife gradually turns into a friendship where real compassion and understanding become possible, but only at the expense of excluding any real committment; as his "advisor" or "manager," she can counsel him regarding the proper response to his other relationships, but she cannot really be with him. Despite the significant differences between his relations to each of these women, his character shows the dynamic of the moral masochist, who is marked by what Arnold Cooper defines as "[...]the preferential persuit of suffering and rejection with little positive achievement."

Sacher-Masoch invented the literary character of the Masochist in the 1870s, Krafft-Ebing codified the behaviour of the masochist for us in his famous Psychopathia Sexualis at the end of the 19th century, and Sigmund Freud gave us one of the most insightful analyses of the masochistic character in his papers of 1919 and 1924, A Child is being Beaten and The Economic Problem of Masochism. However, the linkage I am interested in here, that between masochism and narcissism, beautifully displayed in the character of Masha played by Lena Olin, has only recently been made plain. The narcissist, according to Freud's famous essay On Narcissism: An Introduction, exists in the closed circuitry of inward cathexsis, can sometimes thrive on a false sense of grandiosity, and often exploits others, pulling them into this inflated sense of self, in which case the feeding frenzy usually turns on them. And this is precisely what occurs in Herman Broder's masochistic relationship to the narcissist-masochistic Masha. That this is not genuine love is written in plain text. When Tamara asks Broder if he loves Masha, he replies: "I cannot live without her."

Broder's melancholia finds its most explicit description in Freud's essay of 1919 Mourning and Melancholia, where Freud distinguishes between the mourning of loss and the entrance into the withdrawn depression that characterizes melancholia. In this decisive essay, Freud wrote:

"As we have seen, however, melancholia contains something more than normal mourning. In melancholia, the relation to the object is no simple one; it is complicated by the conflict due to ambivalence. The ambivalence is either constitutional, i.e. is an element of every love relation formed by this particular ego, or else it proceeds precisely from those experiences that involved the threat of losing the object. For this reason, the exciting causes of melancholia have a much wider range than those of mourning, which is for the most part occasioned only by a real loss of the object, by its death. In melancholia, countless separate struggles are carried on over the object, in which hate and love contend with each other."

The blockage that characterizes melancholia, obstructing the repressed memories from consciousness and eventually setting the ego on a closed, narcissistic path is equally present in in both Herman and Masha, but I would claim that Masha has the additional burden of a malignant narcissism, a defense structure that Herman has somehow escaped by virtue of his albeit belated, intermittant, and partial conscious recollection and reworking of his past trauma, specifically, the conscious remembrance of the loss of his children.

Masha embodies the masochistic-narcissism of an individual totally locked within the self-consuming, or, as Freud would have put it, "dammed-up" logic of an unresolved dependency and attachment to her mother, who also survived the extermination camps, and whom Herman calls by her proper name: "Mother." Mazursky dwells on this endlessly self-reflective and self-consuming logic cinematographically in a series of "mirror" scenes in which Masha is constantly trying to shore up or validate herself or, more specifically, her physical beauty. In a last, desperate measure, Masha externalizes this narcissistic pathology with the phantasm of a baby who would reflect this beauty and privilege back to herself and thereby replace the mirror function to which she appears addicted. After the phantasm is revealed as such -- the doctor states that the pregnancy was "only in her mind" -- Masha's ego is running on empty: "I have no feelings left." The "hemorrage" she suffers physically is the exact, external analogue of her internal depletion, the aperture of a wound emptying out any real love, concern, or care when the image in the mirror on the wall does not answer that she is the fairest of them all. With the actual death of her mother, Masha suffers the final narcissistic wound that proves fatal. As she herself states: "I cannot leave my mother. I want a grave next to her's." The double mirror scenes in which Masha glimpses this emptied out shell mirror precisely this double grave; mother and daughter locked together in a fatal symbiotic embrace. Herman opts out of the suicide pact with Masha when he ascertains that Masha had slept with her ex-husband to get a divorce and that shewas capable of lying at the very moment she swore on the life of her unborn child. Herman lacks this malignant narcissism, and still places certain limits on what constitutes truth, and trust. As Masha states: "You are still afraid of God." With the last "abandonment" or "betrayal" after her mother's death, Masha's truly destructive, masochistic pathology now comes fully into its own. After taking the sleeping pills, the camera returns to the mirror in a chilling last look at the narcissistic-masochistic personality.

At the end of Enemies, A Love Story, we have only the face of Herman's newborn child, a child that he had with Jedwiga -- appropriately named "Masha" as well -- as our legacy, a face that is inevitably split between innocence, youth, hope, and love on the one hand, and the horrifying trace of her dead namesake Masha on the other. The ferris wheel -- aptly designated the "wonder" wheel -- leaves this naming fully ambivalent, as Mazursky leaves the question open as to whether it is a circle of life, or, according to a more postmodern reading, a Nietzschean endless repetition of the same. It is one of the powerful images in the film that allows itself to be interpreted either way, and this ambivalence signals the entire structure of desire and love in the wake of the Holocaust. Mazursky and Singer did not invent the narcissistic-masochistic character, but Enemies, A Love Story has given us one of the most precise and enduring performances of this pathology and its disastrous effects, and a "love story" that is anything but that, one that disturbs the sentimentalized and nostalgiac representation of love after the Holocaust.

This document was last modified on Monday, March 25, 2002
Copyright © 1998 Rob Leventhal