Battle of Algiers (1966) and A Ghost Story (2017): A Comparison
In his 1990 novel Immortality, French author Milan Kundera ponders over what the meaning of life truly is. It was concluded that the meaning of an individual’s life is to achieve immortality. Though one could not achieve physical immortality — living forever; immortality could only be achieved spiritually. Spiritually, by definition, are by the means leaving a piece of you on this Earth that others could remember you by. This could be something as small as leaving a child for the next generation to something large such as discovering something scientifically significant that humanity as a whole could benefit on. The two films Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo), a film of war and rebellion against an oppressed people, and A Ghost Story (2017, dir. David Lowery), a film of love and loss, both share the singular theme of immortality.
In Battle of Algiers, we follow two main characters: Ali la Pointe, a petty thief who ends up leading a rebellion for his people and shows no true intention of seeking immortality and Col. Mathieu, a French colonel who leads military parades and is well-decorated in a suit of medals. In the film, Col. Mathieu refers to the rebellion as a parasite. Once the head (Ali) is removed, the remainder of the parasite will die along with it. In the climax of the film, Ali is cordoned off — stuck behind a wall along with his family. Ali is told to surrender with the ultimatum of his life being lost. Refusing to give in, Col. Mathieu orders Ali’s execution. As a result, the rebellion Ali led did not die along with him as Mathieu predicted. Instead, Ali became martyred therefore achieving immortality and the rebellion thrived which eventually led to France’s failure in the Algerian War.
A Ghost Story takes the concept of immortality and develops it into a larger, more cosmic sense. At one point in the film, a home squatter speaks about immortality cynically in what looks to be a Socratic seminar. The squatter describes the pointlessness of existence and leaving behind a mark on this Earth. He brings up Beethoven’s 9th symphony as an example. The song has so far stood the test of time, but what about in one billion years? After a human mass extinction? How about after 4.5 billion years when the sun engulfs the Earth? Sure there is the possibility that humans would have left the Earth in time and have brought Beethoven’s 9th along. But in the end, from what we currently know in the realm of astrophysics, the Cosmos will eventually shrivel into nothing more than a spec. The home squatter concludes that Beethoven writing the 9th symphony was no more significant as a random individual hammering a wooden stake into the ground.
Battle of Algiers pulls the theme of immortality through martyrdom. A Ghost Story pulls it a step forward questioning the cosmic validity of immortality. Kundera states that achieving immortality is not necessarily a good thing. Furthermore, immortality means eternal trial — an eternity of generations beyond criticizing the legacy one has left behind. Though generations could argue whether or not the actions of Ali la Pointe and the FLN were justified, it is safe to know that in the end, in a cosmic sense, none of it even matters.