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Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)

Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten (original title)
The film focuses on a group of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua who used children soldiers in their resistance against the Sandinistas.
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The film focuses on a group of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua who used children soldiers in their resistance against the Sandinistas.

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3 April 1985 (USA)  »

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Ballad of the Little Soldier  »

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1.33 : 1
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Werner Herzog: We didn't know that the last cow in the village was slaughtered to honor us.
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Human Bondage
3 August 2015 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

"It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded." --W. Somerset Maugham.

Werner Herzog's 45 minute documentary succinctly captures the reality of this achingly honest quote from W. Somerset Maugham. One moment in particular hammers it home. From an eager distance, Herzog's camera watches as a hired instructor bellows quick commands and warnings to cherubic soldiers waiting in line to test out a mortar. We can see down the line as each face reveals itself from behind the comrade's head in front of them. We see, despite the violent circumstances and the impoverished economic situation of those soldiers, delighted white marbles smiles and we recognize in that moment the happy-go-lucky face of childhood. We know, from our own experiences of childhood, from within and from observation, that these children cannot possibly grasp the full extent of their presence, right there in that field, dressed in scroungy uniforms and preparing for the use of weapons, no less. They only know that, as soon as their turn comes, they will get to operate an explosive weapon and behold its trajectory and its landing without the added screaming and carnage of battle.

What eventually happens is devastating. In one of the many shots capturing pairs of mortar operators, an extremely young soldier, perhaps only 7 or 8, is fumbling with the shell as his comrade holds the cylinder upright. The shell refuses to slide with ease down the tunnel of the mortar and there's an uneasy few seconds where you're certain something is going to go wrong, particularly when the instructor only minutes earlier warned the young soldiers about the dangerously sensitive fuses on the mortar. Instead of facilitating the situation safely, the instructor gives the little boy an adult sized wallop on the shoulder. The shell eventually finds its way down the tunnel, shooting right back out with a soft pop and a cloud of smoke. Immediately afterward the instructor gives the hesitant child soldier yet another wallop before the child soldier and his comrade go to the line where the soldiers who already shot a mortar round wait for further instructions.

In the moment of preparing that shell, Herzog closes in on that child soldier's face. In the blink of an eye we see that child's face go from eager anticipation to one of absolute despondency. What's terrifying is that this despondency arises not out of the child's realization that he just participated in the testing of a deadly weapon, but out of a reprimand from an older soldier. In this moment we see just how attentive those little ears, how expectant those little eyes, and how heartbroken those little bodies are. They, like all children (despite rough exteriors in some), are little followers, wanting only to please their instructors (both military and family) and be good sons and brothers. Their leaders, the hired instructors who teach the boys to shoot, march and stomp, are would-be older brothers. The tragedy is that in reality they turn out to be nothing more than enforcers of code whose necessity is only explained in terms of vengeance. When Herzog asks a child soldier why he wants to kill other little boys, the child soldier responds with something to the effect of, "They killed my mother and my brother and now I want to kill." These boys can only understand (and then still so very poorly) war in terms of schoolyard conceptions of an eye-for-an-eye and being brave. They are vulnerable, and, in one instructor's words, "pure" and ready to accept training with an "uncorrupted" (here meaning "unquestioningly willing") constitution. We thought we knew what it meant for a soldier to be called "fodder" but we don't really know until we see Herzog's close ups of the child soldiers in formation with instructors standing by and basically advertising their worth as killing machines. And if this fails to disturb us, then Denis Reichle's (co-director) postulations on the situation will. From behind the formation he looks down on the backs of the heads of the child soldiers. Turning away from them and looking off to the distance, Reichle tells us that this experience is too much for him because when he was only 11 he was recruited to fight for the Nazi's in their last hold over Berlin. "A lot of us died," Reichle says, "and it's hard not to see these children as already dead." He is right to say this because, in so many ways, these children ARE already dead. Their youths have been robbed from them, much more prematurely than we in privileged societies know and understand. Their parents, their siblings, their friends have been robbed from them. Their sense of safety in their homeland has been robbed from them. And just like the village woman with a ransacked house that Herzog interviews, they have been robbed of damn near everything except their fragile, saddened lives.

Herzog conveys all of this so simply and without affectation. The result is a deeply disturbing and wholly necessary film that tells a classic story (the stealing of youth by war and other destructive adult activities) in a singularly devastating way. You won't be the same after seeing it.


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