It is embarrassing to acknowledge that I did not know about Martha Gellhorn, considered one of the great war correspondents of the 20th century, before HBO brought to me a rather thin slice of her brilliant life in its movie ‘Hemingway and Gellhorn.’
The movie is a tobacco hued and visually saturated reminiscence of a brief and tumultuous love affair between Earnest Hemingway and Gellhorn against the backdrop of war. Hemingway, as played by Clive Owen, is an inevitably larger than life portrait of a grimy, tobacco stained masculinity defined by conflict, and Gellhorn, as played by Nicole Kidman, is as a minor appendage to Hemingway’s loud and monstrous presence. I liked many parts of the movie but their sum total turned out to be inadequate, particularly Gellhorn’s character in Kidman’s interpretation.
It is a pity that I chanced upon this powerful interview with the real life Gellhorn by John Pilger much after watching the movie. Although I did some reading about Gellhorn after the movie, it is this interview that offers compelling insights into this truly great journalist.
While she appears very well grounded in her bearing throughout the interview despite being someone who reported on the horrors of all major wars of the 20th century for close to six decades, there are signs of inner turmoil that manifest themselves rather tellingly. In particular, I was struck by the way she lights up perhaps half a dozen cigarettes and then rummages through the ash in the ashtray as if looking for many lost moments. There is a certain urgency, edginess really, to the way she moves the ash around the ashtray. It also appears as if doing that helps her concentrate her thoughts. It can be a bit distracting unless you pay attention what she is saying.
I watched the interview twice, once just to observe her body language and the second time to actually listen to what she is saying. There are many interesting things that she talks about in response to Pilger’s quietly probing style. A couple of things caught my attention. One was about the day she arrived at Dachau just as the second world war was winding down. Pilger asks her, “What happened on the day you entered Dachau extermination camp? How could you be objective about what you saw in that extermination camp?”
Gellhorn: “I was not objective. I did not have to be objective. What I saw was my personal war aim.. my personal war aim was to get into Dachau. It was the first concentration camp, extermination camp. I did get there and I was there the day the war ended. I did not have to be objective in the sense that how could you..what was there to be objective about? It was a total and absolute horror. And all I did was to report it as it was. I did nit invent anything. If you mean…I don’t even know what you mean exactly by objective…”
However, what Gellhorn offers in reply to the question that follows is such a strikingly visual and yet spare description of what she saw. Cue the clip at 16. “There was a train on the siding. That was a death train…” is how she begins and then goes on to paint a remarkable word portrait of what she saw. This is what makes a great storyteller. It is at once a clinical and yet heartfelt description of a horrific extermination camp. I could not help but notice that as she was narrating the horrific story, behind her in the garden outside a butterfly was going about its business of extracting the nectar from the flowers. It is amazing how many different realities unfold around us all the time.
I strongly recommend this interview to all those who are already journalists and those aspiring to be journalists everywhere.