Thoughts on ‘The Staircase’

‘The Staircase’ is the series-length true-crime documentary series that started that wholesome genre, way back in 2004. It follows the case of Michael Peterson, an American military veteran and war novelist who faced trial in 2003 in North Carolina for the murder of his wife. He says he found her unconscious and covered in blood at the bottom of a staircase in their home. The prosecution claimed he had killed her by hitting her in the head with a fireplace tool.

There are many odd things about this series. First, it was made by a French director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, for Canal+ in France, where the first episodes were broadcast. How and why a French director got interested in an American criminal case must be an interesting story. Second, the series is still going on: de Lestrade has followed all of the twists and turns in the appeals of the case up to even 2017, and has kept adding to the original episodes, which were filmed in 2003.

The result is a gripping portrayal of American criminal justice system, and I say that as a former American criminal-defense attorney. It shows the system almost in its ideal form Peterson had money, and bought a team of fabulous lawyers and investigators and experts. In fact, we see discussions of how much this defense is costing him — the fee was ultimately somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. This allowed the defense to chase down every single piece of evidence imaginable, and attack the state’s case from every possible vantage point.

And we see exactly how they did it. That’s another startling thing: de Lestrade gets complete access to the defense team and even Peterson’s home and family. We see his lawyers discussing very sensitive stuff with their client (such as fees) which had my lawyer-confidentiality alarm blaring at deafening levels. This extreme level of disclosure could only have been authorized by a direct order from Peterson himself to let it all hang out.

Which, as the film proceeds, you realize is something he would do. He’s smart, articulate, and something of a drama queen (it turns out he’s bisexual, and occasionally visited male prostitutes, a fact which comes out at trial). He says he’s innocent and has nothing to hide, and this seems credible, even if his protestations of innocence — and basically everything else he does — appear a tad histrionic and calculated. He’s also intensely self-aware; he understands how some of his actions and statements must look to the jury, and even ruminates, before the camera, about how the justice system must treat people who, unlike him, have to rely on public defenders. (The answer is: not well).

The lead lawyer, David Rudolf, is also sharp as a tack. He has the typical trial-lawyer blend of agile intelligence, worldly wisdom, and total partisanship for his client. He is obviously having a ball — finally, he’s got a client who’s smart, didn’t leave incriminating evidence or talk to the cops, and who can pay for him to prepare the case of his dreams.

Rudolf also gets to parade his forensic skills before an audience of millions. He speaks in complete paragraphs, without ‘uhs’ or ‘ahs’, and with plenty of wry jokes and clever turns of phrase. (Yet he’s too good for his own good: some members of the jury find him too slick — which, in North Carolina, probably includes an element of too Jewish). His opening statement is soulful, his cross-examinations pointed without being snotty, and his tactical know-how formidable. In one conversation, he manages to dissuade Michael Peterson from testifying on his own behalf (always a bad idea, for reasons many clients don’t understand) while making it seem as if this were Peterson’s own idea. We see Rudolf and his team grapple with the hundreds of strategic and tactical decisions needed to prepare a complex legal defense. My favorite bit is the day before trial, when Rudolf is telling Peterson how to behave in front of the jury (don’t look bored, don’t look at the jury, don’t laugh) and reminds him to trim his giant, furry eyebrows.

One thing that always strikes me is why all these documentaries are made in the United States (or, rarely, the UK), never in France or Germany. German and French documentary producers seem to lack any curiosity at all about how their own justice systems operate, although they’re more than happy to shoot thousands of hours of footage about how the American justice system works. Even when German TV producers do address the justice system, they ignore the actual rules which govern it and focus all their attention on the sort of stuff they talked about in their college journalism or philosophy seminars (the nature of guilt, man’s inhumanity to man, the position of minorities, the cold logic of capitalism, etc.). They never get the legal stuff even close to right — they don’t even try. Every German crime show is a parade of laughable legal howlers.

Europeans seem to believe that actually addressing the rules of evidence or burdens of proof or expert opinion about blood spatters in a halfway realistic way would be too boring and technical. Of course, they’ve got it backward: moralizing, didactic screenplays drawn from college-dorm bullshit sessions quickly get stale, while shows that feature genuine people mastering complex tasks under real-world conditions have an enduring and universal appeal, even if the jobs themselves are highly specific to one culture. Which is why tens of thousands of German and French people will be mesmerized by The Staircase, while nobody in the UK or the US has heard of Tatort.

My Contribution to the Enlightenment Now

A friend who’s reading Steven Pinker’s defense of the European Enlightenment, Enlightenment Now, alerts me to the fact that I am name-checked on page 210:

pinker name check.JPG

Nice to encounter a fair and reasonable summary of your work in a best-selling book, especially one whose argument you find congenial.

If you’d like the longer version of this argument, you can buy, or borrow, or otherwise acquire my 2010 book, Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective. And if you’re wondering: Yep, it’s written for non-lawyers.

‘Growing Up in Germany’: Meinhof, Meins, and Fassbinder Yelling at an Old Woman

On a recommendation from John of Obscene Desserts, I watched this joint French/German documentary about the origins of the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction. (The title of this post is my translation of ‘Eine deutsche Jugend/Une Jeunesse Allemand’). It consists of nothing but media documents from the late 1960s: political talk shows, revolutionary student films, Germany in Autumn, and contemporary news reports, and contemporary documentaries.

Those who aren’t familiar with this era in German history may have a hard time following it, because there’s no voice-over explanation or modern interviews to explain dated references. But that’s the point of the movie: the story of the RAF has been encrusted with decades’ worth of commentary, analysis, and speculation. This movie scrapes these barnacles away and shows you what a reasonably well-informed German or French person would have seen as events unfolded in real time.

‘Growing up in Germany’ also presents some excerpts from Germany in Autumn, an odd omnibus movie made by four German directors which, at least nominally, addresses the wave of RAF terrorism and the state’s response to it during the autumn of 1977. We see Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the most overrated (I didn’t say bad, just overrated) German director of the 1970s, harassing his own mother in a (likely coke-fueled) interrogation designed to reveal her alleged authoritarian tendencies. At the time, the interview was celebrated by some as a ‘devastatingly personal reckoning’ with the ‘hidden authoritarian conformism’ of elderly Germans. Now it just looks like some greasy-haired guy yelling at an old woman.

The film offers a few interesting insights into the “leaden years” of German political terrorism, especially Ulrike Meinhof’s early appearances on German political talk shows. In the mid-1960s, she was a fairly well-known commentator for the radical journal konkret (g), and represented the leftmost fringe of respectable German public opinion on political talk shows, usually as the only female on the panel. She emerges as equally smart and dull. Her arguments, conveyed in agonizingly long sentences, are sometimes pretty convincing — the troubling authoritarian holdovers in German society in the mid-1960s which she criticizes were all too real. However, she always speaks in a near-monotone, sometimes almost mumbling, with very little eye contact with fellow panelists. She seems incapable of humor in any form. Today, we might put her somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.

The director also dug up some of the student films made by Holger Meins, who later participated in several RAF terrorist actions, was imprisoned, and starved himself to death during a hunger strike, thus becoming the movement’s martyr. The excerpts of Meins’ films show young, smart, middle-class Germans striking poses while discussing revolutionary thought and assessing the contemporary state of German society and its readiness for revolutionary transformation, reminiscent of Godard’s ‘La Chinoise’. It all seems quite dour, lacking Godard’s wit, and, not to put too fine a point on it, German.

The verbosity of the RAF’s communiqués provides one of the few points of comic relief, as a West German news commentary shows scenes from the life of one of the ‘exploited workers’ the RAF claimed to be saving from the clutches of capitalism. We watch a montage of him leaving work, riding home in his nice little car to his nice little wife, pouring himself a frosty beer from the refrigerator, and settling in for an evening of bland, inoffensive public television. Meanwhile, a narrator reads a typical passage from an RAF communiqué, an clot of German caterpillar-sentences about objective and subjective conditions, revolutionary potential, alienation, consumer terrorism, the continuity of post-war German society with National Socialism, etc. The narrator asks whether any ordinary German worker could even understand this gobbledygook, much less be moved to give up his rather comfortable life for it.

I found the film a bit depressing. Germany, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was, overall, a prosperous, stable, pleasant place to live — at the time, probably one of the most prosperous, stable places to live on the planet. Yet, through a rigorous program of tunnel-vision indoctrination, a small group of student radicals managed to convince themselves that it was actually a grisly, contradiction-riddled nightmare of exploitation, just waiting to be swept away by revolution.

‘Growing up in Germany’ shows you just how this echo-chamber process of self-radicalization evolved in real time. It’s not a pretty sight, but an informative one. The intellectual tropes which drove radicalization still exist on the German hard left: the tendency to conflate all coercive state actions — even those which are part of the necessary functioning of any state — with fascism; the failure to draw distinctions between isolated social problems and total corruption; a hermeneutics of radical suspicion discerns conspiracies behind every unanswered question; cynicism toward every claim by authority figures to be acting in the name of any ideals higher than profit.

Underlying all of this is a tendency toward totalizing, principle-driven conceptual critiques (also a very German thing) which, followed to their logical conclusion, require rejecting Western society as a whole. In the words of one of the most famous revolutionary slogans: “It is impossible to live rightly within a wrong system” (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). Adorno coined this phrase in Minima Moralia, published in the direct aftermath of National Socialism. The fact that student radicals blithely applied this formula to the very different Germany of the late 1960s is a useful reminder of the human capacity for self-delusion.

Learning to Read, Write, and Murder

From the explainer accompanying the great Twitter feed Medieval Death Bot:

1. Who were clerks and just why did they murder everybody?

Clerk is an umbrella term for a variety of offices in the Middle Ages. A quick google of the term points you towards the clerical side of clerkdom, the word coming from the Latin clericus which also gives us the word ‘cleric’, which is technically an accurate description, but not really the whole picture. Some literature on the Middle Ages impedes proper research as well, the word clericus being translated as something like ‘secretary’ or even ‘deputy’, which makes tracing the occupation through society difficult.

In general, clerk referred to anyone who had a job that incorporated writing and keeping accounts. And there were a lot of clerks. They were in every part of  religious and secular society keeping records of everything that needed keeping record of. Important households and individuals employed clerks (and subclerks) by the handful. In Peter Brears’ Cooking and Dining In Medieval England, there are about a dozen different kinds of clerks mentioned just in relation to the kitchen and food preparation.

However, clerk was also a term used for scholars. Most of the murders of or by clerks would be of this sort, making these clerks young men aged anywhere from eleven to about nineteen, likely far away from home at school and with full access to alcohol. The bulk of these clerk murders come from the Records of Medieval Oxford which makes these groups of drunken, armed clerks wandering the streets, trying to cause trouble, students at Oxford. They often found the trouble they were looking for; groups of clerks murder a single clerk, or two clerks get into a ‘strife’ at a tavern and one of them ends up killing the other, etc etc.

The following reports give us a good look at some very traditional clerk murders in detail:

William de Bufford – 1302 – on Wednesday after the feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin the said William stood in the door of his house immediately after curfew, and John de Bellgrave and John de Cliffe, clerks, came there and made an assault on the said William; and John de Cliffe with a sword gave him the aforesaid wound on the shoulder, and John de Bellgrave with a dagger gave him the said wound on the left side, whereof he died; but he lived for 17 days after he was wounded, and had all his church rights.

William de Roule – 1303 – “a clerk named William de Roule from the bishopric of Durham died in his lodging where he abode in the parish of St. Mildred… The jurors say upon their own that one Louis, of North Wales, clerk, and one David ab Oweyn, clerk, of Wales, and others whose names are unknown, were in a street called School Street about the hour of curfew; and two of the companion of the said William de Roule, who were outside Smithgate, came there, and when they would pass, Louis and the other assaulted them, and at once they raised the hue; which when the said William heard as he was in his lodging, he came forth with a staff to help his companions; and the said malefactors at once beat him, whereof he died.

Philip Port – 1305 – John de Berdon… late in the dusk of the evening, came to lodging where the said Philip abode… and as he was in his chamber called him and asked him to come with him to a beer tavern, promising that he would give him drink; and he came out and went with him; and John after drinking withdrew; and so Philip began to go towards his lodging after curfew, and when he came to the corner under the wall towards East Gate, five clerks whose names they knew not came and made an assault on him; and he would have fled from them; and they followed him and caught him and wounded him as aforesaid, and slew him, and at once they fled.

Philip was wounded in the front of his head from one ear to another, so that all his brain was scattered outside; and he had another wound across his face to within the teeth, four inches long and one inch wide, and his right hand was cut off and lay beside him, and as it seemed to all who were there he had been wounded on the head with a hatchet, called in English sparth (halberd).

The murders by clerics in the sense of parish clerks and priests are rare, and their deaths often accidents, such as Robert de Honiton who accidentally fell through a trap door in the bell-tower attempting to ring the bells on New Year’s Eve.

In the end, the clerks that crop up often in the tweets are just drunken university students causing trouble after dark, and generally not priests.

University students? Drunk? Heaven forfend!