Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterly film, triumphantly original, wittily humane and piercingly cogent
by Judith Crist
So it goes. Slaughterhouse-Five opens one week and City Lights returns the next and the quality of compassion is with us again, dealt with in terms of that blend of comedy and sentiment, the Faulknerian “old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”
That Kurt Jr.’s last novel should be translated to the screen with such striking success—Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterly film that captures the quintessence of Vonnegut and stands as a triumphantly original, wittily humane and piercingly cogent conciliation of life after death-dealing—is a testament to the art of filmmaking. Only last year the novelist-playwright’s deliciously anti-machismo play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, was turned into nothing more than a miscast film record of the dialogue and plot outline of the stage work, thanks to a screenplay by the inexperienced author himself and ham-handed literalization by a director who appeared to have small concept of the author’s intention. But the second time around, the fates—and the filmmakers—have dealt fairly with a Vonnegut work.
Slaughterhouse-Five, for the remaining non-Vonnegutians among us, is a highly personal novel, a blending of the author’s experience with his deadpan and loving satiric view of man’s foibles and his lively bent toward a sci-fi view of man’s fate. Its title is derived from the slaughterhouse-compound building in which the hero, Billy Pilgrim, and his fellow American POWs were housed by the Germans in Dresden, before the Allied firebombing on February 13, 1945 that devastated that open city and killed 135,000 of its inhabitants. As Vonnegut himself did, Billy survives and, a veteran of “The Children’s Crusade,” as Vonnegut chooses to call World War II and subtitle his novel, returns to become a highly successful member of the affluent middle class, complete with a plump wife, who is constantly munching, promising to lose weight and showing her gratitude with a whispered assurance that she will be “so sexy”; a carbon-copy plump daughter and a son who matures from being a sort of hippie-vandal to honoring his father by fighting the Communist menace via the Green Berets. But Billy has learned the secret of survival: he time-trips, back to the scenes of his childhood and his manhood and forward to his middle- aged escape from his earthly Ilium to the planet Tralfamadore where he is happily mating with a Hollywood starlet in his Sears-furnished Fuller dome —but most often back to his boyhood spent in the war and the climactic horrors of the Dresden holocaust. Each lifetime experience somehow flows from or into a wartime parallel, but Billy survives because he has learned that the eternities are best faced by concentrating on the good moments, accepting the Tralfamadorian precept that there is no how or why, but simply the moment itself; above all, there is the continuum, embodied in that planet’s greeting, “hello-farewell,” in Billy’s death and return therefrom, in his starting a second family life at fade-out time.
Billy, remarkably embodied throughout boyhood and manhood by Michael Sacks, blond, slack-jawed, half-hand- some and bespectacled (as an optometrist should be), is something more than the all-American dud; he’s a nonviolent passive observer whose response is primarily from the heart, who is so horrified by the insanity of so much around him that he settles for a kindly acceptance, keeping the irony without bitterness. He has seen, amid the devastation of a city and deaths of thousands, a good man shot for taking a tiny Dresden figurine as a sentimental souvenir; he has heard a historian cite statistical justification for mass slaughter; he realizes that of the wife he loved, he loved her pancakes most of all.
Billy’s is a life of almost-cliches, of near-stereotypes, of almost-cartoons that separate Vonnegut’s art from the sludgeries and slambangs of so many of his contemporaries* writings. His “so it goes” is the sum of all parts and acknowledgement of life. For he makes Billy very, much a part of us, dealing tenderly with all his people. His kindly, principled Ed Derby (Eugene Roche) is the overage schoolteacher who enlisted to fight on principle because “we don’t mince phraseologies at Boston Trade and Industrial.” His ferocious Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman) is the paranoid whose life-juice is revenge, warming to the day when he will come to his victim’s door . . and even squeezing behind the wheel of that ultimate attainment, a white Cadillac of her own, Billy’s wife (Sharon Gans) assures him that she will lose weight just for him, while his extra-planetary starlet (Valerie Perrine) assures Billy that she too can make a mean pancake.
That the heart of the matter that matters to Vonnegut has come to the screen with a throbbing cinematic pulse of its own should be credited to the screenplay by Stephen Geller (whose novel, She Let Him Continue, became the on-screen Pretty Poison) and, above all, the direction of George Roy Hill. With the incomparable Dede Allen as his editor, Hill once again, as in The World of Henry Orient and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shows his tenderness and fondness for the humanity beneath the grotesque. The great accomplishment here is his own ability to time-trip, to blend the past, the fleeting present and the endless future without a moment’s confusion and with full appreciation of the elements of each scene. Unlike Catch 22, of which this film will inevitably remind you in its essential statement, there is a caring for the specific and there is none of the snickering retrospection tinged with either scorn or sentiment that is too often used to view the innocence that was once sincerely ours. Hill’s is a fascinating film, a human comedy whose blackness is in the nouveau-cynical eye of the beholder.
As added richness, Prague was chosen as the location to duplicate prewar Dresden and it was at the Barandov studios there that the fine Czech cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball, If … , Intimate Lighting) was brought to the project. And not least, the music, composed by that often misused and abused J.S. Bach, was scored and performed by Glenn Gould, providing superb accompaniment to a masterly film.
New York Magazine, 3 Apr 1972; pp.58-59