Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

I Want You to Want Me

November 18th, 2010 · 7 Comments

There’s a scene in My Best Fiend in which Werner Herzog reveals what made him believe that Klaus Kinski possessed rare talent. It was a brief moment in a film whose title now escapes me, about a German soldier who is executed for deserting the army to be with his girlfriend. (A Time to Love and a Time to Die, perhaps?) Kinski plays a lieutenant who is taking a nap with his head atop a wooden table, and is woken up by a subordinate. He stirs, snorts, and checks his watch, a series of actions that takes no longer than two seconds. But Herzog claims that the way Kinski awakens in the scene is dramatic genius, and something that still haunts his imagination to this day. My Best Fiend shows the clip again and again, until you can’t help but see the great German director’s point—there is something so unusual about Kinski’s motion and body language that it’s difficult to shake the cinematic moment.

Herzog’s championing of that scene came to mind recently when I stumbled upon this gallery of images by the great Turkish photojournalist Coskun Aral. Many years ago, I purchased an edition of The World’s Most Dangerous Places that featured a brief article by Aral about his time in war-torn Lebanon. It was only a small sliver of a book that stretched over 1,000 pages, and the few accompanying photos were barely wallet-sized, black-and-white, and printed on newspaper-quality paper. Yet there was one image that immediately burned itself into my brain: the one above, of a Lebanese militiaman passing his leisure hours by playing Russian roulette. (According to Aral, the soldier died a week later when he gambled on the wrong chamber.)

I can’t quite explain why this photo has stuck with me for over a decade now. There are certainly tons of Russian roulette images in popular culture, so it’s not the sheer craziness of the situation that got to me. No, it was something much more subtle—the curl of grim resignation on the man’s lips, the way in which the shadows already seemed to be claiming him for the grave. As a result, I’ve always made sure my tattered, coffee-stained copy of The World’s Most Dangerous Places is within easy reach, so I can return to the photo whenever the memory of its initial impact flutters across my mind.

Aral took plenty more ultra-disturbing photos while on assignment in Lebanon, of course—there’s one of Druze militiamen in Halloween masks that I’ve been dying to find online. But the Russian roulette image is his accidental masterpiece, a fleeting glimpse of raw desperation that deserves a place in the photjournalism canon.

Read more about Aral here, or watch an interview with the man here. And apologies if the Russian roulette photo gets its hooks into you—it’s definitely not something you want hanging around your hippocampus when you want to be in a happy place.


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Tony Comstock

    Maybe not a coincidence that Nicolas Nassim Taleb uses a russian roulette metaphor so effectively in his book “Fooled by Randomness.”

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Tony Comstock: It probably won’t surprise you (or anyone) in the least that I thought about The Deer Hunter while writing this post. That “di di mao!” scene seriously scarred me as a young’un.

  • Captured Shadow

    Do you think there are any parallels between surviving a round of Russian Roulette and other near-death experiences? Of course the physical experience is not the same. Maybe surviving Russian Roulette. is the extreme version of gambling?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Interesting. You’ve inspired me to do a sci-lit search on the topic the next time I’m over at Columbia. Stay tuned…

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: And let me add that your comment reminded me of a line from Blood Meridian, re: how one man’s life or death riding on a single turn of a card is the ultimate game. I’ll have to look up the exact language tonight.

  • ADW

    Haunting image.

    My father, uncle, and friends played RR quite a bit as teens in Oakland, CA. He’d spoke about it nonchalantly when I first discovered what RR was. But, by that time, my uncle had already been shot in the shoulder in some street shit. If memory serves correct, my uncle was about 17. He survived and continued his tear through the justice system, until he got tired and old, and settled for being a mid manager at an East Coast transportation company.

    The streets have always been dangerous for young black men. The picture reminds me of that — similarities exist between wayward, revolutionary Muslim males in the Middle East and black men in the West. Kind of like, not much control over the darkness the streets and world brings, might as well claim ownership.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @ADW: Did you ever see the HBO miniseries “The Corner”? Your comment reminded me of one scene in particular, in which two of the main characters (teens in West Baltimore) find a police bulletproof vest and decide to try it out in an abandoned building–by having one shoot the other at close range. It’s a completely insane stunt by the viewer’s standards, but it makes perfect sense in the world that the characters inhabit. Probably the most powerful moment in the whole series (even though no one gets hurt).