Symbolically Reclaiming a Symbol: The Unconscious of SLEEPER

1 September 2013

What would happen if you checked into a hospital for minor surgery and woke up two-hundred years later?  To complicate this scenario further, what would happen if you learned the future you just woke up in, a dystopia run by The Leader, sees you as an “alien” and wants you dead?  This could the premise for a futuristic sci-fi action film…but that is not the case.  In fact, this is the plotline of Woody Allen’s first narrative film, a comedy titled Sleeper (1973).

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Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) checks into St. Vincent Hospital in Greenwich Village in 1973 for minor surgery, but he wakes up in 2173.  Almost immediately Miles is approached by members of The Underground, a group seeking to overthrow their militant government.  The Underground wants Miles’ help because, as an “alien,” Miles has no identification number.  But, alas, because his anonymity could help The Undergrounders, the police are also pursuing Miles, aiming to eliminate him and the potential threat he poses.  To escape the police and try helping The Underground, Miles gets himself into some unusual circumstances, including posing as a robot, unexpectedly kidnapping a woman (who he later falls in love with), and stealing life-size fruits and vegetable as a cryptid chicken watches.  Eventually, the police catch up with Miles and restructure his brain so he cannot threaten their political structure.  However, The Underground, which now includes Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), the woman Miles kidnapped, comes to his rescue and restores his memory.  With Miles and Luna leading the mission, The Underground infiltrates the political power and uncovers a crippling secret about The Leader sure to put an end to the dictatorship.

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Truth be told, the above plotline is not very important in Sleeper.  That may seem an odd notion to consider, but, this being Allen’s first narrative film, Sleeper is slapstick comedy in the tradition of Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin. Often, Allen pauses the narrative progression (sometimes at the expense of his film’s pacing) to insert a comedic bit.  These bits are hilarious, and because the narrative is already a farcical experiment is an audience member’s ability to suspend disbelief, the bits are worth the break from the narrative; actually, the bits make the film.

However, there is one element of the narrative that seems important when considering a deeper, perhaps unconscious, meaning in Sleeper: The Leader, who is in charge of this futuristic America.  More pointedly, his leadership has divided the people and his regime aggressively hunts, destroys, and experiments on all those defy or threaten his authority.  Unfortunately, the real world has seen its share of “Leaders,” otherwise known as dictators, but one particular dictator comes to mind when watching Sleeper, and that person is Adolf Hitler.  When reading Sleeper on a historical slant, this comedy is about a Jewish man who must confront a threatening dictator who has created a world that has no place for him.

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The connection between Hitler and Sleeper’s The Leader is justified by a scene appearing early in Allen’s film.  On the run, Miles poses as a robot and inadvertently gets assigned to Luna, who he later kidnaps, and even later falls in love with.  The day he gets this assignment Luna hosts a party.  One of her party guests arrives in a shirt with a large swastika on it.  No one at the party reacts to the shirt, and, even though the symbol is unmissable and draws viewers’ attention, it is only shown for a few seconds and never discussed amid the characters.  The futuristic person wearing the shirt appears to be a free-thinking intellectual, arriving at a friend’s party to get high and have fun; this man is not a “bad guy,” if anything he seems to represent the swastika’s original, positive meaning, which is “to be good” or “to be of a higher self.”  Therefore, his swastika-branded shirt in the year 2173 does not bear the connotation it may if person showed up at a party in this attire today; in Sleeper, the swastika is a more static symbol, perhaps even a stylish one, which bares absolutely no negative or hateful connotation.

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Yet, Allen had to know audience members would react to seeing a swastika.  In this slapstick romp, reminiscent of Buster Keaton’s side-splitting work, why would Allen, a Jewish writer/director/actor making a comedy barely thirty years after World War II, spotlight a swastika?

The most plausible answer is Allen, in his futuristic narrative, silently but boldly reclaims the swastika.  In this far-fetched comic capper, Woody Allen suggests one day the defilement brought upon this symbol by Hitler and the Nazi Party will be gone.  In Allen’s narrative, the symbol, which existed long before the 1930s, no longer threatens and no longer reminds people of sadness, hatred, and oppression, this symbol has been restored, and that is a very positive and powerful statement.

Yes, Sleeper is a slapstick comedy that, at times, is completely absurd.  And, while comedies can hold a great deal of deep meaning, it does not feel as though Woody Allen had intentions to make a comedy with plausible inferences to Hitler; the slant this reading takes on Sleeper seems to tap into the film’s unconscious.  However, when read on this slant, Sleeper, in part, is unquestionably about a Jewish man fighting to survive a dictator who wants him dead.  The early spotlight on the swastika to a 1970’s audience references Hitler and his intended extermination of Jews during WWII.  Moreover, the film has a dictator in it, a Hitler-like figure.  Yet, in the end, Woody Allen’s comedy reminds audiences this dictator was overcome and, one day, maybe in 2173, all traces of the fear and hate he unleashed will be overcome as well.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 01/09/2013.

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