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The Eyes of God: Guilt, Belief and Existentialism in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors

22 Aug
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In Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, as in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, a protagonist commits cold-blooded murder, after which he comes to grips with his guilt, and more broadly, with a Universe which seems to allow for grave human misdeeds. And whereas Dostoevsky asserts the necessity of suffering and atonement in accordance with Divine Law, Allen posits that in the seeming absence of an all-knowing God, individuals must bear responsibility alone in an indifferent Universe. Interestingly, both Dostoevsky and Allen uphold a moral code; but where Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christianity dictates his terms, Allen paints an Existential portrait of sin that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

The parallels between Crime and Punishment and Crimes and Misdemeanors are perhaps clearest in the divided consciousnesses of their protagonists. Raskolnikov, whose very name evokes in Russian the idea of raskol, or “schism,” can be seen to have two selves; one is a being of tremendous arrogance, who believes he may commit murder both as a means of ridding the world of a “useless old woman,” and to prove himself a Napoleon-like “great man” to whom the ordinary rules of common morality do not apply. But Raskolnikov contains as a humanitarian self as well, one inclined to help a drunken and abused girl on the thoroughfare, and who gives money to the impoverished Marmeladov family. Raskolnikov’s morally conscious self torments him after his crime, making him ill. He ultimately heals the psychic rupture he has inflicted upon his psyche by confessing the murders of the pawnbroker and her sister, and atoning through his suffering, thus submitting to the Law of God.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, interestingly, the role of protagonist is itself divided.  Half of the “role” of Raskolnikov goes to Allen’s character of Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau. Judah is a successful ophthalmologist who arranges the murder of his unstable mistress, thus freeing himself (or so he believes) of the consequences of adultery. Unlike Raskolnikov, Judah is a wealthy man who can afford to hire his brother to commit the murder, though later Judah reflects that “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Like Raskolnikov, Judah is tormented by guilt after his murder, but he does not confess and atone.

But thematically, in Allen’s film the “Raskolnikov role” is played also by the comic-relief character of documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern, portrayed by Allen himself. Judah may be seen to commit Raskolnikov’s crime of murder, whereas Cliff suffers some of the outward circumstances of Raskolnikov’s condition; Cliff, like Raskolnikov, is a struggling thinker who worries about money, aspires to greatness, and chafes at his connection to an arrogant  “self-made man.”

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is disgusted by his beloved sister Dounia’s engagement to the capitalist Luzhin, and hates the fact that his sister intends to sacrifice herself for Raskolnikov’s sake; in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cliff’s “Luzhin” is his wife’s brother, Lester (portrayed by Alan Alda), who provides Cliff with the odious, though lucrative job of composing a laudatory biographical documentary about his tremendous success. Cliff would rather be working on his documentary about Professor Levi, a wise old existentialist philosopher, but he needs Lester’s money.

Both Cliff and Raskolnikov abhor their clownish brother-in-law’s grasping, self-congratulatory commercialism, and both reject it; Raskolnikov by rebuffing Luzhin’s offer of financial support, and Cliff by juxtaposing filmed scenes of Lester’s pomposity and crapulousness with stock footage of Mussolini and of Francis the Talking Mule. In both cases, the brother-in-law is portrayed as comic relief to the major moral themes—but, significantly, in the fictive universe of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alda’s Lester is seen to triumph. Cliff’s love interest, Halley, chooses to marry Lester instead of Cliff, whereas in Dostoevsky’s universe Dounia rejects Luzhin in the face of her brother’s disapproval. Thus we see once again that Dostoevsky’s universe is a far more just place than that of the Existentialist Allen.

Allen addresses (but does not resolve) his schismatic dual-Raskolnikov by having Judah “confess” his crime to Cliff in the film’s next-to last scene. Their conversation could be read as Judah confessing to a kind of alternate self. It encapsulates Judah’s coming-to-terms with his crime, as he recalls it to Cliff under the auspices of suggesting a plot for a film:

And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

This recalls a similar description of guilt-induced “mental collapse” in Crime and Punishment. After committing the murders, Raskolnikov falls into a profound state of soul-sickness—indeed, he has violated a “just and moral” Universe, and ultimately succumbs to “confessing the whole thing to the police,” an option from which Allen’s Judah willfully turns. Even in the midst of Raskolnikov’s suffering, Dostoevsky hints at the presence of God, and the eventual coming-to-consciousness necessary to the murderer’s salvation:

[Raskolnikov] was not completely unconscious, however, all the time he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious. He remembered a great deal afterwards. Sometimes it seemed as though there were a number of people round him; they wanted to take him away somewhere, there was a great deal of squabbling and discussing about him. … he distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was, and this fretted him, even made him cry. Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember. He worried and tormented himself trying to remember, moaned, flew into a rage, or sank into awful, intolerable terror. Then he struggled to get up, would have run away, but someone always prevented him by force, and he sank back into impotence and forgetfulness. At last he returned to complete consciousness.

(Crime and Punishment, Chapter 10, italics mine)

In Dostoevsky’s rendered Universe, murder controverts God’s sacred law. Raskolnikov’s “feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious” in which he “distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was” represents Dostoevsky’s belief that mental illness arises from a spiritual disconnect from God, a theme introduced in the doppelganger plot of his brilliant novella The Double. Indeed, one could even read the unidentified “other person” to be God himself, watching over Raskolnikov’s deterioration until the sick young murderer, with help from the sainted prostitute, Sonya, confesses and accepts responsibility for his transgression.

Like Raskolnikov, Judah is aware that he has committed a sin. Immediately after finding out his mistress’s murder has been accomplished, Judah announces to his wife and daughter  “I think I’ve done a terrible thing.” He also tells his hit-man brother, “It’s pure evil, Jack! A man kills for money and he doesn’t even know his victims! … She’s not an insect! You don’t just step on her!”  However, Judah eventually turns away from the implications of his crime.

The spiritual theme of sight and blindness is an important one in Allen’s film. In the  opening scene, Judah accepts a humanitarian award for providing a new ophthalmic wing of a hospital. In his acceptance speech, Judah muses:

I remember my father telling me, ‘The eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Judah was raised in religious faith; but he, much like a later Dostoevsky character, Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, has willfully turned from belief to a cynical form of self-justification that Dostoevsky would have abhorred.

The last we see of Judah in Allen’s film, he is a guest at the lavish wedding of a young woman whose father, the morally upright rabbi Ben, Judah is treating for blindness. Ben’s blindness, and Judah’s status as an eye doctor, are profound ironic statements by Allen; Ben represents Judeo-Christian law, and at the beginning of the film, he tells Judah that

…[there is] a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live.

Later, in an imagined conversation with Ben about the murder, Ben tells Judah: “But the Law, Judah. Without the law, it’s all darkness… It’s a human life. You don’t think God sees?” Dostoevsky would argue that while Ben himself is consigned to a physical darkness, he remains upright in the eyes of an all-seeing God, whereas Judah the ophthalmologist is blind by choice. Allen makes no such unambiguous argument, though the song he chooses to play in the final moments of the film, while the blind rabbi dances with his daughter, is “I’ll be Seeing You.”  One might ask, who is doing the seeing?

In the penultimate “confession scene” of Crimes and Misdemeanors, documentarian Cliff conveys to murderer Judah much the same ideal as the sainted, blinded rabbi Ben does, but framed in existentialist terms rather than religious ones:

Cliff: But can [the murderer] ever go back [to normal]?

Judah: Well, people carry sins around with them…I mean, maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, but it passes. And with time, it all fades.

Cliff: Yeah, but then, you know, his worst beliefs are realized…

Judah: I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I?

Cliff: I don’t know, you know, I think it’d be tough for somebody to live with that, you know, very few guys could live with something like that on their conscience.

Judah: What do you mean? I mean, people carry awful deeds around with them…what do you expect them to do, turn themselves in? I mean, this is reality! In reality we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.

Cliff: Here’s what I would do, I would have him turn himself in because then, you see, your story assumes tragic proportions…in the absence of a God, or something, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself, then you have tragedy.

Judah: but that’s fiction, that’s movies… I mean, you’ve seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen et. al., transcribed from video)

Allen could be seen to relegate Dostoevsky’s ideal of a just and moral God to the status of a Hollywood formula happy-ending; a fantasy, itself a strongly Existentialist stance (per Nietzsche, especially).

Allen’s Judah and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ponder similar questions — in a Universe seemingly absent immediate consequences, is all permitted? Is the killing of another human being ever justified? — but the characters come to very different conclusions. Allen’s film concludes with its protagonist/murderer having decided that his mistress’s murder was worth it, as his “life of wealth and privilege” had been protected. One could argue that while Judah is not an atheist — indeed, he invokes his belief in God several times throughout the film — he behaves as though there is no Divine Law to which he could be held accountable. Existentialism, in his case, can be seen to actively subvert a moral code.

Raskolnikov, on the other hand, submits to Dostoevsky’s Divine Law.  Dostoevsky ends his novel with Raskolnikov serving seven years in Siberia, but with the promise of Sonia’s (and God’s) love promising his salvation. Judah is consigned to Hell, at least in Dostoevsky’s theology. Allen is perhaps not so sure. In interviews, Allen has characterized religious faith as a “gift,” one he himself does not profess to have received.

This difference in Raskolnikov’s and Judah’s outcomes illustrates a fundamental difference in Dostoevsky and Allen’s worldviews; for Dostoevsky, the redemption of an individual human soul comes about through sin, atonement through suffering, and eventual repentance; in Allen’s world, the absence of an active God renders every human soul accountable only to itself, thereby allowing a man such as Judah to continue with his life with “a few bad moments,” but ultimately turning away from the idea of sin and repentance and, as Allen has said in an interview of Judah’s character, “choosing not to punish himself.”

Yet, while Allen’s cosmology is far bleaker that Dostoevsky’s, the end scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors m allows for a possible glimpse of a virtuous life. As Ben dances with his daughter, a voice-over of Professor Levi intones that:

We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

The character of Professor Levi seems to embody Allen’s Humanist-Existentialist worldview, much like the Christian doctrine of Father Zossima embodies Dostoevsky’s in The Brothers Karamazov. Unlike Dostoevsky (and Zossima), for whom the Universe turns on the just dictates of a compassionate, all-knowing God, Allen posits an “indifferent universe” in which work, family, and hope for the future must stand as their own ends. Whether this code is believable or not is up to the viewer—after all, Levy commits suicide, leaving the simple note “I’ve gone out the window,” whereas the Dostoevskian Orthodox elder, Zossima, despite his unexpected putrefaction, is lionized, and his precepts upheld. In any case, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ultimately conforms to Christian Orthodox principles, and in this way stands for all humanity’s need to sin, atone and repent.

Addressing Raskolnikov’s atonement process, I am reminded of a class discussion in which a student asked, “Are we meant to like Raskolnikov?”

The professor answered,  “By the end of the novel, I believe we are meant to love him.”

By the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the viewer is meant to love neither Judah, nor Cliff. Perhaps this is because love is not written into the precepts of the humanitarian Existentialism Allen espouses. This, Dostoevsky would say, is precisely Existentialism’s failure; that no set of principles devoid of Christ’s love could measure up to the enormous human capacity for sin. Without suffering, atonement and redemption, no true love exists.

Works Cited

Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman New York: Grove Press, 1995. (quote regarding character of Judah “not choosing to punish himself”).

Dostoevsky, Fyodor.

The Brothers Karamazov. (Translation by Constance Garnett) Available online at www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/brothers_karamazov Accessed December 17, 2007

Crime and Punishment. (Translation by Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/crimeandpunishment/ Accessed December 17, 2007

The Double. (Transl. Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html Accessed December 17, 2007

Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Martin Landau. DVD. Orion Pictures, 1989.

Mairs, Tanya, PhD. The Novels of Dostoevsky class lecture, New School University, December 2006

” The Kraft Music Hall Woody Allen Special.” By Woody Allen, producer. Perf. Woody Allen, Billy Graham. ABC. WBCN, Boston. 21 Sept. 1969. (interview with Billy Graham about religious faith being a “gift,” clip available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6iAaxOAHCM )