In Paths of Glory, Col. Dax is the righteous, indignant military lawyer who defends three innocent French soldiers being tried on trumped up charges of cowardice. In truth, the three soldiers are merely scapegoats of the upper brass and are ultimately put to death to cover over the shame and selfishness of top generals. Dax is outraged, having begged the tribunal to have some sense of shame, to behave humanely, to show mercy and clemency.
In the final scene, Dax has just departed the execution of the convicted soldiers, one of whom suffered from a skull fracture and had to be propped up on a stretcher and slapped awake before being shot. While Dax believes in the dignity of man, he has just seen the nobility behaving like animals. Dax himself is accused by a general of only angling for the three soldiers’ release in order to advance his own career, though Dax denies it with a shout and an oath. The pitiful soldiers he tried to save were brave, but they were condemned by men of power.
The final scene occurs in a bar near the site of the execution. None of the men in the bar are named characters. They are just as much strangers to us as to Dax, who pauses outside the bar.
At the 0:24 mark, we see Dax respond to the men’s whooping when a beautiful German hostage is brought out onto the stage. Looking at the ground, Dax wonders just how awful the tribunal actually was. While the three soldiers executed weren’t guilty of cowardice, had they been alive, they would have likely been in the bar hollering and leering at the girl like everyone else. Maybe there is no such thing as an innocent man. Dax sighs. As a colonel, he might walk into the bar and disrupt the spectacle, tell the privates to act like men. Would it do any good?
“Talk in a civilized language!” roars one soldier (0:47) after the girl timidly says “Good day” in German. It’s an ironic command given how uncivilized the behavior of the crowd is. In addition to whistling and shouting, the men are also laughing and nearly hysterical. The German girl is in tears, though. Her tragedy is their comedy. The sad end of her day is the happy end of their own day. The audience has coercive power over the girl, and there is something inherently funny about coercive power.
When the barkeep tells the girl to sing a song, Kubrick cuts around the room quickly. At 1:18, Kubrick shows us the entire crowd, and between 1:20 and 1:23, we are shown four individual faces in rapid succession. When the girl begins singing, though, the editing slows down and we are shown the individual faces again, but this time the camera lingers on them for two or three times as long. The song has begun to pacify the men, and so the frenetic pace of the editing slows as the gaze of the men moves from carnality to contemplation.
The men begin humming along at 2:25 as the young blond soldier swallows hard, as though preparing himself for something awful. The survey of faces continues, and the men look increasingly worried until the 2:42 mark, when an older soldier appears mortified, ashamed. At the 2:54 mark, we return to the young girl who has taken note of the men’s tears, and she regains her confidence, nodding her head to the audience to encourage them.
As the audience gazes at the helpless girl, the imagination of each soldier wanders off. The think of their wives, sisters and daughters. If a German girl could be plucked from her home and set before a room full of cat-calling brutes, the same could happen to a girl they knew. The young blond soldier weeps because the girl is not the enemy, but his own girlfriend, disgraced by jeers. She is no longer a German girl, but a girl, and then no longer a girl, but a human being among other human beings. The soldiers begin to cry not on behalf of the girl, but as the girl. Sympathy is an act of imitation, and every act of imitation is an act of becoming. When the scene begins, at the 0:17 mark, Kubrick pulls back suddenly from a single face, but at 3:30, he slowly draws into a single face. As the audience, we may have judged the men as hastily and brutally as they initially judged the girl. But as the audience lingers on the girl, we linger on the audience. The audience is no longer a mishmash of faces. Rather, each of the brute’s faces becomes more distinct, and in becoming more distinct, ceases to be a brute.
At 3:45 the scene cuts back to Dax, still listening outside. He looks down again, perhaps a little ashamed of himself for the hasty accusations he made in his heart against those jeering inside. Man is dignified, though he often forgets this. The same upper brass who condemned innocent men to die are not beyond the reach of the German girl’s song.