My wife and I were walking in the rain talking about the pandemic when I had an idea for a scene for a film. Black and white. I imagined it taking place in the late 1930s in a country run by a bureaucratic and unyielding militaristic regime. Something like what Fritz Lang might have done.
The scene takes place in the office of an official. The camera angle is from behind the official sitting at his desk. His back is in darkness and we cannot see his face. The only light is from above the desk, creating a pool of brightness that reflects off his papers and illuminates the edges of his uniform and hair. The official appears to be editing some of the papers, crossing things out and writing new things in. Beyond his desk, the background fades to black.
“Yes?” says the official without looking up from his papers.
A man steps forward from the darkness into the light, bowing slightly with his hat clutched in his hands. He is a local business owner who is going broke due to his business being closed by the government.
“Good afternoon, sir,” says the business owner, timidly. “Thank you for seeing me. I have waited a long time.” He can hear the official sigh impatiently.
“What do you want?” says the official, although he already knows what the business owner wants. He continues editing the papers in front of him.
“Please, sir,” says the business owner. “I have come to ask you to allow my business to reopen.”
The official stops editing the papers and looks up at the business owner.
“Where is your mask?”
The business owner flushes with embarrassment. “I am very sorry,” he says as he takes a mask from his pocket and starts to put it on. “I am just nervous. I forgot. My apologies.”
When the business owner finishes putting his mask on, the official says, “Is your business essential?”
The business owner looks at the official for a moment before answering. His mask pulses in and out as he breathes. “Well, sir,” he says finally, “I own a restaurant. A very good restaurant. I only–”
“Is it essential?” says the official, cutting him off. “Only essential businesses are allowed to remain open. Restaurants are non-essential. All non-essential businesses are to remain closed until further notice to protect the public. We must protect our people during the pandemic. Don’t you agree? Many thousands have died already. You must be aware of that.”
“Yes, sir, of course,” says the business owner. “But I was led to believe that–”
“And knowing this, you’re still willing to ask me for the privilege to reopen?”
The business owner looks at the floor for a moment, as if making up his mind, then looks back at the official. “Yes, sir.”
“And you’re aware of the rules regarding this request?”
“And the consequences?”
The business owner hesitates then says, “Yes, sir.”
“And you’re willing to abide by them?”
He hesitates again but remains firm. “Yes, sir.”
The official says, “Let’s see,” and gives a quick nod toward the darkness behind the business owner.
A woman approaching middle age is pushed from the darkness into the light. Above her mask there is fear in her eyes as they move back and forth from the official to the business owner. The official looks at the business owner. “Are you still willing to abide by them?”
The business owner glances briefly at the woman, who stares back at him with imploring eyes.
“I thought she would be older, sir.”
“The virus does not make such distinctions and neither does this office.”
“But perhaps someone more…infirm, sir.”
“That’s not for you to choose,” says the official. “Are you still willing to abide?”
The business owner looks back at the floor again. “Yes, sir,” he says in a low voice, as if he can prevent the woman from hearing it.
The official signals for some uniformed men to step out of the darkness and take hold of the woman.
“You will be executed in the morning,” he says to the woman.
She moans and her eyes begin to fill with tears.
“Do not reopen your business until the execution is complete,” the official tells the business owner. “Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The business owner looks very uncomfortable, turning his hat over and over in his hands.
“Please, sir,” says the woman to the business owner. She does not address the official. “Please reconsider. Are you so willing to give my life for your profit?”
“I am truly sorry,” says the business owner, his voice pleading for understanding. “But I have a family to feed. Children. I must reopen. If I do not, I will lose my business and have nothing to feed them with.”
“I have a family, too,” says the woman. “What’s to become of them?”
The business owner does not look at her again. He keeps turning his hat over and over in his hands.
“Tell me what’s to become of them! Can’t you even look at me?” Then she turns to the official and says, “Why don’t you help him? Why don’t you do something?”
“Take her away,” says the official. The woman begins to cry harder, begging for mercy for herself and for her children as the uniformed men remove her from the room. The business owner appears relieved when she is gone and he can no longer hear her crying. He stops turning his hat over and over.
The official pushes some papers toward the business owner. “Sign,” he says, holding out a pen. The business owner takes the pen from the official and thanks him. He leans over the papers and takes a long time reading them before signing.