Within the past week or so, I have seen two movies on Netflix streaming that remind me why I like “foreign” films. It has nothing to do with being a snob—even though I confess to being one from time to time. It has more to do with a need to be entertained. A few weeks ago, I got this comment from Ben Courtice under my review of The Forgotten Space, a Marxist documentary I compared favorably to “escapist trash”:
I actually have a preference for one piece of escapist crap after another – I spend my days as an activist wading through torrents of information about how the world is going to shit – but this sounds really good! Thanks I’ll look out for it.
I told Ben that I might have something to say about “Woman in Black”, “Chronicle”, and “The Grey”, three films I saw at my local Cineplex, but simply lacked the motivation to follow through since despite being watchable, they were just not good enough to qualify as “escapist” fare.
Interestingly enough, the European films reviewed below pay homage to Hollywood “escapist trash”, perhaps demonstrating that other countries can take our own designs and improve upon them, like the latest Chinese consumer electronics.
(Sorry, English-subtitled trailer for Antibodies not available.)
The first is a German film made in 2005 titled Antibodies that might be described as a shameless rip-off of Silence of the Lambs.
The two main characters are a serial killer named Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) and a part-time cop from the boondocks named Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who comes to the big city where Engel is being jailed in order to determine whether he killed a teenage girl in his tiny farming village. All of Engel’s victims were boys so there was some question in Martens’s mind whether she was one of his victims.
Engel enjoys taunting Martens through the bars of his cell, in the same way that Hannibal Lechter taunted Agent Starling, another cop from the boondocks. Engel insists that he is not the girl’s killer and teases Martens with insinuations that the cop might be hiding something, very possibly some dark secret about his sexual impulses. Since Martens is a pious, if not downright prudish, Catholic, he dismisses Engel’s insinuations and presses on with his interrogation.
When he returns home, Martens finds himself at odds with his fellow villagers who resent his ongoing investigations of a homegrown murderer, not Engel. The most violently opposed to the investigation, which includes a blood test for a DNA sample to compare with the semen-soiled underpants of the young victim, is his father-in-law who shoots Martens’s dog in an opening scene when they are out deer-hunting.
The village is a reminder of how backward rural society is in Germany, especially in Catholic villages. The sexual repression is thick enough to cut with a knife. Director/screenwriter Christian Alvart is clearly tuned in to the same morbidity found in Michael Haneke’s 2009 The White Ribbon, a film focused on the rural social base of an incipient Nazi movement. In my review I noted:
Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.
While the last thing in the world I would want to do is disclose the powerful ending of this film, I can say that it casts the small-town cop and his teenage son in a modern version of the biblical tale of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, in order to demonstrate his faith. I always found this story that formed the core of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about as effective an argument against religion as can be found.
The other film is Evil, a 2003 Swedish work directed by Mikael Håfström and based on the semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan written by Jan Guillou, a long-time leftist like the late Stieg Larsson.
The main character is Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a 15 year old who lives with his mother and his sadistic stepfather who beats him over the slightest infraction. Not being able to strike back at the man, Erik takes it out on his schoolmates who are never able to match his fighting skills and–more importantly—his blind rage.
Hoping that a change of scenery might calm him down, his mother sends him to Stjärnsberg, a boarding school that is about as rigidly class-stratified as feudal India. Greeted by Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård), a self-described nobleman in the senior class, Erik learns the rules of the game. If he stays out of trouble, he will eventually become a senior and enjoy all the privileges that go with that status. Silverhielm also clues him on the social make-up of the school. There are aristocrats like him, students from wealthy backgrounds, and ordinary folk whose parents manage to scrape together the money to send them to Stjärnsberg. That last category describes Erik, whose mother sold family heirlooms to raise the tuition money.
Erik is escorted to his dormitory room where he meets his new roommate Pierre Tanguy (Henrik Lundström), the bookish and physically ungifted son of a Swiss diplomat. As the two take an immediate liking to each other (the case of opposites attracting each other), Pierre makes sure to warn him about student life at the school. If you keep a low profile, you will do okay. If you get noticed, especially by the upperclassmen, you will have big problems.
In one of Erik’s first classes, he is introduced to the school’s Nazi in residence who lectures the students about racial differences. The Nordic race is handsome and physically powerful. The further south you go, the weaker the specimen. He has Erik and Pierre stand up in front of the class to demonstrate the racial differences, much to their chagrin.
At lunch the next day, Erik gets an introduction to the kind of hazing that is universally accepted there, just as it is in fraternities and private schools worldwide. In a school like Silverhielm, it is not just about social acceptance. It is about inculcating the kind of deference to authority that serve as a lubricant in the machinery of the military and the corporation. When a student sitting at his table uses the word “crap” in a sentence, an upperclassmen calls him over to receive punishment (cursing is strictly prohibited, as is smoking), which consists of being smacked on the head with a butter knife. It is much more painful than it sounds.
A few moments later, Erik makes the same infraction. But when he is ordered to receive his punishment, he refuses. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and countless other memorable characters in prison and sadistic private school movies made in Hollywood, Erik is a stubborn nonconformist. He is also like James Dean, a “rebel without a cause”. Just to make sure that the audience makes this specific connection, Erik and Pierre confess their love of this quintessential 1950s rebellious youth movie in the course of sharing enthusiasms. As will be instantly recognizable, the two boys are stand-in’s for the James Dean and Sal Mineo characters in Nicholas Ray’s classic.
The plot revolves around the clash between the upperclassmen and Erik who refuses to bend to their will. No matter how much they escalate their harassment and physical abuse, he refuses to fight. He understands that if he gets expelled from Stjärnsberg, he will not be able to get into college.
Evil was nominated for best foreign film of the year at the Academy Awards in 2003, but the novelist upon whose book the film was based on was not permitted into the United States since he is listed as a terrorist by the State Department.
I strongly recommend a look at the wiki on Jan Guillou that leads off as follows:
Jan Oskar Sverre Lucien Henri Guillou (Swedish pronunciation: [jɑːn ɡɪjuː]; born 17 January 1944) is a Swedish author and journalist. Among his books are a series of spy fiction novels about a spy named Carl Hamilton, and a trilogy of historical fiction novels about a Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson. He is the owner of one of the largest publishing companies in Sweden, Piratförlaget (English: Pirate Publishing), together with Liza Marklund and his wife, publisher Ann-Marie Skarp.
Guillou’s fame in Sweden was established during his time as an investigative journalist. In 1973, he and co-reporter Peter Bratt exposed a secret intelligence organization in Sweden, Informationsbyrån (IB). He is still active within journalism as a column writer for the Swedish evening tabloid Aftonbladet.
In October 2009, the tabloid Expressen accused Guillou of having been active as an agent of the Soviet spy organization KGB between 1967 and 1972. Jan Guillou confirmed he had a series of contacts with KGB representatives during this period, he also admits to having received payments from KGB, but maintains that his purpose was to collect information for his journalistic work. The accusation was based on documents released from the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) and interviews with former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky. In a later trial Expressen denied having accused Guillou of having been a Soviet spy, claiming that this was a false interpretation of its headlines and reporting.
In 1973, Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, a left-wing magazine, published a series of articles written by Guillou and Peter Bratt, revealing a Swedish secret intelligence agency called Informationsbyrån (“The Information Bureau” or IB for short). The articles, based on information initially furnished by former IB employee Håkan Isacson, described the IB as a secret organization that gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be “security risks”. The organization operated outside of the framework of the defense and ordinary intelligence, and was invisible in terms of state budget allocations. The articles in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront accused the IB staff of being engaged in alleged murder, break-ins, wiretapping against foreign embassies in Sweden and spying abroad.
The exposure of the IB in the magazine, which included headshots with names and social security numbers of some of the alleged staff published under the headline “Spies”, led to a major domestic political scandal known as the “IB affair” (IB-affären). The activities ascribed to this secret outfit and its alleged ties to the Swedish Social Democratic Party were denied by Prime Minister Olof Palme, Defense Minister Sven Andersson and the chief of the Swedish defence forces, Stig Synnergren. However, later investigations by various journalists and by a public commissions, as well as autobiographies by the persons involved, have confirmed some of the activities described by Bratt and Guillou. In 2002, the public commission published a 3,000 page report where research about the IB-affair was included.
Guillou, Peter Bratt and Håkan Isacson were all arrested, tried in camera and convicted of espionage. According to Bratt, the verdict required some stretching of established judicial practice on the part of the court since none of them were accused of having acted in collusion with a foreign power. After one appeal Guillou’s sentence was lessened from one year to 10 months. Guillou and Bratt served part of their sentence in solitary cells. Guillou was kept first at Långholmen Prison in central Stockholm and later at Österåker Prison north of the capital.
Like Stieg Larssen, Guillou has devoted much of his journalist career to exposing the ultraright in Sweden. When my wife and I began watching Evil through our beloved, new Roku box, she was puzzled at first by the scene in the classroom where the Nazi professor was spouting his nonsense. “How can that be in a social democratic country”, she asked.
That was how it appeared generally, but I reminded her of the Dragon Tattoo novels that revealed the underbelly of Swedish society. Although I made a mental note to myself to do some research on Swedish fascism in the Columbia Library after reading the first two books in Larsson’s trilogy, I never got around to it. As is usually the case with me, research topics vie for my attention. Maybe after I retire, I will have the time to give them all the attention they deserve. Before that glorious day arrives, however, I hope to have more to say on the topic of the Swedish fascist movements.