Whenever something horrific happens in the news inevitably, like the rise and fall of the tides, it isn’t long before some form of media is held up as a scapegoat for that violence. The most recent events in Norway mentioned that the killer liked violent video games and the TV programme Dexter. Which, I suspect, describes a large number of males aged 16-30. Certainly the violent video games part. Violence in films gets a bad reputation, and I went into it in some detail regarding the certification (or refusal to grant thereof) of the sequel to The Human Centipede (2010). What I want to discuss here is the way violence is depicted on screen, and how simply showing, or simply telling, is only part of the story.
I watched two films this week, on the same day in fact. Uwe Boll’s latest effluence, Auschwitz (2011), and newcomer Jason Eisener’s exploitation homage Hobo With a Shotgun (2011). Both depict violence in strikingly different ways, and with varying degrees of success. Boll’s Auschwitz is a 70 minute film of two halves. One interviews modern day German teenagers, highlighting their ignorance as to the events of the Holocaust. We ascertain what Boll’s intent is within minutes, but he lets it carry on, only serving to point out how selective these interviewees must be. Intercut between these talking heads is an image or two from Auschwitz with a plinky piano solemn score. Once he thinks we have had enough, Boll cuts to a scene in 1940s Auschwitz. With no establishing of characters, or of story, it is merely a scene of Jews being herded into the gas chambers. It is merely factual, and even then questionably so. There is no emotional impact: no impact of any sort. Naked Jews stand huddled before being gassed and burnt. One old man looks particularly chuffed at being in a film with his bits hanging out. Subtle, or respectful, or even interesting: this is none of those things. At one point the men, women and children are all separated. Some children are deemed “too young”. We see a close up – from behind – of a German soldier shooting a child point blank in the head. It’s possibly the most effective shot Uwe Boll has ever committed to film. It’s actually effective and brutal and he lets the film breathe for a few seconds afterwards, to allow this callous act to sink in. And then he drops the ball again. Because, we can’t possibly have grasped the full horror of the war in a single act. So another child is shot in the head. And another: but this time, with more blood. It’s gratuitous in exactly the wrong way: Boll may as well have defecated on the graves of the innocent dead, as made this film. To take a film that depicts an incredibly harrowing period of history and, somehow, make it dull – utterly, utterly mind-numbingly dull – is Auschwitz’s greatest crime.
There is no emotional involvement in the film itself. Any empathy is from the implicitness of the events themselves. We know it was unimaginably horrific, and we struggle to come to terms with man’s inhumanity to man. Boll takes this goodwill, this human empathy, and assumes it will sustain him throughout a barely feature length film. Extended conversational scenes intend to show the nonchalance with which the soldiers undertook their orders, never presuming to ask if they ever questioned the crimes they were asked to commit. The lasting image of German soldiers is a slightly lost looking Uwe Boll, casting himself, as a guard. The violence, the extended shots of inexperienced extras flailing about being gassed, or dummies being burned in the ovens, or children shot by pistols: these show gratuitousness that dishonours the very acts about which it seeks to educate the viewer. It’s so badly misjudged, one wonders of Boll is surrounded entirely by yes men, with no one daring to say, “Uh, actually Uwe, what the fuck?”
By direct contrast, we have Hobo With A Shotgun. After 2007’s misfire Grindhouse, by Tarantino and Rodriguez (a film that this author actually rates highly) and 2008’s Black Dynamite, respectful homages and parodies of 70s-era exploitation flicks is very much in vogue. Starring Rutger Hauer as the eponymous hero, it is set in a dystopian late 70s / early 80s fictional city where crime roams free. It’s the sort of city in which you expect Paul Verhoeven to have set a film. When he rolls into town, the Hobo (true to form, he has no name) watches the criminals from the sidelines, as they mete out their own extreme form of justice. Everyone, and I mean everyone overplays their parts wonderfully. Ham is the predominant meat in this film. The dialogue is choice, and the violence is extreme. Decapitation, gutting, limbs blown off, and a few things for which I don’t think they even have words. It revels in the violence like the whore that dances in the blood spraying from a severed neck. Yes, that actually happens.
The violence itself extends so far beyond what is in Auschwitz that one might wonder at the comparison. Indeed how, one might ask, can I object to the small amount of violence of Auschwitz, yet not only support, but enjoy, the violence in Hobo? And this is the heart of the argument about on screen violence. The violent acts in Hobo With A Shotgun are absolutely cartoonish. Yes, they’re graphic, undeniably grotesque, sickening, and depraved. But they’re also clearly not set in a realistic light. The film is stylised, in a world so unlike our own. A man wields a baseball bat covered in razor blades at one point. This is not serious. This is entertainment. Where Boll drops the ball is that Auschwitz should be serious. It is not, per se, entertainment. Now, while the Auschwitz characters and filmmakers clearly don’t revel in the violence they impart – at one point it is mentioned that the soldier in charge of shooting the children cannot do so any longer – there is still an implicit revelling in showing the acts so graphically. It is unnecessary, and unwanted. The human imagination is a powerful thing, and by allowing the audience to imagine their own horrors, a far more effective film could have been made. Hobo by contrast could only have worked as it is: it does not strive for horror, but gorehound excesses.
Violence in movies is not as simple a matter of what is on screen. That is, arguably, the mistake made in the late 80s with the video nasties. It’s the psychological and emotional content behind the violence that informs and affects the impact of that violence. Here, we have two films that involve absolutely horrendous acts, neither of which have the expected effect: the former lives to bore; the latter gives us gore.