Posted on September 25, 2017

Fantastic Fest: Maus and the Horror of War

Dawn

Get Out’s Jordan Peele and Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum are not alone in arguing that politics are crucial to the horror film.[i]  Spanish director Yayo Herrero’s film Maus had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 22, 2017, and it is a deep dive into the politics of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992 to 1995), its lingering aftermath, and the current tensions in Europe surrounding immigration and terrorism. Both in his introduction to Maus at Fantastic Fest, and in the Q&A afterwards, Herrero insisted that politics are crucial to horror, that horror is good because of its politics. He also made the point that what is important about Maus is not any particular message, which he resisted stating directly, but the debate that it will stir up. And, indeed it will stir up debate.

The film begins with two people in a forest—a not unfamiliar scenario in horror film. Selma (Alma Terzic), a Muslim from Bosnia, and her German boyfriend, Alex (August Wittgenstein) are heading to the airport from a funeral in Srebenica for Selma’s father and brother, who were found in a mass grave long after the war ended. After the axle on their car breaks, Selma and Alex try to find their way through the woods on foot. They soon meet two Serbians who offer to help, but Selma is instantly suspicious. Nothing Alex says about the war being over, his claims that not all Serbians are bad, can convince her otherwise. It’s quite clear to the viewer at least that Selma is right, and from the beginning Alex, who is always telling Selma he will protect her, is hopelessly incapable of even grasping the threat let alone defending against it. He’s in over his head.

August Wittgenstein as Alex

Maus is driven by the fact that Bosnians, Serbians, and, indeed, all of Europe are still mired in war, that they cannot free themselves of it. The forest itself is still studded with landmines—both a reality in the film and a metaphor for the persistence of violent hatred and rage. Deepening the allegory of history’s stranglehold, characters are repeatedly dragged underground and buried in the ground, representing how impossible it is to get free of what lies beneath, of the hatreds that drove (and still drive) war.

The film begs the question of why the Serbians hate the Bosnian Selma. They just do, and they are willing to inflict any amount of violence on her. She hates them because of the atrocities committed on her people, on her family. And she’s willing to inflict any amount of violence on them. Maus brilliantly uses horror tropes—the “backwoods” killer, the victim / final girl, shocking violence—to represent war’s indelible after-effects. And the vision is a chillingly nihilistic one. All of Alex’s blind optimism (the Serbians mockingly call him “Europe”) about how they can all get along is proved tragically wrong.

Alma Terzic as Selma

The film ends in a modern European city with a shocking terrorist act that reminds us that the hatreds of the past not only live and breathe in the present but they are spreading. Neither urban Europe nor the US are free of violence that’s rooted in longstanding and irrational hate. The film asks us to contemplate why the violence continues, why no one seems able to get past it.

Maus is one of the best films I’ve ever seen to use the conventions of the horror film to explore profound moral as well as political questions. It’s a difficult film to watch but one that is thoroughly worth the effort.

Check out the trailer:

[i] “Get Political and Have Great Scares: The New Rules of Horror Movies,” The Guardian, May 5, 2017.

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