Wednesday, May 25, 2011
We Are the Night (2010)
Having recently written up my love for The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, it's only fitting, I suppose, that I should follow that up with a visit to the zombie's more gregarious undead cousin. Even more than zombies, our culture is presently utterly saturated with vampires across books, television and film.
It occurred to me tonight, while watching the recent German film We Are the Night, which is now available via VOD, that the representation of vampires in popular culture is perhaps the ultimate expression of Jean-Paul Sartre's conception of "bad faith" in contemporary Western society. Sartre described the phenomenon thus: "the one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one and the same person, which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from me in my capacity as the one deceived.... Better yet, I must know that truth very precisely, in order to hide it from myself the more carefully."
So what is the deception? The deception, I think, is the condemnation. We Are the Night, like virtually every vampire film that precedes it, wastes no time in establishing the glamor of the vampire, and reveling in it. Lena (Karoline Herfurth) is a young street punk, looking like the kid sister of Lisbeth Salander. Her life is sketched out in the barest of strokes before she finds herself at a night club lorded over by a trio of female vampires: the centuries old Louise (Nina Hoss), silent film star Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich), and the baby of the bunch, Nora (Anna Fischer). As she is initiated into their clan, she shrugs off her old life and takes to her new position among the undead elite.
Because here's the thing: the appeal of the vampire is not the nightmare -- it's the fantasy. The vamps here, as they are virtually always presented, are sexy and powerful. They can't die. They stay eternally beautiful. They embody seduction. More than that...they dominate. These are creatures who take from life what they want and lick their lips when they're done. This is a fantasy that touches something deep in human behavior. Nora puts it simply: "We eat, drink, snort cocaine and fuck as much as we want...and we don't get fat, pregnant or addicted. Smile a little...billions of women would kill for that." The word "kill" is not chosen lightly.
One of the handful of good ideas that this film has that it does virtually nothing with, is that this fantasy is the ultimate ideal of consumer culture. The girls luxuriate in four-star hotels, drive Italian sports cars, and go to fancy restaurants despite not needing to eat just for the thrill of it. The vampire is the ultimate capitalist -- a member of an elite who is able to take what she wants, regardless of who she has to suck dry to have it.
Inevitably, comes the turn, however. We are socialized to reject "vampirism" in all its metaphoric capacity. Taught, for very socially beneficial reasons, that might can not make right. And so we must deceive ourselves, practice "bad faith" and call the fantasy a nightmare. If it is wrong to dominate others, then it must be wrong to fantasize about dominating others. And so the figure of the brooding vampire, the repentant sinner, the...sigh..."vegetarian." If a vampire is to be a protagonist, she seemingly must reject her power over others in order to obtain redemption. And so, like Angel, Bill Compton, or Edward Cullen, here Lena makes an unprovoked 180-degree turn, so that she can see the moral weakness in her kind.
Bad faith. It's like the violence-glorifying action epic that tacks on an anti-violent message. The audience can revel in their fantasies while simultaneously telling themselves that what they're actually doing is condemning that which disgusts them most...their own desires. I am a firm believer in the idea that one of the most important social, even psychological, functions that cinema and literature can play in our lives is to provide a sphere in which the fantasy life of the human sub-conscious, in all of its beauty and horror, can be safely explored. That's why, I think, that Let the Right One In was such a compelling treat -- it didn't provide the moral safety net of the bad faith that has been the crutch for virtually every other representation of the vampire in recent popular culture.
But We Are the Night is, to be blunt, no Let the Right One In. Where the latter was a sharply written character study that took the idea of the vampire to new places, We Are the Night feels more like a particularly uninspired cover album; virtually every scene is a retread of an idea from another (better) film: Lost Boys, Near Dark and (strangely enough) Blade Runner all figure prominently. The few original ideas this film has, like the ties to consumer culture, or the extinction of male vampires due to their own greed and stupidity, are discarded as quickly as they're suggested. Worse, the scriptwriters can't be bothered to provide even a modicum of logic to tie the film's set-pieces together. I dare you to explain the police force's behavior in this film in any other way than "they're just doing what the director told them to do." I dare you.
Although the script by Jan Berger and Dennis Gansel is frankly terrible, the film still has enough redeeming features to merit a viewing, so long as you lower your expectations accordingly. The cast generally acquit themselves well, especially the under-used Jennifer Ulrich. One could imagine a much better film made about her character; she sells even the most ludicrous scenes she's given.
Additionally, Gansel's direction is actually quite good when judged on a visual rather than a narrative level. The fight scenes are well staged, suggesting more than is shown, to foster the idea of near unlimited power in the hands of these women. And the cinematography is absolutely beautiful at times, lending emotional depth to the recycled scenes. The standout being Lena's absolutely stunning transformation scene.
I honestly had pretty high hopes for this film. I'm certainly not one of the people that wants to call for a moratorium on vampire films. As an archetype in our collective subconscious they're no more likely to fade away than the tragic hero or the femme fatale. And on a purely visual level, it's a smashing success. Unfortunately there's simply no vision to back up the visuals and so we're left with a pretty, but forgettable, diversion.