What Lies Beneath


"The world will offer itself to you for unmasking; it can't help it; it will writhe before you in ecstasy." - Franz Kafka, from Aphorisms, #109, 1917-18

Kafka could well have added "or horror" to the end of his aphorism, which was written on the cusp of World War One -- the world as he then knew it having regressively become even more of a Grim Business day after day.

And it still holds true…

Witness two films currently playing theatrically in NYC, both of which I recommend, and in fact, think they would make a heck of a double bill. Just bring a strong stomach.

The first is the Holocaust -- themed documentary FROM WHERE THEY STOOD, concerning the not too distant European past. The second, MAD GOD, is an animated fever-dream of a nightmare set in a dystopian future.

Both films provide vivid glimpses of real and imaginary Hellscapes on Earth -- and in the case of the second film, everywhere else in the universe.

As Above, So Below, as the occult formulation goes.

Both underscore humankind's prodigious appetite for destruction, a primal urge seemingly genetically hot-wired into our nervous systems ever since we first crawled out of the primeval slime (you could do worse than read Jungian scholar / psychologist James Hillman's excellent book A Terrible Love of War). 

Hopefully both films will be made available to a wide audience soon via streaming platforms, and demand your attention.

With the ongoing daily televised catastrophe in Ukraine unfolding before our eyes, there is a real danger of people becoming numb to the rising level of grotesque violence in our so-called civilized societies. Call it Annihilation Fatigue -- except unlike Covid Fatigue there's no vaccine on the horizon. Time and time again we as a collective species seem more than capable -- nay, ready and willing, to sink to extreme levels of depraved violence. An impulse one would have believed extinguished after the manifold horrors of the Second World War. 

First under discussion here is the meticulous French documentary From Where They Stood -- written and directed by Christophe Cognet. The film investigates a series of clandestine concentration camp photographs some quite shocking to behold -- even the smiling portraits of inmates -- surreptitiously taken by Jewish prisoners and smuggled out of Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau, et al., to hopefully be used as irrefutable evidence of Nazi bestiality. Evidence that was for the most part set aside as a side-show to the main action and ignored -- if not outright disbelieved -- by the Allies and some very large non-Nazi media organizations, despite the best efforts of heroes like Polish diplomat Jan Karski and Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba to alert the world as to precisely what was going on.

Cognet here returns to the actual scene of the crimes -- and through dogged determination verging on the obsessive, places the viewer in the precise location, the very epicenter, from where each of these ghostly photos was taken -- hence the film's title.

In fact, some of the original camp structures—administration buildings, barracks and crematoriums -- are visibly still standing, in Dachau, for instance, which I have visited -- so it was not difficult for Cognet and his team to determine the actual GPS coordinates of the actual photographer in the moment of taking the photo; even the exact angle of focus, and the make of the camera used.

But in many of the camps visited, some of the more ghastly structures -- including brothels, propaganda film cinemas, and laboratories for hideous medical experiments including injection of typhus bacillus -- had been razed to the ground at the end of the war, a thick growth of wild forest vegetation now covering over some of the locations where the original photographs were taken.

The power of this film lies in bearing witness not only to the shocking photos themselves but in observing Cognet's dogged forensic procedure, whereby he closely examines each grain of the original photo negatives, and then blows them up. In the process, previously hidden details emerge, which he further investigates, which lead to profound new discoveries.

After checking the original negatives, he then returns to his darkroom and makes enlarged black and white transparencies of each photo -- many of them blurry as they were taken on the fly by frightened prisoners. He then affixes each enlarged transparency to a frame. He and his team of researchers then visit each camp site and scan the landscape revealed in the original negatives -- including identification of trees still standing 70 years later -- to determine the precise location where the original photographer stood and the actual angle of the camera at the very moment the photo was taken.

Cognet then sets the enlarged transparency on a stand on the exact spot, replicating the original photographer's point of view -- and then shoots color footage through the enlarged black and white transparency of whatever is currently taking place on the other side of it; typically, casually dressed tour groups strolling through the vast campuses of Death. This creates an unsettling palimpsest effect that combines the quick and the dead in real-time 24 frames per second: the unmoving subjects of each photo now long since perished trapped and frozen forever in Time in each black and white transparency, and the real world tourists glimpsed through the veil as it were, bustling about on the other side of the framed proscenium. These living tourists, of all ages and nationalities, unwittingly take on the aura of the walking dead here -- flesh and blood spectres of the slaughtered innocents come back to life to haunt the camps.

I mentioned the words blow-up and in fact this documentary has several eerie resonances with the excellent 1967 film by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Both films include shots of the enlargement of black and white photos in a darkroom -- a blowing up the original blurry images which leads to the discovery of the true reality hiding in plain sight in the negatives. Photos where on closer examination nothing is just what it seems -- until the truth of the matter leaps out at the viewer.

Both films include eerie shots of tall trees swaying in the wind, with only the murmuring of the leaves heard on the soundtrack. Cognet's documentary in fact contains no music at all, only the sounds of the natural world as accompaniment to his persistent pursuit of the Truth.

In BLOW-UP, the sight and sound of the trees rustling in the wind bookends the sequence in London's Maryon Park where photographer David Hemmings stumbles across a crime about to commence: the murder of Vanessa Redgrave's boyfriend by a second lover. The evidence of murder famously only comes to light when Hemmings blows-up various frames of his black and white photos and discovers in one grainy frame the image of a man crouching in the overgrown bushes and pointing a pistol -- and in a second enlarged photo taken a few moments later, the dim outline of what appears to be a body lying in the grass. Upon returning to the park late that night, accompanied only by the sound of the wind in the trees, David Hemmings revisits the crime-scene and discovers -- actually touches -- the body of the dead boyfriend still lying in the grass under a cluster of trees. But he's almost immediately frightened off by the sound of a twig snapping on the soundtrack, which gives him the feeling that he is the one being observed. After a wild night trying to convince friends as to the reality of what he thinks he has seen, Hemmings returns again with his camera at dawn to document the evidence of the murder -- only to find that the body has mysteriously disappeared. 

Cognet's documentary opens with a shot of trees swaying in the wind and rain in a forest we soon learn surrounds one of the camps. The camera then pans all the way down to the wet grass lying at the foot of the trees. Cut to a sequence filmed after the rain has abated. Cognet and his assistant pick tiny white fragments out of the wet earth under the trees. These fragments are identified by Cognet's assistant as pebbles. No, Cognet calmly corrects him--they are in fact bone fragments -- all that remains of the corpses of slaughtered Jewish prisoners gassed, dragged and dumped into mass graves near the camp and then burned. Bone chips that wash up to the surface from the hidden depths of the earth as a kind of memento mori every time it rains. What lies beneath…

This is very strong stuff. The fact remains that similar killing fields, with their bull-dozed over mass grave earthworks -- what Prof. Timothy Snyder refers to as the "Bloodlands" in his timely book about European pogroms between Hitler and Stalin -- are currently in operation in the Ukraine right now.

Which leads to the second film under discussion: Academy Award-winning animation ace Phil Tippett's very dark disturbing masterpiece MAD GOD.

A personal labor of love from the genius who designed the intricate stop-motion effects for STAR WARS, JURASSIC PARK and ROBOCOP in the grand tradition of animation forefathers Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, MAD GOD was 30 years off and on in the making, and finally completed through Crowd Sourcing and the hiring of amateur animation enthusiasts, who learned on the job at the foot of the Master. His film is disturbingly bleak -- In Excessive Deo -- and also astonishingly beautiful in parts.  A non-stop barrage of simultaneously fantastic and repulsive imagery brought to life by Tippett and his crew, this Stagecoach to Hell thrill-ride begins with a quote from Leviticus 26, Yaweh's warning to Moses regarding what would befall the Chosen People if they dare not heed His Word:

"I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors.

I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it.

And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will un-sheath the sword against you.

Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin."

This is not that far afield from American revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards's fire and brimstone sermon of 1741, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Phil Tippett is similarly Mad as Hell about the way things are going -- and he's not only not gonna take it, he's gonna do his best to take you there and thrust the unholy unthinkable in your face: a Mirror at the End of the Road (Modern Times version).

The film opens with the unseen Almighty's cosmic destruction of what appears to be a futuristic Tower of Babel, and the camera then follows a kind of celestial diving bell containing a steampunk version of a World War One British doughboy -- replete with gasmask and metal Brodie helmet --  which descends down out of the exploding shrapnel-streaked skies deep into the bowels of the Earth, if not the very sub-basement of Gehenna.

We follow the action as this soldier -- known in the credits as The Assassin, and bearing a briefcase filled with dynamite -- emerges into a No Man's Land strewn with human skulls on stakes, rusted-out junk, random detritus and blood, guts and excrement. He exits the diving bell and pulls out a map made of human skin which partially disintegrates as he tries to decipher it -- a map directing him to the lair of the Mad God (mad in both senses of the word), who he's there to destroy by a decree of aboveground human uber-lords, played by real actors and glimpsed throughout the film in non-animated fashion at some kind of future Council of the Elders, headed by a be-talonned Alex Cox (REPO MAN).

The Assassin, dodging all sorts of howling animated monstrosities from the moment he leaves his diving bell, stumbles on and fires up an old jeep in barely working condition -- then  slowly wends his way through a labyrinthine series of roads traversing what looks like the bombed-out ruins of Everytown USA, spiraling ever downwards into the (literally) excremental nitty-gritty -- Landscapes of Desuetude inspired by Dante Alighieri, Gustave Dore, MC Escher, Rube Goldberg, Hieronymous Bosch, Pieter Breugel the Elder, Red Grooms, HR Giger, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (at one point the Soldier gets out and crawls through acres of twisted underground pipes leading nowhere).

For 93 minutes we are awed, dazzled, and often disgusted by the opulent visuals on imaginative display -- including coprophagic creatures locked in mortal combat, fantastic denizens dredged up from the psychic depths reminiscent of the bug-eyed razor-tooth monster fish who inhabit the Marianas Trench. Suffice to say that the Assassin fails, and a Second Assassin is sent down below to complete the mission. Which is interrupted by a graphic vivisection of a living (albeit animated) human, whose innards are plucked out one by one by some kind of nefarious blood-spattered doctor and attending blood-spattered nurse -- until a baby embryo is found resembling nothing so much as the baby salamander-like creature who bursts forth from the chest of John Hurt in ALIEN. Eventually we are blasted out of the Hollow Earth to the farthest shores of interstellar space -- but there is no peace to be found there either.

All these forbidden zones and unsafe spaces teem with insectival life-forms, swarming maggots, gestating larvae, mutant disjecta membra, and unknown species without a name -- every creature in permanent war with every other creature in an endless cycle of devastation, destruction, regeneration, and devastation again.

This film is loaded with Easter Eggs both visual and auditory -- nods to animation pioneers and fantasy, sci-fi and horror film tropes of yore that will register with anyone with a passion for these genres. A partial list includes the warring insects-in-the-soil from the opening of David Lynch's BLUE VELVET (inspired by Terence Malick's locust plague in DAYS OF HEAVEN…or maybe the album cover photo of Steely Dan's KATY LIED); Chuck Jones's Road Runner cartoons with their 5000 pound weights dropped on Wile E. Coyote; Monty Python's Terry Gilliam and his Giant Foot, here coming down to crush the Little People Who Live Under the Sink from Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE; Ray Harryhausen's furry horned cyclops from THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, also his sleek Mothership from EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS; the bandage-swathed shades-wearing Claude Rains from James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN;  Lynch again, perhaps the predominant influence on this film, and his mutant infant from ERASERHEAD; Max and Dave Fleischer's two-headed giant Boola from their POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR; Willis O'Brien's KING KONG Tyrannosaurus vs. Kong smackdown, also his deleted giant spider sequence from the same film; the gothic Bates Mansion from Hitchcock's PSYCHO; Stanley Kubrick's monolith and Star-Child from 2001, Paul Blaisdell's inverted ice-cream cone creature from Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE UNIVERSE; the runaway clocks from the opening of George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE; the ectoplasmic banshee from Disney's DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE; the drug-induced molecular hallucinations from Gaspar Noe's ENTER THE VOID; Douglas Trumbull's formation of the galaxies and extinction event from Terence Malick's TREE OF LIFE;  the soft-puppet Wizard doll popular in the '60s, reimagined here as a pustule-faced malevolent troll; the table-top miniatures from William Cameron Menzies's 1936 THINGS TO COME -- plus many tip o' the hats to groundbreaking animators Ladislas Starewicz, Jan Svankmajer, and the Brothers Quay.

Phil Tippett's vision of life on earth (also beneath it and above it) is relentlessly pessimistic, depicting a dog-eat-dog Malthusian struggle for survival on both the micro and macro level with a pitiless God pulling the strings and laughing at his puny creations, but it is also shot through with streaks of mordant black humor. The film ends with footage of actual nuclear explosions, two of the 2001 monoliths flying out off into space, sure to wreak havoc on neighboring worlds -- and then a mutant cuckoo jumps out an antique clock to deliver the ultimate wake-up call -- a warning to halt the inexorable ticking of the Doomsday Clock before the Mutually Assured Destruction of our hapless species, via Climate Change, Endless War, Depletion of Resources, Predatory Capitalism, you name it. This is a vision so sweeping and apocalyptic it apparently took its toll on the director -- as according to Tippett's Wiki page, "a year before (his film) was finished, Phil Tippett had a mental breakdown, causing him to go into a psych ward."

These two very different films are joined at the hip in their alarming, relentless vision of the way things were…sadly still are…and ever more shall be, unless we immediately re-direct our energies into positive strategies designed to benefit everyone on the planet.

As a longtime One World-er, this is surely the only sane way to move forward.

If you're committed to reverse what appears to be the inexorable course of human events, and want to stem the rising tide of violence and selfish apathy in the world, by all means come and see these films, each remarkable and timely in their own way -- if only to keep your lamps trimmed and burning.

Raymond Massey's speech at the end of "Things to Come" eloquently sums it up:

"And if we're no more than animals, then we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done.

It is this, or that -- all the Universe or nothingness!

Which shall it be?"

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