Why do we watch films like The Painted Bird? The movie tracks a young Jewish boy, an unclaimed innocent, wandering Eastern Europe as the second world war rages around him, drifting from village to village, encountering rape, paedophilia, mass murder and one spectacularly grisly scene where a miller gouges out his love rival’s eyes with a spoon — before tossing them to the cat. In the current climate you might want something more restorative than a film reminding us of forgotten civilian monstrosities. But increasing numbers are lapping up this kind of cinematic experience.
This isn’t just cinema for people sick of Marvel. This is extreme cinema, endurance viewing for audiences keen on experiences that are viscerally unsettling. There were reports of mass walkouts at screenings of The Painted Bird at Venice and Toronto film festivals, and though these have been downplayed by the film’s director, they have if anything increased interest. Why would we choose entertainment that is so traumatic? And what drives film-makers to make it?
The answer, according to Dr Tina Kendall, an expert in extreme cinema and senior film lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, is that violent films hit us in the gut. ‘Some people say, “I don’t need to sit through three hours about rape and murder to understand that they’re evil.”… But nasty films hit us at a level that is so powerfully embodied... Not being able to shake something off is the way we work out our relationship with the world.’
Kendall considers this theory applicable to everything ‘extreme’, from torture-porn franchises such as Saw, through the new extremism of European directors including Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier, all the way to non-violent yet challenging slow and structural films. ‘The best cinema,’ she insists, ‘is the stuff that leaves us thinking “what the actual fuck?’’’
The Painted Bird actually seems timid compared with some. Shot in 35mm black and white, it is beautiful and gently paced. Its violence, though graphic by implication, is rarely presented head-on. We are interested in the boy’s reactions, his wide-eyed fear, his evolving ability to scavenge scraps of clothing from dead bodies. We don’t see the cut of metal into the eye socket.
‘My film is harrowing, not disgusting,’ says its director, Vaclav Marhoul. Still, he adds: ‘We must make uncomfortable films, to retrain our brains. Violence to children happens all over the world today. Cinema does something special. You can put a book away when it gets too much. At the cinema, you can’t just put the film away.’
You can if you walk out, of course, but the point stands. Maybe audiences want to feel the sharp edges of things. Perhaps we need to process our feelings about violence, sexual or otherwise, not just to bear witness but to make sense of the world.
Money is a big motivator of course. Saw made $103.9 million (£81.5 million) at the box office on a budget of $1.2 million. The eight-film franchise has grossed nearly $1 billion, despite poor reviews. ‘There’s a sort of gory one-upmanship that does get bums on seats,’ says Dr Catherine Wheatley, senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London. ‘And of course, the thing about pushing limits is that the limit keeps changing.’ Case in point: the first Saw film released in 2004, showed a man sawing off his own leg to save his family; The Human Centipede in 2010 contrived a villain who stitches captives mouth to anus. ‘People dare themselves to see ever more shocking things.’
But do these films have more to offer? Centipede star Dieter Laser claimed that the film was ‘a grotesque [parody] about the Nazi psyche’. Even in gross-out flicks, the idea of violence as political allegory gets bandied about a lot. A Serbian Film, a 2010 movie featuring necrophilia and ‘newborn porn’ (yes, really – it is banned in several countries, though not the UK), also made claims to political symbolism. The director, Srdjan Spasojevic, insists: ‘This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government.’
A Serbian Film is probably too extreme for most viewers, however expansive their viewing appetites. Still, Dr Kendall does not think there should be a limit on what we’re allowed to view or process. ‘Except maybe snuff movies.’ But snuff is readily available online — and popular. The video-sharing website Liveleak, which shows unfiltered shootings, beheadings and so on, gets between 16 and 20 million unique visitors per month. How does cinema compete with that? And more importantly should it?
No director wants their audience leaving a screening with PTSD. But a physical impact is sought. Film-makers like Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat and Lars Von Trier eschew distancing techniques such as humour or high production values that glamourise the violence, or make it seem safe. Instead they embrace realism and proximity. Haneke has said: ‘I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.’
So, in Von Triers’s Antichrist we have a close-up of Charlotte Gainsbourg (who won best actress at Cannes) cutting off her genitals, but it is not sensationalised. Her despair is the nadir of a traumatic mental-health spiral following the death of her son. The House That Jack Built, Von Trier’s last film about a serial killer called Mr Sophistication, has a highly stylised aesthetic, but its savage bloodshed — which includes a duckling’s legs being cut off with a pair of pliers — feels authentic, not flashy.
Boredom can provoke similarly visceral and cathartic experiences. The slow cinema movement (which now has a festival in East Sussex) delights in filming what at first may seem like very little at all, prioritising long takes and observation over narrative. Andy Warhol was one progenitor, provoking audiences in 1964 with Sleep, a five-hour film of his lover John Giorno snoozing.
Dr Kendall, whose current research project focuses on the merits of boredom, argues: ‘Our attention is being carved into ever smaller segments. We yearn for more challenging, long-form engagement.’ She points out the popularity of slow-paced theatrical releases such as films by Joanna Hogg, 2019’s Oscar winner Roma, or Norway’s Slow TV (which was available on Netflix), where you could watch things like a seven-hour train ride or marathon knitting sessions. Streaming sites such as Netflix and Mubi have in some ways made access to extreme film easier, though, as in mainstream cinema, they have also put pressure on box-office takings.
Ben Rivers, who makes slow film features for cinema and galleries, including his lauded Two Years at Sea, which captures the life of a hermit in the Cairngorms, showering, eating, rafting, says: ‘We live in a particular time. There is a lot of distraction and
Slow film hits us at gut level, just like extreme violence. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Rivers is also interested in making horror. ‘That sense of dread, the uncertainty that you get from great genre cinema, before the big shocks come. It isn’t so far from some of my slow films. The uncanny feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen excites the imagination at a very deep level.’