Educational filmmaking can be many things, but if we’re being real, the ones that most people watch are generally dry propaganda docs that we don’t truly comprehend in grade school. Maus is an educational film, ostensibly a narrative horror movie, and how you feel about that may depend on your prior knowledge of the Bosnian War, your interest in learning about it, and whether you think such material should be within the purview of narrative film to be this didactic. Full disclosure: I knew nothing about the Bosnian War, I am a white American, and what I do now know comes from this film and a peruse of Wikipedia. I will leave the political analysis to a professional, but can speak to the success of Maus as an educational device and as a narrative.
Alex (August Wittgenstein) and Selma (Alma Terzic) are stranded in woods. Selma is a native Bosnian, and they have traveled from Berlin for a funeral. They are loving, but their relationship is obviously young. Alex plays the protector and provider, and when the two disagree or misunderstand each other, he commands the situation through sheer naive arroganceand Selma’s active and persistent warnings about active landmines and dangerous men fall on deaf ears as the situation descends from an inconvenient breakdown into an absolute nightmare.
Director Yayo Herrero, in cooperation with his Bosnian cast, puts allegory first. Alex is European, Selma is Bosnian Muslim, and they find themselves at the mercy of two Serbian men. It is not immediately clear just how political Maus is, but once the couple comes across two Serbian men, the film slowly begins proselytize. With extreme close-ups and shallow focus, Herrero nimbly uses the subjective experience of his characters to illustrate both their perspective on the situation and respective gaps in understanding. Objectivity is barely on display, and in the dark heart of the film a well-conceived and very spooky vision of a spirit even crops up to heighten the reality further. If the viewer is already familiar with the Serbian oppression of Bosnian Muslims, his approach may prove grating and contrived, but to a new student, the scaffolding is visible but illustrative.
Herrero opens Maus from a European persepective, and in the beginning Selma’s reticence and anxiety is difficult to empathize with. In testament to Herrero’s skill and Alma Terzic’s terrific acting, her experience is clear and palpable by film’s end. Wittgenstein’s acting seems less good, but works in metaphor as it helps demonstrate his (very frustrating) obstinacy. Discussing this film without speaking of understanding the message would be impossible, and the narrative about humans purportedly on display does suffer for the film’s ulterior ambitions. Herrero eases the audience into it, but by the climax characters obviously speak as political positions and not as people. That said, while not a perfect merge, it’s amazing that such a transparent allegory works at all. And it does. The characters feel real, and the danger they face is imminent.
Maus is not literally connected to the Art Spiegalman comic, but in appropriating the title, Herrero presents this story of persecution in ironic juxtaposition to the universal condemnation of Nazi war crimes. The specifics of this story are worth understanding, but the main point is to shed light on an underrepresented atrocity, and the Western world’s complicity in that representation. Horror has long been an excellent vehicle for political messaging, though rarely this concise and direct. If one could imagine Maus as an apolitical horror movie, it would be a fair film, though particularly cruel and unforgiving. But the voice of the creator uplifts it, and as a Trojan horse for its humanist sociopolitical messaging, it is excellent.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.