Maus (Fantastic Fest): Survival Horror Gets Deeply Political
Starring Alma Terzic, August Wittgenstein, Aleksander Seksan, Sanin Milavic
Directed by Yayo Herrero
At its core, Maus is a horror story that we’ve all heard of and seen before. Two people get stranded in the middle of a forest and some crazed locals do their best to make their life a living hell. We’ve seen it in films like Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes but Maus takes this concept to an entirely different and far more difficult place. The couple in danger are Selma and Alex, a Bosnian Muslim and a German, respectively, who encounter Milos and Vuk, two Serbs. Immediately, the dynamic here should make it apparent that there is historical conflict that extends well beyond the hatred of these two parties.
The film opens with Selma and Alex returning from a funeral where she buried the remains of her father and brothers, who were found in a recently unearthed mass grave. Already in a devastated mental state, the fact that the car she and Alex are driving breaks down in the middle of a mine-infested forest only adds to her anxiety, triggering memories of her childhood and the horrible events she suffered through.
Terzic is magnificent as Selma, a Bosnian Muslim woman who has suffered great loss and tragedy during the Bosnian Genocide. She plays her role with gusto, starting as an almost meek and subservient trophy for Alex. However, as events unfold, she moves into a place of terror and, ultimately, strength and retaliation. Wittgenstein is perfectly serviceable as Alex, playing the boyfriend who thinks he knows best but fails to recognize that his lack of experience in these matters makes him incapable of fully understanding the gravity of the situation at hand. Both Seksan and Milavic are odiously despicable villains who are embodiments of the very fears that Selma lives with.
Visually, the film is quite beautiful. The forest is lush and warmly lit and the film utilizes long, smooth takes that almost stalk our protagonists, the camera feeling like its breathing down Selma and Alex’s necks. There’s also magnificent use of lighting when the film ventures out of the forest and into a bunker-like setting, a decaying remnant from the tumultuous history of Bosnia, all of which is accentuated by the wonderfully understated music from composer The Youth.
While the below trailer makes the film seem action-packed and full of intense terror, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a steadily paced movie that takes its time, waiting patiently so that the first burst of violence is so jarring that it takes your breath away. At that point, the violence then continues in fever dream bursts with Selma hallucinating events that hearken back to her childhood traumas. Furthermore, these events are based on real actions that happened in the Bosnian Genocide. For example, rape was used as a weapon and this film does the same. Men treating women as subhuman is also a tactic utilized by the Serbian assaulters, their treatment of Selma bordering on her being an animal that they should be able to control or, if not, beat into submission.
There are so many different themes at play here. There’s the xenophobia of cultures intermingling. There’s the Islamophobia of Selma, who explains that her family was murdered simply for being Muslims. There’s the sexist treatment from the Serbs. There’s the condescending ignorance of Alex, who is proven wrong repeatedly but still thinks he knows best how to handle things when Selma tries to tell him otherwise. It all assaults the viewers while demonstrating one final, conflicting message: Maus feels like it’s trying to tell audiences that they need to empathize and learn from those who have experience pain and suffering but, at the same time, tells them that it won’t make any difference unless they go through similar events on their own. Boiled down, it felt like I was being told, “Hear me out but recognize that it’s ultimately futile, so what’s the point?”
Now, if we put aside all of the politics and history to focus directly on the film and whether or not it’s worth watching, I’ll say that it’s not bad. As a survival horror film, it does its job but moves too slowly to be thrilling or exciting. The violence is intense – when it happens – and the dynamic between the two groups is palpably uncomfortable, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are stretches where it feels like not much happens. Some minor editing tweaks could’ve made for a much tighter, leaner, and more memorable experience.
There is no doubt that Maus is a powerful film; but with so much going on, it ultimately takes away from the overall experience. The movie expects an enormous amount from audiences while simultaneously dismissing their empathy and care. If I’m going to invest myself emotionally into a movie, I don’t want to be told that it’s all for nothing.