Watching a horror movie as a woman can be oppositional at times. We love seeing a strong woman taking control of her own narrative and handing down righteous vengeance to her assailants, but hate that many rape-revenge films reinforce the social norms that deem her rape “deserved” in the first place. Possession films are terrifying, but they often prioritize a man’s crisis of faith during the battle for a suffering girl’s soul. So when a film comes along that centers itself upon a woman’s historical and current trauma, it’s natural to get a bee in our bonnets when a man’s perspective is at all privileged in the narrative. With 2017’s Maus, writer-director Yayo Herrero applies a double POV approach with purpose and intent, and the result is a stunning interrogation of the ways that violence can perpetuate through passive participants.
Taking a run-of-the-mill survival horror and inserting historical strife, Maus presents a young couple, Bosnian Muslim Selma (Alma Terzic) and German Alex (August Wittgenstein), making their way through Bosnia and Herzegovina. A survivor of the Bosnian War, Selma has come to bury the remains of her family who were recently discovered in a mass grave leftover from the Bosnian genocide. On their return, the car breaks down in the middle of an expansive, landmine-littered forest, and their only “help” is in the form of two Serbian men, Vuk (Aleksandar Seksan) and Milos (Sanin Milavic). As Selma clings to her Muslim pendant, “hamajlija,” a strange figure seems to begin shadowing them within the forest.
The story is Selma’s; her protection prayer softly permeates the film’s opening sequence. Hers is the first face shown onscreen, weary and worried. An over-the-shoulder shot tracks behind her to the broken-down car, where she and Alex share the screen for a hot second to discuss their predicament. Here, the POV shifts to the same tracking shot following the young man as he phones for help. He mutters curses and looks back to ensure that she doesn’t see how screwed they truly are. It’s clear that Selma is not privy; the point of view now belongs solely Alex.
Maus is already a pitch-perfect 90 minutes long, but contains an economical use of the first two minutes, establishing the drifting outlooks of the same feature-length odyssey. Cinematographer Rafael Reparaz tag teams with Herrero to realize a dichotomy of viewpoints, intimately framing each side tight and close from behind, so their eyes are our own. The formula is simple and consistent: Subject, track subject, pan or focus on the latest turn of events, pan to the other subject, track the other subject.
Herrero nestles the back-and-forth in unreliability. Moments after the car breaks down, Selma claims to see something in the woods. Over her shoulder, a vague figure can be seen in the distance. When Alex takes center frame and investigates, the figure has vanished – or was it just an odd part of the treeline? As the plot unfolds and the tension between the couple and the Serbian men rises, the conflict compounds in different ways for each protagonist. Selma has is both wounded and the suffering she endured as a child has resurfaced. At various points, she visualizes her rape, her father’s execution, and her boyfriend’s murder at the hands of these two men. Each time, she awakens to find that it was not so, but her paranoia heightens along with the tension. Alex is a figurative (and kind of literal)babe in the woods, making progressively more wide-eyed, ignorant decisions while believing them to be the most practical. He’s just a guy standing in front of two weirdly aggressive men, trying to get back home with his injured girl. All should go according to plan if he just acts polite.
The source of the viewer’s frustrations become rooted not in each action setback, but in Alex’s response each and every time. Where such repetition normally acts as pacing quicksand, here it effectively underlines Alex’s pragmatism as borderline rage-inducing. It’s a clever switcheroo: Selma’s hysteria is, by comparison, the logical response. Time after time, her suspicions are proven right in some degree or another. She awakens from a feverish, violent vision and subsequently treats Vuk and Milos with heavy suspicion; one makes a nasty comment, she spits at him, he calls her a slur and moves to assault. The few times that her fears seem to provoke the men are swallowed whole by the myriad of incidents born of plain old evil on the Serbians’ part. Looking through both Selma’s harsh experiences and Alex’s rose-colored glasses provide insight into how a woman victim’s agony is often compounded by those with the best of intentions.
Alex’s pragmatism becomes more and more frustrating with every shift to his viewpoint. As Selma composes herself inside the outpost, the camera follows him outside. Among the increasingly claustrophobic greenery, he attempts to reason with the two men in broken English. To him, he is figuring out a way to exit that leaves all parties satisfied. To the viewer, he’s an ass with blinders. Selma’s boyfriend believes the Serbian pair until Milos drops him with a rifle butt to the gut, even though she has been frantically warning him of the danger they’ve been in since the car busted an axle. Her genuine tears are for naught– as both protector and partner, he is tripped up by his own insistence that he knows what Selma needs better than she does. Were it not for scenes like the one described, Selma’s plight would be hers alone with a myopic view on how the violence began… and perpetuated.
Because he is German, Alex is referred to as “Europe” by the armed men; torn between Serbian survivalists that he wants to believe and his Bosnian girlfriend whom he accuses of “going nuts” and being unable to “move on” from her trauma, the allegory isn’t very subtle. Even without the historical context, it’s clear that Alex continues stirring the never-ending whirlpool of trauma by way of his efforts to be the fence-sitting third party that just wants everyone to get along. And who suffers the most?
I’ll give you one guess.
It’s not all on Selma to run the mental gantlet. A sequence late in the film shows Alex facing the fallout of the day’s mayhem. After a vicious assault, he regains consciousness to find a bloodied Selma telling him that the two men are dead. In an unforgiving take perched on Alex’s shoulder, he sees the bodies. He’s aware of his contribution to that mayhem, how preventable it might or might not have been. Herrero spends the final frames of his movie leaning into lingering trauma, with the last character standing enduring the consequences of the violence they endured and the choices they made along the way. It’s easy to blame this move or those words, but there’s no correct algorithm when navigating severe turmoil, and the coulda-woulda-shouldas stay with us long after the threat itself has passed.
Maus is a study in empathy. Herrero’s power dynamic triptych presents three roles: oppressor, oppressed, and enabler. While Selma’s narrative is plenty compelling on its own, Alex’s well-meaning but ultimately harmful dismissals and assurances serve the crucial purpose of emphasizing the need for allies to simply listen.
Maus is currently streaming on Netflix.