I have always had an extreme aversion to the portrayal of rape on the screen. I’ve certainly seen enough graphic depictions of it, in films like Death Wish (1974), Lipstick (1976), Man Bites Dog (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Rob Roy (1995), Showgirls (1995) and even The Sopranos, and each time I do I feel like crawling as far out of my own skin as might be possible. (After hearing enough sane and rational voices talk about its virtues or lack thereof, I could not bring myself to see Irreversible, and I have not seen it to this day.) This aversion has a lot to do with natural empathy for the victim of a violent crime, I think. But it also has something to do, at least for me, with the agonizing realization I often have as a viewer that, given my status as a relatively strong male, it is perfectly within my physical capability to enact this kind of violence myself. I don’t ever worry that I ever would commit such heinous acts—the requisite hatred and/or fear of women does not, thank God, reside within me. But the ability to identify with rage, to understand it to some degree in such a gender-specific crime is a source of profound unsettlement for me that gets stirred up quite a bit whenever I see a film that puts rape at the forefront of its themes or of individual scenes. I cannot help but be repelled at what I’m seeing, and even in a relative innocuous scene like Candice Rialson’s nasty encounter with a customer in the projection booth of a drive-in in Hollywood Boulevard (1976) my fear for and, yes, identification with the victim is often too much to bear. But such scenes raise a lot of questions for me about what men are capable of, and how far away some of us are from venting those fears and frustrations and acting on such violent impulses. I know I’m not capable of such violence, but the fact of my maleness allows me to understand that I could be, even if I didn’t want to be, if I were subject to the kind of predatory impulses that separate rape and rapists from the perpetration of benign, consensual sexual contact.
This willingness to access understanding of the unspeakable lashings out of a destroyed soul is at the heart of Matthias Glasner’s grueling character study The Free Will (Der Freie Wille) (2006). Created in collaboration with lead actor and co-writer Jurgen Vogel, who won the Best Actor awards at the Chicago and Tribeca film festivals for his performance as Theo, a brutal, haunted rapist, The Free Will is not so much a critique of a sexualized society, as critic Ian Johnston suggests on the back cover of the gorgeous new DVD package from Benten Films, but instead a terrifyingly intimate glimpse onto the hardships of a convicted sexual predator’s attempt to reconcile his profound need to meaningfully connect with women and the vile impulses that make his attempt to re-enter society after nine years away in prison so awfully difficult.
One thing that characterizes Glasner’s intelligent approach, an approach that hands over a huge parcel of trust to his audience, is the degree to which he is unwilling to sentimentalize Theo or his plight. Our first glimpse of Theo is one in which we, as viewers, are thrust uncomfortably close to him—a close-up in which heretofore undiscovered subterranean disturbances are reflected in his mournful eyes and restless manner. We see him fly into a rage over a perceived slight by some teenage kitchen coworkers and hit the road, leaving presumably yet another menial, dead-end job in the dust of his uncontrolled anger. As he flies down the road, seething behind the wheel of his car, he passes a young woman riding a bicycle. Theo then circles back around, pulls off to the side of the road and waits for her to pass. Had I availed myself of information about The Free Will and what comes next, including David Fear’s excellent essay in the DVD booklet, I may have opted out of seeing it. But even given the intense level of pain involved in watching the film I’m glad I endured it. Theo grabs the woman and submits her to a ghastly beating, humiliation and animalistic penetration, played out with cuts but otherwise in agonizing real time—the scene takes nearly 10 minutes as Theo, devoid of any emotion save the sexualized rage he expresses during the penetration itself, toys with her (and himself) before going through with his assault. It is characterized by Theo’s despairing reticence, as well as the agonizing cries of his victim, who lies just off-screen or out of frame awaiting her fate. (After a while I had to shut off the sound.)
The difference, it seems to me, between The Free Will and Irreversible (and I may be getting into hot water, having never seen Noe’s film) is that Noe’s long-take set piece is, by trusted accounts, designed as a grueling audience endurance test whose point of view is that of the victim’s, which is as good a way as any to ensure that the audience feel similarly assaulted. Glasner and Vogel’s achievement is far more daring, in my view, in that they are sparing no ugliness in letting us know exactly what this rapist, the protagonist of the film, is capable of. True, Theo’s attack on the bicyclist is a harrowing scene and we cannot help but identify in some way with the poor woman subjected to these horrors. But the movie is going to go someplace very dark indeed in asking us, after seeing what we’ve seen, to follow this man in his struggle to overcome the unknowable desires within him to act out this perhaps untamable sexual hostility. Our capability for sympathy for this bedeviled bastard will be put to the test as much as his own ability to cope with the brutish dissonance inside his head.
The Free Will doesn’t take easy shots at the ubiquity of sexualized images in advertising and in the mall-culture fashion of young women. Theo is frequently seen framed with these images, but Glasner and Vogel are not so naïve as to suggest that Theo’s rage is an inevitable response to them. They exist simply as part of the fabric of reality with which he must integrate and respond to responsibly if he hopes to survive. A friend at a halfway house where he lands just out of detention suggests that the journey Theo is about to take will be difficult as hell, and he couldn’t be more right; Theo sublimates his energies, sexual and otherwise, into joyless exercise, endless repetitions of movement designed to keep his mind from going places it ought not venture, but he suspects, as do we, that another breakdown is inevitable. The suspense in The Free Will is less artful and more a looming sense of unshakeable dread—it’s just a matter of when and where, not if the rage will be loosed again.
Sabine Timoteo and Jurgen Vogel in The Free Will
When he meets Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), a young woman scarred by a gnarled relationship with her own father, the possibility for redemption is dangled in front of them both. Even as he struggles with the dark impulses which are not staved off by his masturbatory gestures of release, Theo allows himself to get close to this woman, even love her, and for a time it seems their beaten, burdened souls are well-matched. But Vogel has already accessed the wild animal in this man’s soul; that atavistic nature may be put off temporarily but cannot, in the end, be denied. It’s a testament to the grace within Glasner and Vogel’s unflinching but humanistic timbre that following the couple from their tentative tenderness through Theo’s desperate, stabbing rejection of Nettie and their ultimate reunion, which occasions the movie’s only true demonstration of the free will its title alludes to, is as heartening and illuminating of the trials of meaningful human contact as it is difficult to endure.
Timoteo is raw and unadorned in her simplicity as an actress, which is not to say her portrayal isn’t nuanced but rather that it reflects a recognizable realism, a subtle refusal to traffic in melodramatic flourishes that bolsters the conviction of her performance and ultimately gives us access to moments that seem private, intimate, unblemished by pretense. (The movie’s only misstep, however, involves Nettie’s encounter with one of Theo’s previous victims which ends in a ghastly indulgence of just such a melodramatic impulse. Nettie’s questions of the woman are rewarded with a nasty turnabout assault in a restroom borne of Theo’s victim’s suppressed, unarticulated rage. It’s an unexpected moment that rings no less false because of its unexpected brutality; this catharsis for the perpetrator never translates into a meaningful act in terms of Nettie’s character—there is little doubt that Nettie already knows the agony of violation.)
But the movie belongs to Vogel, whose performance approaches heights of physical and emotional bravery the likes of which I’ve rarely witnessed in a movie. He infuses Theo with a haunted sensibility that is simultaneously guarded yet less than forbidding. The transformation from the howling beast of the movie’s opening sequence to well-groomed, sincere ex-convict is about the only gesture Vogel makes to the audience to get us on the character’s side. Instead, he steeps us in the detailed behavior of a man in constant thrall to a very personal evil; each gesture of repetitive exercise, each furtive glance at passing women on the street contains the ingredients for emotional and physical catastrophe, and the actor comports himself with a subtle awareness of this truth even at his most physically confident. The war within Theo is part of his body as well as his mind, and Vogel brings us to a stringent, despairing understanding of the end of hope for beauty in this man’s wounded soul. That we finally see him as a man and not simply as a beast, without untoward, unearned pleas for sympathy, is one of the glories of Vogel’s performance, and of The Free Will itself.
(The Free Will is available on DVD from Benten Films.)