Hell (2011)Posted: February 18, 2013
OK, last night I watched a movie that was so unforgivably bad (The Dark Night Rises (2012)), that, like mouthwash after eating something bad, I needed another film to get the incoherent mess of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ from my brain. Netflix served up ‘Hell’ (2011); which is a good mix of movies like Frontiers and The Road served up in an understated form; the perfect antidote to that bloated Batman mess; thanks very much to Director Roland Emmerich for this one; do yourself a favor and watch it.
‘Hell’ is a German post-apocalypse film that is set in a Europe of the not-too-distant future… even though I know a bit of German, I assumed that the title, ‘Hell,’ was a reference to ‘Hell’ as in where the devil lives; as I was watching, it hadn’t occurred to me that ‘hell’ is also the German word for ‘light’ or ‘bright.’* In this dystopian future, solar flares and/or atmospheric decay have caused the sun to become so bright that the trees and grass have died, the ecosystem has collapsed and a few survivors scavenge precious commodities like gasoline, food and water. ‘Hell’ is a film with a very small scope; we see the desolation through the eyes of Maria as she accompanies her younger sister Leonie and Phillip across a desiccated and sun-drenched Europe, trying to get Phillip’s dying Volvo station wagon (armored across the windows with bits of chain link and protected from the sun with paper taped over the windows) to the mountains, where, it is rumored, there might still be water.
The interiors of the car and the buildings that the characters shelter in are dark, dry and dusty; when the actors step outside, it is so bright they have to wrap themselves like bedouins for protection from the intense sun. They can hardly see and the film image is massively overexposed. This simple narrative device is surprisingly effective; ‘Hell’ is one of those movies that works because of what it doesn’t show you rather than what it does. The film is brutal and violent but not gory; most of the violence takes place off screen. What makes the film effectively disturbing is the psychological distress that the characters are experiencing which is never stated outright, only hinted at. Young Leonie teases Maria over her sexual relationship with Phillip. Maria clearly wishes Phillip were a bit more emotionally stable, but it looks like sex is one of the few bargaining chips she has left; the car and most of the things in it obviously belong to him. Phillip, meanwhile, is clearly ready to snap and the more psychologically strong Maria is trying to get him to hold it together because his car and protection are the best hope that she and her sister have. The three stop at an abandoned gas station where they encounter another man, Tom, who is initially hostile, but Tom offers gasoline, mechanical expertise and the impression of being slightly less unbalanced than Phillip. Tom makes a deal to help keep the car running in exchange for passage, food and water. The characters are constantly at odds with one another; they look and act like they are down to their last physically and psychologically.
Our little band of survivors are attacked; the car is stolen and Leonie is abducted. Maria and Phillip manage to get the car back, but the ‘fight’ with the bandits is extremely chaotic and they lose track of Tom in the process. ‘Hell’ is an interesting film because of what it doesn’t show us… during their raid on the bandit’s camp, we spend the whole time with Maria in the car as she tries to start it. All we see are brief glimpses of action occurring outside the car’s masked windows — we are as uninformed of the status of current events as Maria is. Suddenly Phillip leaps into the back seat and shouts that she needs to start driving, NOW. As they pull away, one of the bandits attempts to drag Phillip from the car. Phillip manages to fight him off, but his ankle is broken as the car door gets slammed shut by a tree as they drive away. Maria wants to go back for Leonie and Tom; Phillip wants to just drive on, pointing out that they have no other realistic options. The strength of this film is that although as watchers we want them to go back and succeed at a daring rescue, within the realm described by the film itself, that does seem like suicide. Earlier in the film, as Tom and Phillip are a short distance away siphoning gasoline out of a crashed car, Leonie urges Maria to just get in the car and drive away. After those words are said, we can see Maria is thinking about it. The drama of Hell isn’t in choreographed fight scenes or special effects — it’s in Maria attempting to make difficult choices and all about asking things like, “What should someone in a hopeless situation do to survive?” and “When loyalty and empathy decrease your chances for survival, should you discard them?”
Maria does manage to rescue at least some of her comrades from the ‘bandits’ (who are actually another group of survivors with very different plans), but the film’s resolution is ambiguous and anything but hopeful. I think the interesting (if bleak) story that the film makers told with very limited means, especially in an age of unbelieveably expensive films that are incoherent, boring and stupid (ahem – “The Dark Night Rises” – cough), make this worth watching — and the woman who plays Maria, especially, does a great job. I give it five out of five severed heads — I know that’s a high rating, but seeing it within hours of “The Dark Knight Rises” felt like ‘Hell’ was a film maker’s lesson in the ‘right way to do it.’
*This is not the only foreign film whose name has a double meaning in English; there is also a Bollywood film involving sex, money, jealousy and murder called ‘Jism‘ leading to the obviously ribald jokes (‘Jism’ apparently means ‘the body’ in Hindi).