The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, 2019)

The Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters

This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.

Talking to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, Glazer named his other inspirations as Goya’s Disasters of War pictures, some lines by Bertolt Brecht (“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”) and a snapshot of Eric and Donald Trump Jr hunting big game. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Glazer is currently working on a feature-length film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, based on Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest.

Peter Bradshaw called The Fall “a haiku of horror”. It’s a chilling film, which seems to distil an ocean of trauma down to a essence of evil, hate and fear.

“I think fear is ever-present,” said Glazer. “And that drives people to irrational behaviour. A mob encourages an abdication of personal responsibility. The rise of National Socialism in Germany for instance was like a fever that took hold of people. We can see that happening again.”

Secluded in a forest, a mob of masked people shake a man from a treetop. They have been shaking the tree for hours when he falls – the day has turned to night. The rustle of leaves and branches combines with Levi’s echoing score to create an unsettling noise. There’s a struggle on the forest floor but when they have him pinned down, someone takes a cameraphone picture of the group: the group’s target has become their trophy and now he will be their victim. The mob ties a rope around the man’s neck and we can’t see his face but we can see how his neck strains, and we can feel his fear. There’s an agonising plummet, and then, what seems like an impossible route to safety.

The imagery immediately calls to mind a lynching, but the absence of dialogue and the masks untether the violence from any specific place or time. The masks suggest Japanese theatre, or the faces in Goya. The bodies of the mob are stocky, nimble and slightly uncanny, their clothes bland and dark. This could be happening to anyone, for any reason. And we have no idea how far it will go. The fall itself seems to go on for ever, brilliantly, agonisingly shot by Glazer to suggest a bottomless hell, or the echoing consequences of this act of violence.

We use the word mob a lot these days – attaching it not just to activists and protestors but to the keyboard warriors who hurl abuse from behind anonymous avatars, the trolls and the self-appointed guardians of callout culture. Today on the news, it seems the mob has scored a small victory: many female MPs have identified online abuse as the reason why they are not standing in the next general election. The politicians who replace them will have to accept this kind of abuse, or perhaps they will be the kind of people who don’t listen anyway.

This is just a tiny part of the “fever” that Glazer is talking about: the absence of reason that creates “impossible monsters”. The rise of hate is a global phenomenon, one that threatens to throw us back into horrors that we expected never to see again.

There’s hope here, though, albeit a fragile one. Glazer doesn’t just show us the fall, but the climb: the slow, spider-like, perilous route from the silent dark to that tiny speck of light that represents freedom. We don’t know if the masked man will make it out alive. Perhaps the real fall is yet to come.

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