by Noemi Ehrat
De Facto is a cinematic masterpiece highlighting not only the importance of being alert to, and wary of, populist and fascist rhetoric, but also the power of cinema.
The concept of Austrian filmmaker Selma Doborac’s second feature documentary film De Facto seems simple enough: two men sit at a table in a so-called open-air temple of friendship in a Viennese park, recalling and justifying the war crimes they committed. However, they are not in dialogue, rather the camera shows us one man monologuing at a time – and this without interruption for almost thirty minutes. The near complete lack of pause and, in case of actor Christoph Bach, the remarkable speed of speech, evoke the disorienting impressions made by stream-of-consciousness narrative styles, wherein the characters detail one horrific detail of slaughter and rape after another, sometimes returning to the same topics repeatedly.
This is where the apparent simplicity ends. Even though the two men, portrayed by actors Christoph Bach and Cornelius Obonya, are never identified as specific individuals, they cannot be said to be completely anonymous either. Instead, they can be seen as the embodiment of “the perpetrator”: director Selma Doborac has written her script based on years of research on war crimes that span two centuries and continents. She has chosen not to identify her sources just yet, a decision whose controversy has been debated by audiences and critics alike.
She wants to avoid De Facto being perceived as a film rooted in a specific conflict, such as the Second World War, as she fears it would impact an audience’s openness to connect the issues with the present day. In her writing, she chose to focus on patterns that kept re-emerging instead. The most prominent action may change at any given time but may oscillate between the presence of sexualised violence, to the men's relativizing of their actions compared with those of their comrades, or the use of dehumanising language.
Indeed, language is at the core of Doborac’s film. Towards the end, when watching and listening becomes almost unbearable – the film runs 130 minutes – Obonya’s character tries to explain the logic of the horror committed through a pseudo-philosophical lecture on reason and poetry: “poetry has always played a prophetic, a creative, an almost constituting role in the world […] poetry, that is the foundation of this world”. In De Facto, then, poetry can be dangerously close to propaganda. “Everything plays out on the level of language: it is the strongest medium in preparation for the crime”, Doborac says. Language, of course, be it poetic language, official language, or the language of song lyrics, always represents ideology and identity. De Facto impressively demonstrates how seemingly rational language can quickly become a medium used to mobilize the masses and to call for genocide on the radio.
So, why choose film as a medium for a work that largely focuses on language in textual form? “According to the convention of the cinema, one wouldn’t leave the room – the spectator is supposed to stay in the theatre for the duration of the film”, Doborac says. She wanted to work with this almost claustrophobic situation where the cinematic form does not allow for any movement other than that on the screen. In this case, however, there’s also no movement on screen, which amplifies the almost brutal vehemence of the experience. “The only movement is that of language”, Doborac explains. “At a certain point, this transcendentalizes into an inner movement.” This inner movement, or the slow realisation that the horrific events recounted could easily happen anytime, anywhere, is the only logical conclusion to this essentially antifascist piece of work. Even though this realisation might be difficult, even painful, it is ultimately empowering too, bestowing the viewer with a sense of civic responsibility.
Doborac’s innovative and radical form is also just highly affective – during the film’s Austrian premiere at the Diagonale film festival in Graz heads began to drop; tears were wiped away; some people even left the room. Yet Doborac is no fan of trigger warnings that might prepare an audience for what they’re about to see and hear. “The experiences described are actualities – I feel that it should be possible to endure listening to them for once.” It seems like this is a lot to ask of an audience. After the screenings at Berlinale in Germany and now here, in Graz, the audiences’ reactions have been accordingly intense. Having won the renowned Caligari-award at Berlinale, the film will soon be screened in theatres across Germany, where audiences won’t have the chance to articulate their viewing experience in questions to the filmmaker. However, Doborac firmly believes in the audience. “Whether I’m present or not, my belief in the audience holds. They can find their own way with the material”.
However, Doborac is also aware of her responsibility as a filmmaker not only towards the source material she’s worked with but also towards her audience. “This is why I chose to work with verbal images – through the reduced language I’ve created, everyone can find their own imagery”. Moreover, Doborac has created spaces within the film that allow the audience to pause for a while: De Facto was filmed in a park and so rustling leaves, falling rain and birdsong are audible, sometimes almost drowning out what is being said by the actors.
Finally, in the very last scene, Doborac jerks the audience back into the present, and into their own bodies, by showing the temple from a distance with a drums-heavy krautrock song playing over the scene. This further allows the filmmaker to expose and contextualise her own cinematic ideology and methodology – she wants to not only bring the audience out of the film and back into the present, but also to have them question her own motives, too, by explicitly highlighting the film’s nature as a production created by her.
No UK release is planned as of yet, though that would come with its own difficulties. “We worked on the English subtitles extensively with an English-speaking poet, as the translation into a secondary language has to be exact”, Doborac says. Dubbing the film would be strange, as the specific gestures and intonations from Bach and Obonya, who embody the perpetrators, are crucial to the film. However, there is a risk that English-speaking audiences would immediately associate the film’s German language with the third Reich, which would contradict Doborac’s intended universality. Be that as it may, De Facto is a cinematic masterpiece highlighting not only the importance of being alert to, and wary of, populist and fascist rhetoric, but also the power of cinema.
You can find out more about Diagonale film festival and Selma Doborac's work here.
Noemi Ehrat is a freelance journalist from Zurich, Switzerland, currently based in Hanover, Germany. Find her on Twitter @n_ehrat