It came as no surprise to me that Michael Haneke‘s name came up in this LP discussion about the horribleness in Austria. Haneke directs bleak, distressing films like Funny Games and The Piano Teacher– which I think are wonderful, but horrible to watch– he’s Austrian, and it’s easy to imagine the filmmaker and the twisted paterfamilias growing from the same social matrix.
When I read about the incarceration and rape of Elisabeth Fritzl, though, the comparison that came to my mind (and we’re always reminded of film when things get bizarre and surreal) wasn’t Haneke’s films so much as a 1988 Dutch movie, George Sluizer’s The Vanishing.
The upstanding citizen Josef Fritzl reminds me very much of the psychopathic Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Without getting into spoiler mode, Raymond commits a crime which is somewhat worse than the real Josef Fritzl’s – at least, I think so, but maybe not; it’s impossible to weigh the relative grisliness of their actions. Let’s just say that the two share some characteristics.
In The Vanishing, Rex (Gene Bervoets) the boyfriend of the missing girl and the perpetrator meet and talk. She has been gone for three years, and Rex suspects that Raymond has killed her, but he doesn’t yet know the detail. He says something to the effect that Raymond’s actions are so random and unpredictable that any attempt at analysis seems futile. “I don’t hate you,” he says, “I don’t hate lightning.” The implication is that some people, once their disconnection from normal boundaries or behavioural limitations is complete, are unpredictable to the extent that attempts at understanding or prevention are doomed to fail. (Well, incarceration is a good start, but in Raymond’s case you’d have to catch him first.)
I think Josef Fritzl is an example of that lightning.
The daily news is full of the idea that the police, social workers or neighbours should have somehow headed this man off at the pass, and the fact that they didn’t shows Austria up as a cold and atomised society. This ignores the problem of identifying these bizarre happenings in the first place. As one LP commenter points out, Fritzl’s very respectability and banality (like Lemorne’s in the film) worked in his favour. There’s also a major logistical gap in this idea of society keeping tabs. Discovering what Fritzl was up to would have involved entering his house, searching every room, poking about in his basement and doing a sweep for hidden doors, maybe breaking stuff in the process. Would he have allowed that? Would we do that to all the neighbours in our street? Of course not. (What would it be like if we did? If “the authorities” were empowered to do such a thing, what would our society look like then?)
We can’t do that, is the short answer.
I don’t mean to come across as a do-nothing or imply that we should tolerate such behaviour. But I certainly think preventing it is a bit harder than calling for a more caring and close-knit Neighbourhood Watch. Because once someone has become as psychotic and as entitled as Josef Fritzl, they really are as unpredictable as lightning.
For mine, the only way we can stop the Raymond Lemornes and the Bradley John Murdochs and the Josef Fritzls of this world is to get better and better at bringing up our boys. Starting with scrapping the remnants of the old patriarchal model of women and girls as property.