Dara Waldron. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.
Given the title Cinema and Evil: Moral Complexities and the “Dangerous” Film, some initial definitions of what a “dangerous” film is and how the author defines evil are certainly necessary. Inspired by Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil, Irish scholar Dara Waldron labels as “dangerous” those films that deal explicitly with evil. He thus treats some of the most controversial films ever released. Saint Augustine, well remembered for his belief in evil as the privation of the good, acts as Waldron’s touchstone for understanding evil, but Waldron also relies on the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kant, Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, and Joan Copjec, especially when they challenge Augustine. Overall, Waldron’s opening chapter, subtitled “A Genealogy of Evil from Manicheanism to Bataille,” can be somewhat dense, even for those with some theological training.
Chapter two rather loosely ties together Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), “brethren of noir” that both hint at radical evil. Waldron examines Pier Paolo Pasolini in the third chapter, first by way of Federico Fellini, before turning specifically to Salò (1975). The next chapter is a highlight of the book, a study of evil in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) that effectively scrutinizes why the difficult questions the film raised made it so controversial upon its initial reception.
But the heart of the book treats Michael Haneke, with a chapter each devoted to three of his films: Benny’s Video (1992), Caché (2005), and The White Ribbon (2009). All three films deal to some extent with the taboo of the child murderer and its related conundrums, specifically doli incapax, or at what age is a child culpable for his or her actions; thus, Waldron locates evil in these films in the diabolical acts of children. Waldron begins his investigation by noting that literature devoted to Haneke is limited; but thankfully that is finally being reversed, with monographs by Peter Brunette (University of Illinois Press’s Contemporary Film Directors series, 2010) and Oliver C. Speck (Funny Frames: The Filmic Concepts of Michael Haneke, Continuum, 2010). Haneke anthologies have become even more common: A Companion to Michael Haneke (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), On Michael Haneke (Wayne State University Press, 2010), The Cinema of Michael Haneke (Wallflower Press’s Directors Cuts series, 2011), and the similarly theology-focused Fascinatingly Disturbing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Michael Haneke’s Cinema (Pickwick, 2010). Still, Waldron mines some new territory in Haneke Studies in his moral analysis and conclusion that Haneke promotes a specifically Augustinian view of evil, going so far as to conclude that “Haneke’s world is one in which those who acquiesce with power unquestionably, may well be the considered avatars of a [End Page 45] cosmic Evil” (16). For instance, in his treatment of The White Ribbon, Waldron engages in dialogue with Hannah Arendt; while Arendt is perhaps best known for her concept of the “banality of evil,” Waldron finds, for his own purposes, the hallmark of radical evil in her notion of the “rendering of others superfluous.”.
If the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger in Liverpool by two ten-year-olds serves as a reference point for the (European) Haneke chapters, the two films Waldron treats in his lengthy postscript, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), are shadowed by the Columbine tragedy. While these films seem even more relevant now due to the recent rise in school shootings, this postscript is not as grounded in the philosophical and theological literature as previous chapters.
Waldron fails to reveal why he chooses the filmmakers and films that he does for his examination of the “dangerous” film. Why not include Lars von Trier, for instance, who seems intensely concerned with the reality of evil in his films? Unfortunately, Waldron does not tell us. The lack of an index may also be a drawback for some readers. Still, this book is recommended for those interested in the depiction of evil in film, and although not suitable as...