Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Totalitarianism Sublime in Argento's Susperia

This is a post I wrote for my International Horror class that I thought I would reproduce here for your reading pleasure. :) 

There is one scene in Dario Argento's Susperia that seems to be overwhelmingly disliked by the class, and it happens to be my favorite scene in the film. The scene in question falls at the end of a sequence which begins when the ballet school's blind piano player is kicked out by the fiercely German school master (whose sadistic grin during this scene has always disturbed me) because his dog allegedly bit the creepy little boy who hangs around the school. We follow him then to a traditional Bavarian drinking hall, and finally into a large neoclassical square where after several minutes of intense music and sweeping high angled shots, his dog attacks him and rips out his throat. Some people might have thought this was stupid, but I found the dog attack to be a tremendous and disturbing pay off to the intense sublimity leading up to the attack, and I would argue that this sublimity is achieved by Argento through his use of Nazi imagery combined with the several high and long distance shots taken from the perspective of lurking, swooping, and overwhelming entity of power.
 A distant high angle shot adds to the sense of a lurking sublime power

It is this sequence that is the most heavy handed in portraying the sinister images of Nazism: the sadistically cruel Arian school master, the nationalistic "traditional" Bavarian drinking hall, dance, and costume, and the neoclassical architecture reminiscent of the Reichsparteitagsgelände, the Nazi party rally grounds, in Nuremburg.  The blind pianist passes two police officers who resemble Nazi soldiers, and he is killed by his own dog, a German shepherd, a breed who because of its use by the Nazi party was officially renamed the "Alastian Wolf Dog" until 1977 (thank you Wikipedia!).  The scene also contains close up of an eagle atop the neoclassical building, another symbol of the totalitarian Third Reich. What I find most compelling, however, is the intense sublimity of the last scene, and how Argento uses the Nazi references to create a heightened sense of sublime power, which for me made the scene extremely effective, especially when the blind pianist's own trustworthy companion turns on him.  This final scene of the sequence is nearly a full four minutes long, which may seem drawn out, but I see its length as highlighting the sadistic nature of the omnipotent power, who is not content merely to kill the blind man, but must also frighten and disturb him, thus demonstrating its sublime powers. The audience, in turn (or at least me), is also swept up in the sublimity of the moment, which finally is resolved in the highly disturbing attack.

Burke argues that whatever "is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger...whatever is in any sort terrible...or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime" (36). Terror is the key word here. I've always understood that terror is associated with the flight instinct and is caused by something overwhelmingly other and incomprehensible, not unlike Kant's understanding of the sublime as a pleasure in confronting that which overextends our capacity to reason.  Horror, on the other hand, is usually associated with abjection and disgust and is more of an inward disturbance. This particular scene in Susperiais more concerned with creating that overwhelming sense of power, the power which the witches possess, the power that creates the emotion of terror, of an outside force that confounds our reason. Argento ties this power to the totalitarian power of the Nazi party, using their symbols, and the cultural European memory of the war and its aftermath.  

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