“It’s a critique that is one step away from excusing Theo (the ‘woman was asking for it’ defence) …”
Matthias Glasner’s The Free Will (Der freie Wille,1 2006) is a strong, powerful, and disturbing film. It’s disturbing not only for its subject matter — the story of Theo Stoer (Jürgen Vogler), a violent multiple rapist, who spends the length of this long (163-minute) film, struggling against and ultimately succumbing to his violent impulses — but also because of confusions on the part of Glasner himself, confusions as to the conception of Theo’s character and how to portray his story cinematically.
Glasner’s stated intention2 is for an audience to empathise with Theo by going through his experiences at one with him. In the film’s opening sequence we share his anger as he rages at his lazy co-workers in a seaside hotel. After he storms outside, the camera brings us up close to Theo, holding on his ungainly appearance, the unruly features, the face dotted with pimple-papers, all forming a rather pitiful figure. We are again with Theo as he follows through on his anger, as we accompany him on his drive along the lonely seacoast until he pursues a lone woman cyclist, knocks her from her bike, beats her, drags her, strips her, binds her, and rapes her, in a scene of lengthy although not entirely explicit detail.
Glasner has justified this scene in terms of wanting the audience to experience directly what it means to be a rapist. But, to be honest, this seems to me quite misconceived. It’s solipsism masquerading as insight, a failure to appreciate the way critical distance (a distance that in cinema is expressed through the literal distance of the camera and the structuring of in-the-frame and off-screen space) is the bridge to understanding. We don’t need the near-pornographic prurience of this extended rape scene to understand the issues at stake. In fact, more crucial to the film are the scenes following the rape, scenes that humanise Theo in the audience’s eyes: his own awareness of the horror that he has committed, his remorse, and the shift in his role from violent perpetrator to hunted animal, the latter increasing the potential for the audience’s sympathy for if not empathy with him.
But this is only the preamble to the main story, which follows Theo as he emerges from nine years’ imprisonment to reintegrate into society. This is the best, most successfully realised section of The Free Will, and there’s a palpable sense of the difficulties and struggles Theo is experiencing, the strange quality of a now alien world in which he must again live, work, and establish relationships. It’s a world where, in spite of the moral support of his mentor at the half-way house he lives at, Theo is isolated and on his own, as Glasner repeatedly emphasises, giving us scenes of Theo wandering the streets alone, eating alone, sitting alone, even masturbating (inevitably) alone.
For all its downbeat realist tone The Free Will is a film of considerable suspense. Right from the start it’s made clear that Theo is struggling against the demons within, and every encounter with, every acknowledgment of the presence of a woman is fraught with the tension of where this will lead. When Theo follows the waitress of his regular spaghetti restaurant onto the subway — all of which seems portrayed in rapist-stalker mode — to approach her for a date and then is turned down, we are really unsure whether or not this is the first step towards a violent act. It isn’t, but Glasner milks the tension of every subsequent, similar scene.
Such scenes are all narrated from Theo’s point-of-view, and this is a discomforting, even rather dubious approach. We see this above all in the sequence where Theo stalks a department store clerk back to her apartment. (I was left unclear as to how he manages to get through her front door — are we meant to understand it was unlocked?) Inside, Theo hovers over the near-naked body of the sleeping woman, with Glasner providing us with Theo’s point-of-view of her luscious, intoxicating curves. Here in this shot is the most explicit moment where the “eye” of Theo, of the camera, and inevitably of the audience are all made one. It’s a moment when the viewer can feel forced into an identification with Theo, a position she might quite rightly wish to reject, and, again, it’s a sign of the film’s lack of distance to its subject matter.
Glasner claims to be approaching this story without any ethical or ideological preconceptions. He doesn’t want to offer Theo as a sociological case-study but to treat his story as that of a single individual. But there’s a rather confused naïveté operating here, as if he could cut off Theo from the society he lives within and the social issues he raises, let alone the meaning the director is clearly calling on the audience to find in this story. That meaning above all resides in the film’s ironic title (more of that later), but there are other times where Glasner offers some kind of contextual commentary. What, for example, is his intention in contrasting the lone figure of Theo with the explicitly sexual imagery of a billboard advertisement, or with four (four!) navel-revealing women? It seems to be more than just an illustration of the temptations assailing Theo from all sides, but rather a critique of a sexualised society, but it’s a critique that is — very dubiously — one step away from excusing Theo (one step away from the “woman was asking for it because of how she was dressed” rapist’s defence, too) rather than just explaining him.
The central section of the film offers Theo — and us — the hope of his redemption through the love of a good woman. That woman is Nettie (Sabine Timeteo), the daughter of the owner of the printing works where Theo works. Nettie seems almost to be as psychologically damaged as Theo himself. At an early meeting with Theo she tells him she doesn’t like men, to which he replies in his turn that he doesn’t like women much. Ideally matched, perhaps.
The real parallels between the two are drawn through Glasner’s narrative approach. This is not only in the way the film splits into two parallel narrative lines, devoting considerable time to Nettie’s story (very effective for the film, too, because Sabine Timeteo gives as strong and committed performance as Jürgen Vogler) before merging those two lines as their relationship takes hold. But Glasner also holds back a lot of the details of Nettie’s previous history, just as he does with Theo’s. We never learn anything of the roots of Theo’s current situation; even the fact that he is a perpetrator of multiple violent rapes is only revealed in a single statement during his job interview.
This absence of context is a persistent feature of Glasner’s portrayal of Theo. In Nettie’s case, however, the discreet allusions to some kind of history of abuse work very effectively. She’s just moved out from living with her father, and there seems something perverse and unsettling about their relationship. The father is maudlin, self-pitying, and emotionally needy, and there are intimations that their relationship in the past has been either an abusive or an incestuous one: in a later scene, when Nettie returns to her father in an emotionally devastated state, we see them executing a strange, clinging dance around the living room and then sleeping together in the same bed. Whatever the source of her troubles, Nettie seems to share Theo’s internal rage, as is revealed rather comically when Theo takes her for a martial arts workout and she pummels his stomach with increasing force and violence.
The calm respite this relationship offers Theo — symbolised in the scene where we see them taking a bath together, in the comfortable intimacy of the best of lovers — is however only a brief one, for Theo’s ability to hold back his demons is a precarious, knife-edge one. And it takes only one instance of this couple’s well-ordered life not proceeding along its regular groove for everything to go awry. Nettie stays late, drinking with colleagues from work, which Theo secretly observes with rising jealousy. This then leads him to take advantage of a chance encounter with a woman motorist, beating her savagely and raping her in a basement car park. (Glasner tones down the in-your-face explicitness of the film’s first rape scene; here, for example, the beating is hidden from the camera behind the woman’s car.)
This rape is as much an act against Nettie as an expression of Theo’s more generalised violent misogyny, so that when he finally confesses to her, he follows this up with a refutation of any love and moreover a declaration of simple hatred for her. When he leaves her curled up in a shrieking huddle on the ground of a pedestrian walkway, in one respect he walks out of the film’s main narrative. A major shift occurs in Glasner’s structuring of the story. Prior to this moment, even when the story split into two parallel lines (spending considerable time with Nettie’s experiences interning in Belgium), the main focus was always on Theo. But now for the rest of the film, our perspective becomes that of Nettie’s.
The effect is to withdraw from our view a consideration of the violent and repellent nature of his acts and, if anything, to make something of a victim-figure of him. There’s also a parallel, reverse movement where voice is finally given to one of Theo’s victims (who up to this point have had no representation in the film’s story), a victim who in a symbolic act renounces her status as victim in favour of that of violent perpetrator.
In the first part of Nettie’s narrative that makes up the final section of The Free Will, Nettie tracks down one of Theo’s victims. This woman is initially uncommunicative, then follows Nettie into a café toilet and sexually assaults her with a broom handle. The one victim who appears in the film outside of the rape scenes immediately loses this status as well the audience’s sympathy, at the same time as Theo himself vanishes to the margins of the story. And Nettie herself takes on the structuring role that Theo had earlier. We now follow Nettie in her pursuit, her stalking of Theo, just as before we followed Theo in his search for what seemed to be one female victim after another.
There’s a real ambiguity here to Nettie’s motivations, which gives an immense power to this final section. We’re simply unclear as to what Nettie is up to here. Is it to save Theo, is it to save women from him, or does Nettie have her own plans for some form of violent retribution? There’s great tension to the scene where Nettie has tracked Theo to a seaside hotel, gets into his room and pauses over the razor blade in the bathroom — is this to be her weapon of choice?
In fact, nothing is further from her mind. Her search for and pursuit of Theo is driven by the love she still feels for him, notwithstanding everything he has done, and it takes place at precisely the point where Theo, now kept at one remove from the audience, assumes the role of sufferer, of victim. He is conscious enough of the effects of his violence — right in that first rape scene at the beginning of the film, he runs off for a first-aid kit for his victim — and he reaches the point3 where suicide offers the only release to his dilemma.
It is clear that Glasner means the title The Free Will to be read ironically, as a statement-in-negative that Theo has no free will, no freedom to act above and beyond his biologically-determined impulse to sexual violence. In this context, the act of suicide is Theo’s one and only way to assert his free will, to gain control over his life. It’s a denouement which the film views as a tragic one, seen through the eyes of Nettie, who, in the film’s final moments, sits beside his body on the empty beach howling out her despair. This final scene where she vents everything from within herself — voice, tears, mucus, spit — is an emotionally powerful one, but one which also tends to make us almost forget Glasner’s dubious choices and questionable strategies along the way.
- “The” Free Will is a curious, rather un-English literal translation of the German title. After all, in English — unlike German — we dispense with the definite article. At a post-screening Q&A session I attended, Glasner himself referred to the film in English as Free Will, minus the “the.” [↩]
- My references here to Glasner’s own views either come from an interview with Sonja M. Schultz, “Danach waren alle fix or fertig,” available here, or from his Q&A session in Taipei, Nov 20, 2006. [↩]
- In reality, actor Jürgen Vogler reached this point, determining the ending — over the objections of Sabine Timeteo — to a film which Glasner had intended to leave open-ended. [↩]