Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 26 November 2008
Source 35mm Print
The fantastical demons that beset Benjamin Christensen’s career-defining Häxan may have gone into hiding for the Danish director’s second film made in Hollywood, Mockery, but they are not entirely absent. They’ve worked their way into every inch of Christensen’s characters, corrupting their morals, perverting their intents, and plaguing their souls. The immediate setting may be Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, but Christensen’s interest lies less in the immediate politics of the time than in the larger, universal theme of Man’s Inhumanity to Man. Caught in the center of it all is Lon Chaney, who plays a wandering simpleton trapped between his aristocratic employers and revolutionary co-workers, all of whom try to maneuver Chaney in shifting concentric circles of confusion. A victim of constant inhumanity, Chaney eventually capitulates to his nagging inner demons and transforms into a ravenous, murderous beast with no concern for allegiance or camaraderie. But unlike the devilish creatures of Häxan, there is no giddy glee or wicked delight to be had in this mutation: in Mockery, Christensen is mourning the death of one man’s soul.
We are introduced to Chaney as he is scavenging fallen soldiers for scraps of food and water. His movements are ape-like, and even his thickly bearded face and jutting lower-jaw give off a simian impression. Like a dog, he is sent into frenzy over a meatless bone, as though even the familiar eating ritual is somehow satisfying him. But even at that low level, when a dying soldier reaches out to him he responds and goes to him, at first with trepidation, but later with brotherly concern. As the soldier dies in his arms, a woman calls out to him from the edge of the forest. Promising food and friendship, she asks to be led through the forest. Such is the first in a long series of manipulations to which Chaney falls prey.
Stopping over at a seemingly abandoned cabin, its inhabitants turn out to be political militants who whip Chaney, insisting that he divulge the woman’s identity. Saved by advancing government soldiers, the woman reveals herself to be an aristocratic countess carrying a secret message for the military. And while her promises are not exactly empty - she provides Chaney with a job and a hot meal - she holds out on the one part of the bargain that meant the most to him: friendship. From here his rage grows into jealousy as he spies her kissing a handsome officer. Such emotions are then manipulated by a fellow servant who enlists Chaney as a revolutionary on the promise that he will be able to kiss the countess and exact her “friendship” as the deal originally promised.
Lacking the hysteric hallucinations of Häxan, Mockery nonetheless revels in its own blend of twisted humor, primarily centered on the mouth. Its many variations become a literal manifestation of the characters’ perversity and corruption: from toothless grins to cake-smeared lips, Christensen reverts to this single anatomical feature as a symbol of the soul. Literally an entrance into the character, the mouth signals their deviancy: Chaney and his companions guzzling wine instead of working foreshadows the coming revolution, while the countess’ ecstatic sighing as Chaney washes her feet reveals the pleasure she gets in enflaming his sexual longing. Finely attuned to gestures that reveal a character’s psychology, Christensen’s camera is seemingly able to x-ray the soul and reveal the wickedest of human desires.
For all its political context, Mockery is essentially an apolitical film. As its title indicates, it is concerned primarily with Chaney’s ritualistic degradation by both ends of the class spectrum. He is a victim of not one single ideology, but humanity’s larger blights: exploitation and inhumanity. For Chaney, his anger towards the aristocrats has only to do with the countess’ unfulfilled promise of companionship; likewise, his only affiliation with the revolutionaries has to do with fantasies of revenge. As with Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command, released one year later, one feels as though Christensen is trying to avoid any direct political commentary. Seeking a balanced narrative, both filmmakers indict the aristocrats and the Bolsheviks alike.
The Last Command ends with the revolutionaries reforming, and Mockery’s conclusion allows the upper class the same chance for moral redemption. While both films’ lack of a politically committed narrative could be construed as opportunistic (using current events as a mere backdrop for a fictional drama) or even cowardly (as though they are afraid of compromising their audiences or enraging their studio bosses - both of which are probably somewhat true), they exhibit a tightrope walker’s precision as Christensen and von Sternberg evenhandedly navigate hyper-sensitive subjects and locate universal stories that transcend any particular ideology or cause. Neither director can be accused of being a loudspeaker or muckraker; it’s not controversy they want, but a glimpse of humanity that encapsulates not only its corruption, but also its redemption.