In 1945 Samuel Fuller was in Czechoslovakia, serving with the US Army as the war ended and the Denazification process beckoned. It was there he shot what was, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, his first ever film footage; this footage was of the liberation of Falkenau, a sub-site of the Flossenburg concentration camp, the infantrymen showing the extent of the horrors contained within its walls to the dignitaries and bourgeoisie of the village who were complicit in its construction, maintenance and continuation, and taking steps to begin punishing these men for their act of complicity. The footage was later edited together by Emile Weiss with Fuller’s own commentary and video of his return to the site in 1988 in the film Falkenau: Vision de L’Impossible.
Verboten! stood as the most complete, the most concerted effort in Fuller’s later career in mainstream Hollywood cinema to communicate what he had born witness to in Falkenau and in the Europe of 1945 until he bought his long-gestating project The Big Red One to the screen during the 1980s. Fuller spoke frequently and passionately on the insanity of war, and the insanity that war bought about, and he continually questioned the nature and meaning of complicity (on the part of both the military and civilians) in mass violence and mass horror; these themes did not live purely in his war films, but haunted everything he created like a spectre, his experiences permanently shaped (or reshaped) his vision of the world, his vision of humanity, his vision of the need for urgency, boldness, complete and forceful directness in cinema. For Fuller, everything had to be asked and asked again, everything had to be needled in order to expose its inner contradictions or absolute clarity of meaning, everything had to be remembered and the obscuring falsity of myth had to be destroyed; a simple, deaf-dumb-and-mute acceptance, a refusal to grapple, a fleeing in to fantasy away from, or ignorance of, the dirty soul of humanity all amounted to cowardice.
In Verboten! the moral questions and quandaries of a harsh, hard reality are asked in a film which is aesthetically almost pushed to abstraction at times, oppositional symbols situated in a landscape of featureless devastation (shot in a manner recalling Rossellini), made distinct only by political graffiti, and in constant, direct, one-on-one conflict with each other. In the stock footage with which Fuller contextualises the fictional story and sets of the film the fullness of history, the wide human costs of the existence of these symbols and their previous and resulting actions and conflicts, is revealed in enough measure to relay its totality to us. Everything is stripped back and then returned, deconstructed and then reconstructed; in the process the meaning of every action and every second of this history is clear. Everything hits us, in every moment, like a ton of bricks; the effect is sometimes almost unbearable, it brings tears to the eyes, it makes us nauseous, but we are being made to remember what we should be made to remember, made to relive that which we should never be separated from.
Verboten! positions itself at the meeting point of truth (the actuality of the thing) and narrative (always a fiction, no matter how sophisticated), or perhaps, to fit more naturally with this most violent of films, positions narrative for a collision with truth (and vice-versa). The melodramatic love story at the heart of the film is, eventually, all but obliterated by this collision, turned to dust. This is not a criticism; it is as it should be. The truth overwhelms. Samuel Fuller, on his part, has never shown a cheap or deceitful thought in his films, for all the commentary on his cinematic ‘primitivism’, and Verboten is a miracle for how it finds and delivers the essence of a place, a time, a humanity at a certain point in history, how, as Francois Truffaut had it, it matches the “strength, crudity and truth” of the surviving documents of record. Fuller performs an important duty, a public duty, the work of a true journalist; he finds a story, finds and then fills it with truths, and brings every issue, every question and every answer of morality to the surface, confronting us, informing us but also almost assaulting us with the material of the world and its meanings. If we leave this film feeling exhausted, dazed, sick and bruised then that’s because we should, and Fuller knows this.
Verboten! is, in this sense, a reminder that for roughly thirty or so years there was a version of cinema, at the very heart of the thing, that realised the inadequacy of narrative on a wide and general scale, and attempted either to discard it or, like Fuller, to set it on a collision course with truth or the very question of truth. There was a sense then that nothing invented could truly cover, or immorally replace, what had happened in the previous decade(s), and what remained was to come to terms with a new position in regards to knowledge, history, judgement, aesthetics etc. Once the reality of the war and the camps was clear, and the resulting cinema of Rossellini, Resnais, Fuller and other artists attempting to come to terms with his new position had been seen, the old notion of narrative as an escape route, the idea of light entertainment, should probably have been entirely abandoned, dismissed, recognised as entirely flimsy, facile, simply not enough. With the aforementioned artists, after all, we had had a glimpse of the way forward, the reckonings that needed to be made in art. The door was closed, or at half-closed, by George Lucas and the likes from 1977 onwards, artists and showmen again willing to suggest the refuse from hard rain that is the myth of eternal childhood, the world reduced, shrunk, to the limits of the Boy’s Own adventure and it’s ideology and morality. We talk now of the confusion of the world, the confusion of the modern age, and perhaps we should be casting the finger of blame at ourselves, those of us who so willingly allowed the world to be covered again by the warm blanket of myth and ignored the protests and warnings of many of our finest post-war film-makers, the ugly reality now only allowed to rear its head when it fights its way out, like worms pushing themselves out of the soil. We are confused because, once again, we may have lost the ability to see clearly.