Fantastic Fest Review: MAUS – The Inescapable Horrors Of War

A disorienting, divisive thriller.

Maus is many things: political allegory, claustrophobic thriller, taut arthouse drama, but first and foremost it’s a difficult watch. Part of that difficulty stems from its collapsing and expanding of time, retreading the thoughts, actions and psychological state of its lead character Selma, a survivor of the Bosnian war, but an even bigger part stems from several of its scenes being recreated from memory. Like Selma, actress Alma Terzic grew up in a Bosniak family. She lived through the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims at the age of five, and she turns in a performance that feels like a necessary, transcendent documentation of the horrific aftermath. 

Terzic re-lived the events themselves in Angelina Jolie’s In The Land of Blood and Honey, but Maus is a markedly different monster. It opens decades later, deep in the forests of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Selma clutching her hamajlija (an inscribed Bosniak amulet), repeatedly praying to Ya Hafizu, The Protector, in voiceover. Even before we’re allowed to see a single frame, there is already something heavy in the ether – the actual setting, however, is much more commonplace. Selma and her German boyfriend Alex were on their way back to Berlin when they got their car stuck in a ditch. Simple, yet deceptive. Alex is referred to as “Europe” through the film. Like Spanish director Yayo Herrero, who takes the reins valiantly in his challenging first film, he’s an outsider to both the Bosnian War and the current Muslim refugee crisis. To Alex, through whose eyes we see about half of the film, being stuck here is merely an inconvenience. But to Selma, through whom we live the other half, being back where it all began dredges up foundational horrors that forever scarred her psyche. She is, both psychologically and physically, unable to escape the past.

The camera looms over Alex and Selma, disguising its long takes and never breaking away but for hints of what feels like supernatural eyes watching her (or watching over her?) every time she calls on “Ya Hafizu,” her guardian angel. What is just another minor setback for “Europe” turns into something deadly when Selma’s paranoia is made real. She runs into two Serbian militants who warn her of the nearby minefields, offering to help the couple find their way despite their imposing demeanor. It’s here the film begins to play wildly with perspective, first blurring the line between dreams and reality as Selma’s fears and memories begin to collide, then shifting between Selma and Alex’s points of view in order to paint two wildly different portraits of the armed Serbs.

The shifting perspectives are further complicated by the fact neither one is particularly clear. Selma’s is clouded by both current injury and lived historical trauma, whilst Alex is coming at the whole situation from a place of naïveté. As things ultimately spiral out of control (an inevitability given Selma and the Serb’s mutual suspicions), it’s entirely unclear where the violent outcomes even originated. Were these men part of the same nightmare Selma must now re-live? Or did she turn them into embodiments of ruthlessness with her own defensive actions? As on-the-nose as the metaphor is, given “Europe’s” failure to understand this conflict and the inevitable fallout for Muslims, it is ultimately a microcosm of the very ways in which we continue to perpetuate cycles of violence, and the fallout for people therein.

As much as the film holds Selma responsible for her actions, it empathizes with her deeply in the moments she re-lives her traumas. These events, whether unfolding on screen or merely alluded to, become the film’s very texture, the lens through which all actions and decisions are filtered. As the picture becomes clearer and the full scope of what Selma went through comes to light, each switch back to Alex’s perspective becomes all the more jarring. As the camera rests over his shoulder for minutes at a time, not only does the mere notion of his exposed neck recall an earlier scene where a character’s neck is slashed (no one is safe, and the film wants you to feel it), the disconnect between seeing things through Alex’s eyes and knowing where Selma has been becomes increasingly dissonant. No longer do Alex’s rationalizations feel, well, rational, even though they’re entirely pragmatic. The more we feel Selma’s disorienting horrors and the more the camera spins rapidly around its Serb and Bosniak characters, binding them in moments of conflict and fear, the more each return to stability over Alex’s shoulder makes you want to punch him in the throat as he tries to weasel his way out of the forest.

Rarely do films on complex issues make sense from an outside perspective, but the entirety of Maus is built around POV shifts that grow increasingly maddening, taking us deeper into Selma’s trauma and making each return to Alex feel more enraging in the process. His decisions feel increasingly removed from human emotions and Selma’s state of mind, and I even caught myself thinking “WHY CAN’T THIS GUY JUST FUCKING EMPATHIZE?” late into the film. It runs a mere 90 minutes, but it spends lengthy stretches in spaces that alternately discomfort and frustrate, and it does so with precision. It blurs the actual inception of conflict, making war and all its ills the only prerequisite to war itself, and it holds those who refuse to examine its causes and effects accountable for the outcome in the most chilling way possible, placing Alex (or “Europe”) in Selma's shoes and giving him his own set of paranoia and trauma as a result of his critical failures.

Maus repeats itself an awful lot, which is likely to rub some folks the wrong way, but ultimately feels like part of the point. It is, quite simply, unrelenting. It’s a 90 minute film that feels a lot longer and it is deeply uncomfortable at times. Though as difficult as it may be, it is undoubtedly a challenge to unpack, placing its characters in intense situations where there can be no right decision, only those that take a slightly lesser toll on mind and body and soul – like war itself turned to cinema.