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Masochism at the Movies: Historical Horrors With Alfred Hitchcock and Steve McQueen

Brutalism on screen—and its moral repercussions.
12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In 1904, at the age of five, Alfred Hitchcock found himself locked in an Essex prison cell. There is speculation that a bad report card was involved; all we know for sure is that the future master of suspense did something naughty, and his father sent him to the local constabulary, along with a note directing the bobbies to incarcerate the boy for around 10 minutes. The experience petrified him, and he later suggested that it was his first, formative brush with real terror. (Also: Look at any vapid, Lestrade-like copper in a Hitchcock film if you wish to see how the director got his revenge.)

This origin story—not really a myth, since the nut of the tale is true—fits squarely with the popular notion of Hitchcock as a hardened artist of human terror, whether political (Secret Agent, Foreign Correspondent, both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much) or psycho-sexual (Notorious, Vertigo, and so on). It is difficult, then, to imagine the director's unflappable, faux-dour public persona (think Alfred Hitchcock Presents) ever being outmatched by any freakiness in his material.

The imminent release of Memory of the Camps, a newly restored documentary about the Holocaust, forces us to reconsider this inherited hardboiled portrait of the director. Hitchcock produced the film, an artful and brutal propaganda piece, alongside Sidney Bernstein in 1945. Toward the end of the editing process, the documentary's braintrust shelved the project, after the Allies had won and the British government decided that the Bernstein/Hitchcock joint would antagonize the already defeated German populace during the restoration of Berlin. But Hitchcock had thrown in the towel before VE Day, claiming the project was too dark for him. Portions of the film have appeared only twice in the years since: once at the '84 Berlin Film Festival, and the following year on PBS. Each version was aggressively abridged, eliminating much of the footage that Hitchcock himself had found impossible to bear. As the Independentreports:

The British Army Film Unit cameramen who shot the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 used to joke about the reaction of Alfred Hitchcock to the horrific footage they filmed. When Hitchcock first saw the footage, the legendary British director was reportedly so traumatised that he stayed away from Pinewood Studios for a week. Hitchcock may have been the king of horror movies but he was utterly appalled by "the real thing.”

The ironies in these and similar reports are manifold and press us to reconsider Hitchcock's self-presentation as an unflinching, cold-blooded director of stylish psycho-thrillers. The newly restored quasi-director's cut of Memory of the Camps runs 85 minutes, unthreatening until Hitch's influence becomes uppermost and the documentary begins to verge on something like a horror film.

Like Graham Greene, Hitchcock was a master of depicting individual innocence and the corrupt mechanisms of power that threaten to destroy any notion of innocence or individuality. The director's propagandistic Foreign Correspondent (1940) is a fine example of this motif, wherein a journalist and the woman he loves hold the line against traitorous, crypto-Nazi Brits. The film is a spur in the side of America and closes with Joel McCrea's newspaperman delivering a transatlantic radio call-to-arms during a London blackout. But the movie's darker aspects share time with a rom-com subplot. In one early scene, McCrea slips shameless love notes into Laraine Day's prompt-cards for a rather important speech. For a war film, Foreign Correspondent has a charming lightness to it. Hitchcock didn't mind bald propaganda at all, as long as the piece was fiction that hewed to a traditional English cinematic sensibility—the same way his 39 Steps (1935) plays up scenes of slapstick courtship even as agents provocateurs threaten King and Country.

In Memory, meanwhile, Hitchcock was marshaling material that stung in its enormity, that resisted the sort of individual de-integration that distinguishes both his and Greene's thrillers. The footage for Memory was essentially brutalist newsreel and therefore impervious to the director's usual camera-angle tricks and instincts for the rhythms of controllable terror. In Memory, the terror is uncontrollable, whether you're watching emaciated Jews slouching forth from liberated concentration camps or listening to testimony from children who wonder where their parents are. It was too much for Hitchcock, whose plots generally revolve around a single murder. His directorial sensibility was, in short, incommensurate to genocide.

IT IS HARD TO watch Memory, period—but it's also hard to watch Memory this week without thinking of Steve McQueen's most recent assault on the conscience of his audience in 12 Years a Slave. Amid the usual charges of peddling “torture-porn,” charges that have stalked McQueen since 2008's Hunger, the black British director has drawn criticism for the apparent joylessness of his work. John Patterson of the Guardiancomplained last month that “there is a whole dimension of charisma, approachability and likability missing from McQueen's work”:

I'm also not convinced that McQueen's signature stylistic tic, the long unflinching gaze at awfulness, is the foundation stone of great film-making. There's an unbroken 17-minute shot in Hunger that sent critics wild? So what? There are far more mind-bending unbroken long shots in both Before Midnight and Gravity that I could happily show you if we really need to indulge in a contest.

We really don't need to indulge in a contest, especially when Patterson has rigged the game—there's no way McQueen can win here, goes the argument, unless his next project involves (say) Nathan Lane: “Is there any evidence ... that [McQueen] has a comedy inside of him, or a musical, or even a sense of humor just bursting to get out? If so, I look forward to seeing them one day.”

This is rather like asking why Black Sabbath doesn't sing more ballads, or why Thomas Mann doesn't traffic in comedies of manners. The subjective claim about a worrisome lack of “charisma” ignores the crucial point that these films are concerned with both the dangers of charisma (consider the less drunken moments of Michael Fassbender's character, a paranoid lech), and the flattening of the individual—through hunger and revolt, or else addiction, or this year in chains—in scenarios that strip men and women of individual idiosyncrasies; of the private constituents of “charisma”; of any discrete, particular sense of humanity. That extended scene of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dangling by the neck from a tree, hoping his tiptoes will keep him alive, is one of the film's setpieces of degradation, an agonizing single shot that centers on Northup but slowly brings other slaves into the scene, all of them going about their business without daring to glance at the dangling man. This moment is a direct assault on the audience. The only person watching Northup is you.

I watched 12 Years a Slave at an advance screening in November. My plus-one was a great lady, and the screening was our first date. Afterward, she turned to me: “That was brilliant,” she said. “And I never, ever want to see it again.” (Pro-tip: Steve McQueen flicks? Probably not the best first date.)

Last week, one of my neighbors, K, a 24-year-old black man, came to visit me on my porch. He looked pissed.

“You seen that 12 Years movie?” he asked.

“Brother—” (he calls me “brother” out of affection, and because I'm the only white person he talks to) “—I rented it and had to stop after an hour.”

“Too much?”

“It was making me all furious and shit. My stomach was making noises. That movie is a fucking trip.”

K has watched all of Roots plus various other slavery documentaries but balked at 12 Years. That's a testament to the aesthetic aggression of McQueen's program, but more so to the potency of film as a medium for instilling morals via unforgivable violence. Last Oscar season, Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed for misusing her platform, for (supposedly) misleading her audience in morally disingenuous and politically dangerous ways. My visceral response to the “enhanced interrogation” scenes in Zero Dark Thirty revisited me during the stomach-shriveling moments in 12 Years a Slave. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal may have overplayed the usefulness of intel obtained via torture, but their scenes of interrogation at various black sites across Europe and the Arab world constitute a powerful anti-torture PSA. In both Thirty and 12 Years, the triumph is staging tableaux of such immediate emotional power that the viewer feels the need to look away—but cannot.

Hitchcock himself was forced to look away in 1945. But our stomachs are stronger now, our skin more callused. What Bernstein and Hitchcock's film achieves, in its final, proper form, and what McQueen accomplishes in 12 Years, is to inflict suffering on the viewer. Both films accept tragedy as their working premise. The execution in each case is deft, dogged, and ultimately purgative. After chains and concentration camps, life proceeds with no sense of shame, forgetting its past until the artist arrives—to punish, and to purify.