Cast: August Wittgenstein, Alma Terzic, Ella Jazz Director: Yayo Herrero
Written and directed by Spanish director Yayo Herrero, The Maus is a multi-lingual survival-psychological horror–thriller that plays out in the ominous shadow of the Bosnian war. With so much at stake, it is imperative that Herrero’s assured directorial hand be lauded for not reducing his debut film to a cheap mashup of genres. The trauma induced by an endless and bloody conflict is handled with a sensitivity that could so easily have fallen victim to the tropes that afflict the lesser entries in the horror genre.
The Maus is further bolstered by strong performances, the leading actress’ in particular, and effective, claustrophobia inducing camerawork. A question or two may well be raised about Herrero’s decision to add a supernatural element to the film. But what it loses in narrative efficacy it makes up for with a justification that buttresses the fundamental idea of the film, thus enriching it in return.
Selma, a Bosnian Muslim, and Alex, a German, are on a trip to her ancestral village close to Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country formed in the aftermath of the bloody breakup of communist Yugoslavia. When their car breaks down in the middle of a forest strewn with hidden landmines from the war, Selma starts fearing the worst. Alex is initially skeptical about Selma’s fear of the two Serbian men who suddenly show up with an offer to help them out of the forest. He misconstrues her terror for hysteria as she sinks into prayer, her amulet at hand, seemingly trying to ward off the reality of evil with supernatural aid. But as soon as her fears come true, The Maus turns into a survival thriller where Alex, and the audience, slowly begin to grasp the scale of injustice meted out during the war and the hatred it has engendered among a people who suddenly found themselves divided by a frail border line.
Herrero takes the is-it-all-in-her-head scenario so parasitic to horror films, lodges it within a harrowing framework of an all too real conflict, adds a dash of the supernatural, cloaks it all under a survival thriller and yet manages to get under your skin and make an artistic statement of protest against the war. Selma’s endless, terrifying anxiety is a grisly, painful reminder of the conflict that destroyed her family. Alex’s first world optimism, which can stand in for our own distance from the awful reality that Selma must endure, while earnest and indeed important, cannot but fail to pass through to her worldview, fractured irreparably once and for all.
The Maus might really be about the loneliness that Selma must endure for the rest of her life. In a world torn apart by hatred, violence and inaction in the face of evil, the observer who survived may well be the most doomed of all. If indeed she is dreaming everything up, as Alex initally suspects, it may just be an extension of the nightmare that turned out to be real after all. For a species governed by hope, nothing can be scarier than sheer hopelessness. And while Herrero’s infantile solution to Selma’s fate at the end of the film may come across as downright stupid, the earnestness of the pain plastered across her face is as close to a map of the conflict that certain casual viewers might ever encounter.
Herrero is keenly aware of what drives his film: Selma and her faith, bled and assaulted by life as it may be. He frames her in endless close-ups and, while the effect might not be a Falconetti, it does remain the narrative’s primary driving force. The writing isn’t always spot-on, editing away a lot of the long shots that follow the couple, especially in the beginning, could have made this a tighter film and the lesser said about the comically unwarranted ending, the better. But The Maus’ grand ambition and earnestness makes up for its missteps most of the time. It results in a mostly harrowing visual experience that tries hard to cut through the fog of war to the human factor shivering haplessly beyond it. And that’s an achievement that alone makes this film worth viewing and reviewing.