A Talk with Uwe Boll
by Kurt Dahlke
No director incites passion quite like Uwe Boll. It's not the type of passion most would court, but firebrand Boll somehow seems to like (or at least be amused by) the level of hatred he's earned from video game and horror movie fans in particular, not to mention the notoriety of being considered one of the worst directors currently working by many critics.
With an emphasis on cinematic adaptations of gruesome video games, and much-loathed titles like House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, and the BloodRayne series under his belt, the man has been of late branching out. His recent spate of politically themed films such as Stoic, Darfur and Tunnel Rats may be aimed at restoring credibility, but I doubt that. Rather, these subjects simply seem near to his heart, stuff he wants to talk about, representing ways to make universally important statements.
With the DVD release of Tunnel Rats, Boll has taken some time to talk to reviewers instead of challenging them to boxing matches. This flabby soul is glad for the benign chance, knowing he'd probably knock himself out with the sheer effort of climbing in the ring to duke it out with Boll.
Incidentally, the voluble man is in good spirits when we chat, and no gauntlets are thrown in regards to his prior career. Why not? The focus is on Tunnel Rats, a movie - oddly enough - that did not arrive in time for most interviewers to screen before talking to the director. Make of that what you will.
I ask Boll to tell me about Tunnel Rats and he chuckles, wondering just what he can tell me. No, I haven't seen it yet, so we discuss the ramifications, rather than the piece itself. "I felt with that movie I can make maybe a point about war in general. We have to make the message that no war ever leads to something valuable," he says when asked why he's tackling the subject of the little known Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Kong in the Vietnam war.
Well, someone profits but it's usually the corporations, I note. Sure, "for Blackwater it's great to have a war, or Dick Cheney," chuckles the director, mentioning that in the end, nothing really changes after a war, except that usually a new, equally corrupt regime moves in.
I don't learn all of my history from movies, but I hadn't heard of these tunnels before. I wonder if that's because it's not a very cinematic subject, I ask. " I think I've proved the opposite," he says, describing what he's learned: tunnels that would flood, trapdoors, spike-traps and other claustrophobic horrors. Many of these things are on sensationalistic display in Tunnel Rats, yet not as over-the-top as you might expect.
When talking with his actors, Boll describes how they thought, "Who the fuck would go in there? All the actors were like, 'I would never, ever go in those tunnels. I would go 20 years in Guantanamo Bay before going in those tunnels.' I talked with American soldiers [about how they did it] and they were, like stoned. They were dope smoking all day just to handle it. I had a guy who told me he made a rope around the feet of another guy so if a Vietnamese comes up to shoot him he can pull him back. The guy got wounded and as he pulled him back his hand grenade went off, shredding the guy, and still 40 years later it's haunting him."
Boll is getting worked up about the futility of war as he sees it. "Is it worth it ... I would give a shit before I would give my life for Afghanistan." It's certainly a non-combative stance for such a seemingly (in the press) aggressive guy. Then again, Germans know a thing or two about the horrors of war, as, these days, do Americans and Iraqis. Though Boll waxes forcefully about how nothing good comes from fighting, I wonder if it's just human nature to fight?
"Yeah, I agree with you. It's human nature to try to clear things up in a military way or a violent way. To think you make things different or better with violence." We agree that the use of force is certainly a game changer when compared with sanctions or diplomacy. "In Iraq, how you can make a connection with the people if you go on the street under super-tension with an M-16 in your hand?" The atmosphere of paranoia can't help, I think. "Yeah, you're paranoid, and this alone is why it can never end up in a good way there."
Aside from civics, we all probably want to know if Boll will be tackling more historical things or going back to the video game world? (Video game movies have certainly kept Boll rolling, and possibly provided a unique investment opportunity for Germans taking advantage of a sort-of government subsidy for German made movies, but seemingly few of those films have turned a profit.
"I think I learned a lot from Alone in the Dark about making a 90-minute action movie. These are fun to do, I'm looking forward to doing BloodRayne 3: Warhammer, to finish the trilogy. But I've made Tunnel Rats, and Stoic - about a real case in a German jail - and I've made Darfur, about genocide in Sudan," he says, indicating that while he's not exactly abandoning his bread and butter (such as it is) he does feel a higher calling in cinema.
"This is what I think is wrong about the high-end critics, they think if you make genre movies you're not able to make political movies. I think a lot of arty directors could never make an action movie." I add that lot of genre movies are plenty topical anyway, albeit obliquely. As I score more suck-up points, Boll says "I totally agree with you, and if you go back in film history, [you have] The Searchers, and A Clockwork Orange."
Sure, those two movies were actually directed by pretty arty directors, but they are nonetheless genre films with a point. But as Boll points out, "no one remembers who won the Berlin Bear award (from the Berlin International Film Festival) ten years ago. I think the real movies with interesting subject matter are also genre movies."
And with that our brief time is up. I thank Mr. Boll and remind myself again that you have to separate the human from the director. Boll's affability and candor are charming, even if he appears to be learning filmmaking as he goes along. When Tunnel Rats finally arrives, I find it nowhere near as bad as I'd come to expect. Though something like a weird cross between Friday the 13th and Stallone's latest Rambo picture, (with many instances of splashy gore in the unrated cut) Tunnel Rats takes plenty of time to set up a mood before fully diving into the caves.
Including genre vet Michael Pare, the cast of characters are clichéd to be sure, something that might be hard to avoid - both as a director and a viewer - since expectations for this type of movie, from such a notorious person, almost totally destroys the hope of objectivity. When the action really gets going, some nicely tense set pieces deliver thrills. (Although I still don't think a lone flashlight shining in a pitch-black tunnel is all that cinematic, and such a claustrophobic lack of detail does exacerbate the 'what the heck is going on?' effect that Boll is notorious for.)
Boll's passionate dislike of war seems equal to the rancor many fans
and critics lob his way. The pyrrhic, ambiguous and tragic ending for Tunnel
Rats indicates the director is improving in getting his point across.
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