Fantasia 2022 Review: WE MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD, With Neighbors Like These
In the not too distant future, the outside world is a profoundly unsafe place. It is more broken, more threatening that it is today. Note that things can always be worse. A family tensely walks through the woods, with frightened purpose, wearing their Sunday best. The parents are armed with sharp trowel-like weapons, free palms tightly gripping the hand of their young son. They are on their way to an interview for an apartment in a secure, sought after, gated community. Upon arrival, they are disarmed, electronically wanded, and subjected to a lengthy, painfully precise, set of screening questions.
More so even than the reams of intrusive airport bureaucracy we navigate in our current pandemic moment. Questions proceed from the mere factual and physical, and into abstract moral principles. Before anyone can utter the phrase Orwellian, or Kafka-esque, the father breaks down in a cold sweat, blubbering that they are good honest people, and they are not above begging. He will do whatever, anything required, to be accepted into the community. The female officer, a model of upright objectivity, and precise control of the process, deftly handles this undignified turn the interview has taken. She calmly, matter-of-factly, almost condescendingly, explains, ”Not only do you have to be right for us, sir, we have to be right for you." Threatening in the absurdity of the situation, I bet you probably think the real estate market is bad in your area. Things can always be worse.
One of several brilliant turns in Natalia Sinelnikova’s evocatively titled first feature, We Might As Well Be Dead, is that after this prologue of sorts, an introduction to her unmoored world with sanctuaries of civilization, it then hands off its narrative to the officer, Anna, abandoning the family to their fate.
Anna's role in the Pheobus housing corporation, besides screening new applicants, is to keep things orderly. To maintain the safety, and surrogate authority, for its bourgeois German residents. As a Polish-Jew, she is constantly reminded by her employers that her own status (and apartment) is held at the privilege of the Home Owners Association. Like every HOA since the dawn of time, the politics are hell. The upper middle-class perfection that the community projects, complete with retro-new-wave propaganda band is, unsurprisingly, an aspirational delusion.
What follows is a ripe satirical nightmare. One that the tower block science fiction micro-genre, or what few entries exist, seems to excel at. One of petty power dynamics, rigid conformity, fear and loathing, proto-fascism, and inevitable collapse of order. David Cronenberg set the template in the 1970s with Shivers. Sinelnikova’s observations on the human social condition, herself an apartment-raised Russian immigrant into Germany, occasionally drift into what might be considered blunt. However, her visuals are of the highest caliber. It is astonishing discover out that this was her graduate thesis from Babelsberg Film University. The plotting is tight, and the emotional energy is drawn out to maximum tautness. Her film handily trumps Ben Wheatley’s terminally flawed attempt at adapting J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (Portishead re-imagining Abba’s S.O.S. aside) in both in a visual and a narrative sense.
The building itself is a marvel of found production value and composition, with its central open lobby (complete with revolving door), acres of golf course greenspace, and an olympic sized swimming pool. That no residents actually make use of these amenities, is both besides the point, and precisely the point. Establishing shots and background landscapes serve a specific thematic end. The rooms themselves are tiny and cramped, where people live their private lives.
Anna lives in the smallest of these with her daughter, Iris. After a conflict with a neighbour, where his dog goes missing, Iris believes that she is cursed with the Evil Eye. She retreats into the apartments lone bathroom to distance her ‘curse’ from the rest of building. She is committed to her social isolation to the point of sleeping in the tub with the door locked. Her mother then has to surreptitiously utilize the vacant unit from the prologue for washing and sanitary purposes.
With the residents all in close quarters, the corridors and liminal spaces of the complex breed rumours and judgment, and when Anna cannot access the unit, for fear of being discovered (embarrassment, or even expulsion for rules violations might result) she is forced to pee in her kitchen sink. At one point she is seen soaking in a series of plastic tote bins in the living room. A quite loaded visual metaphor for the precarious working-immigrant experience, one applicable in any time or place.
We Might As Well Be Dead is heroically anchored by a complex lead performance by Romanian star, Iona Iacob. Possessing a face, and body language, that communicates much with little. Sinelnikova keeps her lead actress perpetually harried, running from one crisis to another, to the point of exhaustion. Her overlapping roles as a second-class citizen, but also an authority figure, and as a single mother of an unruly teenager, all conflict with default goal newcomers to a confusing society; of keeping a low profile. Juggling these roles, and the buildings varied geography, is increasingly fraught. Anna tries to hold the confidence of the community, herself projecting a heightened normalcy (in the face of rising chaos) by being data driven and rational. But still serving her own political purposes. Self-fulfilling prophecies, unintended consequences, and Murphy's Law all apply.
In this era of Black Lives Matter, it is a bold choice to have your audience root for this kind of authority figure. Particularly since we observe Anna abuse her power in small and large ways. The most egregious of which involving another member of the lower social order in the complex. The residents, caught up in a hysteria and heightened paranoia inevitably devolve into tribalism and vigilante groups. Dignity and decorum, which were always a thin veneer in the building, is sacrificed on the alter of ‘100% safety.’ Quoted directly from the playbook of authoritarianism, “Feeling safe is more important than safety itself.”
On the question of the end justifying the means. The sentence-long title might provide an answer. It certainly reflects the situation. There are no easy answers when processes and rules are weaponized by authority, and misinformation and populism rule the village. Like all good science fiction, it both reflects, and warps, our contemporary cultural moment.
A key decision to keep the outside threats non-specific, allows for allegory universal enough to graft on big world events as disparate as the Holocaust, MAGA, the Chinese Social Credit system, or even the rise of the midcentury American Suburbs. As the ethnic garbage man in Joe Dante’s The Burbs said of insular, homogenous neighbourhoods with culs-de-sac, “There's only one way out, and the people are kind of weird.”