The use of historic monuments as backdrops in movies and advertising can be challenging for producers and misleading for consumers. Can it really be that hard to draw an appropriate moral line ?
Hey, I just watched the trailers for the new Hellboy movie, coming to a cinema near you later in 2019. As a long term fan of the foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking, existentially-challenged demon of comic book lore, I was compelled by the look and feel of this new instalment, and will be looking forward to watching it. Hellboy is a great comic character that has a lot to teach us about moral challenges and dilemmas : he’s after all a good guy who only by happenstance looks like the devil incarnate. He’s a guy brought to this world to be bad, but who has genuinely made the opposite choice for himself – and despite that, he has to endure his intentions constantly challenged by just about everyone and their mother. Beastly, intense, controversial ; you can decide to love him or hate him, and still wonder whether you made the right choice afterwards.
There are a few moments that stood out for me in these trailers. In trailer number 1, there’s a scene at 0:18 when Hellboy, arriving at a scene of carnage (presumably to lend an infamous red right hand in some paranormal investigation or other) is being mistakenly shot at by one of the police SWATs in the perimeter. “HEEYYYY !! I AM ON YOUR SIIDE !!” he hollers to the unfortunate culprit, receiving a mousy “sorry..” in response. This instantly cracked me up : The part-misguided, part-misunderstood persona of our horned hero is perhaps the most entertaining aspect of his character. It is an endless source of jokes, puns and funny scenes, where he inadvertently gets punked by those righteous-than-thou – solely because of his demonic looks. Hellboy is of course conditioned to the expectation of this sort of behaviour, and his resulting outbursts of anger are consistently hilarious. Another two scenes that stand out are all about the casting of Milla Jovovich as Nimue the Blood Queen (for example 1.09 & 1.20). I think that whether fighting demons in the Resident Evil franchise, being the embodiment of an ancient super weapon in The Fifth Element, or an evil Witch Queen in the recent Hellboy rehash, Jovovich’s typecasting to sci-fi/horror movies will always be right up my alley : She has that strangely mystical allure that makes her a perfect fit for this kind of role, and hope to see more of her starring performances in the near future.
But perhaps the most electrifying scene of all is here at 0.09 : this mystical temple, a strange looking building draped in swastika standards, where a group of Nazi occultists ceremoniously bring little Hellboy into our world from the Rift, is beyond doubt the Fraternal Barrow Memorial Complex in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I know this because The Bohemian Blog’s Darmon Richter highlighted it recently on social media. And also because I was there with him back in October 2017, when security prevented us from approaching the freshly renovated monument (let alone entering or scaling it as we would normally be inclined to). The mystery Hollywood film that was being shot on location, and which commanded such tight security (they were as hostile as they come, I can assure you), transpired to be the new instalment of Hellboy, as evidenced in the trailer :
The Fraternal Barrow was the Bulgarian monument that left me with the most lasting impression in that trip (ok, maybe after Buzhludza and Schumen, but still). I was absolutely mesmerised by its austere, and yet complex brutalist quality. Just look at those steep, sloping walls, arching over the underground memorial chamber where the remains of partisans are interred, overlooked by concrete figures that narrate the historic struggle of Bulgarian people against their oppressors. The Fraternal Barrow was conceived as a modern throwback to the ancient Thracian burial mounds that can be found in the plains near Plovdiv, further connecting the monument to Bulgaria’s history and heritage. It is a magnificent and poignant memorial, and if you want to find out more about its origins and symbolism, you can read Darmon’s definitive article here .
But hang on a moment : What kind of message does Hollywood send to the audience, when a memorial dedicated to Partisan who fought the Nazis is depicted draped in swastikas? When actors wearing SS uniforms are allowed to perform their occult ceremonies over its Eternal Flame? Darmon Richter made a valid observation about this : “I thought about the implications of an anti-fascist memorial being re-purposed as a film set featuring swastikas and actors in SS uniforms. And I’m not sure if I feel great about that”. I sympathise with his view, and think about the recent case of an Australian firm using imagery of Croatia’s Jasenovac Holocaust Memorial to promote their new range of sunglasses: a poor, and insensitive choice for advertising collateral if I ever saw one.
But jumping to the defence of my favourite comic book hero, I quickly pointed out that Hellboy is nothing but a babbling baby demon when summoned to this world by Nazi occultists, who is then thankfully liberated by the Allies to be trained as a special operative. Much of the Hellboy comic book and movie lore is about the rescued demon being unleashed back against Nazis and evil paranormal entities, whom he’s often seen bashing with his hammer fist – and with great pleasure, I may add. So in a sense, the visual of who we know to be a vindictive, invincible hero creeping out of the Fraternal Barrow in the movie, can perhaps be seen as an allegory for the birth of the partisan movement : The Nazi occupiers creating a monster that will soon turn around to destroy them in ultimate victory. Or is it? As much as I like this theory of mine, I’m still having some difficulty accepting that those movie location scouts genuinely made the same connection.. Chances are, after all, that practicalities such as production costs have driven their choice, rather than the deeply nuanced interpretation I fancied.
But lets pretend for a moment that my wacky theory holds. This would be all good and fine for those among us who know the story of the Fraternal Barrow along with the legend of Hellboy : allowing for a bit of artistic licence, we can choose to justify this allegory as valid, and enjoy what will surely be an explosive action film shot at a location we know and appreciate. But that doesn’t really solve the overarching problems associated with the treatment and reception of historic monuments in movies and advertising. For one, those who are not familiar with the symbolic significance of the Fraternal Barrow, or at least with the redeeming qualities of Hellboy, might receive such imagery the wrong way entirely. Some kids might stand in front of the monument a few weeks from now, and all they will see is a weirdly impressive building full of Nazis, with a red demon climbing out of its eternal flame : Will they know otherwise about what this space is really about? Some of those same kids might yet be climbing the Barrow to desecrate it with their spray cans and markers all over again : Because this semi-abandoned space was already covered with swastikas well before Hollywood chose to turn it into an SS temple for their movie set. Darmon recalls how at the time when Holywood came to Plovdiv “..actual swastikas were scrubbed off the concrete for some temporary ones to replace them”.
So isn’t it that the real problem here lies less with the perceived misappropriation of monuments in cinema, and more with the disappointing lack of education about their meaning? Does Hollywood do the damage, or just adding to it? Thinking again about those dumb asses who tried to sell us sunglasses (it rhymes), because they thought Jasenovac was edgy, I am inclined to lament their ignorance, rather than their poor choice. Same about those kids of today who would desecrate a monument dedicated to partisans with swastikas, have they ever opened a contemporary book, any book, about the war? In the ongoing conundrum of utility or architectural value versus symbolism, and amidst a global epidemic of general ignorance and political revisionism, historic buildings and monuments around the world are not just in danger of desecration, or demolition : they are in danger of being misunderstood by a growing legion of media-fed ignoramuses.
Misunderstood. Like Hellboy. Sometimes I wish monuments could file their imaginary horns out with regret about their past, and wonder if that would satisfy those whose intent is retribution. And some other times, I wish monuments could bellow back in anger at us about whose side they’re on, or about the actual meaning they carry : would that help those who take a misguided shot at them understand? But of course none of that is possible : this is reality, not a Hollywood movie. So in the real world, the responsibility rests with us. We need to seek the knowledge, and then begin our own conversation with monuments. We can be their voice, and talk about what they used to be in the past, what they are now, and what they can become in the future. This way empathy can be fostered, appreciation can bloom, and perhaps a new sensibility, a clearer moral code about the use of monuments in media can be applied.
Take Columbus on a column, for example, condemned to an eternity of upskirting and being shat upon by pigeons. Isn’t that just punishment for falsely claiming the first discovery of a new continent all these centuries? So bring in the media to sort it out.. just deserts !
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