As has already been stated, I’m a graduate student over at Penn State, and when I first arrived there, there was all this talk in my courses by my fellow graduate students about this guy by the name of Foucault. Grad students were saying, “Oh, well, Foucault says, this and Foucault says that.” I didn’t even know who this guy Foucault was and I was getting a little sick and tired of hearing what Mr. Know-It-All Foucault had to say about everything.
So, I come to find out that this guy Foucault is a dead philosopher-slash-historian-slash-sociologist. While here at Rider, I had taken only one critical theory course, which was Dr. Lucia’s Intro to Critical Theory, so it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that if I wanted to hang with the graduate students who earned their undergraduate degrees at big research universities, then I was going to have to bone up on my theory.
So last semester, I took a critical theory seminar which centered on philosophical tracts on violence and introduced me to big words and big ideas such as: base, superstructure, interpellation, and biopower – a word completely made up by the aforementioned Foucault fellow. The first essay we read was not written by Foucault (him and his biopower came later in the course), but by a guy by the name of Walter Benjamin. (For those of you taking notes, his last name is spelled Ben-ja-min, but everyone called him Ben-ha-mean.) Well, almost everyone. My professor told us upfront that in the honor of political incorrectness, she was going to refer to this “bloke” as Ben-ja-min because, in her opinion, the etiquette of correct pronunciation has gotten way too out of control and become far too snobbish for her tastes.
After reading Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” I was certain that I was going to have no idea what was going on in the course. But outside of class, I started challenging the understanding of other graduate students and found out that – despite their in-class prowess – they too largely had no idea what was going on. However, our professor really went out of her way to make things as clear as she could, given the density of the readings and the variety of philosophers we were reading as it appeared to me that what we were involved in was a crash course on various philosophical discourses on violence.
Enter 19th Century German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche.
One of the essays we read was the second treatise from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and though I can’t say I entirely comprehended every last nuance of the essay, it was by far my favorite philosopher of the course. In order to ease the pain of reading essays that made entirely little to no sense, our professor suggested that for our final project that we take one or two concepts from one of the philosophers we read during the semester and apply those concepts to our current research area. Naturally, being the horror fan that I am, it was only natural that I choose a horror film, and since I was recently irritated by some of the articles floating around labeling Eli Roth’s films as “torture p*rn,” my decision for a subject was not a difficult one to make. However, deciding upon which concept to apply to this subject made matters more complicated. Taking any of these philosophers and applying their concepts to a film is problematic in that you are, more often than not, forced to wrench them out of their context in order to “read” a film that takes place in an entirely different time and place.
Ultimately, I decided to take Nietzsche’s concept of “bad conscience” to apply, within a Marxist context” to Roth’s Hostel. The basic idea – and mind you, I am watering it down and twisting it a hair – behind bad conscience is that a group of people will conquer another group of people and form what another philosopher might refer to as the “state apparatus.” This structure of the ruling state is unnatural – it was installed by forces that had their own interests in mind when it was formulated. So what happens? Instead of being free, the subjects of the state become in Nietzsche’s words “an adventure or a place of torture.” These subjects now experience bad conscience, which is having their natural instinct of freedom, or what Nietzsche calls the “will to power…driven back, suppressed, [and] imprisoned within.” A result of this repression, or oppression, is the rechanneling of this energy (or energies and desires) into unhealthy or unnatural practices. For example, torturing a young Asian woman with a blowtorch.
So then the question becomes how does bad conscience combined with a Marxist slant figure into a reading of Hostel?
Well, my main assertion is that both Hostel, and its sequel, are critiques of a Western capitalist system as oppressive and a catalyst of sexual perversion. And this is aside from the obvious contextual implications. The film was made in 2005, two years after Abu Gharib and the same year that Charles Krauthammer famously defended the use of torture on captured terrorists in The Weekly Standard. So the political implications regarding the use of torture is a no-brainer when considering the context. However, Eli – who was a protégé of the highly socially and politically aware Lloyd Kaufman – seems, to me, to be operating on another level in terms of a critique of capitalism as a whole.
(And as a side note, for those of you who don’t know who Lloyd Kaufman is, he’s the guy who is not only responsible for catapulting the careers of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park), his most famous films include the 1984 Toxic Avenger which critiqued toxic waste dumping, the 2004 Tales from the Crapper that defended independent art against media consolidation, and the 2006 Poultrygeist which harped against multinational corporate fast food.)
Unlike Lloyd’s work, Eli Roth’s Hostel films clearly take themselves more seriously. Both the original and its sequel follow a similar plot. As we saw in the first film, the audience is led to follow three male backpackers through Europe and the sequel changes things up a little bit by following three female backpackers through Europe. Eventually, both groups are drugged and sold on the black market in a torture ring set up by the Russian mob.
However, what is possibly most intriguing about these films, for me, are not the supposed protagonists, the college-age American backpackers, but the motives behind the torture that is inflicted upon them by their antagonists – aka where a Marxist take on Nietzsche’s bad conscience pops in. While one critic has found the “Eastern European murderers” from Roth’s first film “wholly sinister and merciless, and in several instances repulsive,” the three murderers are, in fact, not Eastern European but are, in actuality, a Dutch businessman, a German businessman, and an American businessman.
Regardless of location and ethnicity, the actions and rationale of each businessman is equally grotesque, and arguably speaks to the concept of bad conscience in that each individual expresses that they have had desires and dreams they’ve been forced to repress. Moreover, this repression is often offered as their rationale for their eager participation in acts of torture.
For example, long before the Dutch businessman, played by Jan Vlasak, drills his first hole into Josh (the skinny awkward kid of the male backpackers in the first film), while at the bar after having saved Josh from the gaggle of kids Eli Roth dubbed “the bubblegum gang,” the businessman expresses to Josh an ambivalent desire to have led a homosexual lifestyle when he was younger, but instead settled for a conventional family because “that’s what was best for me at the time” and it “worked out” because he had a daughter. Moreover, he tells Josh that he doesn’t have to do that. Josh, of course, doesn’t listen and has sex with one of the smack addicts who lured him and his friends into the trap in the first place. Then, before killing Josh, the businessman once again confides in him – this time by relaying his failed dream of becoming a surgeon. Though the unsteadiness of his hands is what physically prevented him from attaining his goal, he blames the Dutch medical board – aka the social structure in charge – for having denied him certification despite his mental capacity to comprehend and excel in the conceptual work.
In both the case of the Dutch businessman’s sexuality and of his career, a submission to social and legal structures resulted in the alienation of a man from his work as well as a repression of desires which have been redirected inward before finding a release in the torture of Josh. First, his repressed sexuality comes out violently in the form of drilling holes into Josh’s thighs and chest with a power drill – which, of course, Freud would want us to read as a penetration of a phallic symbol. Second, his failed desire to become a surgeon is fulfilled in the performance of a mock autopsy on the body. By succeeding in the business world, he has been able to purchase his freedom or “will to power,” albeit on the black market – but in a capitalistic manner and thanks to his success as a capitalistic businessman, to release his energy in a sadistic manner. Thus, a capitalistic system has simultaneously served as a catalyst and indirectly funded the torture of one human being by another.
For the German businessman, played by Petr Janis, less is known about him as he never offers the same heart-to-heart with Paxton (who is played by Jay Hernandez) the way the Dutch businessman does so with Josh. And, unfortunately for this critical reading, the German businessman is killed by Paxton before any truly valuable insight is possible. Instead, all that is offered is that the German businessman is fascinated with snipping a pair of scissors inches from Paxton’s face before clipping a lock of hair. When Paxton finally begs for mercy in German, the businessman stops midstride and is visibly mortified at his victim’s ability to communicate with him in his own language because, obviously, that is not what he paid for. Just like Burger King’s motto, have it your way, one of the Russian guards adheres to the client’s wishes and ballgags Paxton, perhaps suggesting a preferred alienation from the victim in order to enact a suppressed desire to dominate “the other.”
However, it is Rick Hoffman’s energetic performance as the American client that is, undeniably, the most disturbing. While the Dutch businessman’s torture reflects his unfulfilled wishes and the German businessman’s torture is arguably problematically-rooted in a suppressed German nationalism, the American businessman is simply there for the adrenaline rush like he’s about to go bungee jumping. In that great monologue we just watched, the American businessman explains to Paxton in a hyperactive banter his inability to find anything else in life stimulating. His senses have been dulled by every extreme outlet he has tried. He’s “been all over the world” and “every strip club, every whorehouse” it’s all the same anymore.
Paxton is obviously mortified as he realizes that he has lost two fingers, two friends, and his passport to a black market system modeled after and preying on the failures of the capitalist project which sells human captives for torture and murder. Thinking that Paxton is a fellow client of the group, the American asks if Paxton has a suggestion as to whether he should kill his victim quickly with a bullet to the head or if he should draw it out and relish the experience. And despite the fact that Paxton suggests he get it over quickly, we obviously find out that the sexually-numbed, hyperactive American thrill-seeker has chosen to start his session by melting half of Kana’s face with a blowtorch. While the American rationalizes this as a need to get his money’s worth (as any smart businessman would do), he also reinforces the capitalistic nature of the torture ring by telling Paxton to get out of the room as he already paid for Kana – a situation that clearly parallels an earlier scene from the Amsterdam brothel where Josh walked in on the S&M scene between the prostitute and her client, resulting in the prostitute demanding of Josh, “This is a private room. You watch, you pay!” Unlike Josh, who would not pay to watch, nor get involved with a prostitute at the brothel at all, Paxton involves himself by murdering the American businessman and cutting the optical nerve of Kana’s now useless eyeball hanging from her socket.
If this first film doesn’t make the critique of a capitalistic structure clear, its sequel does everything in its power to extend the conversation. Though the businessmen’s motives aren’t quite as detailed or explained away in the sequel thereby making a reading of bad conscience a bit more difficult, Roth does offer a bit more background about these men (and in one case, woman). Early in the film, we see the soon-to-be torturers bidding for their victims in an Ebay-like fashion expressing giddiness and sheer glee on the golf course when realizing that they have won their hard fought bidding war. The character Todd, played by Richard Burgi, smacks his golf ball with such emphasis afterwards that an uninformed onlooker might think he just conquered another corporation via an electronic hostile takeover. Todd and others’ celebrations mimic that of an Ebay addict celebrating small victories because the capitalist structure has prevented them from celebrating the accomplishment of their inner-desires and dreams.
However, the film largely focuses on the characters of Beth and her torturer, another American businessman, this time named Stuart. We find out during Beth’s torture scene with Stuart that Stuart feels figuratively castrated by a social structure whose origins are rooted in ownership. That is, he feels weakened by his marriage. When Beth pleads with him that she is not his wife, she appeals to his repressed masculinity by stating, “I see how you’re strong.” To which Stuart replies, “I am strong! I am f*cking Hercules!”
When Beth gains the upperhand with Stuart as Paxton had gained the upperhand with his German torturer, Roth finally gives us an idea as to exactly where in the social structure these torturers fit in. To explain, when Beth finally is able to escape her position of subordinate to Stuart, she calls in the compound operator and the firm’s guards and explains that she can outbid Stuart for her own life. Stuart, of course, pleads with them by saying he can outbid Beth. However, the compound operator has already run a profile check on Stuart and knows he’s already mortgaged his house for this experience and has no more credit or money in the bank to draw from. Essentially, Roth’s point is that these are not wealthy CEOs, but are, in fact, middle to upper-middle class businessmen and women who, in all likelihood, will never gain the position of CEO or CFO at a multinational corporation. They represent a group of people who have bought into the capitalist structure as a means of finding relative success, but a success that, of course, has a limit on it. To illustrate the gruesome nature of a capitalist structure, when Beth outbids Stuart, she is told by the compound operator that she just can’t walk free, she must murder someone or else the firm’s safety would be at risk. In a typical dog-eat-dog world, the firm offers up Stuart and rather than kill him quickly, Beth chooses to cut Stuart’s testicles off and orders the guards to watch over him as he bleeds to death.
Horror filmmakers of the early 70s and 80s such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Sean Cunningham, Tobe Hooper, and Stuart Gordon were known not only for their gruesome and graphic depictions of death and mutilation, they were also largely hippies and social activists. Wes Craven, for example, earned his Masters in Philosophy and Writing from John Hopkins University and taught as a humanities professor for several years before quitting his job due to his disillusionment with politically apathetic students. Similarly, Tobe Hooper was a professor at Texas University at Austin while he was filming Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And long before Stuart Gordon was delving into the horrors of human ambition in The Re-Animator, he was arrested for his involvement as a protester at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As a horror fan, I can attest that Eli Roth is clearly attempting to follow in the footsteps of his idols as his films Hostel and Hostel: Part II are not only brutally graphic, but laden with socio-politcal implications that demand a reassessment of scholarly approaches in understanding certain works within the genre. It is my hope that both this talk and my studies will help facilitate in bringing greater attention to these films.
Nietzsche and Marxism in Eli Roth’s ‘Hostel’