It’s easy to see why the various fringe cultures of hate hold sway over the public’s fascination. Even as the tales of their exploits repulse us in their savagery and obvious ignorance, we still gaze unflinchingly into the heart of darkness looking for answers: Why do these people choose to devote their lives to hatred? What drives them to lash out at anyone who seems different or threatening to their narrow-minded view of the world? How can someone become so filled with violence and hate that it consumes them whole?
Those hoping to see light shed on the subject of hate cultures or the nature of prejudice or even just to garner titillating looks into the lives of neo-Nazis will find the Swedish import Speak Up! It’s So Dark a bit of a maddening journey. Although filmmaker Suzanne Osten’s 1992 film (only now washing up onto American shores) ostensibly centers on the intertwined subjects of skinheads and racism, it seems much more interested in the inherent melodramatics of the topics than the topics themselves.
A wounded skinhead bruiser, Soren (Simon Norrthon), fleeing a neo-Nazi rally finds himself on a train with one Dr. Jacob (Etienne Glaser), a Jewish psychiatrist. After tending to Soren’s wounds, Dr. Jacob invites the boy to his office and eventually begins to treat him, attempting to draw the boy out of his self-destructive haze and in the process, exorcise a few demons of his own as well.
These sessions between the hunted Soren and the haunted Jacob make up the bulk of Speak Up!, placing the film squarely within the “psychiatry of the criminally wounded” archetype exemplified by such works as Peter Shaffer’s Equus and the little-known 1962 head-shrinker thriller Pressure Point. Films and plays of this highly theatrical genre rely on the battle of wills between doctor and patient as they test each other’s weak spots, deriving dramatic tension almost solely from the outcome of a psychological victory. It’s here that Osten’s film comes up inexcusably short, offering a few interesting tidbits on each participant in their back-and-forth games of deception and self-deception (the Doctor owns a German Shepherd strikingly similar to the one who attacked his mother at Auschwitz, the skinhead feels dread over not being strong enough to kill himself), but then refusing to either delve any deeper or take the battles to a logical conclusion.
Storytelling techniques such as awkward editing rhythms (the interrogation-like scenes apparently start and/or end in mid-sequence) and cross-cutting to over-exposed scenes of stylized violence may seem a unique approach to the well-worn conventions of the genre, but they fail to produce any dramatic voltage or payoff. At the film’s climax, it’s nearly impossible to tell if either character has emerged changed in any way. While it can be conceded that the origins of hatred may not be miraculously healed or the damage undone with an eleventh hour snap of the fingers, the film seems reluctant to offer any answers or solutions whatsoever.
Neither offering fresh insight into the depths of this particular strain of cultural deviancy nor managing to energize the narrative sufficiently to sustain attention, it’s nigh impossible to find a plain on which Speak Up! works. It’s tempting to think that, like the majority of us that find looking into such sordid material to be anthropologically riveting, Osten and her cast had hoped to peel the surface back and examine what makes these folks tick. It’s a noble endeavor to attempt to explain why people such as neo-Nazis find the baser aspects of human experience so alluring or comforting as a lifestyle, but without a clear focus or viewpoint, even the noblest of failures are, alas, still failures.
– David Fear