Winner of Best Film at the Rome International Film Festival, Brotherhood’s tale of Danish neo-Nazis arrives on DVD conveniently amidst the recent controversy surrounding Denmark’s most famed director, Lars Von Trier, and his Hitler ‘slip up’ at the Cannes Film Festival. Indeed, the issue of fascism is somewhat of a hot topic currently and, as the recession spreads across Europe, there is a genuine concern regarding the movement of disenfranchised voters to the far right and the growing popularity of excessively nationalistic political groups. However, Brotherhood is more than a story about extremist views – it’s a desolate tale about love and identity.
Danish serviceman, Lars is denied the promotion he’s been striving for due to recent allegations about drunken passes he’s allegedly made towards male subordinates. Disgraced, he returns home and moves back in with his parents, who seem curious as to his sudden return and take little time or thought before pressurising him into re-enlisting.
On one seemingly typical evening, whilst catching up with old friends, Lars encounters two members of a local neo-Nazi group. One of these men (Fatty) is a high ranking member of the organisation who takes an instant shine to Lars, despite his eloquently voiced dissent towards their violent tactics. He senses Lars is a promising young man, angry at the world, lost and in need of a new direction – all the ingredients necessary in a potential new recruit, and Lars quickly disregards his previous moral high ground in search of a feeling of belonging.
When Lars provokingly admits to an assault of a local immigrant, carried out as part of his initiation, his parents quickly expel him from the family home, forcing him to find refuge elsewhere. Ultimately, this action submerges Lars further into this dark underworld of violence and ignorance, leaving him little option but to accept the warm hospitality of Fatty.
Lars ends up living with Jimmy, a highly respected member of the crew, complete with numerous swastika tattoos and the stereotypical shaved head and muscular build of a radical racist. The two men’s relationship begins with much hostility but soon moves to grudging admiration, friendship and eventually passion, as they become intimate lovers. Their forbidden romance goes completely against the doctrines of their gang and they must quickly come to terms with what will happen to them once they’re exposed…
This marriage of love and violence is largely achieved through a stirring use of non-diegetic sound and elegant camera work. Scenes of violence or heightened ‘manliness’ are softened with lilting strings and ambient music, which seems to whisk us out of this vile and boorish world. The cleverly angled shots and use of soft lighting create a warm, painterly backdrop from which we can comfortably view these occasionally disturbing events. With the film’s rough edges gently sanded down for us, we’re joyously prevented from feeling too close or too far apart from this gritty, suffocating atmosphere of fear and exacerbated masculinity. Reversely, at the few crucial moments where a clear depiction of these violent scenes is necessary to further advance the plot, the raw energy and anger is freely allowed to pour out of the screen. This harsh contrast in tone, when used sparingly, certainly makes what we witness more effective and poignant than a full blown assault on our senses could’ve achieved.
As previously mentioned, the film acts to mirror the growing concerns about the rise of far right ‘political’ parties throughout Europe. It’s an issue which affects a wide audience; however, the film does little to highlight the true problems of this political shift other than showcase its existence. The underhand techniques and propaganda used to prey on the weak and fragile in an attempt to recruit new members are never really investigated, and the true extent of their calculated crimes against ethnic minorities never properly exposed, other than a couple of beatings shown here and there.
We’re curiously introduced to the upper echelons of this party, but their roles are never really clarified, other than teasingly short glimpses of how this is an operation controlled from a much more respectable and highly regarded position than the underground bars and clubs we’re privy to. Further scrutinising of the worryingly organised administrations running these groups, whom it appears are far more than just random foot soldiers, would have created a much more haunting social warning.
Comparisons with American History X are inevitable, as both films deal with the search for identity within a conformist, right winged, regime. Yet, unfortunately, the most striking similarity between the two is the incredibly unbelievable journey of redemption their central characters take. Jimmy’s story seems far too contrived to resonate effectively with the viewer, and his violent actions further prevent us from feeling any compassion towards him and his new found vulnerability. His character is far too black-and-white – at one time seeming like the archetypal nihilistic skin head (the first to violently attack someone or call them a “faggot”), before instantly transforming into a soft and caring homosexual man who seems to feel compassion for Lars, despite the eight inch Iron cross permanently etched onto his chest. It’s this lack of any emotional middle ground or proper depiction of his transition from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ which prevents us from caring about his character. The few attempts there are to remedy his two dimensional appearance are only ever slightly touched upon; for instance, the back-story concerning his drug addled younger brother, whom he takes under his wing, is never expanded upon and is left to linger in the periphery of the narrative. His overall lack of depth makes these negligible actions seem ever so redundant (as if solely injected into the narrative at the last minute to make Jimmy seem more human and his journey to redemption more believable).
To a lesser extent, the same problems exist when trying to identify with Lars. Although we see most of the events through his eyes, it’s never clearly explained why he would chose to join such an extremist group when his own sexuality and apparent disinterest in their violent methods surely distances himself from their beliefs. He never seems to fit in with this incredibly violent and overtly masculine group and thus always looks like an outsider, making his inevitable outing and the accompanying shock and anger from his newly adopted peers seem mildly ludicrous considering the numerous visually obvious disparities between himself and them.
As a representation of the zeitgeist surrounding European politics, Brotherhood succeeds in portraying the types of groups we fear are currently operating within Europe and the violent methods they use to express their beliefs. However, the film seems to lack a defined audience with the central storyline of sexual confusion and lost identity ultimately feeling artificial and manufactured, looking like little more than a device implemented to represent the political confusion of the times without any real thought as to how plausible this amalgamation of two seemingly polar opposite subjects would come across. Some strong performances and technical nuances prevent this confused film from becoming unwatchable (almost managing to cover up the numerous plot holes), but it’s what’s missing from the film which is ultimately its undoing, making it surprisingly toothless and, in turn, completely forgettable.