Writing about World War III (2022) by the Iranian filmmaker Houman Seyedi is tricky. Not only because the winner of the FIPRESCI Award at the 13th Luxembourg City Film Festival and previously winner of the Best Film and Best Actor awards in the Horizons Competition at Venice is smartly tackling multiple ideas and topics, but also because any attempt to analyze these ideas will require revealing certain dramatic twists on which the impact of the film is primarily based. We are not talking here about a usual twist in which we discover information that we didn’t know about a character, but rather about a complete transition in the film tone and genre, not based on a piece of background information that the writer managed to hide, but rather on the viewer’s gradual awareness of the unexpected horrifying turns that a man’s life can take.
Each human soul possesses a broad spectrum of emotions and reactions, but some people spend their whole lives without the opportunity to experience them. In our case, unexpected circumstances push them to come out in the most challenging way.
The lines mentioned above do not align with the hilarious beginning of the film. For about half an hour, laughter erupts around Shakib, the poor man who lost his family in a deadly earthquake, who does manual labor for an unstable daily wage until he gets the chance to work on a historical movie set that takes place during World War II. As filming begins, circumstances push him to suddenly rise from a manual laborer to an equipment guard to
one of the extras playing the roles of Jews in the Nazi Holocaust, to the most significant leap ever: to play the role of Hitler himself. After the original actor falls ill, the director and producer decide to replace him with any available substitute.
Well, Shakib is not the best fit for the role. Neither his physical features nor his face resembles the Fuhrer under any circumstances. He does not have the slightest proficiency in acting or even the ability to read the lines of dialogue or the contract he signed. Shakib does not even know who Hitler is! Why was he chosen by the director and approved by the producer? The answer ranges from the low quality of the film, and the apparent carelessness for its elements, to the philosophy of dealing with the film team, which will be the engine that pushes the story in a direction you could never predict upon laughing about Shakib’s acting skills.
The new film star makes a slight mistake as he gets promoted (literally moving from sleeping in the gas chamber to sleeping in Hitler’s house!). He agrees to bring his girlfriend Ladan, a deaf sex worker, to stay secretly at the house during the filming days. Neither of them understands the difference between a film set and a real house, and they naturally do not know the script or the shooting schedule. The result is a disaster. The film genre goes from a satirical meta-cinematic comedy about the suffering of an ignorant actor working in a historical movie to a fierce drama about the price of a human within a movie set and in society in general.
Shakib has lived his whole life as nothing; no one takes him into account or considers him a fully qualified person. When he begins to feel that he is an actual human for the first time, he discovers in the most violent way that his value is linked to the completion of the task entrusted to him and that if the job is done or things reach a dead-end, he will return to square zero, or even worse by losing the last thread that connects him to his humanity. The man becomes a ticking bomb counting down before exploding.
Actor Mohsin Tanabendeh masters this spectrum of emotions. The apparent contrast between Shakib’s burly body and muscular strength, and his beta attitude based on his position within every context he ever lived, fuels the film’s drama in its various phases: when it is a comedy, laughter emanates from the dissonance of his appearance with the role he plays, and when it becomes a tragedy, he turns into a feral giant, his body not admitting its status within the hierarchy of forces that pressure it to surrender.
The irony is the fundamental element in the achievement of Houman Seyedi, who co-wrote, produced, and edited the film, using the work of cinematographer Payman Shadmanfar to emphasize the idea. Seeing Iranians dressed in German and Jewish outfits and moving comfortably between Nazi symbols is funny at the beginning. Still, as the story progresses and the course of the drama begins to take shape, the paradox becomes deeper. As Marx once said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as a farce.”
Holocaust is a historical catastrophe that cannot be forgotten. A stupid delusion of superiority primarily drove it. Today, decades after the end of World War II, and as Hitler and his ideas turned into an allegory that can be turned into in a low-quality Iranian movie, there are still those who deal with others as mere things of no value that one can use to complete a specific task before the need for their existence expires, so they lose everything, including the fundamental right to an acceptable death.
Houman Seyedi’s film warns us that when people have nothing to lose, they can easily ignite a World War III unless each of us realizes our duty towards the humanity of others.
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger
© FIPRESCI 2023