The birth of a killer

Daniel Shaw laments the reduction of Hannibal Lecter

hannibal200Given the advancing age of Anthony Hopkins, and the continuing success of the Hannibal Lecter series, the third sequel had to be a prequel. Hannibal Rising, however, is the only film in the series to have lost money. While Lecter’s power over others, and over the environs in which he moves, is still as complete as in the first three films, something crucial has been lost. Has author and screenwriter Thomas Harris reduced Lecter to a psychological case study here? In my view, a figure like Hannibal Lecter is made to seem less powerful if he is seen as not being in control of his actions. This connects up with the contention of Friedrich Nietzsche that control over self is one of the most fundamental senses of power.

Hannibal Rising chronicles Lecter’s journey from ordinary boy to serial killer. As alluded to in Hannibal, Lecter’s beloved sister Mischa was killed and eaten by foragers in Lithuania at the end of World War II. This incident, coupled with the deaths of his parents and tutor in a Nazi Stuka attack, so traumatised young Hannibal that he blocked out the memory of the event. He would not speak for years, and was tormented by nightmares that moved him to scream out his sister’s name in the dead of night.

The teenage Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is clearly suffering from several extremely neurotic symptoms. In classic Freudian fashion, he has repressed the memory of a particularly traumatic event (although he still recalls the death of his parents and tutor), and that repressed trauma has given rise to aphonia and repetitive nightmares which rehearse it over and over again. In Hannibal Rising, we are given to understand that he is transformed into a psychopathic killer by these events.

Having escaped before being eaten, Hannibal was taken by the Russians, and raised in an orphanage that they established in Lecter castle. Preternaturally strong, he was a troublemaker who beat up bullies that picked on small children. It is Hannibal’s great good fortune to be saved from this hell-hole by an uncle and his exotic wife, and be given the chance to live in comfort in Paris.

The strikingly beautiful Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) takes Hannibal under her wing, and there is more than a hint of romantic tension between them from the very start. He commits his first murder as a gesture of chivalry, when he guts a crass butcher who made lewd remarks to her at an outdoor market. He then launches on a vendetta to keep his promise to Mischa and avenge her death. Against all odds, he succeeds in tracking down her killers one by one, exacting his revenge in a progressively more brutal fashion.

In the course of this murder spree, Lecter is depicted as becoming less and less human. He seems, at one point, to love Lady Murasaki, but his passion for her recedes, and he succumbs neither to her emotional pleas nor to her seduction. She wants him to promise to turn the rest of the foragers (who are wanted for war crimes) over to the authorities, but he protests that his promise to Mischa must take precedence. Later, she notices that he has grown erotically indifferent to her presence. Despairing of ever reaching him again, she returns to her former home in Hiroshima, Japan.

In the rest of the series, Thomas Harris had successfully resisted the temptation to explain Lecter’s behaviour, until he raised the curtain on Lecter’s memory palace in the second half of Hannibal. But Harris embraces the classic psychoanalytic model of behavioural explanation in Hannibal Rising. For instance, when Lady Murasaki says, “I fold cranes for your soul, Hannibal. You are drawn into the dark,” Lecter responds, “Not drawn. When I couldn’t speak I was not drawn into silence, silence captured me.”

I take Hannibal to be saying that he was not responsible for his aphonia, nor for his murderous vendetta. Rather, the role of avenging angel had been thrust upon him by circumstances beyond his control, and he seems to have little choice but to carry it out. This diminishes Hannibal in the eyes of the audience. If he is merely a psychotic, with no choice but to do what he does, then he is to be pitied, not blamed for his actions. As soon as you start pitying Hannibal Lecter, the spell is broken and he ceases to be mesmerising. If he can’t control himself, he appears to be much less powerful as a result.

In Hannibal Rising (as in Hannibal), Lecter’s victims deserve to die for their heinous war crimes, and he can be blamed only for taking the law into his own hands (except in the case of the greasy butcher, whose punishment for insulting Lady Murasaki was indeed excessive). Yet Lecter still has the power to fascinate us, for several reasons. His murders are strikingly creative, exhibiting his signature aesthetic sensibility (which captivated audiences in Silence of the Lambs). Lecter slices the butcher in a fashion reminiscent of the original insult to Lady Murasaki (“Is it true that your pussy runs crossways?”). He beheads the first war criminal with a rope pulled by his beloved childhood horse Cesar (making a brochette from his cheeks), and in the set piece of the film, he drowns the second one in a vat of formaldehyde while Inspector Popil quizzes him about his other victims.

The fact that Lady Murasaki assists with his vendetta also helps to secure our sympathy. But she is increasingly appalled by the ferocity of these slayings. By the time Hannibal is slashing a big “M” into Grutas’ chest, she has totally given up, responding to his declaration of love by saying, “What is left in you to love?” This is what precipitates her return to Japan.

She has come to believe that Hannibal is an inhuman (and out of control) psycho killer. But nothing Lecter has yet accomplished can compare to slaying an unskilled flute player for marring performances by the Baltimore Symphony, or feeding a former patient his own face for making a homosexual pass at the good doctor. Carving an “M” into the chest of Grutas is humanly understandable, since he had falsely claimed that Lecter relished the soup they made out of Mischa.

In a sense, the climax of the film is classically heroic. Several members of the gang had taken Lady Murasaki captive and were holding her on Grutas’ houseboat. Hannibal rescued her and killed them all, saved from being shot in the back by her ritual short sword (which he carried in a sheath between his shoulder blades). In the conclusion of the film, he drives off, having completed his vendetta by tracking down the last of the foragers in Canada.

But Hannibal has become too easy to sum up, as Inspector Popil (Dominic West) does after learning that he had eaten the cheeks of his second victim. “We must arrest him, and the Court has to declare him insane,” he says. “Then, in the hospital, the doctors can study him and find out what he is…the little boy Hannibal died in 1944 out in that snow … his heart died with Mischa. What he is now, there is no word for it … except monster.” He had been called insane before, but never did the epithet ring so true. Consequently, he becomes a less empathetic (because less powerful) character in the process.

In scenes before his family was slain, Hannibal is a loving brother and obedient son, with an IQ that is off the charts and a fascination for mathematical proofs. There isn’t a hint of his later sadism and brutality. He even loves animals, playing with the swans in the castle moat and bringing carrots to the family horse. He tenderly nurses his sick sister, pre-chewing a stale crust of bread before putting it in her mouth. He is shown adopting his cannibalistic ways as a particularly fitting punishment for the first target of his vendetta.

After witnessing something so violating that he had to block it out of his conscious mind, Hannibal becomes an entirely different person. He loses all moral sense, dedicating his genius to a life of crime. He also seems to lose the ability to love, turning down the virtually irresistible Lady Murasaki in favour of completing his merciless task. He doesn’t regain that ability until he reunites with Starling in Hannibal.

In both Silence and Red Dragon, he relishes inflicting pain on others for the feeling of power that it gives him. This willingness to choose to do what most people consider to be evil stems from his conviction that ultimately, in a world without a perfect creator God, everything is permitted and nothing is extolled. While denying deterministic behaviourism, he also denies the existence of any absolute moral standards (by virtue of which one can praise some actions as good and condemn others as evil).

The Lecter of Silence would have no truck with the liberal tendency to explain away criminal behaviour as the necessary result of heredity and environment. His atheism, arrived at when his fervent prayers for Mischa’s life went unanswered, gives him free rein to do as he pleases. But one thing is clear here: part of the pleasure that he takes in doing evil is his conviction that he is choosing to do so. He is not simply a Satanic figure, forced to make evil his good and do his part in God’s Divine Plan, or a psycho-killer compelled to go on a blind rampage.

But the Lecter of Hannibal Rising now seems to be the victim of a traumatic childhood. He is shown to become progressively less in control of his actions. His growing lack of interest in Lady Murasaki is a symptom of this. Furthermore, while most of his vendetta is fuelled by blind rage, his final execution is cold-blooded. By the end of the novel (and the film) he is no longer an avenging angel, but a serial killer who relishes murder for its own sake, considering it to be a form of superior entertainment preferable to the mundane activities most people enjoy.

In providing such a detailed and plausible explanation for his (now apparently compulsive) behaviour, author Thomas Harris has made Lecter more sympathetic, but less empathetic. I can no longer feel with a character that is a compulsive psychotic, in large measure because I believe that I have the capacity to freely choose at least some of my actions. I can still feel for Lecter, all the more so because his pitiful past is now seen to be the cause of his criminal present. But what I feel for him is pity, not awe or grudging esteem anymore.

Fact or fancy, our belief that we have control of (at least some of) our choices is at the heart of our sense of self-confidence. This belief, however self-deceptive, makes it easier to sustain our conviction that what we do matters, in part because we could have done otherwise. While Nietzsche waffled about whether we could indeed exert such control, he was univocal in his contention that the belief that we can makes it more likely that we will take our actions seriously as making a difference in our lives. At his most cynical, Nietzsche characterises the illusion of free will as one of the lies we need to tell ourselves in order to survive.

Something is lost in transforming Lecter from antagonist to protagonist. Lecter is the hero of Hannibal Rising, and we are clearly meant to root for him as he picks off his former tormenters one by one. But in the process, he has become a less awesome figure. For one thing, we are not appalled by his activities. His victims deserve their fates, and are depicted as virtually subhuman. Unlike Lady Murasaki, we do not shrink from Hannibal as he enacts his revenge. If anything, I felt for him when he turned down a life with her to complete his vendetta, for he seemed to have no choice but to do so.

But, again, this is part of the problem. Lecter is not a sympathetic figure in Silence, despite the avuncular concern he shows for Clarice. Yet I revelled in his aesthetically staged slaughter of his captors, and the brilliance of his escape. He did not deserve to go free, and the guards did not deserve to die such grisly deaths for simply doing their jobs. But it is at that moment that his power is confirmed in the world of action. This seals our empathy with him as well. We feel his power and vicariously share in it, knowing full well that we are empathising with a criminal. I, too, cheered at the end of Silence, when Hannibal disappears into the indigenous crowd while planning to have Chilton for dinner.

As Nietzsche observed, we feel pity for those to whom we feel superior. Sympathy is really an act of condescension on the part of the sympathiser. His critique of pity is based on this fact, and on his belief that neither the sympathiser nor those with whom he sympathises are made stronger in the process. My reaction to the end of Hannibal Rising was not as exhilarating as what I experienced at the end of Silence. The former left me with a sense of loss, and of sympathy for the innocent little genius who was turned into a monster by the Second World War. The latter allowed me to revel in Lecter’s exercise of power over others with no excuses or explanations to get in the way.

Empathy, to my mind, is the basis of identification. We do not identify with characters that we do not, in some sense, want to be ourselves. That sense may vary greatly, but whether it is moral (Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda) or aesthetic (Lord Henry Wooton in The Portrait of Dorian Gray), political (Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or horrific (Hannibal Lecter in Silence), we empathise with such characters because we can picture ourselves being them.

We sympathise, on the other hand, with many humans (both real and fictitious) with whom we would never be willing to trade places, even for a second. The concentration camp victim, the starving African child, the helpless damsel in distress, the isolated senior citizen, all elicit our sympathy without for a second tempting us to wish that we were one of them. At his peak, I do wish I could be Hannibal (at least for a day), wielding such complete power over others and over myself. But I never for a second found myself wanting to be young Hannibal, except when he stirred the embers of romantic love in Lady Murasaki. After he forsakes her so readily, only my pity remains.

Daniel Shaw is the editor of the journal Film and Philosophy, author of Film And Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously (Wallflower Press) and co-editor of Dark Thoughts Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (Scarecrow Press)

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