Volker Schlöndorff, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)
Based on the dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” as realised by Volker Schlöndorff is a very pedestrian and (in spite of the use of bright colours) very colourless work. The film can be read as a satire on contemporary American society and the political and social trends that Atwood discerned within that are likely to affect women over the next 50 years.
In the near future, the United States is rent by political and social chaos which is ended by a putsch carried out by Christian fundamentalist groups who impose their notions of utopia upon a population devastated by decades of war, violence, severe pollution and radioactivity. 99% of women have been rendered infertile by the pollution and the remaining 1% who are found to be fertile are frog-marched into special institutions and where they are brainwashed and prepped into becoming child-bearing “handmaids” to the nation’s elites. One such woman is Offred (Natasha Richardson) who is caught by security forces while trying to escape the theocracy with her husband and daughter to Canada. The husband is shot dead and the daughter is either taken away from her or abandoned. Back in the US, or rather, the new Republic of Gilead, Offred is prepared by so-called “aunts” in an institution resembling a mix of girls’ boarding school, Magdalene laundry and nunnery for her role, and is then sent off to the nation’s senior commander (Robert Duvall) and his wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) to bear a child for them. The film then follows Offred’s life serving the couple in a tightly controlled and repressive setting where all women have been reduced to five basic categories of neoconservative Western female stereotypes – wife, walking womb, servant, aunt (a sort of prim spinsterish combination of nun and school-teacher) and whore-ish outsider – and any transgression that threatens the hierarchy results in capital punishment by hanging.
Offred comes into contact with a group of rebels called the Mayday group, represented by the commander’s chauffeur Nick (Aidan Quinn) with whom she falls in love, and another handmaid. She is drawn into their plot to assassinate the commander and is given the murder weapon. If she does as they want her to – and needlessly to say, her life will be in danger if she does – will they be able to save her from the Republic’s wrath and vengeful punishment? Will they be able to find her daughter and reunite them both? How will she, her daughter and Nick survive in a world completely dominated by the Republic?
The society portrayed in the film looks like an eclectic mix of wartime Nazi Germany and hyper-sanitised 1950s upper-class America, due perhaps to the director’s German background and the ideas and inspirations he brought. Schlöndorff does a good job of detailing the hierarchical and insular nature of the futuristic theocratic fascist society as experienced by the women who live in it. The parallel the German director draws between Nazi Germany and the future Christian fundamentalist theocracy done American-style is done very well, though perhaps cautiously. At the risk of turning the film into a camp kitsch parody, I would say that the film could have gone much further in aligning aspects of US Christian fundamentalism and Nazi German attitudes towards the role of women in society, and finding rich material to include, even if just as background scenery. On the other hand, we do not learn much about the men who serve this society and the social layers that divide them. Neither do we learn much about the women who work as servants and why they submit in the way they do. On the other hand, the ways in which women are exploited and set against one another, so that they can never overcome their class differences and unite and join their brothers in challenging the elites and overthrowing them, are delineated very well and chillingly so in one scene of mob violence instigated by the ruling elites. Offred is pressed by her training and circumstances to become completely passive and emotionally blank in order to survive. There is irony in that in being forced to bear children for others, Offred must become spiritually sterile.
By necessity, the acting is very wooden and somehow forced; the actors play characters whose individuality has been taken away from them and who can only behave in stereotyped ways appropriate to their social status. Even the elites suffer under the system: the infertile Serena Joy pins her hopes on Offred conceiving a child with her husband, so that her life can have meaning and she regains some sort of identity (before the Republic of Gilead, she was a public celebrity); and her husband chafes in his loveless marriage, seeking escape by playing board games with Offred and taking her to secret evening entertainments where prostitutes perform risqué dances. Audiences will not feel much sympathy for the characters except perhaps for Offred who hopes against hope that she will see her daughter again. If individual scenes look stale and tired, with settings lacking in originality and freshness, we have to remember that the Republic of Gilead is intended to be a prison of the mind and imagination as well as of the body.
One can debate whether the society as imagined by Atwood and Schlondorff could ever exist in the US or elsewhere. We only see a particular aspect of the totalitarian theocracy as it affects women of three social classes. The society is at war against rebels but we don’t learn very much about the war and how much of it is real and how much is propaganda. The polarity of truth and lying extends into Offred’s life: she is told by Serena Joy that her daughter is alive and safe, but we have no way of knowing if Serena Joy is telling the truth. Offred pins her hopes on seeing her daughter again and perhaps creating a new family unit with the child and Nick; but jump some months to the ending where a heavily pregnant Offred is still waiting for Nick and her lost daughter in a derelict caravan in a barren wilderness, and we start to wonder whether Nick has been arrested by the Republic’s paramilitary, has betrayed and abandoned Offred or is still searching for the child.
The film puts forward the case that totalitarian societies that control people’s lives to highly intrusive degrees are also societies lacking in love and true social connections. People lose their identities and individuality and are reduced to cartoon stereotypes that repeat over and over with each new generation. The ideals that supposedly inspire and invigorate such societies are empty and offer no comfort or fulfillment. Some of the best and most horrific lines in the film about the nature of the theocracy are uttered by the commander, who sincerely believes that the theocracy he serves has eliminated the scum of society and brought about a cleaner, clearer world with what he believes are proper moral values. These values though are shown to be false and hollow ideals in his own life as he seeks warmth and connection in activities that contradict what he is supposedly working towards.
In its own way the film succeeds in its goal of demonstrating what a soulless, inhuman society does to people, and how individuals try to cope, preserve their sanity and lives, or find meaning and purpose in such a psychotic culture by becoming passive, cruel and controlling, hypocritical or just plain bonkers. Unfortunately the film itself becomes robotic and enervated in its presentation. Perhaps this in itself proves the film’s point about totalitarian and repressive societies.