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The Passion of Uwe Boll

I did not know what to expect from an interview with Uwe Boll. The director is one of the most notorious figures in cinema, a man best known for his adaptations of video games and his tempestuous relationship with the press. He once challenged a group of critics to a series of amateur boxing matches, a fact that sat in the back of my mind prior to the interview.

After speaking with him for half an hour, I get the sense that Boll might be the most misunderstood filmmaker in the business. You could even make the case that he’s a legitimate auteur, albeit one with an uncommonly abrasive aesthetic. Now that he’s formally announced his retirement, the one thing I know for sure is that it’s time for a serious reevaluation of his career, an endeavor that isn’t nearly as preposterous as it seems.

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Boll is currently promoting Rampage: President Down, the third movie in his Rampage trilogy and his final film as a director. Rampage 3 concludes the story of Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher), a man in a bomb suit who murders hundreds of innocent civilians in an effort to shock them out of their political complacency. A nominally left-leaning gun nut (Boll is aware of the irony), Williamson is the kind of anti-establishment Bernie Bro that Donald Trump was hoping to peel away from the Democrats after Hillary Clinton won the nomination.

The movie itself kicks off when Williamson assassinates the President of the United States (we never see more than a stretcher). The rest of the movie consists of Williamson’s video rants about his political motivations and a bizarrely underfunded FBI manhunt. Like much of Boll’s recent work, Rampage 3 is aggressively political, with a barely suppressed rage that simmers just beneath the surface.

On the eve of his retirement, that anger is the basis for any kind of critical reexamination of his work. While the quality of his movies is debatable, his passion is undeniable, which is unexpected given that he’s been one of Hollywood’s favorite punchlines for well over a decade.

“After Rampage 2, I said that I should stop making movies because the business is in the toilet. But I felt I cannot retire without finishing that story,” said Boll, when asked how President Down came together. “I just spent the money. I’m sure I will lose money on Rampage 3, but it’s the last movie. Let’s do it. Let’s finish that story.”

That dedication runs counter to a narrative that paints Boll as a cheap sellout cashing in on other people’s intellectual property. In fairness, there is some truth to those allegations. The video game films that would come to define his career were made to turn a quick buck, and Boll is perfectly forthright about his business dealings in the industry.

“I made a movie, Heart of America, about a school massacre. Good movie. Total flop. Then I got House of the Dead. Made the movie. Made a lot of money with the movie. It got very bad reviews, but my investors said, from now on, only video game movies, so acquire more games. Alone in the Dark. Blood Rayne. Dungeon Siege. Far Cry. Postal. We did all that, and I got the worst reviews of my life. I got the Golden Raspberry because I made so many of them, and then the investors went away. The tax breaks went away, and I was by myself.”

However, that’s where Boll and the public perception of him begin to diverge.

“I went back to making more political movies. I went back to writing my own stuff. Assault on Wall Street, Rampage, and Darfur, they’re more interesting for me. I did Blood Rayne 3 because I needed financing.”

For Boll, there is a sharp distinction between the game movies he made to satisfy investors and the more socially conscious films that followed. Though his video game adaptations were often criticized for being lifeless and dull, Boll’s political movies are bursting with unrefined energy. Boll believes in the social power of cinema, and he’s conscious about the way he can use film to get his message in front of an audience.

His problem therefore isn’t that he got bad reviews for his bad movies, but that critics failed to give him a second chance when he started making better ones. That’s what led to his infamous boxing matches with a handful of critics.

“After Blood Rayne came out, they were the same reviews as House of the Dead or Alone in the Dark. Exactly the same. I get the feeling they didn’t even watch the movie. I was mad. I felt, if you want to destroy me, destroy me in the ring. It was fun to do. It generated a lot of press, positive and negative, but I felt better after that night, to be honest.”

Though Boll says the bad reviews no longer bother him, he does think they had a detrimental impact on his career in the sense that they solidified the dominant narrative.

“Whatever I shot, they started the articles with, ‘People say he’s the worst director.’ There was nobody stepping up saying, ‘Look, I’ve watched Darfur. It’s the best movie shot in Africa after Hotel Rwanda,’ which Ron Howard said. It’s even on the DVD cover. Professionals saw some quality in stuff I did, but journalists acted like Assault on Wall Street is Alone in the Dark 2. It didn’t turn for me, that they said, ‘We have to reevaluate Boll based on seven other movies.’

“I don’t worry about it anymore. That is how it is with me. I cannot be whining the whole day. I just try to make the best possible movie I can with the newer movies I did.”

I have to admit that Boll has a point. His career has an entire third act that I was only vaguely aware of because the public only seems interested in Boll to the extent that he can be a punching bag. In truth, Boll is an astute political observer and a fitting mouthpiece for a certain brand of progressive outrage, and there are aspects of his films that are surprisingly prescient. For instance, Rampage 3 was filmed in January. A newscast in the film details a series of terrorist attacks in Germany, foreshadowing a series of attacks that took place in April and May.

“It’s the logical result because [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel let 1.2 million Syrian refugees in. There are some hidden terrorists and fundamentalists, and you have radicalized German Muslims. It’s only a question when this would happen, and it happened.”

In the movie, those attacks – as well as Williamson’s assassination of the President – lead the US to drops dozens of nuclear bombs on the Middle East.

“If Trump is president, I would say that is absolutely possible,” said Boll. “Politics turn into a reality TV show, almost like how I did it in Postal ten years ago.”

The degree to which he’s aware of the effect his movies have on the audience is similarly unexpected. Since Boll is so often portrayed as a hack, critics rarely attribute any intention to his movies, as if he doesn’t care about art and is incapable of doing anything on purpose. I learned otherwise when Boll accurately summarized the experience of watching Rampage 3.

“You feel unsafe watching the movie. You feel vulnerable. You feel like shit. I don’t want that to happen in the future. I don’t make feel good movies, but that makes more sense for me because I always want political action after I put out a movie.”

Boll’s description is exactly how I felt while watching Rampage 3. I suffered through the movie a few days before the interview and I thought it was infuriating. I was even planning to write the kind of scathing review that has plagued Boll throughout his career. Listening to Williamson’s rants is decidedly unpleasant, and since those rants make up roughly 60% of the movie, Rampage: President Down is a slog. It’s like being held captive by an alt-right YouTube video, even if its agenda is nominally progressive.

However, the fact that Boll knows what he’s doing complicates the widespread assumption that he doesn’t have any talent. The one major problem with Boll’s effort to rebrand himself is that his films still aren’t much fun to watch. While Boll’s later movies are more socially aware, they still look a whole lot like the schlock that he was churning out in the late 90s. I suspect that’s why his later output hasn’t done much to change his public perception.

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At the same time, a good movie is not necessarily the same as an interesting one. It’s the difference between a blanket dismissal and an acknowledgment that a movie that has merit might not be for you. I prefer feel good movies so I did not enjoy President Down. Hollywood would be insufferable if every director made movies like Boll. Even so, there’s value in his perspective. Boll’s isn’t a bad filmmaker as much as he’s a blunt one, a confrontational figure with a clear vision who refuses to let the audience feel good about what they’re seeing.

For that, Boll probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves. That style will never make him popular, but there’s an alternate dimension in which Boll is a beloved B-movie auteur, a man celebrated for his unfiltered message and his strident unwillingness to sanitize that message for the sake of the public’s delicate sensibilities.

“When I did Assault on Wall Street, I want bank regulation,” said Boll. “The banks cannot say, ‘oh shit, your checking account is gone because we lost two trillion bucks.’ When I did Darfur, about the genocide in Darfur, I want it stopped. We worked with mothers and their kids were impaled in front of them. I hoped that people would do more, that people would say, watch the Uwe Boll movie, even if it is Uwe Boll. It’s the only feature made about it. But nothing ever happens.

“I battled for the right causes. It’s not like I made fascist movies. I’m very left wing, and I hope that Bernie Sanders gets elected. The system is corrupt, and now you can pick a totally corrupt Clinton or a completely crazy Trump, and it’s a shame. Wars everywhere. Global warming. Nobody gives a shit. It’s crazy. I felt I cannot make movies with a stupid fictional story. Reality is way more interesting right now.”

That’s why I found my opinion shifting over the course of our interview. Technically speaking, Rampage 3 is not a great film. The camera won’t sit still, the writing lacks nuance, and the FBI manhunt for the President’s killer looks like it’s being run out of the same bullpen as an episode Law and Order.

There just doesn’t seem to be any point in bringing that up since those flaws have been re-litigated so many times. Boll’s shortcomings aren’t any more pronounced than most B-level filmmakers, who are usually afforded a degree of leniency depending on their budget and their enthusiasm. For whatever reason – though likely because of his brash demeanor – Boll has never been afforded that kind of leeway. There is nevertheless a market for that kind of cinema, especially when the messaging is so overtly contemporary and political.

For instance, here’s Boll on Wikileaks:

“When Assange leaked things about Clinton, everybody attacks him. ‘How can you help Donald Trump?’ Wait a second. Assange has spent three and a half years in a fucking room in the middle of London and he would get prison for the rest of his life from Obama and Clinton. So why the fuck should he support Hillary Clinton? Snowden too. ‘He’s hiding with a dictator, he’s a Putin spy.’ Yeah, but why? Because we’re all fucking pussies. He said the truth, and we’re not giving him asylum. Not in Canada. Not in Germany. Nobody. We’re fucking pussies in front of the US, and Snowden and Assange are for me absolutely heroes. They opened our eyes in the last ten years more than anybody else on the planet.

“That is the stuff that has to get discussed, not ‘Oh, he did Alone in the Dark and Tara Reid was so wrong for the movie.’ It’s over. History. All the interviews always about the fucking video game movies. Forget it. It’s done. I’m way behind it. I made nine movies not based on video games after In the Name of the King. Really, it’s enough.”

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I disagree with Boll on the subject of Assange – there is good reason to be skeptical about his motivations and the quality of his recent leaks – but the latter point is a salient one. The ongoing fascination with Boll’s video game adaptations is strange considering how few people have actually seen them. He’s desperate for people to talk about literally anything else, and to his credit he’s provided ample fodder for that conversation. It’s almost impossible not to have a reaction to Rampage 3.

The fact that nobody wants to talk about it says more about us than it does about Boll. It’s easier to write him off than it is to engage with what he’s trying to say. We want him to be the most hated man in cinema so we can ignore anything that doesn’t fit inside the box we’ve made for him. We’d rather bask in the smug self-satisfaction that comes from believing that we could make better movies than Uwe Boll.

I’ve been complicit on more than one occasion. I once wrote an article in which I called Boll delusional, which I bring up only to acknowledge that I’m willing to challenge my own misperceptions. Now, I’d argue that the film industry is far more entertaining with Boll than without him. I won’t always agree with him, but the man is never boring and he’s completely unafraid afraid to speak his mind. I’d much rather interview someone who wants to take a stance than an image-conscious celebrity who speaks exclusively in non-committal clichés.

“Because of my movie, nobody would do anything, but the movie points out some important issues we have to face. We have to reform politics,” said Boll. “Look at the Black people getting shot in the US because they didn’t follow orders. It’s fascism. Even in North Korea the cops will not shoot you. It’s only in the US, and that is because the police training is wrong.

“If somebody says, ‘lay down on the sidewalk,’ and I don’t follow that order, they have no right to shoot me. Let the guy run. If you cannot chase him and tackle him down, he can go. He’s free. Too bad. He never did anything, because it’s all in your fucking brain, you stupid cop!

“The Democrats never changed the gun law. You could make a Presidential order, no more gun sales, starting tomorrow, and then they’d need a year or two years to file in court against you. Nothing changed, because they don’t really want it.”

Boll is almost certainly wrong about the viability of a Presidential ban on gun sales, which would would be unenforceable and unlikely to curb gun sales during trial, but his ability to distill that message into a film as violent as Rampage 3 is as effective as it is inelegant.

“[Williamson] could never do that in another country because he wouldn’t get automatic weapons. He’s the result of no gun control,” said Boll. “My movies are cynical. I don’t think it will get better. I don’t think logic will work. Remember the old Green Peace slogan? Only after the last tree is cut, and the last fish is fished, then people get that you cannot eat money. That is the route we are going, and we will not stop until that happens.”

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So why is Boll calling it quits? Though he seems to have enough fire to fuel another ten Rampage films, changes in the movie industry have made it difficult to turn a profit. Never a draw at the box office, Boll carved out a living selling the international distribution rights for his films, but that market has dried up (movies that used to sell for $1M to one country now sell for $5,000) and home video sales are no longer enough to make up the gap.

“With the dissolve of the DVD industry, it doesn’t make sense to do another Blood Rayne because it will also make no revenue. So it is over. I’m not like Relativity, or a hundred fifty thousand companies in LA who amalgamate debt, don’t pay people, go bankrupt, and screw people over. I never did that. I used my own money. I paid everybody. I don’t owe anybody anything and that was for me very, very important.”

“It was a long, long battle and the frustration grew. Because I was so involved in the sale of my movies, it was just so draining for me, that I couldn’t do it any more. It’s too depressing.”

I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually going to miss him. I respect the fact that Boll took care of his employees and carried out his day-to-day business as a professional. I respect the fact that he was able to self-finance the films he wanted to make. That’s ultimately the only metric that matters for an independent filmmaker, and I support artists who are driven enough to risk their own reputations (and their own pocketbooks) to realize that vision.

That’s why I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Uwe Boll. He’s the owner of Bauhaus restaurant in Vancouver, and he’ll continue to distribute other people’s films through his Event Film production company. Always opinionated, Boll is also thinking about getting involved in politics, although he’s not sure what options are available to him as a German native living in Canada.

“I hope that maybe I can do some political work. I don’t want to feel, when I’m 80, that I didn’t try to change things,” he concluded.

Boll might be done with movies, but chances are he’ll find another way to make his message heard.

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Comments

  • Tracy Bowersox

    You lost me when you said his political films are busting with energy. No. They’re trash too, because the man has no talent.