Bertrand Tavernier / France/West Germany/UK / 1980 / 130 min
There are two great strengths about Bertrand Tavernier’s bleak 1980 Glasgow set sci-fi. Firstly, it wears its dystopianism lightly. There’s no jack-booted stormtroopers here, no totalitarian imagery; this is a darker, less kind world but Tavernier only shows it in hints and glimpses. Secondly, the film is an ideal example of the cerebral sci-fi of the time. Haunted by the shadow of the bomb and fed by radical politics and social movements, sci-fi was seen as a way to tackle big themes. Here, it does just that: identity, privacy, community and the power of the media – many of which make Death Watch an interestingly prescient film for modern audiences.
If you happen to be Scottish, there’s a third aspect to Tavernier’s film which might appeal: the chance to see what Glasgow looked like 30 years ago. Some might argue it was the perfect place to film a bleak vision of the future, with its half-demolished tenements mixed with soulless tower blocks. Whilst all this recommends Death Watch to both historians and those who like their sci-fi with more reasoning than ray-guns, it’s unfortunately not enough to stop the film from being mainly a curiosity piece.
Romy Schneider is literally filmed through the eyes of human camera Harvey Keitel for the benefit of Harry Dean Stanton’s sleazy TV executive, so he can pump out her pain to an experience-hungry populous. The premise is a great jumping off point to discuss moral and ethical questions, but like much ‘serious’ sci-fi from the time, it constantly forgets that it’s narrative fiction and not a philosophy lecture.
Much of the dialogue in Death Watch feels as if it’s been written in French and passed through some very early translation software. The interactions between the characters are so stilted and obviously meant to be dripping with meaning that there’s no room for genuine character development; and with actors of Keitel and Schneider’s quality, this feels like a wasted opportunity. The appearance in the last fifteen minutes of Max von Sydow as Schneider’s ex-husband gives you an idea of what this film could have been. His touching, patient, compassionate demeanour creates such a contrast to the vampiric feeding on emotion from the TV organisation that it condenses in a few minutes all the ideas the film has taken so long to say.
There’s much that’s interesting and watchable about Death Watch – not least the chance to see unbelievably young versions of Robbie Coltrane and (an unaccredited) Bill Nighy as well as a host of well known Scottish faces in small roles. But like many sci-fi films from the period you might be best advised to get it on DVD so you can pause and ponder rather than attempting to process it all in one bleak bite.
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