A couple nights ago I watched a person get brutally killed, his head crushed between the hands of a giant. Of course I knew that it wasn’t real, that it was part of a fiction made real by camera techniques and a solid visual effects crew. But in the moment it did not matter whether my conscious self was aware of these falsities. The base, reptilian portion of my brain was reeling at the sight of a man’s head being squished into a stone floor. I didn’t want to see this man die, I enjoyed his character and within the narrative of the show his actions were justified several times over, yet his brutal death will not deter me from continuing to tune in to the show next week and the week after. In some ways the brutal violence and significant chance of beloved characters meeting sudden, brutal ends is why I was there in the first place.
We like to think that we are beyond the blood sport phase of human civilization, that we can safely scoff at the notion that the average citizen of ancient Rome cherished the sight of slaves murdering each other for their entertainment. Fortunately, we’ve had speculative fiction from the late 20th Century to remind us just how little we have progressed in the last 2000 odd years since the Circus Maximus was filled to capacity. Work such as Rowaiaru’s Battle Royale, Collins’s the Hunger Games trilogy, and King’s the Running Man (known more famously as the delightfully insane Schwarzenegger vehicle) have used the concept of a blood sport of mass appeal to great effect.
All of these novels fit into the mold of satire in some form or another, as they create a warning of our present or possible future in blood frenzy entertainment, yet all of these stories also miss the mark because they fail to remove the modern man from the mold of the gladiatorial spectator at all, painting them as ravenous observers ready to take in the government sanctioned bloodletting with open arms. We have moved a step beyond that, but we are still not out of the woods, and work such as the German television broadcasted film Das Millionenspiel makes up this misfire with a work so powerfully accurate to the modern culture of violence and media that it is disturbingly invisible to us as its satirical vision has been overtaken by reality.
Das Millionenspiel translates to “the Millions Game” and refers to the flagship game show of TETV, the fictional German private television channel heavily sponsored by the universal cooperation, the Stabilelite Group. The monthly, live event spans across an entire week of programming and follows a contestant through an urban center as they attempt to survive seven days of deadly pursuit by armed “hunters”. If the contestant is to survive the seven days, he receives the grand prize of one million deutchsche marks. Local citizens of the hunting ground are encouraged to interact with the pursuit, either assisting in the flight of the contestant or informing his pursuers as to his whereabouts. All that transpires is observed by 24 teams of cameramen that track both parties. A host relays the live event to a live studio audience who is frequently interviewed for their reflections and opinions on both the game and the players.
Despite the fact that this film predates most of the dystopian blood sport films we are more familiar with, it could be argued that there is little to see in this forgotten groundbreaker. Save for an intense opening pursuit through several apartment buildings, little time is actually spent building any sort of tension or elaborate action sequences despite such an inviting premise. But it is because of this deviation from the high body counts of its successors that Millionenspiel becomes more effective. It paints a more realistic, and more disturbing, portrait of modernist society.
Consider the very involved assistance that the protagonist, Bernhard Lotz receives throughout the film. A cook hides him in a freight elevator, a call in to the show informs him of a secret window in his former apartment that Lotz is hiding out in, a very generous citizen donates several smoke bombs and hires a man to ignite them to aid in his escape across a rooftop. All of which is done to thunderous applause by the studio audience to the hosts strong encouragement. In stark contrast to the sadistic grannies from the Running Man film, these spectators do not necessarily want to see any bloodshed, and in fact are for the most part rooting for the pursued to win the game and receive his reward.
Further complicating the nature of the film, we are told throughout that the view of the pursuit is dependent on film crews being able to track both parties as they sprint through the city. Yet the candid shots we receive of Lotz in his times of duress and panic, would be impossible to get, or frame for that matter, in live real time. Despite the concerns of the producers, the film takes no effort in producing shots that appear like anything but well blocked, visually pleasing shots of a modestly funded made-for-television film. The only time that we get a glimpse of one of these crews is during a pursuit in a field in which they go by in a helicopter. Beyond this one example they are just as omniscient and unobservable to the subject as the point of view in any other film. This introduces the second layer to the film, in which the content audience is ourselves, watching a film about people watching a man being chased, potentially to his death.
This film was not advertised as a criticism of our own desire for violence, or the potential for violence, in our entertainment, but as a story of tense and nerve wracking pursuit, which puts any one that was interested in the film in the same place as the complacent audience within the film itself. Das Millionenspiel has merged the world’s of the ficiontal narrative and the non-fictional audience and in doing so has done a significantly better job discussing the nature of our violent stories.
It is the mark of any good satire when its absurd material is taken by its target as genuine. After being aired only twice before being shelved for decades due to copyright issues, German citizens reacted to the broadcast of the film as if it was a real television program. People inquired with their broadcasters about their shock that such a program exists, and others called the hotline found within the broadcast of the fictional show to volunteer as contestants as well as hunters.
Although it is easy to see through the fiction of the film now, many of the elements of the program that would appear strange to television viewers circa 1970 are incredibly commonplace now. The intercutting advertisements was an alien concept to the German public television viewers. The vox populi interviews that are now the cornerstone of day time television and 24 hour news was also a very strange concept. Welcomed or not, the structure of the Millions Game is closer to modern day television than I think most people are comfortable considering.
What is still the most important thing to note however is the audience’s relation to the game itself. Although some abhor the brutal potential of the game, they still watch it. Even though they may not be calling for the death of Lotz, their enthrallment in the narrative of the pursuit still makes them a key player in this man’s potential demise. After all, their wouldn’t be a Millions Game if no one wanted to watch someone potentially get murdered in a city street. This brings the inclusion of ratings hungry sponsors to the fore front, as they constantly remind us that not only is a chase to the death not only entertaining, but a serious cash cow as well.
Although the production-centric framing of the film keeps it from being quite as tense, and enthralling as the bloodsport films that would follow it, this film has succeeded tremendously in getting me to question why I pursue such violent programming when I consider myself a non-violent person. After all, I am above the sociopathic spectators in the Circus Maximus of old. Right?
*run through a rather shaky German translator