How do you opt out of a community that expects life-long allegiance and responds to dissenters with brutal retributions? In Exit, Karen Winther depicts the hazardous struggle for liberation.
Right-extremist movements are spreading in our cultural sphere – from Sweden to Greece to the United States. At the same time ISIS and related organisations lure increasing numbers of people who attest to their willingness to give up everything for their causes. But what happens when one has had enough, when one recognises the choice as a disastrous mistake.
Self-exposure and access
The director Karen Winther was a part of the anti-racist Blitz group in Oslo before she changed sides to a violent neo-Nazi group. She documented her experience from these circles in her award-winning documentary The Betrayal (2011). In Exit she meets former extremists from Denmark, Germany, the USA and France, and, in sharing their background, opens up a space for both recognition and cognition. The point of view is liberating, avoiding mystifying and moralising attitudes: «The right extremist community was not what I had expected. We spent a lot of time waiting and listening to bad music – Viking rock. Everyone was paranoid about snitches and Mossad agents.»
The director candidly exposes herself in her own film. The topic of The Betrayal is extended in Exit, the focus of Exit being not the attraction of the extremist groups, but rather what causes the need to break out. Her decision to put herself at the centre of the film must have been a difficult one: she knows only too well that exposure comes at a price.
Exit starts boldly with a clip from the movie Christiane F (1981), and the director’s confession that she experienced the portrayal of the risky games of drugs and the Berlin underground as something alluring rather than admonishing. The forbidden and unknown drew her in.
«The film depicts a group of former extremists and their respective turning points.»
When things got too risky and Karen wanted to get out of the neo-Nazi community, she desperately sought help from the Blitz group that she formerly had betrayed. Karen considers Guro, who is a long-time member of the group, as her saviour but Guro disagrees – she didn’t save Karen at all, but rather wanted to hurt the growing neo-Nazi group. Just when she got out, Karen was about to build a violent neo-Nazi girl’s club inspired by the well-organised Blitz group model. Had she succeeded, the recruitment of boys to the neo-Nazis would probably have skyrocketed.
Compassion and regret
One of the scenes that made the strongest impression on me is low key and filmed from the back of a car. Karen confides in the Danish anti-fascist activist Søren. The solicitude between the two people – former violent opposites – is revealed by a hand lightly touching an arm; in the tone of voice, which gradually gets more tender. Karen shares an experience where she was recognised and brutally attacked on her way home. She bursts into tears. Right after that they both take in the fact that they probably would have harmed each other severely if their paths had crossed while they were still extremists.
The scene is typical of the intimacy and presence that is transmitted through Exit as a whole. The film depicts a group of former extremists and their respective turning points. It offers unexpected meetings with people challenging customary stereotypes and prejudices. Many of the people in the film do educational work in schools or work in emergency telephone services. At the same time the film makes a statement to the effect that hate-crimes are not something that can ever be cancelled or forgiven.
In the character of the American woman, Angela, I see the desperate search for somewhere to belong. Angela tells the story of bullet-holes in her entrance-door and threats from other skinheads when she attempted to break with the group. They would let her know that they knew where her little brother lived, and for fear of reprisals she involved herself even deeper and ended up in jail for a hate-crime. A fellow inmate that was African-American hid a newspaper article about Angela to protect her from the rage of the other prisoners. The fact that someone she would tend to classify as an enemy was the one who protected her changed Angela profoundly.
What happens when you reach the very limit of what you are willing to do? This is a central topic in the film. As a right-wing extremist Angela believed in conspiracies to exterminate the population of American whites. She was blinded by fear, until the bomb exploded in Oklahoma. «My first reaction was that he [the bomber] was like me. I started asking myself – is this what I want? There was a kindergarten in the building. Firemen would carry out children covered by black soot and ashes – it was impossible to see if they were dead or alive.»
«Exit alternates between identifying problems and identifying with them – and this is a strong point.»
German neo-Nazis were admired by right-wing extremists in other countries. From the archive recordings with the media-favourite Ingo that are used in the film, I immediately realise why. The androgynous blonde man with the looks of a pop star is eloquent and exceptionally charismatic. His encounter with a filmmaker who hated all that Ingo stood for and who followed him with utmost scepticism for six months became a decisive experience for him. After an arson attack leading to the death of several refugees, Ingo realised that his own followers may well have been the culprits and fled abroad to distance himself. After more than ten years he still lives with a secret address.
Empathy and identification
Exit alternates between identifying problems and identifying with them – and this is a strong point. This films approach guarantees a certain distance from some of the people depicted, for instance the East German ex-Nazi who never meets our gaze. The eyes of a pregnant immigrant woman he kicked and punched until she started giving birth have burned into him. Stammering, he explains that the prematurely born child survived. But even when he explains how his teeth got smashed – the punishment for breaking out of the clan – or when we are told that now, as a father, he constantly fears reprisals, I fail to empathise. His explanations about unemployment and the poor state of the economy after the fall of East Germany does make his xenophobia understandable. But the assault on a pregnant mother, beating her up while she tries to protect her other child, remains incomprehensible.
Exit draws a complex and nuanced picture of extremism and the way out – daring to lay bare the grim face of violence.