We knew most of this before. «There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism», wrote the philosopher Walter Benjamin in 1940, shortly before his death. But writer and director Raoul Peck, in his breathtaking Exterminate All the Brutes hybrid docu-series makes it clear, in an utterly convincing way, that we still need to grasp the actual meaning and scope of this fact.
Peck is known for his disruptions of formal and artistic film conventions and this series excels by its strikingly innovative approach to historic documentary, but Exterminate All the Brutes is first and foremost an essential lesson in history. Just one example: Benjamin died as he was trying to escape the killing machine designed to facilitate Hitler’s imperial ambitions. Peck shows that the model for this was developed and perfected long before the Nazis and is still being used today. In the words of Peck whose broken, dark voice will make the painful truths he reveals stay with you long after the closing titles, «There is this one short simple sentence that sums up the history of the western world, exterminate all the brutes».
The word hybrid is actually too loose for Peck’s work, as he does not simply merge the two, documentary and fiction, together. He knows they are both part of this history that he aims to deconstruct. They are among the main instruments transforming the ideology of white supremacy, the ideology which enabled Europeans to think it was possible to enslave or exterminate other peoples, into a natural fact. «White paper, a default setting», says Peck. In juxtaposing the existing images to make them tell the opposite, he perfected the technique of collage. He proved the unprecedented potentials of S.M. Eisenstein’s theory of film montage as he expressed the most complex abstract ideas by combining such diverse sources as Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985) and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), home movies of Eva Braun and those of the Raoul Peck’s family. Photographs made by anthropologists and Hollywood films such as The Wizard of Oz, John Wayne, and CNN.
Peck illustrated key historical processes and developments by drawings that convey their meaning by their form itself. For example, the arrows indicating the paths of European crusaders, designed in red colour on the surface resembling the human skin. For those parts of the history that remained undocumented until now, Peck created fascinating animated sequences, such as the oneiric scene with the African who jumped off the slave ship, drowning in the sea. Aware of the biases of the «traditional» narrative, Peck knowingly established an alternative form and gave voice to those who were silenced before, carefully putting them in the first place and the active role, protecting their dignity when showing their pictures. Through the interpretive scripted scenes, he introduced the female protagonist, Aby from the Seminole Tribe, an American Indian nation called the invincible tribe because they «never signed any treaty with the United States Government». Often, the scripted scenes present a counter-narrative to white Eurocentric history. In these scenes, the role of the white male, the model «man» of western philosophy, is repeatedly played by Josh Hartnett.
The model subject of western modernity is not telling the story this time.
The model subject of western modernity is not telling the story this time. Peck himself does. The work by three authors and scholars provided his starting point, Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. The series is a result of a vast and thorough exploration in various fields and diverse archival materials, primary and secondary sources, books, newspaper articles, photos and films, documentations, and testimonials. But it is Peck who presents the results of this investigation. Personal involvement became Peck’s authorial signature by now, still, in this series, I find it particularly outstanding how skilfully he contextualised the historical facts and introduced a subjective view without undermining the need for truth. Because, in his words, «there is no such thing as alternative facts».
Introducing his perspective and taking personal responsibility without relativist claims is particularly important because that is how Peck constructed the credibility of his narrative which, mildly put, proved most of the things we believed about the last thousand years of human history wrong. «I know that this story is painful but we need to know it», he says at one point. You will hear many bitter truths, about the Catholic Church, American Presidents, and European scientists, often told without embellishment – neoclassicist palaces in Brussels are «monuments paid for with amputated hands», and «viewed from outside the West, the age of enlightenment was a century of obscurity». They do not only concern our past but our future. If it were the genocide, slavery, and exploitation of human bodies, and not scientific and technological innovations, that fuelled the industrial revolution, where does this leave us now? In this, too, Peck is right. «It’s not knowledge we lack, what is missing is the courage to understand what we known and to draw conclusions».