9/11 was already there in the cinema. Edward Zwick’s political thriller “The Siege” from 1998 was felt to be severely exaggerated at the time. Arab-born suicide bombers who hit New York with a series of attacks, prompting the army to take brutal counter-terrorism measures, including systematic torture in purpose-built camps? The film with Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington flopped.
Three years later, the shelter of the imagination collapsed with the Twin Towers. Mainstream fantasy, perceived as absurd, has been cruelly overtaken by reality. The planes in the towers, the cloud of smoke, the collapsing skyscrapers, the people falling into the depths, the endless loop of real images on television: an iconic shock.
The image “penetrated our reality and shattered it,” wrote the savage thinker Slavoj Žižek. The World Trade Center, this architectural icon of the US financial power, became a mass grave with 3,000 dead. Anyone who thought out loud about the catastrophic film aesthetics of the attacks, about the collapse of the visual age and the perpetrators’ knowledge of the symbolic power of the horror images they produced, drew the charge of cynicism. The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen spoke of the “greatest work of art ever” and was horrified. Steven Spielberg wanted to impose a ban on images on 9/11, science fiction and doomsday productions were canceled, the towers cut out of blockbusters or retouched. 9/11 also terrorized the cinema so massively that horror made in Hollywood had become obsolete. A culture break.
20 years later we know: The trauma, the taboo, they did not mean the end of catastrophe cinema. But the attacks themselves have rarely been filmed. Banishing evil by imagining it: In 9/11, the cinema did not work as a remedy for fear.
In 2002, the eleven-part short film compilation “11’09’01”, with contributions by Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair and Sean Penn, tried to cope with the excessive demands of the imagination with personal sketches. Oliver Stone’s heroic saga “World Trade Center” with Nicolas Cage and Paul Greengrass’ documentary film “United 93” with laypeople followed on the fifth anniversary.
Paul Greengrass did without stars and effects in “United 93”
They are the only notable cinema works that try to come to terms with the terrorist attacks directly. Both scripts are based on real fates, both encounter the unmistakable with stories of brave Americans risking their lives in very different ways.
Oliver Stone, who in 2001 had compared Arab and American terrorism with one another and received harsh criticism, remembered his left-wing patriotism, his weakness for the common people, his trauma to the Vietnam War.
Like a war film, he staged the survival story of the firemen John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two of the 20 people buried under the WTC rubble who could be rescued.
An ex-marine does not give up the search for them, in the credits the audience learns that he then fought in the Iraq war. The twin towers were regenerated on the computer: 9/11 as a special effect, a cinema of horror and sentiment, with apocalyptic detonations, the agony of the buried alive and their desperate wives. The uneasiness about the emotional exploitation of 9/11 reappears when they meet again.
Paul Greengrass did without stars and effects in “United 93”. The real-time scenario with improvised dialogues and without heroic identification figures focuses, in addition to the hopeless overload in the airport control towers, on panic and chaos in the fourth hijacked aircraft. It never reached its presumed destination, the Capitol or the White House; it crashed over a field in Pennsylvania because the passengers botched the al-Qaeda bombers’ craft.
No one survived, no happy ending, but another patriotic message. “Let’s roll”, the radio call from one of the courageous passengers, became the slogan in the war against terror. Here, too, one wonders, with all honesty, whether a real death flight is not being exploited by simulation for 90 minutes of extreme cinema tension.
After that there was a lot of people in the 9/11 cinema. Grief work, the private losses, the injured bereaved: In Mike Binder’s buddy movie “Die Liebe in mir” with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle from 2007, a doctor tries to break open the armor of his old college friend who lost his wife and children in the attacks. In 2011, Stephen Daldry’s screen adaptation of the Foer novel “Extremely close & incredibly loud” followed as an unfortunately far too pleasing father-son story.
Kathryn Bigelow’s bin Laden hunting film “Zero Dark Thirty”
The spectrum of films on the war against terrorism is far more extensive. Whether in the action format, as a psychodrama or in a politically active, investigative documentary film, cinema was once again moving on familiar territory. Kathryn Bigelow’s bin Laden hunt film “Zero Dark Thirty”, made after her Cannes winner “Hurt Locker” about bomb sharpeners in Iraq, is one of them, as is Michael Winterbottom’s “Road to Guantanamo” or Paul Haggis’ “The Valley of Elah” traumatized Iraq war veterans. Errol Morris dealt with the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in “Standard Operating Procedure”.
And Michael Moore won the Golden Palm in Cannes with his anti-Bush pamphlet “Fahrenheit 9/11”, and he was the first documentarist to even make it to the top of the US box office.
Sleeper films are still around today, including German ones. A few weeks ago, Anne Zorah Berached’s “The World Will Be Different”, the story of radicalization in Hamburg student circles, hit the cinemas, a tragic love story in the shadow of 9/11. Johannes Naber’s political thriller “Curveball” (start 9. 9.) is based on the involvement of the BND in the lie of the reason for war about the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
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The wound is still gaping. Spike Lee created one of the most impressive cinema pictures back in 2002, as in his New York film “25 Hours”. A drug dealer has to go to prison, on his last day in freedom he meets relatives, companions and colleagues.
Two of his friends look out the window at Ground Zero, the bleeding heart of the city. The mood is farewell: when Edward Norton lets loose a tirade of hate against New York in front of the mirror, it also turns into a declaration of love. Fiction is under the spell of reality and it makes no secret of it.
In his current HBO documentary series “NYC Epicenters 9/11 – 2021 ½”, Spike Lee spans the period from 2001 to the corona pandemic. In the last episode, in addition to serious experts, there are also conspiracy theorists who do not believe in a terrorist attack, but in a targeted demolition. Meanwhile, Spike Lee is back in the editing room. He asks his audience not to form an opinion until the episode is broadcast. It is planned for September 11th.