I recently got around to watching the Red Chapel, the unusual guerrilla documentary by the Danish journalist Mads Brügger. (( The title, Det røde kapel, is a Danish play on words from the German Rote Kapelle = The Red Orchestra communist resistance organization under Nazi rule )) The basic premise is a visit to North Korea by Mads Brügger and two Danish-Korean comedians for the purpose of cultural exchange. Brügger’s main ploy is the use of the speaking disability of one of the two, Jacob Nossell, as a way to create embarrassment, conceal criticism, and attempt to expose the heartless evil of the DPRK.
The movie fails at its task. We learn nothing about North Korea that any number of other documentaries, journalistic accounts, or other limited looks into the bubble of elite life in Pyongyang have not already shown us. Brügger seems to completely unable to understand the psychological universe that North Koreans live in. Instead of coming to terms with the victory the Stalinist state has had in transforming the worldview of its people, he sees everyone around him acting always and only out of fear, and engaged constantly in a kind of performance that helps him justify his own deceit. Of course, it isn’t either of these. We are seeing a people who have carved out a livable fiction, parts of which they know is a lie, and parts they grasp tightly in order to function in their society. In terms of basic technique, it is no different than the ability we develop to ignore injustice around us and participate enthusiastically in social games we know are built on fantasies. Fear and falsehood, of course, play a part, but I suspect many of the emotions he sees are as powerful and genuine as any we see these three Danes offer the camera.
Nor is there much in the way of new evils exposed. While Brügger seems almost delighted to be able to show the North Korean treatment of Jacob and his disabilities, especially when he is silenced and almost written out of the reworked comic sketch that is the product of the entire affair, this clashes awkwardly with the deep warmth Jacob is shown by their handler, and Jacob’s own complex emotions over what he sees and his own role in the deceptive game that Mads has invited him to join. For those of us who have seen or read of the treatment of some disabled elsewhere in the world, including South Korea, this documentary fails to shock.
While Brügger makes ominous references to the horrible conditions of the camps in remote places, the starvation of the multitude, and at one point reminds himself that having a picnic in the woods is like enjoying a trip to the Black Forest during Nazi rule, the only two real forms of oppression we see in the movie is the complete editing license assumed by the North Koreans over the performances of their Danish guests, and by Mads himself as he cajoles and pressures his two companions to go along with the North Korean demands and the deception they are carrying out.
But this is why the documentary is a most interesting failure. It shows how Brügger is so different from someone like Sacha Baron Cohen or the interviewers of the Daily Show. The Red Chapel makes a good pair with The Ambassador, Brügger’s adventure in the Central African Republic with credentials as a Liberian consul purchased through a Dutch supplier of diplomatic titles. As with the Red Chapel, we don’t really learn anything new. Most of us recognize North Korea as a Stalinist hell and none of us are surprised when Brügger discovers corruption in central Africa. However, these two documentaries reveal a genuinely interesting approach that Brügger takes: On the one hand he reveals his own willingness to carry his deceit to extreme limits, and his willingness to drag vulnerable individuals into the heart of his game (Jacob in Red Chapel, and two Pygmies he hires for his match factory in Africa). On the other, the both documentaries use extensive footage and commentary to the end of exposing his own failures. The result is that characters come alive in his documentaries in a way that they are merely reduced to stand-ins for stereotypes in other similar projects.
Brügger also includes footage where others criticize him directly, especially from own collaborators. Mads Brügger, the director, despite the authoritative narrative voice he offers over the action, does not spare Mads, the participant, from his own strange interrogation. This is seen throughout the Red Chapel, where the tension and interaction between Jacob and Mads nearly steals us away from the core drama of the interaction between the Danes and the North Koreans. The result is, for example, that instead of Jacob getting used as a tool of propaganda by Mads (something that Brügger admits doing), and subjected to abuse by the North Koreans, the young man’s agency comes through strong throughout the documentary. The climax of both documentaries happens at the decisive moment when Brügger’s collaborators take a stand against him and refuse to participate any more. Jacob will not join Brügger in pumping his fist in a state organized street march against American imperialism and, during a blood diamond negotiation, Brügger’s Danish assistant and French interpreter is heard yelling that the game has reached its limit, and he must proceed no further.
At the close of the Red Chapel Brügger graciously hands Jacob complete victory, a victory of compassion over the strike against totalitarianism that Brügger was aiming for. When he persuades Jacob to hand their North Korean handler a letter in which he asks why he never saw or met other disabled people in North Korea, instead of waiting for the awkward silence or some propagandistic reply, Jacob immediately lets her off the hook by telling her that perhaps next time he will get the chance to meet them.
The result is that Brügger has created—and given his personality, he may well be satisfied with the irony of it—a documentary that repeatedly declares itself to be a condemnation of North Korea as the world’s most evil country, and instead puts humanity on display with a far more positive message.