Trapped in a vault! Is there any hope of escape?
Germany / 81 minutes / color / Fullfeedback, Bar Vinya, Waterbear, Kinostar Dir: Stephen Manuel Pr: Axel Wedekind, Stephen Manuel, Aaron Magnani Scr: Peter Arneson Cine: Jan Reiff Cast: Axel Wedekind, Rungano Nyoni.
A man (Wedekind), seemingly an office worker, wakes up to find himself locked into what looks to be some kind of bank vault, empty except for a padlocked metal locker and a dead rat. And flies—lots of flies. One of the fluorescent lamps overhead is full of dead ones, but there are live ones either buzzing around the man or breeding in the dead rat.
At first he thinks his predicament is some kind of practical joke—he specifically suspects a colleague called Fletcher. But, as time wears on and there’s no sign of any activity from beyond the vault door, he becomes more puzzled as to what’s going on.
The man (Axel Wedekind) climbs atop the locker to evaluate his situation.
Then he spots a key in the shade of one of the overhead fluorescents. Recovering the key, he’s able to open the locker. Inside it he finds a raft of tools, notably an oxyacetylene torch and a mallet and chisel. With the torch he attempts to burn through the door but, since he quite patently doesn’t know how to use the tool and anyway gives up after just a few minutes, succeeds in doing no more than scorch the surface.
The contents of the locker.
His next gambit is to use the mallet and chisel to try to chip his way through one of the vault walls. By this time he’s been reduced to peeing into a shoe so as to drink his own urine for liquid (“Worse than lite beer,” he comments), then eating the maggots out of the dead rat for food. (I’m told that maggots taste okay, but he evidently doesn’t think so. Similarly, although I assure you I’ve not tried it, there are plenty of instances on record of people drinking their own urine for purported health reasons.)
The man (Axel Wedekind) contemplates breakfast.
Eventually he’s able to break through into the next vault, which he discovers is just like the one he came from except that it contains a standard lamp and a coffin. Lifting off the coffin lid, he discovers a beautiful woman (Nyoni) in traditional dress, fast asleep. She soon wakes, and is immediately terrified of him; matters aren’t helped by the fact that she speaks no English. (Although this is a German movie, Wedekind performs entirely in English, Nyoni in a language I cannot identify.)
The woman (Rungano Nyoni) sleeping in the coffin.
Eventually, though, they start working in cooperation. They learn how to persuade the door from her cell to open of its own volition. In the vault beyond they discover an empty grave, which the man attempts to dig deeper for some reason. By this time he’s more or less running on empty—the woman is bearing up far better under the privations, although to be fair she’s done a lot less physical labor. Although he’s so weak that he’s capable of little more than crawling around, groaning histrionically, she’s able to arouse him from apparent death for a round of therapeutic lovemaking (been there, done that; ah, youth). And that seems to be the key to their escape from the series of vaults—their escape into somewhere entirely unexpected.
When the man (Axel Wedekind) injures his hand it’s the beginning of his downward spiral.
At some point during the proceedings, the man has gone from blaming his pal Fletcher for the circumstances and started talking about the science-fiction trope of humans being stolen away by aliens so that they can be put in a zoo—a type example is the fate of Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), filmed as Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) dir George Roy Hill. Thereafter he directs all his wrath toward these hypothetical alien captors. He may be right. One of Iron Doors’s strengths is that, in the end, we simply don’t know.
The waiting grave.
Others of its strengths are the tremendous and very noirish cinematography of Jan Reiff and an excellent soundtrack by The Vibez and by Stefan Ziehtan that has the considerable virtue of being sensitive to events onscreen rather than trying to impose itself upon the viewer. More than anything there’s the performance by Rungano Nyoni; even though I could understand exactly nothing of her dialogue—some was given German subtitling on the DVD I watched, which for this shameful monoglot was unhelpful—she was able to communicate superbly not only her emotions but the information she was trying to convey to the rather dim-bulb male she was stuck in this trap with.
The two facets of the woman (Rungano Nyoni).
But then there’s the downside. I’m not sure if Wedekind’s ham-packed performance is unknowing, for deliberate effect, or merely a product of a script that belongs to the school of screenwriting that considers a profanity’s worth a thousand words. An early example is: “These assholes better show up soon or I’m going to paint these walls with shit.” I lost count of the number of times the man described his captors as cocksucking motherfuckers, or maybe it was motherfucking cocksuckers—the memory numbs. As for the frequent bellows of “fuck!” and “shit!”, they were obviously just him clearing his throat before an all too rare line of actual dialogue.
What makes the movie interesting—more so than obvious thematic kin like Cube (1997)—is that it’s entirely up for grabs as to whether anything in its second half actually happened. Consider. Our hero is clearly not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox—any toolbox. He gives up on using the blowtorch on the vault door within a matter of moments. Yet for hours on end he labors to break through a thick wall using primitive tools. There he finds a beautiful, quite clearly intelligent woman sleeping in a coffin. Later, although he’s just about dead, she seduces him. (When they wake later they miraculously have most of their clothes back on.) To all of this it’s difficult to respond except with “Oh, really?” Does this not sound a bit like the wish-fulfillment dream of a man watching himself on the way out? Add in the symbolism of the grave, and . . .
Nyoni has done what looks like interesting work not just as an actress but as a writer and director. I’m hoping to explore some of it here somewhere down the line.