The strangers in your dreams never have faces. If what you see in your sleep is a molten stew of memories that your mind is pooling together however it can, it would stand to reason that the unconscious brain doesn’t have the ability to create new people. It’s more a feverish act of consolidation than anything else; imagine an editor trying to make sense of a million random dailies on a 10-second deadline and doing their best to string together a semi-coherent narrative from the mess of raw footage that’s been dumped in their lap.
Sometimes your brain knows exactly who to cast in the story it’s projecting back at you, but when the ensemble grows too large — when you’re lost in a crowd, or being chased by a mob — the scene is fleshed out with a horde of anonymous extras. Those dreams are usually nightmares. But it wasn’t until I watched “The Fall,” a new short film by “Under the Skin” director Jonathan Glazer, that it made some kind of sense to me: Those dreams aren’t filled with faceless people because they’re nightmares, they’re nightmares because they’re filled with faceless people.
A grim caricature of fascism that recalls the austere music videos that Glazer made for Radiohead (and might also be thought of as an appetizer for his forthcoming movie about Auschwitz), “The Fall” is simple enough to feel like a gag, but haunting enough to land like a warning. A tree shakes on a still night. High among its branches, a terrified man clings to the trunk for dear life. The actor playing him is wearing a skin-colored mask that combines the eerie fixedness of Michael Myers with the soft despair of a scared child; the straps of the mask are clearly visible.
The 10 people trying to rattle the man loose from the base of the tree are all wearing the same version of a similar mask that only differs from the protagonist’s in its mouth-breathing arrogance, its hungry eyes, and its bared teeth. The mob eventually knocks the man down, forces him to pose for a picture that Glazer says was inspired by a photo of Eric and Donald Trump Jr gloating beside the carcass of a defenseless animal, and then throws him down a bottomless well. He falls for 86 seconds, and then…
The whole thing is over in less than seven minutes (it runs a quick 5:49 without credits), but it leaves one hell of an impression. And while Glazer may have been inspired by current events, the abstraction of his storytelling and the range of his other reference points allows “The Fall” to become unmoored from any particular moment in time. Churning with the oblique menace that has carried so much of his work (and layered with the same tortured hope for transcendence), Glazer’s first proper short uses dream logic to crystallize an elemental feeling that can always be found in the collective unconscious.
The filmmaker has cited Goya’s self-portrait “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” as another touchstone, and it’s one that seeps well below the surface; like a live-action Goya painting, “The Fall” vividly traces the thoughtless violence that hides behind the faces we see in waking life.
The world turns on the premise that people can recognize themselves in each other, but the masks in “The Fall” work to fog that mirror. Their unmoving expressions can’t be reasoned with. The man in the tree can’t understand why people are shaking its trunk, the mob on the ground doesn’t need a good reason, and the dull shimmer of Mica Levi’s characteristically nerve-jangling score — the sound of liquid metal hardening into shape — makes it clear that we’re seeing an unstoppable alchemy in motion.
Maybe the victim used to be another face in the crowd. Maybe the mob turned on him right before the action started. Maybe, like most dreams, there was nothing before the beginning and there will be nothing after the end. The only thing Glazer’s riveting cold sweat of a short film suggests for certain is that we climb in our dreams, we fall in our nightmares, and our only hope is to wake up in time before we hit the ground.
“The Fall” is now available to stream online right here.