With the urgency of a good thriller and the clarity of a fable, World War III is the grueling but compelling tale of how one of life’s victims learns to imitate his oppressors. Largely unspooling on the set of a bad film being made about the Holocaust, Iranian Houman Seyedi’s sixth feature starts out as jet-black comedy before darkening still further into tragedy, a journey embodied in an absorbing and extraordinary central performance by Mohsen Tanabandeh as the film’s downtrodden hero.
Seyedi’s work has regularly won acclaim at home, and the premiere of World War III in Venice’s Orizzonti section, one of four Iranian films seeking honours at the festival, could be the prelude to further international exposure.
The carefully-worked script kicks off with a short but telling scene between Shakib (Tanabandeh, from Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero), still on the material and emotional skids after losing his wife and child in an earthquake, and deaf sex worker, the trembling, wide-eyed Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi). Many of the film’s themes are beautifully encapsulated in a brief exchange between the pair, united in their victimhood, which suggests from the outset that we’re in safe directorial hands.
Shakib finds work as a builder on the hellishly muddy and grungy set of what looks like the worst Holocaust picture ever made, produced by Nosrati (Navid Nosrati). Effectively, Shakib is being asked to build a concentration camp. Drafted as an extra on the set along with many other impoverished illiterates, Shakib finds himself, amongst other humiliations, being driven into a gas chamber: the extras have not been warned about what’s happening, and panic breaks out.
Pulled right into this awful experience by Payman Shadmanfar’s camera, we are in dark territory indeed, the horrors of history being played out as consumer entertainment — though some will feel any parallels between film production and the Holocaust are surplus to requirements.
When the actor playing Hitler collapses (“He’s ruined the uniform,” one crew member complains), Shakib is chosen as his stand-in and is allowed to stay in the actor’s fake mansion, under instructions to receive no visitors. At which point Ladan turns up: her procurer Farshid (Morteza Khanjani) seemingly has terrible plans for her. Shakib, who not only loves Ladan and depends on her but who senses that she might be his redemption, agrees to hide her in the mansion.
Everything that comes later — and there’s a lot of it, some of it startling visually and emotionally — derives from this decision, a dangerous one in a society that appears to have no room for altruism.
Tanabandeh as Shakib is terrific: initially a hangdog, stony-faced silent comedian figure at the mercy of powers he can’t comprehend (the first shot following his transformation into Hitler is laugh-aloud funny), he later becomes authentically tragic, undergoing a deep transformation that’s both dramatically justified and psychologically credible. At the plot level, World War III is compelling, events hurtling along so quickly that the inattentive viewer could get lost: key elements are often revealed through fleeting moments of dialogue.
There are moments of implausibility — quite why Shakib would be drafted so quickly as the replacement Hitler, and also why the film crew would tolerate him as long as they do once things become increasingly awkward for all parties, is never addressed. Over the final thirty minutes, the chaos of what’s happening onscreen threatens to become a chaotic experience for the viewer as well. But World War III feels solid because of its iron grip on the emotional logic at work inside Shakib: elegantly and truthfully, the plan for revenge on the system that he devises originates from an idea planted in him by the system itself.
The film’s epigraph is from Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes”. This is proven multiple times in World War III, as Seyedi drops in Holocaust parallels beyond the construction of the film set: this is a picture whose conceptual map, if not its plot, has been worked out to the last detail. At the start, Shakib is selected, for example, on the basis of his fitness for work; Ladan’s hiding place echoes the Anne Frank story; and the film’s extras are treated purely as agents of production rather than as humans.
Times may change, Seyedi is telling us, but the ways in which power is exercised remain the same, and there’s always someone at the bottom of the pyramid who will refuse to be forgotten. In one of those fleeting moments of revelatory dialogue at which World War III excels, Shakib is asked by the director whether he knows who Hitler was: his answer is no. Anyone who doesn’t know who Hitler was, this disturbing film suggests, is capable of themselves becoming Hitler.