13 February 2011 saw the Berlin premiere of German director Uwe Boll’s solemn Holocaust docu-drama Auschwitz. For the filmmaker, often described as a ‘schlockmeister,’ and best known for campy, critically-reviled, low-budget videogame adaptations like 2003’s House of the Dead, this picture marked the zenith of his efforts in recent years to make more sober, sensitive pictures that might see audiences take him more seriously. In an interview with Die Welt newspaper, Boll proclaimed, ‘for a director like me, who is known for his explicit depictions of violence, it’s my duty to use precisely this talent to show people the atrocities of the Nazis.’ Unfortunately for Boll, it was widely reported that a number of critics would boycott the picture, with many fearing that, based on the director’s reputation, the film could not be anything other than horribly exploitative. Supporting her decision, journalist Sophie Albers wrote in Stern magazine: ‘The words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Uwe Boll’ in one breath leads one to fear the worst.’
Here was a remarkable case of a filmmaker who had somehow managed to accrue such a groundswell of ill-feeling against himself that, in spite of his alleged attempts to turn a corner, his work could be condemned without even being seen. Despite industriously churning out close to twenty films in the last decade and managing to attract big name talent such as Ray Liotta, Jason Statham and Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley, Boll, helmer of this year’s forthcoming Age of Greed: The Bailout, has become a decidedly unique hate figure in the movie business – the cinematic equivalent of Lucifer himself.
Auschwitz would go straight-to-DVD in the UK, to very little fanfare and, like the majority of Boll’s recent pictures, would quickly fade into obscurity. A search on RottenTomatoes.com will yield just one review for the film, the director’s reputation being such that most critics now apparently choose to simply turn a blind eye. The existence of anti-Boll websites, like the ominously titled ‘UweBollIsAntichrist.com,’ as well as a highly publicised online petition imploring Boll to ‘stop directing, producing, or taking part in the creation of feature films,’ is evidence that it is not just the press who dislike him. But how did his reputation become so sullied? Boll’s few defenders do not claim his films are works of art, but they certainly feel that the filmmaker is far from the ‘antichrist’ figure he is made out to be. In an age where audiences are increasingly seeking movie knowledge online, there is an argument that public and critical opinion has been perhaps too easily swayed by the roarings of the passionate coordinators of an internet witch hunt, whose exclamations are getting louder and louder.
Many of Boll’s films, predominantly low-budget, blood spattered genre fare, are amongst the lowest rated entries on the Internet Movie Database, a forum where many users have chosen to vent their vexations on the filmmaker. Boll himself has often publicly blamed such forums for unfairly ‘sabotaging’ his career and in one message published on IMDb on January 13, 2008 he claimed users have successfully used the messageboards to ‘help destroy me.’ The filmmaker claims, ‘You hate me, you write against me, you hate my movies and you made the critics hate me and you made the theaters not believing in me [sic].’
Boll’s tirade appears to be more than simple paranoia, as an exploration of these IMDb messageboards, where passions often run high, reveals a culture where users, many admitting to not having actually seen Boll’s films, appear to be actively disparaging them, awarding them low ratings, whilst imploring others to avoid them. On the Auschwitz board, one poster with the handle ‘matt-282,’ writes ‘It’s a movie directed by Uwe Boll, avoid it at all costs! DO NO watch! [sic],’ before confessing, ‘I wouldn’t watch this movie even if someone bribed me.’ Another user, mccutch22, actually posts: ‘If things got to a point where people vote down his movies just for the hell of it, there’s a reason, right? He deserves it.’ These are just two of a multitude of derogatory posts aimed at the filmmaker that make for provocative reading.
A quick glance at Boll’s filmography may lead to initial mild bafflement as to where this negativity has come from. His early career had been relatively inconspicuous, helming a stream of forgettable, cheap indie thrillers such as Sanctimony (2000) and Blackwoods (2001). Boll was just another nondescript overseer of unremarkable direct-to-video fare, earmarked by cursory plotting, wooden performances and lacklustre camerawork, yet peppered with just enough sex and violent mayhem to make for an easy, if unmemorable watch.
Then in 2003, Boll’s production company, Boll KG, acquired the rights to popular Sega videogame The House of the Dead, piquing the interest of the franchise’s large, loyal fan base. The zombie horror was the director’s first feature to gain a stateside cinematic release and was heavily marketed towards the game’s hopeful legion of followers. Sadly for Boll, his directorial inadequacies were exposed with a very high-profile flop littered with risible dialogue, nonsensical plotting and ludicrous monster make-up.
The failure of House… triggered an outpouring of scorn, and the birth of the ‘New Ed Wood’ tag that the filmmaker would struggle to shrug off. Yet, Boll bounced back in 2005 with another videogame adaptation, the Christian Slater horror Alone in the Dark. Again, the reviews were generally disastrous, and the ire of the videogame diehards was provoked to new levels by a film that many argued bore scant similarity to the source material. Online, fans articulated their rage, condemning Boll’s pictures as inferior imitations of the games they loved, adding fuel to a hate campaign that has snowballed, blighting the director’s career.
Though many sub-par videogame adaptations like Mortal Kombat (1995), have found a cult following among gaming enthusiasts, one of the largest stumbling blocks for Boll, who has gone on to direct a further seven games adaptations, has been that the gamers have actually been his harshest critics. Dedicated fans can become extremely enamoured with their favourite titles, ensuring any adaptation will have a lot to live up to. Many will hope a film interpretation can capture the essence of what they love about the parent property, perhaps even displaying to non-gamers why the games matter to them. With gamers making such an emotional investment, much of the ill feeling towards Boll inevitably seems to stem from the idea that his ‘betrayal’ of the source material reflects badly on them. For someone like Boll, who has made a big point of making videogame movies, despite repeated protests, the results can be ugly. Boll’s apparent disrespect has fuelled his detractors’ ire, giving them real purpose: a crusade to destroy him, with the battle being fought online.
Boll’s case highlights the intriguing effect the web can have on audience reception, and its powerful capacity to effect and sway opinion. In March 2012, in a fascinating example of the internet’s efficiency as a tool for collating and articulating fan frustrations, thousands of devotees of the popular videogame Mass Effect 3 coordinated an extensive online campaign demanding that developer BioWare alter the game’s conclusion. Bowing to fan pressure, Bioware would eventually publish a free download that expanded the game’s climax, setting a dangerous new precedent for developers. In a similar move, after CBS cancelled television drama Jericho back in 2007, scores of fans inundated the network with vicious emails, prompting the series’ swift, if short-lived return. Despite a similarly wrathful campaign following Warner Bros’ decision to delay the release of the sixth Harry Potter film in 2008, fan power has so far failed to affect film production in quite the same way. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that if the diehards can shout loud enough, the movie moguls may have to listen.
Boll did appear to take heed of his critics, attempting to move away from videogame adaptations to direct his own original scripts on films like the thought-provoking genocide exploration Darfur and the kill-spree horror shocker Rampage (both 2009), though the damage appears to have already been done. The few critics who bothered to review these more recent original efforts talked in whispers about how Boll might actually be improving and may have found his niche with films that attempted to spread the message of important social issues to the masses. However, perhaps tellingly, the IMDb ratings for these efforts remained abysmally low, and audiences kept their distance. Boll would find he could do little to placate the wrath of the scores of film fans who felt so aggrieved by his existence that they seemed more than willing to resort to dirty tactics to ensure his unpleasant and messy demise.
As Boll has claimed, amongst the great slews of space afforded to discussing his work on IMDb, there are suggestions that the far below average star-ratings his films receive could partly be the work of bitter saboteurs. By coordinating multiple low votes, often without even seeing the films, the plan seems to be to keep the ratings low to deter potential viewers. On the messageboard for 2009’s Stoic, Boll’s gritty, Edward Furlong-starring exploration of the dynamics of prison life, conspiracy theories abound that Boll’s more recent efforts are being deliberately tarred with the same brush as his earlier films by motivated antagonists who refuse to assess them on their own merits. A user with the handle ‘aroundaround’ alleges that at least 51 users had cast one-star votes against Stoic before filming had even been completed. It is also alleged that, the day after the first test screening for just 171 people of Boll’s vampire thriller Bloodrayne (2005), over 360 IMDb users had voted negatively against the film. Before it had even been released, Bloodrayne was already ranked one of the site’s worst films of all time, displaying the web’s capacity to harm a film’s chances if enough people can conspire against it.
This brings to mind the way that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was able, for a few weeks following its release, to depose The Godfather (1972) from IMDb’s coveted number one spot. Many theorised that this achievement could be put down to a healthy degree of hype or, more interestingly, could have been achieved by careful design on the part of the legion of dedicated Batman fans. More recently, there has been suggestion of supporters of Nolan and DC Studios forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises (2012) taking to the IMDb page of rival Marvel Studios’ Avengers Assemble (2012) to deliberately cast low votes in an effort to ‘game’ the film’s rating, sabotage its success and to prove, once and for all, that Batman is the definitive superhero icon. Regardless of which film is ‘the best,’ these cases certainly highlight the potential dangers for a film’s publicity when fans become organised and misuse online voting systems for their own agendas.
In his own vehement IMDb post of January 13, 2008, Boll himself slates the website for ‘opening up my movies for votes almost a year before they are getting released and giving the 1 point votes between 200 and 300% more impact than the 10 point votes.’ On IMDb’s own Voting FAQs page, the site’s administrators, who are careful not to reveal the exact calculating methods used to create their ‘weighted average’ star ratings, rebuff such accusations, stating: ‘various filters are applied to raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at ‘vote stuffing’ by individuals more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it.’ The statement continues: ‘Occasionally we receive mail from people who seem to assume that some favourite movie has been victimised by the weighted ratings, whereas this is not the case.’ However, the administrators do concede that ‘while there is no foolproof way to verify if users have actually seen the film, or that the vote they cast is what they really think about it, we depend on and expect our users to be truthful and only vote on those films they have personally seen.’
Safeguards may be in place, yet if users continue to impulsively cast negative votes without viewing the films, their actions could prove harmful, highlighting the worrying ways that the unique conditions of online discussion and behaviour can lead to the loosening or abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal everyday interaction. The anonymity of internet blogging allows users to be potentially much crueller than they would otherwise allow themselves to be. The relentless internet bashing, or ‘flaming,’ where users tag discussions with titles like ‘Burn In Hell, Uwe Boll’ could perhaps be put down to what social researchers have dubbed the ‘online disinhibition effect,’ whereby users often experience reduced awareness of other people’s feelings, and feel less inclined to conform to perceived norms.
The level of malice directed at Boll may also be due in part to the phenomenon of ‘deindividuation,’ a concept in social psychology that refers to the diminishing of one’s sense of individuality that can occur with behaviour disconnected from personal or social standards of conduct. As a faceless member of an online mob of Boll-Bashers, a blogger may be more likely to post a scandalous threat to the director, or deliberately attempt to engage in ‘vote-rigging.’ Like a sensible father who suddenly feels compelled to hurl racist abuse when encompassed by the rammy of a furious football crowd, under the cover of an online alias, surrounded by virtual strangers, normally restrained users might find it easier to take a ‘moral vacation’ and suggest that a filmmaker suffer all manner of violent torture. Social media, when combined with anonymity has proven itself to be a dangerous mixture, one that can quite easily reinforce extremism.
Boll has been quick to dispel the notion that there is no such thing as bad press. In a 2006 interview for Youtube.com, the director laid out some of the potential ill effects of this dissent, explaining, ‘If there are a lot of negative reviews of a movie, foreign buyers for example, they use that to lowball the price that they pay for the movie.’ Boll stresses that once an abundance of negative currency has been unleashed on the web, justified or not, damage control can be practically insurmountable, explaining, ‘once this image is set in, it is a lot of work to do away with it, or at least to alleviate its consequences.’
The phrase ‘a million people can’t be wrong’ must be particularly irksome to Boll, as a massive networked game of electronic Chinese Whispers has meant that whether film fans have seen his films or not, the director’s name has become a dirty word. Much of the information available online is far from Gospel, but due to the way we use the web for quick fixes of enlightenment, for someone in Boll’s position it might as well be. With such a dearth of online propaganda devoted to painting the filmmaker in an unfavourable light, a quick Google search of his name probably wouldn’t inspire users to seek out his films for anything more than ironic chuckles, or to see what the fuss is all about. With the ability to research films on our mobile phones while standing in line at Blockbuster, it is becoming progressively easier to let the web dictate our viewing choices.
In a key scene in Auschwitz, a young woman talks of how Germans who helped Jews in World War II would be imprisoned, explaining that under the boot of the Nazi regime, it was easier to simply ‘follow the current.’ The girl is asked what she would have done, to which she responds, tellingly, ‘the same.’ It is this tendency that humanity has to follow the herd that could very well mean that Boll’s films will, regardless of any improvement in quality, remain largely unseen. This idea of an ‘information cascade,’ of viewers abandoning their own information in favour of inferences based on other people’s opinions means that, by and large, the public will probably continue to believe the hype. Trashing Boll has become fashionable, another ‘meme,’ transmitted through our culture like wildfire, making it all too easy for critics to give him the cold shoulder. It has become the done thing to castigate the director, and it may take a minor miracle for him to overcome it. The rot may have already set in the moment Boll unleashed House of the Dead, riling a community that took an instant dislike to his methods and who, with the influential power of the web, had a powerful weapon with which to strike back.
Boll finds himself at the mercy of invisible internet assassins who seem to have the final say over how his films are received. Boll has found out the hard way about the difficulties that lie ahead for a filmmaker who inadvertently disrespects or fails to heed the lamentations of these online fan communities. The recent glut of Hollywood remakes, sequels and comic book adaptations indicate that it is becoming increasingly arduous to get a major film made unless the source material is not already treasured by an established fan populace. The fans, possessing the ability to make or break a picture, are slowly coming round to the fact that they are the most powerful people in the media landscape. By harnessing the potential of the internet, be it to campaign through social media, or to hijack a film’s online star-rating, the fanboys are now in charge and the artists are discovering pretty quickly that they will need to play ball or face the consequences.
We are investing more and more of ourselves into our cultural consumption, increasingly defining ourselves by the things we buy, the books we read and the games we play. A culture so committed can often lash out, sometimes unjustly, at those who meddle with the perceived gratification that immersion in these private fantasy worlds can provide. For many, Uwe Boll is a sort of antichrist, as for so many people entertainment media has become their religion and the German director has sacrilegiously sullied it. Like any organised religion, if you can spread your doctrine far and wide and attract enough disciples, you have the power to alter history and dictate the future. Unfortunately for Boll, his naysayers want him crucified.