October 2009

Arts & Letters

Tasmanian devils

By Luke Davies
Jonathan auf der Heide’s ‘Van Diemen's Land’

“There’s nothing to a piece of man,” intones the mellifluous voice-over (in Gaelic, with subtitles) late in Jonathan auf der Heide’s strange – and strangely compelling – Van Diemen’s Land. The voice-over runs sporadically yet hauntingly through the film and is at times reminiscent of that in Terrence Malick’s 2005 The New World (“What voice is this which speaks within me?”). “There’s nothing to a piece of man”: the simple phrase fits neatly into the meditative monologue that becomes a kind of compendium of dark death ruminations; it even sounds a little Shakespearean. It is mischievous too, for this is a film about Australia’s most notorious cannibal – the convict Alexander Pearce, who was hanged in 1824 – and it’s Pearce (Oscar Redding) who is speaking the words. “Pieces of men” might be the more apt phrase by the time this film is through.

Pearce’s story became part of colonial folklore almost as it was happening. It was featured in Tales of To-Day, or Modern Facts; Containing Narratives of the Most Extraordinary Occurrences of Recent Date, a book published in London in 1825. Later, Marcus Clark fictionalised Pearce as the convict Gabbett in his novel For the Term of His Natural Life. More recently, Robert Hughes brilliantly captured a certain nightmarishly gothic derangement in his vivid portrayal of Australia’s penal settlements, The Fatal Shore. Early nineteenth-century Hobart and Macquarie Harbour are blighted and godforsaken, and Hughes’s Pearce is a perfect product of this hellish environment. It would seem that Hughes’s rendition has seeped into the consciousness of a new generation. Now that some of that generation are making movies, it’s no surprise that Pearce would emerge in film. In 2009, Michael James Rowland’s docudrama The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce aired on ABC TV, and a low-budget horror film, Dying Breed, took as its premise the notion that Pearce spawned a bloodline of hillbilly cannibal freaks who continue to wreak anthropophagite havoc in the Tasmanian wilds to this day. Tasmanian auf der Heide has taken a more mannered, art- cinema approach. He made the short film Hell’s Gates on the same subject and now brings to the screen a fully realised version of the tale.

In The Fatal Shore, Hughes describes the impenetrable wilderness around Macquarie Harbour as “dripping twilight from dawn till dusk” and, in keeping with that image, it seems there’s not a dry frame in Van Diemen’s Land. Cinematographer Ellery Ryan has captured beautifully the sodden tonal density of Tasmania’s old-growth forests. It’s a palette of sombre greens and greys; there’s barely a shot of sky. Werner Herzog managed this in his great Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), creating, as one critic noted at the time, atmospheric claustrophobia in a totally outdoor environment. In Van Diemen’s Land, the bush is cloying and devours: “Eight men in this dark wood. Far from God’s eyes.” (Further along: “Four godless men walk to the devil.” The voice-over is like an adult version of ‘Ten Green Bottles’.) The woods are indeed dark and deep, but for these men, they are not lovely. This land is the opposite of the Virginia settlement in The New World, in which Colin Farrell’s voice-over lilts, “Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor.” Virginia was seen as new Eden; Van Diemen’s Land was wasteland and dumping ground.

Early in the film, we’re with a timber-felling work party of eight convicts, Pearce included. “There’s freedom in work, lads,” their overseer tells them. “The sooner we get this forest cut down, the sooner we can go home.” There is no home anymore, of course – certainly not County Monaghan, the distant birthplace of “little pock-marked blue-eyed” Pearce, who was sent to Australia for stealing six pairs of shoes. There is only the bleak prison lodging of “Hell’s Gates”.

Auf der Heide has kept narrative complexity to a minimum. The men escape. The wilderness gets the better of them. Their numbers dwindle as their hunger increases. We’re not pursuing any traditional journey of a hero through an ordeal. Nor do we get a sense of the men being chased, after their initial escape. Once they are in the forest, they effectively belong to it and the world outside the wilderness ceases to exist. Instead, auf der Heide seems to be interested in exploring, in a group of men already beaten into submission, the tensions that play out between the primal impulse to survive and the numb comfort of despair, between triumph of will and surrender to fate.

He does so in small, still increments. What we’re actually seeing, at the micro level, is the tension between paranoia and co-operation. The US reality TV show Survivor was based on this, but Pearce and his fellow convicts don’t seem capable of anything so sophisticated as Game Theory. Indeed, in auf der Heide’s reckoning of the story, Pearce takes no part in the first murders except as an observer, and Robert Greenhill (Arthur Angel) is portrayed as the true instigator. “You didn’t need to do that. He was just a kid,” says Pearce to Greenhill of the second victim. Nor does Pearce participate in the party’s furtive decision-making conversations other than by nodding his  agreement, as if in a trance – though in voice-over he says things like, “Mathers holds to his pure heart, but the flesh of Dalton rots his teeth.” Later, as we get a glimpse of an arm being stuffed into a blood-soaked canvas bag while the men pack up their meagre camp, he remarks, “Easier than cutting sheep.” His transformation from blank-eyed shoe thief to cinematic blood-cipher is gradual, consistent and complete: “Your soul to the devil. Let God have his heaven. I am blood.”

In reality, soon after Pearce killed that last man, Greenhill, he was recaptured. He confessed all to the chaplain and magistrate Robert Knopwood. Knopwood, convinced the other prisoners must still be alive, didn’t believe a word of Pearce’s story. Pearce, now something of an escapee celebrity, was returned to Macquarie Harbour. He escaped again several months later, this time with fellow convict Thomas Cox in tow. He surrendered only 11 days later, with about half a pound of Cox in his pockets. (That sentence is best not read aloud.) The rest of Cox’s butchered body lay nearby. Pearce also had with him some of the food the two had escaped with from prison.

Despite his film’s minimalism, auf der Heide has managed to humanise Pearce and his party, and their sorrowful plights. “In Ireland I’d be rovin’,” sings one man mournfully, over the campfire, “With her at my command / But I wake up broken-hearted / Upon Van Diemen’s Land … ”

“Do you have a pretty one back home?” asks one of the convicts. “I hope not,” replies the singer, “for lonely she’ll die.” Actual death for these men is everywhere and imminent; then there is the long, slow death of exile. One is not necessarily much worse than the other. A convict talks of what they all just left behind: “After the first hundred you could see his spine pokin’ through. So for the next hundred they had to whip his arse. Blood gushing like a tap. He never tried to escape after that.” “There’s no going back,” says another, in response. “Not for any of us.” The men huddle together, something more than animal but less than human.

Van Diemen’s Land is a dark, brutal film, imbued with qualities of fairytale and waking nightmare. It reminds us that – beyond the land’s original inhabitants – there were no ‘Australians’ in the 1820s; there were English and Scots and Irish, and they were made up almost exclusively of the downtrodden and the downtreaders, and free settlers were still greatly in the minority. Auf der Heide has taken this oppressive material and made of it, entirely appropriately, a Gaelic horror tale. His film will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes: the character arcs are extremely subtle and, in narrative terms, so little actually happens. The film doesn’t try to lead us to any conclusions. It doesn’t try to investigate Alexander Pearce’s motives or psychology. It sees him, perhaps, as a kind of fallen angel, wading through a welter of blood in a seer-like trance. “So beautiful,” he marvels, after killing. “How can it be so beautiful?”

Whatever its shortcomings, whatever frustrations may emerge from the audience’s experience of wanting firmer ground, Van Diemen’s Land is somehow redeemed by a bizarre and unexpected narrative vehicle: the Gaelic voice-over. Even when enigmatic – “If you have no scars, the crow will eat your eyes” – it seems perfectly placed, like a ripple of music heard faintly against thunder.

Joseph Campbell pointed out that in some monotheistic traditions, theologians have asked the question, “What is the nature of the power that sustains Satan through eternity?” One response is that it is simply the memory of the echo of God’s voice when God said, “Go to hell!” “That is a great sign of love,” comments Campbell dryly, since the worst kind of hell – and Satan feels the worst of it, of course – is absence from the beloved. We witness Pearce becoming more and more of a phantom as the bloodshed increases, and more and more of a poet too. (“Where are you now? Here. By this tree, on this rock, in this rain.”) With his dreamy eyes he, too, seems to be sustained by the memory of an echo and by the pain of what is absent – society, perhaps, or a world without brutality, at least.

At the film’s opening, a greasy-faced trooper, having gorged himself on meat, slurps tea from a fine china cup. Beyond that single moment, there’s nothing at all of ‘civilisation’ in Van Diemen’s Land. As in David Malouf’s novel An Imaginary Life, we are at the barbarous far fringes of empire. In The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), or The Proposition (2005), the violence is played out in contrast to the settlers’ attempts to be civilised; the two are interwoven in the drama. In Van Diemen’s Land, Jonathan auf der Heide dispenses with the contrast entirely: if there is a God, “he dances with an axe in his hand,” and if there is culture, it is not in this place. “There’s a distant scream inside me,” says Pearce. “It’s not angry, it’s just screaming.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: October 2009

October 2009