A few words on Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare”, a risible piece of documentary filmmaking

the nightmare film review by daniel dewar

Rodney Ascher’s infamous “Room 237” explored the possible hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of “The Shining”. While each theory examined in the film became crazier and crazier, there was at least a commitment to analyse the ideas via extended footage from the film. Although never pushing back against the testimony, its documentation of its subjects was worthy of a documentary.

With “The Nightmare”, Rodney Ascher interviews eight sufferers of sleep paralysis. Without a formal source to reference (and without even attempting to bring one in), Ascher decides to recreate each sufferer’s account through poorly staged dramatisations. These dramatisations reveal Ascher’s severe short supply of cinematic vision and are unfortunately not the worst aspect of the film.

Ascher gives it away early that this is not a documentary about sleep paralysis—it’s not even a fictional film about sleep paralysis. Its true subject is its filmmaker—someone obsessed with representation, not documentation.

In the very first interview we see the AV sync call, Ascher yells action, the camera operator moves out of the room behind a wall only to slowly move back, keeping the subject obscured as he talks. Ascher is immediately asking us to pay attention to his framing and the camera’s movements. He’s not interested in what the subjects have to say—we’re supposed to be paying attention to his manipulation of the scene.

Compare that to the images presented in other exceptional documentaries released this year—Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” or Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence”—and you will see how contemptuous Ascher’s decision is. Not only contemptible of documentary-making but of filmmaking as well.

In “The Last of the Unjust”, Lanzmann lets Murmelstein talk—sometimes uninterrupted for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. If the camera is not fixed on him then it is slowly panning across the rooftops of Rome. There is never anything else to focus on but Murmelstein’s testimony.

Ascher repeats the same mistake he (wilfully) made in “Room 237”—the testimony of the subjects is never challenged despite a weakening in credibility as the film continues. Testimony that believing in Jesus made the paralysis stop is never challenged. Total rejection of a physiological explanation or medical theory is not challenged. Nobody trained in psychological study or medicine is offered a chance to discuss their experience in treating this field. Despite talking to an exiled Jew responsible for saving the lives of many Jews in the Theresienstadt ghetto, Lanzmann still challenges Murmelstein on his memory and testimony. It’s not because he doesn’t believe Murmelstein—as a documentarian it is his responsibility to record accurate testimony that has been subject to internal and external analysis.

Near the end of the film we are given a brief glimpse of what the story could have built to much earlier—one of the subjects reveals the experiences have led him to be suicidal, and finally, accepting of the certain death that awaits him at some later stage in life. This is genuine insight into the human condition and what the film should have always been about.

Instead we are witness to an ego that doesn’t belong in documentaries or cinema.