DEATH WATCH. Science fiction that’s like a precursor to Black Mirror

The cast alone should draw attention to this little-known but highly interesting film.

Lukasz Budnik

4 January 2024

The cast alone should draw attention to this little-known but highly interesting film: Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, and Max von Sydow. But that’s not the only advantage of “Death Watch.”

The film is set in the near future, where, due to medical advancements, death from natural causes has become rare. One day, doctors diagnose an incurable disease in the well-known writer Katherine Mortenhoe, who immediately becomes a celebrity besieged by the mass media. Influential TV producer Ferriman makes her a lucrative offer: in exchange for half a million dollars, Katherine will allow her last moments to be filmed for the popular reality show “Death Watch.” Reluctantly, she agrees to the immoral proposal, takes the advance payment, gives it to her husband, and then escapes to the countryside to live out her days away from the flashbulbs. In a church shelter for the homeless, she meets Roddy, an employee of the television station and Ferriman’s subordinate, who is tracking Katherine. Roddy has undergone an experimental procedure to implant miniature cameras in his eyes, allowing him to live broadcast her life and death while she remains unaware. However, the simple assignment becomes complicated when Roddy falls in love with Katherine.

“Death Watch” (La Mort en direct) is based on the 1973 novel “The Unsleeping Eye” by David G. Compton, adapted into a screenplay by David Rayfiel and Bertrand Tavernier. Tavernier, a versatile French director known for films like “The Clockmaker of St. Paul” (1974), “Let the Party Begin” (1975), and “The Judge and the Assassin” (1976), directed the film. The creators managed to assemble an impressive international cast, including Romy Schneider (Katherine), Harvey Keitel (Roddy), Harry Dean Stanton (Ferriman), Max von Sydow (Gerald), and Robbie Coltrane in his cinematic debut as a limousine driver. The film was shot in Glasgow, Scotland, and its surroundings, including the Victorian cemetery Glasgow Necropolis, the Gothic 12th-century cathedral, and the City Chambers municipal building. It premiered in January 1980, and in December of the following year, “Death Watch” also hit Polish screens. The film was popular, received several nominations for prestigious awards (including César and the Golden Bear), but is now considered somewhat forgotten, unjustly so.

Tavernier stated that “Death Watch” condemns the “dictatorship of voyeurism,” and he described Roddy’s character as a “super-voyeur and a twisted idealist who sold his eyes to the devil.” It is remarkable how visionary the film (and David G. Compton’s novel) turned out to be from a contemporary perspective. The creators predicted not only the phenomenon of reality shows popular at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries but also the intrusion of privacy by the internet and antisocial media. Recent history has long recorded cases of live broadcasts of murders and suicides, and videos of accidental deaths in accidents are commonplace on some internet platforms that, contrary to appearances, do not operate underground. Tavernier’s film’s influence is also clearly visible in cinema and television, as evidenced by titles like “The Hunger” (1983) by Yves Boisset, “Running Man” (1987) by Paul Michael Glaser, “The Truman Show” (1998) by Peter Weir, “Ed TV” (1999) by Ron Howard, and the “Black Mirror” series (especially episodes “The Entire History of You” and “White Bear”).

However, historical value is not the only merit of “Death Watch,” as the film excels in almost every aspect: acting, screenplay, direction, music, and cinematography. The vision of a dystopian future is restrained yet highly suggestive. In this seemingly orderly world, medicine has made progress, there is no talk of wars, people appear well-dressed and well-nourished. The unease reveals itself in details, sometimes difficult to perceive; it is from these details that the image of a society torn by hyperinflation and supply problems emerges, where a seemingly mundane vegetable like broccoli is considered a luxury item. Nothing is explicitly stated, but something terrible must have happened in this world. To create such a setting, the creators did not need elaborate set designs or special effects; impeccably shot outdoor locations were sufficient, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” (2006). In Tavernier’s film, it was Glasgow during the “Winter of Discontent” period – a crisis caused by the inept policies of the left-wing Labour Party, which brought equally gloomy fate to the British people.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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