By Jordan Gerdes
A retrospective on German horror film.
In the genre of horror, characters almost always die. They face an unstoppable force, an impossible task, an undying evil. The characters are overwhelmingly human, in that they make mistakes. They falter, they fail, and they die. However, there is always a rare exception to the rule, namely “The Final Girl”. Coined by Carol J Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws, the final girl is the last survivor who faces the antagonist in finale of the film. Unlike the rest of the victims in the film, the final girl is often the smartest. She doesn’t join in on the party, she is the most plain and boring of the cast. While the rest of her friends are off having sex, she is not sexually active. She is the first to notice something is wrong, and often the only one capable of responding to the call of duty when faced with it, as she is preoccupied by nothing. Clover describes in her own words the
“Final Girl. The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face; but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). She is inevitably female.” (Clover, 201)
The genre is full of famous final girls, from Laurie Strode to Ellen Ripley. Strong, smart females who conquered death, or at the very least escaped it. But what about the ones that almost made it? The ones that showed all the signs of great final girls before her, only to not make it out in the end. In the German horror cinema, there are survivors, but more often, there are almost survivors.
What is an “Almost Final Girl”? These are the women that do everything right, only to be overcome by a force too powerful. She shows the wisdom and knowledge of the final girl trope, as she is almost immediately aware of the danger at hand. She is often overlooked by the male characters, undermined or not trusted enough to accept her reasoning. She almost always escapes or tries to find safety, only to be trapped and resigns to the fact that her fate is inevitable. She cares for everyone’s safety, whether they deserve her affection and protection, or not. She is met at every turn with with an unfair twist of fate. She is the sacrificial lamb of the film, used as a plot device more than she deserves to be. She often is able to fight her antagonist, and occasionally wins. Her body count is always equal to or lesser than one. This is the Almost Final Girl.
Starting with Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922) we meet Ellen, the faithful wife of Thomas Hutter, who remains at home while her husband travels to Transylvania and draws the attention of Count Orlok. Orlok sets his sights on Ellen, and Hutter rushes to return to her side, trying to keep her safe. While the city is sieged by plague, Hutter is in possession of a book that details how one can kill a vampire. He forbids his wife from reading such nonsense, resigned to keep her safe and carefree. Ellen reads it anyways, and finds that the way to defeat the Count is for a woman who is pure of heart to distract the vampire throughout the night with her beauty. She opens the window, faints, and sends Hutter to get the doctor. When Hutter leaves, she invites the Count in, who is so preoccupied with her beauty and her blood that he misses the sun rising, disintegrating him into ash. The plague is lifted, at the cost of Ellen’s sacrifice.
Throughout the film, Hutter and the townsfolk spend their time and efforts chasing a ghost. Hutter has the answers from the very first night meeting Orlok, yet refuses to believe what he has seen. He refuses to ask Ellen for help, or to allow a second opinion on the matter. Ellen’s tenacity and wisdom shines through, taking her from merely a plot piece to the hero of the film. She uses the antagonist’s lust against him, luring him from his safety in darkness and into the light. By Clover’s definition, Ellen would not be a final girl. But by my definition, Ellen qualifies as an “Almost Final Girl”.
In Funny Games (Haneke 1997), Georg, Anna, and their son Georgie find themselves held hostage by two young men, Peter and Paul, who force them to play a series of games to survive the night. At the start of the encounter, Anna senses something is off. She begs her husband to make them leave, and Georg is too cordial to understand her concerns. Immediately, Georg is incapacitated, his knee shattered by a golf club. Anna keeps her wits about her, playing along with the men’s demands as she bids her time to escape for help. When neighbors arrive, Anna plays it off that Paul and Peter are house guests. The neighbors are satisfied with the response, and Paul and Peter seem to think that they have Anna under control, that she is acting out of fear. She conspires to help Georgie escape, but the child is overpowered and returned to the living room with his family. In his escape, he finds a gun, which is also brought back by the men. Anna is forced to choose between Georg and Georgie, but has realized the power dynamic that exists between Peter and Paul. While this relationship is exacerbated and the men are distracted, Anna grabs the gun and manages to shoot Peter. In what should be a massive upper hand to the survivors, it is erased by Paul, who “rewinds” time using the remote control, in a very meta fashion. While this is unfair in the confines of the horror movie, it showcases Anna’s wits and tact in the film. Her child and husband are killed, and the men load her on the family boat, en route to the next house of victims. Still, she manages to find a knife and attempt to escape, only to be dumped overboard and presumably drown.
Once again, we have a smart female character who knew something was wrong from the beginning. She continuously finds ways to try and overpower the pair. She does everything she can to help her family escape and survive, and in the end, with nothing left to live for, she still fights for her own survival. She is cunning, she is determined, and she doesn’t give up, even when it all is lost. She manages to kill one of her captors, only to be retconned by a cruel twist of cinematic fate. Once again, she dies and does not qualify for Clover’s definition of a final girl, but she hits all the qualifiers for an “Almost Final Girl”.
Finally, we have Goodnight, Mommy (Fiala/ Franz 2015). A mother lives with her two twin sons, Elias and Lukas, who are trying to deal with her appearance after a plastic surgery. The mother’s face is wrapped for most of the first half of the movie, and she seems to be something other than their mother. She is cold and harsh, instituting a silence rule inside the house, and lashes out at Elias constantly, which the twins agree is something their mother would never do. They find a photo of a woman who looks identical to their mother, and begin to suspect she is not who she says she is. The twins tie her to her bed, and begin to interrogate her. Red Cross employees arrive to collect a donation, and eventually leave when Elias gives them a large sum of money, telling them their mother allowed them to give that in her absence. The mother gets the tape off her mouth to shout for help, but the workers are already gone. The boys super glue her mouth shut and continue interrogating her, wearing masks so they cannot be identified by their mother. They briefly let her loose to strip the bed after she can’t hold her bowels any longer and urinates on the bed. This gives her the chance to escape briefly, but is ensnared by a trap the boys have placed, and she hits her head and goes unconscious. She awakes to herself glued to the floor of the living room, as Elias begins to light parts of the room on fire to force her to tell the truth. The mother tells Elias that Lukas died in an accident prior to the film’s beginning, and that it wasn’t his fault. She begs to be let free and the two of them can move on together from this horrible event. Elias tells Lukas to light the curtains, and his mother cannot see him, so he assists in helping light them himself. The glass containing flammable liquid on a table breaks, and the mother is engulfed in flames and perishes before help can arrive. The film ends with Lukas and Elias running through a field to meet their mother, where they can all be happy together.
The mother’s behavior is explained by the plot twist, as she is consistently trying to get Elias to stop talking to Lukas, because Lukas is dead. She realizes something is wrong and Elias is unnerved by her appearance, so she tries to make him more comfortable and promises to make his favorite food. She makes every plea to Elias for his trust, almost breaking through a few times. But Elias’ bond with his brother is too strong to break fully. In her escape attempt, she gets his trust to let her out of bed and restraints, only to run down the stairs and attempt to escape out the back door, only to be met with a trip wire. She wakes up restrained to the floor, and facing imminent death, continues to plead with Elias that she is his mother. She does everything she can to comfort a son that is too far gone in his own grief. She tried to help him in his grief and she tried to make him more comfortable with the new changes in his life. When that failed, she attempted to escape, only to be caught again. And facing her own death, she resigned to trying to make her son trust her one final time. Because she died, she doesn’t qualify for Clover’s final girl, but due to her attentiveness and tenacity in trying to survive, she applies for an “Almost Final Girl”.
As seen with Ellen, Anna, and the Mother, we have three women who knew something was off from the start.They sensed a danger, but were overlooked by the male figures in the film, or their own love for those characters. We see them all fight for the safety of their loved ones, only to ultimately succumb to their respective fates. Clover’s definition of the final girl is something archaic in horror now a days. The genre finds ways to be progressive and not punish a woman for sexual relationships, instead seeing them as smart, and capable individuals. Nowadays, we have seen multiple final girls that break the molds set before them, only to reap the same rewards in the end by surviving or escaping. So in the same idea, why count out the heroic efforts by these same women who didn’t make it through the film? They did everything they could do, yet were used as a plot twist or plot forwarding device in the end. If Hutter had listened to his wife and not left for Transylvania, Orlok would have never set his sights on Ellen. If Georg had spent more time listening to his wife’s concerns at the start of the encounter, they could have had a chance to escape Peter and Paul. And if Elias would have realized his mother’s grief after losing one son, presumably from an accident that left her scarred and needing surgery, then she wouldn’t have had to prove herself in the first place. These women were given an insurmountable task, one which would claim their lives in the process. Yet they shouldered the burden and attempted to fight through it. They say silver medal is the first loser, but in this case, these women are the second winners.