The Square's Satire of Bystander Culture Is Still Razor-Sharp Four Years Later

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<i>The Square</i>'s Satire of Bystander Culture Is Still Razor-Sharp Four Years Later

Why did the experience of watching a man playing an ape as he terrorized a room full of museum patrons feel like such a perfect atmospheric metaphor for the Trump era?

First things first: I missed Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or-winning film The Square when it came out in 2017, but finally watched a week ago at the recommendation of a friend, and was duly stunned. There’s an impossible wealth of material to analyze here, but like many, my mind often returns to the infamous monkey-man scene. If you’re not familiar, I recommend seeking out the film now. The Square can be seen with a free one-week Magnolia subscription on Amazon Prime or with ads on a Vudu account—and be warned that spoilers lie ahead.

The “Ape Scene,” as I’ll refer to it from here on out, has no solid narrative connection to the rest of the film—there are strong thematic ties, but plot-wise, it’s a non-sequitur. A large group of wealthy patrons from Stockholm’s art scene are gathered in a luxurious ballroom for a fancy dinner when a voice over the loudspeaker announces that they’re about to be confronted by a wild animal. If they can avoid attracting its attention and remain with the herd, the speaker says, some other unfortunate soul will be the prey. Enter Terry Notary, the actor, stunt performer and movement coach who has loads of experience portraying apes, including in the Planet of the Apes franchise. He’s reprising a simian role here, complete with arm prosthetics, and at the start of the 12-minute scene, laughter—increasingly nervous, but laughter nonetheless—greets his appearance. Soon, things get more serious, and he begins bullying the guests. When things get intense, those in the “herd” simply sit still and stare at the floor, hoping not to be noticed. It reaches a climax when he begins to assault a woman in a way that appears tantamount to rape, at which point some of the diners finally act and mob him in an utter rage.

The full clip isn’t online, but you can get a taste of it in the video below, when Notary begins to bully the other “alpha male” of the room, an artist played by Dominic West:

As you see, it’s a visceral performance that becomes scarier the longer it lasts, and a filmmaking triumph for Östlund. To watch it for the first time is to feel distinctly uncomfortable, both at the escalating violence and the complete passivity of the bystanders. If my experience is any indication, it’s something you can’t stop analyzing in the ensuing days.

Why, though, did it make me think about Trumpism, and the angry right’s rise to power in America?

The answer isn’t so easy. One thing that strikes me when studying history is how powerful a very small group of people can be if those people possess the energy and willpower to fight to the end for their ideas. Perhaps the most exaggerated example is the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro’s relatively tiny force defeated a national army and took over an entire island. It goes without saying that the cultural winds have to be in your favor, and so does luck, but over and over we see small movements accomplish big goals. Some of those smaller groups, like Hitler’s fascists, tap into social discomforts to gather popular support and institute long reigns of terror that it takes a global effort to stop. Some of these movements are never stopped, at least within the lifetime of their leaders.

Watching Notary’s ape-man take over an entire room of powerful people brought this dynamic to mind. Yes, it’s a movie scene, but it perfectly encapsulated the weakness at the heart of certain systems that allows vicious actors to bring the system to its knees. Pit one madman against 300 figures from high society, and you’d think it would be a massive mismatch, but in the end it’s remarkable how much damage that one person can do. I’ve even experienced this myself, in a touch football game, when a man with an apparent mental illness ran onto our field and began shouting aggressively and threatening to kill us. Twenty of us just stood there, staring at the ground until he left, unwilling or unable to confront the problem in any proactive way.

In the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016, America immediately seemed like a more hostile place, full of emboldened Notary-like figures we never knew existed suddenly ascending to power and lording their animal aggression over a democratic system that suddenly seemed very flimsy. Rules meant nothing in the face of whatever this was, and for the economically privileged, our carefully constructed world of security now felt hollow. To the country’s credit, people fought back, and while the system bent (and bent and bent and bent), it never quite broke.

Beneath the surface of this fight, though, for anyone who wanted to see it, there was a lesson: If you can’t match the intensity and anger of your dark horse enemy because your own principles are self-interested and decadent, there’s a chance you’ll lose. Östlund’s Sweden as depicted in The Square is one where rich people ignore the homeless, abuse the underprivileged in a thousand subtle ways, and turn their backs to every blight that doesn’t touch them personally. As long as their lifestyle is protected, it’s of no consequence that the rest of the world is a dog-eat-dog jungle. The beauty of the ape scene is that they were confronted not just by a vicious, rogue outsider—they were confronted by their own hypocrisies, by the wolf at the door they themselves had created.

In the same way, it was hard in 2016 and the ensuing years not to feel like smug American liberalism, obsessed with symbolic displays of tolerance and diversity but intentionally heedless of the broader inequalities savaging our society, were in some way responsible for the nightmare. And that the current signs of muscle in the Democratic party are a response to that—the increasing knowledge that anything short of a hard fight will invite the wolves back to the door. Passivity in the interest of comfort for a select segment of society not only weakens that society, it unleashes the revolutionary id in those that can’t partake. The forms the id takes are often horrific, but it’s born of snobbery and exclusion.

There is no more room for bystanders, Östlund told us a little less than a year after Trump’s election. Bystanders unleash monsters, and force the bystanders to become monsters in order to defend what’s theirs. The Square’s ape scene wasn’t just about the power and tyranny of the “creature,” but in how the only choices available to the wealthy men and women in tuxedos were meek passivity or, in the end, murderous aggression. What a perfect metaphor for the western world, where prosperity for a select few is supported by vicious subjugation of the unfortunate, both domestically and abroad. There is a solution, Östlund suggests, and it’s one that the privileged have never quite tried. Simply put, the world can be saved if people care before they have to.


Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .