Externo opens with a forward rush (in monochrome) through an animated Eden – and with a long, wheedling disclaimer. Bold red text tells us that the film is “based on a true story and some stories that have been told”, but then insists that its characters and events are fictional, and that “the reality that you will see in this film is not real”, before addressing the rulers of the world: “We know you are very nice guys, we are not saying that you abuse your positions of power, we are not saying that there is a world conspiracy, we are not saying that you lie to us, this is just a movie.” Ironised and contradictory, these prefatory words represent a classic non-denial denial, getting to have their cake and eat it too, as they promise a tale that is simultaneously tall and true – an allegory, or parable of power which draws from the real world while also deviating from it. As for the idyllic imagery that accompanies this text, by the end of the film, during the closing credits, it will reappear in full, vibrant colour, as the Paradise towards which the entire narrative has been racing – but by then, we shall have been disillusioned about the cost of this new Eden in real, human terms.
After these opening credits, Externo shows its protagonist Joseph confessing to a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich) that he secretly owns and rules the world. The rest of the film traces, in flashbacks formally divided into seventeen chapters, Joseph’s climb to this lofty position, and also his difficult relationship with the woman. Starting with just $2000, and ending a multi-trillionaire, Joseph initially builds his capital base through shrewd speculative purchases of equity options (explained to camera by Jospeh in a sequence that recalls Margot Robbie’s lessons in finance from Adam McKay’s The Big Short, 2015), market manipulation and hostile takeovers. He cheats, manoeuvres and corrupts his way to the top, gaining inside information from a network of contacts, and blackmailing and buying off key figures in business, politics and the media to ensure his steady ascent to the status of world king. A self-appointed ‘invisible hand’, Joseph is, and wishes to remain, the power behind the power, an offstage, unreachable puppeteer pulling all the strings without ever being seen, and using the peoples of the world as expendable pawns in an endgame that will see him taking out all his competition. Disease, drugs, violence, terrorism, civil conflict and even world war are all tools in Joseph’s armature, and the end always justifies the means.
Played by Leandro Taub – who also wrote and co-directed and co-edited (with his brother Jonathan) Externo – Joseph might, with his long bushy beard and his predilection for carpentry, initially seem more like Jesus than some sinister potentate, but as his trusted associate – and the film’s narrator – Zeta (Christian Bergados) puts it, when a King enters a town on a donkey (the way Jesus entered Jerusalem), it is an ambiguous symbol of both his humility and his physicality. “The King has a choice.” Zeta explains. “He can arrive with humility, hearing and seeing all the inhabitants of the town. By doing this he understands the people, becomes part of them. And now he can lead them. If he arrives with physicality, he can manipulate it. Since people lived through physicality, he leads them into its implementation.” Joseph chooses the latter path – for while he shares his forename equally with both the father of Jesus and a Soviet leader responsible for millions of deaths (even as he installs a British Prime Minister with the similarly despotic name Adolf), Joseph will, in his pursuit of a long-term plan to build a better world, prove content, Thanos-like, for half its population and all its cities to be destroyed in the process. Joseph may regard himself as a messiah on a salvationist mission, but the film meticulously exposes his tyrannical, murderously materialist, sociopathic side.
“But they don’t see the complete panorama – the whole picture,” says Zeta, of the general population’s blindness and malleability. Joseph’s view, by contrast, is panoramic, and is reflected in the unusual aspect ratio (3.55:1) used in Externo. This is extremely wide – wide enough to accommodate the film’s increasingly global purview – but it is also extremely narrow. Even as Joseph controls the world, he lacks the humility to be of the world, and so exists apart from it. Accordingly, Joseph may see the big picture like few others, but he does so through a window that limits and distorts his perspective, as someone who is always, in keeping with the film’s title, looking in ‘from the outside’. The depopulated woods and dilapidated, graffiti-covered buildings that Joseph inhabits in his retreat from society are also the film’s only locations (aside from montages of file footage and animated inserts) – and their isolation, decay and emptiness mirror their sole occupant, whose only link to the world is his cell phone and the woman who occasionally visits him. Our aloof, narcissistic ‘hero’ lacks a connection, deep or otherwise, with any of the millions of people whose lives he influences. He is even unable, tellingly, to form a healthy relationship with the woman he has chosen to be the Eve of his New Eden. While most of the film documents Joseph’s extraordinary skills at manipulating the world in all its physical materialism, regular scenes of his dysfunctional dance with the woman, accompanied by a dialectical chorus of on-screen captions, reveal precisely what Joseph lacks: openness, intimacy, empathy towards others.
Far from being the Christ-like redeemer that he imagines, Jospeh subverts, exploits, threatens, extorts, makes offers that cannot be refused and orders hits, even massacres, so that ultimately he is little more than a two-bit gangster on the make, placing the Taub brothers’ film somewhere between Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The difference is that here, there is no decline shown following the ascension, because Joseph’s rise is itself his fall, as humanity – his own, and half the world’s – is lost along the way up the ladder. In Joseph, we can recognise any number of superrich entrepreneurs, media moguls, élite investors and other global movers and shakers – the people with the power to make a real difference and to change the world, but who instead always seem to be serving their own interests and ideals at everyone else’s expense. Part experimental agitprop, part Machiavellian treatise, part Mabusean saga, part conspiratorial supplement to the daily news, Externo is a beautiful, terrifying modern myth of utopian dreams and dystopian realities, constructed from true stories that are all too familiar.
© Anton Bitel