It’s a question as old as cinema itself: Once you've directed three films about people being attached mouth-to-anus in a conga line, where do you go next?
For Tom Six – the Dutch filmmaker best known for creating The Human Centipede franchise – the answer was to make something that aimed to be just as shocking and provocative as his earlier, anus-centric work. Enter: The Onania Club, a film he describes as a “pitch black satire about the horrible world we live in today”.
The Onania Club has been hovering in limbo for over two years, while Six struggles to find a distributor. This isn't a huge shock, given that it’s about a group of women who masturbate over horrific tragedies like 9/11, but fans are now joining his campaign to get it released worldwide. One fan has tweeted about it every day for seven months; another had the film’s logo tattooed on her arm. Speaking to me about Six’s work more broadly, fan Benjamin Frankenberg says that his films “asks you to question the shit you're eating”.
Meanwhile, Six has begun uploading statements to YouTube about the film industry and what he considers to be censorship. “I believe that The Onania Club is my best work yet,” he says in the first video. “It's like a beautiful flower growing on a mass grave.”
I caught up with Six to find out what’s actually going on with The Onania Club.
VICE: Could you just give a bit of a synopsis of The Onania Club, for those who haven't seen it?
Tom Six: The Onania Club is about a woman named Hanna who secretly joins a group called The Onania Club. Its members are strong independent LA-based women who, just like herself, all get aroused by the misery of others. Hanna meets more misery than she could ever hope for, and in the process loses everything she cares for.
You've said that "all the shocking scenes in the film are based on real-life events". Can you explain what you mean?
Mankind is more evil and perverted in real life than anything I could ever come up with. I have a huge library with books filled with scandals, human psychology, Freemasons, history, dictators, decadence etc. The world elites throughout history have always been the biggest perverts. To give one example, during a wild party in Hollywood’s Golden Era, actor Errol Flynn and his rich friends stole the body of their recently deceased friend John Barrymore to party with him one last time. I combined that with twisted necrophilia rumours of certain types. I used that as inspiration for different scenes in The Onania Club, which I won’t spoil.
Is Hollywood elites being "the biggest perverts” a theme of the film? And how can you know this so confidently? Is it a Harvey Weinstein reference?
The main theme of the film is schadenfreude of the elites. It is not directly related to Harvey Weinstein, but he too was someone with enormous power and money. Producers and studio heads from Hollywood’s golden era, such as Harry Cohn [president of Colombia Pictures] were even worse and made a lot of innocent victims. It is all well documented. Money and power make people do crazy things. Schadenfreude is mankind’s worst emotion, according to philosopher Schopenhauer. We all are members of the Onania Club in a way, minus the masturbation.
Do you consider the film to be a metaphor for your career in any way? In other words, that you survive by getting pleasure from the outraged reactions of other people?
Although the value of shock is very powerful, I am not actively trying to shock. It just comes naturally with the subjects of my films. I have a fascination with the dark side of life and I love to make films about that. I want my movies to be radical, something you have never seen before, and it always reflects my very strong love for dark humour. I want to bring back danger to cinema. In a world that is turning psychotic and extreme, art should follow.
You say that the film is apparently "too original, too provocative and too challenging" for a mainstream release. Whose views are you describing there?
Society has become very over-sensitive, and film distributors respond to that. They have such a huge fear of being cancelled or critiqued that they take the road of least resistance. I don’t think cinema, or art in general, can ever go too far; it is all make-believe. The ever-growing political correctness is suffocating creativity. It is impossible to adjust cinema to all that sensitivity. It’s like telling a grown man he can’t have steak just because a baby can’t chew it. The Onania Club was rejected by all major film festivals. One of them even told me that they loved the film but they could never show this. How much I would love to tell you which festival this is. It would definitely harm me if I did expose them.
What has happened to Bounty Films, who distributed The Human Centipede? And IFC Films, who distributed the second film in the US? Have they responded to you?
When we offered The Onania Club to IFC, they simply told us that the market has changed and left it at that. After a more than ten-year successful relationship with them, they just rejected us and moved on. Unfortunately, there seem to be no distributors left that have the balls to take a risk.
You've called film distributors censors for not choosing to release The Onania Club. Is not finding a distributor true censorship?
Distributors have become the moral police. They either don’t understand the satire of the film or they reject my work based on me as a filmmaker. This is not a case of distributors simply not liking The Onania Club. They did not like The Human Centipede at first, but eventually it became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. It is just idiotic to deny a film that already has an audience waiting and that has such great reviews. It has a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes; British top critic Alan Jones called it “a masterpiece”; and a Spanish critic called it “an instant cult classic”. There were plenty of distributors who did not even care to watch The Onania Club and turned it down without even having seen it.
You say that "every film must be risk-free nowadays". But there are numerous examples of films that creatively push boundaries in horror and beyond, aren't there? Lars von Trier, the Saw films, Midsommar – these aren't easy or particularly pleasant films to watch.
By risk-free, I mean almost all producers/studios follow safety checklists because a lot of money is involved and reputations are at stake. The Saw film franchise too. It has the kind of gory torture violence that is accepted. Lars von Trier is different, and a hero of mine, because he is one of the very few filmmakers that does explore boundaries and questions morality. He has also become a Cannes darling, which gives him a sort of elite-cultural stamp of approval. But he truly is an exception, just like Gaspar Noe. My films are really 100 percent uncompromised and very polarising. I am proud of my work and will never be apologetic.
Can you tell us anything about Enjoy, the film you say you'll make if The Onania Club gets a release?
Enjoy is another pitch-black satire with a very original concept that will have the world talking. The brutal reality is that I don’t know if I will ever be able to make that film. If no serious distributor releases The Onania Club, no investor will ever give me the money to make Enjoy. They too smell what’s going on in the horrible current film climate. I live for making films, but I would never sell my soul to put out safe, mass-pleasing films. Life to me is only meaningful if I can create what is inside of me, and if I am not being limited by other people’s boundaries. I am certain that The Onania Club will be debated, enjoyed or hated for decades to come. It will have longevity and reach a huge audience. It just needs the right, visionary, distributor to wake up and release it.