The View from Hell: Dominion, Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) explores Father Merrin’s origin story, firmly entrenching his trauma and temporary loss of faith in a Holocaust narrative. Directed by Paul Schrader, Dominion begins in 1944 with a young Merrin (Stellen Skarsgǻrd) serving as a parish priest in a small Dutch town. An SS unit arrives seeking retribution for resistance activity in the area and herds the townspeople into the square. SS Lieutenant Kessel (Antonie Kamerling) forces Merrin to choose a few victims for arbitrary executions or watch the entire town murdered. Anguished and praying futilely, Kessel mocks a prostrate Merrin, “God isn’t here today.”[i] Merrin relents and picks a few morally compromised men, but the episode breaks him and prompts the priest to abandon his faith.

A few years later we encounter Merrin in a remote corner of British East Africa excavating an ancient Byzantine church along with a young and devout priest, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann). The remainder of the film depicts Merrin confronting Pazuzu after the demon possesses a young crippled boy named Cheche (Billy Crawford). The encounter forces Merrin to rediscover faith and courage to save his colleagues, helpless tribesmen, and prevent a massacre, this time at the hands of the British army. In a crucial moment during the exorcism of Cheche, Pazuza seduces Merrin with the chance to rewrite his past and return to that fateful moment in 1944, but Merrin realizes making a different choice would have changed nothing. Merrin accepts there is no changing the past and returns to Rome with renewed purpose.

The Holocaust pursues Merrin to Africa when he befriends Rachel (Clara Bellar), a survivor of the Chelmno death camp who serves as the village doctor. Merrin and Rachel are connected through their shared tragedy and survivor’s guilt. Rachel processed her trauma and serves as a guide of sorts for Merrin, who is still embittered by his experience. Rachel’s thoughts on evil are both the product of living through the Holocaust and the incommunicability of experience. She acknowledges most people simply will never understand. Rachel also teaches Merrin he is not alone. “No one wanted to believe,” she tells Merrin. “It is so much easier to believe evil is random, an ogre, not that it is a human condition, something everyone is capable of.”[ii] Rachel’s guilt mirrors Merrin’s, and by extension all survivors who climbed out of the abyss while so many others perished. “It’s amazing what you’re capable of when your physical survival is at stake,” she shares with him, “things you think you could never endure.”[iii] Pressing further, Rachel tells Merrin, “We are the same, you and I.”[iv]  However, whereas Merrin condemns God and eschews human contact, Rachel’s faith is strengthened and renewed as she devotes her life to healing the sick and protecting the weak. Sensing Merrin’s rage and abandonment of faith, Rachel offered her own perspective, “Sometimes I think the best view of God is from Hell.”[v]

Pazuza, who is threatened by Rachel’s influence on Merrin and the villagers, tries to undermine Merrin’s empathy and attraction to her. “She never helped other prisoners,” the demon taunts, “she traded her body for food, she betrayed her friends.”[vi] Merrin is closest to defeat when the demon offers him absolution from guilt. “There is one thing you can do,” Pazuzu offers a shaken Merrin, “you can cease to care.”[vii] Ultimately, Rachel saves Merrin from a life of nihilistic self-loathing. Decades later when Father Karras asks Merrin, “Why this little girl?” during Regan’s exorcism, we know his answer originates with the Holocaust.

Rachel assures Merrin he is not the only one who lives with guilt, grief, and regret.

Dominion, Barry Langford observes, suggest Nazi crimes “are simultaneously a manifestation of eternal, atavistic evil and the ‘entry point’ for this endlessly circulating malevolence to interfere in human affairs. Thus, an ‘explanation’ of sorts is proposed for the Holocaust, an event whose enormity renders it explicable only in metaphysical terms.”[i] Pazuza does not need the Holocaust to exist and thrive, just prolonged periods of human despair, weakness, and depravity. The Holocaust is the ideal portal through which an eternal evil can enter modernity and guide us towards our well-deserved apocalyptic end.

[i] Langford, 120.

[i] Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader (2005: Warner Brothers), DVD.

[ii] Dominion, DVD.

[iii] Dominion, DVD.

[iv] Dominion, DVD.

[v] Dominion, DVD.

[vi] Dominion, DVD.

[vii] Dominion, DVD.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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