Somewhere near the aching climax of Wisconsin Death Trip--if the movie can be said to have one--we hear the story of a man who becomes "crazed with religious excitement" at a prayer meeting. He holds the worshipers at bay with a Bible in one hand and a knife in the other, before finally being dragged off to the insane asylum. The soundtrack is Bach's "Ave Maria." The camera pans sensuously in black and white along the surface of a steam locomotive, probes the smoky shadows reflected in a window, and then narrows in on a figure wrapped in a straitjacket, washed up on the dirty snow banks. As he was taken away, the narrator confides, the crazed man leapt off the train: "He thought he was being taken to Hell."
Like all the stories conveyed in the movie, this one has been culled from the archives of a small-town, Wisconsin newspaper, the Badger State Banner. The subject of Wisconsin Death Trip, which is based on a celebrated book by the same name, is the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The film is set at the turn of the last century, when the hamlet, like many of its kind, disintegrated under the pressures of economic depression and epidemic disease, and when most of America was justified in believing it was being taken to Hell--or had already arrived.
The film, like the book, reports two-minute newspaper stories of arson, suicide, murder, disease, animal mistreatment, delusions, and madness. Old photographs taken by the town's commercial photographer--families posed in front of homesteads, businessmen and their storefronts, an amputee with his prosthetic limbs, young lovers on a picnic, and, most memorable, the keepsake photos of dead babies arranged in their caskets--are intercut with sooty, black-and-white reenactments of historic events, and present-day documentary footage. As a result, the film is more montage than story, and more story than documentary. It's not a bare recitation of facts, or even the tale of "what happened," but a map of the emotional misery of an entire town, a gloomy hallucination, a death trip.
In early-1900s America, the various crises that had originally displaced tens of thousands of émigrés--war, poverty, hunger, depression, religious and legal persecution--had followed them to America, the world's overflow tank. Here the Norwegians, Serbs, Swedes, Russians, Chinese, Irish, and Welsh who had splashed across the ocean faced disaster alone, without the resilience provided by roots in a culture and tradition. (America's melting-pot myth often fails to mention the vast numbers of immigrants who returned home.) Their individual failures are largely forgotten now. But anyone with a microfilm reader can unearth the stories from the back pages of the nation's local newspapers: downfall and swindle, boom and bust, abandonment, suicidal depression, and murderous rage.
This is precisely what Michael Lesy did when he compiled Wisconsin Death Trip as his history thesis from Rutgers University in 1973. (The book, published originally by Pantheon, was reprinted in February by the University of New Mexico Press.) The events he unearthed from the Badger State Banner were not, as Lesy writes, "considered to be unique, extraordinary, or sensational." And in fact, when stripped of its antique prose, much of this chronicle seems torn, as it were, from today's headlines (or Jerry Springer teasers): Teenagers light buildings on fire, bankrupt farmers hang themselves, drunken men beat and shoot their lovers, wives, and children. The photographs--especially the emblematic death-mask portraits of tots in their coffins--are forged from an alloy of grace and horror.
In translating the book to film, British director James Marsh is faithful to the halting silences of the text. The logic of the film is cumulative rather than narrative. Marsh places visual storytelling at the forefront, creating a dialogue between historical stills and the reenactments he has created. Threading these together is the character Frank Cooper, the Badger State Banner's editor. Though arguably the "author" of Wisconsin Death Trip, he is an unseen presence in Lesy's book. Marsh has given him an onscreen role (played by Jeff Golden), and his recurring scenes at the typewriter, and his voiceover (read by Ian Holm) orient us in time and place. Other characters are played by amateur actors the director recruited in open auditions in Wisconsin.
The extraordinarily average nature of the faces makes the recurring stories of characters like Mary Sweeney (Jo Vukelich) and Pauline L'Allemand (Marilyn White) seem more immediate. L'Allemand, a faded opera star, is conned into buying a "resort" in Black River Falls and slowly goes mad there. Sweeney, a cocaine addict and ex-schoolteacher, wanders the state smashing windows. Periodically Marsh replays a clip of the broken glass, slowed to the speed of surrealism, then cuts to an image of Sweeney staring out defiantly through the hole she has broken.
In the event that we get too comfortable watching history, Marsh has concluded each section of the film (they're named for the seasons--a regrettable cliché) with a segment of documentary footage taken in modern-day Black River Falls. And so, in gaudy Kodachrome, the mayor extols the town's virtues. ("It's a real friendly town and a wonderful place to raise children!") Catatonic nursing-home residents gape while a choir sings "The Star-Spangled Banner." And snippets of interviews and news broadcasts hint that this turn of the century has as much madness about it as the last.