Jan Komasa’s The Hater on Netflix is a quietly chilling story about the virtual world’s revenge on the real world

The Hater shows us, with sickening procedural detail — how easily we are manipulated, and how “perception” is everything.

Baradwaj Rangan November 28, 2020 17:30:10 IST
Jan Komasa’s The Hater on Netflix is a quietly chilling story about the virtual world’s revenge on the real world

Still from The Hater. Twitter

In 2010, Polish filmmaker Jan Komasa forayed into the virtual world with Suicide Room. The title refers to a chat room for people with suicidal tendencies, and these are people who “function” better here than in the real world. The director’s new film, The Hater, is a kind of sequel. (That’s why, I think, both films feature an older woman named Beata.)

The virtual world has grown exponentially in the decade between the two films, and it’s become increasingly possible to “live” there and create a world of your liking rather than face endless frustrations the minute you step out of your house and into reality.

The protagonist is a young man named Tomasz (Maciej Musiałowski), and the first few scenes are something like an “origins story” in a superhero movie. Why did Spider-Man want to fight crime? Because Uncle Ben died, and it helped that Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider. Why did Bruce Wayne become Batman? Because Gotham City was rotting, and fighting this rot would help him expunge his own inner demons. Similarly, why does Tomasz turn into “The Hater”? Because he is expelled from college on a plagiarism charge.

Pleading his case in front of his teachers, Tomasz says it’s not plagiarism “just because there are parts of the essay without quotation marks. After all, if I wanted to commit plagiarism, I would at least try and hide it somehow, right? I wouldn’t do it so openly.” The teachers are unmoved, and Tomasz begins to feel sorry for himself. He feels he has been treated harshly and unjustly, especially given that he has been working a double shift in order to pay for his education. The teachers are still unmoved.

Things become worse when Tomasz visits his benefactors, an ultra-rich couple who wield immense social and cultural clout. The woman is the kind of bleeding heart who organises an exhibition of installations made from “original things of refugees from transit camps”. In a way, you could say she lives in as much of a bubble as the people in the Suicide Room chat room, because outside, on the streets, fascists are displaying signs that say “White Europe or No Europe”, and debates are raging about Warsaw opening up its borders to refugees.

Dinner proceeds well. The couple’s daughter, Gabi (Vanessa Aleksander), is present. The elders make all the right inquiries, about Tomasz’s studies and so forth. But on a whim, he excuses himself and plants a bug in the home, and then he listens to what they say after he leaves. They call him creepy. They mock his calling them “uncle” and “auntie”. They mock the strawberry jam he brought as a present. They mock his cologne. They mock his dorm room. They mock his struggle with the shrimp. (“The poor boy ate the tail.”) It’s like Parasite all over again. Just how much class-snobbery can one person take? And Tomasz transforms into “The Hater”, using the Internet as his superpower.

He joins a firm that destroys people’s public image through carefully plotted disinformation campaigns on social media, i.e., by trolling them with self-created profiles and planting fake stories. For instance, a woman who comes out with a turmeric-based health drink is destroyed when the firm posts photographs of people with yellowing hands. (For added effect, they create a hashtag: #turnedyellow.) “We fabricate people’s stories and simulate an avalanche reaction,” says the firm’s chief. It works. The health-drink creator is deluged in a wave of hate. Their next target is a forward-looking politician who happens to be gay. His name is Paweł Rudnicki (Maciej Stuhr), and he’s standing for mayor.

The Hater is a scary film for a few reasons. One, it shows us — I mean, it actually shows us, with sickening procedural detail — how easily we are manipulated, and how “perception” is everything.

In other words, we may think we live in the real world, but a lot of the “reality” around us is shaped by the virtual world. It’s so strange, but way back in 1999, The Matrix felt like sci-fi fantasy. But listen to its lines today. “Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive.” “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.” Indeed, today, these machines are shaping us, telling us what the steak really tastes like. We are all living in a Matrix, being brainwashed by firms like the one Tomasz works for.

Jan Komasas The Hater on Netflix is a quietly chilling story about the virtual worlds revenge on the real world

Still from The Hater. Facebook

Secondly, the film is a warning. Be careful of what you say. Your words could end up making people “hate” you, and they can annihilate you. All someone needs to take revenge today is a computer and an Internet connection. The film warns us that a reputation can take years to build and a second to destroy. I recalled Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama Jagten (The Hunt), where the protagonist, Lucas, is accused of abuse by his best friend’s little girl. (The film makes it very clear that she is not telling the truth, and that Lucas is innocent.)

Allow me to channel my inner Tomasz and plagiarise from what I wrote about Jagten back then: “Why does she accuse him, then? There are no answers. And we watch with horror as Lucas’ life collapses around him. Jagten isn’t so much about child sex abuse as the taint of child sex abuse. You could be accused wrongly of murder, and if proved innocent, you may still be welcomed back into society. But once you’re accused of sexually abusing a child, you’re finished. There are laws to protect the innocents, but what about the truly innocent?”

Likewise, in The Hater, we watch with horror as Tomasz’s actions have a spiraling effect on the people around him. At the end, I wondered if that big “origins story” for Tomasz was needed. It would have been so much easier for us to “hate” him for the anarchy he’s unleashing if we hadn’t learnt of his being expelled from college and we hadn’t been exposed to that dinner-table chat that makes his social position very clear.

But that “origins story” is why The Hater remains so compelling. It forces us to engage with Tomasz as a human being, in addition to his being (rather, becoming) a monster. Early on, one of his professors quotes a Latin saying: "Verba volant, scripta manent": words fly away, writings remain. But words stay, too, especially in troubled souls with a victim complex who’d rather resort to easy revenge than taking it up as a challenge and doing something inspirational with their lives. What can we do about it? Nothing.

The Hater is streaming on Netflix.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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