Sympathy For Eli

A post on the forum (thanks cmfireflies 🙂 ) and a similar one at IMDB caused me to remember something that I had seen Tomas Alfredson say in an interview. Each of those posts basically asked how we could have sympathy for Eli. How could we identify with, and in fact root for, a monster that must kill in order to survive? We all know that Eli’s survival means that more people will die. How can we look past that? I started writing a reply to cmfireflies’ post, and it kept going and going. It finally became too long to be a forum post, so instead I made it into this page.

What I had recalled Tomas Alfredson saying on the topic of Eli was:

The film suggests that love is possible and everybody has a choice and the one character that does not have a choice is the vampire [Eli] because she has to kill to survive.

I didn’t realize it at the time I read that interview, but Eli is the only character in the film who is fully sympathetic. Except for Jocke, Eli is the only the only character whose character is not criticized by the film. And Jocke was basically just a Star Trek extra in a red shirt. Of all the thoughtless, cruel, and horrible things that we see done in this film, Eli is the only one who has no choice but to do them. Her survival depends upon her doing what she does. Everyone else chooses to be thoughtless, cruel, or horrific. Even Oskar at one point chooses to be cruel to Eli. Among the major characters of the film, and even most of the supporting characters, Eli is the one who seems the most worthy of our sympathy.

Let’s just run through the characters:

Gösta He witnesses Jocke’s killing, but he lets some neurosis keep him from reporting it to the police. In the film we are shown absolutely no reason for him to fear the police, yet still he cannot bring himself to report the death of his friend because he is afraid that they will treat him like a criminal.
Oskar’s Teacher I don’t believe that we are told the name of Oskar’s teacher, not even in the credits. This is because she is a minor character in both the film and Oskar’s life. Every bullying scene except for the one at pool takes places under the auspices of Oskar’s school. Perhaps Oskar’s teacher has not made any conscious choices to be oblivious to Oskar’s torment, but as Alfredson said, “All the scary activity is going on close to the grown-ups, but the grown-ups are turned away. The teacher is at the window, but she is doing something else.”
Mr. Avila The high school gym teacher and also apparently the physical fitness coach at the Bad. I beleive Mr. Avila came the closest of anyone in the film (other than Eli) to take an interest in Oskar. We see him personally spotting him when Oskar is lifting weights and personally leading Oskar’s water aerobics workout. Out on the ice, he is trying to keep an eye on Oskar to see how the confrontation with the bullies is going to play out. From his distance he doesn’t know the serious nature of the confrontation, but it would be natural to link it to Oskar’s new-found interest in physical fitness.

However, as with every other adult in the film, Mr. Avila’s head gets turned away by a distraction. Out on the river he is distracted by the little girl. At the pool side he is distracted by the fire in the dumpster. Even in the locker room he gets distracted from Oskar by a spilled bottle of shampoo.

(Oskar’s father)
He allows his drinking to push aside involvement in his son’s life (ignoring the debate about his sexuality). Apparently this is also the cause of his estrangement of from Oskar’s mother and has led to Oskar’s fractured family life. I know some people will claim that alcohol is a disease, an addiction – not a choice, blah blah blah. Nope. He chose his bottle over his boy.
The bullies The film has absolutely nothing good to say about any of them. Obviously they were choosing to bully Oskar. When Oskar stays after school copying a Morse code key, the bullies wait outside for him well after it has turned dark. This was not opportunistic bullying. They did not just bully Oskar because he happened to be to available. They chose to give up their after-school time in order to lay in wait for Oskar. Although I have seen LTROI fans claim that they should not have been murdered, I don’t think this qualifies them as sympathetic figures in the film.
Virginia Poor Virginia. She did not choose to become a vampire. She is perhaps worthy of some sympathy. Yet, after she turns why does she go to Gösta’s apartment? She was going there to nom him of course. After failing to find a frozen blood Popsicle where Jocke got killed, she then headed up to Gösta’s place. Once Gösta invited her in, without hesitation she headed straight for him – until she realized that there was someone else there. However the cats had read the script and they knew why she was there. Vampire or not, it is not easy to sympathize with someone who would choose to kill her friend for his blood. Perhaps this is what vampires do, but… not all vampires.
(Oskar’s mother)
Although she is Oskar’s primary caregiver she seems uninterested in Oskar or unable to manage becoming engaged in his life. She blithely accepts Oskar’s feeble explanation for the scratch on his face. When the school called after Oskar whacked Conny, she was only worried about how it will reflect on her. Oskar overhears her on the phone with Erik when she says, “Oh yes, they will blame us!” When Oskar comes in all she can do is put Oskar on the phone with his father. And when Oskar runs away from his father and disappears for a night, she allows him to walk past her and then slam the door to his room in her face. As a parent myself, I can say that she could have and should have chosen to be a better parent to Oskar.
Håkan Although he is devoted to Eli, his bungling renders his murderous help pointless. By forgetting the jug of blood, his murder of the boy in the woods has no benefit for anyone and in fact results in Jocke’s death. His poor choice of victims the second time results in his own demise. His desire to help Eli could be considered admirable. However it seems unlikely that merely enabling her squalid existence is the best help that he could offer her. Also, his jealousy of Oskar is hardly the result of any altruistic impulse. He evenuses Eli’s hunger to to keep her from seeing Oskar. Whatever the reason, he has chosen his devotion to Eli, and unlike Eli he has freely chosen the horror that must accompany her survival.
Lacke Lacke is the closest that any character in the film comes to being a sympathetic figure (besides Eli and Oskar). His best friend is killed by Eli. His lover kills herself because of Eli. However he is also pathetic. He apparently lives a life of idleness. He thinks nothing of urinating in public – as he is doing when we first meet him. He hangs around with a crowd of friends who can only muster one cigarette lighter between them. While Virginia is his lover, he not only takes her for granted, but he lashes out at her when she tries to console him in his grief at Jocke’s death. Worse still, he almost always carries with him the ticket for escape from this tawdry existence: his father’s stamp collection. If he could really sell it and move with Virginia to the country, why hasn’t he already done so? He has chosen to keep this pathetic life that he has.

He can’t even bring himself to try to kill Eli, although he has every reason to. He is standing there with the knife to her throat as she sleeps. Instead of following through, he chickens out and complains to himself that he can’t see what he is doing.* The film portrays Lacke basically as a bum without ambition or initiative – and he could better his life but he chooses not to.

Oskar Oskar is largely a sympathetic character in the film. The film opens by showing us his isolation from the world and goes on to show us why. Despite this, he is kind and generous with Eli during their second meeting even though she went out her way to brush him off at their first meeting.

However, even he shows the ability to choose cruelty when he senses that he has some power. In the “You Must Invite Me In” scene, Oskar is in the position of power because Eli has come to him. Further, Eli cannot come in unless he gives his explicit assent. Oskar engages in a cruel little power game typical of a twelve year old. More over, the person that he is cruel to is the only character in the film who has chosen to open up to him.

Also, his fascination with murder does little to encourage the audience to sympathize with him. Between his scrapbook and his knife fantasies, it is apparent that he would choose bullies’ deaths over asking his teacher, Mr. Avila, or his mother for help. Even so, the film and presumably the audience are sympathetic to Oskar. He is after all the story’s protagonist. The reasons for having sympathy for Oskar are no mystery

Which finally brings us to Eli. She is frozen forever at the age of twelve. She can’t even remember when her birthday is. Her survival depends upon hunting people and drinking their blood and then afterwards killing them. The film shows that even though she has been doing this for a long time, it still upsets her. She is the only character in the film who has her cirmcumstance thrust upon her. She is the only character who cannot choose another path (except for the path of suicide).

Let’s contrast Eli with the only other vampire that the film shows us: Virginia. When Virginia gets hungry she first goes looking for the blood of her dead friend, and then goes after the blood of one who is still alive. Eli on the other hand kept herself from nomming Oskar on the jungle gym even though at that point she was obviously very hungry. Oskar was barely an acquaintance – just someone who had shown her some unexpected kindness and generosity. Virginia later was revolted by her intention to nom her friend, and she chose to end her own life rather than find herself in that position again. However Eli did get herself into the same position again (in the basement) and was again able to keep herself from nomming Oskar, who now was her friend. Is it reasonable to expect Eli to make the same choice as Virginia? Can she be blamed for not making this choice – for choosing instead to live?

Eli has shown us that there are some things more important to her than her requirement for blood. She has retained more of her humanity through out her (apparently) long life as a vampire than Virginia retained in her first day as a vampire. How then should we not sympathize with little Eli? Despite the horror that is necessary for her survival, she is the only character in the film who is always shown to have the most humanity in her choices (within the bounds of her survival’s necessities). Of the characters we saw the film, which would you most like to entrust yourself to?

Once again, how then should we not sympathize with Eli?


* This is one scene where the Magnolia subtitles really altered the film for me. When I first watched the film, it was with the Magnolia subtitles. Lacke has the knife to Eli’s throat but he does not try to do anything with it. Instead he mutters something (but there are no subtitles to translate it) and he begins to uncover the window. I thought to myself, “Ah ha! He has seen what happened to Virginia and he knows that the light will kill Eli. He wants Eli to die in the same fashion that Virginia did. Lacke’s got a bit of smarts.” However when I finally got exposed to the theatrical subtitles (which do provide a translation for Lacke’s muttering) I realized that he wasn’t really having a good idea there. What he was really doing was chickening out. He was telling himself that he couldn’t bring himself to kill Eli because he couldn’t see what he was doing. The reality was that he couldn’t bring himself to kill Eli – period.