Television channeled life in one family's underground nightmare

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The proverbial life imitating art doesn't get eerier than this.

Thirteen years ago, Emir Kusturica's "Underground," a tragicomic allegory of Yugoslavia's modern history, triumphed at the Festival de Cannes, earning the director his second Palme d'Or.

The absurdist farce revolves around lifelong friends Blacky and Marko. When their country was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, Blacky, wanted by the Germans, took refuge in Marko's cellar. Accompanied by his pregnant wife, other relatives and friends, he began manufacturing weapons for the resistance.

When the war ended, Marko, who had profited from selling the guns on the black market, concocted an elaborate plan to trick the refugees into believing the occupation was still going on. For the next 20 years, he used air siren recordings and old newsreels to keep Blacky and the rest in his cellar.

One night, Blacky came out with his son, who was born and raised underground and had never seen the outside world.

The son, with a sheepish grin, pointed to the moon, saying, “There's the sun.”

The scene has been replaying in my head for the past week as more heart-wrenching details emerged about the horrific ordeal of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian whose monster father, Josef, imprisoned her in a cellar beneath their house for 24 years, repeatedly raping her and fathering seven children by her. Three of them — 19-year-old Kerstin, who is gravely ill, 18-year-old Stefan and 5-year-old Felix — had lived with her in the dungeon their entire lives.

When the boys were brought out of the cellar for the first time one night, they reportedly screamed with excitement.

"Everything was new, and they were amazed,” local police chief Leopold Etz said. “But the best bit was when they saw the moon. They were open-mouthed with awe, nudging each other and pointing. Felix said, 'Is that God up there?' "

A lot has changed in the world since Elisabeth was locked away.

The Berlin Wall fell, and with it communism's grip on Eastern Europe. In 1984, the prisoners' compatriot, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the Terminator. Now he is the governor of California.

Some things didn't change much. Kusturica is back at Cannes, this time with his documentary about Argentinean soccer legend Diego Maradona.

In 1984, Madonna's album ”Like a Virgin” was out, and she made headlines at the MTV Video Music Awards with her racy performance in a white bustier that included her humping a wedding veil. Now she has another album out, and last week she promoted it with another provocative performance. The only differences — this time the bustier was black, and Justin Timberlake subbed for the veil.

Incredibly, the imprisoned kids probably know more about Madonna than they do about the moon.

”The only idea they had of the real world was from the television, which was kept on almost nonstop day and night, ” the rescuers said.

Television played a crucial role in the lives of the foursome locked into the windowless cellar. It was everything they didn't have: the schoolteacher who taught them how to talk, the friend who played with them and most of all the escape from their gruesome reality.

It was their lifeline to the world, and it might have saved their lives, too. It was an appeal run by the local TV station to the mother of the ailing Kerstin that emboldened Elisabeth to stand up to her father and make him take the girl to the hospital, where the police found her and the story unraveled.

But what would someone's perception of the world be if it was based entirely on what they saw on television? Probably that it is a place where all lifeguards look like Pamela Anderson, all friends look like Jennifer Aniston and all doctors look like Patrick Dempsey.

Dark and disturbing themes such as adultery, incest, pedophilia, bestiality and homophobia also creep in via our TV sets, mostly courtesy of trash talkers like ”The Jerry Springer Show. ” But for the most part, television is a utopian land, a Hollywood-created artificial world populated by beautiful people.

Being trapped in that world all your life inevitably sets one up for disappointment when faced with reality.

Nevertheless, marveling at the moon outside, little Felix gushed, ”The outside world is so beautiful. ”

Nellie Andreeva can be reached at nellie.andreeva@THR.com.
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