In 1988, a young musician and janitor in the employ of TVT Records wrote and recorded a stable of songs that would later appear on the smash hit album Pretty Hate Machine. Riding a wave of soaring popularity, Trent Reznor and his backing band, Nine Inch Nails, embarked on a slew of tours, culminating in a disastrous trek opening for Guns ‘N Roses across Europe. Frustrated from the lukewarm reception and slipping into what he would inevitably describe as The Downward Spiral, Reznor wanted to redirect NIN in a more rock-oriented, harder-edged direction reflective of the band’s live output. However, TVT, certain that a second poppy album in the vein of PHM would sell just as many copies, refused to let Reznor pursue his own creative ideas. Reznor then went underground, writing and recording under various pseudonyms to avoid his label handlers, until one of his bandmates pushed him into a partnership with Interscope Records. Interscope, TVT, and Reznor eventually worked out a deal where Reznor could write and record as he wished on his own imprint of Interscope, Nothing Records, while TVT continued to take a cut of the profits and own the rights to NIN’s earliest material. Armed with the creative support of a new label but faced with a much grimmer image of reality, Reznor embarked to Los Angeles to record his next release.
In 1992, Trent Reznor took up residence in a house in Benedict Canyon that was the site of the infamous Manson family murders. There he lived and recorded for years, completing both Broken and The Downward Spiral. In contrast to the synthesized poppiness of Pretty Hate Machine, the Broken EP was an ugly, near-metal outpouring of rage and negativity. A self-destructive, addictive, and nihilistic worldview was in full display across eight tracks of subversive industrial rock. Surprisingly, the album sold extremely well, eventually earning NIN two Grammy’s and inspiring young musicians like Marilyn Manson.
In 1993, Reznor and Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle collaborated to create a long-form music video to extend the misanthropic self-loathing of the audio with a visual presentation. The end product, a 20-minute snuff film stringing together the four music videos produced for Broken, ultimately surpassed the violence that Reznor himself had envisioned, and the two shelved the movie so as not to overshadow the other efforts of the band. However, Reznor distributed VHS copies to several friends, each with a different section of tape blacked out so that distributors could be identified, and the movie itself became an urban legend, circulating through tape-trading and horror circles. Its mystique only grew over the years through cryptic references from the band, and master copies of the film would not surface until the late 2000s.
The film itself, surprisingly, lives up to its grim reputation. Aside from “Wish”, the segments that lack the outright repulsive violence of the transition pieces and the climax of “Gave Up” work to create a foreboding, unpleasant atmosphere. The film begins with images of a deranged killer with a noose around his neck before seguing into grainy personal recorder footage of the killer stalking his victim, a young man in a sleepy little suburb that could be anywhere in the US. The film then transitions to the young man strapped down in a filthy room where he is forced to watch the Broken videos as torture. The first is “Pinion” which you can find below.
The snuff film interlude then mimics the actual music video; the killer, now adorned in a bondage mask, forces the victim to drink some putrid liquid from a gas can. The film then cuts to the video for “Wish”, presented below.
It should be noted that in the actual film, the video is interrupted partway to show that the killer has excreted onto the victim’s face. The killer, after pulling his pants back on, resumes the music video. Interestingly, “Wish” seems almost an oasis of non-violent material in its so-90s-it’s-painful Gothic composition, but even this innocuous segment serves to further the narrative cast by Reznor. As the video winds to a conclusion, the deranged men penetrate Reznor’s cage of security, dragging him and his bandmates off to an unforeseen fate. This visual metaphor perpetuates’s the allegory of violation and helplessness that characterizes the entire film. After the brutes burst through the cage door, the music ends, but the killer is shown repeatedly rewinding to where where Reznor screams “Fist fuck!” The film then transitions into “Help Me I Am In Hell” as the killer rubs his hand.
“Help Me I Am in Hell” hearkens back to “Pinion” with its less musically abrasive and non-violent approach to furthering the film’s disturbing message. The bondage motif is continued, this time paired with symbols of decay and disease, perhaps showing Reznor’s feelings of internally dying as his autonomy is wrested from him. After the music video, the film shows the killer painfully extracting the victim’s teeth, again violating his independence and vitality. The film then transitions to the music video for “Happiness in Slavery”.
Warning, this sequence is very NSFW.
For those not watching the video, it features performance artist Bob Flanagan disrobing and subjecting himself to the mechanisms of an industrial torture machine that simultaneously causes him immense pain and sexual pleasure. It should be noted that the video version contains a slightly different (and shorter) mix of the actual song, with the bass-heavy cyber-instrumental segment extended as Flanagan very audibly screams over the music. It is unknown if the screams are genuine, but given Flanagan’s known affinity for actual bondage and painful sexual activity, it seems entirely plausible. After the ecstatic torture device reduces Flanagan to pulp (used as mulch for the fungus growing in the room), Reznor enters the chamber. The bondage and loss of autonomy imagery is obvious.
The film then transitions to its final sequence. The music for “Gave Up” plays over the culmination of the snuff film sequence. Due to the fact that this sequence is exceptionally graphic, I have been unable to find a video of it online. The music video below appears on Closure and features a young Marilyn Manson playing guitar in the Tate house.
The actual events of this sequence on the film are transcribed below from the NinWiki.
The film ends with a video for “Gave Up”, different to the one on Closure, with the music simply dubbed over the storyline of the movie. At this point in the film, the victim is suspended from the ceiling and is repeatedly attacked by the perpetrator with a blade, and then with a blowtorch; the killer then slices off the victim’s penis with a razor. The camera-work at this part closely resembles that of an amateur snuff film, while there is interspersed footage of the police searching through the basement and finding remains of previous victims. (At one point, a sign that reads “TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN” is shown.) Finally, the film cuts back to the victim strapped on the table, as the murderer hacks his limbs off with a chainsaw, proceeds to presumably rape him, and ultimately slices his chest open to consume his heart.
The movie then cuts back to the execution scene shown at the beginning of the film, where the killer is being dropped through the trap door, falling through a seemingly immensely long tunnel, until the rope tightens suddenly. The movie ends with the inverted version of the ‘’Broken’’ album cover, with the background black, and a mirrored “n” character filled with the original orange background texture. After roughly a minute of silence and a black screen, the severed head of the killer is shown flying across the screen.
The movie also includes a copyright notice saying “1993 © Interscope Records”, implying that the movie, at some point, was meant for an actual release.
I have seen the Broken film twice. Both times it left a profound impact on me, though I didn’t necessarily understand why at the time. All that I knew was that I was depressed, and the mind behind the film seemingly understood how I felt. Many years removed, I can now look back and attempt to give an answer as to why the movie is so powerful. That question, though, requires an understanding of art.
Art, in many ways, is a mirror. It reflects the prevailing zeitgeist of the time and culture in which it was created. It reflects the thoughts, fears, and desires of viewers back to them. It reflects the inner reality of an artist’s worldview. It reflects all these at the same time but never reveals the entirety of the puzzle.
As a commentary on the evolving music industry of the early 1990s, the Broken film is a dire, resolute middle finger to the massive record labels controlling the creativity of young artists. Remember that the Nielsen SoundScan began tracking record sales in 1991, and if the upheaval of the metal scene and push for massive sales is any indicator, the music industry was simply assuming its inheritance in a post-modern, post-communist world. The slavery imagery of Broken may seem a bit hyperbolic, but I can understand how a young artist may truly feel that way.
As a commentary on the act of consuming music as a commodity, the Broken film is no less potent. By viewing the film, you are essentially complicit to the rape and torture of an autonomous human. The decision to string the music together as a snuff film was intentional. We, as viewers, take what we want from the artist, critiquing imperfections and claiming ownership to that which was never truly ours in the first place.
As a commentary on Reznor’s own mindset, the Broken film is exceptionally poignant. Was he as bitter as the film’s subject matter would seem to indicate? I cannot say, but given his tumultuous relationship with TVT (a feud that would continue until he successfully won a lawsuit in 2005), his clinical depression and social anxiety, and his drug abuse that spiraled out of control on the tour for The Fragile (when he accidentally overdosed and had to be resuscitated), it seems certain that a fair amount of emotional turmoil was real and present in the creation of the film.
All of these analyses are valid, but it seems that in deconstructing the purpose of the film to these three constituent pieces, we lose something of the overall impact of the film itself. Let’s be completely honest here. Watching the Broken film is not an enjoyable experience. The snuff film sequences are extremely graphic, and the remainder of the scenes, when considered in light of the music and the work as a whole, only enhance the depravity shown. It is, however, a compelling piece of art that should resonate with anyone. The closest any of us will come to seeing hell on Earth is to witness the dehumanizing violation of another person’s agency and autonomy, and the film portrays rape in the stark, ugly light it deserves. The repeated motifs of bondage, slavery, and torture emphasize that this evil is real, and that any of us may be the victim of it. For this reason, I have always found the harrowing portrayal of humanity’s cruel depths in the film far more sickening than any pastiche faux-Satanism in metal. The fingerprints of the devil are clear here.
If you want to watch the film, you can find a high-definition, first generation copy on most torrent sites. I never encourage piracy, but a mysterious post on Reznor’s personal blog (“12/21/06 : Happy Holidays! This one is a guilt-free download. (shhhh – I didn’t say that out loud). If you know what I’m talking about, cool.”) seems to indicate that the man himself is responsible for the film’s recent dissemination and that he encourages you to look upon the face of evil as he has.
[Aside: In a bizarre twist of fate, the United States government would ultimately validate the prophetic nature of this film and demonstrate that life imitates art by using NIN’s music to torture inmates at Guantanamo Bay.]