The Zero Years is a fucked-up movie. I recognize that "fucked-up" is not a recognized term in film criticism, so I should probably elaborate on that a little.

The opening: black screen. After a moment, there is a deep synthesized bass note. Pause. Another. Pause.

The score expands a little without moving out of the bass range, and a truly discomfiting sequence begins: in a barely lit room, a woman dressed in a cloak masturbates through the cloth, as men and women leer at her through a wire fence. The onlookers are pasty white and dark-eyed; they grab at the wire, run their tongues along it, rub their bodies against it, turning it into part of their sexual release. The woman starts to moan in an obviously-faked orgasm. The print is double exposed, and so we see both sides of this - the woman and her audience - at the same time.

It's horrifying, but damned if it isn't impossible to turn away. A viewer with different priorities than myself would probably tie this all up in a nice "audience as voyeur" package, but I've never cared much for that game, and so I will merely credit Nikos Nikolaidis with a remarkably keen sense of what makes for arresting cinema. To my eyes, the important part of this scene is that fence: how it separates the watchers from their object of lust, and how it is sexualised for that reason

The woman turns out to be one of three residents of a squalid flat somewhere in an unidentified time and place, where the government has established an S&M brothel. As the story begins, a fourth woman joins them, nearing the end of her term as a state-ordered whore.

The Zero Years is primarily a film about a dicatatorial government's complete takeover of every last vestige of personal space, and thus should probably be regarded as a documentary. It is evident that the women did not choose their life, it was assigned to them, just like their enforced sterility. To ensure their complicity, their rooms have been equipped with broken surveillance cameras, and a woman bureaucrat comes by occasionally to check up on them and take their earnings. Nikolaidis intended for this to represent Hell on Earth; but even if I had not been told that fact, it would have been fairly simple to figure it out.

Two of the women are completely insane: Christina is endlessly peering out at "Them" across the street with a pair of binoculars, and is constantly haunted by the spectres of children in black coats, while Maro "The Whip" is persuaded that she is pregnant (leading to the semi-monthly ordeal of "giving birth"), or that she can get pregnant by the client she abducted and keeps trapped in the cellar. The apparent leader of the group and the new woman both seem much more rational, smart people trapped in an unthinkable situation, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that for both of them, insanity has just taken a much subtler road.

It is a tawdry film, but it is an earned sort of tawdriness. The film is not pornographic, but it is shot that way; years of prostitution and governmental intrusion have stripped these women's dignity away, and the camera looks at their bodies with according dispassion, even sympathy. A great deal of naked flesh is on display, but for the audience it engenders no lust, only sorrow. The cheap video tape that the film has been shot on, and the entirely real slum apartment that serves as its set contribute to the sense of pornography, but they are both grotesque (and when was the last time you saw a film whose videography could be approvingly called "gross"?), and create the feeling that we are watching a world that has already died, and is now merely in its death throes.

There is no plot, only a series of vignettes that illustrate how each of the women suffers in this place away from light and air, and how each women grabs for the smallest, most pathetic strings of pleasure she can find. They are beyond suffering, in a way: no other life is knowable, and therefore they do not have the conception of a good life to draw the comparison to their own.

At the end, the new woman is given her papers to leave, but it takes no time at all for her to return. She offers no explanation, but by this time we know full well that there is no better place out there; better the hell you know than the hell you don't. And thus the film ends with a celebration of a twisted, post-apocalyptic family, bound by what can only be called "love" because in a world as perverted as this, the mutual support felt by prisoners trapped in the same cage is the closest thing to "love" one can hope for. The women do not know this; they only know that the best life they can hope for is to remain unmolested in their filthy house with broken cameras and ghost children and familiar faces, and the scary thing is that they are completely correct.

See? That is fucked-up.