European Union Film Festival 2015: Part Three, by Aaron Pinkston
The Dark Valley, dir. Andreas Prochaska (Austria/Germany)
A lone, mysterious stranger, draped in black, rides his horse into a ruthless town. But this stranger is a photographer, not a feared gunslinger. And this isn’t a shantytown in the middle of the Western desert, but a logging town in the Austrian Alps, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and deep valleys. The Dark Valley is a sobering film that pulls from traditions of the Old West. It is a very interesting mix of cultures that stands on its own, above its genre trappings.
Sam Riley plays Greider, an American who claims to have come to Austria to photograph the breathtaking environments. Once he’s settled in, however, he gets caught up in a power struggle in this small community. The Brenner clan, the town’s unofficial rulers, don’t appreciate a stranger coming into their territory without understanding who is in charge. And when two of the brothers die in apparent accidents, they suspect foul play, bringing Greider face-to-face with their vengeance. Greider may be more than he lets on, though, with his own personal business with the Brenners.
Dark Valley’s best homage to American westerns is this central family. Consisting of the old man and his six sons, they are a nasty bunch that stands collectively with almost any gang in the genre. Greider is a blander object, partially by design with an obvious call to the Clint Eastwood “man with no name” archetype. Riley is a fine actor, but he’s no Clint Eastwood. The film suffers a little while trying to juggle the character’s put-on innocence and his quest for violent revenge, but there are enough interesting characters and compelling drama around him to hold everything in place.
Mixed in with the genre characters is the unusual environment shot in a very traditional way. The sparse mountain setting is a beautiful proxy of Monument Valley. It is a little jarring at first, especially with the obvious Western look of its characters, but the lonesome and distant space has the same familiar effects. Nearly every interior shot is lit by an open flame, which gives a golden glow to the air that also calls to the look of classic Hollywood – or perhaps to open desert sands and sunlight.
The film’s revenge plot is the biggest departure from classic westerns. It aligns more with modern stories, or at least to the revisionist westerns since the 1970s, which became much more brutally violent and with darker themes. As expected, The Dark Valley concludes with a bloody shootout, but the nihilistic attitudes of its characters (both heroes and villains) are more explicitly bleak.
Overall, The Dark Valley is a very competently made throwback with a European twist. Its main appeal is as a genre exercise, but unlike another recent film with the same setup (The Salvation), The Dark Valley is a little more than a pure homage – simple differences like changing the setting feel unique, giving the film a bit of life. As this is a complete downer of a film, very deliberately paced and serious in its tone, it really needs sparks like this to keep engagement up.
West, dir. Christian Schwochow (Germany)
I learn a lot about the world from movies. I’ve never been someone who has a great interest in history, so if I was going to learn about a particular time or place, I might as well be watching a film. I didn’t know much about Christian Schwochow’s West before sitting down for the screening, but noticing the marketing remarked the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall definitely set an expectation. Though the East-West divide in Germany is the central force of West, it takes place nearly ten years before this momentous event. The small-set character study about a woman acclimating herself to life on the other side of the wall may not be as ambitious as an epic historical drama, but its use of the timeframe is smart and simple. It is a wonderfully rendered depiction of the lasting legacy of East Germany without being a history lesson.
West is a drastically different kind of immigrant story, but an effective one. Nelly is a privileged, educated person, but she must face the same laborious and complicated procedures as anyone else leaving East Germany. After the harrowing exit from her home in the film’s first ten minutes, a large time is spent on the specific tasks that she must complete before becoming a German citizen. Before she can find work or a suitable place to live, Nelly goes through a series of examinations, both medical and psychological, which pry into her past. Nelly left East Germany because she wanted to escape her past – circumstances surrounding the death of her lover made her a target of the Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi. Opening up all of those wounds is difficult, especially in what should be a safe haven. By the end of the film Nelly feels as insecure as ever.
In only a few scenes, the film establishes the emotional connection between the two Germanys. We barely see anything in East Germany with the film beginning at Nelly’s escape, but this scene alone is more than enough to understand the intense environment and to propel the story. Once Nelly arrives at the refugee center on the other side of the wall, there are direct visual connections between her treatment leaving and arriving. In some ways, they are exactly the same – she is stripped down in each situation, for example – but the character’s expression is different. Even while the temporary housing Nelly and her young son must live in is crowded and derelict, paling in comparison to a relatively comfortable East German apartment, she is safe.
But as she spends more time in her new nation, her past begins to catch up with her. The second half of the film slightly shifts into something like a John le Carré-style espionage thriller. Its plot elements are a little undercooked, but the film fully uses its unique setting and circumstances to enhance the character study. In the least, the plot shift adds a bit of intrigue, a little entertainment value.
The film’s best plot device, though, is the relationships Nelly has with two men following her transition into Germany – one is a government official who is integral in her transition but also a reminder of her insecurity, the other is a lonesome political refugee that has lived in the refugee commune for the past two years. Both relationships are complex, their dynamics change multiple times over the film. These plot lines smartly don’t directly intersect, making them completely about Nelly and how these men affect her worldview. They sort of stand as two separate sides of her inescapable past, and they lead to surprising conclusions.
The Hour of the Lynx, dir. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (Denmark)
In The Hour of the Lynx, Helen, an unorthodox priest in a small Danish town, is brought into a psychology project that integrates violent sociopaths with pets. She is asked to speak with Drengen, a young man who attempted suicide. Drengen rarely speaks, but when he does he speaks about a plan God has for him. We know from the opening scene that the young man viciously killed an elderly couple, seemingly without motive – his incoherent ramblings the only clue to his actions. Throughout the film, we learn more of Drengen’s past and his life in the care of the correctional system through the conversations he has with Helen. The Hour of the Lynx has similar beats to the typical film with this prisoner-professional dynamic, but it doesn’t go nearly as deep as the best of them.
The film is told in a series of flashbacks with the priest’s visit framed within. At points when Helen learns about a certain event or asks a particular question, we cut back to see the story actually unfold. When it returns to its framing device, it indicates that Helen has been told the contents of the flashback, usually by cutting to a closeup of her face with the intent expression that she has been listening and digesting the information. What we see in the flashbacks couldn’t possibly be told by the character in dialogue, though, as they serve multiple perspectives or show scenes outside of the storytellers possible knowledge. Obviously, it’s the film trying to be a more complete story, but it doesn’t align with the language of the editing.
This structure also stretches out the apparent time of the framing story. Helen and Drengen’s interactions take place over about 24 hours, but broken up by the flashbacks gives it the perception of more time. The only way I realized this was the case was because of an arbitrary plot convenience that the program isn’t working and is being pulled the next day. Without being broken up, it seems like the amount of progress Drengen makes would take days, weeks, maybe years – there are far too many breakthroughs between a disturbed young man and a professional (not even a practicing psychologist, at that) that have never worked with each other before. Worse, because the film is mostly told in the flashback segments, we don’t actually see a lot of their conversations. When films of this genre are at their best, the tension lies in the interplay within the conversations, but that is totally lost.
Many moments in The Hour of the Lynx are incredibly dark, including the film’s very first scene. This should set the tone for the rest of the film, but it really doesn’t – despite a number of other violent and disturbing scenes, it never really commits to a specific tone. This is partially because the film doesn’t quite seem to know how to handle its central character. It moves between portraying Drengen as a prophet, a psychopath, and a mentally ill child unable to control his impulses. Ultimately, he is mostly the latter, which makes it difficult to really commit to the darkest tones. The film also strays too often into melodrama, hitting the breakthroughs really hard as emotional beats.
That said, the film’s big highlight is the performance by Frederik Christian Johansen as Drengen. As I mentioned, the character becomes many different types of movie sociopath, but it doesn’t overwhelm the young actor. He brings great intensity and great stillness, which is always compelling combo to watch. The few times the script allows him to be truly menacing, he hits it hard. But he also has a vulnerable quality that ultimately pays off by the end of the film. I don’t know if he has the look or the linguistic ability to cross over to Hollywood, but his performance makes me excited to see what is next for him.