German film

Fantasia Review: Free Country

A couple of years after German reunification, two detectives, one from the West side and one from the East side, are forced to work together on a case. Two teenage girls have gone missing in a small community. The detectives must work through their differences while uncovering the many secrets the remote town has to hide.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another fascinating film from Germany. Free Country is directed by Christian Alvart (Pandorum, Antibodies), who also co-wrote the film with Siegfried Kamml, who makes his feature-film screenwriting debut. The film was adapted from the screenplay, Marshland, by Spanish screenwriters Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos. Free Country follows two detectives who meet for the first time when they arrive at a remote town to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. One detective lived and worked on the West side before the Berlin Wall came down, the other on the East. They have very different methods and moral compasses when it comes to their jobs. As they work through the mystery around the young girls, they also have to navigate how to work with each other. It creates an interesting dynamic because at times their methods are at odds with each other, but at times one detective’s strength brings about at least a small break in the case. It creates a slow-burn, neo-noir thriller fraught with tension from the moment the two men meet all the way to the suspenseful end.

Both leads in Free Country do a fantastic job as the detectives. Trystan Pütter (Toni Ernmann, Anonymous) plays Patrick Stein. Patrick is from the West side and was sent to this remote town as a sort of punishment. He is the more honest, straight-laced of the two detectives, and Pütter does a great job of making Patrick seem capable, but also a bit soft. Felix Kramer (Dark, Anatomy 2) plays the more hardened East side detective, Markus Bach. Markus is used to making his own rules when it comes to investigating crime. Kramer shines as this gruff man who is having difficulty adjusting to the new order now that there is no divide between East and West. These two men play off of one another quite well as they go back and forth between being at odds with each other and looking out for each other’s backs.

The film expertly transports the audience into the past. Free Country is set in Germany during the early 90’s. Great care was put into many visual aspects to maintain that time period. Everything from the clothes, to the cars, to the technology (or lack thereof) maintain that early 90’s feel. Free Country also has a griminess to it that is often a signature of neo-noir films. The film is tinged with yellow, making it appear old, dirty, and weathered. This look goes hand-in-hand with the desolate town on the East side where life was harder than it was for those in the West. The buildings are more run down and the people don’t have the nicest clothes. Every visual is an indicator of the hard life these townspeople lead and why many are so desperate to head West.

Free Country is a German time capsule wrapped around a neo-noir thriller. Alvart and Kamml do a fantastic job of adapting a Spanish screenplay to fit into German history, while also maintaining the suspenseful investigation into the teen girls’ disappearances. The visually appealing film greatly benefits from stunning performances from the two stars, Pütter and Kramer. They both deliver powerhouse performances on their own and as a duo. The final moment might leave a bit to be desired, but Free Country will still be a hit to crime-thriller enthusiasts around the world (including my mom).

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: Sleep (Schlaf)

A woman plagued by vivid dreams travels to a remote German village to try to solve the mystery inside her head. She suffers a medical episode and her daughter stays in the town to be near her mother. The daughter picks up where her mother left off and begins to unlock the secrets behind her mother’s dreams.

Coming from Germany to Canada, Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences Sleep. This is the feature-film debut of director Michael Venus, who co-wrote the film with Thomas Friedrich, also making his feature-film debut. Sleep begins with a tangle of different mysteries. The filmmakers take their time in unravelling these mysteries, building the tension and constant sense of dread throughout the film. It begins as the mother’s story, but when she is hospitalized the focus quickly shifts to the daughter. Despite that protagonist shift, it is still largely the mother’s story. Over time we slowly learn the answers behind the mother’s strange dreams and what brought her to the hotel in the remote village filled with tragedy.

Throughout Sleep, the idea of dreams and having trouble separating reality from what’s inside your head is a common theme. It’s a great way to make the audience second guess if what they are seeing is real while also including some nightmarish yet visually stunning scenes. Unfortunately, there are times when the plot seems to move a bit too slowly. This is likely at least in part due to a few subplots that are never fully explored. There are at least two subplots that are introduced later in the film that are never explained further nor do they reach any kind of resolution. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the primary plot, but it will likely leave at least a few viewers with lingering questions.

Each of the performances in Sleep are quite haunting. Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann, Requiem) plays the mother, Marlene. The most powerful aspect of Hüller’s portrayal of Marlene is her physical performance. During Marlene’s nightmare and mental episode, her body goes rigid and her eyes are clearly in another world. Hüller delivers a performance that is truly disturbing. Gro Swantje Kohlhof (Tatort, Ever After) plays Marlene’s daughter, Mona. It’s almost immediately established that Mona is more the parental figure than Marlene is. Kohlhof perfectly conveys that maternal instinct and Mona’s capability when it comes to taking care of business. August Schmölzer (Schindler’s List, Downfall) plays Otto, the owner of the hotel mother and daughter visit. Otto is a character who outwardly seems warm and helpful, but there is something sinister to him that makes it clear he can’t be trusted. Schmölzer does an amazing job of delivering that duality in his performance.

Aside from the interesting story, Sleep is simply beautiful to look at. A large part of that has to do with the setting, especially the hotel. It is large and industrial looking, but it’s barren. Through the entire film, the only guests we see are Marlene and then Mona. The architecture of the hotel and the rest of the town just feels slightly off throughout the entire film. It makes it incredibly eerie, especially with the dense surrounding forest. The cinematography also helps to create that unsettling feel along with sequences of nightmarish, psychedelic imagery and coloring. It all ties together to be both gorgeous and haunting.

Sleep is a waking nightmare that slowly unravels the mystery at its center. This is another Fantasia International Film Festival entry that delivers a powerful debut for first-time writers and directors. Venus and Friedrich clearly know how to tell a good mystery with supernatural elements. There are times when the film seems to stall, but it doesn’t take away from the film’s overall achievement. Sleep also includes strong performances and gorgeous visuals, making it an atmospheric, suspenseful film.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Snowflake (Schneeflöckchen)

snowflake

Two criminals come across a strange screenplay. As they read it, the pair realize the screenplay says exactly what they have said and done, and what they will say and do. They try to track down the writer of the screenplay in order to change their fate, all the while dodging attempts on their life by hitmen hired by a mysterious woman.

Of all the films you will or have watched in 2018, none will be quite as meta as Snowflake. The film was written by Arend Remmers (Unsere Zeit ist jetzt) and directed by Adolfo J. Klomerer (A Time of Vultures) with William James as guest director, this being James’s directorial debut. The film takes place in Berlin in a not-so-distant future where criminals run rampant. Between the lawlessness, the filming style, and some of the music choices, the film almost has the feel of an old Western. The plot is broken up into chapters, allowing the audience to focus on specific characters in each chapter and learn new pieces of the puzzle leading up to the final act when the various characters come together. Some of this information is given in non-sequential order. This particular method seems to help get you more in the mindset of the two criminals as we learn new information right along with them.

The meta aspect comes in the form of a screenplay within the screenplay. The two criminals find the writer of the screenplay (who is also named Arend Remmers). The man is a dentist trying his hand at his first screenplay, yet for some reason everything he writers appears to be happening in real life. It creates many layers that can be confusing at times, but by the end everything comes together rather nicely. There is the screenplay of the film audiences are watching, which is also the screenplay written by the dentist, which is happening to the characters in their real lives.

Snowflake has compelling characters from many different backgrounds. Each one is very well developed, making the audiences feel invested in their fates. The characters audiences will be especially invested in are the two criminals, the vengeful woman who wants to kill them, her friend/bodyguard, a singer who may be a guardian angel, and a cannibal hitman. The one thing virtually every character has in common is revenge. The thirst for revenge is a what drives most of the lead characters in Snowflake, and therefore it drives much of the plot. The only character who feels out of place with the film is a vigilante who wears a full-on superhero costume and uses electricity to fight criminals. This character does not fit in with the overall tone of the film, and his storyline could honestly be entirely cut from the plot. Aside from him, the rest of the characters are fascinating and dynamic.

This is a film that has a very talented cast. The most enjoyable to watch are Reza Brojerdi (Homeland) as Javid and Erkan Acar (The Key) as Tan. These two men are the criminals at the heart of Snowflake. Despite some of the more violent antics these men get up to, there is something completely endearing about them. Both Brojerdi and Acar are so enjoyable to watch, and they are able to bring humor into some of the darkest situations. Another notable performance is Xenia Assenza as (Unsere Zeit ist jetzt) as the tragic Eliana. While all the characters in this film have dual natures, showing that no one is purely good or evil, it is the most apparent with Eliana. She is a victim, but Assenza’s portrayal shows how the thirst for revenge can bring out the evil in even the best people. Honorable mention goes to other memorable performances from the likes of David Masterson (American Renegades), Alexander Schubert (Triple Ex), and Adrian Topol (Franz + Polina).

There is a certain gritty aesthetic in this film. The gorgeous cinematography and coloration create that grittiness. It allows the filmmakers to emphasize the lawless, Western feel of Snowflake. The effects are also quite important in a film where violence is such a crucial aspect of the plot. This film does a very good job of making the various wounds, injuries, and prosthetics look raw and realistic. All these artistic elements combine to immerse the audience in this crime-filled world.

Snowflake is a veritable nesting doll of revenge tales layered upon each other in a fun and meta way. The different story lines seem unrelated, but as more is revealed leading to the bloody climax, everything ties together. The only aspect of the plot that doesn’t work as well with the others is the random superhero. The structure and artistic elements of the genre-bending German film transports the audience to a unique world and leads down many paths of revenge. With multiple strong performances of fascinating characters, this is a film cinephiles will want to seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10