February 15, 2009

BERLIN '09 DISPATCH: Kill Daddy Goodnight / The Bone Man

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man)

[Andrew Grant's final report from the Berlin Film Festival spotlights two of his faves from what everyone I've been reading has called a mighty disappointing year for the fest. Upward and onward, as they say! -AH]

Austria was well represented at this year's Berlinale with a handful of films in the Panorama and Forum sections, two of which turned out to be among my favorites at the festival—original, refreshing works that showed us that cinema from the land of Mozart and Falco has more to offer than Haneke and Seidl.

Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Goodnight)Director Michael Glawogger, best known on these shores for his powerful 2005 doc Workingman's Death, was at the fest with his narrative feature Das Vaterspiel (here given the unfortunate English title Kill Daddy Goodnight), an ambitious adaptation of the successful novel by Josef Haslinger. Difficult to categorize, it's both a thriller and a tripartite, psychological family drama wrapped around a treatise on Germany and Austria's inability and/or unwillingness to deal with events that took place during the Nazi regime.

Helmut Köpping plays Rupert "Ratz" Kramer, a shaggy-haired, hash-smoking videogame programmer who for years has been creating his masterpiece: a game built around killing his hypocritical father, a champagne-and-caviar socialist cabinet minister who, in Ratz's eyes, is the very embodiment of political corruption. While working on his all-new 2.0 version (which includes a personalization engine that allows users to kill their own fathers), he receives a call from Mimi (The Free Will's Sabine Timoteo), a former college girlfriend now living in New York City. She asks if he can immediately fly to the States to help her with a difficult situation involving an elderly family member who has a dark past and has been hiding in a Long Island basement for many decades. It quickly becomes a challenging moral dilemma for Ratz, and one that casts a new light on his tumultuous relationship with his father.

Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Goodnight) The film is set in 1999, a simpler time when a bleak Weltanschauung was rooted not in fears of global terrorism, but simple fin de siècle angst and the Y2K bug—which some felt would be the end of civilization as we know it. Continually bouncing between the present and several periods across the 20th century, Das Vaterspiel unfolds like a standard suspense thriller, but with the added complexity of historical weight (both individual and collective) on three separate families, which includes Ratz's struggles with both patricide and incest. His relationship with the suspected Nazi war criminal is explored but never fully reconciled; a sticking point for some critics, it's a perfect metaphor for the still-unaddressed issues of individual choices made during the Holocaust era.

The cold, eerie tone combined with the videogame subplot is reminiscent of Demonlover, though whereas Assayas traded substance for style, Glawogger's film is mostly a cerebral affair, but no less hip, stylish, or suspenseful. Das Vaterspiel explores questions and dilemmas raised in such films as The Reader or The Lives of Others, but without spoon-fed morality or convenient third-act resolutions. This is a powerful, challenging film, and one of the few at the festival that actually expected its audience to think for themselves.

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man)At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Wolfgang Murnberger's The Bone Man (Der Knochenmann), a brilliantly acted and directed über-black comedy cum mystery-thriller set in a sleepy Austrian mountain village. Oh yes, it's a romance as well. Who knew Austria produced such films?

The Bone Man marks the third pairing of director Murnberger and lead actor Josef Hader in the role of Simon Brenner (following 2000's Come, Sweet Death and 2004's Silentium), the gruff but lovable middle-aged ex-detective who comes off like a Teutonic Columbo. Weary of his current job repossessing cars from desperate single moms for a remarkably sleazy boss, Brenner decides to embark on an extended getaway to the countryside. However, even this turns into a working vacation that, without giving too much away, results in a grizzly affair that lies somewhere between Sweeney Todd, Fargo, and The Crying Game.

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man) A big-city outsider, Brenner is naturally given the cold shoulder by the staff of this tiny country inn, yet his interest in an attractive employee (Berlinale best actress winner Birgit Minchmayr) provides him ample reason to persevere. Though he was sent on a simple repossession job, Brenner quickly becomes embroiled in a convoluted plot that includes human trafficking, decapitated limbs, cannibalism, and lots of fried chicken.

The progressive tonal shift from the incredibly dark first third to the lighter, madcap macabre fare of the last is disconcerting to say the least, yet screenwriter Wolf Hass (who also wrote the source novel) manages the gradual transition with a smoothness that never feels forced. In classic comic form, the film's screwball finale is built around a masked ball (Blake Edwards would be proud), complete with drunken Austrians and a perfectly cheesy cover-band performing such Euro '80s staples as Opus' "Live is Life" and The Spider Murphy Gang's "Skandal Im Sperrbezirk." Murnberger's pacing and sense of timing is impressive, and he skillfully prevents the proceedings from slipping into comic chaos. Disparate threads are tied up, hearts are won (and broken) and as in any good mystery, the killer gets his comeuppance. Like the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi before him, Murnberger has found a perfect balance between the grotesque and the hilarious. The Bone Man may not be high art, but it proves that populist fare can be both smart and endlessly entertaining.

Both films are currently without US distribution, and though the festival reviews were quite strong, methinks the chances of them getting picked up are slim at best.

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Posted by ahillis at February 15, 2009 12:24 PM