January 17, 2011 -- I missed this film when it first came out, so I was looking forward to seeing it. Delay piled on top of delay, but I finally got a DVD of this much-praised, award-winning German film and I sat down to watch it the other night with a lot of anticipation. What a disappointment! This film is a total drag to watch. It is slow. It is dark. It is depressing. It viciously attacks traditional values and religion, and it seems as though it is never going to end. It is torture to sit through this film. It runs 144 minutes and seems twice that long.
This film is set in the time just before World War I in rural Germany, but it could have easily been set 50 years earlier. There are no cars, no electricity, no radio, no modern coveniences of any kind. Life in the small village is centered on the church. The pastor, a sober, grim man, punishes his children severely when they misbehave, which was probably normal for this time and culture, but still, it looks bad. The children rebel, sort of like the kids in “The Virgin Suicides,” but their anger is turned outward, rather than inward.
The children, for the most part, are not so innocent. They are a bit like the children in “The Village of the Damned.” They hang out in gangs and it is strongly hinted that they do evil things, like assault, setting up booby traps and arson. The adults are no better, we see incest and an affair where a woman is treated no better than a dog. Everyone, it seems, is jealous of others and there are deadly scores to settle. Almost all of the violence and wrongdoing are done off screen. There are clues to let us know who is doing what to whom, but very seldom is anyone shown in the act of doing something illegal. The motives for the various crimes in the film are not always clear.
There is also another contrast in the film, between the poor farmers and the professional people and wealthy landowners in the town. The story is told by the town's schoolteacher, who is in love with a lovely young underage girl. In one of the films few lighter scenes, the girl's father tells the schoolteacher he will have to wait a year before he will allow his daughter to marry him. This very chaste romance is the one ray of light in the otherwise dismal, repressed atmosphere of small town life in the film, along with a brief scene of merriment at the annual harvest festival. On the other extreme is the story of a young man who seeks revenge against the Baron's family for the death of his mother in a sawmill accident (the sawmill is owned by the Baron, who controls about half the town's economy). In retaliation, the Baron makes sure the young man's family has no work in town, and the family starves as a result. The film is shot in a kind of muddy, underlit black and white style, which further exaggerates the stark, spare life lived by most of the people in the town.
This is not a film you want to see if you suffer from depression. It could make you even more depressed. It is like experiencing existential ennui in lieu of entertainment. This is definitely an art film, not designed to entertain, but to demonstrate a basic hatred of mankind, especially the audience. In doing so it shows us the very worst example of small town German life in the early 20th Century. We see a town where religion and aristocracy combine to oppress the poor to such an extent that they fight back in a sort of passive aggressive campaign of bitter, secretive retaliation. The hatred, resentment and ceaseless cycles of revenge makes life in the town poisonous. Those who have the option, escape from the town. I too, should have escaped, but I stayed to the bitter end, so you don't have to. This film rates an F.
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