Some time in the 19th century. A stranger calling himself Greider (Sam Riley) rides into an isolated mountain valley in the Alps harbouring a small village. The man says he wants to stay for the winter that is soon to come when the snow will make it impossible to leave the valley. He pays for his stay in American gold coins and buys a bit of goodwill with the early photography equipment he carries.
The rulers of the town, the nearly confined to his bed Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his sons (Tobias Moretti, Helmuth Häusler, Martin Leutgeb, Johannes Nikolussi, Clemens Schick and Florian Brückner), send Greider to live with a widow and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer). Even if the two women wanted, there’s clearly no way to say no to the things Brenner demands, if one wants to stay alive, particularly as a woman. Fortunately, despite a great deal of reserve in his manner, Greider’s a mostly pleasant guest.
Luzi is to marry her boyfriend Lukas (Thomas Schubert) soon, but what would be cause for happiness for most loving couples (and there’s no question these two are very much in love), is cause for a good deal of terror in this place. For Brenner and his boys have invented their own special version of the droit du seigneur (something which probably didn’t even exist during the middle ages, as far as I understand), only that it’s more the right of gang raping women until they get pregnant in their case. People who revolt against the Brenners’ ways don’t tend to live long, and after all, parts of the silence of the villagers insinuate, aren’t they keeping the place safe and prosperous?
However, this winter, during which Luzi and Lukas are to be married, things just might change. Two of the Brenners die of peculiar accidents. The surviving brothers quickly realize the stranger in their midst must be responsible for the deaths in some way. Why, might he be the child of the proverbial one that got away coming back for vengeance?
As regular readers might have noticed, I have regularly expressed my frustration with the near total absence of quality (or for the most part really any) genre movies from German language cinema, and particularly the German parts of it. It’s a sad state of affairs caused at least in part by the German bourgeoisie still hanging onto idiotic concepts of “high” and “low” culture, and a curious coalition of cultural conservatives and a just-as-conservative when it comes to culture left owning the purse strings of film subsidy and TV alike. The only exception to the genre rule have been crap comedies, but I don’t dare speculate why that is so. It’s a situation that makes the situation in, for example, the UK look like a paradise for filmmakers in comparison. During the last decade or so, things have changed a little, and a slowly increasing number of films has drifted into the cinemas nobody would have financed just ten years ago.
By now, things have developed into a better direction so much, Andreas Prochaska’s brilliant Das finstere Tal was even co-financed by two TV channels – the German ZDF and the Austrian ORF – and has basically been drowned in German Film Awards, something that gives me hope for a continuing renaissance in genre film for filmmakers who can’t make their films on crowd-funding money.
Apart from these politics, like quite a few of the examples of new German language genre films I have encountered, Prochaska’s film is just very, very good, the sort of film I can’t imagine could have been created without some actual passion for genre movies on the side of the filmmakers. One might even suggest part of the film’s and its companion movies’ passion is a consequence of the sheer joy of being able to make this sort of thing, long repressed energies asserting themselves. But then, one tends to get overexcited about these things.
Fact is – at least as much as there are facts when looking at art – that Prochaska takes age-old Western clichés, transplants them into a place closer to his own experiences and his purse strings, and brings them to life. Again, we have arrived at one of my regular talking points, namely that using the local and the specific for your film when you can’t – and perhaps even shouldn’t – fight Hollywood on its own terms brings with it enormous artistic opportunities, and a certain freshness and personality you couldn’t buy by filming your movies in LA or the places Hollywood films tend to be filmed. There’s a reason why even Luc Besson tends to set his films in Europe. In Das finstere Tal, the impressive landscapes of the snow-bound Alps and the things people do to one another in them are a perfect fit, nature mirroring humanity in the clearest way possible without the film turning into a display of too obvious metaphor.
Oof course, you can make use of the local and the specific and your film can still turn out not worth mentioning or watching if you can’t handle the more archetypal elements of your film well. Prochaska has no problems here, knowing the archetypes of the stranger coming to town, the cowering townsfolk, and the power-mad villains of the piece by heart and not feeling the need to change more about them as the Austrian accents, and the Alps automatically change about them. It would be easy to criticize the film for a lack of originality, but Prochaska’s visual language and the strong acting really do make the old feel quite new, even if a viewer is less convinced than I am that showing age-old stories in front of a different background already changes them enough.
And it’s not as if the specific paths of the Western genre (as far away from Winnetou as one can imagine), those of certain of the more political Spaghetti Westerns with Corbucci’s equally snow-bound Il Grande Silenzio an obvious yet too bitter example and US Westerns like High Plains Drifter, Das finstere Tal explores aren’t still worth the travel time. Particularly in a film that is as good at building mood as this one is, be it in its treatment of the gothic horror tones of the village’s darkest side (and it really doesn’t get quite darker than this), the horror the film gets you to feel at the size of Greider’s anger even though it – and probably you-the-audience – does share it, or the tense climactic violence. The only flaw I find in Prochaska’s direction is one utterly horrible moment of bad pop song insertion in the worst possible moment of the film’s big shoot-out. It’s a sure-fire way to drag anyone out of one of the film’s tensest scenes. If you have experience with German TV, where Prochaska has been working for most of his career, you’ll recognize the cack-handedness of the moment. In the context of a film this well-composed and calmly atmospheric, it’s a truly puzzling moment that defies taste in a film that manages to even treat the whole gang rape wedding stuff comparatively tasteful.
There is, of course, also a strong political undercurrent to the film, a real anger at power (perhaps even power as a philosophical concept?) and the way it is used, as well as a real sadness of what power does to its victims, particularly women; utter hopelessness, on the other hand, the film leaves to the nihilists where it belongs.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?