An expressionist murder mystery set in the aftermath of the First World War
It was a bold move for Stefan Ruzowitzky (“The Counterfeiters” among many) to conceive a gritty expressionist crime thriller set in the aftermath of World War I, shot almost entirely on blue screen. Whether it is also fully successful is open to debate. Thematically, it was about tackling the powerless rage of the Austro-Hungarian patriarchate whose fanatical belief in the emperor and empire went up in smoke when the armistice swept away the monarchy and reduced the territory to a state. almost insignificant. In this context, the film highlights the story of a traumatized lieutenant who resumes his duties as a police inspector in Vienna when a particularly sadistic murderer kills his former comrades.
Considering all of these elements, it is not that hard to envision a revival of Expressionism, at its cinematic heyday in 1919-1920, as an appropriate visual style. Ruzowitzky is not content, however, with his hermetic and intimately claustrophobic characteristics in which hard, jagged angles and precarious constructions become an external manifestation of oppressive psychological forces, made more famous with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Instead, with “Homefront,” the director wants to turn all of Vienna into an unstable, quirky cityscape, so the blue screen was the only economically viable choice.
While digital art director Oleg Prodeus does an impressive job of turning the familiar city into a nightmarish distortion of itself, the actors’ inability to engage with their surroundings means the characters simply appear uncomfortable. rather than oppressed by outside forces; there is less the feeling of a dirty metropolis falling on them than with traditional expressionism. This is not a criticism saying that Ruzowitzky’s expressionism differs from that of the Weimar era, but given his resurrection, it is worth asking whether the artificiality of the art movement, in addition to the artificiality of the blue screen, has the desired impact.
It is best to go over the opening, in which the camera closes on a glowing Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) silhouetted against a starry sky accompanied by a sentent voiceover, all apparently from a film by too dramatic superhero. The story begins cleanly in a boat on the Danube, as a troop of exhausted and demoralized soldiers return home after two years as prisoners of war in a Russian camp (the scene recalls Dracula’s arrival in Whitby). They have returned to a broken and defeated nation where their service is treated with contempt. The infantrymen are thrown into a homeless shelter, but Perg has at least one family to return to. Or so he thinks. The apartment is empty, guarded by a stingy janitor (Margarethe Tiesel) who hints that Perg’s wife Anna (Miriam Fontaine) was receiving a gentleman before moving in with her sister to the country.
A mistaken arrest brings Perg face to face with his colleague, Police Commissioner Victor Renner (Marc Limpach), an obnoxious opportunist with no allegiance. On the bright side, he also meets Dr Theresa Körner (Liv Lisa Fries), a forensic expert admiring Perg’s pre-war talent for hunting down sadistic criminals.
Each character in “Homefront” is created to represent a concept rather than to reflect a real person: Perg is the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire himself, embodied as a bitter returning soldier in the face of a world he no longer recognizes. ; Renner is a man whose lack of morality allows him to take advantage of any existing system, while Körner represents the new opportunities for women made possible by the implosion of the Old Order.
Into the mix comes junior detective Paul Severin (Max von der Groeben), enthused by superficial Marxist ideology and convinced that anyone associated with the past is rotten. Perg’s situation in his old department is precarious until he is able to connect the dots between a series of gruesome murders, with the victims all being former comrades of the prison camp.
There have been a plethora of recent films set around WWI (“1917”, “Sunset”, “Blizzard of Souls”), inspired by the centenary, but not too much dealing with the immediate aftermath and chaos of 1919. Unsurprisingly considering some of Ruzowitzky’s latest films (“Patient Zero”, “Cold Hell”),
the director approaches the trauma via a macabre police procedure which does not skimp on torture. It operates on a pure Gothic level, more than its rather mundane take on Austrian humiliation and the horrors of the Great War, conveyed by sometimes frightening imagery that may shock an audience unfamiliar with the level of disfigurement, mental and physical. Using them as a horror movie, however, makes these disturbing scenes simply sensational, devoid of any understanding of the scope or what it would have been like to live with such damage.
At this level, Fridrikh Ermler’s 1929 powerhouse “Fragment of an Empire” has yet to be improved in its portrayal of a returning prisoner of war confronted with a changed reality, while the masterpiece Robert Reinert’s expressionist “Nerven” a decade earlier more fully conveys the meaning of a fractured society.
, while Expressionism at its best turns disturbed psychological states into a nightmarish reality. All of those sharp lines and misaligned structures reflect inner struggles projected onto the world as we see it. Oleg Prodeus took inspiration from artists Ludwig Meidner and Anton Kolig (though certainly not from his homoerotic side) as well as “Caligari”, of course, and the results are indeed commendable, but in this CGI-savvy era, he is questionable whether their surface fascination adds a deeper understanding of the trauma of the Great War.
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