BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 23 FEB 14
Featured in
Issue 13

Scary Movies

How German-language cinema is joining the global horror boom

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 23 FEB 14

Marvin Kren, Blutgletscher (Blood Glacier), 2013, Photograph: Allegro Film

In a region unaccustomed to visitors, a man appears with an unusual plan. ‘What do you want here?’, one of the farmers in Thomas Willmann’s novel Das finstere Tal (The Dark Valley, 2010) asks the unexpected arrival. Initially, his answer – ‘I want to paint’ – causes confusion. ‘But we already have a miller,’ says one bystander to hoots of laughter. (In German, malen, to paint, and mahlen, to grind, are homophones.) This is a striking scene of cultural misunderstanding – between an outsider and a cloistered community that is suspicious as a matter of principle. ‘That’s not a good sign,’ is the verdict following the bloody stillbirth of a malformed calf, and of course the arrival of a painter is not a good sign either. On its publication, Willmann’s novel, set in a secluded Austrian mountain valley at the end of the 19th century, was described by one reviewer in newspaper FAZ as ‘a cross between Franz Kafka and Howard Hawks’. Now Andreas Prochaska has made it into what might be called an Alpine Western.

Marvin Kren, Rammbock: Berlin Undead, 2010, Photograph: Filmgalerie 451

Another film just released in German cinemas is Blutgletscher (Blood Glacier, 2013), whose title alone suggests that mountains can be dangerous terrain aside from the usual risks. One of the symbols of Austrian identity, the ‘eternal’ snow of the Alps turns red, pointing to a climate disaster that causes all manner of terrible mutations in the animal kingdom. Like Prochaska, the film’s director Marvin Kren is Austrian. And it is these two filmmakers, along with Swiss director Tim Fehlbaum, who are responsible for what can now be called a horror boom in German-language cinema.

Kren made his debut with Rammbock: Berlin Undead (2010), an adaptation of the zombie genre tailored to the setting of a typical Berlin Altbau apartment. In Dead In Three Days (2006), on the other hand, Prochaska transferred a popular contemporary motif – the threatening anonymous text message – to a provincial setting. Thanks to this film, the small, misty town of Ebensee at the southern end of Lake Traunsee in an idyllic part of upper Austria entered the realm of global cinema, where many stories of a similar ilk circulate (for example Hollywood’s plundering of the Southeast Asian film industry for motifs and even entire films for remakes). As one might expect, Prochaska followed this up with the sequel: Dead In Three Days 2 (2008).

Andreas Prochaska, In drei Tagen bist du tot 2 (Dead in Three Days), 2008, Photograph: X Verleih

The references in Dead In Three Days range from Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (2003) but Prochaska manages to shake off these models and tell a story of his own. On the day they leave school, five teenagers all receive the text message that gives the film its title. This threat sets the usual dynamic in motion. Initially, it is not taken seriously, then the first victim is discovered, the other four panic, calm down again before they take fate into their own hands. Prochaska uses the eerie atmosphere of this landscape of lakes and mountains, and he has a good feel for the dangers lurking in the everyday objects of his setting: the concrete bases of the parasols in the guesthouse garden of the tourist resort are just heavy enough to hold a dead body under water; the aquarium in the kitchen has dangerous glass edges. One might say that Prochaska ‘inculturates’ global cinema, anchoring it in a specific place and making it interesting again. This includes the use of dialect, which in American cinema has always been a multiply-coded signal, not least for the terror instilled by rednecks and hillbillies, but which functions here, as in Kren’s work, more as a sign of youthful authenticity.

In Kren’s Rammbock, produced in cooperation with German state broadcaster ZDF, the action focuses on an Austrian visitor to Berlin by the name of Michi. He scores points for his dogged humanism towards zombies (‘they’re still people’), while also proving a determined leader on the last remaining path to freedom after a zombie epidemic breaks out in the German capital. With the taciturn craftsman Harper, he must first barricade himself inside the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Gabi, who he has not been able to track down. This brings all kinds of trouble: the toilet has been blocked off, the phone networks are down, and there is nothing left to eat beyond a modest amount of cat food. But Michi proves to be a practical type in all respects, and the golden rule he is told during a chance encounter in the film’s opening scene – ‘Don’t lose your temper!’ – becomes increasingly decisive.

Marvin Kren, Blutgletscher (Blood Glacier), 2013, Courtesy: Allegro Film/Miguel Dieterich/Berhard Berger

This is because the zombies can smell adrenaline – a brilliant conceit that takes the internal logic of the format to new heights. In a genre where everything has been tried, the aim is to give new shocks to an audience whose foreknowledge often makes it cold-blooded. Tim Fehlbaum, whose Swiss-German co-production Hell (2011) is yet another example of the current horror trend in German-speaking cinema, achieves this by using a bold aesthetic: here, climate disaster is translated into a strongly visual and visceral tale of last days – the intensified sunlight symbolizing global warming. Whereas Prochaska seeks to anchor common motifs in provincial settings while sticking to classical storylines, Kren’s new film Blutgletscher takes a step towards comedy: an Austrian politician’s expedition to a weather station in the high Alps becomes a nightmare trip that features both extreme gore (with deliberately ‘cheap’ special effects) and the kind of gallows humour that is often used to puncture threatening scenarios in horror movies. The resolute politician Bodicek and her deranged guide Janek have to deal with a genuinely hair-raising Austrian ‘alien’.

Prochaska’s Das finstere Tal, an Austro-German co-production, proposes a different combination of genres. The painter Greider, who in the filmic adaptation of the novel becomes a photographer (needing a packhorse to carry his heavy plate camera), acquired his haughtiness towards the native highlanders in an entirely different world, the American West, where he not only learned the art of the ‘proper picture’, but also how to use a rifle. After a while, the story of an outsider turns out to be the tale of a homecoming. In the book, the large painting on which Greider is working is a Kippbild between life and death. Although the film version does not entirely capture these aspects, it does offer a dense allegory on the distribution of images in a globalized world, featuring many points of transition between provincial detective story, Western, and zombie humour. In the logic of the horror genre, there is no such thing as provincial. On the contrary, dark valleys are areas with great prospects.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Blutgletscher opened in German cinemas on 6 February 2014, Das finstere Tal on 20 February.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.