Co-written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Starring Murathan Muslu and Liv Lisa Fries.
When an ex-prisoner of the Great War returns home and finds his comrades brutally murdered, he decides to bring the serial killer to justice.
In 2007, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s World War II drama The Counterfeiters won the Best International Feature Oscar, and since then the filmmaker has embarked on one of the strangest career trajectories of any such artist.
Rarely one to repeat himself, Ruzowitzky has bounced between family comedy (Lilly the Witch: The Dragon and the Magic Book), a thriller remake (Deadfall), a documentary (Radical Evil), giallo-inspired horror (Cold Hell), a zombie film (Patient Zero), and an historical epic (Narcissus and Goldmund).
For his latest film Hinterland, Ruzowitzky cross-breeds a war picture with a frothy horror flick, though between his over-reliance on CGI-splashed backdrops and a surprisingly superficial script, one suspects the end result resembles actual schlock far more than he intended.
Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Ruzowitzky’s film follows Captain Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu), who alongside his squad of surviving Austrian POWs, returns to Vienna in the hope of piecing his life back together. But as Peter attempts to make sense of how life has changed since his departure, one of his men is savagely killed, kickstarting a spate of grisly murders seemingly targeting his outfit, forcing Peter to chase down the killer before his own number comes up.
It’s certainly an intriguing premise, to take a seemingly familiar slasher film scenario and implant it on top of a post-war backdrop, but it’s tough to ignore how jarringly these two modes of movie cohere.
Ruzowitzky’s film is uniformly at its strongest when considering the horrors of post-war life away from its gimmicky style and formulaic genre indulgences. Watching Peter walk around Vienna, being offered drugs and young prostitutes, a picture is painted of a spiritual sickness, of most everyone doing whatever possible to escape the horrors of the war.
There’s also a lot said here about the dismissive attitude towards war veterans still relevant today, reinforcing Peter’s own lack of faith in both nation and God, the latter typified by a sequence in which he drunkenly “blasphemously urinates,” as one character puts it, on a church altar.
Beyond its exploration of a society utterly uninterested in dealing with PTSD, slivers of additional context define the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the era. The pathologist covering the murders, for instance, Dr Theresa Körner (Liv Lisa Fries), only appears to hold her position because all of her male colleagues went to war and, demonstrably, didn’t come back.
These thematic touchstones should prove plenty compelling, but mesh awkwardly with a more heightened horror movie throughline that, despite some decent post-mortem gore on offer, feels tepid and tension-diffuse. By the time proto-Saw-style traps show up, namely a man strung up while rats chew his legs to the bone, it all begins to feel a little too silly for its own good.
Silly but not fun, because Hinterland takes itself dead seriously, its earnest exploration of a soldier’s quest for meaning clashing harshly with the more salacious genre elements. Genre elements which, all in all, rarely land outside of basic horror/crime procedural tropes. The breadcrumb-following serial killer aspect is dull and over-familiar, right up to its predictable reveal, while the diversion into romance, as Peter and Theresa embark on a love affair, couldn’t feel more perfunctory.
Yet the biggest talking point for many will be Ruzowitzky’s stylistic chicanery. The overwhelming majority of the film appears to have been shot in front of a green screen, relying on extensive visual effects to create a surreal visage of Vienna that, chock with angular architecture, clearly owes a debt to the expressionist cinema of Germany’s past.
It’s certainly a neat idea with which to convey Vienna’s changing post-war landscape, but not one that feels technically accomplished. The low-poly renderings and frequently unmatched lighting between the actors and their backgrounds proves distracting in almost every scene.
In one unintentionally guffaw-inducing moment, Peter even says, “I don’t know if I fit into this environment,” while stood against one of the film’s most garishly incongruous digital backdrops. Only when the VFX disappears in a late-film moment, placing Peter in a 100% practical space, does its prior presence feel entirely justified, and only for the sake of contrast.
There is however some fitfully effectively visceral imagery throughout – particularly a silhouetted war nightmare that projects itself on the wall above Peter while he sleeps – and using VFX to create geometrically impossible building interiors is an interesting choice, but the creative art design just isn’t done justice by the moment-to-moment execution. The likes of Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had a better time with it over 15 years ago.
And this ostentatious stylistic choice really just distracts from a cast clearly trying their damnedest to convince, heavily constrained by the material though they are. Murathan Muslu turns in fine work as the world-weary Peter, while Liv Lisa Fries brings intrigue to Dr. Körner, even as her role is frustratingly underwritten given the flecks of a tortured past only whispered about.
All in all, Hinterland is fascinated with the mythmaking of wartime scenarios, of the lies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive, but doesn’t dig into this meaty thematic with nearly enough gumption. Instead, it hinges itself on a garden variety catch-the-killer plot which concludes with a clunky, underwhelming reveal, emblematic of a film where audiences are likely to be several steps ahead of the script on regular occasion. At least at 98 minutes in length, it doesn’t egregiously outstay its welcome.
Dafter than it ever wants to admit, Hinterland continues its director’s peculiar post-Oscar career, largely failing to meet the dishy appeal of its premise. Expressionistic art design is fatally undermined by distractingly dodgy VFX and a thin script in this disappointing offering from acclaimed filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.