My review of the deeply strange fairy tale/folk horror is over at Flickering Myth and below…
Rainer Sarnet’s beautifully strange rumination on love and loss set against a pagan backdrop of fairy-tale and mythological themes is a compelling journey through an unsettling dream landscape. The intense black and white cinematography calls to mind the work of filmmakers as diverse as Bergman, Lynch and Carl Theodore Dreyer, but Sarnet’s film is completely of itself, and manages to create its own fully formulated world.
Set in a surreal version of 19th Century Estonia, local peasant workers survive hunger and the cold through a mixture of begging, borrowing and stealing. Sometimes, in order to cheat death or the Devil, they are even persuaded to give up their souls to the animistic kratts; odd work constructs made from scrap metal and animal bones. These proto-robotic creations bring a sense of dark humour to the film, ambling along and calling out in disembodied voice cantankerous instructions and bleak warnings. The film brings out this working life clearly and in explicit detail. It is as if the day to day concerns of keeping the village in order just happens to involve these jumbled up combinations of souls and objects.
Cinematographer Mart Taniel handles these oddities in entrancing tone and style, with the detail informing the greater world in complex and bewildering beauty. The film places the viewer knee deep in the muck and the mire of the ancient forest village, perfectly bringing to life a place of intoxicating wonder. There is a profound tone of phantasmagoria working alongside the grotesque that makes the villagers reactions to life in the world complete and, in some sense, real and understandable.
Amidst this deeply strange backdrop is what at first sounds like a traditional folk tale. Liina (Rea Lest) is in love with local village worker Hans, who is in turn infatuated with a visiting German baroness. Liina is willing to go to any lengths to win her love, as is Hans, and the whole plot of unrequited love gets mixed up with the greater goings on of life, death and metaphysics. Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England also managed to create this mix of the workings of daily activity with magic and belief interacting in the foreground, and November shares that film’s trippy observation of dream reality from the bottom up.
Pagan philosophy and Christian theology both have sway in this world, as does the threat of the mysterious Plague, an ever-present force, able to take on different forms – at one point appearing as a goat, fans of The Witch will be pleased to see – and keeping the environment on constant edge. The presence of Dieter Laser (The Human Centipede) as the father of Hans’ crush is an archly amusing cue to genre and horror fans that not everything is to be taken at face value. Laser, for his part, plays the role with a wry remove, seemingly always on the verge on a raised eyebrow, but never distracting from the greater show of the dreamscape at large.
In terms of storytelling, Sarnet clearly takes cues from Expressionism, with a disorienting visual style of greater import than dialogue or structure of scene. This combined with the evocative music by Jacaszek and a distinct use of sound, makes the film as beguiling and enticing as any darkly furnished vision of both the up-close and personal, and the beyond.