Début filmmaker’s surreal mystery set in the Czech countryside is a baffling take on finding identity.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 95 minutes
Something is a little off in the German-language Schmitke, which opens in Berlin – where there is much talk of a “Bear-Man” who has been discovered in the wild – and closes deep in the forests of the former Sudetenland, on the Czech side of the border with Germany. Right at the beginning, when we first meet the title character, a middle-aged, unsmiling engineer (Peter Kurth) working for Deutsche Windenergie, we notice this German company has English-language posters on which the word “engineers” is misspelled. It is a small point, but if you notice it, you will immediately recognise that the world of the film is deliberately warped and confused, and things quickly get even weirder.
Julius Schmitke’s daughter arrives out of the blue and (literally) sets up camp inside his house, adding a statue of Buddha to his furnishings and trying to convince him to reconsider his nondescript existence. At work, his boss decides to send him and his loudmouth assistant, Thomas (Johann Jürgens), to the Ore Mountains to fix a broken wind turbine, and once the two arrive in the backwoods of civilisation, where the fog hangs thick and the forest almost becomes a character, everything they knew is turned upside down.
Schmitke is unconventional and uncategorisable, striving simultaneously to be a gentle contemplation of the mysteries of nature and a madcap absurdist thriller. Directed by the young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter, it is impossible to ever get a firm grip on the events that, as revealed during the final credits, may all just be a big dream.
The opening scenes at the energy company in Berlin have moments reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s work, especially when a crowd of people, expressionless and motionless, intently focuses on the only object in the room that is in motion. For the most part, Kurth’s imperturbable, deadpan performance is very effective, as it counters the actions of others in unpredictable ways. But the major plot point driving the narrative forward – the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Thomas – gets lost in the thick, mysterious atmosphere that Altrichter so painstakingly constructs.
With the exception of Julie (Helena Dvořáková), who runs a fancy hotel on a hilltop, it is impossible to describe anyone in the film as devoid of eccentricity, and the director emphasises the peculiarities of the Czech rural population in particular with sly digs at their language (Julie’s surname is the unpronouncable Řeřichová, the town is Chřmelava) and customs (upon arriving in the tiny town, Thomas proclaims they have travelled back in time; and in the bar, a deadly silence fills the room when Schmitke asks for tea instead of beer).
The style of the film may perhaps be best described as a kind of provincial surrealism mixed with poetic absurdism that leads to scenes such as a GPS system breaking down by changing its mind (“turn right… no… turn left…”) and a wind turbine that seemingly stops and starts just to provoke and confound the rational Schmitke.
Schmitke is no Homo Faber, but in the end, he does show some potential for having a fuller appreciation of the inexplicable. It is just a shame that the film itself nearly collapses in the process. It switches gears too rapidly from broad comedy to observational minimalism, and especially the second half of the film feels like a slow-motion implosion that is only flimsily sustained by the comical sounds of the Hammond organ on the soundtrack and the screeching sounds of the wind turbine struggling to rotate its blades.
Some of the film’s most intelligent details are its small moments of humour, like when Schmitke and Thomas get keys to rooms ‘1’ and ‘3’, clearly signalling impending misfortune, or the unexpected words of wisdom of an old lady at the bar, or the subtle repetition of incidents suggesting we may either be seeing different shades of the same event or people running on a hamster wheel.
There are few answers – even the questions are in short supply – and this lack of concrete information will frustrate many a viewer looking for a sturdy narrative backbone.
Unfortunately, the abundance of shots of the forest and the director’s unwillingness to make language more of an issue (everybody in this Czech hamlet can apparently speak almost perfect German, which leads to absolutely no discomfort, ever) hurt the audience’s involvement in this film that should have been much shorter than its 100-minute running time. Also, a shot in which Schmitke walks off-screen through heavy fog in a fixed long shot could have been utilised much more effectively, for example, by having him re-enter from the other side, at the same or at another location.
Schmitke is an experimental but quirky take on finding oneself. It is not always successful at keeping us engaged, and its second act is unnecessarily slow, but the rich soundtrack and unflappable performance of the lead actor will make this an interesting addition to any festival lineup.
Viewed at the 22nd International Film Festival Prague (Febiofest)