‘Kinderwald’: Napa Valley Review
German immigrants attempt to resettle in mid-1800s Pennsylvania but face strangely insurmountable odds in this offbeat drama
A vivid period setting and an abundance of lushly photographed outdoor locations lend Kinderwald an almost lyrical quality, ultimately upended by disconcertingly inconsistent performances and scripting. After more than a year on the international festival circuit, including a berth closing Slamdance earlier this year, the film may have exhausted most theatrical possibilities, although niche screenings via crowdsourcing platforms may be an alternative, along with home entertainment options.
Writer-director Lise Raven begins her second feature realistically enough, setting the drama in the 1850s, when parts of Pennsylvania were still frontier country. Along with her brother-in-law John (Frank Bruckner), widowed German immigrant Flora Linden (Emily Behr) arrives in Lancaster County to homestead a property deep in the woods with her two young sons Georgie (Ludwig Fischer Pasternak) and Caspar (Leopold Fischer Pasternak). Their little group sets up a tent and attempts to clear a plot of land far from the nearest village, but it’s difficult work for Flora and the little boys, much to John’s consternation. Mother and sons spend much of their time exploring and bathing in a nearby creek, sometimes observed by an unseen watcher, while John toils at a nearby mill to earn some cash.
When the boys vanish from the camp one afternoon, Flora and John assume they’ve wandered down to the creek, but an initial search doesn’t turn them up and by nightfall John begins desperately knocking on neighbors’ doors seeking help. The small community launches a widespread search over the next few days but finds no trace of the boys. Flora becomes increasingly desperate as the hours stretch into days without any indication of her children’s whereabouts. Neighbors are at first sympathetic and helpful, but grow disinterested and even hostile when they discover that Flora and John are unmarried. A slightly creepy young man named Tim (Max Cove) seems to take an inordinate interest in Flora and her kids, however, vowing that he’ll keep on looking for the boys.
Desperate and disconsolate, Flora is vulnerable alone at the encampment as John expands the search to surrounding hills and forests, always returning without news. A fancifully dressed freedman turns up one day and claims he can find the children with his mystical powers, but John angrily sends him off. Tim makes several visits when John is away and Flora feels encouraged by the somewhat unsettling intensity of his commitment to locating Georgie and Caspar. One day he surprises a couple of itinerant ruffians on the verge of assaulting Flora and forces them to leave the camp at gunpoint. When John goes missing on one of his extended forays, however, Flora is left to fend for herself at their camp in the middle of the woods.
Returning to feature filmmaking almost 20 years after 1995’s Low, Raven’s second installment in a trilogy relating to fairytale-inspired narratives about children disappearing into the woods never quite settles on a consistent tone. Elements of homesteading adventure, kidnapping thriller and transformational mystical drama all blend together, but don’t coherently coalesce.
Raven and co-writer Bruckner (who plays John Linden) pass up numerous opportunities to pursue these various plot threads, instead veering off with an increasingly reductive storyline that concludes the film on an unconventional and unconvincing note. In fact, many of the details of the film stretch credulity, including the location of the makeshift homesteading plot that the Lindens are trying to clear far from a convenient source of water, as well as the vaguely menacing neighbors who seem to appear out of the woods like phantoms.
Raven maintains a fairly naturalistic tone throughout the film, capably shot by DP William DeJessa almost entirely outdoors, often weaving through rural forests with handheld camera, and there’s no hint of fantasy or magical realism that would help explain the more improbable plot developments. Behr and Bruckner, both experienced actors, deliver performances that are notable primarily for their understatement, but remain adequate to the task.
Production company: Kinderwald Film
Cast: Emily Behr, Frank Bruckner, Ludwig Fischer Pasternak, Leopold Fischer Pasternak, Max Cove
Director: Lise Raven
Screenwriter: Lise Raven, Frank Bruckner
Producers: Stephanie Ayanian, Alexandra Navratil, Lise Raven
Executive producer: Lise Raven
Director of photography: William DeJessa
Production designer: Lenore Romas
Costume designer: Lenore Romas
Editor: Elyssa Cusimano
Not Rated, 90 minutes