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Stefan Ruzowitzky, it seems, has had enough of World War II.
The Austrian filmmaker, whose followed up hit German horror film Anatomy (2000) with the misfiring WW2 action-comedy All the Queen’s Men (2001) starring Eddie Izzard and Matt LeBlanc, and who won an Oscar for his acclaimed Holocaust drama The Counterfeiters (2007), has been reluctant since to revisit to the well-trodden conflicts of Europe in the 1930s and 40s.
Instead, Ruzowitzky has indulged in genre cinema, directing the heist movie Deadfall (2012) with Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde, or pandemic horror Patient Zero (2018) starring Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, and Matt Smith, as well as in small-screen action, helming episodes of Netflix’s German series Barbarians and Sky Germany’s apocalyptic sci-fi drama 8 Days.
But with Hinterland, his latest feature — which had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival on August 6 — Ruzowitzky returns to history. Not to WW2 but earlier, to the period after World War I. Austrian soldiers — including our hero Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) — return home to find nothing left. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which they fought and died for, has collapsed, leaving the small, but also the newly-democratic nation, the Austrian Republic, in its wake. All that was certain, stable, and safe is no more.
“When you do your research, when you read the literature of the time, you realize that the First World War was a much greater culture shock than the Second World War,” Ruzowitzky says. “After WWII people said ‘that was so horrible, let’s not talk about it. Let’s pretend everything’s fine.’ At the movies, you get escapism, Doris Day, and Marilyn Monroe. But in Europe after WWI you get Expressionism, Dadaism. You have new political movements: National Socialism, the Communist revolution. Politics becomes extreme because people think moderate politics just won’t work anymore. [The movie] plays at the time when everything is shattered and people are looking for a way to put the world back together again.”
“Preparing for the role, I ignored the 1920s when the film is set and read up instead about the time before, the time of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, before WWI,” says Muslu, a veteran Austrian actor whose credits include the 2014 drama Cracks in Concrete and the Netflix series Skylines. “Because Perg, when he comes back — traumatized, from the prison-of-war camp — he doesn’t understand what the world has become. His head’s messed up. He doesn’t really grasp the reality around him.”
Against this historic backdrop, Ruzowitzky adds a genre story: a serial killer in Vienna is murdering returning soldiers. Perg, a former cop, gets a shot at redeeming himself — and a chance at a real job amid mass unemployment — if he can bring the killer to justice. He finds an ally in Theresa Körner (Babylon Berlin star Liv Lisa Fries), a forensic doctor with her own history of trauma for whom the end of the patriarchal empire has meant new freedom and opportunity. Matthias Schweighofer (Army of the Dead), Marc Limpach (Bad Banks), and Aaron Friesz (Netflix’s Freud) also star.
“I find I quickly feel at home in the past, “says Fries. “Maybe because I’ve spent so much time there, through [Netflix/Sky period drama] Babylon Berlin, which is set just after this time, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. When I put on the costume, it’s like I can just step through a membrane, I make a little adjustment and I’m right back there in time.”
Harder for Fries, in playing Dr. Körner, was learning to speak a second language.
“I had a dialog coach to learn to speak Austrian, which is just a dialect of German but for me it felt like a completely foreign language,” Fries says, laughing. “I’m from Berlin and we speak really fast. But the Austrians slow everything down, the rhythm is completely different as is the way they form their words. It made me more deliberate, more serious, which fits the character. Also, I got a second set of eyebrows to wear over my own, which made me look more stern.”
But the most striking thing about Hinterland is its style. Instead of shooting on location or recreating 1920s Vienna with sets on a backlot, Ruzowitzky shot the entire film in the studio, with green screen backdrops that resemble the fractured, distorted paintings of German Expressionist artists Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. In place of a traditional perspective, the buildings, streets, cafes, and bars of the Austrian capital look like something out of a cubist nightmare.
“Usually when you use green screen when you create a digital set in the computer, you want everything to look as realistic as possible, even if you’re creating a fantasy world, you want the dragons or whatever, to look real,” says Ruzowitzky. “That wasn’t our goal here, we wanted things to look somehow wrong because the perspective of our sets is all mixed up.”
The goal, akin to that with the Expressionist paintings, is for the distorted sets to reflect the inner conflicts of the main character.
“The idea is to show the world as Perg experiences it as if everything is distorted, turned upside down, somehow wrong,” says Ruzowitzky. “We want to give you the feeling you are losing the ground beneath your feet. Stylistically, this is really an experimental film, just attached to a classic thriller plot.”
While the politics and plot of Hinterland might seem of another era — a young policeman mentions a new technique to match fingerprints to suspects, only for his boss to chastise him for “always following every cockamamie trend” — but for Ruzowitzky, the parallels to the world of 2021 are clear.
“I like to say the film is about toxic masculinity and what happens when a patriarchal society falls apart,” he says. “You have these men who come back from the war. In their eyes, they’ve failed: they couldn’t save their fatherland. Their families are destroyed, their wives have run away, they are cripples or invalids. They can’t get a job. Of course, they see the world as horrible and think everyone is conspiring against them. I think that’s a bit like today, where so many feel they have been abandoned. That they don’t matter, that eventually they’ll be replaced by a computer. And who start to imagine some nebulous dark forces are conspiring against them.”
Square One will release Hinterland in Germany on October 7. Beta Cinema is selling the film worldwide. The 2021 Locarno Film Festival runs through August 14.
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