Making its world premiere in Busan’s increasingly creative Flash Forward section, Schmitke is one part mystery, one part character study adding up to a wholly unusual serio-comic portrait of a man finding himself in middle age. German character actor Peter Kurth holds the film’s slightly diffuse final act together on the strength of his flustered deadpan performance and co-writer director Stepan Altrichter demonstrates a knack for great visual and aural storytelling. But as he reaches for something deeper nearing the film’s conclusion he loses a grip, a bit, on the material. Technically creative and uniformly excellent, Schmitke is likely to be a hit on the festival circuit for the foreseeable future; limited European release could be a possibility.
Wind turbine engineer and man of few words Julius Schmitke (Kurth) is an anonymous man leading an anonymous life working for a German power company. He is saddled with an inept co-worker, Gruber (Johann Jurgens, perfect in his obnoxious slackerhood) in the department of two that he runs, but despite the man’s uselessness Schmitke seems happy enough in his existence, if his perpetual hangdog expression is a happy one. He’s not easily flustered, even when his über-sustainable neo-hippie daughter Anne drops in uninvited and proceeds to liven up his precisely manicured apartment with “positive energy” in the form of scented candles and randomly tossed printed fabrics. When he’s ordered to the small Czech town of Crimeleva in the Ore Mountains to fix the most ominous looking busted turbine in the history of power, he hits the road with the chatty Gruber and finds himself in a bit of a tailspin. After their first night in the sleepy hamlet, Gruber and the work van go missing leaving Schmitke to mingle with the odd townsfolk—chiefly the enigmatic, wealthy hotel owner Julie (Helena Dvorakova) and the philosophical geologist Kryspin (Peter Vrsek). While all this is happening, Schmitke hears news of mysterious Bear-man that has wandered into the woods and who won’t come out. He tries, and mostly fails, to fix the windmill himself and comes out of the whole ordeal a different man. Maybe.
Schmitke is a typically European delicate comedy that relies on irony and odd coincidences for its gentle laughs. Occasionally Scandinavian in its flashes of absurdity, the film’s first half trundles along in an offbeat rhythm that’s supported by a suitably peculiar soundtrack and impeccable, evocative sound design (supervised by Katharina Grischkowski) that emphasizes the otherworldly grinding and groaning of the broken windmill. The discordant noise almost palpably hovers over the Czech countryside, lending an aural element to Schmitke’s strange situation. Altrichter and cinematographer Cristian Pirjol’s visuals do the rest: the organized, geometric, scientific spaces of Schmitke’s German home contrast with the misty, unruly, wildness of the forest around Crimeleva, telling half the story.
But Schmitke loses its way somewhat in its latter half, relaying less on the low-key humor and Kurth’s pokerfaced charms and more on grander statements, murky they may be. Is the film an examination of the clash between science and nature? Is Schmitke the Bear-man, or could he be? Did the forest swallow Gruber somehow? The draw of the forest and the mysteries inherent in it are a major narrative puzzle piece; Schmitke seems drawn to both if his curiosity with the brush he passes on his way home is any indication. The story ends on an ambiguous note, not necessarily a bad thing and proof that Altrichter is comfortable leaving some questions unanswered.
Production company: credo:film
Cast: Peter Kurth, Johann Jurgens, Peter Vrsek, Helena Dvorakova, Johanna Schmidmajerova, Lana Cooper
Director: Stepan Aldrichter
Screenwriter: Jan Fusek, Tomas Koncinsky, Stepan Aldrichter, based on the story by Koncinsky
Producer: Tomas Vach, Susann Schimk, Jorg Trentmann
Director of photography: Cristian Pirjol
Production designer: Barbara Kacena, Nadine Schmidt
Costume designer: Elisabeth Weiss, Barbara Kacena
Editor: Philipp Wenning
Music: Johannes Repka
No rating, 97 minutes