MUNICH – Even though Hell takes its title from the German meaning of the word, as in lots of light, its English connotation would have been just as apt.
Life is indeed hell in 2016, after the world’s temperature has risen by 10 degrees Celsius and water and food have become so scarce that the last few survivors fight mercilessly for scraps or drops.
Director Tim Fehlbaum uses this bleak scenario for a visually bright but atmospherically dark thriller that is built around its characters’ common distrust during the first half, then switches genres by introducing a common enemy. And while this Swiss-German co-production’s straightforward storytelling and white-knuckle suspense are commendable, its success will in large part depend on how much agony and human deceit audiences are willing to take.
International prospects for festivals (especially those with a genre-bent) and home-entertainment should be sunny, while art-house success may be elusive. The film opens in Germany September 22.
The story is told through the eyes of Marie (Hannah Herzsprung), who, together with her sister Leonie (Lisa Vicari) and male-acquaintance Phillip (Lars Eidinger), sets out towards the Bavarian mountains in a beat-up, but nearly lightproof Volvo, hoping for habitable conditions. Another drifter (Stipe Ercek) tries to rob them, but instead they forge an uneasy alliance – useful for all, but fraught with deep distrust. While everyone is weary of the enemy within, the real challenge comes when they head into an ambush planned and executed by people with far more sinister thoughts and even less scruples.
Fehlbaum has created a dense atmosphere that masterfully switches from the characters’ scheming and quarreling inside the darkened car to the brightly lit outside, where danger can come from any direction. The director proves especially adept at keeping a strong sense of suspense in the constellation of his characters, giving us just enough information to make them believable, but never allowing us to clearly know what they will do.
This is especially true in one scene in which Leonie suggests to her older sister that they ditch the two men, who are trying to get some gasoline from a car-wreck, just yards away. Marie, who, up to this moment, seemed like the moral center of the group, hesitates just long enough to make us believe that she could conceivably condemn the two to a certain death, taking away the last remnants of an ethical safety net the film still possesses.
The main actors are superb, with Herzsprung delivering a strong turn as unlikely heroine, but the real scene stealer is ‘70s art-house star Angela Winkler (The Tin Drum), who enters in the second half as matriarch to a rural farming family that has found even more grueling, but more effective ways to adapt than the four protagonists.
The camera work by Markus Forderer and director Fehlbaum manages to create the perfect ugly mood for almost any scene. Their decision to expose the camera to more light than usual for the sunny scenes but not to light shadowy moments at all, might, work well in a modern cinema but may necessitate some digital re-mastering for home-entertainment. This is not helped by Andreas Menn’s overly fast editing of the more violent scenes, which could certainly have been taken down a notch.
In this sense, hell could conceivably be billed as The Road meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (minus the hardware), since it’s a truly violent film that shows little, if any violence. It attacks us with desolation and humanity’s ability to deceive, but also makes us believe that we have witnessed atrocities that were never in any frame.
Heike Lange’s sparse production design is as fitting as it is believable with buildings, streets and cars really looking as if they had been teleported to a hotter planet, while Leonie Leuenberger’s costumes create a modern Bedouin- look for the baking climate.
Venue: Munich International Film Festival
Production companies: Caligari Film- und Fernsehproduktions GmbH, Vega Film AG, SevenPictures Film
Cast: Hannah Herzsprung, Lars Eidinger, Stipe Erceg, Angela Winkler, Lisa Vicari
Director: Tim Fehlbaum
Screenwriters: Tim Fehlbaum, Oliver Kahl, Thomas Wobke
Producers: Thomas Wobke, Gabriele M. Walther
Executive producer: Roland Emmerich
Directors of photography: Markus Forderer, Tim Fehlbaum
Production designer: Heike Lange
Music: Lorenz Dangel
Costume designer: Leonie Leuenberger
Editor: Andreas Menn
No rating, 87 minutes