'The Council of Birds' ('Zerrumpelt Herz'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
An odd duck

Atmosphere outweighs narrative in this ominous and brooding cabin-in-the-woods drama

VENICE -- Atmosphere reigns in The Council of Birds (Zerrumpelt Herz), the debut film of German director Timm Kroeger. Set mostly in 1929, this story involves three friends who venture into the foreboding German forests, where their composer buddy is supposedly waiting for them in his cabin. Except, he’s not there when they get there. This beautifully appointed period film looks like a landscape of Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich come to life, and there’s plentiful music and very solid soundwork to further heighten the atmosphere. But where it has style and a sense of mystery in spades, it lacks any kind of tension derived from the narrative proper and any sense of meaning is only hinted at in the film’s austere epilogue. Beyond German-language Europe, festivals are the likeliest outlets for this Venice Critics’ Week title, with some crossover possible to VOD markets elsewhere.

A voice-over at the start reads out an invitation letter from the newly divorced young composer Otto Schiffmann (Christian Bluemel) to his friends, who are invited to his modest forest cottage. As the film opens, his guests, the couple Paul and Anna Leinert (Thorsten Wien, Eva Maria Jost) and their friend, Willi (Daniel Krauss) have already entered the woods for the last, four-hour leg of their journey, which they have to do on foot. Once arrived at Otto’s Spartan cabin, the threesome discovers he’s not there so they have to wait for their composer friend there, even making dinner from what little there is available.

The next morning, they go out looking for Otto nearby, and again Kroeger gives us elegant Steadicam shots that follow the three, all in period-appropriate dress, as they make their way between the trees and alongside a lake. The camera drinks in the woodland's natural colors, from gauzy greens to earthen tones, with occasional white flashes that are either Anna’s dress or small pockets of mist, almost suggesting she’s a fleeting vision or a ghost. For all three characters, their wander into the wood represents an entry from the (unseen) civilized world into the world of practically unspoiled wild, that much is clear. The swelling orchestral score further cranks up the enigmatic and shadowy atmosphere, though it would be hard to say it’s pregnant with meaning, since any clearly readable significance is absent. The birds of the English-language title, for example, seem to sing Otto's as yet only half-composed symphony, according to Paul, though there's no further evidence about whether that is true or what that may mean. 

Otto is back at his cottage when the trio returns, about half an hour in, but instead of explaining his absence, things get even more mysterious since the solitary composer doesn’t talk and simply falls asleep. In a heart-stopping moment, after the two male friends have gone out again for a walk, the feverish Otto opens his eyes as Anna washes his legs and arms. The lone, regular ticking of the pendulum clock drops away in shock as well, and what happens next both surprises and yet seems entirely logical, especially in hindsight. 

Kroeger is very good at creating a suggestive atmosphere, though the part of the audience for which that’ll be enough to sustain interest in an otherwise quite slight film for almost its entire running will likely be small. Most of the odd occurrences have no real explanations, the characters are archetypes if that, and what little does happen is only put in context by the time the epilogue comes around and there’s a short exchange about the nature of meaning between two of the characters. (This coda, shot on the wide-open expanse of a low-tide beach and thus visually very different from the forest sequences, might have worked better as a flash-forward at the start of the film, so viewers can contextualize things from the start.)

However, there’s no denying that from a pure craft point of view, this graduation project is a success, with both the film’s looks and use of sound all meticulously planned (there’s even what sounds like surface noise on the soundtrack to suggest that the film’s projected on 35mm, though it was shown in DCP format at its Venice premiere). The actors are all appropriately as stiff as their starched collars, except, for course, when they unexpectedly let themselves go, with equally unexpected consequences. 

Production company: Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg

Cast: Thorsten Wien, Eva Maria Jost, Daniel Krauss, Christian Bluemel, Andreas Conrad, Theo Leutert

Director: Timm Kroeger

Screenplay: Roderick Warich, Timm Kroeger

Producer: Viktoria Stolpe

Director of photography: Roland Stuprich

Production designer: Cosima Vellenzer

Costume designers: Sarai Feuerherdt, Romy Mueller

Editor: Jann Anderegg

Music: John Guertler


No rating, 80 minutes