The Dam (Staudamm): Film Review

Haunting but not overdramatic film finds a fresh perspective on a familiar subject.

A German town is haunted by a school massacre in Thomas Sieben's quietly beautiful drama.

MONTREAL – An intimate two-hander about the aftermath of a school killing spree in a small German town, Thomas Sieben's The Dam addresses the horror we feel at such events without trying to play psychotherapist to a whole culture. The quiet film operates on a modest emotional scale, bringing its protagonists together during a narrative fermata when neither can take much action, but is wholly successful on its own terms. American art house auds, accustomed to more sensational media attention to public massacres, should respond well to it.

Friedrich Mucke plays Roman, a young Munich man suffering from an unspecified malaise. He works at home for a lawyer, reading long depositions and court files so the busy man can listen to recordings instead of reading them. In the midst of a new case involving a boy who killed classmates and teachers, he learns that he doesn't have all the files and must go retrieve them from officials in the small town where the killings took place.

Bureaucratic tangles result in Roman having to spend multiple nights there, during which time he's befriended by Laura (Liv Lisa Fries). A classmate of the killer, she witnessed the spree and has spent months making her own sense of it -- sneaking in and taking photos of an abandoned school where the past refuses to fade. Unlike locals who vandalize Roman's car and urge the interloper to go home, Laura finds comfort in an outsider's presence and takes him to her private haunts.

The setting -- a snowy town whose children have died -- recalls that of Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, and although this film is far more minimal, it treads some of the same ground emotionally. Often, Sieben pairs still images of mountain scenery with audio of Roman's files, his calm reading two or three steps removed from the horrors of the day. While the conceit is puzzling -- what busy person would prefer listening to every word of dense texts over skimming through them at his own pace? -- it works as a device to drain the killings of bloody drama and refocus the mind on psychological scars. All elements of the production support this approach, which leaves the viewer less devastated than sadly pensive.

Production Company: Milk Film

Cast: Friedrich Mucke, Liv Lisa Fries, Dominic Raacke, Lucy Wirth

Director: Thomas Sieben

Screenwriters: Christian Lyra, Thomas Sieben

Producers: Felix Parson, Christian Lyra

Directors of photography: Jan Vogel, Christian Pfeil

Editor: Manuel Reidinger

No rating, 88 minutes