“The Red Spider” (dir. Marcin Koszalka, 90′ – Poland, 2015)
The feature debut of Polish documentarist and cameraman Marcin Koszalka, “The Red Spider” recounts in carefully reconstructed details the stories of Poland’s most infamous serial killers: the teenager Karol Kot and the fictitious “hoax” Lucjan Staniak. For allegorical purposes, the film intertwines the life trajectories of these two characters who terrorized Poland in the late 60s. Unlike what we see in the film, the two never acted together for the very simple reason that Lucjan Staniak turned out after 50 years to have never existed, and the true perpetrator who had left a trail of blood in his wake remains a mystery to this day. Karol (Filip Plawiak) leads a featureless life. Reluctantly going about his daily routine, he seems to be searching for higher dosages of adrenaline that his swimming pool diving fails to provide. When he accidentally discovers the murdered body of a young kid, he tracks down his assassin and, in his methodical obstinacy to kill, finds an almost father-like figure. Unable to carry out the senseless murders he’s so fascinated by, he will nonetheless take responsibility for every single one of them. Presented in the official competition, “The Red Spider” boasts its director’s visual prowess in the choreographic rendition of Krakow circa 1967 but struggles in its attempt to probe the sinister fascination the protagonist feels towards evil. While the serial killer’s surroundings and daily life come through vividly, his disturbed inner dimension fails to take any meaningful shape, leaving the spectator seriously puzzled as to what exactly drove Karol’s bloodlust.
“Heil” (dir. Dietrich Brüggemann, 103′ – Germany 2015)
One of the most hyped titles competing for the Crystal Globe in Karlovy Vary this year, “Heil” is a satirical look at German neo-nazis, but it is the kind of satire that lets its subject matter off the hook rather then one that pulls it apart. Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffman) is an Afro-German liberal writer advocating greater racial integration for German society. When kidnapped by Neo-Nazis and hit on the head, he becomes an unlikely supporter of their xenophobic cause and the new, clean face of their political campaign. Meanwhile, a respectable gang of powerful Nazi-sympathizers is plotting an armed insurrection, while a cop is trying to prevent the worst from happening and is joined by Klein’s pregnant wife and a former girlfriend. An “attractive” Neo-Nazi girl tells his admirer that he will consider being with him only if he invades Poland. This bunch of stereotypical and benevolent characters cross paths throughout what, at least on paper, is supposed to be a funny film. German humor notwithstanding, “Heil” is shabbily put together — the plot twists are hardly surprising and the satirical edge of the whole operation is not only dull, but it is also overtly reactionary. At a time when the rise of Neo-Nazi movements throughout Europe is anything but a joke, satire should demolish the basis upon which xenophobia thrives, not trivialize them. Also, to depict anti-fascists as even dumber than neo-nazis is a dubious choice indeed.
“Gold Coast” (dir. Daniel Dencik, 114′ – Denmark, 2015)
An ambitious but only partially successful attempt at regenerating the historical drama and its stiff formulas, “Gold Coast” is set in Danish Guinea in the aftermath of Denmark’s historic decision to make the slave trade illegal. Yet the gap between legislation and reality is precisely what the young idealist at the center of this film, Wulff Frederik (Jakob Oftebro), discovers at his own expenses once he leaves Copenhagen for the African colony to start a coffee plantation with the help of the colonized natives. Fascinated by the lush flora he finds there, the budding botanist soon discovers that behind this idyllic beauty lurks the most inhuman behaviors. Far from over, slavery is not only a profitable trade but also an immoral contagion that mows down anything that stands in its way — anti-colonialist feelings first. The first half of the film stands out for its atmospheric enactment of the peripheral space that separates beauty from horror, idealism from corruption. Helped by an immaculate score by Angelo Badalamenti, the film pushes towards Malick-esque heights but never quite gets there. The final crowning of the “white savior” by the grateful natives feels overtrite and most importantly at odds with the fruitful ambiguity that director Daniel Dencik artfully suggests at the beginning of his film.
“Shop on the High Street” (dir. Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos, 125′ – Czechoslovakia, 1965)
Fifty years since it was filmed, the Academy Award-winning “Shop on the High Street” was screened in Karlovy Vary in the “Out from the Past” section. A true gem in its own right, Kadar and Klos’ timeless masterwork is also one the very best films made about the moral blackout that allowed Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity to materialize itself into the worst atrocity ever committed against mankind. The film is set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, which like the rest of Europe had passively bowed to the Werhmacht without offering much resistance. Tono Brtko (Jozef Kroner) leads a very humble life and has no sympathy whatsoever towards the Germans, but when his brother-in-law offers him the chance to become an “Aryan inspector,” spurred by his wife, he reluctantly accepts. Tono is “assigned” the shop of an old, senile Jewish widower who’s too confused to understand what’s going on, and kindly agrees to hire him. The couple develops a heartfelt friendship, but Tono’s true reasons, which he skillfully hides from the poor woman, will be exposed by the impending pogrom. Faced with the choice between his own petty interests and the looming fate of the Jewish woman and her whole community, the protagonist of the film has to face the harshest of all judges: his own consciousness. A probing moral tale on the viciousness of conformism and the horrors of self-interests, the drama is as relevant today as it was half a century ago.
“Mallory” (dir. Helena Třeštíková, 97′ – Czech Republic, 2015)
Winner of the Crystal Globe for Best Documentary, “Mallory,” by veteran Czech documentary filmmaker Helena Třeštíková, is an interesting if not exceptional exercise in humanistic minimalism. The documentary follows the strenuous recovery of the titular character, an ex heroine addict struggling to inaugurate a new chapter in her troubled life. Homeless, Mallory sleeps in a parked car with her partner while her son is in a foster home. Determined not to give up, she looks for a job, finds it, loses it and finds another one. Along with her partner, she also manages to find a small flat, which they share with a rat with a penchant for cigarettes. Without indulging in any self-help rhethoric, the director shows us how even the most desperate life is still worth living. Mallory rarely feels sorry for herself, and so does the director who never victimizes the life she’s documenting with her camera. Her struggle to give meaning to her life, however filled with obstacles, is in fact framed without any humanitarian condescension. So much so that Mallory’s everyday preoccupations and vexations, decidedly of a rather harsh nature, feel nonetheless close enough to the kind we all experience in the never-ending challenge that life itself is.