May 29, 2014
While the Germans have had quite arguably a greater impact on horror cinema than any other nation in the world, by the time of the Nazi era, the Teutons had more or less completely abandoned the genre. Indeed, aside from Niklaus Schilling’s Nachtschatten (1972) aka Nightshade and Ulli Lommel’s Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973) aka The Tenderness of Wolves and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), German New Cinema—the greatest and most important German film movement of the post-WWII era—did not really produce any notable horror films. As conservative auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg argued in his magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), post-WWII Germans felt the need to dispose of their national myths as their nation’s entire kultur had been supposedly tainted by Uncle Adolf and his merry men, hence the obsession with far-left politics, revolutionary terrorism, feminism, and other cultural ills among filmmakers associated with German New Cinema. After all, one cannot forget that the greatest Aryan horror novelist of the early 20th century, Hanns Heinz Ewers—a remarkable satanic Renaissance man of sorts who was one of the first people to recognize film as a legitimate artistic medium, penned the screenplay for the first independent film in cinema history, The Student of Prague (1913), and whose 1911 masterpiece horror novel Alraune was cinematically adapted no less than five times (not to mention the fact that the Hollywood Species films are a reworking of Alraune)—was a National Socialist party member and wrote a biographical novel on Nazi martyr Horst Wessel, which was later adapted into the early NS propaganda film Hans Westmar (1933). Luckily, a handful of German filmmakers like Jörg Buttgereit (Nekromantik, Der Todesking) and Robert Sigl (Schrei - denn ich werde dich töten! aka School’s Out, Hepzibah - Sie holt dich im Schlaf aka The Village) decided to create their own new myths in the Teutonic tradition of mystifying angst, with the latter’s work Laurin (1989) aka Laurin: A Journey Into Death being arguably one of the greatest and most underrated films of German film history as a visually exquisite cross-genre work with an intricate and labyrinthine plot that is depicted from the innocent perspective of a little girl.
Of course, as a Gothic fairytale-like period piece set in an exotic location (despite ostensibly set in a 19th century German seaside village, the film was actually shot in Hungary) that is like the Czech arthouse vampire fantasy masterpiece Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) aka Valerie a týden divů meets Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) meets Lucio Fulci’s unconventional giallo Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), Laurin is not your typical horror film, as a work of nearly perfectly paced celluloid elegance of the timeless sort that does not wallow in contemporary postmodern diseases like irony, cynicism, or parody. Indeed, one would never suspect that auteur Robert Sigl was only 25-years-old when he started production on the film, which ultimately earned him the Bavarian Film Award in 1989 for ‘Best New Director,’ thus becoming the youngest filmmaker to ever earn the coveted prize (he was also nominated for the Max-Ophüls-Award the same year). Directed by a man who once stated, “I hate the Christian church and especially the Pope,” Laurin may be rather traditional in terms of aesthetic style and storytelling, but the work has unflinching anti-Christian and even homoerotic undertones despite being a sensitively assembled film where the protagonist is a little girl. Indeed, like Richard Blackburn’s lesbian-themed Lovecraftian vampire flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and Philip Ridley’s 1950s-set rural American bloodsucker work The Reflecting Skin (1990), Laurin is a decidedly dark and sexually disturbing neo-fairytale where a child is forced to grow up due to horrifying circumstances that have entered her life relating to death and perversion. Shot in a rural area of Hungary that apparently had not changed in over a hundred years with a mostly all-Hungarian cast, Laurin is an otherworldly Teutonic- Magyar celluloid Nachtmahr of great beauty and cultivated brutality where the hinterlands become a place of mystifying horrors and secretive sexual savagery.
Little Laurin (Dóra Szinetár) is watching her seafarer father Arne (János Derzsi) grab her beauteous mother Flora Anderson’s (Brigitte Karner) bosoms from her crib. Not surprisingly, Laurin’s grandmother Olga (Hédi Temessy) yells at her son Arne for manhandling his wife in front of their daughter. Of course, the little girl does not mind because she can tell her parents are deeply in love. As a man who is constantly away due to his job, Arne is about to head to the sea once again, but he does not realize that this will be the last time he sees his wife. Before Arne leaves, Flora reveals to him that she is pregnant, which brings the seafarer great joy. Though Arne promises his wife that, “Someday, I will take you along and we’ll sail down the river and out into the deep blue sea,” fate has different and rather unfortunate plans for the two true lovers. Indeed, not long after seeing her husband off as he sails away to god knows where, Flora spots a man fiddling with the corpse of a young gypsy boy. Incidentally, the same gypsy boy banged on little Laurin’s window for help only minutes before, but she was too scared to answer the scared little boy's pleas for help. The next day, a peasant man finds Flora’s corpse floating in the water next to the bridge, with a jewelry box that the dead woman's husband had given her shimmering through the water from the bottom of the lake. Grandmother Olga is so angered by Flora’s dubious death that she damns god, but little does she realize that one of god's servants' progeny was involved with her daughter-in-law's tragic death. When Laurin goes to look at her mother's corpse at night, she notices a tear trickling down her cold postmortem progenitor's pale yet strangely beautiful cheek. Grandmother Olga attempts to setup Arne with a hot redheaded single mother named Frau Greta Berghaus (Kati Sír) who has a little boy named Stefan (Barnabás Tóth) that Laurin is friends with, but the stoic seafarer refuses to remarry as he still loves Flora. Naturally, Arne eventually goes back to the sea and once again leaves his daughter Laurin and mother Olga helpless.
Around the same time Arne leaves, his virtual doppelganger arrives. Indeed, Laurin mistakes the local Pastor’s (Endre Kátay) son Van Rees (Károly Eperjes) for her own father when he arrives on ship. Van Rees is a secretive and seemingly impenetrable man with a somewhat flat affect who becomes Laurin and Stefan’s schoolteacher and he seems to develop a special interest in both of them for varying reasons. When Stefan is bullied in class by a couple boys, his mother Greta invites the teacher over for dinner, but on Van Rees' arrival at the house, he overhears the young mother talking with his Pastor father. It turns out that the Pastor has been carrying on an affair with Greta Berghaus and Stefan is his bastard son, thus making him Van Rees’ half-brother. Van Rees’ mother died when he was just a boy and his Pastor father, who never got over the death of his wife, abused his son during his childhood, hence his disdain for religion and rather peculiar relationship with both his father and young children. While the Pastor is such a puritanical man that he refuses to have mirrors in house because they are purportedly “instruments of human vanity,” that does not stop him from screwing a young woman that, in terms of age, could be his daughter. Eventually, Stefan disappears and Laurin goes looking for her friend, which eventually leads her to theorizing that Van Rees is involved as she finds her missing friend's glasses in the mouth of an evil-looking black wolfdog owned by the Van Rees family. Indeed, in an earlier and rather disturbing scene in the film, Van Rees crudely gazes at his ½ bastard brother Stefan’s naked body from an outdoor window, as if turned on by the little lad. Eventually, Laurin finds a secret door in the floor at some ruins near the local church that leads to a purgatory-like basement ‘sex dungeon’ of sorts where Van Rees takes his little boys. While Van Rees eventually finds Laurin hiding in a closet and states to her in a somewhat sinister fashion, “I don’t like having little girls spy on me,” the little girl manages to escape his limp-wrist pansy grasp. Of course, knowing that the little girl is aware that he is a pernicious pedophile serial killer, Van Rees stalks Laurin all the way back to her house and intends to kill her slasher-style with a knife. Through a dream-sequence, it is revealed that Laurin’s mother actually died by accident after falling off the bridge while attempting to escape from Van Rees upon spotting him carrying the dead gypsy boy. To scare Van Rees, Laurin has the bright idea to wear her dead mother’s cloak, thus tricking the killer into thinking he is seeing a ghost of the women whose death he inadvertently caused. Indeed, Van Rees panics upon seeing Laurin dressed in the ghostly cloak, thereupon causing him to fall backwards down some stairs and eventually die in a freak accident after a large nail sticking in the wall enters the back of his skull and penetrates his diseased brain. After Van Rees dies, blood trickles from his eyes as if he is weeping as a result of his miserable childhood and in sympathy for all the children he has killed. As for Laurin, she feels empowered by wearing her belated mother's cloak, especially after using it to kill her mother's killer.
Interestingly, apparently director Robert Sigl received an exceedingly negative response from both students and professors while attending Munich Film Academy due to the homoerotic and even incestuous nature of his films, with his 20-minute short Der Weihnachtsbaum (1983) aka The Christmas Tree being deemed especially offensive due to its supposed depiction of pathological sadomasochistic relationship between a father and son. In an interview with the director featured in the book Caligari's Heirs: The German Cinema of Fear after 1945 (2006), Sigl stated regarding his less than ideal experience at film school and his decisive desire to change his style for his first feature so as to make it more accessible to a more general audience: “I guess some people felt personally offended because of the psychosexual symbolism and theme. In LAURIN, I packaged all this by phrasing it in the psychosexual terms of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, which made it more palatable to a broader audience. This way, it's more subliminal. Because I do want to reach a lot of people, even entertain them. But that doesn't matter much in one's first efforts as a filmmaker; they're usually more about refining one's style anyway. As a matter of fact, an idiosyncratic style doesn't seem to be much in demand these days. Someone like Polanski, Lynch, or Cronenberg would have a hard time if they were starting out today.” Indeed, Laurin is like the Brothers Grimm meets Leopold and Loeb as set in a living Caspar David Friedrich painting, which makes for a shockingly aesthetically fruitful combo that can be appreciated by both adults and children alike. While Sigl’s first feature Laurin was a hit upon its release and went on to develop an international cult following of sorts, the director has yet to direct anything else nearly as interesting, as if he was perennially jinxed by the greatness of his debut film. Aside from a couple TV movies, including the Scream rip-off Schrei - denn ich werde dich töten! (1999) aka School’s Out, which was distributed in the U.S. by Fangoria, Sigl has mainly spent most of career directing miniseries, including the Twin Peaks-esque Stella Stellaris (1993), as well as episodes of popular German TV series like Lexx (1997-2002) and Tatort (1969–current). Apparently, the last episode of Tatort that Sigl directed caused much controversy in Deutschland, as it featured an incestuous sex scene. Why Sigl decided to abandon the glorious path he created with his masterpiece Laurin and went on to direct less mature works is questionable, but at least the director demonstrated for a moment during the late-1980s that somewhere deep down in the German collective unconscious lays the dark legacy of the Brothers Grimm. Sort of like an (anti)Heimat take on Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931) in its depiction of a pathetic and mentally peturbed pedophile serial killer, Laurin is undoubtedly one of the sickest celluloid fairytales ever made as a work depicting a man lusting over and assumedly killing his own prepubescent ½ brother, yet Sigl directed the film in such a carefully cultivated, nuanced, and poetic fashion that it never seems like cheap horror trash, thus reminding the viewer why Germany is the same nation that produced H.H. Ewers and F.W. Murnau.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:32 AM
Soiled Sinema 2007 - 2013. All rights reserved. Best viewed in Firefox and Chrome.