Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015)

It’s always been interesting to get to know fellow film bloggers through their writing or vlogs. You come across a lot of great writers with a mutual passion for European genre and horror movies, yet some of them have a passion that goes beyond just talking about the movies; they make them too. Now, I confess to knowing nothing about filmmaking and I probably never will, but I can only imagine what kind of intense commitment and passion must go in to making a genre love letter like The Devil of Kreuzberg, a medium-length German gothic horror film from indie filmmaker, and I might point out fellow film blogger, Alexander Bakshaev.

I’ve followed Alex on Trash Film Addict for a few years now, so I was familiar with what kind of films he’s interested in and looking forward to how someone who knows a lot about vintage gothic horror would tackle a low-budget gothic horror film in 2015, and I’ve got to say I was impressed.

The Devil of Kreuzberg is a magnificent product, not just for a DIY film; it is a great looking and sounding film with good lighting, slick editing, and a memorable story (written by Pippo Schund), characters, and soundtrack. Even at only ~forty minutes (at least for the version I watched, as there seems to be several different run-times), the movie feels shorter than it is, which might make viewers still want more, but that serves viewers a lot better than making it too long. The closeout might seem a little abrupt, but it does end in a pretty cool way that reminded me of a Mercyful Fate song: Lady in Black (just with a lady in white in this case).

It does fulfill a lot of the gothic horror requisites (nightmare sequences, surreal editing, macabre but beautiful graveyards, somber and languid mood, etc.) without being set in a remote Victorian mansion (although we’ll always continue to return to that trope here). It’s important to mention that while there are recognizable influences that amount to a certain degree of pastiche, The Devil of Kreuzberg manages to be an enjoyable film with its own merits that doesn’t ape its influences or feel like a copycat or an overdone homage.

Alex produced and directed the film, and he plays a weird character, almost channeling Giovanni Lombardo Radice’s dodgy persona from Fulci’s Gates of Hell a little, lurching around seedy sex arcades. He’s the kill target for one of the two male leads Kurt, a hitman who’s beginning to denote an expressionless remorse for killing and wants out of the killing business after he's finally able to repay a debt to what I’m assuming is the mafia. Kurt and the other male lead Jakob are close like brothers, who drink often as a result of their personal conflicts; they often turn toward one another for solace. They’re stuck in a slump but trying to escape to what they feel they’ve earned for their past efforts: “sunshine, beach, hot women, good whisky,” but they haven’t gotten there yet, which is something I’m sure most of us can relate to.

Jakob and Kurt have a strong bond that feels natural, even though we don’t understand why or how they’ve happen to become so close; they’re just presented that way. We are introduced to each character separately for a while until they happen to meet up and instantly bond like old dear friends that haven’t seen each other in a long time. The two actors have good chemistry, which helps make it easy to accept that Jakob and Kurt are close like brothers.

The movie takes an amusing, stylish techno-song and dance break after Jakob and Kurt confess to essentially blowing off certain responsibilities important for their financial recovery, in what seems like a celebration of them abandoning their burdens, which I interpreted as a fuck-it-all here’s-to-‘bromance’ kind of sentiment. But Jakob still has one burden left that he wants to take care of, and that’s his girlfriend Linda Karnstein (Sandra Bourdonnec). Jakob’s been having terrible nightmares, and he’s entirely convinced that as long as Linda’s alive, he won’t be able to sleep; and he wants Kurt, being that he’s experienced with this sort of thing, to do the deed.

We don’t know a lot about Jakob and Linda’s back story other than that they were happy together at one point, and perhaps that is all that needs to be known. There’s a stylishly shot romance memory scene establishing that they were once very much in love.

At present, Jakob and Linda’s relationship has gone sour, his nightmares of her being a source of his growing disdain, dreading her and heavily convinced that she’s evil. In the nightmares he’s usually being overpowered, subdued, and defeated by Linda, almost kind of Succubus-like, in an erotic or provocative manner. Alex has an exceptional talent for creating nightmare sequences, as is most evidenced with a ritualistic scene with Linda and a few cohorts seemingly draining Jakob. The toll his nightmares have on him is convincing.

Bourdonnec is a powerful presence as a double-sided character of sorts, part of the time a benevolent woman who seems to want to revive her relationship with Jakob and a lot of other times an otherworldly succubus/devil/witch-like entity who cannot escape her destiny/curse to kill her lover. Despite being a modern woman, she imbues the supernatural, ancient, and esoteric when the camera is on her anytime she is in devil or nightmare mode just from a simple change in attitude or attire, such as the white dress during the cemetery climax, which has a Jean Rollin-like beauty to it. In an effective and imaginative scene in a graveyard during the day, we learn Linda is a descendant of the husband-killing Karnstein family, through a conversation with an ancestral spirit inhabiting a memorial statue. I approve of the Karnstein reference and what I like to think is also a The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) reference.

The filmmakers really do get the most out of natural location shooting. One of the most attractive shooting locales, aside from the graveyard, is the gothic looking metro station at Berlin Heidelberger Platz station, with its groin vault ceiling, that illustrates the benefit of shooting a gothic in Europe. This location leads up to a pivotal and tense moment between Linda and Kurt. In a standoff, Kurt seems ambivalent on shooting Linda, but the film presents an uncertainty as to if Kurt’s hesitance is due to remorse or the demonic death stare Linda shoots towards him. Alex uses fog and clever lighting to achieve an ominous effect, here, with Linda in her coat but with a hood that almost seems a little occultish.

I did appreciate a lot of the technical camera work, like the Jess Franco-like focusing techniques implemented throughout the film. Some of the camera dynamics make for more interesting shots without seeming too flashy. In one transition scene, where the story cuts to a new location, an upward camera angle, on dead tree branches, slowly tilts downward onto a character walking towards the camera, which just makes the scene intro more noteworthy.

There are hints of the giallo and Eurocrime aesthetic, but the film primarily presents itself as a modern gothic horror that still embodies a lot of what makes classic gothic horror work so well without too many of the trappings. With the supernatural elements stripped away this would probably be considered more of a character drama, and a good one at that. I do like to think that there’s a kind of uncertainty to the supernatural that guides the film’s descent into madness. It takes a more subtle approach to telling its story and doesn’t quite explain everything, but there’s enough presented for viewers to make their own conclusions as to whether or not the ghostly forces that drive this tragedy to its conclusion are real or not. The three main characters are going through personal conflicts, and both the supernatural and the realistic aspects of these conflicts seem to complement one another.

I also have to mention that while there is violence and there is sleaze, at the same time, there’s no blood or nudity, and that’s OK because this particular film doesn’t need those additions. If the intention is a sincere and enjoyable horror film that’s a proper progression of the gothic drama of yore, then it’s a successful job well done from the filmmakers. Here’s to more exposure for The Devil of Kreuzberg and many more films from Alexander Bakshaev

© At the Mansion of Madness 

The DVD of The Devil of Kreuzberg can be purchased from Carnie Films.

Be sure to check out the trailer. Who knows where that familiar music is from?

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