By Jim Bliesner
The fourth annual German Film Festival in San Diego opened on October 11 with “Das Finstere Tal” (The Dark Valley). It is an Austrian Western set in the Tyrol Mountains on the Italian border. The film, directed by Austrian Andreas Prochaska,was the winner of eight German Film Awards.
“Das Finstere Tal” centers on a small family cult whose leader has six sons. They carry out a reign of terror upon the members who seek sanctuary in the camp, cradled in a crevice of the steep Tyrol Alps. It is also revealed that the elderly patriarch asserted “first tasting rights” on all new brides, on their wedding night no less.
A black coated, Winchester armed American cowboy disguised as an Ansel Adams type photographer appears in the camp seeking a winters’ season of photos. The true motivation for the cowboy photographer’s appearance there is that he had witnessed the ravaging of his own mother many years before.
One by one the sons of the elder mysteriously disappear only to be found later with nails in their eyes and crushed between timbers. Thomas Kiennast (Austrian), the Director of Photography, slowly takes us through a phenomenal series of almost still shots, often as dark as the Russian Tarkovsky, framed and composed like a series of paintings on a museum wall. You could stop the film anywhere and have a perfectly structured image to look at, each with its own story.
The music by German composer Matthais Weber stitches the images together flawlessly. The exaggerated sound of horse hooves crunching snow, boots with spurs (no less) jangling across thick planked floors, rifle shots thudding through timber and various shattered skulls splashing blood can be heard above the electronic maze of sound woven behind the action.
The intensity of the revenge killings speeds up in a showdown–no corral but rather in a small shed, deep in the snow covered woods where the avenger has been laying in wait. He slithers under the floor boards while the shotgun wielding sons rip huge holes through the log walls. Slowed by having to reload while the superior artillery of the American allows him to just cock and shoot, the sons are soon screaming in the red stained snow.
After dispatching the sons the American confronts the old man, now realizing, ironically, as he puts a bullet in his heart that in fact the old man may just be his father; the inevitable twist of plot at the end of an “art” film. In the spring the American rides out of camp, while the survivors stand pondering their future without the tyrannical elder.
A panel discussion after the viewing was lead by actress and moderator Elizabeth Rohm. The Director was asked by one audience member, “What emotions were you trying to project in the film?” His answer was that he wanted to build empathy for the cowboy and his quest for justice but also wanted to show that achieving justice by killing seven people and destroying the livelihood of a whole village has emotional consequences as well.
Composer Weber accentuated this goal by inserting a plaintive Negro spiritual “Sinnerman, Where you gonna run to….all on that day. I run to the rock. Please hide me…The rock cried out. I can’t hide you, all on that day…”
So what makes this film, adapted from the first novel written by German writer Thomas Willmann, a Western? As far as I could tell, it’s the horses, guns, downtrodden folks clothed from head to toe hanging sullenly in the background, the guy who rides into town at the beginning and rides out at the end and lots of folk who are dead in between.
It takes a bit of adjusting to reconcile that these scenes are happening in the Alps and not the Sierras. In that setting they become almost surreal, like something doesn’t fit in the brain even though it’s right there on the screen. The stereotype of the American cowboy to a German audience is loaded with nuances given our intertwined history. Fortunately for the main character, he had the biggest and newest gun and the largest horse as cowboy heroes are wont to do.
This full weekend of films was hosted by the German American SD Foundation in partnership with the Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Goethe Institute. “There are over 90,000 Germans living in Southern California” says Angelika Villagrana. Angelika served as the Chair of the Film Festival for the second and third years and was the Director of Policy for the Chamber of Commerce for 23 years. She is also an accomplished artist focused on printmaking.
She notes that “Many of the ushers for this year’s festival are students at the North Park Einstein Middle School which is a German language immersion campus. We intentionally had festival films on family life for the families and kids at the school.”
I asked her what the link is between American Westerns and Germany. “We are raised as kids on American Westerns and Saudi Desert stories” she answered. “In the little town I come from there is a small amphitheatre and plays are held featuring American cowboys and Saudi princes. I must have read hundreds of German written Westerns as a kid.”
San Diego Director Laila Schneider-Gossens remarked that this fourth year of the film festival is the best yet and portends greater success next year. “We are so excited about our wonderful list of sponsors and the enthusiastic response of the film makers and our San Diego audiences. This has been an all volunteer event but being in this wonderful Natural History Museum Theater as well as the Museum of Photographic Arts Theatre means we can receive larger audiences.”
German Currents will continue to share German films with the San Diego audience as they present “Film Nights” at the Digital Gym on El Cajon Blvd from time to time.