Sunday, December 01, 2013

Placidly Distressed

Solemn and cute. That could describe most of the German films I've seen from the past decade and it definitely describes 2011's Hell--"hell" being German for "bright" but I think the double meaning is intended. It's an endearing little melodrama.

In 2016, five years in the future of the 2011 film's release date, the sun gets much brighter and temperatures rise all over the world by 10 Celsius--50 Fahrenheit. People are compelled to wear hoods and scarves and protective glasses when they go out in the day but wandering unprotected in the light doesn't seem to be immediately fatal.

Early on in the film, we see Philip (Lars Eidinger) burn his hand on the exterior of his car. Yet the film really feels like it was made by people who aren't accustomed to hot weather. There's usually a glimmer of sweat on people's faces but with the temperatures we're talking about they ought to be drenched most of the time. I never could shake the feeling that I was seeing a mild day for San Diego.

Of course the film was shot in and takes place in Germany where it probably was a lot colder than the filmmakers endeavoured to make us believe.

The governments of the world have dissolved and two teenage sisters, Marie and Leonie (Hannah Herzsprung and Lisa Vicari) wander Germany in a dusty red station wagon after the death of their mother. With them is Philip, Marie's boyfriend.

Marie is the point of view character. Herzsprung does a good, subtle job. The impression I get from films like this and Kill Me is that reserved facial expressions are becoming associated with femininity in Germany. It reminds me of an anime character type that's emerged in Japan over the past twenty years beginning, I think, with Rei Ayanami in Neon Genesis Evangelion. I'm sure there's a common name for this kind of moƩ though I can't seem to find out what it is. This blogger refers to it as the "doll archetype" while TV tropes calls it the "Rei Ayanami Expy". Basically, it's a young, beautiful girl who seems unable or uninterested in expressing emotion regardless of circumstance. As a fan of Rei Ayanami and Evangelion, I can't say I categorically hate the character type, though sometimes I think it's used as a way of fetishistically pacifying women.

Marie in Hell isn't quite that extreme but we often do see reaction shots of her that convey little more than attentiveness.

Melodrama has become a bit of a dirty word even among people who regularly enjoy it. I think this is because the word is often misused--it simply refers to a story that depends on sequences of unlikely occurrences in order to move along with emotional impact. Things like people frequently escaping from certain death, friends or enemies turning up at unlikely, convenient or inconvenient, times and places. This can certainly harm suspension of disbelief which is why it's usually accompanied by bigger than life, attractive, or charming characters. And melodrama can definitely be good.

Hell features enough close escapes and harrowing situations for Marie to qualify as a melodrama, albeit a quite solemn faced one. First Marie and her friends almost fall prey to the bandit Tom (Stipe Erceg) who briefly takes Leonie hostage. After Philip beats him up, Tom becomes a brave and strong epitome of heroism that outshines Phillip, who turns out to be cowardly shortly after we've learned Marie had sex with him.

Then Leonie and Tom are captured by a cult of cannibals. Marie is almost eaten or raped for breeding purposes several times but always manages to escape just before something really terrible happens.

You root for her and it's a fun bit of adventure though the scene at the cannibal dinner table brings to mind the far more effective scene in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film mainly seems to have been riding a wave of post-apocalyptic media following Bethesda's revival of the Fallout video games in 2008 and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road in 2009. The story of a small group of attractive young people in a simply constructed wasteland feels like a low budget, unobtrusive distillation of the genre's characteristics.

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