German cinema seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival in recent years. Some may disagree (but some aren’t writing this review), but if you look beyond the turn of the century there seems to be only sporadic films that really made any kind of mark on the international stage. And then in the past five or so years we’ve seen Downfall, The Lives of Others, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Goodbye Lenin!, and several more receive critical acclaim outside of Germany. Most of the films that have crossed over have been relatively straight dramas, but once in a while those sneaky krauts deliver something more genre oriented. The latest example of German filmmakers expanding their cinematic boundaries is the recent fantasy Krabat. Imagine an under-funded Hogwarts school for grimy, asexual boys…
Krabat (David Kross) is a young beggar barely surviving a harsh winter in 18th century Germany when a flock of ravens appears before him and calls his name. That’s pretty standard fare for German black birds, but they truly get Krabat’s attention when they start to whisper promises of food, shelter, and warmth. He follows their psychic directions to an old mill where he meets several other young men and their one-eyed master. They all welcome him in to their family, train him in the ways of the mill, and introduce him to a little something called ‘the dark arts.’ Telekinesis, the ability to transform into a raven, and a complete loss of his sex drive are just some of the magical powers he picks up, but they come with a price. There’s no escape from the mill or it’s surrounding countryside, and he will eventually die there. Oh, and eventually is just a few years away…
Krabat has a pretty solid premise and does a good job of setting up the groundwork for an interesting fantasy or fable, but then does absolutely nothing with it. Some examples of plot threads teased but never fully pulled… The boys work in the mill where they grind flour and bones. Bones you say? Yes, bones delivered by a demonic-looking man called the Gevatter who pulls up on moonlit nights driving a horse-drawn buggy. Who is he and what comes of that storyline? No idea. Krabat meets a sweet young lass in a nearby village, but he’s warned by Tonda (Daniel Bruhl) that the master can never learn her name. If he does both the girl and the boy will meet an unnatural (but natural-looking) demise. Why can’t the boys have lady friends, why do their names matter, and why must they die? No idea. We also never really learn the end goal for either the mill or the master. We know he’s doing someone else’s bidding and the boys are doing his, and we see that he needs the boys in more ways than one in order to survive, but very little is done with that.
Other issues with the film are more obvious including a lack of emotional attachment to the characters or their lives. Part of the problem is that all the boys (or young men actually, seeing as they all appear to be in their early twenties) blend together into a gaggle of dirt and flour-covered guys. Only Krabat and Tonda stand out… well, the one that looks like a retarded Baldwin brother (or Stephen) is identifiable too. The rest are mostly interchangeable and instantly forgettable. There’s also not enough action to sustain the two-hour running time. And when the film’s singular real action scene does occur it’s filled with no-impact combat. It’s magic! It needed more (and better) action to make up for the slow build to an unexciting resolution.
It isn’t all doom and gloom in Krabat’s world. A few of the effects are so-so, but most of them are actually pretty impressive. The transformations into ravens and back again are done well. And for as dark as the film’s palette is, it’s still presented quite beautifully. From the seasons passing in the valley to soaring overhead shots showing the expanse and beauty of the natural world around them, the cinematography is sharp and often stunning. The acting from the three leads is strong too with a nod to Christian Redl as the evil master who likes to surround himself with young men.
Krabat has the ingredients to be so much better, but it never puts them to good use. Characters and events lack motivation, parts of the story that seem interesting are never explored, and the film’s resolution is incredibly underwhelming. Also, something involving the master and the dying boys that seems fairly obvious is treated as a major revelation by way of matter-of-fact exposition. It all makes for a rather ho-hum film that feels longer than it is and fails to sustain any real sense of entertainment. Watch it if you want to see something new from German filmmakers, but just don’t expect it to be all that good or interesting. It’s a start though, and seeing how well they’ve done with dramas in recent years I don’t doubt their genre output will improve.
The Upside: Some interesting effects; cinematography is beautiful; different from a lot of other films; people look sufficiently filthy
The Downside: Seemingly pointless; some poor effects; a slow build to nothing; too many unanswered questions
On the Side: Daniel Bruhl’s big American cinema break came this past summer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.