Directed by Krystof Zlatnik
SCI-FI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 runs from 27 April – 6 May https://sci-fi-london.com/
Although genre films often feel unsubstantial, or disposable, horrors have often been rife with social commentary and political allegory. Whether it’s the red menace of the 50s films, Romero disembowelling consumerism or, more recently, Get Out skewering micro-aggressions and race relations, scary films have often had lots to say. These films have used iconography from the zeitgeist to cope with sources of fear or injustice. Here, German director Krystof Zlatnik takes on one of the most serious contemporary issues in Europe: the refugee crisis.
Now in real life, Chancellor Merkel’s decision to let people in on mass was a little divisive. Thankfully it’s nothing like Immigration Game, where a near future government have decided to take no new refugees save for those who can survive a murderous reality TV show. Think of it like The Running Man if it were run by the National Front. So upon entering the country, refugees (aka ‘runners’) are placed in a park on the outskirts of Berlin by some heavies in IG jackets. From there they must make their way to a TV tower whilst the locals (aka ‘hunters’) attempt to kill them for a cash prize. Whilst this unorthodox means of population control goes on, enter Joe (Landwehr): a father-to-be, banker and all-round good guy, who accidentally kills one of the hunters when protecting a wounded runner. Needless to say this goes down like a poppadom at a BNP picnic, and he’s promptly forced to pick between a life behind bars or becoming the latest challenger. And, well, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if he chose jail.
The first thing to note is this movie’s not a black comedy. Given the heightened reality of the premise, I personally I feel this was a real mistake. No, I wasn’t expecting anything overtly funny, or even laugh out loud. Yet I was expecting something with more satirical bite. As per The Belko Experiment, the idea lends itself to parody – both of the shallow populist solutions offered by today’s politicians and reality TV shows fighting for ratings. Sure, every so often there are bits of this – with electronic billboards giving tabloid style updates and a last 5 minutes that play some more with the idea film as a show. But for the most part the idea isn’t done justice. Perhaps it needed snippets of the show as a framing device, or to have one or two characters more readily point out the scenario’s ridiculousness. Either way it’s a shame, as in the face of obvious budgetary constraints, a smarter, punchier script could have given it a timely quality. Without one, the poorly contextualized chases watch a bit more like The Purge series minus the budget.
It’s not just the lack of substance the lets the writing down, but also the lack of arcs. While Joe and his fellow contestants are undoubtedly in an interesting situation, they’re not hugely interesting people. Sure, towards the end their story takes a pretty cool change in direction, although it’s not one I thought was built up well. Rather it watches like a twist ending for the sake of it, rather than a natural progression in the plot. Coupled with the high octane structure, the sensationalism of the plot also makes the movie seem in somewhat bad taste – with, one scene aside, the plight of real refugees being slightly undermined for the sake of a thriller.
All of this is a bit unfortunate given how much potential there is on display. Visually, it’s austere, yet the guerrilla style gives it a great authenticity. The bulk is clearly filmed on location, and the production team do not shy away from showing the outside. Zlatnik’s invasive, over the shoulder, style is excellent, giving a sense of urgency and adrenaline to proceedings. This means it sometimes trades tension for action, with the scares replaced by action scenes. Yet for the most part this is fine since the violence works against the budget too, as every hit makes its mark – something that makes the damp finale all the more disappointing. Furthermore, the various bands of baddies have interesting aesthetics, ranging from campy punks to bikers. In particular, the gang led by Skull (Tefsay) have a habit of being in the right place at the right time to shake shit up. And while his outfit is hardly the most original, he’s got enough presence to give a strong sense of dread.
It’s this sort of thing that makes me see much promise for Zlatnik as a director and stylist. Yet as a writer it is less of a calling card, with a shallow script that does little to capitalise on the interesting concept nor justify its subject matter. As with when discussing sensitive issues in public, he needs to pick his words carefully.