A Desolate, Lonely Life

in 25th Filmkunstfest Schwerin

by Achim Hättich

In Stepan Altrichter’s Schmitke, Julius Schmitke (Peter Kurth) is a 57-year old engineer for wind turbines and in that a pioneer. In his job he observes the jolting and the circular movement of the turbines. But he lives a desolate, lonely life involving the hardship of getting up in the morning, the non-functioning of the coffee machine, and bumping into others. In the evening he walks the dark streets and takes a look into the forest, where he expects a bear man who is often mentioned in the press and who haunts his dreams. This is an existence which resembles his private life, but without the social obligations and the technical obstacles. His boss (Stephan Grossmann) is unsatisfied with Schmitke’s work (“You haven’t done anything for years”) and therefore grants Schmitke a little vacation, sending him to the small Czech town of Crimeleva in the Ore Mountains, to fix a wind turbine. He hits the road with his inept co-worker Gruber, who starts off with sunglasses in the fog and a bear cap, talking without break all the way. The town seems deserted. There’s no GPS, but the cell phone works. The mayor (Jakub Zacek) is not in his office, instead in a pub, where he is drinking, smoking and playing cards. The hotel owner Julie (Helena Dvorakova) is also there and seduces Gruber, but another Julie warns Schmitke not to trust her as does an older woman, who eats a mound of snails. Nothing seems serious in this town, and all people are freakish and odd. Even for Gruber the forest looks mysterious and in the icy room of Schmitke the curtain has a creepy effect. The next morning neither Gruber nor the van is present. Schmitke searches all around and with the help of three motorcycle guys tracks at the edge of the forest his van but with a trail of blood. Philosophical geologist Kryspin (Peter Vrsek) comes along and with him he discovers a bloody deer. Kryspin states that people don’t disappear easily and Gruber will be found if there’s a necessity. But after endless erratic driving ending up in nowhere, Schmitke only finds Kryspin, who got lost himself as Schmitke got lost among the sheep, the only time for him there’s a way out. What Schmitke discovers is the Marsipula, a local ghost in the woods. It’s the same as the bear man at home. Schmitke looks into the face and shouts, suddenly he is in the attic, and everything starts again. But don’t leave the cinema until the end credits are over….

But that’s not the only reason in this fascinating, thrilling movie. From the beginning there is a rupture in reality. Schmitke crosses not only a national border – which is obsolete in times of the EU – but his border inside. He loses his incarcerated self and loses himself in a mysterious landscape that is turned inside out. In subtle ways Schmitke dissolves time and space, accompanied by fairytale- like pictures and a suggestive sound. In all this chaos circularity is an ordering principle, and all roads are the same and end in the same place, filled with holes and shafts. The forest is gazed into, and out of, but nothing is solved; everything remains foggy. In times of total uncertainty repetition is a principle that protects: all the while the wind turbine, and people sitting round a table.

On the meta level Schmitke thematises the clash between nature and civilisation, especially technology. On the one side the orderliness of the flat and company, on the other side the roughness and the wildness of the Ore Mountains. People aren’t found but objects, even as they are more uniform: a bear cap, a coat, shoes, the small moped, but one is not sure to whom they really belong, a connection to the person is cut.

There is also a critique of modern work conditions. A poster in the lift bears the slogan “German engineers don’t stop working,” but that’s just the fate of Schmitke. The company’s motto is “Efficiency. Deference. Energy.” But none of that is true. There is no explanation as to why Schmitke is degraded, but Schmitke is extremely self-centred and totally absorbed, as the boss talks to him. This is not different in his private life – Kurth stoically plays the role marvellously. Schmitke lives in a bubble, and stumbles through his desperate world. Repeatedly Schmitke turns around, and observes his environment as if something is lurking in the back. It is the mysterious case of a man who is caught in his own world, who functions as if in a womb and as he steps outside, is as helpless as a newborn child. He is old-fashioned, with a record player and video recorder.

On a formal level the evocative sound design of Katharina Grischkowski (which received an extra prize in Schwerin) is first class, discordant, and haunting, especially the crunching of the rusty wind turbine, and creaking of the ventilator. Sometimes there is even tranquillity, and only nature sounds, like footsteps, are perceptible. Cinematographer Cristian Pirjol convinces with the marvellous shots of his camera, which are absolutely formidable and unforgettable.

Schmitke dares something, is unusual and innovative. It may look like Lynch, but the transition is much smoother. Schmitke builds on the fantastic-surreal tradition of Czechoslovakia and Jan Svankmajer. It’s an astonishing movie in which we are pulled, losing our orientation, and becoming like Schmitke. Don’t miss it.

Edited by Carmen Gray