Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Kino! ’15: Schmitke

The shooshing of wind turbines should be felt more than heard, but that is not the case with a rusty hulk rattling away outside the provincial Czech town of Crimeleva. It never worked properly, but the German power company has finally dispatched an engineer to fix it. Since Julius Schmitke practically invented the model, he ought to be able to fix it. However, it might not be a purely mechanical problem that plagues the turbine in Stepan Altrichter’s Schmitke (trailer here), which screens as part of Kino! 2015, the festival of German Films in New York City.

Schmitke is temporarily on the outs with his boss and overdue for a midlife crisis, so he might as well be the one assigned to fixing the temperamental turbine. A quick break from the New Agey daughter recently returned from a commune will not kill him either. Unfortunately, he will have to take his incompetent hipster colleague Thomas Gruber along for the ride, but the world weary Schmitke can put up with a lot.

However, the turbine turns out to be a trickier case than Schmitke assumed. Strangely enough, fans in heating and ventilation units all over Crimeleva have a tendency to break down. A rationalist like Schmitke is not inclined to blame the legendary Marzebilla spirit that supposedly inhabits the woods. Nevertheless, Schmitke finds himself slowly sinking into some kind of rabbit hole when the useless Gruber inexplicably vanishes.

Schmitke is a devilishly hard film to classify, because it starts out as sort of a quiet observational film about the modest challenges faced by a mildly quirky late middle-aged fuddy-duddy in the tradition of Alexander Payne, but deliberately evolves into an ambiguously eerie David Lynch film. For the most part, Altrichter sticks to Twin Peaks territory, but he sort of loses the handle on the excessively Lynchian conclusion.

Just like nearly every film, Schmitke slightly overstays its welcome, but it is still worth getting lost in its clever and mysterious mid-section. Veteran German thesp Peter Kurth perfectly anchors the film as the rigidly rational Schmitke, who can hardly believe the weirdness unfolding around him. He nicely counterbalances the restrained lunacy of the assorted villagers, especially the mystical geologist Kryspin, played with manic relish by Peter Vrsek. Helena Dvoráková also makes quite the impression on Schmitke and on-screen as Julie Řeřichová, the sophisticated resort owner, whose last name is an unpronounceable Czech in-joke.

For long stretches, it is unclear just what sort of film Schmitke is and how weird it might ultimately get. In this case, that is rather cool. It is even odder for local German and Czech audiences, who might find the rustic Czech villagers reportedly speaking flawless German another strong indicator something is off here. In fact, there are many subtle call backs and hat tips that Altrichter chooses not to belabor. It is a very EU film, shot in German, by a Czech filmmaker, but there is no mistaking the Teutonic reserve of the title character. Strange but intriguingly low key, Schmitke is well worth experiencing when it screens this Sunday (4/12) and Wednesday (4/15) at the Cinema Village, as part of the 2015 edition of Kino! in New York.