Tuesday, September 13, 2016

HiFF ’16: Hear the Silence

The geography gods never did a lot of favors for Ukraine. That was particularly true of a German speaking village near the eastern border—or rather the women and children who still live there. One way or another, the former Soviet occupiers took care of all the men. Like many such villages on the Eastern Front, they initially welcome the German military as liberators, but each remains wary of the other, for good reason, in Ed Ehrenberg’s Hear the Silence (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Harlem International Film Festival.

In all honesty, the battle-wearing survivors of Lt. Markus Wenzel’s unit are not much as either liberators or occupiers. Having been cut-off behind enemy lines, they just want figure out a way to rendezvous with the German command. The obviously traumatized village ought to give them time to rest and recuperate (although their wounded colleague is not looking so hot). The Lieutenant starts their quartering off on the wrong foot when he rustles up all the children as de facto hostages. Still, mutual attractions start to spark between the men and women. However, at least one villager is determined to resist the Germans, mostly out of fear for what the Soviets would otherwise do when they inexorably return.

Silence starts off somewhat stiff and awkward, but once it finds its sea legs, it becomes a viscerally powerful portrayal of war’s tragic inevitabilities. The bracing third act is almost operatic in its gut-wrenching irony. It will most likely be too much for some viewers, but not due to any excessive goriness.

Aside from Lars Doppler’s icily severe performance as Lt Wenzel and Simon Hangartner’s sinister and sniveling true believer Private Nössel, none of the men really stand out, but they all look convincingly haggard and emotionally numb. In fact, everything about the film looks legit, thanks in large measure to era-appropriate settings provided by the Museum of Folk Architecture in Sanok, Poland. Cinematographer Ludwig Franz’s color palate is so washed out, the film almost passes for black-and-white, but the added browns and pea greens give it an even more oppressive vibe.

Watching Ehrenberg’s grimly logical chain of events unfold is horrifying but deeply compelling. He really pulls off some bravura filmmaking down the stretch. As a result, the totality of his vision serves as a forceful critic of war and anti-humanist ideologies. Very highly recommended, Hear the Silence screens with Alison Klayman’s stylish and informative short animated documentary, The Night Witch (about Nadezhda Popova, one of the USSR’s deliberately forgotten women WWII military aviators) this Thursday (9/15) at MIST, as part of the 2016 Harlem International Film Festival.