Friday, December 02, 2016

Other Worlds Austin ’16: Hidden Reserves

Good news, death panels will be safely abolished in the future. Instead, heroic efforts will be taken to prolong the lives of the poor and the powerless. That’s the whole problem. Those in debt, who might otherwise die in peace, will be kept alive in vegetative states, so their bodies can be used as energy sources and their unused brain capacity can be utilized for networked computing. Basically, you need yourself some death insurance. That’s what Vincent Baumann used to sell until he was demoted to an undercover operative. Baumann might just uncover more than his insurance company bargained for in Valentin Hitz’s Hidden Reserves (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Other Worlds Austin Science Fiction Film Festival.

Baumann’s meticulous preparation and keen understanding of human psychology made him a good sales agent. It also makes him a perfect narc. Baumann was on the fast track to promotion until he failed to close a sale with the reclusive industrialist Wladimir Sokulov, who might harbor mixed feelings regarding his role in realizing this brave new world. His activist daughter Lisa’s misgivings are even more pronounced. Her resistance cell was planning a major operation until her inside source was suddenly promoted.

Bringing her down will be Baumann’s first assignment. However, Sokulov is clearly onto Baumann’s true identity, while he is most likely falling for her. The stakes really start to rise when her father doesn’t quite die without death insurance.

Clearly, within the context of the film, so-called death insurance is just a fancier and more morbid manifestation of protection money. If a cat like Wladimir Sokulov can get hooked up to the ventilators for ostensive debts, anyone can. So why is it so hard to sell policies? As a concept, it pushes a lot of class warfare/right-to-die hot buttons, but it doesn’t really make sense.

On the other hand, the style of Reserve is to die for. Frankly, it evokes a Fassbinder vibe with its near future Vienna setting, resembling the divided post-war city and the Berlin of the early 1980s. There is also the seductive but androgynous femme fatale and even a breathy Ingrid Caven-esque soundtrack. Martin Gschlacht’s (mostly) black-and-white cinematography is absolutely striking, in a suitably austere, dystopian sort of way.

Indeed, Hitz has an eye for composition, but his dramatic sense is not as keen. Of course, he deliberately cast two of the iciest, most rigidly severe co-leads you will ever hope to see. Yet, there is something weirdly compelling about them, especially when they are struggling to act semi-human.

The lack of a consistent internal logic system is a big drawback for Reserve, but it definitely looks cool. If you plan on seeing several films at a genre festival where it is playing, its distinctive visuals might be enough to recommend it, but it is probably not worth a special trip on its own. For fans of Teutonic dystopian science fiction, Hidden Reserves screens this Sunday (12/4) as part of Other Worlds Austin.