Friday, March 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Sennentuntschi (2010)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

1975. Just after a small village in the Swiss Alps has buried its sacristan following his suicide, a bloody and battered young woman (Roxane Mesquida) appears in town. The woman doesn't seem to be able to speak, and is clearly either heavily traumatized or mentally ill, but the villagers at once blame her for the sacristan's death. After all, one of the villagers saw what he thinks was a woman in a monk's robe in the mountains the day before, so witchcraft must be afoot! This must make some kind of sense to the villagers, even though it's the sort of logic that's only logical if you're a surrealist. It sure doesn't help improve the situation when the local priest brandishes his crucifix in the poor woman's face and provokes her into a fit of panic.

Confronted with that sort of superstition, and a little bit infatuated with the mysterious stranger, the local constable Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek), seemingly the only man in town who isn't batshit insane, takes charge of the woman and attempts to find out who she is and where she came from. He stumbles upon something strange: his new ward looks exactly like a woman who disappeared twenty-five years ago during the burning of a mountain cabin that killed three men.

While Reusch is away talking to the retired cop who worked the case in the 50s, the priest attacks the nameless girl with a knife, and drives her to flight. On her way, she accidentally causes a miscarriage (her fear of crosses is again to blame) in Reusch's former girlfriend (now the mayor's wife), which conclusively proves to anyone not Reusch that she is in fact a witch.

Next time we see the girl again, she arrives at the mountain cabin of farmer Erwin (Andrea Zogg), his son-who-thinks-he's-his-nephew Albert (Joel Basman), and their newly arrived helper Martin (Carlos Leal), who is on the run for the murder of his wife, and therefore just as insane as everyone else in the movie. Because they were just having an orgy with home-made absinth, the men kinda-sorta assume the girl's a Sennentuntschi like in the old tale about a straw doll brought to life by the devil. Clearly, the girl's suffering won't end with her arrival.

All the while, Reusch discovers the dark secret of his village.

So, the classic continental European artful exploitation movie, horror department, is alive and well and living in Switzerland, it seems. Even though director Michael Steiner deconstructs most (yet not quite all) potential supernatural aspects of his story and the Sennentuntschi legend, he's doing everything else I've come to expect in and hope from this kind of film.

As the plot synopsis should have made clear, the film is heavily over-written, full of preposterous plot ideas (only about half of which I've mentioned) and melodramatic explanations for everything that's happening, populated by (predominantly male) characters who are all so clearly out of their minds as to make a girl who can't speak, acts like a child and turns dead guys into straw dolls look positively normal. In addition Sennentuntschi is told with a structural trick I'm not going to spoil that I don't think makes the film any better, but clearly makes it a hell of a lot weirder; in fact, I'm utterly unsure if Steiner wants his audience to be surprised by that trick or not - his film is sending very mixed messages about it.

This may sound as if Sennentuntschi weren't a good movie at all, but the opposite is true. There's a lot to be said for the film's over-serious rediscovery of much of what was good about European genre cinema of the 70s, the rediscovery of a combination of strangeness, metaphorical overload, and classic exploitational values, as well as for its the willingness to be nasty and cruel to its characters, even those it clearly doesn't hate. I, for one, can't help but respect a film that gives up clarity for the possibility of surprising its audience. But then, that's what I would say.

On the film's metaphorical level, Steiner seems to be quite obsessed with dualities. At least, the film is stuffed full with them, from the boring man-woman and rationality-superstition ones to the structural one I'm still not willing to spoil. As is good and well-loved tradition, the film's narrative logic and the reasons for its narrative logic can get a bit confusing, which seems to be a fitting way to construct a narrative about characters who are all not exactly mentally healthy.

Not confusing at all is Steiner's visual mastership. The director uses the impressive Swiss landscape to build a mood of overwhelming strangeness, and to intensify the already over-heated feelings of his characters, grounding the strangeness of what is happening in the very real, yet also very strange mountain landscape of a place whose harshness seems to influence the state of mind of the characters populating it for the worse.

I also found myself very impressed by Roxane Mesquida's performance. Her combination of childlike body language, the visible remnants of hurt and pain, a peculiarly innocent sexuality and a very calm sort of madness dominate the film's best moments without being showy. If not for Mesquida's performance, the part of the film's metaphorical level that's all about contrasting "maleness" and "femaleness" would probably be quite annoying, but the actress turns what could be a mere symbol - and a symbol of various conflicting things, by the way - into a person. Plus, most of the male characters' problem isn't their maleness, but their being murderous rapist assholes, a fact the film seems to realize about half of the time. Which again puts Sennentuntschi directly in the tradition of classic European exploitation movies, where the subversive, the uncomfortable and the conservative have always been entwined in the most interesting, yet also often very uncomfortable, manner.

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