Friday, April 27, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Die Farbe (2010)

aka The Colour Out of Space

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.

The 70s. The father (Patrick Pierce) of Arkham academic Jonathan Davis (Ingo Heise) disappears while retracing his own steps during and shortly after World War II in rural Swabia. Jonathan, deeply concerned, follows him, only armed with a pack of old photos.

At first, Jonathan seems to be completely out of luck in his mission. Nobody in the small village he traces his father to seems to have seen him, but at last one of the villagers, a certain Armin Pierske (Michael Kausch), recognizes the elder Davis not on the contemporary photo but at least from a thirty year old army picture.

Pierske tells Jonathan a weird story about how he met the elder Davis when he himself came home from the front, and tried to warn Davis and his men off of visiting a neighbouring farm for reasons Pierske then goes on to explain to Jonathan by way of flashing back to a time shortly before the War.

A meteorite crashed down on the farm of Pierske's (in the flashbacks played by Marco Leibnitz) neighbours, the Gärteners (Erik Rastetter, Marah Schneider, Leon Schröder, Philipp Jacobs, Jonas Zumdohme). The scientists coming to investigate were confused by the thing's curious properties: meteorites don't, after all, generally shrink over time, nor do they have properties strangely at odds with what we know about physics. Shortly before the meteorite disappeared forever during a lightning storm, the scientists found some sort of capsule inside of it, setting free an unearthly colour when trying to take a sample.

With no physical evidence at all anymore after the disappearance of the meteorite, the scientists left. However, strange things began to happen on the Gärteners' farm. Fruit (and later some animals) started to grow freakishly large, but they also developed a foul taste that made them unsalable; the trees in the family's orchard took on disquieting properties, moving when there wasn't any wind to move them. And slowly, one by one, the family members began to change, growing unstable, mad, and ill through the agency of something not of this Earth.

Of course, the Gärtener's farm is the one Jonathan's father was visiting after the War; and it might just be that something he saw there has now called him back in some way.

Huan Vu's (whom you might know as the director of the Warhammer 40K fan film Damnatus that was killed by the angry lawyer brigades of Games Workshop) Die Farbe is a very fine adaptation of one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, the wonderful "The Colour Out of Space". At first, I was rather sceptical concerning the story's relocation from New England to Southern Germany, but for the most part, this change of location is to the film's advantage. Sure, a viewer has to make a bit of an effort to accept the actors speaking English with clear (yet not very heavy) German accents in the film's beginning as Americans, and then, once the film's narrative has relocated to Germany, Ingo Heise's Jonathan speaking German with a fake American accent, but the alternatives would surely have ruined what is after all an independent low budget production. Trying to pretend Germany is New England would have either robbed the film of its often impressive and mood building outside location shots, or threatened to make unintentionally funny what desperately needs to be earnest. A bit of accent trouble is much preferable.

This is especially the case because Vu uses the individuality of rural Swabia so well, giving the film the all-important sense of place that - as I can't help but repeat again and again in write-ups - is one of the most effective ways for a low budget movie to gain a character all its own; competing with high budget films - European or American - on their own terrain generally means ignoring the advantages this kind of production has over them. Plus, the Swabian-Franconian Forest can be - filmed in the right way like it is here - an excellently creepy place, just the kind of locality where the intrusion of the Weird seems believable.

Die Farbe not only manages to evoke a place, but also specific times, through simple yet effective tools. Initially, I thought the three time levels of the narrative were unnecessarily complicated, however, it soon became clear that the nested flashbacks really were the best way to tell Vu's version of Lovecraft's tale, and that - not a given in independent horror - Vu actually knows how to handle this sort of structure without the resulting film becoming tedious or needlessly confusing. It's also nice to see a Lovecraft adaptation that does not feel the need to permanently include winks and nods towards the author’s other works. There's a guest appearance of the Danforth Memorial Library at the beginning, but that's mostly that.

This admirable sense of restraint runs through the majority of the film's writing. The movie prefers to underplay many of its dramatic and horrifying beats, all the better to be able to get its viewers with those it doesn't underplay. It's spiritually as close to Lovecraft's writing in this particular story as possible, using those of the writer's techniques that are applicable to film, and only changing the story's framing instead of its major beats. The only part of the writing I'd criticize is the twist in the last act that doesn't ruin the film, but also doesn't do anything to improve it. As plot twists go, it isn't horrible, it just seems a bit unnecessary.

On the visual side, Vu makes the interesting decision to film in black and white, except for the Colour itself, which is a clever and elegant way to get around the question of how one shows a colour that is indescribable - when the world is black and white, any colour will look Weird. For once, I also find it impossible to be annoyed by the use of CGI; in fact, CGI seems to me the right method to bring a living colour without a body as we understand it to life (such as it is). After all, a thing without body mass can't suffer from the typical problem of low budget movie CGI of looking like it has no body mass.

All these elements (plus some decent to good acting) add up to a piece of contemporary independent horror cinema I for once find easy to praise; I am, as it turns out, a sucker for films whose directors make one intelligent decision after the other and even improve on these decisions through thoughtful execution.

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