If Robert “Sin City” Rodriguez remade the expressionistic classics “M” or “The Third Man,” chances are it’d look a lot like “Hinterland,” an Austrian thriller that recreates post World War I Vienna digitally on green screen soundstages.
Director and co-writer Stefan Ruzowitzky (“The Counterfeiters”) has created a lurid, teeming ancient city of gloom, tilted buildings, narrow streets and striking (canted floors) interiors, the visual embodiment of an empire broken and revived as a republic, a ruling class stripped of its nobility but not power and a world turned upside down.
At times, it’s as if the cast has stepped into an Escher landscape, the perfect setting for a serial killing spree atconnects to the old order and last world war and prefigures, in some ways, the next one.
Murathan Muslu (“7500”) plays Lt. Peter Perg, a scarred and haunted veteran fresh out of two years in a Russian POW camp. He returns to a chaotic city of hustlers, thieves, pimps, anarchists, communists and fascists, where “You can’t talk about the war” (in German with English subtitles) because “people want to forget” what literally just happened.
Hassled by cops, dismissed by civilians, abandoned by their government, which wasn’t running the show when the doddering emperor was around, there’s nothing for it but to give a last salute to his comrades and stagger back to the apartment where he used to live, where his dog recognizes him but his wife and daughter have moved on.
Perg barely has time to wrestle with his nightmares, get his wallet lifted and ponder whether his wife and child want to see him if he tries to track them down when he’s arrested. Somebody is butchering veterans in Vienna, creating gruesome tableaux with the bodies. He seems a likely suspect.
But the “round up the usual suspects” police inspector Victor Renner (Marc Limpach) can’t believe Perg is a suspect, even if there’s a note implicating him on a corpse. No, Perg is an old colleague, a canny detective who joined the army at the outbreak of war and paid a price for it. Still, you’re already here. Let’s get those cuffs off. What’s your take on the crime?
The lady coroner (Liv Lisa Fries), promoted “because all the men went to war,” wants his input, too. She also has history with this once-brilliant sleuth. Only the younger Detective Severin (Max von der Groeben) instinctively mistrusts this traumatized convict, whom the once-noble higher up in charge labels a “Bolshevik” because that’s where Perg was imprisoned.
The script makes some interesting choices — an “Israelite” grifter selling silverware on the street out of special pockets on his overcoat, an anti-Semitic pick-pocket who might be “presenting,” telling his mark something he wants to hear as he lifts Perg’s wallet.
Early on, you wonder if the film is making points about why Austria and Germany went so fascist so fast, with abused soldiers thumped by “bourgeois” status-quo protecting cops and preyed on by those the veterans at least perceived as Jews.
But the monstrous crimes of our serial killer soon shove that subtext into the background as a disrespected Perg becomes the de facto investigator leading this case, behind officialdom’s back.
Muslu has a smoldering Matthias Schoenaerts look — leading-man magnetism and a soldier’s carriage. He’s quite good at playing the guilt and fear of a man who avoids his wife because of what she might tell him. And scars or not, he’s a hunk. We could certainly see why the young coroner interested, or is there something else connecting them?
The acting is as immaculate as the digitally-augmented settings.
The murder mystery seems secondary to “Hinterland,” and as it unravels it seems as if the reason might be that the solution to it is too much in plain sight for the film to dwell on that.
But Ruzowitzky & Co. have created a “Caligari” era Vienna of shadows and shadow-play nightmares, with every sharp angle reflecting a mind that’s lost its balance and a world that’s teetering and tilting and about to go entirely wrong.
Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Murathan Muslu, Liv Lisa Fries, Max von der Groeben and Marc Limpach
Credits: Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, scripted by Hanno Pinter, Robert Buchschwenter and Stefan Ruzowitzky. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:38