Schmitke: In the mountains, everything is fine
by Martin Kudláč
- KARLOVY VARY 2015: The feature debut by emerging director Štěpán Altrichter, a comedy-mystery about finding one’s own identity, is part of the KVIFF’s showcase for domestic cinema
Young Czech filmmaker Štěpán Altrichter studied directing at FAMU in Prague and the Konrad Wolf Film University in Babelsberg. He unveiled his feature debut, Schmitke, which doubled as his graduation film, in South Korea at last year’s Busan International Film Festival. Ahead of its domestic premiere in August, the film has already bagged the Best Debut Award at Cottbus.
The titular protagonist, Julius Schmitke (Peter Kurth), is a textbook everyman and a wind-turbine engineer for a German power company. Though he always maintains a stoic appearance, aimlessness oozes from Schmitke’s pores. His daily ritual of drifting to work and back home again is soon disrupted by an unexpected business trip to the Czech Republic. Travelling with his obnoxiously talkative young slacker of a colleague, Gruber (Johann Jurgens), from whom he feels separated by an apparent generation gap, the odd couple arrives in the sleepy, bucolic town of Chřmelava in the Ore Mountains. Their routine maintenance operation goes awry after Gruber and their van vanish during the night without a trace.
The foggy Ore Mountains prove to be just the right setting for this would-be crime mystery, as the protagonist tirelessly tries to find his colleague while the locals remain absolutely indifferent to his fruitless inquiries. The initial clash of cultures swings from comic territory into mind games as paranoia creeps in, and Schmitke grows more anxious about what secrets the lush mountains may conceal. Here, Altrichter sagaciously builds up the suspense and the atmosphere using smoke and mirrors.
The director tweaks the whodunit (or “whatdunit”) formula, shrouding the film in a mysterious atmosphere until it breaks out onto a completely different plane, serving merely as a vehicle for the message. Though he is middle-aged, Julius Schmitke suffers from a diagnosis that is common among the director’s generation: identity crisis and uprootedness, the central themes of the movie that are nevertheless tackled with an unconventionally playful and misleading approach. Schmitke emanates a pastiche quality as Altrichter appropriates well-known (mostly genre) codes and intertextual references (the Twin Peaks-esque vibe is hard to ignore) to establish a trail of red herrings, ultimately moulding the final product into more of a jigsaw film.
Cinematographer Cristian Pirjol’s oneiric camerawork deepens the dilemma of whether Schmitke is sinking into a delirious and anxiety-stricken state of mind, wandering through a maze of woods, or whether the pursuit is real, as the protagonist seems to be captured in some kind of spatio-temporal loop. The director maintains this ambiguous nature until the finale, inviting further interpretations of this everyman’s self-invention, which verges on a transcendental journey to make peace with himself (interspersed with a few well-placed, inconspicuous puns).
Altrichter’s comedy-mystery proves to be a mature debut – especially if we consider the fact that it is a graduation film – with further kudos going to Peter Kurth for his performance as the bemused engineer, and Cristian Pirjol and the sound department for constructing the hypnotic and sinister atmosphere, a vital component of the movie’s low-key surrealism.
Schmitke was produced by credo:film in co-production with Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, Produkce Radim Procházka and Mamoko Entertainment, and received support from the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, the Czech Cinematography Fund and Karlovy Vary Regional Funds for Culture and Tourism. International sales and festivals are handled by credo:film GmbH.