Review: The Shadow Hour
by Elena Lazic
- Germany’s Benjamin Martins leaves realism behind and opts for a more instinctive and expressionistic visual style in his new film
While many films set during World War II opt for period-detail accuracy as a way to give the audience a chance to come closer to the reality of the time, this choice often has the opposite effect. The fact that everything looked so different back then can make viewers feel more detached from what is happening on screen; even more insidious is the way the World War II aesthetic has been adopted by cinema to such an extent that it can sometimes come across as something that exists solely in the movies.
German filmmaker Benjamin Martins purposefully goes for a diametrically different approach in The Shadow Hour [+see also:
interview: Benjamin Martins
film profile], which seeks to make palpable a story that is doubly unimaginable. Playing in the Rebels with a Cause section of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the film centres on Christian writer, journalist and poet Jochen Klepper, who was not only under threat from the Third Reich, but also decided, with his Jewish wife and step-daughter, to commit suicide when the two women were refused authorisation to leave Germany.
The atmosphere of constant fear and persecution is already difficult to fathom; what could lead an entire family to commit such an act is even harder to comprehend on an emotional level. This is precisely what Martins chooses to explore, leaving realism behind for a more instinctive and expressionistic visual style. The film opens with a conceptually bold scene showing Jochen (Christoph Kaiser) in the office of Adolf Eichmann himself (Dirk Waanders), who terrifies the man and cruelly announces he has rejected his family’s demand to flee. In his characteristically sadistic dialogue are obvious threats indicating that the two women – and possibly Jochen himself – will soon be deported. Behind Eichmann, a series of suits are hanging, with picture frames featuring images of Jochen where the head should be; they scowl at the real Jochen throughout, representations of the more obedient person he could have chosen to be.
In the one room that serves as the family’s flat, and where the rest of the film is set, the writer is similarly haunted by his doubts, personified in the figure of a black silhouette with a sparkling grin that appears to him out of nowhere – behind his wife, in the book he is reading, and so on. The film here makes potent use of practical effects like shadows, lights, make-up and staging, and its allure of a stage play in those moments is in fact one of its greatest assets. The wild emotions that Jochen must have felt, and which Martins has transposed from the writer’s real diary entries, gain powerful immediacy as they erupt in physical form in the scene.
Martins has also tried to translate the discordant thoughts that must have traversed this family through the film’s dialogue, to more uneven effect. While the characters’ impulse to speak out and not let a single idea go unsaid in this situation is understandable, the filmmaker may have relied a little too much on dialogue to convey their emotions and ideas, while the excellent actors are especially moving when they communicate with mere gestures or an exchange of looks. The film nevertheless remains powerful as it explores, with great sympathy, the family’s decision. Its slow unfurling towards that most fateful moment does not feel like crass suspense, but rather like a moving window into both the depths of despair and the most powerful love.
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