A stranger rides into an isolated hardscrabble town, embarks on a personal quest for bloody revenge and along the way becomes the townspeople's champion: so far, so every Western ever made. But the big twist here is that everyone's speaking German, even Sam Riley who plays the film's hero, and the mountains that hem in the small community are distinctly Alpine. Welcome to "The Dark Valley" from director Andreas Prochaska, playing this week at the Berlin Film Festival, which in transposing to rural Austria a story that might usually play out in Tombstone or some logging town in Colorado, may be pretty much the first attempt at a "schnitzel Western" that we've seen.
Of course the clean, cinematic lines of the genre lend themselves to cross-cultural hybridization with often intriguing results, and initially it seems like this production has got a great deal right: a brooding atmosphere of suspicion and menace, moodily chiaroscuro photography (from cinematographer Thomas Kiennast) that makes the most of the desolate, wintry landscape, characterful casting of cragged, grimy faces pitted with the scars of a long hard outdoor life, and eyes that suggest untold depths of violence and/or sacrifice. But "The Dark Valley" unfolds along such overfamiliar genre lines (we're not qualified to know how much of this is present in the source novel by Thomas Willman) that soon the only thing that separates it from a hundred other films of its ilk is the language, which in itself is simply not enough to set the film apart, let alone above, its all-too-obvious influences. We could wish this were something as interesting as a hybrid, but in fact it's just mimicry: a German movie whose DNA is entirely American.
A tense prologue sets the film's tone of grim foreboding as a young woman, apparently in a wedding dress, and her new groom cower in a cellar listening to the sounds of rough voices and footsteps outside. The door is kicked in, the husband beaten senseless and the woman carried off screaming. And then starts the main story, narrated by a young woman's voice, of the stranger who came to her inbred town, a place ruled by an ancient, cruel patriarch and his six sons, and how the stranger's vengeance quest eventually conflates with a young girl's destiny and the town's own future, thereby obeying that classic screenwriting 101 trope by which at some climactic moment the personal stakes of the protagonist must pivot around the same point as the fate of the wider community. Not to suggest that everything that adheres to this tried-and-true formula is bad, but it's yet another example of the film going exactly where expected at exactly the expected moment. In fact, if by the second death you haven't worked out every last iota of the Greider story, it may simply mean that you haven't watched that many Westerns. For those of us who know the genre at all well there only remains the question of in what order, and in what manner, the remaining victims will be claimed.
It's not really helped by a lack of characterization all round. The adversaries are mostly told apart by some physical characteristic—there's the fat one, the one with the irritating laugh, the one with the icy eyes etc. Though this wouldn't matter so much if there was something more to the hero, but while going for stoic, Riley mostly just ends up at blank and unresponsive, and he's not helped by a rhythm which seems stuck on "portentous" with no higher gear to shift into. That leaden-skied heaviness may work well as an opening third atmosphere-builder, but when every scene exists as a sequence of long, impassive eyeballing sessions between the various characters, and every line of dialogue has to be allowed hover in the cold air for a while before the response comes, eventually it all becomes faintly ridiculous.
Indeed, outside of its predictability, the film's self-seriousness is its real undoing: with every little moment being leant on with equal deadening weight, when the really dramatic stuff does happen, the film has no new register to work in. Instead it tips over frequently in its second half into heavy-handedness to the point that a flashback to a highly unlikely crucifixion sequence is followed by a death... in front of a crucifix, or to flat-out contrivance, as when our hero has all his remaining enemies at his mercy, but lets them go in favor of an assignation at a cabin at "sunrise." That shootout is then milked for all it's worth and quite a bit more, but again, tells us nothing about the Greider's character or resolve, though it does make a strong case for the superiority of the repeating rifle over the shotgun. And for how careful one should be in employing sudden slow motion for anything other than kitsch effect.
It's not a hateable movie, just an oddly pointless one, as if someone had a deep urge to prove that "look, look! We've watched a lot of westerns and we can do it too!" Which, well, cool, but why on earth would you want to? And the cultural issues don't end there—there is something faintly galling about this whole town of downtrodden rubes being so fearful and desperate that it takes an out-of-towner, from America no less, to stand up for the cowering locals and bring an end to the perverted and unjust traditions of the town. In fact, at our screening a few derisive hoots greeted the scene where Greider, setting off with clenched jaw on his mission the avenge his people and thereby end the townsfolk's bondage, has his hand grasped by a dour-faced older woman who thanks him in a cracked, urgent stage whisper.
Centered on an uninvolving hero, and proceeding in unsurprising ways, the film's cinematographic competence can't compensate for an overwhelming sense of "ok, and?" to the whole endeavor. Borrowing interest from classic westerns in its themes of paternity, masculinity and the corruption endemic to isolated, self-determined societies, but failing to bring to it with any kind of new insight or perspective, "The Dark Valley" is at best an act of cultural ventriloquism, in which a German-language movie speaks with a wholly American genre voice. [C]