I was looking forward to Hinterland. The concept is solid: As they return from World War One, a group of Austrian soldiers is gradually hunted down by a serial killer. Peter (Murathan Muslu), a former policeman and the platoon leader, ends up drafted in to solve the mystery. In addition to this, director Stefan Ruzowitzky, though he’s had an up and down career, first made his mark with the immensely fun slasher Anatomy (starring a young Franka Potente) and this felt interesting as a return to that genre territory.
It’s clear almost from the very start that something is off about Hinterland. As the soldiers first spot a foggy Vienna from the boat bringing them in it just looks… fake. This is at least partly by design, Ruzowitzky and production designers Martin Reiter and Andreas Sobotka are clearly going for an expressionist influence, unfortunately the visual choices very rarely add anything to the storytelling and are so hamfistedly executed that they are often laugh out loud funny rather than drawing you in or generating menace.
The mystery at the film’s centre is a fairly typical selection of gory murders, each somehow involving the number nineteen. Because we’ve seen this kind of thing a lot (Seven comes most readily to mind) and because of the visual issues that we’ll get to, the images of the killings are never all that striking. Sadly this isn’t the end of the problems, because an underdeveloped supporting cast and lack of a feeling of bond between the former soldiers mean that the list of suspects is always indistinct.
However, the overwhelming problem, the one that hobbles the film every time it even threatens to gather some steam, is the visuals. Despite being set in a dingy Vienna, Hinterland is incredibly overlit. Faces in particular are almost always in bright light and while the design has the trappings of 20s German cinema, the lighting has none of its sharp lines and deep shadows. The film has no atmosphere, because even nighttime scenes frequently look like light has been poured into them, as if the film were made for 3D. The framing choices are often bizarre. Ruzowitzky overindulges to near Battlefield:Earth proportions in dutch angles. The first time you might see it as being about the world being askew as these men arrive back, by the 37th you’re just worried the actors and props might slide out of the frame.
Once or twice—well, twice, to be fair—the visuals come together the way Ruzowitzky must have wanted them to; a shadowplay nightmare and a short scene that transports us back to a vision of a POW camp both suggest Peter’s traumatic memories well, but these few minutes are a glaring exception to the rest of the film.
Even worse is the CGI, the blurry, static, look of which completely destroys any sense of place or period. It looks so much like everything is superimposed that all I could see at a certain point was actors standing in front of a green screen. One of the very worst bits of CG is a simple shot of Peter and the Police pathologist (Liv Lisa Fries) standing on an extremely fake looking street. She asks him if he’d like to get a coffee and he replies “I don’t know if I fit into this environment”. If I thought that was a joke about the effects I might have given the film another star.
Buried somewhere in this mess is a film about the value of human life in war and the strain of coming home traumatised. Sadly it’s hidden beneath an uninspired mystery, underwritten characters and a cavalcade of misguided stylistic choices.