One of the tools in a filmmaker’s kit is perspective. While almost all shots are square, straight-on, and eye-level, there’s a lot that can be conveyed by camera height (think of the wonderful down shot at the opening of North by Northwest) or by using a distorting or tilted camera to convey a world that’s not quite right, not quite what we expect. The latter is used in horror films, and often quite subtly so that we don’t recognize that doorways aren’t quite square, we just feel uneasy about the setting or situation. There’s an interesting storyline and character development in the dark Austrian noir thriller Hinterland but what’s most striking is its brilliant use of an endlessly off-kilter environment to create the surreal world of the story.
It’s 1920 and Peter Perg (Peter Perg) has returned from the Great War, an exhausted soldier and former prisoner of war, to find his beloved Vienna is no longer the city he remembers. He left a beautiful, thriving urban community under royal reign and returned to one bubbling with tension and anger as a newly formed socialist nation. No more Austro-Hungarian empire, now it’s a fascist state where everyone is ostensibly equal. A former police detective, he is brought back onto the force when a serial killer begins to murder returning soldiers in strange and horrific ways.
Liberated from the hated POW camp, Perg is a broken man, unsure of his self-worth even as he despises modern Austria and the rude, unhappy Viennese of this new world. He tries to visit his wife and child, who have moved to the country and presumably continue to wait for him to return, but his sense of being defeated proves too much of an obstacle to make his presence known. He remains missing in action for them, and they remain the embodiment of his nostalgic memories of his pre-war life. Was he ever in love? Were they ever happy? Meanwhile, there’s some flicker of interest from pathologist Dr. Theresa Körner (Liv Lisa Fries), who, she explains, is performing autopsies because the real (e.g., male) doctors were all caught up in the aftermath of the war. But what is love in this new world where nothing is as it seems?
We learn that the murders are related to things that transpired in the POW camp, where the prisoners were forced into making terrible choices that affected the welfare of their fellow prisoners, choices of life and death. The message: War might be hell, but the decisions you make have consequences and follow you home too.
While the mystery and slowly unveiling story of what happened while Perg was a prisoner are the center of Hinterland, the film is just as much about how places change and about how a sense of place is all about our perception of that place, not its reality. These concepts are wonderfully – and disturbingly – conveyed by the off-kilter world that Perg inhabits. This is a nightmare Vienna, a world where nothing is as expected, there are no rays of sunshine, no happy people, and expectations endlessly and forcibly collide with the new reality. Even royals are still somehow powerful in the new socialist Austria, after the revolution to overthrow the monarchy and create a political structure of forced equality. Another subtext: Money always buys power, even in a socialist country.
Both the cinematography and production design have earned awards for Hinterland, and it’s easy to see why with even a still from the movie. At times the backgrounds are so unreal that it appears to be a stage production, but that very unreal sense contributes to the unease we, as the viewer, experience in this dark, topsy-turvy post-WWI Vienna. Hinterland is a rather unusual film in German with English subtitles, distributed in the USA by Film Movement, and if you can find a copy, you’ll definitely want to see it and enjoy this dark and multi-layered tale of post-war Austria and so much more.