“Hinterland” – Homeland [MOVIE REVIEW]

"Hinterland." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

The figure of a lone elongated man photographed as though a painting by Egon Schiele or Max Oppenheimer, on a dark palette without background, gets closer and closer. Color and tone create the setting, looking very much like the post-apocalyptic World War I paintings of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. It is 1920. The war to end all wars has ended and soldiers are still drifting home to a world that has been changed forever. Disoriented, our protagonist informs us that he had left to defend the Austro-Hungarian Empire only to return to the now small, insignificant country of Austria. The Emperor has been deposed and anarchy, fascism, communism, and pacifism are battling for the soul of what’s left.

Murathan Muslu as Peter Perg in “Hinterland.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Peter Perg has found his way home from a Soviet prisoner of war camp with what remains of his small group of comrades. Lost, they have nowhere to go and little that awaits them. They scatter; Perg to his empty mansion, the others to homeless shelters or the streets. Perg’s wife and child, unaware that he survived, left the city long ago. But timelines and circumstances are about to get messy. No sooner have Perg and his men scattered than one by one they are stalked and targeted by an unseen killer.

Perg, we discover, had been a high ranking member of the police force. His former colleague, Renner, is now in charge, belittling him with his smug attitude and all-knowing smirk. Renner’s chief assistant, Severin, takes his lead from Renner and is outright hostile to Perg. Renner disdains Perg for having volunteered for service instead of staying with the police; Severin is angry because Perg came back against all odds and his own brother did not. Severin immediately suspects Perg as the murderer because the first victim was from Perg’s band. But it’s not him, and Severin needs him on his side if they are going to be able to solve what is now a string of murders, all men from Perg’s unit.

An excellent treatise on the hell of war and the reintegration of soldiers into society, it is also a thrilling murder mystery with dark undercurrents. Writers Robert Buchschwenter, Hanno Pinter, and Stefan Ruzowitzky have layered this dark tale as an end to one era and the prelude to the decadent and chaotic new era, the 1920s. The men they have painted are outliers, not by choice, but by society’s dictates. All the former signposts are missing. There is no more empire, no Kaiser, the aristocrats exist minus their titles, but not their power, and the advent of the clash of ideologies that will peak in the 1930s are all putting down roots.

As directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, “Hinterlands” is a highly stylized film. Very expressionist in style, set in Vienna, the birthplace of this artistic movement, he has skewed the camera angles in a way that is very reminiscent of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the 1920 classic of German film expressionism where all the sets were placed at an angle and the shadows were painted to exaggerate the unsettled feeling. Ruzowitzky primarily used painted sets with outsized features as a backdrop to disorient the viewer. Almost everything happens in the shadows and is meant to skew your perspective. 

“Hinterland.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Although there have been films with extraordinary production design and cinematography, “Lost Illusions” being the most recent example, rarely has production design been elevated to becoming a character within the scenario. Here, it is.

Murathan Muslu as Peter Perg is an extremely effective lead, always dark, visibly changed by the war, but still retaining a shred of dignity and hope. Max von der Groeben as Inspector Severin, grows from the one-dimensional character who is determined to make Perg the bad guy, to someone with depth and understanding. Marc Limpach as Renner is slightly less effective, using a smirk to convey superiority when more is actually necessary.

Ruzowitzky, known in the U.S. primarily for “The Counterfeiters,” the 2007 Academy Award winning International film, has created another film of depth and interest. His ability to tell a story visually is exceptional.

In German with English subtitles.

Streaming October 7 on VOD and Digital platforms. 


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