The woods can be a creepy, dangerous place. That’s what the title character in Stepan Altrichter’s Schmitke learns as he finds himself caught up in a mystery in the Czech Republic’s Ore Mountains. With unexplained disappearances and possible murder, the stage is set for a bizarre, unsettling film.
Schmitke is a wind turbine engineer living in Germany, near to the border with the Czech Republic. Well into middle age, his body is past its prime. But he’s committed to his job, which takes him across state lines one day to work on an old creaky turbine. He’s sent with an assistant, who wishes the trip were more about pleasure than business, much to our protagonist’s chagrin. Schmitke doesn’t have to tolerate him for long though, as the young man soon goes missing. All signs point to the misty Ore mountains, where the woods seem to have an effect on his mental state. Now, Schmitke must race to find his companion and complete his task, before this mysterious environment takes over his mind.
As Schmitke tries to work his way out of his predicament, Altrichter uses the premise to showcase his directing skills. The omnipresent grating sound of the old turbine creates an ominous feeling, in addition to other traditional sound and visual cues that set the mood. Indeed, the sight of flickering light bulbs is enough to signal a dangerous presence. This is enhanced by the evocative visuals captured by cinematographer Cristian Pirjol, particularly the persistent fog that drapes the land. There’s a palpable sense of unease, conveyed perfectly by Peter Kurth in the lead role. The plot implies a certain level of paranoia on his part and he nails the confusion and anxiety required.
Schmitke would be a full blown horror film if it weren’t for its pacing issues. For a relatively short film (94 minutes) it feels curiously overlong, lacking that unique latent energy found in the genre’s best films. All the right elements are there though, including some truly creepy locals, urban legends and bizarre visions. It certainly gives you a lot to process. However, I never felt enough tension or suspense from the various plot developments.
In summary, Schmitke is a film of high style hampered by limp storytelling. Its sound and visual craft are top notch, but the plot mechanics needed some work. Still, there’s enough to recommend it to more patient viewers. It’s certainly different from anything you’ll see at the multiplex.
Schmitke will screen at KINO! 2015, which runs from April 9-16 in New York City.