One of the highlights of Fantastic Fest is coming across movies you would otherwise never see anywhere else. Movies that make you question your very sanity, as well as your choices. “What have I gotten myself into?” you ask during movies like this. And: “Just what the hell is this?” The MVP of this type of Fantastic Fest movie might very well be Die Kinder Der Toten, which is technically a zombie movie, but unlike any other zombie movie ever made. Imagine a Monty Python sketch as filmed by Abraham Zapruder and you might have some concept of what the hell this is.
Die Kinder Der Toten (The Children of the Dead), originated as a novel by Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek. Published in 1995, Jelinek’s book has never been translated to English – but that didn’t stop directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska from adapting it. Sort of. Copper and Liska never actually read the book. Instead, they worked off a rough summary and crafted their own bizarro experiment.
Shot on grainy Super 8, like someone’s long-lost home movie, Die Kinder Der Toten is dialogue-free, instead relying on droll subtitles (example: “The slowest chase scene in cinema history…maybe some driving history would help convey a sense of urgency.” But that’s not to say the film is silent. While we never hear anyone talk, sound designer Matz Müller has layered the movie in oddball sound effects – whispers, chewing noises, animal sounds. And then there’s the film’s score, courtesy of Wolfgang Mitterer. It’s a brass-based, upbeat score that sometimes warps, slows, and runs backward, creating a surreal, even disorienting experience.
Set in a secluded Styrian village in Austria, Die Kinder Der Toten opens in a ramshackle pub loaded with eccentrics. There are a mother and her daughter, Karin, who clearly loathe each other – “You’re just not my type as far as daughters go,” the mother says. There’s an elderly couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. And then there’s the pub’s beer-swilling owner and his frowning wife. Moments after these characters are introduced, they pile into a van and get into a fatal traffic accident that kills almost all of them, save for the disapproving mother, who is furious that her daughter would have the tenacity to die on her.
The accident is tragic, but you wouldn’t know it from how the villagers react. A party breaks out, with firemen stroking their hoses like phalluses and a full-blown marching band strutting through the carnage. And if you think that’s weird and absurd, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Soon, the dead are rising, slathered in the type of white Halloween store ghoul make-up that would make even a child embarrassed to wear. Throw in a subplot involving a factory that was once owned by a Nazi, a group of Syrian poets, and a suicidal woodsman, and you’ve got yourself…well…I have no fucking idea.
It’s easy to see audiences growing fed-up with Die Kinder Der Toten as it rolls on. The film runs at 90 minutes – and feels twice as long. And after a while, you can’t help but wonder just what it is Copper and Liska are trying to say with this madness. Jelinek’s novel deals with themes fascism, and the Nazi skeletons in the collective closet of Austria. Die Kinder Der Toten’s way of addressing is to stage a scene where zombie Nazis dance around with zombie Holocaust victims. If you’re looking for deeper thematic moments than that, you’re going to be in trouble. But you will get a scene where someone slaps someone else with a fish, and damn it, that has to count for something.
At best, Die Kinder Der Toten is a fascinating oddball experiment that has to be seen to be believed. At worst, it’s an utter waste of time that’s deliberately fucking with its audience. Both of those options are worth some respect.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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