Thursday 22 September 2011

Krabat and the Legend of the Satanic Mill Review

Synopsis: In medieval Europe struck by the war and illness, a young and wandering orphan finds himself led to a strange mill through his dreams. Welcome by the mill master within the rank of his young disciples, he quickly realises that his new companions are dabbling with the dark arts. And what nefarious plans does the mill master have in mind?

It is not often that a German fantasy makes it to our screens. In fact, the last one I remember watching was the classic Neverending Story, and that was back in 1984! It is a shame because the country has got a large cultural heritage of myths and folklore to pick from, coupled with some stunning and fairy tales like landscapes. I have indeed often wondered why nobody has ever used the magnificent Neuschwanstein castle, which inspired the Sleeping Beauty castle, in a live action fantasy film? Its sole presence in films that I know of was in Visconti's period drama Ludwig.

So I was getting very excited about Krabat, which came with a great pedigree. Based on a popular German book, the film was one of the highest grossing German film in its home market back in 2009, and has some high profile names such as David Kross (The Reader, War Horse) and David Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) in its cast.

The film starts off promisingly and makes full use of its stunning and magical settings (it was actually shot between Germany, Austria, and Romania), made even more impressive thanks to the gorgeous cinematography. The director takes the time to introduce all the characters and slowly unravel the secrets of its story, keeping you guessing as to what direction the story is taking.

And thanks to the talent of the young cast, the interactions between Krabat and all the different disciples, ranging from loyalty and friendship to violence and bullying, are compelling enough, and indeed takes an interesting twist if you think about it: whether it was the intention of the director or not, you cannot help but draw parallels between the youthful gang presented in the film, and modern gang culture, with the rites of passage, the violence, the bullying, the sense of belonging to a community, the loyalty to an older member, and as the true nature of what is going on emerges, the temptation and peer pressure to do some dark deeds.

And Christian Reidl (Downfall) as the nefarious mill master, cuts a satisfying villainous figure, with a restrained yet threatening presence, who reminded me of countless German teachers that terrorised me throughout our education.

Sadly, the pace did not then really pick up after this introduction. While it is a welcome respite from the usual CGI cheese fest and frenetic editing we are accustomed to with American productions, and while the original build up is intriguing enough, we are then not rewarded with big set pieces and a big climax. A couple of action scenes are competently shot, and I never grew tired of a thrilling and almost poetic special effect that shows the young disciples morph into ravens and then back into their human form, but the film then sadly drags on in its second half and never quite recovers.

Worse, while the running time is fairly long at two hours, we are still left with some unanswered questions and a few scenes are actually rather confusing. The scriptwriter who adapted the book is more to blame than director Marco Kreuzpaintner, who has a deft hand at creating a mysterious atmosphere and handling the special effects.

Ultimately, it was always going to be a hard book to translate to the screen. The tone is darker than your usual fantasy, and the story lacks satisfying and flashy action/sorcery scenes that are the staple of the genre. While trying to make a film that would work both as an action/fantasy as well as a more mature drama, the director sadly missed the mark on both counts.

Krabat and the Legend of the Satanic Mill is just out in DVD in the UK.

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