Into the Woods: Dreileben

In the darkness of the vast Thuringia forest in Dreileben, Germany, a killer flees from the hospital where he is detained. Dreileben, a trilogy of films with the surtitles, Beats Being DeadDon’t Follow Me Around and One Minute of Darkness, uses Frank Molesch’s escape not so much as its starting point but rather as its locus, from which the peculiar events of others’ lives conspire and coincide. Both the lives of the hunted (Molesch and his victims) and the hunters (the police, a detective, a psychologist) are intricately interconnected in this sinister, ambitious saga that screened this October as part of the German film series in the 55thLondon Film Festival. Dreileben is one of the most talked about pictures from this year’s festival, and its length (three 90 minute films; 270 minutes in total) is not the only reason why.

What is so fantastic about Dreibelen – aside from the self-assurance it must have taken on the part of the directors, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler who presumed, quite rightly, that a cinema audience will gladly sit through 270 minutes of a film – is its deft balance of scope and focus. Here are three pictures, each alone perfectly viable and watchable (the first and second more so than the third, admittedly) which take a different angle on the same theme, on Molesch’s escape and the next murder he might commit now he is on the loose. As with approaching a stranger in the dark (something that happens often in these movies), the Dreileben trilogy comprises a series of careful gropes into the unknown.

So as not to lose you along the way, as it goes when talking about monster movies such as Dreileben (a monster of the best kind, I assure you), here is a very brief summary of all three parts…

  • The first film, Beats Being Dead sees an unlikely love develop between sensible medical student, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and biker chick, Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic). Their relationship plays out against the narrative of escaped killer, Molesch (Stefan Kurt) and to the elegiac sound of Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” as they dream of a life together in Los Angeles
  • Don’t Follow Me Around gives us the narrative of a psychologist and mother named Johanna (Jeanette Hain), called upon to travel to Dreileben to aid the investigation surrounding Molesch. Johanna stays with a friend from her past, Vera (Suzanne Wolff) and her oddball writer husband, Bruno (Misel Maticevic). Vera and Bruno’s dilapidated house with its crumbling wallpaper and unruly garden was around “when Hitler was in primary school”, we are told, and is an unheimlich place where peculiar happenings live behind locked doors
  • One Minute of Darkness brings us to the font of the crime, to Molesch himself, as we accompany him along his escape route and into the wild of the forest. The film alternates between Molesch’s warped view and the more sane perspective of the detective trying to understand him, Marcus Kreil (Eberhard Kirchberg). One Minute of Darkness is a double-sided effort to take us on an empathetic journey, getting to grips with the humanity of inhumanity and the human within the murderer.

The first Dreileben film, Beats Being Dead is the finest of the trilogy. The most revealing in terms of emotional development, though as a result also the most insular, it centres almost exclusively on Johannes and Ana’s relationship and barely addresses Molesch’s escape; a story that remains very much in the background, like a predator in the shadows waiting to pounce. The subtlety of the Molesch story works to great effect, however, as it contributes to the overall uncanniness evoked by the three films thus allowing for a more impactful development of the story later. Beats Being Dead begins itself on a note of uncertainty, with an unlikely event. At the local petrol station, with an upward punch to the nose from a thuggish biker, the world of hospital intern and aspirant medical student, Johannes is shaken forever. Just before the hit, a gentler-looking member of said biker’s motley crew stood outside the shop blows Johannes a cheeky kiss through the window. The kiss-blower is Ana, a troubled girl who works as a room maid at a nearby hotel. It is a moment of sheer playfulness, at once an intimate and audacious encounter – what is to become the first of many between the two.

That night, Johannes takes a skinny dip and falls asleep in the forest only to wake to the sound of revving motorbike engines. As he hides naked in the night from the same Hell’s Angel hoodlums he encountered earlier, Johannes witnesses Ana performing a sexual favour on one of the men who then takes off with the rest of his posse, leaving Ana half-naked, alone in the forest. Johannes, by now respectfully dressed, approaches the creature and takes her into his care. In the close quarters of his student-sized room, Johannes and Ana fall quickly and madly in love. Their relationship is passionate in a Heathcliff and Kathy kind of way with only turbulent turns that swing as sharply as a pendulum; on-again-off-again and vice versa, with much name calling in the forest as one of them (usually Ana) storms off­. Ana’s penchant for walking away from Johannes and unaccompanied in the forest is made all the more unnerving each time, given that there is a killer on the loose – a murderer of a similarly young woman, no less.

While the fickle nature of Ana and Johannes’ romance lends it a constant instability, there is always, fundamentally, something much stronger holding them together in the throes of their often trivial makes and breaks: they simply cannot, emotionally – physically, even – bear to be away from one another and will do anything to be together. Ana, for example, is quick to hang up her job at the hotel to commit more fully to her relationship and, she says, to motivate Johannes study for his dream (now her dream also) of moving to Los Angeles. “Sex then study, then sex again and then study”, Ana says, outlining her master plan. The bliss of Ana and Johannes’ relationship is disrupted, however, by Johannes’ ex-girlfriend and the daughter of the hospital’s head doctor, Sara; with her rich doctor daddy, expensive car and easy lifestyle, Sara is a convenient partner for Johannes. With Sara, his future would be laid out neatly for him, whereas with vehement, melodramatic Ana, his own Katherine Earnshaw, it is set to be unstable. Of course, there is a more sinister threat to the security of Ana and Johannes’ relationship in the form of the dangerous hospital escapee, the fear of which is perpetually simmering; lurking in the shadow of a birch tree, on the brink of emerging…

The fear of something is almost always greater than the fear itself: all three Dreileben films seem to play out this paradigm. By traversing unknown territory, there is an inherent uncanniness in all three films, similar to the kind of fear brought about by movies like The Wicker Man. Unlike such cinema, however, Dreileben does not package itself as a horror movie and yet, perhaps because it keeps the viewer in the dark, it instigates a dread of the worst kind. The forest surroundings are used to great effect here, with tension created by the rustle of a creature in the forest or an eerie noise from someone’s garden, as in Don’t Follow Me Around with Vera and Bruno’s haunted house where a myriad of peculiar noises come from the garden. Bruno, quite strangely, knows exactly what sound belongs to which animal. Also, in One Minute of Darkness, the detective, Marcus is convinced that the murderer is traipsing about in his garden as he calls out in a loud and haunting whisper, “Molesch? Molesch? Molesch?” With the actual events of Molesch’s escape and the details of the murder he committed kept obscure, only illuminated more fully in the third film, dread is the only constant in theDreileben films. Nothing is ever certain except the feeling of terror, represented by the constant cacophony of police sirens and the chopping sound of the roving helicopter as its rotor slices through the air overhead – a pulse to which the whole trilogy runs and a reminder that things aren’t safe, not even between Sara and Johannes.

Nevertheless, there are occasional moments of enlightenment; points of reference for the viewer to mark out Molesch’s trail so that they finds themselves always looking out for something – a clever cinematic tactic sure to keep an audience on their toes.  For one thing, there are familiar faces to be found as the characters appear in each other’s movies, interwoven in significant and mundane ways. Moreover, a number of motifs repeat themselves across the Dreileben films. The sameness of the dense forest, for instance, induces an eerie feeling, perhaps akin to an experience Freud intimates in “The Uncanny”, of losing ‘one’s way in the woods […] after being overtaken by fog, and, despite all one’s efforts to find a marked or familiar path, one comes back again and again to the same spot, which one recognizes by a particular physical feature.’ A feature of this kind might be a name. In Beats Being Dead, for instance, there is Johannes and Ana and in Don’t Follow Me Around, a Johanna whose name is an amalgam of those of the aforementioned couple. Johanna and her friend Vera realize they both loved the same man, Patrik, who we learn has a hearing problem; in the third film, another man, Marcus, has a hearing problem. Fire is another returning symbol. There is the Firemouth cave in One Minute of Darkness where killer, Molesch hides out, while fire is depicted in the paintings that hang in Vera and her husband Bruno’s house in the second film. In Johannes’ room, there is also an image the camera draws us to: a black and white landscape of the forest, a picture that eerily hangs in the hospital’s Dead Room where he once saw Molesch.

Ultimately, all those 270 minutes of Dreileben in which a series of haphazard, contradicting events unfold culminate in an accomplished, exhilarating, wildly ambitious foray into the dark forest that is the unknown, leading to just one definitive minute: the moment where the screen goes static and all that is left is an impenetrable fuzz.

This article was originally published on The What Where When.

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