Die Kinder der Toten is a zombie movie, technically. But fewer scripts with the word “zombie” in it stray this far from what we consider standard operating procedure for a “zombie film.”
In Styria (not to be confused with Syria), a car wreck sets off a chain of events that disrupts the entire town (eventually). Call it experimental or avant garde or surrealism; it certainly is not conventional narration. If that’s your bailiwick—experimental horror that descends into formless silliness as it goes along—then buckle up. Otherwise, there is reason enough to skip Die Kinder der Toten.
Through the first two acts of this film, it is difficult to know exactly what the film sets out to be and just how seriously directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska want us to take it. If the answer is not seriously at all—this was my prevailing assumption throughout—then the unfortunate reality is that much of the comedy just doesn’t function properly within the format. It is a silent film, with title cards and a boisterous soundtrack, but the writing feels like it is meant to be delivered with a dry deadpan. We can’t receive this tone without the benefit of spoken dialogue, though, so I was left to my imagination.
By the final 30 minutes, it becomes clear that whatever serious intent there is in the various, fragmented ideas is all for nought. Somewhere near the start of the third act, there is an extended sequence commenting on the act of spectatorship in which the cast of characters in the film watch a film while experiencing an incongruous intensity of emotion.
This sequence is a good example of how Die Kinder der Toten fails to live up to its wildly broad ambitions. The bleeding of narration and exhibition is intriguing, as is the concept of the entire diegetic world being called into question by a character watching the film-within-the-film also entering the film herself (although it could be her doppelganger…there is so much going on in this film). But, like in Lamberto Bava’s Demoni, the zombie horde rips through the screen before any real interrogation of these commentaries on textuality can surface (compare this to other Fantastic Fest 2019 entrant, VHYes, which provides this commentary while still be deliriously entertaining).
What follows is a climactic zombie apocalypse that is inarguably unique, but it is one that more or less ignores the hour that preceded it in terms of pacing and scope. If there is something of note to be mined out of the previous hour’s various and disparate ideas, both narrative and formal, it is completely lost in the shuffle of the literal parade and party that follows.
There are shades of Guy Maddin in the formal aspects. The silent movie setup. The lo-fi aesthetic. The occasional jump cut and broken frame that makes the film appear like it is something that was salvaged. Flashes of The Forbidden Room entered my brain throughout, but where that film uses its chosen aesthetic towards some sort of narrative or thematic end Die Kinder der Toten seems to use it merely for the fun of it. Maddin’s use of old aesthetics is motivated in some way. Here it feels like a gimmicky choice that hides the inconsistencies in the film’s construction.
Copper and Liska’s film is not nearly as ambitious or challenging as Guy Maddin, nor does it intend to be, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. Still, there is a general lack of structure in Die Kinder der Toten that cannot be simply chalked up to the label of “avant garde cinema.” The idiosyncratic and anachronistic choices, the choice to convey the film like a silent movie: these don’t come off as choices for the sake of an experimental form. They come off more like choices made for the sake of a formless movie.
Die Kinder der Toten: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)