Film Scouts Reviews

"Siebtelbauern, Die (The Inheritors)"

by Karen Jaehne

What happens to seven peasants who are given a fertile Austrian farm and the concept of self-improvement? Will they overthrow the rigid social hierarchy that has kept them one step from slavery? Will they live and work in a fair-minded social and democratic fashion (as Germans keep trying to do with every election)? Or will they be overwhelmed by the intransigent political and religious policies of a patriarchal world that is greedy for their land and freedom?

Stefan Ruzowitzky has made a movie about his native Austria that is a paean to the simple but joyful labors necessary to transform glorious but unpredictable Nature into a productive farm, as well as a an investigation into the conservative character of the German Bauer that explains how someone like Hitler could come out of a place as splendid as Austria.

It's a tale full of twists and turns, as we get to know each of the seven heirs to the small farm left them by a brutal boss. The landowning class is dominant, and asserting their rights as heirs and as human beings takes enormous courage. Watching the seven peasants learn to work together, eat together, sleep together and master their brute emotions is an engaging process, and soon we have our favorites. One of the small observations of Ruzowitzky is the silence of mealtimes, where people never get enough to eat and are fearful of expressing themselves, because someone is always waiting just to smack them on the forehead.

It is, above all, a tale of human dignity without a trace of pomposity. Beneath the warts and wide eyes and physical humor of figures from a Breughel painting beat the pure hearts of characters so close to the earth that you can almost smell the pig-sty. You can't help but adore the simple logic used by Emmy, played with the flat-footed rationalism of a true feminist by Sophie Rois. Emmy constantly fights for women being able to do all the things men do, simply because it seems right. She's inventing her ideology as needed, and the scene when she's ready to sacrifice her virtue to the pig landlord from the neighboring farm is one of the most powerful statements about love in recent cinema.

Emmy's relationship with her partner and fellow peasant Lukas is the core of the story, and Lukas, as played by Simon Schwarz, is the very embodiment of the foundling child who in every fairy tale is the rightful heir to the kingdom. It is first of all the story of Lukas, a northern version of Oedipus in that he was exposed to the elements, rescued by an old woman of the forest and, as his story is slowly uncovered by the humble spirits of Nature, we see he is actually one of those who reject him. It has archetypal and mythic elements wrapped around every twist of fate - which, of course, make us think we know where it's going. Or, for those who don't understand this quasi-fabulist narrative style, it's not original. And yet it is very, very original, because Ruzowitzky plays with our expectations by teasing us with the many possibilities, the many things that can happen in oh, so brief a life, oh, so simple an existence. Every decision made by the seven heirs is full of surprises, as first one motivation, then a deeper truer one becomes manifest. Ruzowitzky handles the story telling with consummate skill. We nod knowingly, when at the end, the narrator tells us that so much destiny was played out in so brief a time.

Simon Schwarz is a blonde imp with the kind of natural presence that made silent film stars seem as magical as the medium itself. His talent is the explosive kind that has been honed on the stage; on screen he has the promise of a Robert Redford or Mel Gibson. He has the assurance of an actor who can play the bumbling fool with enormous charm or without losing his sex appeal. When he meets his tragic end, we are devastated, and the unfairness and injustice fought by the seven heirs seems all the more unfair for having been denied to Lukas.

"The Inheritors" is a film that explores the very nature of human rights - without even a glance over its shoulder, although the rest of us are thinking, uh-hmmm, when we watch the farmers and the priest try to talk about the Order of Things being as it should be and how nobody should try to rise above his station - God doesn't desire that. Fortunately, we know that we don't know what God desires. And Lukas and his friends seem far more likely to deserve the good will of a good deity than any of the landowning peasantry. All the politics of the 20th century emerge at some point in this film, yet never obtrusively. Nor with the weight of ideology.

It's a rare film that can give you hope for an entire nation. But if German film can be revived, it may have to come from the margins of Germany - Austria, Switzerland and the former GDR where the weight of the graying New German Cinema is not felt. Let's hope Ruzowitzky and Simon Schwarz are not too eager to get to Hollywood, where they're not needed. Europe needs them; German Europe, particularly.

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