Two offbeat gems at Berlin and Beyond
FILM Heidi stand down. The Berlin and Beyond Film Festival celebrates its sweet 16 with a clutch of Swiss films that catapult that oft-overlooked alpine land into the cinematic big leagues. From this year's centerpiece film Bold Heroes, set in a juvenile cancer ward, to How About Love, a tense love story set on the troubled border between Myanmar and Thailand, Swiss cinema is hogging some of the German-language spotlight generally dominated by its Northern neighbor. My personal picks, Sennentuntschi, a Halloween-appropriate horror flick, and The Sandman, a quirky comedy about a man who becomes a walking sandstorm, aren't the festival's biggest movies, but may prove to be among the most memorable.
An Alp-traum, combining bits of The Blair Witch Project (1999), Deliverance (1972), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Sennentuntschi unfolds in a series of sometimes confusingly non-linear flashbacks from 1975. After the presumed suicide of the church sacristan (Thomas Landl), a bedraggled mute (Roxane Mesquida) stumbles into the village. Immediately suspicion for the young man's death falls on her, especially when the parish priest (Ueli Jaggi) denounces her as evil, demonstrating as proof her apparent fear of the crucifix. Certain there is a rational explanation for her unexplained presence, the village cop (Nicholas Ofczarek), a slow-witted, big-hearted John Elway look-alike, begins the search for her true identity as discontent and rumor simmer around him.
Meanwhile, on top of the mountain, uncouth goat herder Erwin (Andrea Zogg), his mentally-challenged protégé Albert (Joel Basman), and his city-slicker volunteer Martin (Carlos Leal) court codified horror-film comeuppance by crafting a straw-filled sex puppet, a Sennentuntschi, and "inviting the devil" to turn her into a real woman. The cruelly violent treatment meted out to their "supernatural" helpmate, naturally the mysterious mute, is rendered all the more disturbing once it's revealed that she may in fact be a feral innocent rather than a demonic succubus. The movie boasts some remarkable cinematography, with a palette that renders even slaughtered goats attractive, and haunting shots of the misty mountains that would do Peter Jackson proud. And though the film occasionally gets bogged down in police procedure and missing persons' bureaus, there's enough splatter and chill to satisfy the blood-thirst of most horror fans, from slasher-flick fan kids to aficionados of refined psychological terror.
A gem of minimalistic absurdity, The Sandman opens innocuously enough, following an uptight philatelist and failed conductor, Benno (Fabian Krüger) on his daily rounds from stamp shop to café, shower to bed. Navigating the world and his relationships with the special arrogance of a congenital loser who doesn't recognize his own shortcomings, Benno's limited horizons take on a surreal cast once sand inexplicably begins to trickle from his body, leaving a pebbly trail wherever he goes. Possibly even more disturbing to his equilibrium are the romantic dreams he begins having about Sandra (Irene Brügger), the barista he despises, who runs the café directly below his apartment and keeps him awake at night practicing her "one-woman orchestra" act with sousaphone and loop machine.
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