SCHMITKE (Štěpán Altrichter, 2014)
22 East 12th St. between University Pl. & Fifth Ave.
Sunday, April 12, 10:00, and Wednesday, April 15, 6:00
Festival runs April 9-16
Based on the wonderfully titled Tomáš Končinský short story “Julius Schmitke slipped through death’s fingers like an awkward seal,” Czech director Štěpán Altrichter’s debut feature, Schmitke, is a darkly comic, Kaurismäkian character study of a middle-aged engineer making his way through a pretty simple life. Julius Schmitke (Peter Kurth) wakes up each morning, watches the coffeemaker get going, walks about slowly, stares a lot, and follows the story of a Bear-Man living in the German woods. A bear of a man himself, he is disappointed when he is reassigned — demoted — to fix a broken wind turbine in the small, foggy Czech border town of Chřmeleva in the Ore Mountains. Meanwhile, his grown daughter shows up unexpectedly, moving in with him and declaring, “I invested my energy wrong!” Schmitke and his new partner, the young, rather talkative Thomas Gruber (Johann Jürgens), head out in their white van, getting lost before ultimately arriving at their destination, where everyone, including the mayor (Jakub Žáček), hangs out in the local pub, drinking all day. But when Gruber suddenly goes missing, Schmitke sets off on a desperate search to find him — and, perhaps, himself in the process.
Cinematographer Cristian Pîrjol shoots Schmitke in muted greens and blues, with sudden bursts of red and yellow; his camera loves Schmitke, zooming in on his tired, heavy face, a man filled with desperation but too exhausted to do anything about it; instead, he dreams of becoming the Bear-Man himself. The old, rotting turbine, C174, turns agonizingly slowly, starting and stopping, emitting loud, echoing creaks that Schmitke might like to voice himself but won’t. “Damned thing,” he says to himself, but he could just as well be talking about his own life. He’s an existential Don Quixote figure, chasing windmills but just going around in circles. Altrichter, who wrote the script with Končinský and Jan Fusek, prefers short cuts with little camera movement, populating his film with strange characters and surreal plot twists. Johannes Repka’s moody score, going from mysterious to cheesy, and Katharina Grischkowski’s clever sound design enhance the overall subtly bizarre atmosphere. The motto of the company Schmitke works for is “Efficiency. Esteem. Energy.” The film has all three of those, albeit in its own unusual way. Schmitke is having its North American premiere April 12 and 15 as part of the Kino! 2015 Festival of German Film, which runs April 9-16 at Cinema Village and consists of ten recent features and one evening of shorts from Germany. Among the other films being screened are Mark Monheim’s About a Girl, Neele Leana Vollmar’s The Pasta Detectives, Christoph Hochhäusler’s The Lies of the Victors, and Christian Zübert’s Tour de Force. In addition, there will be conversations with some of the filmmakers at the Goethe-Institut and Deutsches Haus at NYU.