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Neither flat-out horror or compelling arthouse drama, this Austrian film fails to properly evoke the terror of the devil - from Locarno


The devil is very much alive in Luzifer — even if we don’t see him, his malignant presence lingers across every frame of this haunted, dour Austrian film. Telling the story of two religious fanatics who live in an Alpine hut threatened by the tourism industry, it creates a modern-day parable about the price of isolation and the dangers posed by capitalism.

Director Peter Brunner is interested in extreme states of mind, as previously expressed in his Caleb Landry Jones-starring To The Night (2018), telling the story of a man obsessed with fire. Flames are replaced here by extreme religious penance, Johannes (Franz Rogowski) constantly forced to self-flagellate by his overbearing and overly-intimate mother Maria (Susanne Jensen). They live a simple existence, living off a generator and supplies provided by another local Alpine dweller. But their religious and sacred world is interrupted by the presence of whirring drones, a harbinger of a future that has no place for them.

Franz Rogowski is one of the most interesting actors in contemporary German-language cinema, taking the kind of versatile roles that explore the different facets of wounded masculinity. His Johannes might be the most stripped down performance yet — both literally in his shaven head and often naked appearance — and in the vulnerability he lays bare as a mentally underdeveloped adult. (It’s a shame he doesn’t speak much, because it would’ve been interested to see him attempt an Austrian accent.) Susanne Jensen is equally intense, constantly invoking images of the devil and themes of poisoned minds that betray a deep wound at her centre. Their life cannot truly exist in modern Austria, even though they live so remotely, as they are being hounded to leave so a ski lift can be put in their place.

A sense of evil is well-portrayed through the production design, featuring odd, tortured wood carvings of religious images, and the swooping camera-work, showing off the wintry Austrian alps. One match cut in particular, cutting from Maria’s ear to a hole in the centre of a mountain, is particularly inspired, creating a void that lingers at the centre of the movie. The devil seems to be everywhere, but he is also nowhere. This is the essential problem with the movie; there’s nothing to actually be scared of.

Are the developers the devil? Or is the devil in Johannes, who despite his limited speech patterns and simple manner, occasionally runs off with a younger lady to satisfy his sexual needs? It’s hard to parse as Luzifer constantly adds layer after layer of sick, twisted moments that feel of a piece with the Austria’s austere and harsh arthouse film productions. The evidently talented Brunner could easily make a proper exorcism drama that would terrify viewers, but Luzifer ultimately doesn’t stick. Of course it’s filled with horrific images — incest, insects, the possessed — but they aren’t wrapped in the kind of production that makes one feel genuinely revolted. There’s no being worse in Christian belief than the literal devil, but here he’s the kind of guy who can easily be replaced by a ski lift.

Luzifer plays in Concorso internazionale at Locarno Film Festival, running from August 4th to 15th.

By Redmond Bacon - 11-08-2021

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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