Published March 18, 2015
Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained was not the first German (or Austrian) to discover the Wild West. In the late 1800s, author Karl May wrote a spectacularly successful series about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, set in the then-still existing Wild West. This even inspired a young Hitler to want to create his own Wild East one day, with visions of German (or Austrian) settlements fighting off the native Slavs.
In the ‘60s, after the copyrights expired, there were several competing Karl May film series made in West Germany, with the mountains of the Old West beautifully represented by the Bavarian Alps. At the same time, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer and Clint Eastwood were starring in spaghetti and paella westerns in the rather more sunny climes of Southern Europe.
One of the entries at this year’s German (and slightly Austrian) film festival at Bíó Paradís is the Austrian (and German) Western The Dark Valley. As the movie begins and our American cowboy rides through the Alps, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another European representation of the Wild West, filmed on the old continent for financial and logistical reasons (why haven’t they shot one in Iceland yet?).
Hitler is everywhere
But lo and behold, the Alps here are actually supposed to represent the actual Alps, to which our hero has now returned. This in itself is intriguing enough, a Western set in a different setting, akin to South Korea’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird, perhaps, or to the Nick Cave penned Australian The Proposition.
The novelty is enough to get you through the first half, but the movie begins to disappoint as it becomes increasingly clear that this is just another revenge flick. Someone did something to someone long ago, and our avenging angel spends the rest of the movie torturing and murdering bad guys, so bad and so ugly than our hero is nominally good by comparison. Some really disastrous musical choices wreck what are supposed to be the films highlights. Nothing new here then, and this was all done better by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson in his Viking Western The Raven Flies, which was brave enough to question the whole concept of revenge.
Of course, one cannot write about an Austrian-German co-production without making at least a passing reference to Hitler (what’s that, I already did?). For enthusiasts of German-Austrian cinema, it is at least mildly amusing to see Tobias Moretti, known for playing both Hitler and Himmler (and even Jew Suss) as a stereotypical Western bad guy. However, before you can say “Hitler is everywhere” (Moretti was also in Kommissar Rex), the films religious themes deserve some consideration.
You see, the ploy involves an old and crooked patriarch pushing the custom of Primae Noctis on his rather reluctant subjects. For those of you who haven’t seen Braveheart, this tradition states that the town leader is allowed to impregnate all new brides on their wedding night (which tends to lead to grievances) and no, there is no evidence of it ever being practiced in Medieval Europe or at any time since.
In fact, Braveheart aside, the best know example is from literature where that old patriarch God Almighty impregnates a Virgin with the tacit acceptance of her husband-to-be. That this, rather than Mel Gibson, is the intended reference becomes clear when one of the husbands, refusing to accept the order of things, gets nailed to a cross. The former Virgin escapes and brings her progeny up to kill the cuckolding father, a renunciation of religion if there ever was one in a Cowboy film.
That the Germans (and Austrians) are having a crisis of faith is much evident in their film festivals, as can be seen in other offerings such as Stations of the Cross and last year’s Tore Tanzt. This in itself is all well and good, but is no excuse for sloppy filmmaking.