Director: Axel Loh
Writer: Axel Loh
Cast: Fabian Dünow, Chiara Andes, Kai Henschel, Nadine Neumann
Running times: 2hrs 9mins
There are few things you dread more when organising a film festival than seeing a feature-length land in your inbox. Especially a long one. In the daily churn to get through hundreds of submissions to create a screening programme, there is nothing that is as much of a spanner-in-the-works as a 120-minute marathon.
There are two big practical worries. First, from a practical perspective, “what if this film is good – and I suddenly have to find screening space for Ben-Hur in our schedule?” And second, from a personal perspective, “what if it does a good enough job of masquerading as a competent film that I have wasted several hours watching it when it finally jumps the shark?”
Unfortunately for me, Paul Keller – Stille im Schrei is firmly in the second camp – a 130-minute trawl which utterly screws the pooch in its final act. Axel Loh’s film is, generously put, ambitious. Its lengthy, windswept silences and vacant black-and-white landscapes take their cues from Bergman, while the script is heavily influenced by Hitchcockian thrillers – with shades of detective noir and conspiracy fiction in the background, and an unwelcome Crawlspace–esque Nazi-experiment subplot thrown in for good measure.
Being less generous, this melange of very particular genres does not blend well – leading to an ungainly hodgepodge of half-baked ideas that it probably couldn’t have resolved in three hours, let alone a meagre two. However, when the story reaches its final third, there is still more than 40 minutes left. The big problem for a viewer is that it is not entirely apparent the filmmaker has bitten off more than he can chew before this point – so there are no reasonable grounds on which we can abort the screening before the regrettable fiasco of the finale occurs.
On a technical basis, Paul Keller is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is shot beautifully, shooting 16mm with Beaulieau R16 cameras from the 1960s to deliver a wonderfully textured imagery – popping with the grainy magic of the cinema of that age. And director Loh knows how to use that to construct some fantastically ominous shots, especially around a fateful barricaded door, behind which some unspeakable horror may or may not dwell.
But on the other hand, Loh makes no effort to match his film’s audio to the aged visual dynamics. Every line of dialogue is utterly removed from any kind of atmosphere and rather than having the glorious hum of static soaking us in the historic ambience of a classic film, each sentence seems to have been rather meekly re-captured in a tinny sound booth during post production. As well as undermining the visual impact of the old-school filmmaking techniques, the performances of the actors have been utterly neutered.
What we see on screen from Paul Keller (Fabian Dünow) is exemplary of this – a man doing his utmost to emote in the moment, and succeeding as far as we can see, but then unfairly asked to conjure that same feeling utterly removed from the context sometime later and struggling. Using the original audio from the set – even if that might have been less ‘clean’ – would have seen this be a consummate performance. But as it is, the mewling ghost of Dünow’s later voice simply does not do justice to his face’s work.
Even so, the physical performances of Dünow – channelling his inner Anthony Perkins – and Chiara Andes, giving a performance of wide-eyed German expressionism as love-interest Ingrid Schulze, make up for these sins. They are individuals who, if the script would allow them to have a less literal discussion about the world, could flourish and be believable as empathetic, three-dimensional characters. Wanting to see that realised carries the film along, for better or for worse, until we reach the closing scene.
We know something is wrong with Paul Keller throughout the film. He enigmatically insists that his aged mother ‘left’ rather than died. He keeps a certain room of his house off-limits. And he leaves bowls of food with ‘medication’ next to the barricaded door. Do the maths; it shouldn’t be too tricky to see where this is going. Simply throwing poor Ingrid into that mix would have been sufficient for the story. Having her live with this occasionally charming man who can suddenly transform into a sinister and threatening man, and gradually uncover why he is that way, or what she might find in the locked room, would be enough to build a thriller around.
But, perhaps worried by how obvious the ‘twist’ was going to be, writer-director Loh threw several other plots into the mix, which also need to be resolved in the final moments – however tenuously. He would have been much better advised to jettison at least two of the various angles he has shoehorned into this stuffed turkey – but as it is, we have to sit through several minutes of expository dialogue, divulging war-time plots to use a form of methamphetamine to make women and children fight at the front. Then, a final confrontation between various characters – including two who have been on screen for less than a minute between them – sees some ear-bleedingly poor sound design conclude with not one, but two smoking guns, sitting in the shadows. An unnecessary epilogue in ‘Havana’ then attempts to wrap everything up, complete with a needlessly daft climactic scare.
This might have been put in to help fill us in with some of the vaguer aspects of the plot – but I was left with more questions than answers. Mostly, they revolved around the word ‘Why?’ Why would the film over-complicate things like that? Why, when it became apparent the story worked without so many of its clunkier moving parts, would they be left in? Why even bother?
Independent filmmakers often give themselves too little room to tell an intricate story. We have seen that time and again when reviewing short films on Indy Film Library. But the same can also occur when making a seemingly endless feature film. Paul Keller stands as a warning to all Indy artists: be careful not to bite off more than you can chew – and if your story works better without something than with it, cut it out.