Freies Land / Free Country

1992, the middle of nowhere. A man is driving along a bleak country road, not really paying attention. Suddenly he looks forward and sees a cow straight in front of him. He swerves off the road, and is unable to travel any further in this car. He bums a lift, until he eventually arrives at the Hotel Fortschritt (Progress).

Inside the hotel, they tell him that they gave away his room hours ago, but no problem, he can share with his colleague. He enters the room timidly, and it appears to be empty. While he is patting the bed down, a large man emerges dressed only in his underpants. After a brief scuffle, the large man wrests his slighter companion to the ground. Patrick Stein is not in Hamburg any more.

Stein is a West German detective who has been sent East as a penance after he arrested his bosses brother. A pair of young sisters have gone missing, although most of their friends and family think that they’ve just moved West. Why would anyone stay in a place like this? Stein must stay here until the case is closed, reduced to phone calls with his very pregnant wife from the phone box in the hotel lobby.

Stein has been teamed up with Markus Bach, the man in the underpants who’s an East German cop and may well have a dubious Stasi background. Anyone with a passing knowledge of cop shows know’s Bach’s M.O. – hit first, ask questions later and don’t bother with the rules. Get ready for an odd couple murder mystery, with the two cops embodying the former East and West.

The mutilated bodies of the two girls are found, with a good reason to believe that they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Yet still the villagers are reluctant to break their silence. While all this is going on, a Western boss has just taken over the local steel works and is threatening to replace the local workers for Poles who’ll accept much lower wages. Tensions are running high.

All this sounds like a great set up for a film, where a simple thriller takes on a metaphorical meaningfulness which goes way beyond the surface. And yet, for reasons that may well be more to do with me than the film, I just couldn’t quite go along with it all. Let me try to explain.

Firstly, I’m not sure that the metaphors really worked. Apparently this is the remake of a Spanish film set in post-Franco times and there has been some criticism that the attempt a 1:1 transfer of post-Fascist Spain to Eastern Germany after the Wende loses more than it gains. This may or may not be the reason, but much of the symbolism remained just too opaque for my little brain.

This may also have something to do with my second stumbling block. There is a hell of a lot of mumbling in this film. And while it would be hard to keep up with much of the plot at the best of times, trying to make sense of barely audible Meck-Pomm accents made me feel thoroughly lost at several key points. As said, its quite possibly not them but me.

My final criticism emerges from what is actually one of the film’s most distinguishing features – its acute sense of time and space. From the cars that they drive to the phones that they use to the cameras with which they take pictures, this is very obviously a film set in a different time and place. We don’t get high-speed car chases here, but old VW Golfs losing each other on dirt tracks in the middle of the woods.

The sense of otherness is accentuated by the lighting. The interiors are all drab and muddy. The cops wear a brown suit and tie and suede jacket and jeans to fit the sense of drabness. The exteriors consist mainly of bleak shots of leafless trees. We are not just in Wintertime, we are in a place that time forgot. If the past is a different country, it’s not one that we’d like to visit soon.

All of this should instill in us whatever the opposite of nostalgia is. Those were grim times, and we’re glad to be rid of them. At the same time, all of the stationery and room fittings and cars can reassure us that we have a hold on where it is that we’re supposed to be.

And yet this hold kept on eluding me. I left the film feeling like someone who’s just seen the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage video for the first time, without having ever seen the cop shows that were being satirized. I continually had the feeling, that an audience which was familiar with early 1990s East German signifiers would knowingly chuckle at what they are seeing. I just saw a series of things that looked like they were supposed to mean something, I just wasn’t sure what.

Again, this problem may lie more in me than the film. I am acquainted with very few cultural references of 1990s Germany – East or West. But the result was that I felt that I was somehow being left out of the joke, that something significant was being said, but in a language that I don’t understand.

I am convinced that Freies Land can speak to many people in a way that it didn’t manage to address me, so I’m very loathe to slag it off. But I just couldn’t quite feel like it was for me, which is a shame for all concerned. Maybe next time.

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