“Shhwwoooooow” I exhale a breath. I’ve been holding it for two hours now. Make that 1 hour 54 minutes – the approximate duration of Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley) (2014). Gee….I’m going to need some time to process this one.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Other than an Alpine Western which I don’t know what it is anyway. All I know is that I have a weakness for Westerns and another for those set in small European towns, where the sets and dialects are authentic, making these movies so special. Something set far away from the mainstream big city lights is so refreshing.
The story, without me spoiling it, is about a stranger finding his way to a small alpine village tucked away in a valley. Predictably, his appearance has something to do with the happenings in the town. You’re in the dark, literally and figuratively, as to the disturbing secret that drives the story. It is very clear though, that something is about to give. I must admit I did have a suspicion as to the reasons for his appearance but on the other hand some scenes caught me by surprise. I also found myself questioning his motives and morals, especially in the last 15 minutes or so. That’s what’s important though – to make me think. To make me question.
From the very first frame (or lack of) it is dark and dreary and you just know it’s going to be heavy. Suspenseful music is heard before you see anything on the screen thus setting the tone for what is to come. Beginning to end. And perfectly enhances just the right scenes throughout.
The arrival of the stranger Greider (Sam Riley) is interesting. You first get this Western feeling but with snow-capped mountains which doesn’t seem quite right but you’re still thinking that it may well be somewhere in America or Canada. And then…a typical Austrian alpine village? What? (Ok, fine, I knew it was set in Austria but for a moment I forgot about that) It all makes for a very unusual feel. Add the dialect without which it would have fallen flat (just give yourself time to tune into it). German or even English just wouldn’t have worked. Before seeing the movie I kept wondering what role Sam Riley would have in such a movie*. But that’s the whole point! That’s his role. The American stranger speaking German. It all adds to the mystery.
But oh, the cinematography. It is a work of art. There are amazing shots throughout. From snow-covered mountains, thick fog, fires, white wedding dresses juxtaposed with lots of shadows to generally brilliant capturing of the sombre, cold environment (although, the fact that I was freezing on my couch watching this probably added to the whole feel). Two images, however, are still crisp and clear in my mind: a wonderful close-up of spurs…yes, spurs! and another of smoke “whisping” up from the rifle that Greider has just fired. Despite the horrid theme, it is so beautifully shot.
The acting is something else. Sam Riley is perfectly cast as the mysterious stranger. I’ve seen him in quite a few roles and he never disappoints. I’m not familiar with any of the other cast members but they all came across like they belonged in the village and the acting never felt forced. Some of the leads are Tobias Moretti, Paula Beer (she’s wonderful) and Thomas Schubert. Andreas Prochaska directs.
In closing, this official foreign language film entry by Austria into the Academy Awards is well worth a watch but not if you’re looking for something light and happy.
*Sam Riley is actually an English actor living in Berlin.
Das Finstere Tal is based on the book of the same name by Thomas Willmann.