Academy Award-winning director Stefan Ruzowitzky (Die Fälscher/The Counterfeiters) turns to the aftermath of the First World War for his German Expressionism-imbued detective story Hinterland.
Peter Perg (Muruthan Muslu) has returned home to Vienna with his fellow soldiers after finally being released from a prisoner of war camp. It’s 1920, and even though their war has only just concluded, Vienna seems to have moved on in the two years since the First World War ended. There are coffee houses, jazz music, and female forensic examiners; the world is a very different place and the men do not fit in anymore. Everything they set off to fight for has vanished. For some, their homes; for others, their family; for all, the empire.
Hinterland lets us in on this very quickly and then as if that weren’t enough, a string of nasty murders begins to take place, and former detective Perg is reluctantly engaged to assist the police with their investigations. Perg is, of course, battling some of his own demons at the same time, and doesn’t necessarily play nicely with his new colleagues.
On the surface, Hinterland is a solid serial-killer investigation set in 1920, with a gaggle of variously-driven detectives trying to find the perpetrator before the next murder occurs.
Below that surface though, there’s a story of emasculation and worthlessness in a time when Austria was attempting to move on. The returning soldiers barely recognise the city they left, and struggle to find their place. Unlike those who stayed behind and have gradually become accustomed to the changes around them, the men have been thrust back into a very different world and feel betrayed.
And it’s here that Hinterland marks itself out from other period thrillers with its visual representation of this alienation. Taking inspiration from German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a film released in 1920, exactly the year in which Hinterland is set), director Stefan Ruzowitzky chose to shoot his film against a blue screen, and then spend the next year working with VFX teams to add in a backdrop of crooked buildings and impossible angles, all of which lend a very unsettling effect to the scenes and underscore the imbalance between the city and its returning defenders.
There are moments when Gotham City doesn’t feel too far away, or the spirit of Sin City is just around the corner, while at the same time there’s a serious criminal investigation underway.
The use of these dark and expressionistic images is what marks Hinterland out as an above-average detective story, and it’s more than just a novelty.