Dir. Marco Kreuzpaintner. Germany. 2008. 120 mins.
The beloved 1971 children’s book by Otfried Preussler finally reaches the screen in a live-action version courtesy of young German director Marco Kreuzpaintner - and the results are impressive. Set in an 18th century Europe ravaged by the plague, the film is a riveting Faustian tale of teenage boys seduced by the lure of black magic that goes darker than even Harry Potter dares.
That might be its biggest hurdle in recouping its not inconsiderable budget in German-speaking Europe alone, where Fox is releasing on Oct 16. Kreuzpaintner has created a satanic mill so genuinely creepy that parents of younger children will balk, while adults who might enjoy it will consider it a children’s title. Teens nevertheless will flock to the film, which boasts superb production values and special effects; it should be a major theatrical event in its home market.
International sales, being handled by Bavaria Film International, might prove a challenge. Foreign family films, however strong, are always a difficult distribution proposition in English-speaking territories and North American studios might prefer to buy remake rights, ironic bearing in mind that the book was churning around the Hollywood studio system for years. European territories, where dubbing is acceptable, might be more receptive.
Preussler’s book, also filmed in a popular 1977 animated version by Karel Zeman, is based on a 17th century Sorbian folktale with obvious parallels to the rise of fascism in Germany. Krabat (Kross, who will be seen later this year in a key role in The Reader), an orphaned 14 year-old wandering without food or shelter through the mountains, is drawn by a dream to a remote watermill where he finds a bed, food and an apprenticeship with the shadowy Master (Redl). He becomes one of a brotherhood of apprentices, among them the friendly Tonda (Bruehl) and the hostile Lyschko (Stadlober).
Gradually, Krabat realizes that he is learning about black magic and that the skills he is acquiring - the ability to turn into a raven; superhuman strength - are all for the service of the Master who is in league with the Devil himself. What’s more, the Master sacrifices one of the boys every New Year’s Eve in exchange for his powers. Only by enlisting the help of the girl he has fallen for in the local village (Kalenberg) can he hope to battle evil and overcome the Master.
Kreuzpaintner, who showed great promise with his first films Ganz Und Gar and Summer Storm, but stumbled with his English-language debut Trade, moves onto a different level here. His command of light and locations in enhancing the ominous mood is striking and the extra time dedicated to developing the relationships between the boys is time well spent (the film is a not-short 120 minutes).
Seven Pictures Film
In association with Brass Hat Films
Bavaria Film International
Based on the novel by Otfried Preussler