Das letzte Land [The Final Land] (2019)

It starts in darkness with a quiet surge of music that reminds me so much of Vangelis’ somber and dreamy score for Blade Runner

Lights, like stars, appear in the darkness.  Then, as the music surges…

Something happens that changes what we think we are seeing.

As Indie filmmakers go, Marcel Barion is somewhat unusual:  a university film lecturer turned writer and director.  And, as Indie films go, The Final Land is rather more daring than most as it boldly takes on two very difficult challenges:  first, the intense two-player film, a format that asks a lot of the writing — and even more of the actors — and second, the film set in a single location, a limitation that makes it difficult to keep the film visually interesting.

In this case, rather than a phonebooth or car trunk, it is slightly larger: the cramped, utilitarian interior of a long abandoned spaceship.  But, by the time the film is over, we know every battered inch of the ship.

An escaped prisoner, Adem, on a hostile prison planet finds a long abandoned ship of a type he’s never seen before.  He’s captured moments later by a guard, Novak, but is amazed to learn that Novak is just as eager to escape as he is.

They get the mysterious ship off the ground, but find themselves facing all sorts of unanswered questions:  where did the ship come from?  Who built it?  Where was it going?  And where can they go to escape?

Das letzte Land makes an interesting comparison to one of the other films from this year’s Sci-Fi London Festival, Prospect.  Both films offer us an unglamorous look at space travel, where the equipment is worn and patched; spaceships are not  fantastic marvels of the space age, but decrepit, heavily used (and barely understood) utilitarian machines that break down; and they themselves are not the brave and stalwart heroes of the past’s future, but instead  ordinary, desperate people.  The interior of the mysterious ship is harsh and completely lacking in comforts, all sheet metal panels and only the barest concessions for the needs of the crew (although we know the ship originally held a crew of two, there is only one permanent seat in the control room, and a small jump seat).  As in real spaceships, the windows are tiny, only here most of them are also covered with metal shutters, giving the ship a very claustrophobic feel.

Even space seems as harsh and dusty as everything else in the film:  we get stunning, grainy visions of the stars wrapped in haze and dust clouds, of a planet burning yellow-gold against a dusting of stars.  Perhaps my favorite moment comes when they pass an uncharted space station, a vast, Gothic forest of upside down towers that looks as worn and battered as everything else in the film — and this sequence also includes one of the best shots of the film, as Adem looks up through a shaft above his head to see the station pass them, framed in a tiny, cross-shaped window.

The problem with any two-actor film is that the leads have to be able to carry the weight of the whole production on their shoulders — and Das letzte Land asks a lot of its two stars, who have to be raw and gritty; sweaty, filthy and unshaven; caught up in violent emotions and lost in moments of quiet wonder.  Torben Föllmer and Milan Pesl are both clearly up to the task and bring a lot of life to two starkly defined characters we learn very little about.

And this reflects the admirable subtlety of Marcel’s writing:  he avoids the screenwriting 101 error so many young filmmakers make when they force miles of overly complicated backstory on us.  Instead, so much of this film is suggested and hinted at — or left for the audience to ponder.  I particularly liked the way he defines his characters with two words, which in German carry a lot of deep, emotional meaning, “Heimat” and “Freiheit.”

But those (like myself) who have little or no German need not fear this film as someone did an admirable job of creating the subtitles.

Mind you, if you are one of those who will never watch any film with subtitles, no matter how superb or inspired, well, I can’t help you.  It’s your loss.

When I saw Prospect a few weeks ago, I thought that there wouldn’t be any serious competition for best SF movie of the year.  Well, I was wrong.  The Final Land is a stunning first film, one which, although it seems almost impossible, cost only $20,000 to make.

You can’t even buy a good new car for that price!

If you get the chance, you have to see this film.  It is a dark, subtle and remarkably well made deep space film, something that is far too rare these days.

And, yes, I’d really love to see Marcel’s first feature film, a fantasy called Aloryon.

Even if it only cost 300 Euros.

(My thanks to Marcel Barion for providing a screener, answering my questions, providing me with some helpful background information — and reminding me just how much goofy fun Starcrash was!)

 

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