“Fortress” could have been titled “Kafka Slept Here,” or rather tossed and turned, since vet Czech filmmaker Drahomira Vihanova has fashioned a cleanly etched black-and-white nightmare vision about the crushing power of blind authority. Despite its lucid, somber camera work by Jiri Macak, a strong central performance by Georgy Cserhalmi as Evald, a kind of oppressed, tortured Everyman , and nice dollops of humor to leaven the heavy thematics, “Fortress” fails to distinguish itself sufficiently from other cinematic trips down an overly familiar road.
Pic’s repetitious plotting and overall dreariness checkmate chances for more than limited specialty fest screenings. University unwindings and pubcaster play for auds curious about new post-bloc East Euro fare are best-case fate.
Mood is established immediately when Evald arrives in a sleepy rural village where he’s assigned to measure water levels. The town leaders are uniformly sinister and secretive, and the fortress of the title is a strange, sprawling Gothic affair where an unnamed military force is ensconced, entertaining themselves with prostitutes and lots of sharpshooting and munitions hi-jinks. But the purpose of their mission — supposedly to guard a top secret installation — remains elusive.
After consorting with a local woman and one of the prosties, Evald befriends the garrison’s tough main officer (Miroslav Donutil), who lets down his guard to reveal the true mandate of the soldiers stationed at the fortress. As Gertrude Stein famously observed about Oakland, “There’s no there there.”
The townspeople are conspirators in keeping this secret, a deal that Evald, for still mysterious reasons, is unwilling to sanction. Without a clearer understanding of the source of his rebellion, and an involving relationship to provide a counterpoint to this somewhat standard tract against totalitarianism, pic must get by on stunning visuals and shaggy-dog unraveling of the tale.
Unfortunately, this isn’t enough, and this creepy home-grown reaction to the abuses of state is slower going than it should be. Even with its drawbacks, though, the haunting images and eerie mood stay in the mind like a disturbing dream.