Longtime Lars von Trier collaborator Tomas Gislason, who’s concurrently made his dramatic feature bow with “P.O.V. — Point of View,” is on more familiar ground with latest docu “Maximum Penalty.” Helmer’s propulsive approach to subject — investigating the 1937 disappearance of Danish Communist Party leader Arne Munch-Petersen in Stalinist Russia — borders on overkill at times but overall succeeds in lending this sad historical footnote the urgency of a paranoid thriller. Beyond home turf and fest showings, primary exposure is likely to lie in broadcast sales, a pity since pic’s visual gambits are very much designed for the bigscreen.
Copenhagen professor’s son Munch-Petersen rose quickly to high status in the Danish party, getting his first invite to Moscow in the early ’30s at age 29. His skills made him a perfect candidate for the Comintern, which handled communication between international chapters. But same Social Democratic idealism that sustained the era’s Communists abroad soon rendered him a threat — if only an imaginary one — within Stalin’s increasingly totalitarian regime.
A bewildered Munch-Petersen was arrested by secret police on the night before his skedded return home and interrogated during three years’ imprisonment into “confessing” his crimes as an alleged Trotskyist spy. He was then shipped off to a remote work camp where he died of tuberculosis in 1940. Even his own wife was kept unaware of his fate — a Danish party chief couldn’t bring himself to tell her — so she continued petitioning the Kremlin for his release decades after his death.
Pic uses this grim example as springboard for a larger indictment of the whole Stalinist era, whose purges claimed millions of lives on the most spurious accusatory grounds. Chilling sequences have elderly survivors visiting sites of their erstwhile imprisonment and torture; more briefly, a long-retired KGB interrogator dispassionately recalls the grotesquely unjust standard procedures of yore.
While this material has been covered extensively, helmer lends its retelling considerable impact — and scenes of latter-day Danish historian Ole Sohn (who wrote a book on Munch-Petersen) butting against current Moscow bureaucrats to access old documents suggest much of the same paranoid secrecy remains operative in post-glasnost Russia.
Elaborate visual presentation, on the other hand, is at once exciting, too modish and occasionally overbearing. Use of multiple images, superimpositions, tinted or anamorphically altered archival footage may strike some viewers as unnecessary bravado, and some eye-blink visual and/or sonic juxtapositions are simply heavy-handed.
Von Trier fans will recognize overall packaging as being strikingly similar to 1991’s “Europa” (aka “Zentropa”), hinting that Gislason’s contributions to that pre-Dogma feature may have extended well past credited script input.
Complex layering of elements within the frame — including English language explanatory titles designed far too tiny for broadcast viability — will render “Maximum Penalty” as frustrating as it is engrossing when the small screen beckons. Tech aspects are first-rate.