Lashings of grungy detail, snarling Bavarian peasants and doom-laden religioso trappings add up to a meaty rural whodunit in “The Murder Farm.” Overcooked in a good way, and lightened by Julia Jentsch’s engaging performance as an outsider who returns to her native village, where a hideous crime took place a few years earlier, this pic version of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s acclaimed debut novel falls halfway between murder mystery and horror movie. Though it surprisingly failed to draw much blood at German wickets in November, “Farm” is an intelligent, creepy crowdpleaser with some offshore potential.
Pic is the second German production this year, following the blah “Kaifeck Murder,” inspired by the famous, still-unsolved case of 1922, in which six people were slaughtered one night on a remote Bavarian farm about 40 miles north of Munich. The case has inspired several works across all media. Schenkel’s 2006 novel — compared by some to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” — stayed very close to the known facts but changed the names and updated the story to the ’50s.
Much of the novel consists of verbal testimonies to an unnamed person who spent a happy summer in the village years earlier. Scripter Petra Lueschow’s smart movie solution is to invent the character of Kathrin (Jentsch), a young nurse who returns one summer to her hometown for her mother’s funeral and becomes curious about a mass murder that occurred two years earlier at Tannoed farm. As Kathrin learns more about the event, the movie cross-cuts between her experiences and the murders themselves, setting up two parallel strands (one in summer, the other in winter).
Kaifeck Murder,” helmed by Esther Gronenborn, was a far more conventional genre exercise, corny and chill-free. “Murder Farm” has a far more realistic tone; doused in period atmosphere and themes of religious guilt and salvation, the film entices the viewer (along with Kathrin) with the promise of a final resolution.
Swiss helmer Bettina Oberli is working more in the wintry style of her 2004 drama “North Wind” than that of her small-town comedy “Little Paris” (2006). But though the pic was actually shot in the Eifel mountains in Western Germany, she convincingly creates the atmosphere of a mid-’50s Bavarian village in both seasons, with mud-under-the-fingernails detail and hard peasant faces concealing depths of collective guilt and horror.
The opening sequence, set only hours before the slaughter, has Traudl Krieger (Monica Bleitreu, in her final role) taking her younger sister, Marie (Dagmar Sachse), to Tannoed farm, where Marie is to work for the hated Danner family. En route, the pair bump into a half-crazed drifter in the forest facing the farm. Later that evening, Marie gets a pickaxe to the skull.
Two years later, Kathrin arrives for a short stay and is put up at the farm of her mother’s employers, Georg and Ruth Hauer (Filip Peeters, Gundi Ellert), whose son, Johann (Volker Bruch), was a childhood friend of Kathrin’s. As the two rekindle their former attraction, and Kathrin learns more about her own background, the shadow of Tannoed — right across from the Hauers’ farm — looms ever larger.
Concurrently, the events of the fateful night two years earlier are unraveled from the p.o.v. of the drifter, who takes shelter in the Tannoed barn as the Danners succumb to the killer: first Barbara Danner (Brigitte Hobmeier), then her gruff, wicked father (Vitus Zeplichal), his taciturn wife (Lisa Kreuzer), Barbara’s two children and Marie.
Though the religioso aspects are piled on a tad too heavily, Oberli and her tech team — especially d.p. Stephane Kuthy, often shooting in handheld closeup, and Swedish composer Johan Soderqvist, working in Philip Glass mode — create some chilling sequences of dread and horror. Visual standout is a sequence in which the villagers emerge en masse from the dark, surrounding forest to gaze at “evil” Tannoed farm; one of the creepiest scenes is Kathrin’s sudden realization of what may well be the truth.
Jentsch, one of German’s brightest young stars (“Sophie Scholl,” “Effi Briest”), and the only thesp here who doesn’t adopt a heavy Bavarian accent, looks convincing as a former village girl and brings an engaging openness to Kathrin that offsets the locals’ closed-off personalities. Perfs are generally spot-on, though Bleibtreu is a tad overly theatrical as the fire-and-brimstone-spouting Traudl.
Pic is dedicated to the memory of Bleibtreu, who died in May at age 65 and, ironically, recorded the audio version of Schenkel’s original novel. Her role in the film was voiced by her sister, Renate.