The Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s infected dreamers from all over the world with mining fever, spurring them to depart for the uncharted wilderness of northwest Canada. Inspired by period diaries and photographs, German helmer-scribe Thomas Arslan’s astutely cast, beautifully crafted “Gold” tells the story of a diverse group of Germans who set off on the trek with great hopes. This involving, naturalistic period piece, full of tension and immediacy, satisfyingly exploits the conventions of the late-era Western as well as its ruggedly majestic landscapes, and could spell healthy returns, if not B.O. gold, for select arthouse distributors.
Top-hatted blowhard Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth) leads seven compatriots as they set off from Ashcroft, Canada’s northernmost railway terminus, in the summer of 1898. Among the party are cautious and capable Emily (Nina Hoss), from Bremen by way of Chicago, eager to make a new life for herself; Joseph Rossman (Lars Rudolph), a banjo-playing father of four determined to escape poverty for the sake of his family; and obnoxious, whisky-slugging journalist Gustav Muller (Uwe Bohm). They’re supported by cooks Otto and Maria Dietz (Wolfgang Packhauser, Rosa Enskat), who drive the covered wagon, and packer Carl Boehmer (Marko Mandic), an experienced horse wrangler and the only one with a real notion of the enormous hardships they will face.
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As the days go by and they ride deeper into the harsh wilderness of the hinterland, it becomes clear that Laser’s promise of an easy six-week journey was just one of many lies. While uncertainty, exhaustion and accidents take their toll on the travelers, Emily and Boehmer draw closer together, quietly impressed by the qualities they observe in one another. Meanwhile, Arslan adds another layer of who-will-make-it suspense with the presence of two menacing men who are on Boehmer’s trail.
For those whose idea of a Teuton Western involves Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, “Gold” will come as a real surprise, especially considering the 19th-century wave of Austro-German migration to North America has not previously inspired notable fiction features. Likely to remind some arthouse audiences of Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic oater “Meek’s Cutoff,” albeit on a much more accessible, narrative-driven scale, the film represents a big leap for Arslan, hitherto known for small, critically acclaimed character studies and most recently, the Berlin underworld thriller “In the Shadows.” He keeps the action lean, tight and quiet, and his dialogue is notably spare, used mainly for exposition.
In a story so reliant on the physical efforts the characters must make to achieve their goal, the thesps, with their dirty, weather-beaten faces, convince as pioneers capable of riding, shooting, pitching camp and, if necessary, performing rough surgery. Hoss (“Barbara”) is ideally cast as the prickly, self-sufficient Emily, who is determined to move forward at all costs, while Slovenia-born Mandic is entirely credible as the resilient immigrant worker skilled in the ways of animals and nature; his performance here should earn him notice from casting directors around the world.
Among the film’s many resonant images, one of the saddest is a frontier cemetery pebbled with rough-hewn grave markers indicating the final resting place of those “Dutchmen” (as the German speakers were labeled on the frontier) who died far from their home soil.
Tech credits are topnotch across the board. Patrick Orth’s dynamic use of natural light and widescreen lensing gains in impact by keeping the camera close to the characters and only occasionally revealing the endless wilderness they’re lost in. Anette Guther’s evocative period costumes show the wear and tear of the main characters’ odyssey, as the exigencies of the journey soon cause men and women alike to give up such concerns as wearing clean clothes and bathing. Although it grows on the audience as the film moves along, Dylan Carlson’s electric-guitar score strikes an anachronistic note, as does Emily’s perfectly lipsticked mouth.