In 1929, three pals search for a composer friend who’s hidden himself away in the woods in the intriguingly febrile “The Council of Birds,” an impressive graduation film from Timm Kroeger that looks terrific yet is rather too awash in unarticulated German Romanticism. Conspicuously steeped in the period’s literary and musical culture, with its unresolved minor keys and mystical expectations of what’s on the horizon (spiritually, socially, politically), the pic boasts lovely textured visuals that prove digital really can approach the look of celluloid, in the right hands. Fests will take “Council,” partly in anticipation of the budding director’s forthcoming efforts.
Viewers familiar with the cultural and philosophical movements of the era are the target audience, those conversant in German Romanticism’s cult of nature and the quasi-quivering sense of man’s spiritual betterment via a pure environment. Paul Leinert (Thorsten Wien), his new wife Anna (Eva Maria Jost) and their friend Wilhelm Krueck (Daniel Krauss) trek into a remote forest on the invitation of Otto Schiffmann (Christian Bluemel), a post-Wagnerian composer who’s there to escape his collapsed marriage as well as Berlin and its fondness for “Hindemith and negro music.”
After walking through majestic woods for hours, the trio find Otto’s cabin in a chaotic state. His dog Ani is there, but not Otto. The friends settle in to calmly wait. And wait. Paul is contemplative, in awe of his friend’s musical talents; Anna does “womanly” things like cook and tidy up, while Willi, the most active of the group, plays with Ani and takes photographs. Inside the house, long shadows cast a pall on the interior, and the ticking clock sounds loudly throughout the rooms. Without warning, Otto returns, silent and sitting in the gloom.
While he sleeps, Anna washes Otto’s fevered body. He suddenly awakes and kisses her; she pulls back in surprise and then meets his lips. The clock’s ticking is silenced, and a postcoital shot of Anna smoking, leaning against a tree and exuding a sloppy fecundity, says everything one needs to know. In fact, it says too much — the image might work in a 1950s meller, but seems very out of place here, despite Kroeger’s conscious attempt to imitate a restrained cinematic style of the past.
It often feels like “The Council of Birds” is trying to reproduce in film the pregnant uncertainty of minor-key passages in Mahler, Wagner, and Hans Pfitzner, the three composers whose music is featured so prominently. Kroeger keeps an air heavily laden with mystery, his protags constantly on the verge of a discovery — about themselves, about their surroundings — which he deliberately keeps unresolved, even in the coda set in 1932. It’s tempting to read the sense of dread as a foreshadowing of Germany’s impending path to hell, though Kroeger refuses to offer so pat an analysis.
In terms of characterization, everyone is underwritten, more metaphor than flesh and blood. The one exception is Anna, thanks in large part to Jost’s palpable screen presence, exuding conflicted period flavor as if she’s part Kristina Soederbaum, part Heidemarie Hatheyer. Most striking of all however are the visuals, profoundly influenced by German painting in the way diffused light filters through the pale green trees, their tall, slender trunks acting as both barrier and haven. Roland Stuprich’s surprisingly mature lensing (this is his first feature) plays off long and medium shots, ensuring that the dense forest’s troubling call remains a co-protagonist alongside the actors.