“Krieg” means “war,” but in German director Rick Ostermann’s sophomore film, his second to play in the Horizons sidebar in Venice after debut “Wolfskinder,” the war is a cold one. This is literal, with half the film taking place on an icy, isolated Austrian mountaintop, but also figurative in that the conflict between the story’s two separate time frames feels attritional, with the actual catharsis of dramatic confrontation between the two strands remaining frustratingly minimal. The movie is elegantly shot, and lean as a line of sight down the barrel of a long-range rifle. But it fails to cohere internally and its endothermic nature makes it difficult to warm to as a viewer: From allusive beginning to enigmatic ending, “Krieg” remains as remote as a snowbound Alpine hideaway.
That hideaway is a one-time sculptor’s cabin toward which we see a tiny figure struggle through the thick snow in the film’s desolate opening. Arnold Stein (Ulrich Matthes — Josef Goebbels in “Downfall”) is spending some time there, just him and his dog, unromantically named Hund. But when he reaches the wooden structure, the lock has been jimmied, and inside there’s evidence that an intruder has been nesting. Over the next few days and weeks, the intruder’s presence is felt in ever more menacing ways — first as just sounds outside the door, then further incursions, until the mysterious man, only glimpsed in passing like a Yeti, grievously injures Hund, and the hostilities escalate.
Meanwhile the action has been skipping back and forth in time, between the “now” of the mountains and the “then” of the life Arnold used to lead. In jarring contrast with the rough-hewn and rustic log cabin, schoolteacher Arnold’s former abode was a gleamingly modern, middle-class suburban home, with an attic conversion and a kitchen that features clean, steel-and-white surfaces. Here, we’re introduced to Arnold’s wife, Karen (Barbara Auer), and, briefly, before his unexpected and unwelcome decision to join the German army, his son, Chris (Samuel Schneider). Chris’ determinedly pacifist parents can’t comprehend his decision — nor can his nonetheless supportive fiancée, Sandra (Lili Apply). But once he’s abroad shooting at “bearded men” (it’s unclear in which conflict he’s engaged, exactly), the more pragmatic, optimistic Arnold relents in his disapproval enough to receive Chris’ recorded missives from the front.
The young man’s decision to join the army is murkily motivated, but it seems like one, judging from the tenor of his letters home, that he quickly comes to regret. Yet it’s not just Chris’ psychology that remains frustratingly underdeveloped: After tragedy strikes, the story skates along on top of Arnold and Karen’s life without ever really making us feel for them. The lack of marital chemistry between Auer and Matthes is a contributing factor, too — they never really feel like they have the familiarity of a decades-long marriage, even during an awkwardly frictionless impromptu sex scene. That same lack of depth plagues an incident later on when Arnold encounters a lone female hiker, played by Jördis Triebel (“Wolfskinder”), and strikes up an offbeat relationship with her. In fact, all of Arnold’s later interactions, with a surly vet (Thomas Loibl) and an oddly suspicious-seeming police officer (Felix von Bredow), are marked more by dubious glances and freighted, dissociated silences than by actual conversation. At some point the characters’ inarticulacy starts to feel like the film’s.
There’s something noble and ambitious that Ostermann, here working from Hannah Hollinger’s spare adaptation of Jochen Rausch’s book, is trying to get at: the limits of pacifism as a philosophy, and the line in the sand — or snow — one must draw when one’s principles come under visceral, violent attack. And the bleak, bleached style of Leah Striker’s cinematography (she also reunites with Ostermann after shooting his debut) gives a crisply compelling edge to the film’s imagery, nicely complemented by a mournfully minimalist score from composer Stefan Will. But Arnold’s psyche, buried behind Matthes’ deep-set, inscrutable eyes is not illuminated in a way that gives us any more insight than that provided by the distant, incurious outline of his eccentric and somewhat illogical behavior. There are wars being waged on many different faraway fronts throughout “Krieg,” but we could wish the film itself were just a little more full-blooded and bellicose.