Comparisons do not come easy with “Luz,” an arresting first feature for German writer-director Tilman Singer that is equal measures demonic-possession thriller, experiment in formalist rigor, and flummoxing narrative puzzle-box. Done, almost incredibly, as a film-studies thesis project, this modestly scaled yet slick and conceptually audacious enterprise commands attention. At the very least, it’s an auspicious debut. Whether it has commercial prospects will depend on the willingness of distributors go to out on a limb for a movie whose genre selling points are more suggested than depicted, and whose aesthetic is as almost abstractly minimalist as its story theme is lurid. (They’ll also have to cope with the slim running time, which is exactly as long as it needs to be.)
Singer opens matters with a very loooong long-shot, as a young woman in boyish dress shambles into what turns out to be a police station. This is Luz (Luana Velia), who dazedly drops coins in a beverage vending machine before addressing some inexplicable words to the receptionist. Words that, like many here, we’ll later hear repeated in entirely different contexts, by different people who may even then be imagining themselves elsewhere, and furthermore might be inhabiting bodies other than their own. “Luz” doesn’t make sussing any of this out at all simple. But it does make it very intriguing.
Meanwhile (though the film’s chronology can be highly debatable), two strangers converse in a bar. The woman (Julia Riedler as Nora) is the aggressor, plying the man (Jan Blurhardt’s Dr. Rossini) with drinks and drugs in a vaguely threatening manner. She wants his professional expertise as a psychotherapist, on behalf of a friend she purportedly met long ago at a Chilean Catholic girls’ school — or so she says. Things go from weird to weirder before the two repair to the bathroom, where some kind of supernatural transformation occurs between them.
Thus Rossini may not quite be himself by the time he shows up to conduct an interview at the police precinct HQ with taxi driver Luz — a Chilean émigré and ex-Catholic schoolgirl — under the supervision of detective Bertillion (Nadja Stubiger), helped by translator Olarte (Johannes Benecke). He puts the battered-looking subject, who’s apparently just been in a car accident, under hypnosis. At which point some backstory is revealed (including the performance of an occult rite), and all hell breaks loose.
That latter does entail limited violence, and some practical effects (seemingly none more elaborate than dry ice or contact lenses). But mostly it’s a matter of compelling our imaginations to see things other than what’s immediately before us, as Luz acts out (or rather re-lives) prior events for the benefit of her interrogators. Eventually the past becomes present, the presumably-dead or never-alive manifest themselves, and the police have something very far outside the norm on their hands.
With its icy widescreen visual composure (the work of DP Paul Faltz), yea-icier score (Simon Waskow) primarily sculpted of retro synths, highly worked sound design, and pitch-perfect performances running an emotive scale from the deadpan to the hysterical, “Luz” is strikingly controlled in every aspect. Just what all that control is for will be the sticking point at which viewers divide.
Those looking for conventional genre thrills (or merely plot coherency) may find its mannered ambiguities frustrating, even pointless or dull. Those willing to surrender such expectations will enjoy a singular ride — one not without a certain macabre humor, even some climactic delight — no matter how many questions remain at the fadeout.