The hills are alive (or rather, undead), with the sound of music (also mastication and the moaning of zombies) in Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska’s experimental, dialogue-free, home-movie-style riff on Elfriede Jelinek’s “Die Kinder Der Toten” (The Children of the Dead). A seminal text in Jelinek’s native Austria, the 1995 book has never been translated into English, and so the directors, who are part of New York-based performance group the Nature Theater of Oklahoma were reportedly working from a sort of CliffsNotes version of this sprawling, complex, metatextual novel — one that had hitherto been dubbed “unfilmable.”
That’s an assessment barely contradicted by Copper and Liska’s tiresome adaptation, which starts out buoyantly inventive but quickly turns grating, its one-joke premise wearing thinner as the grotesquerie is layered on thicker. Initially, however, it provides an aesthetic surprise, shot in deliciously grainy Super-8 footage, set to Wolfgang Mitterer’s bizarro-folksy score and sound designer Matz Müller’s thoroughly brilliant soundscape, in which background murmuring and the succulent noises of chewing and slurping are intensified in the strict absence of spoken dialogue.
And there’s amusement to be gleaned from early silent-movie-style intertitle conversations such as a scabrous exchange between a sour-faced older woman (Greta Kostka) and her unprepossessing adult daughter Karin (Andrea Maier), which ends with Mum deadpanning, “You’re just not my type as far as daughters go.” Soon, though, the novelty palls as the film’s proudly amateurish zaniness begins to feel labored.
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Set in Styria, a mountainous region of Austria, in an aggressively bucolic alpine inn called the Alpenrose, the film unfolds less as a story than a ramshackle series of murky interludes. The patrons of the Alpenrose include the mutually loathing mother and daughter, an older couple that won’t stop sloppily kissing, a group of folks that finds endless hilarity in wearing pancakes on their faces, and some Syrian poets who have misread the “Styrian Food” sign as “Syrian Food.”
As motley as this collection of people may be, they become even more so when the majority of them, including Karin, are killed in a freak bus accident, and creak slowly back to life as zombies, wearing school play-level greasepaint. Now freed from even the loosest shackles of reality, the narrative devolves further as Karin encounters, seduces and then defeats her inexplicable, malevolent doppelgänger; a mysterious lumberjack (Klaus Unterrieder) tracks them through the forest; a cinema owned by a Nazi widow screens a series of home movies apparently culled from the lives of the watching undead; and a final assault on the Alpenrose culminates in a mother-daughter fight in which they slap each other across the face with large fish. This absurdity is obviously the point, but what point, exactly?
Jelenik’s book is a satire depicting modern Austria’s collective amnesia around its Nazi history as a kind of living death, onto which the directors have grafted extra topicality in the form of the Syrian subplot. And so there are enough juicy themes bobbing around like apples in a dunking tank that if you’re game to stick your head into the miasma you might come out with one or two clamped between your teeth. But the aggravatingly self-conscious aesthetic does the seriousness of the material no favors: within this register of supremely self-aware, ironic kitsch, nothing can ever truly provoke, because there is no structure to subvert and no frame of reference to give the latest gross-out moment any appreciable scale. Murdered Jews cavort with zombie Nazis; burqa-clad Syrians recite nonsensical poetry to undead dirndl-wearing bigots, but these scenes inspire nothing more than a vague frisson of distaste. If you annihilate coherence along with all the sacred cows and false idols that were your actual targets, there’s a danger no one will be able to tell where all your exhausting irreverence is aimed.
The biggest surprise is that chilly Austrian formalist Ulrich Seidl’s name is so prominently associated (as producer) with such an intellectually lax project. When his even more forbiddingly austere countryman Michael Haneke adapted a Jelinek novel, he turned in the profoundly unsettling, darkly brilliant “The Piano Teacher,” and it’s difficult not to pine for a similarly rigorous approach here, instead of this deliberately, almost cynically arch artlessness.
Because aside from the inventive sound and witty score, there is nothing inherently cinematic about “Die Kinder Der Toten,” for all its Super 8, lo-fi artisanal trappings. It’s a project that seems to want to live as an eight-day-long immersive theatrical happening or a five-minute-long Monty Python sketch — anything but the 90-minute feature it has desultorily ended up becoming. Lost in translation is any sense that it lives as a film, making it not just a zombie movie, but a zombified one: a soulless allegory, in an artificially resuscitated format, which staggers mutely through the Austrian countryside craving brains.