In Luzifer, Peter Brunner attempts to channel the lofty European style of horror that was once so distinct in the region. The days when Europe was the haven for movies like this are long gone. Even so, we have to commend the writer-director for his attempt to re-embrace that tradition. The dramatic horror title is certainly a bewildering watch, and despite anything it lacks in cohesion or thematic originality, it certainly remains hard to overlook.
Brunner’s film primarily follows the twisted mother-son duo of Maria (Susanne Jensen) and Johannes (Franz Rogowski). To say they lead an unorthodox life would be a gross understatement. They live alone on an idyllic mountain somewhere in Central Europe, and they stay almost exclusively with each other. Well, that’s something other than the predatory birds that Johannes has taken a liking to. Both engage in bizarre religious practices involving idolatry and other rituals that appear to be an amalgamation of Christianity and pagan ancestor worship.
Very little is explained by means of intelligible exposition. The filmmaker instead relies on obtuse religious imagery and the gradual invasion of technology as means to advance the somewhat fragile narrative. In time, we discover that their remote home is in the middle of a planned ski resort and they refused to sell their property. The developers then resort to heavy-handed tactics to convince them to leave, including sending squadrons of invasive surveillance drones and aggressive helicopter overflights.
“The two engage bizarre religious practices involving idolatry and other rituals…”
Franz Rogowski embodies one of his most physical roles as Johannes. He is probably best known in North America for his major roles in acclaimed films. Transit and Undine (both by German author Christian Petzold). His animal performance in Luzifer is the definitive highlight and serves to keep the audience engaged – even when Brunner’s directing choices aren’t quite as successful. Rogowski’s sparring partner at Jansen is also worth noting, adding a deliciously grotesque quality.
The film unfortunately runs out of steam due to Brunner’s willful adoption of an overambitious thematic and formal approach. Overworked religious imagery abounds, but it never feels necessary or interesting. Editing can also be unnecessarily disorienting, often seemingly cutting into the middle of a developing sequence, thus resetting the viewer in a new space before they’ve digested the previous one. It’s like the late Malick, but in Luziferaudiences would have been better served seeing the characters develop without those creaky artistic flourishes.
Still, it’s hard not to recommend anything with Rogowski, an actor so unique in his approach and delivery that I always relish the opportunity to see him in a major role. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say that it Safe Luzifer entirely, but it certainly makes it watchable. And not to assume that I do not recognize Brunner’s talent as a filmmaker, it must be said that the quality of the film is inescapable. Sometimes, however, even the best directors have to remember that it’s okay to just tell a story and putting your stamp on a work should be secondary.