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snowmans_land

Poor Walter (Jürgen Rißmann): he’s just screwed up an important job assignment, been yelled at by his boss, compared to an old, broken-down horse and told to just get the hell out of sight. He’s constantly struggling against his younger, more “eager” peers (Anton Weber) and any setback feels like starting from the bottom of the hill all over again. Tired, worn-out and jaded, all Walter wants to do is crawl in a hole somewhere, drink himself stupid and try to forget about how mean the world can be: which of us can honestly say we haven’t been there at least once in our lives? The thing is, Walter is a hitman working for the mob and his botched assignment involved killing the wrong target…for the vast majority of us, I’m assuming the parallel ends there.

Writer-director Tomasz Thomson takes this rather familiar premise and feeds it through the mulcher with Snowman’s Land (2010), a Teutonic take on “hitmen with problems” films like In Bruges (2008) and Fargo (1996). In the process, he comes up with something genuinely entertaining, an ice-cold, bleakly humorous look at the way in which fate flips all of us the bird, at one time or another, and how losing it all is sometimes the only way to come out on the other side.

After getting a tip about an “easy” job up North from a colleague (he’s told that he’ll just be sitting around “building snowmen” all day), Walter heads to the isolated estate of local crime boss Berger (Reiner Schöne), nestled deep in the foreboding Carpathian Mountains: the plan is to lick his wounds, collect an easy paycheck and head back to the city after the heat has died down a bit. While navigating the twisted path leading to the estate, Walter happens upon Micky (Thomas Wodianka), an old “friend” of his. Turns out that Micky is also going to be working the job with Walter, much to his consternation. Within moments of meeting Micky, we get a distinct whiff of “potentially unhinged asshole” and there’s an unspoken tension between the two belied by their laddish back-and-forth.

Upon reaching Berger’s mansion, the duo discover that he appears to be away. They also, to their future detriment, make the unfortunate acquaintance of Berger’s wife, the lovely, uncontrollable Sibylle (Eva-Katrin Hermann). She politely informs the men that “it’s not a hotel” and she’s “not a fucking maid” before telling them that they can go into the living room and kitchen but nowhere else. As she’s about to leave for the night, Micky remarks on Sibylle’s revealing outfit: “Don’t tell me they have a disco around here.” “I am the disco around here,” she shoots back without missing a beat and the message should be loud and clear, by this point: we’re firmly in film noir femme fatale territory here.

Ignoring the lady of the house’s direct orders, Micky (and Walter, by reluctant extension), poke around the empty house and discover, among other things, a giant, gated vault filled with drugs. This, of course, finally jogs Micky’s befogged brain enough for him to realize that Sibylle is the local “drug godmother” responsible for all of the area’s operations: her husband provides the protection and infrastructure while she handles everything else. After a night of drug-taking, dancing and near-sex between Micky and Sibylle leads to her shocking, accidental death, however, the pair’s life is flipped upside down. This, of course, is the perfect time for Berger and his extremely scary bodyguard, Kazik (Waléra Kanischtscheff), to return from their journey: as mentioned, fate is nothing if not a practical joker.

As Walter and Micky find out, Berger is not only a violent, insane and potentially delusional man, he’s also an extremely ambitious one: he plans to develop the inhospitable area and turn it into a tourist destination, much to the consternation of the hostile locals who have been instigating a campaign of sabotage and subversion against his efforts. This, then, is why Walter and Micky have been brought here: Berger wants the two to guard his estate from the vengeful locals until such time as Kazik can come up with a more “permanent” solution. Key point to protect? Why, none other than Berger’s beloved wife, Sibylle, of course! And, by the way…where has his lovely wife gotten off to, Berger wonders, as Micky and Walter sweat bullets.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Walter and Micky must carefully navigate around Berger and Kazik, while also trying to avoid the locals, who would just as soon lump them in with the insane mobster. Berger is the most dangerous of individuals, however, a brilliant, paranoid schemer and he already knows that something fishy is going on around his little castle: once he figures out what it is, he’ll be more than happy to give the devil his due.

Between the gorgeously brittle cinematography (DP Ralf Mendle has a deft touch that gives the exteriors an almost fairy-tale quality while playing up the chilly whites and blues in the film’s palette) and the extremely effective score, courtesy of Luke Lalonde, Snowman’s Land is quite the pleasure to watch. Toss in some pretty great performances and a sharp script and Thomson’s film reveals itself to be quite the little sleeper. While it would be a stretch to call the film a “comedy,” by any stretch of the imagination, there’s a gently sardonic tone to the whole thing that helps to smooth across some of the film’s darker edges. One of the most memorable scenes is the one where Berger is about to cut off someone’s toes with an electric carving knife only to have it run out of juice before he can begin his task: sighing, Berger calmly explains that he’ll have to go plug it in and let it charge before he can get back to work…he hopes that his victim will understand and be patient. In many ways, the film’s tone reminded me of the excellent Israeli film Big Bad Wolves (2013), another movie in which men do terrible things yet seem so nonchalant as to render their actions almost mundane.

While all the acting is uniformly excellent (Reiner Schöne makes an absolutely terrifying villain as Berger: the scene where he mercilessly guns down an entire house full of people is a real showstopper), Jürgen Rißmann is definitely the sturdy anchor that keeps the film centered. Walter is an everyman but Rißmann doesn’t play him like a trope or a tired cliché: there’s a sense of authenticity to Walter’s world-weary bearing that manages to cut through the chaos in Snowman’s Land like the clear toll of a bell on a winter day. We like Walter, despite his line of work, and really want him to make it: beyond the opening, everything he does is geared towards redemption and trying to prove himself as someone of worth…can any of us say we would have conducted ourselves differently?

Ultimately, Snowman’s Land takes a familiar plot and twists it into some pretty interesting knots and curlicues. There are interesting hints of bigger issues running beneath the film’s surface, things which make Snowman’s Land a bigger, richer experience: some of the best parts in the film are the ones where our handy narrator gives us the history of the area, explaining that it has, historically, been such a shithole that both Genghis Khan and Napoleon avoided it during their respective campaigns…in other words, just the kind of place you want to turn into a tourist trap. It’s this kind of smart detail that makes Snowman’s Land such an intriguing, fun film, perfect for anyone looking for a quirky crime film, a reason to root for the under-dog or some gorgeous snow-bound scenery.

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