Anyone looking for a really good, atmospheric, taut and tense crime thriller should look no further than Fantasia Film Festival 2020’s Free Country. Director Christian Alvart’s re-imagining of the brilliant post-Francoist set Spanish crime procedural from 2015, Marshland; to post re-unified Germany really works to reframe the thriller.
Set in a newly democratized village following the fall of the Berlin wall and the combining of the East and the West of Germany, we follow two diametrically opposed detectives, Patrick (Trystan Putter) and Markus (Felix Kramer) who had forged a career opposite sides of the wall before being thrust together to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters.
Patrick is distinctly anti-authority, emotional and inefficient with a fire-arm, whereas Markus is a crack-shot with a gun, gruff and old-school Stasi in his methods (in that he often beats information out of suspects). Aside from the unfolding narrative surrounding the actual case these two are investigating, one of the more intriguing elements of the narrative is the growing tension between these two men and their opposing views.
One source of this tension is Markus’ aforementioned use of violence to aid them in the case, with Patrick being sent away from the room during one moment. However, there’s a perfect example of composition and staging in the film to convey this conflict, when Markus is beating the owner of the hunting lodge that falls at the centre of the mystery and Patrick is watching from around the corner through a mirror, he’s partly looking the other way, and also witnessing the brutality unfold.
This is a brilliant parallel for the film to make as we discover that Markus was explicitly complicit in some of the atrocities the fallen regime committed, when a journalist who is helping Patrick with the case recognises him as the man who executed a fellow dissident colleague. Whether this is true or not becomes an underlying source of tension between the two and a question that hangs over these two detectives throughout the film.
Through this context and the framing of the story of the missing girls, post-reunification Germany becomes a character in the film in its own right, the village itself, the dilapidated and abandoned buildings, the river and the factories and plants we visit all help to add to the fact that Free Country has a lot to say about the state of the country.
With all that being said, the case that the rest of this encircles is an intriguing one. Two girls have gone missing and soon enough turn up dead having been raped and tortured. Our two detectives then discover that more women have gone missing and turned up dead in the same river, previously ruled as suicides.
What follows is a series of twists and turns that implicate heroin dealers using the rivers to ply their trade, a factory owner trying to quell a mounting rebellion and strike from his employees, a handsome young man who seems to have a penchant for young girls and a horrifying revelation that a sinister force is preying on, extorting and ultimate killing young girls by using their aspirations and dreams of a better life.
There’s something quite tragic about this whole affair, and the overall tone, production and atmosphere of the film is extremely similar to True Detective or The Tunnel , which is one of a muted and understated despair and melancholy. All of the characters seem sad, both because of the past, but also for the perceived lack of a future. Markus and Patrick have their own sources of depression and hardship, with Markus struggling with health issues and Patrick feeling trapped by a pregnant wife and becoming unfaithful.
In fact, the finale to the film adds a bitter caveat to the path for redemption both of the detectives clearly go through in order to solve the case, and raises issues about whether or not the east and the west can co-exist, with one needing to forget the horrors committed by the other. As such Free Country is a particularly poignant rumination on a country left dealing with dark-political secrets and guilt-ridden pasts told through an excellently paced and realised crime thriller.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here