'Luzifer' Review: Franz Rogowski Stars In Peter Brunner's Chilling Arthouse Drama

Around the secluded mountainside cabin in the Austrian Alps where filmmaker Peter Brunner sets his fierce and freakish “Luzifer,” every day is sacred. As Christians so intensely devout that they don’t even seem to belong to any sect, in particular, Johannes (Franz Rogowski) and his mother (Susanne Jensen) have taken to this hidden-away refuge as if literal altitude will bring them closer to God. For her, the thin air and lack of distraction make this an ideal place to stay sober, her routines of prayer and the chores needed to subsist in such a forbidding climate both keeping her on the path. Her son follows her in this ascetic lifestyle, even more pathologically dedicated to the isolation of his upbringing. The press notes name-check Kaspar Hauser, the nineteenth-century maybe-noble raised in captivity, an early abnormal-psych case study in line with the stunted behavioral patterns Johannes has developed.

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He and his mother may share some incestuous nuzzling every now and then, and their relationship to Christ may entail a greater amount of arcane self-harm than most, but they’ve learned to function within their bubble of disciplined, uncompromised worship. So when moneymen come a-calling with increasingly forceful offers to buy up the parcel of land in the way of a planned ski resort, it’s not just a threat to their way of life. It’s a declaration of holy war on their faith, and their response proportions itself to those grave celestial terms. Brunner plays their two-person crusade with formalist accents in turns coolly minimal and suddenly visceral, bringing us into the madness that engulfs the patch of earth they’re willing to martyr themselves defending.

The bleary cinematography depicts the area surrounding their grassy encampment with such dreamlike lushness, it’s hard not to see it as the promised land. The same violet skies that hung over “Post Tenebras Lux” cast an unearthly glow, and the breathtaking mile-high panoramas recall the expanses of fog in the similarly fanatical “Monos.” As much as Johannes and his mother rely on the scenery for spiritual nourishment, they also seem to be at its mercy; Johannes holds a yonic cave in the face of a cliff in reverent fear, believing it to be the mouth of Hell. As the pair steel themselves for a tooth-and-nail battle against the encroaching business concerns, the ambient menace in the soil is shaken loose and takes hold of Johannes’ mother. Though an opening title card claims that the ensuing effort to purge her of demonic presences has foundations in a real-world exorcism, this is where Brunner lets loose with his most hectically stylized camerawork, using what looks like a modified Snorricam as a visual shorthand for Johannes’ disorganized mental state.

That this film nabbed its earliest festival berths at Fantastic Fest and Locarno neatly reflects its at-times discordant split between its genre extremity and the sedate stoicism with which it’s generally presented. In the first shot, the spikes from a climbing crampon dig into flesh as a metonymy for the thorns of Jesus’ crown, a visual metaphor reiterated later in the talons of a falcon on the arm of its caller. If all the bloodletting and bad juju invite classification as straight horror, the sparse and austere atmosphere places Brunner’s methods in a rarefied subcategory. He shows precious little in his mounting of tension, a tendency ultimately problematic for how it conflates simple terror with more complex responses. Ordinary things like birds or tree stumps take on a sinister air, which wafts over to the frequent shots of Johannes’ mother’s nude body. Her son sees her with a conflicted mix of respect, desire, and suspicion during her sponge-baths, and so should we, yet the lurking long takes suggest a played-out inherent ghastliness in naked old lady parts.

With that marked exception, Brunner puts his ability to invest anything and everything with a malevolent charge to chillingly effective use. (He’s aided on this front by the avant-synth blizzards of Tim Hecker’s haunted score.) Drones serve as the creepy, expressionless emissaries of the developers, swooping around the property like birds of prey. They most resemble buzzards in the unsettling final shot that sends a swarm of them toward the fourth wall, its “and you could be next!” insinuation feinting once again toward classical horror. Even so, there’s a deeper sense of concession in this parting image, and not just from commercialism trampling the splendor of nature. Johannes and his mother fight back with the zeal of pilgrims, and so their surrender comes as an admission of defeat on a higher plane. Johannes can expel the evil from his mother, but they can’t cleanse the defiled society they fled in the first place once it comes for them. Albeit in the lofty language of the European arthouse, Brunner restates a foundational midnight-movie idiom: you can run, but you can’t hide.  [B]