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Review: Don't put colorful, Austrian 'Inheritors' out to pasture

Web posted on:
Tuesday, November 24, 1998 10:06:30 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I'm almost afraid to describe the plot of Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Inheritors" for fear of scaring away possible customers. This is one of the best movies of 1998, but I'd understand if you cringed a little bit at the synopsis.

"The Inheritors" is the story of a bunch of overworked peasants in post-World War I Austria who unexpectedly inherit a farm from their cruel master when somebody sticks his sorry ass with a knife one evening and kills him.

A clip from "The Inheritors"

Video clip: 2.4Mb QuickTime

The other people in the town (mostly suit-wearing, filthy rich farmers who haven't lifted a finger in years to earn their riches) think it's literally against God's will that lowly peasants should control and operate their own fields. And they intend to do everything in their power to make sure that these particular peasants eventually sell the farm and leave.


This could have been a major agrarian drag, but the peasants turn out to be a lot more interesting than you expect them to be. A lot more. There's a great deal of earthy humor in "The Inheritors," and I fully enjoyed the laughs, but that slowly gives way to a class struggle that turns ugly, and, finally, repellanty violent.

Tranquil story-telling technique

Critic Marshall Fine recently made an interesting connection when he compared the feel of the movie to Terence Malick's classic "Days of Heaven." I agree in some respects. Like "Days of Heaven," there are touches of magic sprinkled throughout "The Inheritors" (a lowly circus performer suddenly passes through the village with a huge elephant in tow), and sexual trysts in the haylofts are often motivating factors for the characters. There's also a class struggle that leads to acts of sheer desperation in those lush fields of wheat, just like in Malick's film.

I think, though, that the overriding influence here is that of Werner Herzog, a German director who's probably best known in the States for a movie called "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

Herzog consistently plies a tranquil story-telling technique that's obviously had some effect on Ruzowitzky's vision. The tone of "The Inheritors" most reminds me of a bizarre Herzog concoction from 1976 called "Heart of Glass." Herzog (who's pretty famously wacky) actually had the actors in that one hypnotized before each day's shooting. "The Inheritors" doesn't ooze that movie's off-kilter creepiness -- you haven't lived until you've seen a tranced-out actress discover a dead body in a barn -- but a lot of "Heart of Glass"'s dreaminess is still in evidence.

In many ways, the theme of "The Inheritors" is the appropriation of power and the changes that can occur when people are suddenly allowed to take over the reins of their own lives. The peasants themselves are thrilled with their sudden windfall ... even though their deceased master callously mocked their personal quirks in his will, which (upon his written request) is read aloud in front of all the townspeople. He writes that he hopes the peasants will kill each other as they fight for the money. He was not, in case you can't tell, a nice guy.

We quickly come to find, though, that the inheritors are a lot more complicated than their former boss perceived them to be. Lukas (Simon Schwarz) is a gregariously over-sexed type who, legend has it, was found in the fields by a local woman when he was just a baby. Not much in the brains department, Lukas still feels that he should be the one calling the shots for the "one-seventh" farmers (seven of them inherited equal shares, and this is what the local upper-crust derisively calls them). Unfortunately, his inability to contain his long-brewing rage towards his former taskmasters will be his downfall.

Emmy (Sophie Rois), Lukas' main squeeze, is portrayed as a simple whore in the will, but she turns out to have more backbone than anyone else in the village. She's a proud, self-confident woman whose sudden good fortune has emboldened her.

Her resolutely confrontational manner soon enrages the town's most powerful man, an obese tyrant named Danninger (Ulrich Wildgruber, effortlessly conveying a corrupted soul). Danninger will devise a variety of ploys to try to foreclose on the one-seventh farmers, but the new owners find that they're capable of getting much more work done (and earning much more money) when left to cultivate the crops for themselves. These proceedings are related in often charming voiceover by one of the peasants, an amiable young man named Severin (Lars Rudolph).

Brimming with life

The other peasants aren't as complex as Lukas and Emmy, but I think this is intentional. Ruzowitzky is dissecting the pecking order, his point evidently being that the structure of a moneymaking community (even one containing just seven people) will inevitably lead to a power struggle. Even the far-seeing Emmy winds up on something of a power trip, at one point smacking a couple of the younger girls when they're showing too much interest in a silly hat that they've found. The new farmers take real joy in their work, but their taste of happiness just creates more problems that promise to pull them apart.

Eventually, an act of sabotage will ruin everything they've worked so hard to attain, with Emmy and Lukas receiving a brutal comeuppance for their newfound sense of self-respect. "The Inheritors" brims with life, albeit not the kind of "life" that you find in most American films.

The human spirit is in full, wavering evidence here. But the expected "triumph" of that spirit (a key element in any big studio's money-minting juggernaut game plan) never quite takes hold. This is a memorable, intriguingly complex piece of filmmaking that's worth your time and attention. Don't let the subject matter (or the subtitles) scare you away.

"The Inheritors" contains sex, nudity, and violence...including an awful rape. Rated R. 95 minutes. In German with English subtitles.

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