The Dark Valley – Das Finstere Tal
In the heydays of the spaghetti western, Sergio Corbucci shot a couple of westerns in the Alpes, notably The Great Silence and The Specialists. In those movies the Alps were supposed to represent the Rocky Mountains, in other words: the film was still set in the Far West. A western not only shot but also set in the Alps, is – as far as I know – a novelty.
Das Finstere Tal (The Dark Valley) is set in a secluded valley in the Austrian Alps at the end of the 19th century. Technically, it cannot be called a western (we should call it an ‘Austern’ or something), but the story is classic western fare: A stranger rides into a remote village and with his arrival, all traditions that have stood the test of time, will be questioned and changed. The stranger in town is called Greider. He introduces himself as a photographer and becomes a guest in the house of a widow and her 18-year old daughter Luzi, who’s about to be married. Greider is mistrusted by the other people from the valley, in particular the Brenner clan, a patriach and his six sons, who exercise a reign of terror of fear. When two of the Brenner sons are killed, suspicions fall on the stranger …
Obviously director Andreas Prochaska knows his spaghetti westerns: The snowy setting recalls Corbucci‘s The Great Silence and the film is marked by the strong religious symbolism and anti-clerical overtones that are characteristics of the Italian western. Greider also treasures a locket (with a photo of his mother) that is a clear reference to the famous pocket watch from Sergio Leone‘s For a few Dollars More. Furthermore the script tells a typical revenge story originating in a childhood trauma: Greider’s mother, who lived in the valley, was claimed by the old Brenner for a local custom called prima nocta (in Latin jus primae noctis, the right – claimed by feudal lords in medieval Europe – to deflower young brides on their wedding night) (*1). The groom was punished (he was crucified!) for not respecting the ancient prerogative, but the young woman fled across the ocean, to the promised land, where she gave birth to a son who has now returned to the valley to settle the scores. It soon becomes clear that the Brenner sons have followed the footsteps of their father: on her wedding night, Luzi is claimed by the oldest son, Hans …
In a traditional revenge western the childhood trauma is illustrated by a series of flashbacks, shown progressively throughout the movie. They enable viewers to understand the horror of the situation and also add a dynamic element to the plot by revealing, bit by bit, what happened on the fatal day. In this particular case this approach is of course impossible: Greider was not present at the scene of the crime, and can therefore not ‘see’ the fatal events before his mind’s eye. The events are shown at the beginning of the movie and we only return to them when they are told to Greider by a third person. It creates a certain distance, making it hard for us to identify with the avenger or to share his rage. For most part of the movie, Greider remains a rather cold character.
That said, Das Finstere Tal is a well-crafted, gloriously looking movie: the cinematography of the Alpine landscape is breathtaking. Director Prochaska may be a bit too laid back, but the style fits the somber material well (this really is a dark movie) and the actors are well-chosen. With his granite face Tobias Moretti – who plays Hans, the oldest and most dangerous of the sons – looks like a villain who escaped from a Leone movie, as if No Name forgot to finish him at the end of one of the Dollar movies. The violence is quite strong and the shootout between Greider and the four remaining Brenner sons is a nice illustration of the changing of the times: Greider, who was born in the New World, has a Winchester lever-action repeating rifle while the Brenners only have two-shot rifles (*2). The ‘gun that won the West’ is now winning the East. Or at least Austria.
The action scenes are well-staged and quite exciting, but the movie probably works best in its more intimate moments, notably a scene in which Greider starts having second thoughts about his mission. Greider wants to punish not just the Brenners, but also the people who stood by and let it all happen. He has already killed a priest who did not interfere because ‘there was somebody who knew better what was right’, but then, all of a sudden, has a moment of insight when he is looking an old woman (who’s husband he has knocked down with his rifle) in the eyes. All of a sudden he realizes that he has become as cruel and unforgiving as the people he despises.
* Das Finstere Tal is available in two different versions, the original German language version (with subtitles) and a dubbed English language version. The original version is preferable, but some of the accents spoken are quite strong, so even when you speak German, you’ll most probably need subtitles.
- 1) Prima nocta, officially ius primae noctis, according to the Urban Dictionary: “Rights used by nobles of the past to have sexual rights to the wife of a man newly married on the night of their wedding.” It’s still a matter of debate whether it was a widespread custom in ancient, medieval and/or feudal times or merely an urban myth. References to it were made in ancient writings such as The Epic of Gilgamesj (ca. 2000 BC) and Herodotus’ Histories (450 – 420 BC); in French it’s called “Le Droit du Seigneur’ and it’s believed to have existed under the Ancien Régime. Voltaire accepted the practice as historically authentic in his Dictionnaire Philosophique.
- 2) For the gun that won the West, see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_rifle
Dir: Andreas Prochaska – Cast: Sam Riley (Greider), Tobias Moretti (Hans Brenner), Paula Beer (Luzi), Thomas Schubert (Lukas), Carmen Gratl (Luzi’s mother), Hans-Michael Rehberg (Brenner), Helmuth Häusler (Hubert Brenner), Martin Leutgeb (Otto Brenner), Johannes Nikolussi (Rudolf Brenner), Clemens Schick (Luis Brenner), Florian Brückner (Edi Brenner), Erwin Steinhaueser (Pfarrer Breiser), Xenia Assenza (Greider’s mother)
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