Directed by: Tim Fehlbaum
Written by: Tim Fehlbaum, Oliver Kahl, Thomas Wobke
Featuring: Hannah Herzsprung, Stipe Erceg, Angela Winkler, Lisa Vicari, Michael Kranz, Lars Eidinger
For quite a while now, environmental horror has been the province of mostly North American productions. For some reason, the apocalypse just doesn't seem quite as popular in Europe. But that changes with Tim Fehlbaum's feature debut, the 2011 post-global warming potboiler, the rather amusingly titled Hell (in some parts of the world it's been released as the even more generic Apocalypse). Produced by Roland Emmerich (of course it is), Hell is a good deal less stupid than Emmerich's own 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, but it never quite gets out of second gear.
A hurried text piece sets up the story: In 2016, a series of massive solar flares have raised the earth's temperature by 10 degrees Celsius and made the sun burn brighter than ever. Even the night time gets only as dark as a summer evening. The world is almost a desert now, as the cities and infrastructures have collapsed, livestock has died off and water is a precious commodity. The few survivors left live nomadically.
At the film's outset, Marie (Hannah Herzsprung, of The Baader-Meinhof Complex), her sister Leonie (Lisa Vicari) and boyfriend Philip (Lars Eidinger) are tooling around in a station wagon, heading toward the mountains, where there may be water and vegetation. When they come to a gas station to scavenge for supplies, they encounter a mechanic named Thomas (Stipe Erceg) who initially attacks them, but after he's subdued, he enters into a truce with the trio and joins them on their journey. I liked this little twist on the typical opening scene of most apocalypse movies, where the protagonists are set upon by a crazed bandit — but in this case, he's just a poor guy trying to survive like our heroes.
The trio-turned-quartet eventually makes it to the mountains, but their relationships are starting to fray. Leonie and Marie are arguing, Philip and Marie are drifting apart (or, it's implied, broke up before this all started and are only together now because of a false pregnancy scare), and no one really trusts Tom. But when their car is stolen with Leonie in it and Tom is seemingly killed trying to rescue her, Philip and Marie must trek across the mountains to save Leonie.
The first thing a viewer notices about Hell is the visuals, unsurprisingly. It's not so much the heat that is unbearable, but the fact that it's so bright it's near impossible to see where you're going unless you have some sort of shade guiding you. One scene late in the film, where a bunch of people are trying to escape from Hell's antagonists, turns an open field into a dangerous place, because the escapees don't have sunglasses and the bad guys do. Fehlbaum and his cinematographer, Markus Forderer, took great pains to establish an atmosphere of oppressive desolation, where the night only partially drives away the sun, but this is sometimes worse since you can see the horrific devastation the sun has wrought. Granted, the brightness is also a great way of getting around the film's small budget (since the screen doesn't have to be populated with a lot of stuff). But this works for the most part.
I want to single out the score by veteran composer Lorenz Dangel, since it was one of my favorite parts of Hell. Dangel's work feels influenced by the scores of Michael Mann films, and it fits Fehlbaum's direction of the action very well. The synth-flavored score has a sense of foreboding that sets it apart from most movie music in this genre, and the theme heard over the end credits is particularly haunting. The problem is, the film's story and characters fail to evoke much emotion in the viewer.
While Hell is a technically proficient film, its script is strictly by the numbers, excluding that opening scene. Fehlbaum's screenplay, written with Oliver Kahl and Thomas Wobke, flirts with doing something interesting with the characters, as they don't all get along, although they come off as a bit whiny. But when Leonie gets kidnapped, the plot kicks in, and Marie, Leonie, Phillip and the forces threatening them devolve into stock types.
After Philip is injured, Marie goes on a lonely trek to try and track down Leonie, and where she ends up...well, it's familiar territory, especially to someone who's a fan of a certain horror franchise that recently had a new iteration. Fehlbaum, as I said, is skilled, but he's not skilled enough that he can execute familiar tropes with the kind of panache required to make the film stand out.
The film's performances are serviceable, if undistinguished. Herzsprung is decent as the determined Marie but "determined" is all she's got to play, and sometimes she comes off as stiff, as does Vicari. Eidinger gives the liveliest performance, even though Phillip is the most unlikable of the characters. German soap star Angela Winkler plays a crucial role, but her acting is woefully inconsistent.
As a momentary aside, I made the mistake of watching the film's trailer before watching the film, and Arc Entertainment cut a trailer that gives away the climax. It is literally the penultimate scene in the film. I can see why this decision was made, since many of the film's big set pieces give away crucial bits of the story, but the scene they include exposes something else that's also crucial to the plot, the true nature of one of the characters, so I spent nearly an hour waiting for that to pay off. Big mistake, Arc Entertainment.
It's rare (and encouraging) to see straight-up genre filmmaking coming out of Germany. Hell lacks all the pretense and bloat of movies, things associated with Roland Emmerich, but unfortunately it never rises above the level of a standard genre exercise. Fehlbaum shows promise here, but that's all so far: promise. He's got a good eye for world building and stages the action competently.
I can't really recommend the film, which has a lot to admire but not a lot to enjoy or be excited by. Hell, which apparently means "bright" in German, ends on an optimistic, though ambiguous, note — and, fittingly, this also sums up my reaction to the film.