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Hidden Reserves
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by Jay Seaver

"Death is not the end, unless you can pay for it."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 19: There's a chill to "Hidden Reserves" that doesn't show up in a lot of science fiction film these days; creators have the resources to have fun, so it's not quite so easy or natural to follow one's darker thoughts as it was when dystopias were much easier to create than their opposites. Filmmaker Valentin Hitz has come up with an idea that lends itself to such a resolutely morose environment, and that's what makes it kind of intriguing; the darkness does not seem like an affectation and the moments of light feel more precious as they struggle to escape.

Hitz's idea is "Death Insurance", which Vincent Baumann (Clemens Schick) sells to people afraid that their debts might be collected post-mortem not just by having their bodies used for transplant organs, but as pregnancy surrogates, or having their memories mined and what is left of their brains used for data storage. His latest assignment is Wladimir Sokulov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Ukrainian industrialist who believes that his fortune should be enough to buy him an eternal rest. When Vincent cannot make the sale, his boss and lover Diana (Marion MItterhammer) gives him a demotion - though this also serves as cover to get close to Lisa (Lena Lauzemis), a cabaret singer believed to have connections to an underground plot to free the enslaved dead, though the last undercover operative they sent (Stipe Erceg) made little progress.

Many films have scenarios described as morbid, though few take it quite so literally as this one. The unnerving thing, of course, is that the idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem; CGI effects have put the likenesses of dead actors to work for a generation and it's not hard to foresee a time when enough people are more likely to inherit debt than assets that actually having the person who racked up that debt work it off might behind to sound reasonable. It also works as a metaphor for just how dehumanizing a lot of the work available for those without much in the way of means can be, and the idea of having to continue doing things that are just mindless toil even after one is dead is as unnerving a science-fictional take on Hell as can be imagined.

It's a powerful idea, though Hitz doesn't always dive into all the implications or equivalences of it;; for the most part, it's the backdrop to a spy story, albeit the futuristic type where The Corporation is the one running agents and operations against what it considers terrorists rather than than an all-but-invisible government. As those go, it's pretty good: Hitz readily thrusts an amoral protagonist into a situation that his superiors don't worry about him fully comprehending, and serves up an opposition that is hardened despite having the moral high ground. As it goes on, the classic spy bits play out with the right mix of detachment and urgency, because even when it's starting to look like Vincent may have a heart buried in his chest after all, there's still enough detachment to him and the film at large that the next couple minutes and beyond can hinge on whether or not this crosses his personal lines.

It gives Clemens Schick some work to do, finding the right amount of cold efficiency and countering it with something that will be satisfying whether it turns out to be actual humanity or just a reasonable imitation. His Vincent is never a protagonist that's easy to like, but Schick never plays him as entirely a robot or shark, and it keeps his part of the story interesting. Lena Lauzemis isn't quite able to find the same balance for Lisa, though she's got a tougher job - the femme fatale luring unsuspecting men toward decency and principle is a tricky inversion to pull off, and she winds up more opposing traits that full individual. There's not quite enough room for Simon Schwarz to make Vincent's genuinely good-hearted co-worker the tragic figure he must become, and while Daniel Olbrychski doesn't get a whole lot to do as Sokulov, he does give the old man a feeling of power even as health starts to look fragile.

Indeed, there's a whiff of The Long Goodbye as Vincent and Sokulov first meet, even if the dynamic and results don't match that well. Hitz knows his pop culture well enough to create the same sorts of reactions without copying and pasting, and while the dark gray color palette doesn't vary much, he is fairly canny in how he builds his world out of various dystopian environments - a little noir here, some cyberpunk there, with a base of soul-crushing corporatism, and it doesn't feel like genres fighting. It's not a sleek world, or one where a happy ending seems terribly likely, and as such, there's a bit of emotion to the small victories and compromises.

It doesn't quite hold together perfectly - it's the sort of film which would probably work better if the rebels had a less ambitious plan, to be honest - but as grim futures go, it's among the more interesting and worth talking about. Hitz makes his film's rough edges and pessimistic outlook work, even when he's hinting that one needn't be entirely cynical after all.

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originally posted: 05/03/17 15:00:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2017 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Valentin Hitz

Written by
  Valentin Hitz

  Clemens Schick
  Lena Lauzemis
  Daniel Olbrychski

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