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Free Country
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by Jay Seaver

"The Berlin Wall came down but some walls stayed up."
3 stars

It's been a while since I saw "Marshland" ("La Isla Minima"), the Spanish film remade here, though I didn't recognize the connection as I watched the new version. It does, however, make sense in retrospect: "Free Country" plays like a story mapped and adapted to a similar situation, and does that well enough to work as a thriller but is perhaps not as incisive as the filmmakers intended it to be.

It takes place in 1992, soon after the reunification of Germany which has left the East in turmoil; it's no surprise teenage sisters Patricia and Nadine Kraft talked of leaving the town of L√∂witz and going to Berlin. Their disappearance still must be investigated, with Patrick Stein (Trystan P√ľtter), recently reassigned from Hamburg in the West, and Markus Bach (Felix Kramer), from G√∂rlach in the East, assigned to the case. They start by talking with parents Henner (Marius Marx) and Katharina (Nora van Waldst√§tten), and classmates including Nicole Liederbach (Alva Sch√§fer), who appears to be dating the "Handsome Charlie" (Ludwig Simon) that the older sister had been seeing. A so-called psychic provides one clue, but the investigation expands when new information comes to light.

Murder, after all, was the sort of crime committed in decadent capitalist countries, and swept under the rug in places like East Germany. Ideally, this would be the heart of the movie, with the squeaky-clean Stein having to deal with everybody in the area associating the police with the Stasi while Bach struggles with decreased authority, or directly confronting how the fall of communism and reunification has not necessarily made things better in places like Löwitz but instead given them capitalists who want to decrease their already-low wages while hiring Poles from over the border. To the extent that this is a factor, though, it seems to be one where a viewer might have to be a German of a certain age to see the nuances of it. Other than the most clearly-described instances, this tends to fade quickly into mismatched-cop territory, with a side of "city cop in a small town" - a clash of styles, but in the most familiar, generic manner.

With that the case, there's not a whole lot of room to make this more than a conventional "buried crime in the boonies" movie, and while the cast is good, it's an odd situation where trying to give them more to work with (some of it taken directly from Marshland) tends to highlight the thinness of the characters. Trystan P√ľtter and Felix Kramer are a good contrast as mismatched detectives, with Kramer seemingly more willing to dig into how these archetypes work better when played big, but the film too often sends them off in different directions rather than having them play off each other, and the little side-stories they get for character development feel a bit like busy-work. Most of the other characters floating around are fairly straightforward, although there's something interesting in Marc Limpach as the "journalist" who dreamed of being a reporter in a free country and now finds himself a crime-scene ghoul, even if he only rarely gets to lean into it. Some of the best work probably comes from Nora von Waldst√§tten as the girls' youthful mother - cowed somewhat by her husband but not timid and guilty that the desire for something more that she passed onto her girls may have gotten them killed. She tags along with Stein for little particular reason beyond having more of her in the movie at one point, and one wonders what this film might have been like had it focused on these two and how post-Cold War Germany was not what they'd hoped for.

The film is nicely put together in general, pushing through its somewhat workman-like police procedural methodically without ever getting bogged down or just doing it by the number, getting good, uneasy moments out of abandoned places while also using the spread-out nature of the area, much tied together through waterways rather than roads, to give the town character and make it feel like things can be just out of sight. Director Christian Alvart serves as his own cinematographer, and it probably helps the imagery to be a little more piercing than it might otherwise have been, serving up meticulously clean and tidy images of a hollow town.

It's quite possible that "Free Country" is a better remake than I can see because I am not the target audience - if Alvart and co-writer Siegfried Kammi took the original film and calibrated it precisely in such a way that it resonates with a German audience but not necessarily with an outsider like myself, then that's arguably exactly what they're supposed to do. It's still a decent thriller, even if I suspect that "Marshland" is the better version.

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originally posted: 05/17/20 10:46:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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