Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the horror film Luzifer, premiering at Locarno Film Festival 2021.

Imagine that Jessica Tandy (of The Birds) was able to exercise all of her maternal power to RodTaylor, and get him to her place where Tippi Hendren could only appear as an unfriendly drone. She would then cling to religion as a means of motherly love; but the birds, instead of helping her getting rid of her competitor (as they do in Hitchock's films), they would secretly work on her doom.

This kind of version is closer to what director Peter Brunner (To the Night, Those Who Fall Have Wings) gets on screen in the indelibly presented, tantalizing arthouse horror film 'Luzifer' (2021). Based on a true exorcism story, this 103-minute film will have you glued on the screen, with a mordant desire to watch more of destruction and self-destruction.

Johannes (Franz Rogowski) is one of those men that won't grow up without the help of their parents. He lives secluded in an Alpine hut, with his favorite eagle pet Arthur, and a mountain that offers caves to be feared and an open sky to expect all kinds of dangers. His mother (the fearless Susanne Jensen) is a person with a history of substance use, now devoted to religious worship; her education to Johannes consists of a series of prayers and pain-inflicting rituals.

Things are about to change when strangers (first in the form of drones inspecting, later in flesh and blood) start harassing the couple, asking for their hut and land to be sold -in order for the progress to take place. Yet the more the external danger looms in, the more the relationship between the two becomes more complex and troubled.

'Luzifer 'won't belong to the renaissance of the folk horror genre (Midsommer, VVitch and the likes), simply because it almost pushes away the notion of the community from the start; even the main characters' helpers can only offer a glimpse of normal life, sometimes (especially in Johannes' erotic scene, which mirrors his own maternal experience). The film employs its Haneke touch in the way its main characters are meant to endure all and still be intimate to each other. Intruders are as rough as we can imagine, but really outside the real picture. The Alpine setting helps the film breathe and give the impression of an external plateau, in which a battle is being constantly assumed -though never fully realized. Whatever is frightening in 'Luzifer' takes place inside the four walls of the hut.

Brunner moves effortlessly from one powerful shot to the next one, with brilliant camerawork (cinematography: Peter Flinckenberg).  A decelerated tempo sometimes leaves the film in mid-air in its second act, wondering whether Johannes is good enough to evade the hut or simply too doomed (by his birds as well) to immerse himself further, like a new-born teacher of the good (instead of a faithful student). At the same time, 'Luzifer' still registers in a manifest way a sense of abandonment for a kid who should not have been treated this way from the start; the third act is just its natural consequence.

With some shocking scenes (but fitting its theme), 'Luzifer' creates a world of concentrated energy you don't want to visit -and yet you somehow feel compelled to do so. Not easily forgotten.

 Vassilis Kroustallis

Luzifer premiered at the 74th Locarno Film Festival (Concorso Internazionale).

Luzifer (2021, 103')
Director: Peter Brunner
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Susanne Jensen | Producer: Ulrich Seidl | Production Designer: Michael Fissneider | Cinematography: Peter Flinckenberg |Sound: Klaus Kellermann | Sound Designer: Manuel Grandpierre | Music: Tim Hecker | Costumes: Brigitta Fink | Screenplay: Peter Brunner | Production: Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion