Unspectacular in an almost nonchalant way, Staudamm tells its story slowly and poetically, which is all the more remarkable when you consider its subject matter – a high school shooting.
This one took place in a sleepy village in Bavaria and proceeded otherwise in classic US style – kid stalking the corridors letting off rounds in a slow and methodical fashion, killing many, before he too was brought down by a police bullet out by the dam (The Dam is the English language title) where he’d fled, in what looked like a pre-planned bit of suicidal “come and get me, suckers” bravado.
Staudamm is about the aftermath rather than the event itself and picks up the story at the point where a prosecutor is about to go to trial. In what’s essentially a two-hander, the plot follows Roman, the prosecutor’s assistant/factotum to the scene of the crime where he’s meant to pick up some legal documents, then follows him some more as he gets to know Laura, one of the witnesses to the shooting. And then a bit more as one administrative delay after another forces Roman to spend more time in the village than he’d anticipated.
Roman is played by Friedrich Mücke, a handsome, German-TV leading man type well suited (and I mean this in a nice way) to playing blank slates on which experience is about to be written (he was something similar in the gothic mystery series Weinberg). Laura is played by Liv Lisa Fries, 23 or so in 2013 when this was made, a touch puppy-fat-y still, and though not the sleek creature she’d become by 2017, when the Netflix show Babylon Berlin transformed her fortunes, already about 90 per cent towards becoming a magnetic presence.
Laura is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who in familiar fashion transforms the life of the largely passive and sulky Roman, though this being an altogether moody piece of film-making maybe a Disturbed Goblin Nightmare Girl is a better way to describe her.
Either way, Laura knocks on Roman’s car window while he’s at a filling station in the village, tries to cadge some money off him, before the two of them embark on a Before Sunrise-style night of hashish, booze and chat, which culminates in Laura revealing how close she is to the case.
And that, really, is about all there is to this strange little film that’s a tiny bit about survivor’s guilt, a little bit about the way people cope with trauma, a touch about angry smalltown conservatism, and ever so quietly is also a love story about two people whose characters are sketched rather than painted.
All of it is sketched rather than painted, in fact, but the marks are enough and they’ve been made with skill and thought. There’s a sparing use of music, occasional mood-setting cutaways to the snowy scenery in this wintry locale, and some rather unusual scenes – like the one where Roman and Laura have something that could be construed as a lover’s tryst in the abandoned school where the shooting took place.
Who sets a boy-meets-girl movie at the scene of a mass shooting? The answer is writer Christian Lyra (more usually a comedy writer) and director Thomas Sieben (whose thrillerish CV contains Kidnapping Stella, a German-language remake of The Disappearance of Alice Creed). The pair of them also worked together on 2009’s Distanz, another thriller with an offbeat relationship at its core and, being about the making of a serial killer, could almost be seen as a prequel to Staudamm.
It’s the genre-collision aspect that make this unusual movie worth the effort, plus Sieben’s careful establishment of mood and the chance to watch the interaction of the understated Mücke with Fries, an actor on her march towards stardom.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022