culturevulture.net – review

German with English subtitles

Mattias Keilich, director

Ever since the days popular German novelist Karl May placed his Old West characters Chief Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in situations ranging from the antebellum South to the opening of the Cherokee Strip, the American western has held a very special place in German hearts. And a highly creative version of the American West has lived in the German imagination ever since. Director Mattias Keilich has appropriated this very German American West and set it in contemporary, post-Wall eastern Germany. His low-key cowboy tale is set in the economically dying lumber towns of the East Harz mountain region.

In a kind of Teutonic Full Monty tale of chronically unemployed lumberjacks, “loser” Krischan (Bjarne Ingmar Mädel) drifts back into town and tries to charm the socks off those who once loved him, trusted him, lent him large sums of money, or otherwise relied upon him as the town’s fortunes were ebbing away. Privatizing the local forestry industry has proven disastrous. Even the former tourism industry has ceased – no one is coming to Tanne [“Pine Tree”] anymore, except the prodigal drifter Krischan, who turns up like a bad penny.

Keilich makes his point of mythic setting with delightful humor. Krischan’s train passes through one whistle stop after another, first Elend (“Misery”), then Sorge (“Troubled”), before arriving in Tanne (putting the viewer in a “Lonesome Pine” kind of mind). It may help to know that the Harz Mountains are the historical setting of Snow White and numerous other fairy tales.

Keilich strikes a sweetly engaging balance between humor and pathos, casting Tanne as an East German western mining town about to become a ghost town. Krischan finds his ex-girlfriend has a son she claims he fathered, and his old best pals are still sore about the mountain of debt he left them buried under. Soon enough, he has everyone eating from the palm of his lusty lumberjack’s paw, as he pumps them full of his tall tales of living in a Canadian lumber camp in (ahem) Montreal.

Native-son lumberjack Krischan is a classic western outlaw hero, roguishly charming in a Butch Cassidy sort of way. Like Butch, he has a way with both men and women. And he manages to turn his natural impulse to con everyone to his own advantage to their collective benefit this time around. Of course, former Marxist state workers learning to be entrepreneurs in the age of 21st-century capitalism lends the story more wackiness.

Local society comes directly from Bonanza. The womenfolk are always two-stepping somewhere in the background, while the men folk knock back draft beers at the local saloon, the only viable business in this one-horse town. The soundtrack is chock full of familiar country, western, antebellum folk, and German-western music, all mixed together in that anachronistically German, Karl May way. (The soundtrack CD is enjoying brisk sales in Germany.) Visually the film is a nostalgic cavalcade of John Ford shots and edits, of East German lumberjacks in denim and flannel.

Multiple plot lines keep the story emotionally involving and moving along. Old pals Ronnie (Frank Auerbach) and Bert (Steven Merting) have family and unemployment sorrows of their own. Former girlfriend (Barbara Phillip) has lost that loving feeling. At the heart of the movie two subplots predominate: Krischan and his son struggle to establish a father-son connection, while the film maker pays loving tribute to lumberjack culture, practices, and lore, demonstrating how to make a lumber king out of a lumber sjack. The film even includes a gratuitous, sometimes-nude scene of blond hunk Bjarne Ingmar Mädel‘s cowboy baptism in a mountain stream.

lumber kings