Urban Explorers

Urban Explorers

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Welcome to the dark side of Berlin!" exclaims earnest native Kris (Max Reimelt) to the four foreigners – American Dennis (Nick Eversman), Venezuelan Lucia (Nathalie Kelley), French Marie (Catherine de Léan) and Korean Ju-na (Brenda Koo) – who are joining him on an illicit guided tour of the tunnel network beneath Germany's capital city – and his words summarise precisely where this film's originality lies.

Certainly that originality does not derive from the plot. After all, Wolf Creek has already shown us outsiders being entertained by a local boy's tall tales of supernatural disappearances and then running into an all-too-real maniac on the margins who has learnt a torturous trick or two from his military past. Urban Explorer follows that formula to the letter, right down to the detail, mutatis mutandis, of who eventually gets to survive.

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On the way, it cribs copiously (and overtly) from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Descent - and revisits the sort of sub-metropolitan slash-and-dash already seen in New York (C.H.U.D.), London (Death Line, Creep), Paris (Catacombs) and Moscow (Trackman).

Perhaps, though, that is the point. Nothing quite refreshes hoary old tropes like the odd splash of local, culturally specific colour, and with its subterranean Berlin setting, Urban Explorer hits a dormant mother lode of horrific 20th-century history just waiting to be mined and exploited. Going under the significant alias of Dante, Kris plays cicerone for the four foreigners on a journey to a literal Germanic underworld, offering them a grim reminder of the pain and suffering on which today's thriving, united Berlin was built.

For while Urban Explorer may be filled with the sort of troglodytic torture, monstrous madness and bloody death familiar from many other genre films, at heart it is a 'foundation' myth for the city in, around and under which it was shot.

Like the filmmakers, Kris knows his audience, and knows that Ausländer regard the Third Reich as the be-all and end-all of German atrocity – so he duly takes the four tourists to a bricked-up bunker said once to have belonged to Hitler's chauffeurs and festooned with unusual Nazi murals, all the while creeping them out with urban legends about a medically mutated SS elite said still to haunt the underground passageways in search of foreign slaves. And in case such history might be regarded as long dead and buried, our quintet also runs into a pair of aggressive neo-Nazis and their equally aggressive dog, who are keeping the spirit of fascism well and truly alive.

Yet Nazism is merely one layer of Germany's recent history, and the group is soon to meet another in the person of Armin (Klaus Stiglmeier), a former Stasi border guard for whom the unhinged bunker mentality of the Cold War era remains very much a part of the present. And while Armin might not, like Wolf Creek's bogeyman antagonist, know the correct technique for turning a captive into a 'head on a stick', his experience helping Russians fight the Mujahideen in Afghanistan has certainly given him an idea of how to 'pull off a shirt' – a grisly torture method that he first describes, and later inevitably illustrates in graphic detail on one of his hapless 'guests'.

Edited, directed and shot by Andy Fetscher (Bukarest Fleisch), Urban Explorer offers a cruel lesson in the ugliest aspects of Germany's recent history, presented as a hyperbolically nasty exercise in genre. Writer Martin Thau lures in non-German viewers by opening with the European lingua franca of functional English, before increasingly decentering those thrillseekers who lack any fluency in the local tongue.

Hilariously, an unsubtitled version of the film was screened for the UK premiere at FrightFest 2011, leaving many viewers as disoriented by the end as the characters themselves – although once Armin comes out from his infernal charnel house to play cat and mouse with his terrified quarry on the Berlin train lines, it would be a pity to miss out on the film's darkly satirical swipes at the stereotypically German propensity to bow to regulation or perceived authority.

All else here is pure horror cliché, but at least Fetscher handles these tropes with sadistic skill, making the most of his claustrophobic setting, and delivering the kind of tense build-up followed by frenzied blood-letting that, though hardly new, forms part of genre's universal language.

Reviewed on: 26 Sep 2011
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A warren of tunnels beneath Berlin holds trouble for a group of thrill-seekers.
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Director: Andy Fetscher

Writer: Martin Thau

Starring: Nathalie Kelley, Nick Eversman, Klaus Stiglmeier, Max Riemelt, Catherine de Léan, Brenda Koo, Adolfo Assor, Johannes Klaußer, Andreas Wilniewski, Kai Michael Walter

Year: 2011

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: Germany

Festivals:

Frightfest 2011

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If you like this, try:

Wolf Creek