Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cut Off
"Cut-Off is perhaps the best adaptation to date of the work of Sebastian Fitzek." | Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

It's a dark and stormy night on the tiny North Sea archipelago of Heligoland, some 40 miles out from the nearest mainland port at Cuxhaven, when two men approach a young woman in a crowded bar. Linda (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whose Swiss accent immediately makes her seem out of place, is trying to work, but the men don't care. It's a passing example of the way many men think of women as mere props in their stories, there for their entertainment, but it's interrupted when Linda gets a text from an abusive ex boyfriend that send her into panic mode. Could he be somewhere on the island too? In her headlong flight from the bar, she stumbles onto a beach - and discovers a dead body.

Paul Herzfeld is used to dealing with dead bodies. He's a forensic pathologist, played by the always excellent Moritz Bleibtreu, whom non-German viewers may know from international hits like Atomised, The Walker, The Baader Meinhof Complex and Woman In Gold. It's just an ordinary day at work for him, in a clinic on the mainland, until something happens that turns his whole world upside down. Inside the skull cavity of a middle aged woman, he finds a tiny capsule. Inside the capsule, a slip of paper, and on that paper, his teenage daughter's name and a phone number.

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Unlikely though it may seem, these two events are related. Cut-Off is perhaps the best adaptation to date of the work of Sebastian Fitzek, one of Germany's most popular thriller authors, whose collaboration in this instance with pathologist Michael Tsokos ensures an attention to detail that helps to ground the wilder aspects of the complicated plot. When Paul phones the number found in the capsule he learns that his daughter has been kidnapped and that he must 'wait for Erik' to find out what to do next. the corpse Linda finds is wearing a shirt with 'Erik' scrawled on it, and the phone she finds beside it connects her to Paul. Unfortunately, the aforementioned storm makes it very difficult for him to reach Heligoland, despite the assistance of earnest young intern Ingolf (Enno Hesse), and he knows that his daughter may not have much time, so he has to persuade Linda to conduct an autopsy on his behalf, in search of another clue.

Is Linda just a prop in Paul's story? She's alert to that possibility, and non to happy about it, but her own circumstances complicate matters. Not only does she welcome the distraction, she's at a point in her life where she needs to start doing difficult things and recover a sense of her own power. None of which makes it easier to cut a stranger open. She doesn't even eat meat.

It's not as easy as perhaps it should be to distress an audience with the sight of such actions given the proliferation of forensics-focused dramas on TV, but Bauer's performance is convincing enough to make us relate to her revulsion, and director Christian Alvart, who previously ventured into serial killer territory with Antibodies in 2005, doesn't hold back. This approach is rather more problematic when it comes to the imprisoned daughter's suffering, with scenes of sexual violence that really don't need to be as explicit as they are and which, apart from anything else, risk unbalancing the emotional arc of the film. Bleibtreu keeps his emotions on a tight rein much of the time as a man who knows that he must keep a cool head if she is to have any chance of survival, and as a man who is used to being in control, something that provides a constant source of tension between him and Linda, who is not inclined to tolerate being ordered around. It's Bauer's complicated emotional journey that gives the film its humanity and keeps it from becoming nothing more than a clever puzzle.

As a puzzle, it has a lot that will please fans of the genre, with the first two thirds standing up well alongside recent classics of northern European noir. Sadly it loses its way a bit in the final third, with twists that seem to be there for the sake of it and don't really fit with what we've seen of the characters. Despite a nice bit of misdirection, the last of these ends up being unintentionally humorous rather than scary. Lars Eidinger makes an effective principal villain, especially where he draws on that banal misogyny hinted at in the opening scene, but he has a tendency to gurn a bit and the way this is used to fill time risks making him into too obvious, too cartoonish a monster, jarring with the underlying message that we are all, in the right circumstances, capable of doing disturbing things.

Cut-Off is a beautifully crafted, highly polished film with a great deal going for it, and an interesting contribution to 2019's Frightfest. It has serious flaws but most viewers looking for thrills and chills with an intellectual dimension are liable to leave feeling satisfied.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2019
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Coroner Paul Herzfeld finds a capsule buried deep in the head of a heavily mutilated corpse, containing a phone number and single word: the name of his daughter.

Director: Christian Alvart

Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Lars Eidinger, Fahri Yardim

Year: 2018

Runtime: 132 minutes

Country: Germany


Frightfest 2019

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