Reviewed by: Chris

Does your other half have a hobby? Something that keeps them out of mischief, perhaps. Out of your hair for a while. Or maybe something you find you can both share?

Gentle-natured Daniel Bauer has a hobby that takes him pleasantly to another level. It gives his work environment a whole new purpose. He lives in a world where his boss makes fun of him. He feels disempowered at his job as a gardener in the Botanics. He doesn’t have many friends. So at first it’s a worry whether his (rather conservative and rather gorgeous) new girlfriend will find out. She’s a pretty clever cookie. But devoted to Daniel. Then again, this hobby thing can be a bit more unusual than sorting a stamp collection dressed in someone else’s suspenders.

Copy picture

Daniel’s hobby is killing people. Calmly. Unfussily. With the same detachment as someone putting the washing out.

He starts off just dropping rocks off a motorway bridge. Nice satisfying crash. (He walks on nonchalantly.) Then Daniel sees a bloodthirsty hunt. A poor little fox is killed. He steals a gun from the unlocked boot. At work a bit earlier the next day. Catch a morning jogger. Right between the eyes.

This goes on for a while. It’s an itch he likes to scratch. Nothing personal.

Daniel's new girlfriend, a blonde co-worker named Jana, sees everything she wants in this shy young man. He at first rejects her, unable to handle the first date scenario. But eventually he gives in. It’s a nice one up on the boss when the two of them are seen together. Daniel keeps the hobby secret. And he’s discreet. Bumping off a botanics visitor here, tending the flower beds there. As if nothing unusual is happening.

Daniel and Jana go on a short romantic break. Nice pastoral stuff, a romp that helps the pacing of the movie and also cramps his style. Just like the police patrolling the gardens now. Daniel soon feels poorly with the pressure. Jana takes time off work to care for him. And moves in with him. What devotion!

I did enjoy Distanz. The casually conducted murders have a certain shock value. And Ken Duken, who plays Daniel, is almost a young Kevin Bacon. His character perfectly fits the psychological profile delineated in Copycat, where Dr Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) links the apparent ‘normality’ of serial killers with the invisibility afforded by white masculinity. The gory tabloid idea of a deranged serial killer is very distant from this. Distant from such cold-blooded reality.

Daniel, although sexually active, is a very repressed man. The character still epitomises to a large extent the non-phallic sexuality of serial killers going back to films like Peeping Tom and Psycho. A feminist reading might ponder parallels between Daniel’s desire to defile his victims (by killing them) and his attitude towards Jana. Both are convincing expressions of how he needs to define himself by replacing his sense of emptiness with a sense of superiority. And power over others. The film draws us into identifying with him, to enjoying a scopophilic pleasure as he goes where we wouldn’t. We are like voyeurs as the camera takes us behind the bushes where he, unseen by anyone else, aims the rifle. The victim is in our sights. The audience wills him to ‘get away with it.’

A weak point for me is when Jana decides to stay with him after discovering his gruesome leisure pursuit. “You have to stop doing this!” she says, which doesn’t quite seem a strong enough statement from someone who's just discovered her bloke is murderously mad. Especially as she is not a Bonny & Clyde girl and certainly no Natural Born white trash Killer. Just a nice, intelligent, respectable young woman who works at the office. This heart (or loins) ruling the head doesn't quite convince in this case. Even if she is devoted enough to not turn him in, surely she wouldn’t stay between his blood-tainted sheets?

As a plot device, this could be forgiven in a less-than-believable box-office action thriller. But in such an otherwise stylish film it strikes a weak note. You might feel differently, of course. Be swept along. And, like Jana, forgive such apparent contrivance. Her attitude would make ideal wish-fulfilment in Daniel’s warped world. But I didn’t find enough evidence to suggest that I was watching a dream-projection of his fantasies. The naturalistic, verité style of Distanz seems to preclude such an excuse.

I find Distanz an interesting movie overall. I like the way it avoids overstatement and intrusive background music, and it displays some of the finer stylistic points of modern German cinema. But the genre is a limited one, and it is difficult for serial killer films to really stand out. Some of the best have been the freakishly unusual (Monster), the stylistically overpowering (Natural Born Killers), those heavy with double meaning (American Psycho), or ones focusing on the psychological battle between killer and detective (Silence Of The Lambs, Basic Instinct). Distanz is a rather classier offering than, say, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. But it struggles to define itself in an increasingly overcrowded genre.

The competent directorial hand (this is a promising debut feature), the careful evocation of mood, and the well-honed lead performance hold attention throughout, even if the movie doesn’t quite hit the ‘totally riveting’ highspot.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2009
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A serial killer tries to juggle his hobby, his girlfriend and his job.
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Director: Thomas Sieben

Writer: Christian Lyra, Thomas Sieben

Starring: Ken Duken, Franziska Weisz, Josef Heynert, Jan Uplegger

Year: 2009

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: Germany


BIFF 2009
EIFF 2009

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If you like this, try:

American Psycho