The year is 2016, and due to an outbreak of massive solar flares five years prior, the Earth and its denizens have been essentially cooked alive in the interim as global temperatures have topped out at nearly 50 degrees above normal. It’s so hot most of the water has evaporated, meaning most plant and animal life are a distant memory and social order isn’t too far behind. During daylight hours, it’s best to just stay inside out of the scorching heat. But if you have to go out, best to cover up against the blinding sun or run the risk of getting burned or blistered -- or worse,
Our tale then focuses on a lonely Volvo as it sputters along through this hellish landscape that used to be Germany, the windows covered over against the relentless light except for a narrow viewing slit, the A/C long dead. Inside, we have two sisters, Marie and Leonie (Herzsprung, Vicari), and the elder Marie’s boyfriend, Phillip (Eidinger), behind the wheel. Their intention is to make it to the mountains, where there is a rumor of water of great quantity. Scrounging as they go, and extremely low on gas, the group risks a stop at a long abandoned service station; and while Phillip searches for fuel outside, the girls scour for any food or water left inside, draining toilet and radiator pipes for the precious fluid, keeping one eye open for any other hostile survivalists -- like, say, the one currently breaking into their car.
Alerted to his presence, the hooded man is caught; and after a brief hostage crisis, an uneasy truce is reached, with the emaciated stranger offering up some gas he’s got squirreled away in exchange for water and food. Told where they’re headed, the hooded man says the Volvo will never make it unless it gets a new fan belt. Realizing this scavenger mechanic might come in handy, Phillip offers to bring him along if he’s willing to fix the car. The man agrees. His name is Tom (Erceg).
Thus and so, all four pack into the sweltering car and press on, making it as far as the foothills before a collapsed power-line tower blocks the road. With some effort they remove the obstruction but then spot another car who wasn’t so lucky that crashed over the embankment and came to rest about thirty yards below. (The fallen tower was on a rounded curve and they themselves barely got stopped in time.) Now, it should be noted that the origin of this wreck was revealed in an opening prologue, where a pair of travelers were ambushed by a pack of mostly unseen attackers, who seem to be more interested in capturing them than the contents of their car, meaning our quartet has just stumbled into the very same trap. And as Tom, Phillip and Marie head down to salvage what they can from the wreck, Leonie is left alone on the road with the car as shadowy figures move through the trees, circling ever closer...
As you peruse the credits for HELL (2011), you might just recognize the guy who served as executive producer. Now, don’t let the name Roland Emmerich scare you off. Yes, I know this is technically a disaster movie. And yes, I know, I know, Emmerich made some of the biggest, loudest, dumbest, and thee worst disaster movies on record, ranging from that shitburger Godzilla (1998), to The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to the rock-stupid 2012 (2009), where, thank god, John Cusack and Amanda Peet’s marriage is saved. I mean, it only took the deaths of seven billion people and all, but, *whew*. But don’t worry, Tim Fehlbaum’s HELL is a much quieter story than that in both content and execution. We are definitely not in CGI overkill mode or Mad Max territory. It’s still the end of the world and all of that, but that’s just the background as the film is more concerned with the crisis within than the tempest without.
It’s established early that Leonie hates the weasley Phillip, and with good reason it turns out. We get a few clues that their mother has recently died, leaving the ill-equipped Marie as the head of the family; and in order to keep them both alive and safe, she has latched onto Phillip because, as the little sister derisively points out, he has a functioning car. Marie takes a ton of grief from Leonie as she constantly acquiesces to Phillip’s every demand or move, even readily agreeing to allow Tom to come along even though he could prove dangerous. Ultimately, then, HELL is about Marie’s journey from passive bystander to aggressive participant when the crap hits the fan, beginning with Leonie’s screams as she is abducted and their car is hijacked out from underneath them.
Tracking the hijackers to a clearing, the trio sees that Leonie isn’t the only captive. And when one of the others makes a break for it, drawing off most of the bad guys, Tom hits upon a plan to rescue Leonie, involving him using a Molotov cocktail to draw off the remaining guards while Marie hot-wires the Volvo and steals it back, leaving Phillip to free Leonie. All goes according to plan -- well, except for the fact that Tom is captured; Marie manages to swipe the car, but when Phillip catches up to her, Leonie is nowhere in sight. And while he claims she was chained to the others, making any rescue attempt a lost cause, I’m not sure if Marie believes this. See, Phillip really didn’t like Leonie either. Was this the ready made excuse he needed to ditch her so he and Marie can ride off alone? The answer to that is moot as Marie leaves him and the car and heads back to find her sister.
Philip reluctantly agrees to go with her (-- mostly due to the fact that she refuses to tell him how to hot-wire the car properly), but they don’t get very far before they’re ambushed and he is captured. Taking refuge, Marie holes up in the derelict church and eventually nods off. She is awakened by a friendly middle-aged woman named Bäuerin (Winkler), who invites the exhausted girl to come and enjoy the hospitality of her farm, and then they can all look for her missing sister together with the help of her children. This, of course, is another trap, and Marie winds up locked in a bedroom after she spies Bäuerin’s brood herding a bunch of captives, including Philip, into a barn. Told times are tough and meat is hard to come by, Bäuerin reveals most of the captives they take from the road will soon be chopped up and added to the larder. But not to worry, the matriarch has chosen to spare Marie and Leonie this grisly fate, saying they will make wonderful wives for her two oldest boys. And when I say “wives” I’m thinking more like indentured servants and brood mares to keep the family farm going in perpetuity.
Sadly, I am proven right when Micah (Blanc) barges in to *ahem* consummate their unholy union. She manages to fight him off but Marie is ultimately saved by the timely arrival of Leonie, who clobbers the attacker over the head, knocking him out. And while Marie is able to lower Leonie out of the upstairs window she is unable to make the leap herself. Telling her sister to go and hide in the woods and wait for her, Marie tries to find another way out of the house only to stumble into the kitchen just in time for dinner. Forced to take seat, she watches as these cannibal farmers enjoy their bounty until she wigs out and makes a break for the door. She doesn’t make it.
A Swiss-German co-production, our film’s title is a clever play on words. Obviously you have the literal meaning of hell, as in hotter than, a hell on Earth, but hell also means “bright” in German, and that this film definitely is. At least for the first (and better) part of the movie. Through a combination of filters and opticals, Fehlbaum and cinematographer, Markus Förderer, paint a eerily beautiful and over-saturated world, where the light obliterates everything, showing us just the bare hard edges of these parched surroundings as the world slowly turns into a desert.
About fifteen years ago on a trip to California my friends and I drove through Yosemite, which had been ravaged by wildfires. (Seemed the whole western half of the country was burning back in 2002.) As the road snaked into the forest of scorched and blackened trees we stopped for a closer look. The silence was deafening as everything was seemingly dead. The fires were still raging in the distance, as the air was still rancid with smoke and charred particulates that fouled your nose and lungs; and if you wandered too far off the windswept asphalt, you were soon up to your knees in ash.
The opening sequences of HELL brought all of that back and are an excellent and startling example of world building (destroying?) but then we kinda switch from an end of the world sci-fi scenario to horror hi-jinks as the film quickly devolves into an ersatz slasher movie, with Marie pressed into Final Girl status as she finds herself trussed up and left on the slaughterhouse floor, where she watches, rather dispassionately, as Phillip is killed and heads for the butcher’s block (-- kinda confirming what Leonie has been saying about their relationship all along).
But Micah makes a critical error when he discards Phillip’s clothes by Marie, who manages to secure his hidden knife; and then, not only does she manage to free herself, she also finds Tom and all the rest of the captives and engineers a jailbreak (barn-break?), though this might’ve been done for more mercenary reasons, to sow confusion and give the family something else to chase while she sneaks off to find Leonie, who, alas, has already been found by Bäuerin and Micah, leading to a final showdown between these two women to see who really has the guts to survive what is coming.
While all of HELL is very well executed, it's anchored by marvelous performance by Hannah Herzsprung as she is forced to shed herself of the trappings of the civilized norms of gender and go all mama bear protecting her surrogate cub in this new normal. And she does this by not turning into a lethal warrior woman but by turning into someone able to do the cold calculations on who lives and who dies without hesitation.
Fair warning: I first caught HELL by chance while playing Netflix Instant roulette, where it streamed in the original German with English subtitles and found myself smitten with it. Of course, then, when I chose it for Hubrisween and went back to watch it again the title was long gone. A quick check found it has never been released on DVD on this side of the pond, and the only print I could find online was dubbed -- and dubbed quite horrifically, so much so it almost ruined the movie. So, yeah, avoid that version if you can because otherwise HELL is a pretty great and innovative movie that turns into a fairly predictable but still pretty good movie. This film is hard to watch in spots, literally, as the constant sun glares off the screen, but try to keep your eyes open. There’s some pretty cool stuff going on here.
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Hell (2011) Caligari Film- und Fernsehproduktions :: Claussen Wöbke Putz Filmproduktion :: Vega Film GmbH :: Seven Pictures :: Paramount Pictures / EP: Roland Emmerich / P: Stefan Gärtner, Ruth Waldburger, Gabriele Walther, Thomas Wöbke / D: Tim Fehlbaum / W: Tim Fehlbaum, Oliver Kahl, Thomas Wöbke / C: Markus Förderer / E: Andreas Menn / M: Lorenz Dangel / S: Hannah Herzsprung, Lisa Vicari, Lars Eidinger, Stipe Erceg, Angela Winkler, Yoann Blanc