Logline: Irene, a reserved young woman, takes a live-in job at a hotel in the German countryside and soon discovers that the girl who previously held her position disappeared suddenly without giving notice. While attempting to discover what happened to her predecessor, Irene encounters the quiet hostility of her co-workers, learns of the legend of a local witch who once lived in a cave, and finds herself drawn deeper into the woods...
Germany and Austria have had a spotty history with horror films. Though the German Expressionist movement gave birth to cinema's first great horrors (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922)), the country's horror film history has been colored since then by its sparsity. The Krimi films of the 1960s dabbled in the horrific (bloody murder committed by zany, perverse masked killers), but the 1970s featured an almost total lack of original German or Austrian productions. (Germany did, however, co-finance other European horrors, including several Italian gialli and more than a few of Jess Franco's films.) In the 1980s through the early 1990s, an underground gore movement began in Germany, resulting in fare like The Burning Moon (1982), Nekromantik (1987), and Violent Shit (1987). Since then, all has been quiet.
The exception is Jessica Hausner's Hotel, an exquisite, subtly menacing film that--lacking a cinematic heritage--finds its roots in a different art form with a long tradition in Germanic cultural history: the fairytale. The fairytale influence is understated but always present. Here we have, at its simplest (which is not to call the film itself simple), a cautionary tale about an innocent seduced by evil temptations and gobbled up for her transgressions. We have the folksy rural setting, a witch living in the forest, and a lucky pendant that (the film strongly implies) provides physical protection. Some of the fairytale symbolism is overt: Irene, decked out in her red hotel uniform and sporting the missing employee's red-framed eyeglasses, looks as if she's on the way to Grandmother's house, while her new, local lover--smiling widely and lasciviously as they ride the elevator to her room for some late night rule-breaking--has some awfully big teeth. Irene is repeatedly drawn to the forest, despite its dangers, outside of the cold, sterilized modern protection of the hotel (dangerous in its own way, perhaps), her curiosity leading her to an inevitable end. We receive the sense that the forest and its purported witch have a long tradition of swallowing up fallen innocents (Irene discovers the name of the missing hotel employee, along with the names of several other young women and their lovers, carved into the bark of a tree outside the witch's cave), and that Irene could not put a stop to her metamorphosis into this fairytale archetype even if she desired to-- which, of course, we're not sure she does.
The film's pacing, visual style, and sound design are entirely its own. Long, brooding shots of poorly-lit vacant lobbies, corridors, and rooms are filled with the creaks and hums of a location with horrid vitality slumbering in its very foundations. A regularly-repeated audio motif of sourceless screams echoing from the trees punctuates the forest's timeless menace. The hotel and its surrounding forest have the ability to create endless walls of shadow at will, beckoning Irene to probe their depths and borders. All of the film's technical competencies converge to produce a terror without release, almost unbearable in its relentlessness. At scant over an hour, any complaints over the film's lack of action (eg. "NOTHING HAPPENS!") are absurd and issue from a shallow reading. Hotel is a piece of modernized folklore at its finest, as ambiguous as it is ambivalent, and sodden with a brand of creeping unease that contributes mightily to its veritable feast for the film-going senses. The fact that it has taken me this long to even hear of the film is inexcusable, but points toward the film's need for increased awareness from the horror community.
Despite my belief that most dedicated horror viewers and scholars would appreciate what's being offered here, Hotel also exists as a fairly unique film in genre cinema. One can't even make critical connections between it and other films without sounding convoluted: it's as if, halfway through filming Hotel Monterey, Chantal Akerman decided she'd rather make Polanski's The Tenant infused with the mythological ambiguity of The Blair Witch Project. I suppose someone could attempt to make the case for the film transcending its genre trappings, but doing so would seem to be missing the point. Hotel, along with other recent European horror films like Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001) and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani's Amer (2009), is working towards reconfiguring the genre, shirking high concepts, body counts, and typical frights in favor of reducing horror to its fundamental, archetypal essence. (That these films are being created primarily by female directors is all the more exciting. In the long history of horror cinema, women have rarely been at the helm, and the fact that these three women have been independently responsible for three of the strongest horror films of the new millennium serves to demonstrate what a colossal loss it has been by keeping horror a boy's club). If these films have the sort of influence that I hope they will, we could be looking at a new European horror renaissance-- one fueled not by the lengths to which the films will go to shock, as do those entries of the regrettable New French Extremity*, but by the desire to give expression to those fears that lurk down in the very depths of the human condition.
*Denis' Trouble Every Day has long been--I feel erroneously--linked to the New French Extremity. If you need me to explain the differences between what Denis' film is doing and what something like À l'intérieur (2007) or Martyrs (2008) is aiming for, well, how about this: Trouble Every Day brings the themes of monstrous sexuality hinted at in Harry Kümel's Daughters of Darkness (1971) to a boil, while À l'intérieur and Martyrs are content to throw gallons of blood onto the screen and entice their actors to never stop screaming.