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Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Review:

The Inheritors

The Inheritors
Metrodome Distribution
1998 / Colour / 1.85:1 / 95m. / Die Siebtelbauern
Starring Sophie Rois, Simon Schwarz, Lars Rudolph, Tilo Pruckner, Ulrich Wildgruber, Julia Gschnitzer, Susanne Silverio, Kirstin Schwab, Christoph Gusenbauer, Werner Prinz, Dietmar Nigsch, Elisabeth Orth
Cinematography Peter von Haller
Production Designer Isi Wimmer
Film Editor Britta Nahler
Original Music Erik Satie
Written by Stefan Ruzowitzky
Produced by Danny Krausz & Kurt Stocker
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Note: This is a Region 2 PAL release. Region 1 NTSC content may be different.


In the Austrian countryside, a vow of vengeance comes to pass and a cruel and spiteful farmer meets with an untimely end.  The apparent absence of any heirs prompts neighbouring farmers to assume that his land will soon be theirs.  But the dead farmer has gone against local protocol and has bequeathed his property to his ten-strong peasant workforce.  Ignoring the protests of the angry farmers and outraged local townspeople, seven of the peasants decide to stay on as owner-workers: each becoming, in effect, a ‘one-seventh farmer’.  But the daunting task of raising the capital needed to buy out the three peasants who chose to leave is made even more difficult by a particularly malicious farmer, Danninger, who is determined to drive the peasants off their land.

The back-story of the peasant Lukas (Simon Schwarz) gives a good insight into the day to day existence of the peasants before the death of their employer: passive acceptance of a strict discipline of ‘work, eat and sleep’, enforced silences and periodic beatings while receiving only minimal payment, poor foodstuffs and basic lodgings in return.  Literally born into the system, Lukas has had no formal education and has rarely ventured beyond the immediate locality of the farm.  Juvenile in his outlook, his only focus in life is the momentary pleasure to be found romping in the stables with a willing peasant girl or idly dreaming about escaping to America.  But he finds his voice when he backs the bold and articulate Emmy (Sophie Rois) in her struggle to stop the brutal peasant foreman from taking control of the group and selling their farm to Danninger.  Intelligent and determined, but maybe a little too mouthy for her own good, Emmy remains one of the strongest female film characters of recent years.  The third major player amongst the peasants is Severin (Lars Rudolph), a nomad who has spent some time in the big city.  With his furrowed brow, nervous glances and shock of wildly piled hair, he brings to mind a young Jack Nance.  Severin is actually telling the story, after the fact, and his gentle narration cuts in throughout the film.  Thoughtful and generous, he takes it upon himself to educate Lukas but Lukas still fails to grasp the seriousness of most situations.  When he and Emmy have a confrontation with Danninger that will have far reaching consequences, Lukas’s only concern is his urgent need to know whether Emmy’s verbal insult, ‘a man with a big mouth usually has a small cock’, could really hold any truth.

Although the film is set in Austria, the proceedings have a distinctly Western feel.  Danninger (Ulrich Wildgruber) and his cohorts look and act very much like typical Western bad guys and they immediately bring to mind various callous land-grabbers from the celluloid history of the West.  But Danninger is no caricature.  Getting on in years and portly too, he remains a formidable adversary: a cold, unforgiving and tyrannical bigot who simply cannot accept not getting his own way.  Danninger knows that the emancipation of the seven peasants could potentially trigger unrest amongst his own peasant workforce but it’s the unshakeable belief that he has been personally slighted by the self-determination shown by the one-seventh farmers that fuels his desire to act against them and, by the time of the final reckoning, he’s like a man possessed.  His twisted pride simply will not allow him to reassess his opinion of the peasants, even when he grudgingly realises that he actually admires, to a certain extent, the resolve that they have shown.  And so the film comes to subvert that sub-genre of features inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai: instead of seven magnificent gunmen protecting peasant farmers from marauding bandits, here we have seven magnificent workers who try to protect themselves from thugs employed by a miscreant farmer.  And the vicious way in which Danninger attempts to ensure that the peasants’ unexpected good fortune is short lived is particularly harrowing in places.

 But it’s not all doom and gloom.  The film does have its slightly lighter moments.  Talkative Severin reveals that he had to resort to secretly conversing with cows during the periods of enforced silence, one of the peasant girls has an amusingly urgent romp with a passing elephant trainer, the peasants allocate themselves some ‘free time’ but ultimately don’t know how to make use of it and Lukas tackles erotic literature just as soon as he is able to read.

There are also some well executed set pieces.  The dead farmer uses the reading of his will to deliver a final personal insult to each of his former employees and each new insult only serves to intensify the Spaghetti Western villain-style laughter of his fellow farmers.  Their mocking cackles grow and grow until the delivery of the unexpected punch line leaves them sat in stunned, open-mouthed silence.  In one sequence, the peasant foreman stomps across a huge field only to rap Lukas just once on the head, and deliver just one line of admonishment, before briskly turning and stomping all of the way back.  After one particular upset, a bout of sniffles becomes infectious and is soon travelling around the room from person to person, like a fleeting variant of the ‘squeaking bed springs’ sequence from Marc Caro & Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen.  And a night time journey through a forbidding, luminous green forest plays like a scene from a strange European fairy tale.

The film also contains a subplot, which slowly reveals the circumstances that led to the act of vengeance being exacted upon the peasants’ employer.  The mysterious nature of the subplot, coupled with the film’s rural setting, semi-art house tone and successful appropriation of previously established music (Erik Satie’s beautiful piano pieces and a performance by Enrico Caruso) prompt some comparison to Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  But a soundly coherent plot, great characters and an excellent sense of pace makes The Inheritors much more accessible and engaging, if no less tragic, than Herzog’s film.

I’ve read that the film is meant to be set in the 1930s but the rustic environment featured makes it hard to be certain. It certainly looks earlier.  Some of the fashions, particularly the uniforms worn by the Austrian police (which closely resemble those worn by the European military advisors that are found in most Mexican Revolution features), the presentation of the local town and the weaponry employed suggest a time frame closer to that of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite.  Interestingly, the Austrian peasants are periodically subjected to cruel and humiliating insults that are similar to those heaped upon Rod Steiger’s Mexican peasant at the beginning of Leone’s film.  Either way, The Inheritors is well directed and superbly acted and its fine cinematography makes great use of some impressive countryside locations.

Although succeeding primarily as an involving period drama, and an interesting exercise in transferring Western themes to a European location, this thought provoking film also serves as something of a meditation about the nature of inequality, containing allegorical elements which appear to have much to say about the rigid class structures still found in both society and the workplace.  Presented in Austrian, with English subtitles, both the picture and the sound quality of the DVD are excellent.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Inheritors rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2001

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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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