2019 Film Reviews

Review: Tilman Singer’s ‘Luz’

The demonic possession subgenre has become a staple of horror cinema over the last 40-odd years, so much so that it’s easy to forget that its prevalence is still relatively young. It wasn’t until the first part of the 20th century that possession stories became more common as horror stories, and the concept was most commonly aligned with stories about ghosts and other spirits of the afterlife, as seen in films like 1944’s The Uninvited. It wasn’t until 1973’s The Exorcist that the demonic possession film coalesced, with that movie’s verisimilitude approach causing it to be as big an influence on future filmmakers as it was a box office success. Since then, most films that tackle the topic of demonic possession have a hard time escaping The Exorcist’s shadow — even 2013’s The Conjuring contains a third act that for all its histrionics still seems derivative of the 70s classic. Less accomplished directors have tried using gimmicks such as found footage and mockumentary premises to try to bring something new to the subgenre, with little success. Unlike the slasher film, adhering to a common structure or formula with regards to the demon possession movie is most often detrimental, and it’s the movies that break the formula that are the most refreshingly unique and affecting. German writer-director Tilman Singer has done just that with Luz, a demon possession film that for the most part doesn’t succumb to the typical tropes of the subgenre, and instead follows an eerie path all its own.

Singer throws the audience off balance right from the opening scene: in a long, placidly tense wide shot, a young woman (who is later revealed to be the titular character, played by Luana Velis) wanders into the lobby of a building, shuffles over to a vending machine, buys a drink and then yells something nonsensical at a receptionist. In this scene, Singer establishes a rhythm that he never breaks, letting an enormous amount of tension build without ever releasing it via a jump scare or a sudden burst of violence. As Luz progresses, he doles out information that is crystal clear in a visual sense but disorienting and unexplained narratively. Luz is from Chile, where she used to go to a Catholic girl’s school but now drives a taxi in Germany, and her bilingual nature is part of this disorienting technique. How her story aligns with a man (Jan Bluthardt) being picked up by a woman (Julia Riedler) at a strange bar is part of the mystery of the film’s first section. After the man is revealed to be a psychiatrist, Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), and the woman, Nora (Julia Riedler), claims she is Luz’s girlfriend (as well as… something else), the doctor is called to the police station where Luz is being interrogated, and the policewoman Bertillon (Nadja Stubiger) hopes to enlist his help to have Luz regain her memory about her missing taxi, its passenger and her cuts and scrapes.

All that obfuscation creates a tone that’s masterfully unsettling, however the byproduct of such an approach is that Luz feels rather cold and a bit needlessly confusing. It’s not until well into the movie that it’s even clear who the title character is, nevermind the chronology of past events in her life. Every character is portrayed slightly hyperbolically, in a fashion reminiscent of Andrzej Zulawski. That means that for the film’s scant 70-minute runtime, it’s never grounded, plunging the audience into the deep end and never bringing them out. That runtime also makes Luz feel more like a short than a feature — while Singer (who had previously made two shorts) is most comfortable in that mode, it does leave the movie feeling oddly adrift. The rules and purpose of the demonic possession in Luz is also never made clear, and while that ultimately creates a spooky effect that lingers, it’s easy to get lost attempting to follow what the demon is attempting to do (and how it’s attempting it), causing one to miss the film’s subtext, which it’s clearly more interested in.

That subtext is that Luz is a perverse love story between the demon and (his? Her? Its?) prey, only instead of taking a horror comedy approach, the film wants to highlight just how evil this courtship is. Singer complements the unnerving tension with a visual style that echoes old horror classics as well as other artists. Luz is apparently set in the past, for one thing, as instead of smartphones there are pagers, no mention of the internet, and so on. The film itself looks like it’s from the past — shot on 16mm film by cinematographer Paul Faltz, the pops and blemishes and natural grain of the format stand out. Coupled with the moody, atmospheric environmental effects like fog as well as some harsh neons and fluorescents, Luz looks like it may have been shot 30 years ago, not last year. Singer uses some distancing techniques that are even straight out of the theatre — the mid-movie set-piece of Luz reenacting her fateful cab ride is staged for the first part of the sequence with just a few chairs and physical miming, a technique reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht. There are even some direct resonances to other films, such as a scene in Luz’s taxi cab with pouring rain outside that deliberately recalls Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977, itself shot in Germany), as well as actor Bluthardt’s resemblance to notorious wacko Klaus Kinski, not just in his features but in his willingness to do some wild things (such as scamper around in a dress during one disquieting moment). Even such a bizarre flourish as that speaks to the polysexual nature of the demonic entity pursuing Luz, and as such the film can be seen as a sort of sick joke of a rom com. There’s even a cheekiness in the film’s title (which is also the protagonist’s name) and its meaning (“light”) given the form the demon apparently uses for body hopping. Luz may be a distancing film, but it’s ultimately a fascinating and genuinely creepy one, forging as it does a bold new vision for the tired old demon possession movie, taking a cue from the demons of the subgenre and putting new life into its subject.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.

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