The Bunker (Der Bunker)
Germany (2015) Dir. Nikias Chryssos
It has been a long held myth here in old Blighty that the Germans don’t possess a sense of humour. Perhaps not so demonstrably untrue if their film output is being judged, it is fair to say that Teutonic humour is considerably more esoteric to our sensibilities rather than completely absent. In other words, this satirical black comedy debut from Nikias Chryssos is something of an acquired taste indeed.
A Student (Pit Bukowski) needs peace and quiet to work on a project and replies to an ad for such a location, set in a remote snowy forest. The landlords, known only as Father (David Scheller) and Mother (Oona von Maydell), give the Student a secluded bunker to work in which he finds perfect. The landlords have a son, Klaus (Daniel Fripan), who is falling behind on his homeschooled education and asked the Student to tutor him.
Nothing so weird about that so far, right? Well, here come the all important details. The actual house is slightly underground so no light can get in – “nor can it get out” as Father correctly observes – and is rather spartan in terms of décor and mod cons. In fact it is very old fashioned, as if it is stuck back in the late 1960’s/early 70’s. The parents also want Klaus be President of the US which is an unusual aspiration for a German family.
Then there is Klaus himself. When the Student asks him his age, Klaus replies “Eight” despite the fact he is pushing thirty of he is a day. Of course he is dressed like a child, acts like one and has the unformed intelligence of someone younger which he has never questioned. But the Student does make a breakthrough in getting information to stick, through good old fashioned punishment, as recommended by Father.
Possibly the only other minds which would concoct such a surreal situation would be the League Of Gentlemen, with this family fitting in quite easily in Royston Vasey! Along with the uncomfortable spectacle of man-child Klaus still being breastfed or Father caning the boy across his knee, there is also the presence of Heinrich to contend with, the alleged alien being who lives in a huge wound on Mother’s right leg!
Maybe that last aspect is even a bit too much for the League Of Gentlemen but puts The Bunker into a similar quirky comedy category in which the likes of Sweden’s Roy Andersson or Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer currently reside. Much like these two filmmakers Nikias Chryssos isn’t particularly forthcoming with answers, instead he lets this parabolic tale unfold and the audience is basically left to accept what it is given.
Beneath this odd layer of absurdity however lays a trenchant satire on the subject of education, raising some interesting points for discussion via an unquestionably leftfield perspective. First and foremost Chryssos is raising concerns about pushy parents, especially those forcing unreasonable and often selfish aspirations for their offspring. By keeping Klaus at aged eight is the ultimately sign of their mental control over him yet this does little to disguise their own ignorance towards the matter.
However there is an underpinning of tragedy in the parents’ lives too, suggesting this enforced arrested development of their son is more for their benefit than anything else. Mother is usually shown sleeping alone at nights with nary any loving interactions shown between her and father. Instead Mother willingly rewards the Student in kind for his success with Klaus, this sexual attention somehow relieving him of his academic block.
Then there is the practice of teaching and whether having useless information drummed into an unwilling head is a successful and productive method, or whether punishing someone for not remembering all of the capital cities of the world is a worthy incentive. Klaus fails miserably on most counts until the caning across the hands produces results (“You only have four hurt fingers today!” Father gushes) but is he really learning?
Perhaps most poignant development is the Student teaching Klaus about fun and playing, a brand new experience for him which soon becomes the main item on their curriculum until Klaus is forced to spill the beans to Mother. This leads to an unpleasant final act and an ambiguous ending, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the rest of the film, but is one which offers a sort of congruent climax taking all of the preceding facets into account.
Being resolutely surreal, many of the ideas Chryssos is trying to convey are obscured, the quirky style, unexplored kooky characters and overtly daft situations limiting this to a niche audience. As a result it is easy to miss the fact that this is an intelligent film raising some important and pertinent points, putting Chryssos in the odd position of being either too smart for his own good or foolish for alienating a wider audience.
Such bold and nonconforming characters require gusto performances and the four leads commit themselves to their roles. Daniel Fripan (31 at the time of filming) has arguably the toughest job of all yet he does convince us Klaus is just eight, rich are his nuanced mannerisms and natural childlike reactions to adult situations. David Scheller and Oona von Maydell are quietly unnerving in a passive way, buttressed by Pit Bukowski’s straight man role as the Student.
Returning to the point made at the start of this review about the German sense of humour, there aren’t any deliberately funny moments or overt belly laughs to be found here; what there is though are moments of toe curling absurdity which engender a sort of “What the…?” kind of nervous reaction.
Certainly, if “Black comedy” is a euphemism for “weird stuff you’re not supposed to enjoy” then The Bunker is very deserving of this label but offers something deeper for those willing to look for it. An interesting debut nonetheless for those who like a challenge in their world cinema.