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by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska

grade: 7

The Children of the Dead immediately shocks, surprises and disorients, filmed entirely in super8, with a look that might initially appear amateurish, but which in fact is not amateurish, and with characters that seem to belong to another world, another era.

They live among us

While in 1995 the famous Austrian writer – and leading figure of the Viennese Social Theatre – Elfriede Jelinek created what would immediately become one of the cornerstones of contemporary Austrian literature, namely the novel The Children of the Dead (Die Kinder der Toten in the original version), it took twenty-three years before a film version of this work was made. And so, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the avant-garde festival Steirischer Herbst, the author gave the rights for free to the American collective Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. This initiative led to the production of The Children of the Dead, the first feature film by directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, produced by Ulrich Seidl (always courageous in promoting new, unconventional projects) and premiered at the 69th Berlin Film Festival, in the Forum section, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. This feature film, moreover, was also selected within the Diagonale 2019.

The scene opens with a 3/4 camera. The metacinematographic aspect immediately makes its important presence felt. Descending a mountain valley, we find ourselves in the Alpenrose guesthouse, the location (or rather, one of the locations) of our story. A group of tourists are eating their lunch. The waitress seems intolerant of everything and everyone. Between one argument and another, between one little joke and another, at the end of the meal the group leaves for a guided tour of Styria in a car driven by the inn owner, who is completely drunk. Immediately, quite predictably, they crash into a busload of Dutch tourists. This is where we finally get to the heart of the story.

Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska’s film is – and this is exactly how it wants to present itself from the very first frames – a full-length feature that shocks, astonishes and disorients from the very beginning. It was shot entirely in super8, with an approach that might initially appear amateurish, but which in fact is not amateurish, and with characters that seem to belong to another world, another era. But, in fact, is it really like that? Or is what the spectator is afraid of, something that is still alive and pulsating in the world we live in?

Elfriede Jelinek, for her part, was more than clear. As a worthy exponent of social theatre, the author has, for most of her career, continually denounced the sort of latent fascism in today’s society. The same is true of this work, in which history has been well mixed with horror, involving also a group of zombies. And this mixture, although (not too) unusual, has convinced everyone from the beginning. Obviously, such ideas, when they are transposed into a film, can create something quite visionary and over the top. And, in this regard, the two young directors have (partly) achieved this.

Although not dealing – cinematically speaking – with a totally new theme involving the unusual pairing of zombies and Nazis (just think of the recent Overlord, for example), Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska were not afraid to experiment, to dare with camera and post-production, creating a film that is apparently halfway between early cinema (the whole film is completely silent, with captions and background noise added only in post-production) and amateur filmmaking.

And yet, comparing this feature film with Jelinek’s original work, we must note that in the latter the historical-anthropological element is much stronger. In The Children of the Dead film version, on the other hand, everything is observed with greater detachment, whose atmosphere is intentionally softened by the aforementioned meta-cinematographic component which, here, necessarily creates a considerable gap between the directors and what is staged.

And even if everything is considered as a pure experiment – or, better still, as a divertissement – in film language, it’ s quite successful. The main problem, however, occurs immediately after the middle of the work, when everything begins to go around in circles and becomes sometimes redundant, before immediately “rising” again when we see the inhabitants of the village taking part in a carnival parade in which the main protagonists of Austrian history are represented as zombies.

So who else in Austria but Ulrich Seidl could have had the courage to produce such a highly experimental and over-the-top work?

Original title: Die Kinder der Toten
Directed by: Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska
Country/year:Austria / 2019
Running time: 90’
Genre: experimental, horror, comedy, surreal, grotesque
Cast: Andrea Maier, Greta Kostka, Klaus Unterrieder
Screenplay: Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska
Cinematography: Kelly Copper, Pavol Liska
Produced by: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH

Info: the page of The Children of the Dead (Die Kinder der Toten) on the website of the Austrian Film Commission