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by Robert Dornhelm

grade: 7.5

The Unfish is a decidedly original feature film as far as Austrian cinema is concerned. Director Robert Dornhelm, for his part, was clearly interested in what was being made abroad, showing particular curiosity in 1980s fantasy films.

New arrivals in town

The whale is the undisputed queen of the seas. Yet, as we all know, the whale is not a fish, but a mammal. An enormous mammal that has also inspired numerous masterpieces of literature. This kind of non-fish, therefore, is also the star of the feature film The Unfish, directed by Robert Dornhelm in 1997 and submitted by Austria as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

The bizarre story staged is that of Carl (played by Andreas Lust) and Maria (Eva Herzig), a couple with a passion for mountaineering who are about to get married. One day, a man arrives in the village carrying an enormous whale in his van. It is not known for what reason he decided to transport it there. Suddenly, however, the man dies and his van and the whale remain in the village square for a long time. When, on the day of the wedding, Maria suddenly decides not to go to church and to run far away, the mysterious and charming Sophie Moor (Maria Schrader), niece of the deceased man, who has inherited her uncle’s whale, arrives in the village. The woman, among other things, also has the power to make wishes come true: everyone, making love with her just once, will have to think about what they most desire. What, however, does this magical power of hers entail?

The Unfish is undoubtedly a highly original feature film as far as Austrian cinema is concerned. Robert Dornhelm, for his part, was clearly interested in what was being made abroad, showing particular curiosity in the fantasy films of the 1980s, but, at the same time, describing the Austrian countryside and drawing an exhaustive portrait of contemporary society, just as many of his colleagues did in the meantime.

The Unfish does not stand out at all for sophisticated special effects. On the contrary, Dornhelm’s camera opts for an overall realistic approach, except for the brief moments shot in the belly of the whale itself. What is staged, however, is a tender modern fairy tale for adults. An apologia for good feelings, but also a disenchanted portrait of the world we live in, where selfishness and the desire for revenge often prevail. Of course, a touch of irony and humour make the whole thing light as a feather.

The mysterious character of Sophie contrasts strongly with the villagers. For them, she almost represents a second chance, which should not be missed. Carl and Maria, for their part, seem the most human in the village, despite their weaknesses, and contribute to making some figures even more comic and grotesque (among them, above all, the mayor – played by August Schmölzer – and the parish priest – Rudolf Wessely). No one, in The Unfish, is really innocent. Everyone, whenever the opportunity arises, is ready to give in to their weaknesses. Yet the director does not want to judge at all, but sends us a clear message: only purity of soul can really save us. It is never too late to believe in fairy tales again. The important thing is to still be able to look at the world through the eyes of a child.

Original title: Der Unfisch
Directed by: Robert Dornhelm
Country/year: Austria / 1997
Running time: 90’
Genre: comedy, fantasy, romance
Cast: Maria Schrader, Eva Herzig, Andreas Lust, Georges Kern, August Schmölzer, Karl Merkatz, Bibiane Zeller, Rudolf Wessely, Manuel Löffler, Erwin Leder, Hannes Fretzer, Rainer Egger, Heinrich Schweiger, Gabriela Schmoll, Johannes Zeiler, Beatrice Frey, Gerhard Rühmkorf, Michou Friesz, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Theo Schenk, Heinz Wustinger, Hanna Held, Michael Köhlmeier, Karl Künstler
Screenplay: Michael Köhlmeier
Cinematography: Michael Riebl
Produced by: Terra Film Produktion

Info: the page of The Unfish on iMDb; the page of The Unfish on the website of the Austrian Film Commission