Monday, 12 March 2012

Antikӧrper / Antibodies (2005)

"Who did you expect, Hannibal Lecter?"

 - Gabriel Engel, Antibodies

Serial killer films often follow a formula that makes them kind of a guilty pleasure - a freak show where a human monster (usually with an inventive mode of killing or a quasi-mystical philosophy underpinning his actions) is eventually undone by the one detective with the mental resources to defeat them. Antibodies may not tread too far from this model, but by resisting sensationalism in favour of a thoughtful, downbeat examination of evil, it creates a much more absorbing story than the usual fare.

The film opens with a police team moving in on the Berlin apartment of Gabriel Engel, a paedophile serial killer who paints in his victims' blood. Engel loads a shotgun and prepares for his last stand, fatally shooting one policeman and diving out of a high window before his arrest by police commissioner Seiler. Crippled and in custody, he makes a leering confession to the murders of thirteen young boys, but fails to mention Lucia Flieder - his only female suspected victim, from the nearby rural town of Herzbach.

Meanwhile, Herzbach's starchily Catholic constable Michael Martens is struggling to deal with the aftermath of Lucia's butchering in the suspicious, tight-knit community, as well as the increasingly disturbing behaviour of his son. Drawn to Berlin in the hope of laying the case to rest, he tries to interrogate Engel but only has his buttons pushed by the smirking monster in the cage. Before he leaves, Engel tells Martens that he knows who killed Lucia, a hook that guarantees he'll be back for more.

While there are token elements of the procedural detective story in Antibodies (including a mismatched partner in the sleazy, whorehopping Seiler) they are almost incidental to the main show: an upright man of faith's corruption through exposure to a poisonous mind. Engel not only succeeds in rattling Martens, but remains on his shoulder long after he has left the cell, infecting his repressed sexuality, his relationship with his family and, inevitably, with his God.

Lacking the arch wit of Lecter or the detached, fanatical conviction of Se7en's John Doe, Engel has no apparent grand plan or moral lesson to teach: he's openly, almost cheerfully committed to his depravity and just seems intent on taking one more soul down with him. Martens, whose suspicions about Lucia's killer shift back to his home town, follows him a little too readily down the rabbit hole and finally comes apart in a conclusion that proves a multi-layered test of his faith.

Writer/director Christian Alvart has put together a tight thriller that perhaps owes a little too much to the films already alluded to, but is nonetheless completely gripping from the explosive beginning to the end. The plot unfolds at a patient, measured pace without feeling baggy, with the occasional gore and queasy sex scenes providing flashes of colour in the generally cold, washed-out tone.

Playing mind games with serial killers never goes well for on-screen detectives, and Antibodies doesn't break much ground in this regard - but it's deftly shot, superbly cast, tightly plotted and engrossing. More importantly, by depicting Engel not as a cartoon bogeyman but an uncomfortably believable sociopath, it allows its moral and religious questioning to achieve a rare impact.

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