Satire is a sticky wicket requiring expert balance to nail. Films like Paul Verhoven’s RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) are as frequently misunderstood for their analysis of corporate greed and nationalism as Fight Club is (film (1999) or novel) for toxic masculinity. Some films, like The Hunt (2020) are even shunned before anyone’s had a chance to view them, never realizing that the message is the opposite of one’s initial reaction. Heck, writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019) is taken as a film which makes one sympathize with Nazis, a read that’s so off the mark one wonders about media literacy levels among the viewing audience. Then there’s something like writer/director Johannes Grenzfurthner’s (Masking Threshold) Razzennest, an experimental supernatural horror thriller that lampoons the film industry in one breath (respectfully, Willy’s Wonderland rules) while doing something entirely daring with the medium in another. Having had its premiere at Fantastic Fest 2022 in the Burnt Ends section, Razzennest continues to screen elsewhere, pushing indie audiences to go places they’ve never gone in the process.
Film critic Babette Cruickshank (Sophie Kathleen Kozeluh) expects the commentary recording session she’s about to moderate with director Manus Oosthuizen (Michael Smulik), producer Ellen Zampaglione (Anne Weiner), and camera operator Hetti Friesenbichler (Roland Gratzer) to be your regular run-of-the-mill conversation about their work on the film Razzennest. Outside of a few faux pas from Babette, the conversation regarding the bodiless, image-heavy documentary goes fairly smoothly, with Manus providing interesting background in between argumentative outbursts. That is, until something strange happens in the recording booth that shifts from a conversation of the present interpretation of a terrifying past into a manifestation of it.
Razzennest is a three-prong attack on the senses. First, it’s a satire of film culture that’ll have those with any kind of insider knowledge chuckling with self-awareness. One can’t help but wonder how the Fantastic Fest audience must’ve reacted at hearing the name-check (or anyone familiar with the genre-celebratory film festival). There’s the fact that, in her introduction, Babette identifies herself as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic with specialties that’ll make you do a double-take at their mention. That she then flubs things like pronunciation of the film’s title, as well as names of members of the crew, along with demonstrating zero knowledge of the film itself, pokes fun at the self-importance that some critics place on association with institutions to appear knowledgeable rather than doing the work to actually be knowledgeable. Babette isn’t the only one taking hits as Manus comes off like a Werner Herzog-wannabe, except without a sense of pride, duty, or (frankly) awareness that art comes in the form of a collage of seemingly disconnected raw images as well as in pop culture like Star Wars. (One can infer from some dialogue that where Herzog would want to see the baby, Manus never would.) Additionally, there’s humor, dark-tinged though it is, when Manus rips into anyone who would lack understanding of world history in favor of popular knowledge. This is another moment from Grenzfurthner that skewers the notion that a critic who’s only into what’s popular only hurts themselves by lacking a large enough base of knowledge to explore, understand, and critique works beyond the hip. In these moments, though, the script from Grenzfurthner and the delivery from Smulik makes it clear that Manus is no Martin Scorsese, a righteous lover of world cinema and history, but a man-child who looks down on anyone that questions his specific view. The satirization of film (the critic and the artist) is an absolute tight-rope walk that mostly works, beyond a few moments where it goes just a little too far toward uncomfortable belittling.
The next prong is the documentary the characters are watching, also titled Razzennest. As the premise explains, this is a commentary track recording session, so just like queuing it up at home, we observe the personless series of images and hear the score from Alec Empire while listening to the characters engage each other. The images we’re shown aren’t entirely disquieting themselves as they depict the area around the forest complex in Austria known as Rohrwald, with the camera capturing either unmoving objects, presenting drone shots over the landscape and nearby Burg Kreuzenstein (Kreuzenstein castle), or the various cavelike tunnels in the forests. On their own, especially in the early portions of the film, they amount to little more than location setting and allow the world-building to progress. In this case, it takes the form of Manus’s subject: one of the longest and most devastating conflicts in European history, the Thirty Years’ War. Via Manus and Babette, the audience gets enough of a run-down so as to follow the action when things get wild, but this also allows for a bit of truth to sneak through the satire when Manus exclaims how people are more interested in the latest meaningless bullshit than they are world history and the continued fallout from such major events. Horror frequently involves or utilizes some kind of exploration of an understood or even forgotten trauma and what better way to seed one’s larger film than for Grenzfurthner to spend some time on a real issue before using it as fodder for chills and thrills. That said, as things grow weirder and wilder, with the only things we’re able to engage with being the voices of the cast as they respond or react to what transpires, the documentary transfixes our eyes while the sounds bewitch our imaginations. This translates to some particularly wicked editing in which the images in the documentary shift, change, or almost supernaturally acknowledge what’s happening to the characters. So if the protests and cries don’t get you, Daniel Hasibar’s foley work will surely have you cringing in your seat.
The final prong is the horror itself. For the duration of Razzennest the viewing audience never once sees any of the cast, yet the performances are so clearly defined vocally that it’s not only easy to distinguish who is who, one starts to feel a little for them before too long. At first, Razzennest is cringy, at best, the personalities of the characters and the way each one engages the other generating a sense of second-hand embarrassment when one does something unexpectedly uncomfortable toward another. Then, once the history of the film is known and a few key words stated, things take a turn that makes this scruples satire bare its fangs, at which point we become witness to things that, frankly, I wish I hadn’t heard (again, ::hat tip to Hasibar::). It’s here that the full weight of Razzennest (the larger film, not the documentary) bears down upon the audience, where, despite having the full ability to walk away from this faux commentary track, we cannot bring ourselves to do so. We have to see how things play out, to learn what comes next and if it’ll relief or exacerbate the terror.
With these three prongs, Grenzfurthner crafts a story truly unlike anything seen in recent memory. There are shades of other films who’ve told meta stories, taken pot shots at critics and directors, or used real history as a starting point to disturb the present masses, but never in such a configuration where the senses are so specifically targeted that one’s own imagination is used against us. As Manus himself admits, movies are a visual medium and, therefore, the audience watches what happens. But, like Manus, Grenzfurthner’s Razzennest prefers to exist in the negative space, requiring that the audience create the horror in the mind’s based on what they hear and the randomness of what they see. More so than not, it’s a disquieting experience that’ll leave you stunned.
By the by, whatever you think or feel upon the conclusion of the story, stick around through the credits for a coda.
Premiered during Fantastic Fest 2022.
Wider release TBD.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.