Der Bunker is like some abandoned back-alley shopping cart full of fascinating curiosities that don’t quite tell a complete story. The feature debut of German director Nikias Chryssos is a Lynchian labyrinth of disconnected weirdness that still feels oddly satisfying. A horror-comedy that strives to disturb rather than scare, Der Bunker meticulously creates a world of perverse pleasures.
Things start innocently enough with the Student (Pit Bukowski) responding to an advertisement about an apartment for rent… in a secluded bunker. “Didn’t the ad mention a lake view?” he asks the peculiar caretaker, known only as Father (David Scheller). The Student is looking for peace and quiet to finish his tangential research on Higgs particles, so a bunker in the middle of the German wilderness seems like the perfect setting for uninterrupted solitude. Too bad his renters have other plans for him.
Hermetically sealed in their underground bunker like some haphazardly-assembled time capsule, these idiosyncratic characters might as well be living on Mars. Joining Father is the seductive Mother (Oona von Maydell), along with their pint-sized son, Klaus (Daniel Fripan). Father fancies himself an intellectual despite his whimsical flights of fancy. He may be waxing poetic about the nature of Man during the day, but nighttime is reserved for painting his face with clown make-up and reading groan-worthy jokes from a dusty old book. Mother oozes repressed sexuality as she prepares elaborate meals, openly suckles Klaus, and occasionally adjourns to a closet for conversations with an invisible spirit named Heinrich. The overriding concern for both Mother and Father is the education of Klaus, which they have personally undertaken with disappointing results. They surmise (with a little help from Heinrich) that the Student might be a better tutor, despite his assertions to the contrary.
It’s safe to call Der Bunker a horror-comedy, though it contains very little horror and certainly doesn’t function as a conventional comedy. Like some disorienting spiral that keeps twisting back on itself, each bizarre detail takes you further away from a conventional narrative. Writer-director Chryssos has a definite flair for the peculiar. Using the bunker like a theater stage, he herds these oddities into increasingly-tight spaces until something finally breaks loose. The result is a self-contained world that revels in its own weirdness, even if it has no intention of frightening you.
Chryssos’ most inspired creation, obviously, is the man-child, Klaus. Though everyone, including Klaus, insists that he is only 8 years-old, he looks closer to middle-age than pre-school. With his Friar Tuck haircut and a nightmarish wardrobe that looks like the German interpretation of a 1950’s American Christmas catalog, Klaus resembles a demented elf run amok in Santa’s workshop. While we are conditioned to expect some sort of evil Nazi tirade about global domination, Klaus is disarmingly sweet. He’s not the brightest bulb in the pack, but he has a good heart and big dreams about one day becoming President of the United States. Like the rest of the story, Klaus is designed to puzzle and perplex.
Ultimately, what saves Der Bunker from being a self-indulgent exercise in strangeness is the surprisingly-tender relationship between Student and Klaus. Even when Student is mercilessly whipping Klaus for being idiotic in class (learn those capital cities, dammit!), things never feel exploitative. Weird and disconcerting, yes, but never exploitative. In a twisted sense, Der Bunker is a peculiar ‘coming-of-age’ story in which the hero doesn’t know his true age or where the hell he’s going. All Klaus knows is the seemingly-random administration of love and torture in the bunker. It’s a microcosm of life, dissected down to its most unpredictable particles.
The performances are good, over-the-top fun. Maydell, in particular, is genuinely threatening as a woman who is just as likely to stab you as seduce you. As Klaus, Fripan manages to capture childlike innocence without ever exploiting stereotypes about the mentally challenged. This is a character that not only fascinates within the confines of this story, but begs for further stories about his continuing (mis)adventures.
Much like Student is searching for the missing piece of his research thesis, Der Bunker leaves us searching for some greater meaning to its riddles. There doesn’t seem to be any, which might be the entire point. In the end, as in millennia before, it’s just mothers and fathers raising their children… in a secluded bunker at the behest of an invisible spirit. This quirky treasure-trove of eccentricities may be a head-scratcher, but it’s also ceaselessly entertaining and clever.
Fantastic Fest takes place from Sept 24 – Oct 1. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.