English Title: Krabat

Country of Origin: Germany

Director: Marco Kreuzpaintner

Producer(s): Jakob Claussen, Nick Hamson, Uli Putz, Lars Sylvest, Bernd Wintersperger, Thomas Wöbke

Screenplay: Marco Kreuzpaintner, Michael Gutmann, Otfried Preussler

Runtime: 120 minutes

Genre: Fantastic, Coming-of-Age, Magic School

Starring/Cast: Daniel Brühl, Paula Kalenberg, David Kross, Christian Redl

Year: 2008

Volume: German

In the bitter winter of January 1646, the enigmatic Master (Redl) summons the young orphan Krabat (Kross) in his dreams to a remote Black Mill in Lausitz. Krabat is thus spared the ravages of the Thirty Years War, apprenticing in the mill’s peculiar operations along with eleven other boys. He befriends the oldest boy Tonda (Brühl), and from him learns both the black sorcery practiced at the mill and of its price: the boys may not have relationships with women or outsiders and cannot physically leave the Master’s sphere of influence.  Naturally, both young men fall in love with girls in the nearby village. The apprentices use their magic to defend the village against marauders, though Tonda’s love interest is revealed during the conflict and the Master has her killed the following day. Tonda subsequently becomes the annual sacrifice to fuel the Master’s eternal youth. Krabat and his lover Kantorka (Kalenberg) assiduously conspire to escape the Master’s power the following year. The Master challenges Kantorka by transforming all twelve apprentices into ravens and having her find Krabat among them. She succeeds and the Master’s power is broken, destroying man and mill alike.  The surviving apprentices lose their magic powers, perhaps for the better.

The story of Krabat and the Black Mill, a centuries-old Sorbian legend published as a Czech short story, became one of the most popular German young adult novels of the last four decades, resulting in a 20th Century Fox feature. Such are the terms under which the film Krabat evolved, dispelling any notion that this central European magician’s apprentice fable is a simple dramaturgical derivative of the Harry Potter series.

The feature film is actually the third German-language motion picture of the cult novel, preceded by Celino Bleiweiß’ GDR television production The Black Mill (1975), and Czech animator Karel Zeman’s Krabat (1977). Director Marco Kreuzpaintner, one of the book’s many fans, considered it both an honour and a fulfilment of a childhood fantasy to be named director of the film – akin to Peter Jackson when ‘discovered’ by New Line Cinema to shoot Lord of the Rings (2001). Like the West German Karl May films of the 1960s, a firmly entrenched children’s literary cycle produced both the enthusiastic German creators and audience necessary for the semi-success of a big-budget mainstream production. After all, clever intellectual property mining is not merely a twenty-first century paradigm.

In order to please generations of Krabat readers, several key personnel were purposefully engaged in the film from its creation.  Dr. Susanne Preussler-Bitsch, daughter of Krabat author Otfried Preussler, consulted on the film in terms of her father’s ‘vision’.  Producer Uli Putz and production designer Christian Goldbeck – both veterans of Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 drama Requiem – scouted breathtaking locations in the Carpathian Mountains and then built a full mill complex according to seventeenth century material specifications against the backdrop. Alex Lemke, a Weta Digital VFX artist on Lord of the Rings and Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King (2007), supervised the fantastical visual effects from the film’s earliest stages, incorporating morphing and key frame effects into every aspect of its production.  Even the 20th Century Fox logo dissolves into a flock of ravens.  In the end, Krabat retains the memorable aspects of the novel, the gritty materiality of ‘living history’ in the seventeenth century, and the visually convincing sorcery that sparks young viewers’ imaginations.  Hollywood made in Germany becomes attainable through sustained, collaborative work among cutting edge professionals enthusiastic about their source material.

This professionalism, however, also shelters the film from all the risk and excess that might lead to more subversive readings. Vertiginous landscapes refer more to the Heimatfilme or the Winnetou cycle than to the grim surroundings of war-ravaged Lausitz. The homoeroticism of twelve boys condemned to live without women is hastily counterbalanced with Tonda and Krabat’s immediate and definitive female love interests.  In his subtle portrayal of the Master, Christian Redl eschews the overwrought maniacal laughter characteristic of Zeman’s version, but the magical panopticon in which he places his pupils seems thus less sinister and somehow less socially critical as well.  The apprentices morphing into ravens convinces the audience of the film’s production values, though their subsequent defence of the village with their staves more than gratuitously references the Gandalf-Saruman duel in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001). Genre tropes from contemporary fantasy films, such as faceless goons with swords, fluttering black cloaks and fast-moving tracking shots permeate the work and threaten to age it before its time. For an adaptation of a story that brilliantly allegorizes the old preying on the young and a Foucauldian surveillance society intent on absolute biopower, Krabat ends on a remarkably tame note. Nevertheless, the film marks a turning point toward the seamless and necessary incorporation of digital effects into German fairy-tale films.

Author of this review: Evan Torner