I’ve written about it often: horror movie movies are great vehicles for social commentary. In her second film, Swedish director by way of Germany Carolina Hellsgård takes the zombie sub-genre of horror movie from the woman’s perspective while making a more brazen statement of how humans have mistreated Mother Earth and by extension women. Endzeit, which literally translates to “End Times” in German, has been titled Ever After for English language in a bit of a betrayal the film’s subtle folkloric references.* A film like this finds strength in not relying on overt references and this one particularly shines when it relies on the actions and feelings of the two very capable actresses at the heart of the movie.
It should be noted that this is a film by women about women, nearly through and through. There is not a single memorable male character, which only makes this movie more interesting. Based on the 2011 graphic novel by Olivia Vieweg, who also adapted her book for the film’s screenplay, the movie speaks to the sympathetic side of humanity that is within a woman’s strength, even as the film’s characters struggle with it. Endzeit’s musical score is composed by Franziska Henke. It’s quiet burbling tension of electronic sounds and strings mingle rather well with birds chirping in the film’s many outdoor scenes. The cinematography by Leah Striker is lush and subdued, and its muted quality never over-stylizes event (except maybe a bit too much slow motion), allowing for the atmosphere of the environment to speak for itself. Julia Oehring and Ruth Schönegge edit the film at a decent pace and make up for special effects with cutaways, which sometimes call attention to the act of leaning on editing for special effects. Sandra Krauß serves as second unit director, the costumes were design by Teresa Grosser and even though there are some men in the crew, you get the point.
Endzeit is a sort of road trip movie through a distinctive post-apocalyptic landscape through Germany’s lush Black Forest. Vivi (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) and Eva (Maja Lehrer) are two members of Gen Z who have found ways to cope with the apocalypse in different ways. It’s two years into it, and eBay has become a distant memory/trade while selfies are seen as “kitsch.” Vivi is skittish and copes by taking pills, considering suicide and struggling with the strength to fight back against the creatures. Eva, meanwhile, is thick-skinned, unsentimental and not above acting decisively with an ax to protect someone bitten by a zombie. The problem is, she has become infected, and in the one of two standing East German cities where they find themselves, Weimar, those who have been bitten by the aberrations of humanity are immediately put to death.
After meeting on fence duty, an incident happens that pushes Vivi to the edge, so she stows away on a solar powered autonomous train car — the only link between Weimar and Jena, the other city where they hear the infected receive treatment instead of execution. As the train starts moving along, Vivi is startled to find Eva also has the same idea. She wants to head to Jena in hopes of receiving the cure. Thus, the odd couple head out into the heart of the infestation alone.
Though a bit high pitched at times, Kohlhof’s performance as Vivi captures a true sense of internal conflict. Perpetually sad and distraught about losing her young sister during the apocalypse laden by guilt she may have contributed to her death, Vivi also struggles not to become a monster herself, not from a zombie bite but from having to kill any of these things to save herself. The struggle of her self-worth is metaphorical and emotional, and adds a wonderful depth to her character. In the meantime, in a steely yet charismatic performance by Lehrer, Eva is assured in her determination to look out for number one. Her conflict is whether to accept to care for this incidental, rather helpless unwanted “sister” on their road trip. Their bond is further put to the test when the train stalls in an open field, and this dynamic which ranges from caring and physically violent adds a human grittiness that overshadows the incidental threat of the walking dead constantly closing in on them.
The events in the film don’t always makes sense, but I’ll take unexplained mystery above clarifying exposition any time. Sometimes the personal drama, both internal and external, gets a bit redundant, but the film’s dreamlike quality, where monsters come out of nowhere enhanced by slow motion camera work, outshine the film’s flaws. Even though the zombies run like the creatures in 28 Days Later, they never seem as scary, which has to do with Hellsgård’s restraint in showing violence as well as the monster makeup, which is all handcrafted. The lack of reliance on digital effects is commendable but there feels like a sort of disinterest in presenting the zombie threat, which deflates efforts for creating any outright tension. More interesting is how the film concerns itself with metaphor. There’s a terrific sequence when the couple separately come across a woman with weeds and flowers growing out of a gaping wound in her head (the great Danish actress Trine Dyrholm), who calls herself “The Gardener.” She lives alone in a cottage deep in the Black Forest and has found a way to support herself with hardly any protection.
There’s a surreal quality to this movie that surprises throughout, even when convenient coincidences drive dramatic turns in the plot. More interesting is how the zombies have decayed, at times with vegetation growing out of their wounds. Then there are the man-made structures overtaken by nature, from a colony of finches inside of a grand mansion to the train’s toilet filled with weeds and butterflies. The presence of Mother Nature taking her revenge on a race of beings who has abused her is quite apparent but not without its beauty. Endzeit is also more than the expression of the strength of women to survive the zombie apocalypse but also how unforgiving that strength can sometimes be in nature and the power it calls upon to nurture it.
Endzeit runs 90 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens today in New York City at IFC Center featuring a Q&A with the film’s director at 7: 45 p.m. tonight and Sunday. It then opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle on June 27. There is no word on a South Florida release, but we will update this review when/if there is. In the meantime, you can follow updates on Juno Film’s official site. The U.S. distributor shared a preview screener for the purpose of this review.
*At least the Mexican market kept the essence of the original title with El fin de los tiempos (watch the Spanish dubbed trailer here).