Shot in ravishing black and white — all the better to bring out every streak of shit or clod of dirt — this wry yet horrific Estonian exercise in magic realism boasts a cast of whiskery grotesques — mostly with too few or too many teeth – who make the mediaeval aliens of Hard to Be a God look like the gang from an AIP beach party picture. Based on the novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk, it’s set in a 19th century community which scrabbles in the muck around an elegant mansion occupied by German aristocrats who claim to rule the country and a church where a gold-encrusted altar mocks the poverty of the local serfs. Rather than be ennobled by travails — as in the long-standing artfilm tradition of the suffering peasant saga — the villagers are mostly a shiftless, ruthless, rotten lot who take their grudges to a witch (Klara Eighorn) who gives them spells to achieve their petty goals. Too lazy to work their small farms, they traipse to the crossroads at midnight to sell their souls to the Devil (Jaan Tooming) to animate ‘kratts’ – bundles of agricultural tools and animal bones – to do their chores for them. One old rogue even squeezes berries onto Satan’s contract rather than blood, successfully cheating the Devil but making things much worse for the next hapless clod who tries the trick.
It’s full of incident, folklore and anecdote, almost on the model of Pasolini’s trilogy of tall tale anthologies – with a similar emphasis on the scurrilous and the physical – though the proud, yet self-mocking nationalist streak suggests Paradjanov. The plague comes to town in the form of a young woman (Maria Aua) begging to be carried over a stream and offering a poison kiss in return – she then manifests as a white goat, but is duped out of starting an epidemic when a wise man suggests everyone wear their trousers on their head so the disease thinks they have two arses and plods on by. The ghosts of the dead wander about in white habits – but all their surviving relations can think of asking them is whether there’s any bread in the afterlife. An idiot in love with a toothy servant is told he can win her if he gets her to eat a magic potion made of his shit and sweat – which, understandably, she takes objection to when he presents her homemade biscuits which are transparently not made of chocolate. The priest’s servant peels gold off the altar on the principle (maliciously put in her head by a Latvian) that it’s blessed by Jesus and will therefore come back to her after she’s spent it on drink – and, when caught, has the witch grind the priest’s hair backwards to turn him stupid,but not so stupid the church sends a replacement who’ll be worse. A patriot claims that the German aristocrats have no right to claim ownership to anything in Estonia and so a suitcase full of underwear belongs not to the Baron (Dieter Laser, of the Human Centipede films) but him. Peasants spit out communion wafers to make into blessed bullets that will supposedly never miss.
Director-writer Rainer Sarnet, abetted by cinematographer Mart Taniel, stages beautiful, absurd, striking images – a coffin lowered into a water-filled grave, a strange orgy of communal touching, the Svankmajer-ish strutting kratts (in the opening scene, one steals a cow and helicopters it to a new master), and episodes of lycanthropy or sympathetic magic that relate all the characters to animals, with the heroine as a white wolf and her unwanted fiance a huge pig. The major plot thread has to do with Liina (Rea Lest), a young girl who is in love with ambitious golden youth Hans (Jörgen Liik) but whose father wants to pledge her to a bloated old lecher. Hans, meanwhile, is struck by the beauty of a sleepwalking Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) and ignores the devoted Liina as he pursues his impossible love, with the aid of witchery and a snowman kratt whose talent turns out to be for spinning romantic yarns with sad endings. Naturally, a sad ending comes along – and the last reel is a farcical parade of deaths, funerals, and posthumous reunions (including one of the recurrent images of films this season – the underwater clinch).