Review by Sean Boelman
While it’s likely that no one is exactly clamoring to watch a new cop movie right now, Christian Alvart’s German thriller Free Country is fascinating in that it shows how the failures of the law enforcement system have remained constant over the years. Offering both a compelling mystery and some intriguing commentary, this is a surprisingly riveting watch.
The film’s set-up is rather conventional: a city cop who plays by the rules and a down-and-dirty rural detective are teamed up to investigate a homicide; but it is Alvart’s approach that makes this movie stand out. By placing the film in the context of post-reunification Germany, Alvart effectively creates parallelisms between what happened then and what is going on in our world now.
The movie draws its title from a line in which a journalist challenges the police’s actions. And while this question was directly in reference to the freedom of the press, it poses some interesting questions about freedom in general. Even in this post-unified country that was supposed to become a haven for its citizens, there are still unspoken limitations on liberty. The question is, how far can these restrictions go before someone is no longer truly “free”.
The character work here is also extremely interesting because the heroes are very unorthodox. There’s a clear villain — whoever the murderer is that is committing these heinous crimes — but that villain is not necessarily the main antagonist. Rather, it is a system that failed its people and the society that let that system become what it is. And those heroes are part of that system.
There’s a bit of an old-school good cop/bad cop dynamic going on between the two leads, and actors Trystan Pütter and Felix Kramer do a great job of bringing those characters to life. Kramer is particularly impressive as the latter half of the duo, giving a gruff performance that feels drawn straight out of the detective movie classics.
Of course, this film doesn’t work without the mystery element, and the script delivers on that expectation with ease. There are enough twists and turns to make it satisfying, but it also isn’t overly reliant on them. Alvart’s use of atmosphere and characterization is excellent and offers another angle by which viewers are drawn into the story.
The movie is also very impressive visually. It has a very grimey, old-fashioned look to it that goes a long way in creating that dark and moody atmosphere for which Alvart is clearly going. Arguably the biggest standout here, though, is Christoph Schauer’s score which is absolutely haunting and anxiety-inducing.
Free Country is an interesting watch, and while it may be simple at its core, it’s way more layered than it would initially seem. It feels both like a satisfying throwback and a riff on common tropes in a new light.
Free Country screens on demand (geoblocked to Canada) as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2.