J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Fantasia ’17: The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler (short)

He is sort of like an East German Sherlock Holmes. His powers of deduction and persuasion are so keen, some of his atheist materialist colleagues think he “has the shine.” Unfortunately, he does not use his talents for the purpose of good in Paul Philipp’s chilling short film, The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler (trailer here), which screened during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The case of the disappearance of young Henry Kiefer is threatening to become an international embarrassment for the GDR, because his relatives in the West are making noise in the press. The Stasi wants the Kiefers to sign off on his bogus death certificate to end the matter, but so far, his parents are hanging tough. Enter Mr. Mahler, whose keen powers of observation immediately rattle the distressed Kiefers.

Philipp’s film directly addresses particularly horrifying crimes of Stasi, but explaining the details would spoil the film’s big revelation. Instead, we will safely say life under socialism in the GDR was even worse than you realized.

Frankly, Peculiar Abilities is about the tensest twenty-nine minutes of cinema you can hope to see all year. Credit is equally due to Philipp’s tight, claustrophobic execution and André Hennicke’s powerhouse portrayal of the titular Mr. Mahler. It is a quiet but emotionally violent performance that will deeply and profoundly unsettle viewers. Hennicke is absolutely unforgettable, but Jasmin Schwiers and Matthias Lier are also heart-breakingly effective as the distraught and destroyed Kiefers.

Thanks to Jann Döppert’s ominous noir cinematography and the spot-on period details, Peculiar Abilities is an unusually cinematic short film. It is some of the best work you will see screening at festivals this year, regardless of length. Very highly recommended, The Peculiar Abilities of Mr. Mahler screens next Tuesday (8/8) as part of Program 31 at the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival, following its Quebec premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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