If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.
The original fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and Hans-Christian Andersen were not the saccharine, bedtime stories we tell to children these days. Instead, these dark, violent and shocking stories were cautionary stories for both children and adults, less happily-ever-after and more ‘do what you’re told or else!’. With clear parallels to a number of these earlier fairytales, this disturbing German horror film (written and directed by Lukas Feigelfeld) draws upon that centuries-old tradition whilst also employing a newer conceit, whereby the audience is never sure if what befalls the protagonist is supernatural or psychological.
Set in the 15th Century in the Alps, the story follows a young goatherd, Albrun, living alone in a mountain hut. After a brief interlude with Albrun as a young girl and her mother, we pick up with her twenty years later, now a mother herself, still living this solitary existence and beginning to intuit a dark presence in the woods around her.
Tapping into the ingrained fear of the primeval forest that humanity has, similar to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), there is a creeping sense of dread whenever we spend time in the woods. It is that fear of the dark and unknown which caused humans to hide in caves and huddle round campfires, or group together to form conurbations. Again, as in The Witch, it, too, deals with the fear of female sexuality and their independence which branded any woman living alone at the time as a witch, serving to further ostracise these poor women from their local communities.
There’s certainly a lot to enjoy in here.
It is a rough and earthy film, which lends a sense of authenticity when featuring characters who live off the land, with a protagonist who is extremely tactile, constantly stroking and caressing the world around her. One stand-out scene involves milking, which has a strange and discomfiting sensuality to it that speaks to the sexual repression of the age.
A slow-paced, largely dialogue-free experience, it is a masterclass in ratcheting tension, with a brooding, sepulchral score, full of deep bass thrums, that effortlessly puts you on edge. It uses diegetic sound well, with the tink and chime of metal competing against the natural sounds of an arable life. Through the use of focused sound, it puts us firmly in the perspective of Albrun, as background noise is frequently drowned out by the rush of her breathing.
There’s a slight excessive use of the (admittedly beautiful) alpine scenery as a way to transition between scenes, but it almost felt like every scene started and ended with such. There were also one or two points were I felt that it was being deliberately provocative, with a particular scene late on that appeared to be engineered to offend.
There is a strong sense of the macabre and gothic, satanic imagery and witchcraft folklore throughout. Its nuanced lead performance from Aleksandra Cweny and accompanying ambiguity leaves it open for multiple interpretations, and cumulatively, makes it one to search out for those audiences with a stronger stomachs.