23 February 2007 | FilmFlaneur
Antibodies bodes well
Only the second film by the former editor of the legendary German movie fanzine X-TRO, Antibodies (aka: Antikörper) is an assured and suspenseful work which, while it willingly acknowledges its obvious indebtedness to Hollywood models, still manages to strikes out convincingly on its own. The most obvious inspiration behind Christian Alvart's film is The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), to which explicit and grimly affectionate allusion ("What did you expect? Hannibal Lecter?") is made by killer Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) at one point early on during his captivity. Restrained in conditions which recall those featuring in Jonathan Demme's movie, visited too by a similarly awed and repelled police investigator, Engel actually gives a performance less self-conscious than the much-imitated Anthony Hopkins'. And, because of the latitude of German cinema, where the precise detailing of paedophilic lust rape is more permissible as a drama demands, it is all the more disturbing in the telling. Watching this film, where the principal and community are wracked equally with guilt and blame, one easily recalls that this is the national cinema which earlier produced another monstrous child murderer, that of Fritz Lang's M, and indeed is a country where communal guilt is never very far below the surface.
Just as Clarice Starling needs her Lecter, so Schmizt needs his Engel to help solve a case. Having already killed 14, most of whom were young boys, Engel offers his own tantalising clues and hints as to where the other killer may be found. But, as he says, "Evil... is infectious," and soon Schmizt begins to question his own moral certainties, before ultimately basing his judgement on the only firm foundation he knows - the Old Testament, a process which involves a particularly painful scene of self mutilation by way of penance, as well as providing doctrinal justification for the suspenseful final scenes.
Antibodies is a film which never slackens its tension, and which avoids completely the flabby sentimentalising or overcooked heroics which often mars the American thriller product. Silence Of The Lambs contained more certainties than we are provided with here. Even though it gave its audience an extreme form of serial killer, in the form of 'Buffalo Bill', one both flamboyant and rock inspired, it instantly made a stereotype of itself, and it was this 'respect' of sorts by the audience that the director has said he was keen to avoid. Like Silence Of The Lambs, Se7en and the rest of their bloodline, Antibodies parades a notable killer's lair of its own as well, although any artefacts on show are less disturbing than the ultimate meaning of the 14 red squares drawn by Engel on the wall, or the spare, clean white tiles of his torture room.
At the centre of such films is inevitably a duel between killer and cop, and here the two main parts receive terrific performances, Hennicke mightily disturbing as the gloating and manipulative serial killer, writing his books of blood, and Reedus drawn and haunted as the cop on the edge. As is often the case in this sort of film, a troubled parallel is drawn between them, a process highlighted in the first instance by a change in Reedus' lovemaking, as one whose psyche is increasingly affected by the killer's manipulative mind games. And when the depressed cop buys a suit on impulse, from a shop woman with whom he later sleeps in aggressive fashion, we are reminded of how moral codes can be put and 'worn' almost as one would clothes, until one "can't tell where the suit ends and the man begins." But by the same mark are never the less separate, and can be peeled back to reveal the real creature underneath, or changed at will.
The signs that accompany the disturbed personality are more than just at that mundane level however. We are reminded in this film of the "'Holy Trinity' of serial killers: playing with fire, tormenting animals and bed-wetting" - some signs of which the tortured cop discovers, with growing alarm, occurring within his own family. As mentioned above, a strong religious thread runs through the film, of which this is only another aspect. Schmizt's family are devoted church-going folk, bible quotations play an especial significance and at one point the cop seeks to make his confession. But God's benign influence is ultimately conspicuous by its absence rather than influence, the final resolution less due to any supernatural grace than human doubt. In fact, in interview, director Alvart has expressed his serial killer in terms of the criminal representing 'total doubt', whilst drawing a parallel between religious fanaticism and the extremes of criminal behaviour, each with their respective compulsions.
In short, Antibodies is well worth seeking out, as a serial killer film that's both thought provoking and reasonably gripping - and can also be taken as a possible antidote to Hannibal Rising. Alvart is clearly a talent to watch (his previous, and first film, Curiosity And The Cat (1999) was a little seen - at least in the UK - but well thought of suspense flick, that also featuring corroding suspicion and sadomasochistic overtones). One hopes to see more of his work.