Freies Land (English title: Free Country). 2020.
Directed by Christian Alvart. Screenplay by Alvart & Siegfried Kamml, adapted from a screenplay by Alberto Rodriguez & Rafael Cobos.
Starring Trystan Pütter, Felix Kramer, Leonard Kunz, Nora von Waldstätten, udwig Simon, Hanna Hilsdorf, Marc Limpach, Anna von Berg, & Nurit Hirschfeld.
Syrreal Entertainment / Telepool / ZDF
Not Rated / 129 minutes
Crime / Drama / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
Turn back. Lest ye be spoiled.
Do you miss True Detective? What about the less existential/esoteric aspects of Twin Peaks? Christian Alvart’s latest film Freies Land feels so much like a cross between the two, set only one year after the destruction of the Berlin Wall when East and West Germany were learning to come back together. Along with all the gritty crime drama comes social and political themes that have to do less with nation than they do human morality.
Alvart’s remake of La isla mínima centres on two detectives: Patrick Stein (Trystan Pütter) and Markus Bach (Felix Kramer). They’re quite different men, even more different as policemen. Markus has a shadowy past in East Germany, whereas Patrick went after his corrupt boss in Hamburg and got himself sent away. They’re brought together to investigate the murder of two young sisters in a small town where it seems there’s far more secrets than there is truth. The more the detectives uncover, the more they seem to discover about one another and themselves— not all of which is good.
Freies Land is a perfectly dark, disturbing True Detective-like tale. The fact there are deeper layers involving sociopolitical history in Germany, and a sharp look at morality under pressure, just makes the film all the more exciting. The original has its own historical bits and pieces. It’s interesting to see Alvart transplant the story from Spain to Germany, keeping much of what made the story impactful originally while adding so much of its own flavour using the East/West division in Germany to drive the plot. Detectives Markus and Patrick force us to look at the corrupt systems around us, no matter if it hits too close to home, or rather especially if it does. Patrick specifically begs the question whether we can truly leave our past behind, or if we’re stuck with it haunting us forever.
Several things intersect during the case Patrick and Markus are investigating, each with their own distinct effect on the murder case and the detectives themselves. We quickly see a general air of un-professionalism in policing circa 1992, attitudes which sadly persist to this day. For instance, the police call the dead sisters “sluts” and do a bit of victim blaming long before any facts are discovered. Later, Markus and Patrick go to the victims’ parents house where they’re offered a beer rather than the traditional coffee. Markus slugs back the beer while Patrick chooses to lay his down— an early, small indication of disparate moralities between the Eastern and Western detectives. However, an overall lack of professionalism gives way to full-on authoritarianism as Markus, and later Patrick, use strong-arm tactics against vulnerable people in order to get answers for their case.
A major element of Freies Land involves economy and class struggle. There’s a repeated theme of young people wanting to get out of town because they know there’s nothing to sustain them, either economically or socially. We hear several mentions of a “declining economy” in East Germany. They look at people from West Germany as bourgeois.
The opening scene succinctly puts class on display as it shows Patrick driving a Mercedes-Benz, suddenly thrown off the road by a cow in the middle of it, forcing him to swerve down a bank into the river. He literally can’t enter this small rural town in its economic slump while driving his fancy car. When he gets into town he and Markus clash as polar opposites, the latter seeing the former as just another rich Western German looking down on the locals.
Patrick’s not exactly looking down on the locals, though. There’s enough tension in town without him. People are busy blaming outsiders for the downturn in their economy. Itinerant Polish workers are hated by local Germans for supposedly taking away the young men’s jobs— echoes of the past resonant with politics today, tragically showing us how little we’ve progressed in the past few decades. Worst of all is that while people in this rural town are busy bickering over their economic woes there’s a serial killer using economic collapse and social decay after the Berlin Wall’s collapse as a smokescreen for their horrific crimes.
“Sometimes I think the entire leadership is corrupt”
East v. West, in terms of economy, leads to a deeper exploration of morality in Freies Land, as the sketchy political pasts of both East and West Germany bleed through the 1992 setting. Patrick and Markus each come from West and East Germany respectively. They embody the respective spirits of their states, as well as reflect their states as two sides of a similar coin.
Throughout the film Patrick’s doing his damnedest to be the ‘good’ cop. He wants to solve the case using his brain, like a proper detective. Markus prefers to use the tactics he learned as a member of the Stasi, choking and hitting people to get his answers. Patrick essentially spends much of his time working with Markus attempting to resist his new partner’s ideology. In the end, he succumbs to it.
The most glaring point is how Markus represents a history of communism that lives on in East Germany, and Patrick represents a history of fascism that most West Germans want to forget. While the legacy of Nazism and fascism is something a guy like Patrick rejects— in a microcosm, he’s rejecting it as he works to not become like Markus— the communist legacy of East Germany is one Markus, and many others, want to remember. A plaque in the hotel where the detectives are staying reads “Die Arbeiterklasse ist uns teuer,” or in English: “The working class is dear to us.” Markus actually calls West Germany fascist when he’s chewing Patrick out in one scene, to which Patrick takes offence. State communism is no better than capitalism lite when it descends into authoritarianism, which is why Markus— who worked for the Stasi in “Bautzen prison,” a SECRET POLICE FORCE you generally don’t see operating outside of authoritarian states— calling anybody a fascist is deeply ironic.
Markus is also reminiscent of many online socialist philosophers: he continually insists on delineating atrocities committed by communist authoritarian regimes from those of fascist regimes because he feels threatened by anything reflecting poorly on communism, even when a communist state slides the slippery slope down to becoming an authoritarian state. At the same time, Markus’s guilt is apparent in several scenes with the appearance of the raven, a symbol connected to his former identity. Likewise his clear health issues are a bodily metaphor of the guilt eating him up inside.
What ultimately emerges between Patrick and Markus is a battle of moralities, yet it’s also about legacy. Patrick is a soon-to-be father who’s starting to think about what kind of person he’s going to raise from an infant into a responsible member of society. He’s tainted by falling in with Markus’s tactics, but he has a choice: he can accept the legacy of his country’s past, he can be the same type of man as the men of West Germany before him, or he can actively reject that legacy and forge his own, one of morals and of dignity, one that’s worth passing on to his child.By the time Patrick and Markus finish their investigation the audience is left to wonder if the solving of a crime is worth losing one’s morals. Police detectives are no better than criminals when they step outside the law to get their information, regardless of whether the information is correct. The ends do not justify the means. Like East Germany touting communism while they have secret police silencing political dissidents behind closed doors.
Freies Land ends ambiguously, in spite of the murder case’s closure. We’re left to stew in the cold, hard reality of the moralities on display. Neither Patrick nor Markus have the higher moral ground, but they still remain two very different men. Markus seems satisfied with himself and the results of their work. Patrick’s reaction to him in the final scene suggests he doesn’t intend on carrying on the legacy he’s let taint him. I’d like to imagine Patrick now, in 2020, with a grown child. I wonder what he’d think of how fascism is still alive and well, how the dark legacy of East Germany just never ever seems to die.