Magnus von Horn’s first feature, which received prizes for best director and best screenplay at the 40th Gdynia Film Festival, is fervent and cold at the same time, and is suspenseful while remaining seemingly unemotional. The Here After is a story about evil hiding under the surface of social norms.
It all starts with a cold greeting. John’s father comes to the reformatory. After his two-year sentence the teenager (played by Swedish pop star Ulrich Munter) is finally free. But there is nothing cheerful about his freedom – the return of the prodigal son to the rural community awakens anxiety, not enthusiasm.
We don’t know why John ended up behind bars. The characters don’t talk about the crime and the director doesn’t show it in flashbacks. And yet the sin is always present. John’s guilt is not to be forgotten – not by others, not by himself. When the boy returns to the family farm and to school, the tension around him starts to grow, and an outbreak of violence seems to be inevitable.
The Polish title of Von Horn’s movie, “Intruder”, is a bit misleading. The Swedish director is not interested in the intruder’s detachment, but in the mechanisms of a community where law has replaced empathy and rules have become more important than human decency. The original, Swedish title, “Aftershock”, corresponds better with the film’s message. Von Horn, like an experienced seismologist, observes the tremors and analyses their causes. Silent murmurs and microseisms lead to a spectacular explosion that we can sense coming and yet we can’t escape from. The doubtful glances of his classmates and whispers behind his back are only a prelude to the orchestrated festival of hate that his peers will organise for him.
Society isn't nice
The Here After is a thoroughly Scandinavian film. Not only because of its set design, characteristic colours and the cold temperature of the story. The austereness of the director’s view on his fellow-citizens is itself Scandinavian. Von Horn is not interested in the evil hidden inside his main protagonist, but in the meanness of those who judge him. He shows a community of “good Swedes”, law-abiding citizens, who – out of vengeance and fear – decide to deliver justice by themselves. The sense of moral superiority is like a green light that opens the way to aggression and brutality.
In von Horn’s film the portrait of so-called normal people is ruthlessly sincere. The Swedish director shows a community that hides atavisms under the surface of social norms of law and order. It’s the good citizens who are capable of the worst deeds and the evil that they cause seems perfectly rational and morally justifiable. In a way, von Horn’s film is reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, but the young director set himself a higher target than the Danish artist did. Vinterberg told a story of an innocent man who became the target of social ostracism and aggression. From the beginning until the end we believed in his purity, and the director only reinforced this faith. The Here After’s director doesn’t try to make his protagonist likeable. He doesn’t question his blame and doesn’t explain the motives behind his crime. He shows a man who’s flawed but he still stands on his side. That is why von Horn’s film is a deeply humane story about the need for and impossibility of redemption.
A Pole from Gothenburg
Von Horn describes himself as a Polish-Swedish director. He studied in Łódź Film School, where he met his wife and started a family. The film has Polish co-producers and co-authors (Łukasz Żal is responsible for cinematography and Agnieszka Glińska – who also received an award in Gdynia – for editing). And yet von Horn’s film could never be set in Poland. It would then have a completely different meaning, because Polish cinema tends to be populist: it stands by group emotions and by communities rather than by the individual. It is too immersed in simple moral dichotomies to tell a story that is so ambiguous and so hard on the audience.
It’s enough to compare The Here After with Lincz (Lynch) by Krzysztof Łukasiewicz, a film that confronts a very similar subject, to notice how differently we think about society. While Łukasiewicz sees lynching as an act of justice, von Horns stands on the side of the victim-executioner and accuses the normal people. Łukaszewicz showed that the state is weak, but the folk is decent, while von Horn shows a country where the law functions well but people are still weak and capable of evil.
These two films are not only connected by the subject of lynch but also by the actor Wiesław Komasa. In Lynch he played a cruel drunk, terrorising his neighbours, while in The Here After he’s the grandfather of the main protagonist, a man handicapped after suffering a stroke. His mute, intense persona is reason enough to watch von Horn’s movie, but there are many more interesting roles – Ulrich Munter sketches the portrait of the embattled boy with an impressive self-restraint. Mats Blomgren, who plays his father, is also great as Martin, a single father of two sons who is both loving and strict and wants to fight for John but discovers his helplessness. Blomgren makes all of these contradictory emotions believable.
At the 40th Gdynia Film Festival, Magnus von Horn received awards for best directing and best screenplay. Even though some claimed that the prizes – especially the one for screenwriting – were a bit exaggerated, it must be stated that The Here After is one of the most promising first features that we’ve seen in Polish cinema in the last years. In his cold, minimal drama van Horn sketches a cruel image of society, speaking of the prosaicness and omnipresence of evil. The Here After is precise and told with a strong, distinct voice. It is also a promise of a great cinematic talent that will hopefully be kept.
- The Here After, screenwriter and director: Magnus von Horn, cinematography: Łukasz Żal, editing: Agnieszka Glińska. Starring: Ulrik Munther, Mats Blomgren, Alexander Nordgren, Wiesław Komasa, Loa Ek. Premiere: October 9, 2015.