“It will take you into the world of a typical German family,” writer/director Nikias Chryssos promised the audience at the Dead by Dawn screening of his debut feature Der Bunker, as a student seeks a quiet place of undisturbed retreat to work upon his thesis on the Higgs particle. “It’s not autobiographical. Thank god.”
Through the snow and the forest he treks to his destination, checking his map in disbelief before he finally finds his destination, built into the ground and almost invisible from a distance, yet with the entrance cleared of snow and the windows lit. The welcome is warm, but almost immediately the oddity of the situation becomes apparent; the advert mentioned a room with a view over the lake, but instead he is shown to a room of bare concrete walls which does not even have a window.
Reflecting the mismatched décor of the underground house they occupy, mother and father (Oona von Maydell and David Scheller) are unique and eccentric, their country manners and outdated traditional clothing combined with their bizarre behaviour and autocratical manner a result of their isolation which has become almost a parallel evolution.
The distillation of that is their coddled and timid son Klaus (Daniel Fripan) who they insist is eight years old but whom they dress as an oversized baby in romper suits and pyjamas but who appears to be much older yet with the behaviour of a child.
Klaus is a concern to his doting parents: he is not progressing as he should, unable even to name the capitals of the countries of the world, which he will obviously need to do when he becomes president, as he is destined, the promise made by Heinrich, the lesion on mother’s leg which she claims originates from a distant galaxy.
When Klaus does badly there is punishment, made to sit outside while the others eat dumplings and listen to Beethoven; when he does well, there are rewards, including father donning clown makeup for the awkwardness of joke night, perhaps a welcome respite from his love of giving dictatorial speeches.
To mother and father, the solution is obvious, and they won’t take no for an answer, no matter how many times he repeats it. Without a proper education Klaus is doomed, and so the student will become his tutor, regardless of the disruption to his own studies. In return, he will also be rewarded by Heinrich, the missing pieces of the Higgs puzzle…
With only four characters in the entire film in an enclosed environment, it is an obscene chamber piece of bullying, manipulation and deception, satirising education, unreasonable parental expectations – of their children and of the teachers who educate them – and of home schooling.
All four of the actors are excellent, particularly Fripan (actually almost thirty at the time of filming beneath his oversized blonde wig, older than his screen mother), as alien as a Midwich cuckoo dropped into the faux perfection of Stepford and the student unwillingly become educator, The Samurai’s Pit Bukowski.
While the narrative is slight and limited simply by the sparse tools Chryssos had to work with, this focuses all on his performers. With the roles conceived with his friends Bukowski and Fripan in mind, Chryssos confirmed it was challenging for all the actors with little frame of reference for their outlandish roles, but all are as effective as the circumstances and environment they unhappily share, and while it is unlikely anyone would wish to remain in Der Bunker it is a place which can be briefly visited without undue apprehension.
Dead by Dawn runs at the Edinburgh Filmhouse every April