LUXEMBOURG -- The 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the spark that would lead to the start of the Great War, is believably dramatized as a Habsburg-era police procedural in Sarajevo (Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914), from prolific Austrian director Andreas Prochaska.
Clearly made to commemorate the start of WWI, exactly 100 years ago this summer, this film reunites editor-turned-director Prochaska with screenwriter Martin Ambrosch, who also wrote the screenplay for his recent Alpine western The Dark Valley with Sam Riley, which was nominated for a leading nine Lolas, the German Oscars, and premiered only a couple of months ago in Berlin. Like that film, Sarajevo pits an outsider against a diseased, initially incomprehensible group of people, though the examining magistrate who leads the investigation here is a morally more upright and ethnically more complex man than Riley's clichéd western character.
Co-produced by TV channels from Austria, Germany and Czech Republic, this handsome-looking and well-acted feature will have its stateside premiere as the opening feature of the South East European Film Festival in Beverly Hills and, besides the obvious high-end TV channels, could interest distributors with a summer spot for a foreign-language drama in their schedules.
The attention to detail and impeccable sense of dress and duty of Sarajevo examining magistrate Leo Pfeffer (Austrian actor Florian Teichtmeister) are already evident in the film's first scene, in which he carefully grooms his facial hair. A health freak from the teens of the last century, Pfeffer doesn't smoke and rides a bike to work, which is what he's doing at the very moment the city reverberates, on June 28, with the noise of what turns out to be the first assassination attempt on the Archduke and heir to the throne, who's visiting the Bosnian town.
Cleverly keeping the actual moment the bomb is thrown at the Archduke's car off-screen, Prochaska does show several very young-looking and nervous men stationed along the motorcade route, all of whom will be dragged in by the police to be question by Pfeffer, who has been charged with the investigation. The magistrate and the author of the first attempt (Polish actor Mateusz Dopieralski) hear about the second, fatal assassination during the latter's interrogation and those higher up are quick to blame neighboring Serbia, which the ethnicity of the growing group of young men in custody seems to confirm.
Ambrosch's screenplay stays close to the point of view of Pfeffer and the film's investigation template allows the characters to reiterate what's important in terms of allegiances, potential double crosses and newly unearthed information -- thus bringing those who don't remember their high-school history back up-to-date -- and also naturally slips in notes on the characters' various ethnic backgrounds, including the revealing fact that Pfeffer is a Hungarian-Croatian Jew, which means he suffers from anti-Semitic scorn from his higher ups but also that he has a Slavic language in common with the Serbian perpetrators, though often he insists on speaking the empire's official German.
Though the film sticks quite closely to the genre conventions of the police procedural, albeit one set a century ago, Pfeffer is faced with anything but a straight-forward investigation, as he has to deal with the fact that the leaders in faraway Vienna -- never seen but their string-pulling power clearly felt -- have decided it's time for war with Serbia and that the assassination is the perfect excuse, thus just necessitating a report from the magistrate that fills in the blanks that'll allow them to arrive at the foregone conclusion, something Pfeffer resists.
A revealing conversation with one of the arrested men, Danilo Ilic (Bosnian-German actor Edin Hasanovic, in the film's standout supporting performance), proves key in advancing the investigation, which is further complicated by the mustachioed magistrate's emotional attachment to Marija Jeftanovic (German-Iranian actress Melika Foroutan), a beautiful, rich and married Serbian woman whose household might be involved in the events, and Pfeffer's friendship with a nationalistic surgeon (German actor Heino Ferch, Albert Speer from Downfall) -- the latter an intriguing relationship that could've been fleshed out more, so some of the latter scenes would carry more emotional weight. Echoes of contemporary events, in places ranging from Abu Ghraib to Crimea, are there for the taking but never overly lingered on.
Teichtmeister gives Pfeffer a steely, against-all-odds edge and a rigid sense of propriety that works well though he occasionally allows the character's emotions and doubts bubble to the surface, most notably in his handful of scenes with Foroutan.
Cinematographer Andreas Berger (Vincent Wants to Sea) lights most of the interior scenes with a painterly eye for the semi-dark, thus visually echoing the shady dealings that Pfeffer uncovers. Production designer Isidor Wimmer and costume designer Uli Fessler manage to make the decors and costumes feel not quaint but rather bursting with vitality and life, adding to the impression things are happening right now and moving quickly, a feeling reinforced by Berger's occasionally moving camera and cutter Daniel Prochaska's editing rhythms.
Production companies: Dor Film, ZDF, ORF, Ceska Televise