A dense, involving, and surprisingly nasty serial-killer tale from Germany, “Antibodies” manages to avoid surface comparisons to other “loony on a soapbox” epics like “Seven” and “Silence of the Lambs” by focusing on character more than plot contrivances. Rapturously lensed in a fashion that provides stark (and welcome) contrast to the rather unsavory subject matter of pedophilia, torture, and murder, the film stands head-and-shoulders above most of the American genre fare it seems superficially to emulate. I can understand the argument that these topics really don’t deserve to have slick, entertaining films made about them in the first place – but in this case the more exploitative elements are given a run for their money by the infinitely more harrowing spiritual journey of our hero. Considering that the villain murders children and uses their underwear for sexual purposes, this is no small feat.
“Antibodies” tells the story of Michael (the excellent Wotan Wilke Moehring), a farmer and village constable whose small community has been rocked by the unsolved murder of a young girl one year ago. Since the murder, multiple dead-ends and the failure to nab a perpetrator has led to unrest and paranoia in the community – particularly for Michael, who blames himself for not catching the killer. He also happens to be a self-loathing wreck of the decidedly Christian variety, and therefore is sexually repressed to the point of implosion, cannot communicate emotionally with his children, and has a tendency to overwork and go on shopping sprees. Oh – and cheat on his loving and supportive wife. And hit his kids. And go to church – a lot. In a word: conflicted.
Meanwhile, policemen in Berlin have apprehended a sadistic murderer who seduces and imprisons young boys in order to have his way with them and tap their blood for use in his apocalyptic paintings. In the bizarre capture, the loony Gabriel (Andre Hennicke) blows away a cop with a shotgun (he nicks another one – oddly, it’s Norman Reedus of “Boondock Saints”! What the hell is he doing in Berlin?) and vaults nude through a plate-glass window, likely getting plenty of shards in his naughty bits. The cops nab him and put him in a cell, where he demands a notebook and crayons (is he going to recreate scenes from “Hide and Seek”?), and proceeds to masturbate whenever he describes how he raped and murdered 13 little boys. In short, not the type of upstairs neighbor any of us likely would want to have.
Already, many of you may be cringing: true, your ability to appreciate or enjoy “Antibodies” is likely dictated by your tolerance for some pretty gruesome and twisted subject matter. Thankfully, director Christian Alvart wisely leaves the crimes mostly to your imagination – the body of the 12-year-old girl is seen from a distance, but otherwise there is no graphic depiction of any of the child-related foulness (and honestly, the discussion of the crimes is not much more disgusting than the daily feed from the Michael Jackson trial). In fact, the most disturbing images in the film come from sex scenes between Michael and his wife and Michael and a girl he picks up in the city, which he is visiting in order to attempt to close the murder case from his village (authorities believe it may be the same man). But again, rather than simply plunge the viewer into darkness and depravity (which can work perfectly well, in its own right – “Seven” pulled this off pretty successfully), here the filmmakers balance the heinous nature of the crimes and the agony of Michael’s moral dilemma with the lush, peaceful beauty of the countryside. In that regard, “Antibody” owes more to the quiet calm of the controversial French crime drama “Humanite” than to the delirious mayhem of most American serial killer films.
Back to the plot: Michael is for some reason the only person to whom Gabriel will speak (maybe he’d have settled for a Raphael as well?), much to the chagrin of the local authorities, who think Michael is a bumpkin with no place in the investigation at all – particularly when in his first attempt at interrogation he lets slip that their conversation is being monitored (although, come on – you’ve got a serial child murderer who paints with human blood in live custody, and you need confessions. Aren’t recordings sort of standard practice?). Gabriel engages Michael in an expected – although exceedingly well-executed – game of cat-and-mouse that leads Michael to suspect everyone – including his father-in-law, his family, and himself – in the murder of the young girl. Things become more complicated when Gabriel reveals that he was there when the girl was murdered and that he can finger the culprit, but won’t unless Michael plays by his rules.
“Antibodies” serves up some engaging set pieces, from the discovery of a series of “souvenirs” in the killer’s apartment to some nail-biting hunting scenes. And although the satisfying climax is of course based around impossible timing and coincidence, here the filmmakers throw an entirely unexpected element into the mix – I won’t give it away, but it’s quite interesting for a gritty thriller like this. Mining all kinds of anxieties from spousal guilt, small-town paranoia, in-law angst, fear for one’s children, and religious righteousness, the film moves at a steady clip and there’s a bounty of revelations and interesting developments – some of which are jaw-dropping. The acting is uniformly good, the dialogue sparks, and the cinematography is stunning. It’s really as solid a genre film as I’ve seen lately.
So why the less-than-perfect rating? It’s actually hard to explain without giving away the ending (which would let the air out of the film’s tires, big-time), but I can say that there’s a nagging inconsistency in the resolution that at closer scrutiny just flat-out doesn’t make any sense. It’s not as bad as the twist in, say, “High Tension” (which is utterly inexcusable and reduces an otherwise perfectly good film to rubble), but it’s better left unexamined, lest the rest of the works fall down around it. It’s rare to find a film where the “killer twist” is both satisfying and actually works with the rest of the plot – but given the level of polish on the rest of the script, the photography, the dialogue, the acting, and the pace, here it’s a noticeable low-point. Also needlessly heavy-handed is the overused religious imagery and text at the end of the film, which is pointedly inconsistent with the rest, where the elements are more seamlessly blended. I continue to believe that there is always a more effective and interesting way to convey information than an ironic voiceover – regardless of what language it’s in.
“Antibodies” is refreshing in that it admits that everyone – from apple-cheeked youths to ruthless killers – is on a sliding scale of good-to-evil (or the other way around). Sure, good people do bad things. And bad people can do good things. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle – many of us may lie closer to the E than the G, no matter how hard we may fight it. And despite a few clever twists and surprising developments, the craftiest move that “Antibodies” makes is presenting us with the far ends of the spectrum (Good: innocent children; Bad: an unrepentant, perverted child murderer), and letting everyone else fall somewhere in-between. Exactly where they land in relation to one another isn’t entirely clear until the end of the film, and it makes for some very intriguing mystery as the plot progresses. The film’s refusal to pigeonhole its leads (who are naturally therefore its suspects, as anyone who is neither wholly evil or wholly innocent is likely hiding something) is its strongpoint, and the emphasis on the complexities of the spirit rather than the grotesqueness of its sensational elements is what makes it worth watching.
“Antibodies” is screening as a part of the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 19th to May 1st in New York City. For a full list of screenings, check out the fest’s official website.