Hell A.K.A. Apocalypse (2011)
Hannah Hersprung (Marie), Lars Eidinger (Phillip), Lisa Vicari (Leonie), Stipe Erceg (Tom), Angela Winkler (Bäuerin)
“2016 - The world as we know it has ceased to exist. In just four years, the earth’s atmosphere has heated up by 10 degrees Celsius. People are fighting for survival. Water and food supplies are quickly running out. Social order is collapsing.” - opening text
The German word for Hell is Hölle. Hell, a German post-apocalyptic movie set in a world where the sun has become so bright that people outside in direct sunlight can become badly burned in minutes, is not named Hölle in its county of origin, it’s named Hell. Hell is the German word for bright, I don’t know if the double-meaning across two languages was intentional but it’s a small detail I really appreciate. Wal-Mart was less appreciative of this, probably correctly assuming that their middle-America customer base would be offended by the title, and changed the name to the even more generic Apocalypse. Apparently this is a thing they do sometimes. So for those who have any confusion, Apocalypse and Hell are the same movie.
We open on a forest, a French woman and her husband have just gotten in a car wreck and he is still trapped inside. The woman attempts to free the man but he tells her to run because someone is coming but it’s too late and they’re both taken.
We now go to the interior of a car. Two women, Marie and her younger sister Leonie are riding with a man named Phillip. Marie and Phillip are involved but it’s strongly implied that there relationship has more to do with Marie’s need of protection and a car than any real emotional bond. This is further evidenced by the fact that Phillip is a dick to both Marie and her sister and that Leonie openly despises him, encouraging Marie to run away with her when Phillip isn’t around.
The trio stop at a derelict gas station to scavenge for supplies, not realizing that its occupied by a young man who attempts to steal some of their stuff. The man is named Tom and after an altercation with Phillip he offers them gas in exchange for food, Phillip counters that if Tom will come with them and help keep their car in working order they will take him with them to the mountains where there may be a source of fresh water.
They come across the car accident from the opening and go to investigate and scavenge the wreck for fuel. While Marie, Phillip, and Tom are at the wreck, Leonie is taken along with Phillip’s car and in an attempt to get them back Tom gets taken and Phillip becomes injured so it’s left to Marie to set out and save the others.
Hell is functionally a German answer to The Road that’s not nearly as bleak or horrific. We have a cannibal tribe, spoilers I suppose but anybody can extrapolate from the information given that we’re dealings with cannibals.
There are no big science fiction ideas explored and the moral implications of the plot aren’t terribly expansive. This isn’t a big ideas movie and it’s not survivalist porn, it’s just a small story, one of those movies that feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode.
The most interesting trick the movie pulls is in introducing our protagonist. We can tell from pretty early on that Phillip sucks and nobody likes him. If this were a zombie movie, Phillip would get bitten and not tell anyone. So we’re left with Marie and Leonie.
Marie is a reactionary character, she frets and tries to smooth things over, she does very little for herself. Leonie, though young is a person of action, she’s clearly unhappy with her situation and wants to change it, she’s smart and resourceful and has a good head on her shoulders. Then there’s Tom. Tom’s also smart and resourceful, moreover he’s compassionate and kind, Leonie likes him and there’s a clear feint toward Tom and Leonie being in charge of fighting off the cannibals while Marie is captured or killed and Phillip probably sells someone out. But that’s not the direction Hell decides to take.
Rather than put the power players at the forefront, the movie decides to make them the captured parties. And rather than make him a liability, the movie benches Phil with a broken leg and actually allows the character to redeem himself a little bit before Marie leaves him behind. Yes, mousy and seemingly worthless Marie is our heroine, and not since the original Evil Dead has a transformation from zero to hero been such a genuine surprise.
Marie, played by Hannah Herzsprung, undergoes a surprising transformation throughout the movie and the most surprising thing about it is how organic it feels. She goes from unsure and fearful to desperate to determined by degrees. At the start of the movie she seems pitiful but she grows and changes over the course of the story, no into some sort of b-movie badass, but a capable and dangerous heroine where there seemingly was not one before.
One aspect of this movie that simply must be celebrated is its use of light. The story takes place in a world where the sun is significantly brighter than normal. So while the daytime shots are over-lit to simulate an obscene amount of direct sunlight, the night shots are also decently lit because the excess light from the sun bouncing off the moon would illuminate the world more. It’s a nice subtle bit of world-building that’s never addressed. With the exception of a couple scenes that use fire all the light in the movie comes from the sun so the lighting whether day or night, outside or in has been designed to appear natural even though it isn’t. It seems a small detail but it’s one that makes Hell feel a lot more polished and professional than other smaller movies like this one.
SPOILERS BEGIN NOW AND CONTINUE UNTIL AFTER THE NEXT PICTURE
As I said, there’s no great moral quandaries in this movie. Marie sets out after the cannibals in the burning sunlight and ends up dehydrated and half-dead in a church where she’s found by an old woman. The woman offers her water and says she knows the cannibals who come down from the hills every once in a while, she offers Marie a place to rest at her farm where she lives with her sons and their families.
Unsurprisingly, the old woman is the matriarch of the cannibal clan and though Tom and Phillip are destined for the stew, Marie and Leonie are being held so they can “marry” the old woman’s grandsons. It’s nothing new and as a plot development it’s a little underdeveloped. I do appreciate that they don’t go for a “gotcha” moment because the old lady (named Elisabeth in the movie but credited as “Bäuerin”; the German word for ”Farmer’s Wife”) is so nakedly menacing from the moment she’s introduced that it would be a bigger surprise if she wasn’t the matriarch of a cult of post-apocalyptic cannibals.
But the reason given for the kidnapping and the cannibalism is given as a matter of prudence. Due to the sun they had to kill off all the livestock so to keep themselves in food they had to start killing. And I’m going to be pedantic here so bear with me.
If you kill livestock you are left with a surplus of dead animals, meat is made from dead animals. I get it, the sun is hot but presumably they could kill the animals in an interior era and either salt, dry, or can the meat from the animals to preserve for later eating. They have a renewable source of fresh water and they had the space to keep a lot of animals indoors to facilitate the time needed for this process because they have a huge compound and a giant barn with a complete butchery area within. This is the place where they keep upwards of 20 prisoners for consumption.
The number of people this family has in reserve, the amount of traps and weapons and the way they are organized, is insane. Our heroes are living off canned food, which only lasts about a maximum of six years, not only that they’re still driving gasoline vehicles so it’s only been a few years since society collapsed and made water and food scarce. Honestly this family could probably work up a pretty solid indoor garden, they are farmers after all. So it would seem that this family really just leaned into the whole roving band of cannibals thing, it seems like they just wanted an excuse.
This is all to say that when it seems like the movie wants us to sympathize with Elisabeth and her family just a little bit, it doesn’t work. The movie doesn’t portray them as the greedy malicious bastards they are quite as well as it should and while the film comes to a satisfying ending, with Marie killing Elisabeth with a captive bolt gun used for killing livestock, the whole “aren’t we all just monsters” moment the movie tries to have is interrupted by a cacophony of anybody watching it singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.
There’s nothing terribly spectacular about Hell to recomend. It has no big hook beyond the novel concept of a movie where the sun is too bright, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from seeking it out. What the movie lacks in novelty is a very solid approach to story, characters, and setting. It could be more violent, it could be more clever, it could be more bizarre, but it doesn’t need to be any of those things to succeed. Originality is vastly overrated and sometimes a movie deserves celebration for being good at doing something very ordinary.
Maybe you love bleak apocalypses like The Road and The Day but your spouse or significant other doesn’t, this might be a bridge to you both enjoying a movie in your favorite genre. The same can be said for people who enjoy subversive European cinema but maybe don’t think it’s yet time to drop a Martyrs or Inside in their partner’s lap.
Hell is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Amazon.
Next Time on Doomsday Reels
“I can say without fear of contradiction, that under no circumstances, and at no time has that current administration expended any public monies whatsoever for the purchase of the fluffy flower print toilet paper.”