Snowman's Land (2010)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Black Comedy  |   Release Date - Sep 14, 2012 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 95 min.  |   Countries - Germany   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Mark Deming

Fairly or otherwise, the German people are not known for their lively sense of humor, and while the German cinema has a rich and vibrant history, most folks would be hard pressed to name a notable Teutonic movie that aims for the funny bone. So it's probably fitting that while Snowman's Land, the second feature from German filmmaker Tomasz Thompson, is indeed a comedy -- and a pretty effective one at that -- it's a comedy that wrings laughter from situations most folks would not find especially amusing: murder for hire, organized crime, and the absence of honor among thieves. Thompson seems to follow the principle that if you're going to make a German comedy that works, it's not going to be like anyone else's idea of comedy, and for the most part he succeeds admirably.

In Snowman's Land, Jürgen Rißmann stars as Walter, a rumpled slob of a hitman who gets in trouble with his boss when he accidentally kills the wrong man while on an assignment. As Walter's superiors decide what to do with him (they're already pondering getting rid of him as they're searching for better-looking gangsters to appeal to an upmarket clientele), one of his colleagues passes along a job offer he's unable to take, and Walter makes his way to a tiny, snowbound village in the Carpathian Mountains. He discovers he'll be working with his old pal Micky (Thomas Wodianka), who is outgoing and enthusiastic but not especially bright. Walter and Micky have been hired to act as guards and lookouts for Berger (Reiner Schöne), a wealthy crime kingpin who wants to turn the village into a winter resort. As the two men wait to meet their new employer, they encounter his wife Sybille (Eva-Katrin Hermann), who has her own profitable underground business selling home-brewed pharmaceuticals; she's also -- judging by the private photos Walter and Micky discover -- something of a sexual prodigy. Micky foolishly tries to seduce Sybille, who enjoys using guns during foreplay, and before long Walter and Micky have to hide her body from their new boss. They also realize that what was supposed to be a cushy job is unusually stressful and dangerous, as Berger turns out to be high-strung and vengeful, his errand boy Kazik (Waléra Kanischtscheff) has a scheme for taking over the business, and some of the locals decide they're not so happy with their rich neighbor.

Snowman's Land is a sterling example of what some folks call a "dark comedy," and it's also an admirably low-key, laconic thriller until things start to get lively in the third act. Writer/director Tomasz Thompson has an ear for dialogue that's quietly absurd, and he eagerly throws his characters into situations that manage to be harrowing and keenly funny at the same time. Thompson also served as the film's editor, and his pacing gives the picture an easy but insistent rhythm that suits the isolation of the characters; however, once things turn into a shooting match, he's able to ratchet up the action and shift into something resembling a traditional thriller without robbing the tale of its laughs. And Thompson's cast serve him very well indeed: Jürgen Rißmann underplays hilariously as cranky, parka-clad Walter, while Thomas Wodianka is his perfect compliment as the cheerful and maliciously dim-witted Micky. Reiner Schöne is a self-satisfied grenade waiting to go off as Berger, and if Eva-Katrin Hermann doesn't get asked to do anything but seem sexy and unstable as Sybille, she does both very well. Add Ralf M. Mendle's superb, atmospheric camera work and Luke Lalonde's fine score and you get a comedy with a dark but richly satisfying style all its own, as well as proof that Germans know how to be funny -- just as long as you don't mind them scaring you a bit along the way.