Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Inheritors

By Marjorie Baumgarten

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

D: Stefan Ruzowitzky; with Simon Schwarz, Sophie Rois, Lars Rudolph, Julia Gschnitzer, Ulrich Wildgruber. (Not Rated, 95 min.)

"Used to be no one listened when I talked," says one of the peasants in Stefan Ruzowitzky's rural Austrian allegory, The Inheritors. "Used to be you had nothing to say," replies another. That in a nutshell sums up the journey undertaken by the characters in this intriguing tale. Seven hard-working farmhands unexpectedly inherit their master's property after his mysterious murder. Wealthy landowners and self-righteous townspeople connive to take it away from the inexperienced peasants. But, much to everyone's amazement (including their own), they decide to stick to their guns and stay on the land. With this small act of bravery, the entire social order becomes unraveled. The villagers and the tight religious community are affronted by the inheritors' impudence. Yet even more disruptive is the ripple-down effect the decision has on the peasants' own lives. For the first time ever, these workers have a say-so in their own destiny and find they are ill-trained to make decisions and think independently. Writer-director Ruzowitzky does an amazing job at capturing the nuances of change: economic, social, sexual, and political. The story is set in 1930s Austria, but the film has a timeless rural look that suits the universality of its dumb-hicks-hit-the-jackpot storyline. What The Inheritors adds is a sharp socio-political angle, crystalline images by cinematographer Peter von Haller, and engaging performances by this entire group of Austrian actors. As the film has very little dialogue, most of what passes can be understood through observation. Like its generous use of the familiar Erik Satie music that limns the background, The Inheritors is subtle, definite, and hard to pin down. The story meanders a bit in the latter third as the murder mystery plays more of a central role and characterization is emphasized at the expense of social analysis, but overall, The Inheritors is never less than penetrating, unusual, and finely achieved. It is the rare film that shows us how the imprint of culture messes with our heads; it is an even rarer film that shows how our heads can mess with the culture.
3.5 stars


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