[This review originally appeared when German fantasy film Krabat premiered in Toronto and re-appears now with the film's appearance at Fantastic Fest.]
Thanks to generations of Disney-fication it's easy to think of fairy tales as simple, pleasant children's tales loaded with easy to swallow moral messages but in the original incarnation they were something far, far different. The worlds created by the Brothers Grimm we dark, bleak places, places where death lurked around every corner, places where any mis-step could easily be your last, any mistake could see you eaten. We comfort our children, the Grimms scared them. We make cheery cartoons, Marco Kreuzpaintner has made Krabat. Adapted from a novel subtitled The Satanic Mill, Krabat is a living, breathing Grimm tale come to life. Impeccably crafted and taking full advantage of the stunning scenery provided by the Alpine region in which it was shot it is also an incredibly dirty and grimy film, a film filled with much and filth where dangers both seen and unseen lurk around every corner.
It is the middle of the 1600's and Europe has been decimated by the twin horrors of the Thirty Years War and the arrival of the plague. Krabat, a fourteen year old boy has been orphaned by the plague and now lives his life on the absolute outer margins of society, traveling from village to village with a pair of similarly orphaned friends to beg out a meager existence. Life is grim, verging on hopeless. There is a better than average chance that Krabat will not live out the harsh winter until change comes from an unexpected source: his dreams. Over and over again Krabat dreams of ravens, eleven of them, calling him to join them and become the twelfth. When the ravens deliver a specific location and the promise of food that is all the word Krabat needs: he abandons his friends to the cold, hungry night and sets off to save himself.
What he finds is the Mill. A water powered stone mill lorded over by The Master who asks whether Krabat simply wants to learn the milling trade or if he wants to learn the 'other things' as well. Krabat chooses to learn whatever he can and so is initiated into a secret brotherhood of sorcerers. The eleven other apprentices are all learning the arts of black magic under the firm hand of The Master, learning spells for strength, learning to separate soul from body, learning to strike down enemies from a distance and, yes, learning to transform into ravens. It's heady stuff for a young man, a full belly and the chance to literally become something more, something different, from all of the people in the world outside of the Mill and Krabat throws himself into the work.
Though Krabat progresses quickly, winning the favor of The Master, it is clear all is not well. There is an air of uneasiness to the place. Discipline is hard and violent. And, as the eldest apprentice cautions him, nothing comes without a price. And once that price becomes clear Krabat is entrenched too deeply to be able to simply flee ...
Krabat is the sort of film that reminds children's films do not necessarily need to be safe or easy or pretty. It comes from an age that recognized that fantasy can be dark and ominous as easily - perhaps even more easily - than beautiful and good. It comes from a world where morals are secondary to survival and young people are stranded, simply left alone to muddle their own way through. Targeted much more to the twelve or thirteen year old set than the six or seven year old bracket that most Hollywood kids films aim for, Krabat is darker and more complex by far than anything you'd see marketed for children on these shores. It also boasts sumptuous photography, a stellar young cast, and excellent special effects work - effects wisely used to reinforce the story rather than overwhelm it.
Though the ending is just a touch underwhelming and the black magic element makes this virtually unmarketable in the United States, Krabat is an exceptionally well made film that deserves - and should find - an appreciative audience around the globe.