Review: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES, Trippy Homage to Euro-Gothic Horror

Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch and Frederik von Lüttichau star in a horror-action picture from Germany, directed by Kevin Kopacka.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: DAWN BREAKS BEHIND THE EYES, Trippy Homage to Euro-Gothic Horror

In the enigmatically, arrestingly titled Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (Hinter den Augen die Dämmerung), Austrian-Sri Lankan filmmaker Kevin Kopacka’s (Hager, Timea, Hades) elegantly directed, impressively realized, ultra-stylish homage to ‘60s and ‘70s Euro-Gothic horror, an unhappily married couple, Dieter (Frederik von Lüttichau) and Margot Menliff (Luisa Taraz), drive along a dark, underlit road to examine the woman’s newly inherited property, a century-old, moderately rundown castle.

For the Menliff couple, like the audience on the other side of the digital screen, the slightly dilapidated, empty castle represents the beginning of their journey together and not the end. In relatively broad, but no less effective, strokes, Kopacka and his writing partner, Lili Villányi, deftly establishes the fraught, fracturing nature of a relationship teetering on irrevocably imploding into bitter recriminations and most likely, violence.

Given the apparent late 60s or early 70s setting, it quickly becomes clear that Dieter and Margot represent diametrically opposed world-views: Dieter as a paragon of white male entitlement (i.e., patriarchy) and Margot a rising, independent feminism. Kopacka gives us the first hint of conflict on the drive to the castle, emphasizing the larger conflict to come in Dieter’s preference for a three-piece suit both at night and when he awakens in the morning.

Margot’s formal wear suggests a night out at the theater or an expensive dinner, but not the kind of straightjacketed, conforming confines of Dieter’s suit. Within moments, they go their separate ways, Dieter to explore the basement/wine cellar, Margot to investigate the remainder of the castle, a lit candelabra in hand. It’s the kind of scene instantly familiar to Euro-Horror fans, signaling the potentially mortal danger neither onscreen character perceives until it’s too late.

Almost immediately, Dieter proves himself less the hero of his own story or Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes than his cowardly opposite, dropping his keys in the wine cellar, and fleeing at the first sign of something the audience doesn’t see. Kopacka pulls out equally familiar elements when Margot peers into a dusty mirror that reveals something ominous about the castle and its previous and/or future inhabitants.

Before long, however, Dieter emerges deeply shaken from an unseen encounter the wine cellar, a bullwhip in hand (a fetishistic object most likely borrowed from Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body), portending the next, seemingly inevitable, scripted step in their disintegrating relationship.

That, however, only takes us through roughly the halfway mark. Working from a screenplay he developed with Villányi, Kopacka purposely resets Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, introducing a new, equally fraught couple, Eva Ziehnagel (Anna Platen) and Gregor Grause (Jeff Wilbusch), subsequently forcing the audience to rethink and recontextualize everything they’ve seen, heard, and experienced before. It’s a daring, risky move, likely to alienate a significant subset of his audience, but it also makes Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes a far more engaging, intriguing film, exchanging the overt, maybe even heavy-handed conflict between Dieter and Margot to a more subtle one between Eva and Gregor that removes the violence, but keeps the core, central issue (i.e., patriarchy vs. feminism), albeit with less of a threat of violence.

Though Kopacka occasionally leans toward the oblique or the elliptical in exploring key themes and ideas, Kopacka and his cinematographer, Lukas Dolgner, deliver a series of retina-burning images and impressively staged set pieces, each time moving away from the semi-grounded realism of the early scenes to incandescently hallucinogenic, nightmarish fantasy that ends quite differently than it began. A limited budget, however, likely led to a too-brief 76-minute running time.

In turn, that limited running time meant that the overall impact or effect of the visual style or Kopacka’s ideas slip into near incoherence or unintelligibility as a result. Hopefully, a more than modest budget and the time a larger budget affords filmmaking will help Kopacka whenever he writes and directs his next, feature-length film, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes will be available via VOD platforms on Friday, June 24.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

  • Kevin Kopacka
  • Kevin Kopacka
  • Lili Villányi
  • Anna Platen
  • Jeff Wilbusch
  • Frederik von Lüttichau
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Anna PlatenDawn Breaks Behind the EyesFrederik von LüttichauJeff WilbuschKevin KopackaLili VillányiLuisa TarazActionHorrorMystery

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