MoorsHeadA somewhat uneven but undeniably affecting work from Austria that depicts a seemingly contented man’s descent into hallucination, paranoia and, finally, total insanity.  It was scripted by filmmaker Michael Haneke, Europe’s master of all things unpleasant, so you can expect a profoundly bleak, nightmarish account that pulls no punches.

THE MOOR’S HEAD (DER KOPT DES MOHREN; 1995), about a madman who creates a self-sufficient universe inside his apartment in the fear that toxic gas is decimating the outside world, was written by the brilliant Michael Haneke, and if you’ve seen his other films you’ll notice echoes of Haneke’s SEVENTH CONTINENT (about a suburban family who, unable to cope with the pressures of the modern world, barricade themselves in their home and commit collective suicide) and THE PIANO TEACHER (about a severely repressed woman who loses her mind when a handsome young man reawakens her slumbering passions).  The film also has much in common with Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 classic I LIVE IN FEAR (about a man who, believing a nuclear war is imminent, goes mad) and Todd Haynes’ SAFE (about a woman who becomes “allergic to the Twentieth Century”), which, interestingly enough, was released the same year as THE MOOR’S HEAD—I guess there was there was something in the air that year!

Michael Haneke apparently wanted to direct THE MOOR’S HEAD himself, but for whatever reason that chore ended up in the hands of Paulus Manker (WEININGER’S NIGHT, 1989), a talented but less distinctive filmmaker.

Georg H. is a scientist who runs a testing lab in suburban Austria.  He’s married to Anna, a pleasant housewife with whom he has three children.  Everything, it seems, is right in Georg’s world…until one day at work he hears over his radio that there’s been a catastrophic accident at a local chemical plant, which has leaked toxic gas into the atmosphere.  His co-workers aren’t terribly concerned, but Georg is deeply alarmed by the news—so much so that he begins experiencing gruesome hallucinations involving flayed corpses and dripping blood.  Convinced Armageddon is at hand, he decides to take action.  While Anna and the kids are away on a trip Georg hauls several mounds of planting soil up to his upper floor apartment and, utilizing artificial sunlamps, creates an indoor garden in which he grows a number of edible crops.  He completes this self-sufficient environment with several rabbits and birds, and also takes to obsessively recording his phone conversations so he’ll have a record for posterity.

Anna and the kids return from their trip and are, as you might guess, shocked at what they find.  Georg barricades them all inside the apartment, explaining that they won’t be able to leave for some time.  Later that night he spots what he thinks is a prowler breaking in and nails the person in the head with a blunt object…but that person turns out to be Anna, who, it seems, he’s killed.  Georg decides to finish what he inadvertently started by offing his kids with a steak knife and then massacring his rabbits and birds—but does he really?  Because at this point Georg is so far gone he no longer knows what’s real and what’s not…and neither, for that matter, does the viewer!

I really hate to make a nonexistent comparison, but I can’t help but wonder what this film might look like had Michael Haneke been allowed to direct his screenplay.  In his hands I’m certain THE MOOR’S HEAD would be an emotionally devastating, cinematically dazzling powerhouse.  That’s not to say the film isn’t plenty powerful in its present form, just that it isn’t in the same league as Haneke’s self-directed films.  Director Paulus Manker has an unfortunate penchant for commercial sentimentality and melodrama that really don’t belong in the rigorous and unflinching narrative Haneke has constructed.  Also, Manker has trouble sustaining viewer interest in much of the first half, which appears intended to impart a near-imperceptible tension that culminates in the nightmarish final third (a la Haneke’s SEVENTH CONTINENT, whose early scenes seem suspenseful despite the fact that little actually happens).

Still, Manker does coax a fine performance out of actor Gert Voss in the lead role (and a decent one out of THE TIN DRUM’S Angela Winkler as Voss’s wife) and pulls off some crackling sequences, particularly in the final scenes when the main character’s insanity reaches its peak, with reality and hallucination becoming literally indistinguishable.  There are some profoundly repellant scenes herein: check out what Mr. Voss does to his face with a knife…and just try not to flinch!

Vital Statistics 

Wega Film Productions

Director: Paulus Manker
Producer: Veit Heiduschka
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Walter Kindler
Editing: Michael Hudecek, Marie Homolkova
Cast: Gert Voss, Angela Winkler, Manuel Loffler, Leni Tanzer, Oana Solomonescu, Michael Greiling, Heinrich Herki, Bert Oberdorfer, Rosalinde Renn, Hilde Sochor