Horror-comedies can be a difficult mix to pull off successfully, balancing a sense of lightheartedness with any semblance of actual ‘horror’. Der Bunker, a debut German film from director Nikias Chryssos, manages this beautiful balance and forms something unsettling, at times grotesque, and yet still maintains its comedic timing. Almost reminiscent elementally of a ‘mumblecore’ film, Der Bunker is a strange and unsettling, but also very endearing slice of life surrounding some very strange characters. It also serves up a minimalist sci-fi side through “Heinrich”; apparently the dominating personality in a race of aliens who have taken residence inside a wound on the mother’s leg. The absurdist elements in the plot play out quite seriously, with the nameless “Student” (Pit Bukowski) pulled into this disjointed family.
The film opens with a fantastic series of shots, opening up the story and introducing us to our characters. The Student has come to this family’s home, the titular bunker, in order to work on his very vague ‘work’. The work itself is a source of the comedy, as it’s never quite explained, it’s described as a mixture of all mathematical forms, and relates to the Higgs particle but somehow most of the complete pages of it come out as scribbled spirals. He was apparently promised a lakeside view, but ends up in a small room with no windows instead. The family consists of the mother (Oona von Maydell), father (David Scheller) and the oddity that is Klaus (Daniel Fripan). The beginning of the film is quite lighthearted, with an appropriate sense of when to intensify the score and darken the atmosphere in order to create a sense of uneasiness with the Student’s current lodgings. During this upbeat awkward comedy portion we find out that the parents believe that Klaus will grow up to become President of the United States, despite many factors including him being born and living in Germany, and, despite their insistence on his age being 8, looking far older.
The film begins to develop into a more disturbing place as it goes on. The mise en scène of the quaint German country home, combined with the dark and broody lighting and the fantastic disturbing imagery that lingers throughout, creates an atmosphere of mystery and an unsettling desperation as the viewer is placed behind the Student in this strange situation. Despite the obvious signs of something being extremely wrong with this family, with their determined insistence that he teach their son and eventually the reveal of “Heinrich,” the Student still remains stalwart in regards to his ‘work’. The father’s eccentricity leads to comedic moments, especially early on, but by the end his insistence on a sense of shared intellectualism between himself and the Student, and his complacency with the strange entity that is “Heinrich,” forms a sense of pity for his character. This also does present his utter ambivalence towards the obvious wrongs that his wife, under the behest of “Heinrich,” commits throughout the film, diluting the sense of pity somewhat.
The cyclical implications from the final scene of the movie, combined with the incredibly well done scenes within the strange red hallway, lend themselves to the minimalist sci-fi themes. The theme of parents unable to let their children grow up, and yet still pushing unrealistic expectations upon them, is perfectly summed up through the ending. The final scene feels apropos in the bittersweet story as the mysterious circumstances surrounding the driving force, “Heinrich,” still remain veiled.
The Student and Klaus form a strange sort of double act through their forced tutoring sessions, with the Student playing the straight man. Their forced student/teacher relationship (in which the character of the Student plays the teacher funnily enough) creates a bond between the two, and their relationship through the movie is an interesting one. They share imagery, presented as experiencing similar things despite being such different characters, from the adult breastfeeding to the spanking. The underlying, but often very prominent themes of burdening a child with unrealistic expectations is presented in an absurd but deeply unsettling form, hitting notes in the key of abuse and escapism through the character of Klaus. The parents are very domineering and hard on their child, and appear to completely look over his obvious deficiencies, expecting him to learn the names of every country and their capital cities, and the obsessive nature of the mother especially comes to a head in the denouement. And when one bird leaves the nest, they find another to bear their love.