About midway through Nikias Chryssos’ debut feature film Der Bunker, Pit Bukowski’s anonymous boarder asks the Jack-esque “child” Klaus (Daniel Fripan) he has been pressured into tutoring to stop playing the organ. Klaus, decked out in an outfit that would have looked right at home on Pet Sematary’s Gage, turns and asks “Too fortissimo?” It’s an extremely odd moment in an extremely odd film, effective for its baffling vagueness (does Klaus think his honestly soft organ playing is too loud or his outfit? why is he so good at playing the organ and so bad at everything else? what the fuck is even going on here?) and its contradictory warmth. Chryssos’ ability to create intriguing yet ultimately anonymous characters and disciplined refusal to explain anything about their situation makes Der Bunker a future cult classic, but larger questions about what the film’s true intent is make it hard to determine whether it’s truly effective.
Billed as a “horror comedy,” Der Bunker is more accurately an unsettling comedy. Bukowski plays a boarder who has decided to rent a room in what he thinks is merely an isolated “lakeview” property but is actually just a semi-buried bunker owned by an eccentric couple. Bukowski is only ever referred to as “the student” or occasionally, when he is being flattered, “the professor,” but what he’s actually studying is mysterious. He claims he is attempting to “bring together all the fields” and his notes all look like stoner scribbles. Either way, his theoretical pursuits don’t bear fruit until the couple (David Scheller and Oona von Maydell) guilt him into tutoring their son Klaus, who is 8 going on 35.
The student recognizes that something is weird about Klaus but he’s not exactly an audience surrogate. Chryssos instead has Bukowski play the character as someone who resets his personal status quo with minimal fuss. Once Klaus and everyone else reaffirms that the “child” is merely 8, the student more or less shrugs it off and accepts it as fact. He’s more concerned about Klaus’ belief that he will one day become the President of the United States, not because the Constitution makes this impossible, but because Klaus struggles to learn all of the world’s capitals.
Once the film enters into the studying portion of the plot, it looks and feels like a bizarro ’80s movie, complete with ample montages, an awkward dance party and even an attempt to get Klaus to live a little. If there’s a horror element to the film, it comes from the menace and tension Chryssos imbues every scene with. Leonard Petersen’s synth leaning-score is moody and dark and Chryssos’ creative use of stark lighting and claustrophobic set design adds to the ominous tone of the film. The vague explanations of the couple are also somewhat creepy, particularly whenever the wife’s “friend” Heinrich enters the picture, but the stakes are always too low for it to ever come across as frightening.
Instead, Der Bunker belongs in the category of oddball relationship films like Chuck and Buck, bleakly dark comedies where everything about a situation feels off and unsettling and reality is shifted. A lot of the credit for how effective Der Bunker is on this front goes to Daniel Fripan, who plays Klaus with a sickly sweet vulnerability and wide-eyed naivety. It’s not hard to imagine, say, Adam Sandler landing the rights to this film and completely fucking it up by turning Klaus into an actual man child, missing the point of Fripan’s gentle and perplexing performance.
Yet Der Bunker isn’t exactly a great film and Chryssos isn’t a genius auteur just yet. Much of Der Bunker feels aimless and flimsy. The film is only 85 minutes but its pacing makes it feel twice as long at times, particularly its ending, which aims for explosive and mind-bending but ends up anticlimactic and convoluted. Chryssos’ script lacks a real conclusion, what is filmed seems more like a dead end, which is a pity because up until that point it appeared to have so much potential. That said, Chryssos brings out some excellent performances even within that flimsy script, and his eye for detail and inventive framing indicate that he has a lot more promise as a student than Klaus ever did.
Der Bunker is available for streaming beginning tomorrow, August 23rd, from Artsploitation Films.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover