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Peasant Power

[whitespace] The Inheritors
Land's End: Lukas (Simon Schwarz) and Emmy (Sophie Rois) find their rigid world turned upside down when they inherit a plot of land to call their own.

Good battles evil in Austrian class-based drama 'The Inheritors'

By Richard von Busack

IF YOU HAD grandparents who never liked to talk about the Old Country, the Austrian import The Inheritors suggests why they kept their silence. (One of the only family stories I have is that infanticide was still practiced in our part of Eastern Europe about 100 years ago. The women went out into the fields to have the baby, and if it was a girl, they didn't come back with the baby.) Stefan Ruzowitzky's Marxist tale is set in a backward cow-country corner of Austria. The time is about 1930 but possibly much earlier, since we never see a sign of an internal combustion engine. The class difference between the peasants and the landowners is as fixed as it was in the Middle Ages.

One landlord is found dead, the victim of a richly deserved murder. His last will is read. "Our Lord spared me children and relatives," he writes, and so he leaves his farm to his peasants in the hopes that they'll kill each other for it. He also bequeaths dung heaps and warm wishes for a kick in the ass to all of his fellow farmers, signing off with "Now I'm going to hell, good-bye and amen." (The mourners file past the mean bastard's grave, tossing in handfuls of earth; one old lady gets a large rock and drops it on the coffin.)

This prank of a last will is an affront to the landed farmers, who know that peasants aren't meant to hold their own destiny. The leader of the farmers is Danninger, a fat, pig-faced brute with a silent-movie villain's curled mustaches. He begins scheming to get his hands on the peasants' land. The rest of the film is a class struggle between the authorities--aided by the village priest--and the seven peasants who inherited the land they'd worked all their lives. These peasants include our narrator, Severin (played by Klaus Kinski look-alike Lars Rudolph), the dumb but brave Lukas (Simon Schwarz) and his friend, lover and co-worker, Emmy (Sophie Rois).

Although the plot is strictly rich vs. poor, the poor in The Inheritors are hardly saints: there are divided, confused and desperate. Rois and Schwarz's humorous, earthy portrayals are natural and unpatronizing, but the ending of this completely engrossing movie is a letdown. The Inheritors, though set in Austria, is a throwback to the anti-Westerns of the Vietnam era, depresso-fests like Welcome to Hard Times and Monte Walsh. The simple societal forces are set up to be as black and white as a melodrama--but without the cathartic pleasures of the Western genre's traditional climax. Since the ending involves immigration to the U.S., I'll take the American-movie view--those peasants should have used the scythes they were sharpening for more than just harvesting wheat.

The Inheritors (Unrated; 90 min.), directed and written by Stefan Ruzowitzsky, photographed by Peter von Haller and starring Simon Schwarz, Sophie Rois and Lars Rudolph.

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From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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