A few years ago, Sundance programmed an experimental movie called Charlie Victor Romeo, in which actors on a very basic set played out scripts from real airplane disaster black box recordings. Luz, the first feature film from German filmmaker Tilman Singer, adopts a version of that concept as the centerpiece of a peculiar story of possession. Singer’s avoidance of narrative resolution can be frustrating, but his adventurous filmmaking frequently edges toward brilliant.
Luz (Luana Velis) walks into a police station at night. It’s all but empty; there’s one sergeant at a desk. When Luz begins spouting a perverted riff on the Lord’s Prayer (“Our father, why art thou such a dick?”) you’ll get a sense of the film’s Catholic influence — and the non-sequitur nature of her dialogue is a pointer to Singer’s interest in mood over traditional story.
We see the action in a single wide-lens shot, so we get a sense of the young woman’s isolation. Colors and tone in the grainy 16mm cinematography evoke giallo films and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. Luz will eventually nod to films like Luc Besson’s Subway and Michael Mann’s The Keep — and as captivating as this film can be, it is also indistinct enough that any point of reference is helpful.
There’s another story strand, in which Rossini (Jan Blurhardt), a young psychologist sitting at a bar, is approached by a very attentive woman (Julia Riedler). She attempts to ply a professional opinion out of Rossini, and also claims to be a schoolmate of Luz’s. This might happen at the same time as the police station scene; this movie isn’t super-keen on precise chronology. Their conversation is elliptical and difficult to follow, and yet there’s an intense throughline that gave me enough feelings to ride — mostly tension and delighted shock — that I never felt lost.
A visceral but simple possession sequence hints at Singer’s technical chops, and then Luz really veers towards the avant-garde. Luz is subjected to a wholly unique interrogation in which Rossini and a couple cops persuade her to recreate a recent car ride. The setup looks almost like an audition (or the cockpit simulations in Charlie Victor Romeo), with conference room chairs set up to create the “car.” Luana Velis, sitting in the mocked-up driver’s seat, adroitly performs the scene without much to lean on. (Singer does cut between her interrogation performance and more traditional footage of what she’s describing, and that montage underlines the strangeness of it all.)
The interrogation weaves a very hazy account of a demonic and/or godly figure. It also suggests a series of possessions by that figure, but never quite defines what is going on. Those Catholic roots run deep into the story, but not in a way that will make events any easier to define.
Luz runs only about 70 minutes, but the wavering narrative makes it feel slow, at least on a first viewing. It might be better served by less story, pushing the film entirely into the realm of a sensory experience, or just a bit more, to give the religious and metaphysical concepts more room to land. Regardless, thanks to Singer’s skills and two unwavering performances from Velis and Blurhardt, Luz is a striking, impressive debut.