So sure is the initial footing of this German horror-inflected film that you might think it’s one thing, only to regret that it sacrifices a better movie for meta wrapping. Questions abound about why the break in its fictive parts is even necessary: it feels resolutely of a piece with a more stylish cinema than the gimmickry it all eventually falls into. Director Kevin Kopacka has a sharp eye for how to stage a deeply atmospheric horror. There is a build-up drenched in style until the film must examine itself and tell us what it is and what’s on its mind, when what it was and what wasn’t on its mind were more compelling facets of the filmmaking.
Orgiastic horror films about inherited castles are a good idea. Anyone could and should make one of those. When a couple finds they’ve come into some good luck and landed themselves a picturesque castle surrounded by lush green countryside, they find out that even there, they cannot escape themselves. Wherever they go, there they are. The issues in their affair come with them and the strangling pressure of it all cannot be escaped even in a castle with so much space. The wrong problems will make any space as claustrophobic as a tight closet. The walls close in on them. The off-kilter performances are rendered as richly lived in and their tensions are so pressured that they might combust.
Until they do combust. An ending in the middle of the picture. And then the film robs itself of any formal structure. This is certainly a matter of design; it’s just that it’s bad design. The bespoke Euro drama that plays as a chamber horror piece becomes only a piece of lightly engaging meta cinema. Esoterica without good design is just an unsolvable puzzle. There are many different disparate pieces there. Many of them are jagged and oblong. Many of them are actually good. None of them fit together.
“Cut!” You know how it goes, the movie inside a movie. Broken from its aesthetic reverie, the excellent short film has just ended and now we’re spending time with the fundamentally less interesting people who are making it inside the movie. Kevin Kopacka still shoots it beautifully and threatens often to go back to telling a pure horror story. The kind that these real people are living in. “Tick, tock,” goes the movie, and pieces of ethereal dreams break through in shattered fragments of space and time: orgies and fire and more orgies and witches having orgies, also on fire. That’s the good stuff.
Try as you might you’re not getting the best version of the film back. There is always an open space for that kind of simply evocative Euro horror it initially proposes, too, so it’s always a struggle not to make something worse and different from the simple, good thing. Movies want so badly to be high concept meta cinema. That is what sells. That is what reviews well anymore. It can be a wonderful choice and pay dividends with the right internal design. It could work with a consistency of logic that makes the film’s breaks from its own proposed rule sets invigorating and fresh. Most likely it won’t work. Certainly not if the original idea is better. When we cut away from the zombies in Shin’ichirō Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) and focus on the crew inside the film making the zombie movie, that is all right, because the technical break between those parts is a fascinating juxtaposition that correctly examines itself and its industry. When Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes tries that very same trick in the context of a German genre movie being shot within the context of the film, that original premise then continues to exceed the actual lives of its characters, and we feel robbed of a better movie. Worse, a better movie that is already there. You only need to see half of this one: it will make for a very good short film that way.