Cinematographer steps up in the enjoyable “Frankenstein’s Army” (Richard Raaphorst, 86′, HDCam)

Karel Roden (Hellboy) does a memorable cameo as Dr. Frankenstein.

Karel Roden (Hellboy) does a memorable cameo as Dr. Frankenstein. Photo: IFFR.

Audience reactions at the World Premiere of Richard Raaphorst‘s splendidly gore and funny Frankenstein’s Army suggested that we were all trying out a new themepark ride rather than buried deep into our cozy seats in Pathé 4 theatre, watching guts, brains and blood gush on the screen: gasps, laughter and spontaneous ovations slit the musty, anticipation-filled air like an eye in Un chien andalou (1929).

But there are more than one points of departure that set this Dutch-Czech Republican production, initially named “Worst Case Scenario”, apart from the rest of the candidates for the FIPRESCI Jury Prize in the Bright Future section.

Frankenstein’s Army is audience manipulation at the purest, a Nazi Zombie intersection of splatter and gore that uses every known trick to surprise us and get us hooked. Soviet soldiers get lured into the secret lab of Doktor Frankenstein whose insane experiments in combining human and machine parts are meant to save the world from both Communism (left side of the brain) and Nazism (right side).

Most of the debut feature films in Rotterdam are smaller in scale, ambiguous and undefinable rather than genre per se, like Frankenstein’s Army. The film took 10 years to complete. It shows, in a good way.

Instead of forcing us to image what fun this could’ve been, as with recent films of the same genre (War of the Dead: Stone’s War, Dead Snow), Frankenstein’s Army delivers, from the concept (Stalin’s handpicked war photographer follows a combat team on a mission, later footage is found and hence, the film) to its execution (characters address the camera, ie. the audience directly) and cheezy dialogue spoken in bad, Eastern European accents.

Computer games are obvious source of inspiration to the “dungeon” scenes where all hell breaks loose. Key to their effectiveness lies in the rhythm: intense rampage is generally preceded and succeeded by quiet, strength-gathering phases. Sound effects are, faithful to the genre, loud and expressive.

That particular drilling sound still haunts me.

Huge and fragile build-up succeeds. Frankenstein’s diabolical man-machines – designs that even Guillermo Del Toro could envy – get crazier and meaner the deeper we stumble into the madman’s lair. Diegetic use of camera is maintained throughout. The wall between infront and behind the camera, however, isn’t.

And here comes the prize: a film like Frankenstein’s Army, that could so easily be overlooked on an arthouse festival, does for cinematographers what Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (and more recently Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, also playing here at IFFR) did for sound recordists.

In a few ingenious turns of events, Richard Raaphorst makes the DoP’s work (à la Bart Beekman) visible to audiences in a way they might have never thought it before. The question posed is: What is it like, staying behind the camera?

The answer, given at the gloriously fun and bloody end of the joy ride, must be shared by most of the directors and cinematographers in the world:

Better than being in front of it.

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