PRINT November 2019



Still from Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 90 minutes. Karin Frenzel (Andrea Maier). Photo: Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion.

SINCE 2006, Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška, collaborating as the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, have created brainy and ebullient works for stage, film, and video, aerating serious conceptual heft with an oddball comedic sensibility. For the directing-and-writing duo, scripts have never been hard-and-fast things. Take the one for their epic nine-part video Life and Times (2009–15): The words were transcribed from phone conversations between Liška and company member Kristin Worrall, during which the latter recounted the (often banal) details of her life thus far. What else would one expect from a team whose moniker is lifted from a poster that appears in Franz Kafka’s Amerika (1927) announcing an opportunity to join the Nature Theater of Oklahoma: “Anyone who wants to become an artist should contact us! We are a theater that can make use of everyone, each in his place!”

Their latest triumph is a film adaptation of Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s 666-page novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead, 1995)—by the writer’s own estimation, her masterwork. A lashing of Austrian “forgetfulness” regarding the Holocaust and its lethal legacy, hers is a disaster traumedy in which the dead return to a quiet Austrian town as zombies, only to die and return again and again. Since the book has not yet been translated into English, and since neither Copper nor Liška was fluent enough in German to read it, the two arrived at an understanding of its story via a translation they were given of its first one hundred pages; the rest they gleaned from assorted readers’ recollections, summaries, and descriptions, cleverly deploying hearsay as source material. Theirs is therefore a somewhat freewheeling interpretation of Jelinek’s novel—which is as it should be for a tale of dissolution and betrayal in which wandering corpses leave trails of rotting flesh and rancid organs behind them. Faithfulness, particularly to form, has little value here.

Still from Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 90 minutes. Zombies (Eugen Gross, Naima Schmidt, Marina Rakic). Photo: Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion.

Copper and Liška shot their film in Upper Styria, the eerie and bucolic region of Austria where the novel is set (and where Jelinek spent her childhood). Filming in Super 8, they capture all with the look and feel of an old home movie: the frames loosely composed, the lens following the action, soundless. The dialogue appears in intertitles like those of the silent era of cinema, while the Dollar Store gore brings on flashbacks to B-grade horror flicks. Die Kinder der Toten also stars a cast of untrained actors, many of them local recruits; it retains the aura of an artifact, its unpolished texture closer to that of documentary than to that of fiction. Underscoring all is Matz Müller’s rich and arresting sound design, which conjures aural imagery so vivid it might be possessed by a phantom narrative all its own, as well as by composer Wolfgang Mitterer’s anxious, haunting melodies.

Nature Theater’s film begins at the Pension Alpenrose, where Karin Frenzel and her mother dine together uncomfortably, surrounded by summer-holiday revelers. “I strongly dislike you. It’s nothing personal,” the mother explains, sawing away at a piece of undercooked schnitzel. “You’re not my type as far as daughters go.” Later, they and other sightseers board a van, which soon collides with a bus full of Dutch tourists, leaving Karin dead—or, as is eventually revealed, undead. Tragedy in this tale is more like comedy dipped in an acid bath: Its grisliest bits are all that’s left behind. When two lovers join a crowd of gawkers at the scene of the accident, they note how frequently crashes happen in this neck of the woods. “They should really put up signs,” the man says. “Or set up seating—and charge money to watch,” the woman replies.

Still from Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead), 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 90 minutes. Photo: Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion.

Her left temple oozing blood, Karin is soon wandering the lush green countryside, chasing a mysterious doppelgänger with whom she experiences love for perhaps the first time. Life, for most of humanity, seems a matter only of suffering and survival. A suicidal hunter is fatally reunited with his two dead sons on a mountainside; a band of Syrian refugees (who are also mystical poets) unsuccessfully seek food and shelter among the Styrian people; Karin’s mother frantically looks for her daughter everywhere. In one of the film’s pottiest yet most pointed scenes, Karin visits the “666 CINEMA,” located in an abandoned warehouse that was once owned by a former Nazi, where the grief-stricken sob and wail as they watch film footage of their dearly departed. Neither alive nor buried, Karin inserts herself into the projection, roaming inside the moving images until the screen goes up in flames, opening a portal through which the undeceased stumble and groan back into the world.

Once loosed, the zombies do as zombies do: devour flesh and make mayhem for the living. But they also go grocery shopping and out to restaurants; they dance and make merry. Having no place to stay, they rent rooms at the Alpenrose, and business there booms! The film ends in scenes of feasting, fucking, fighting, raw fish—and dazzling pink flamingos. It is at once ludicrous and unsettling, but how else to raise the spirits against this ecstatic horror called modern life? 

Die Kinder der Toten opens in Germany on November 14.

Jennifer Krasinski is a Senior Editor of Artforum.