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One Film Wonders: Melancholia

Andi Engel’s directorial debut, the elegantly titled Melancholia was produced by the mercurial Colin MacCabe and backed by the British Film Institute and the Hamburg Film Fund. The film draws on the German-born Engel’s own state of exile in the UK and the leftist intellectual political thrillers of the 1970s, many of which featured in our own States of Danger and Deceit season.

Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé stars as David Keller, a successful German art critic living in London. Despite his success Keller is listless. Still mourning a soured relationship with a woman he evidently still harbours affections for, Keller drinks heavily and gazes at Dürer’s ‘Melancholia’ engraving on his apartment wall. Keller finds himself shaken from his inertia when a phone call informs him that he has been chosen to assassinate a known Chilean ex-torturer visiting London for a conference. Drifting through the present, Keller finds himself wondering if he should return to the past and the convictions of his youth.

Co-scripted with Lewis Rodia it would be myopic not to read elements of autobiography into Melancholia, not least in the central character’s mild self-loathing and persistent sense of a life not fully lived. The taciturn Krabbe fits the role like a glove. The narrative, though lean and peppered with B-movie echoes, bristles with meaning and the political heart at the centre of the film and the nagging sense of a reneging upon conviction is eloquently executed. Cosmopolitan European city locations also serve the film well, giving it the sense of a lower key Len Deighton thriller. The mildly affluent and tasteful London milieu Andi came to know so well is captured for posterity by Denis Crossan’s crisp photography. Arguably, Melancholia is one of the great, if underrated and underseen London films. A chilly Hamburg, close to Lübeck where Engel would end his days, also makes an appearance. The score, an early commission for Simon Fisher Turner who would go on to work with Derek Jarman, subtly hints at hidden dangers and carries notes of Hitchcock.

Melancholia was selected for Cannes Director’s Fortnight and won Engel, somewhat ironically, the London Evening Standard’s Most Promising Newcomer Award. It was to be his only feature. The founder of Artificial Eye and a pioneering figure in the exhibition and distribution of foreign language and arthouse cinema in the UK, Engel did once start a pulp novel. He once disclosed to me the sublime opening sentence: ‘I knew I should have smelled a rat. But then I always was a greedy man’. The novel went no further.

Words by Jason Wood, Artistic Director of Film at HOME.

One Film Wonders runs from Sat 3 – Sun 25 March. Find out more and book tickets here.