Published November 1, 1998
The Inheritors written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, is a curious anachronism, borrowing its story (so it might seem) from some Communist propaganda tract of the 1930s—when it is ostensibly set. It tells the story of a group of Austrian peasants whose master, when he is murdered, is found to have willed his farm to them as a joke, announcing that the neighbors can kiss his hinder parts and that he is now “off to hell.” At first the peasants retain their docility and habit of deference to authority, but gradually they begin to think of themselves as farmers. Or rather, each of them thinks of him or herself as one-seventh of a farmer. The real farmers thereabouts, particularly a swine called Danninger (Ulrich Wildgruber) don’t like this idea at all. “A peasant can’t be a farmer,” they all agree. “Something must be done.”
There proceeds a campaign of harassment which results in the leader of the seven, a foundling called Lukas (Simon Schwarz), being provoked to a murder of his own and turning fugitive. In the background, as it were, we see ticking away a little nineteenth century-style intrigue as Lukas discovers that he is the illegitimate son of the deceased farmer and a former peasant called Rosalind (Elizabeth Orth) who is now recognized as his murderer. This part of the story is now so familiar, however, fitting paradigms congenial to both Victorian and feminist moralists, that it seems to me a distraction from the main story, rather than an enhancement of it, and only reinforces our sense of that story’s familiarity.
For although the idea of a bunch of peasants inheriting a farm and trying to make a go of it is itself a new and interesting one, the paths into which it is channeled are very well-worn ones. Thus we find that the whole of the village’s respectable society behaves contemptibly and corruptly, and that both church and state conspire to cover-up wrong-doing by the farmers. Such unnuanced evil is boring in itself and contributes to the boringness of the situation more generally, since the isolation of the peasants on the one side and everyone else on the other seems very artificial. It is difficult to believe that, as late as the 1930s, the idea of peasant farmers would have seemed so shocking and revolutionary, even in a remote Austrian backwater, or that peasant dissatisfactions with a long-outdated feudal order would have needed some such stimulus as this to be set in motion.
This is not to say that such events could not have occurred, but they don’t look as if they fit in the frame in which they are set. Maybe if the film were set in the 1830s instead of the 1930s it would have looked more real. There are several excellent performances, especially those of Mr Schwarz and Sophie Rois as Emmy, the slutty milkmaid who becomes both the brains and the heart of the peasants’ enterprise. Mr Wildgruber is a satisfying villain, but one could wish that he had been given a little less political grounding. When he attempts to justify the farmers’ always-contemptible conservatism by saying that “God wants things the way they are and always have been,” Mr Ruzowitzky would have done better to stress his self-justification and self-deception instead of suggesting that he speaks for the Catholic church and so is merely a cog in an oppressive machine. And when Emmy answers that “Maybe God is getting a bit bored now,” he might have risked just a hint of the excitement that such sentiments have created in our century.