The Inheritors

Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

The setting for The Inheritors is rural Austria in the 1930s, though it could just as well be the mid-19th century or even earlier. In this benighted corner of the world, medieval conditions prevail. Landowners have absolute power over their dominions; farmers are petty tyrants and the peasants are a nominal notch above the livestock in worth. It’s a hierarchy as old as civilization, sanctioned by religion and seemingly unshakable.

But only seemingly. The film begins with the murder of one of the tyrannical farmers, a serious but not fatal assault on the order of things, since his farm will presumably be taken over by other landowners in the district. However, the old bastard turns out to have been so curdled by meanness that he has bequeathed to his neighbors an anarchistic prank – he leaves his farm to the seven peasants who work on it. Now the social order has been not only threatened but breached.

The peasants are at first somewhat overwhelmed by this turn of events – nothing in their experience has prepared them for such responsibility – but soon their natural will for freedom asserts itself. Opposing them are a group of disgruntled landowners, enraged by this challenge to their divine rights. There’s something drearily familiar about this setup, and it bodes ill that so many of the main characters are nearly stereotypes, that the two main peasants are a lusty innocent – who’s also a foundling – and a proto-feminist, and that the main villain is grossly fat, complacently evil and lacks only a mustache to twirl.

But sometimes the value of a story is in the telling and writer-director Stefan Ruzowitsky imbues this familiar fable with wit and intelligence, combining somber colors with droll montages and using a voice-over narration by a character who doesn’t quite grasp the meaning of the story he’s telling – a device, Ruzowitsky has said, inspired by Malick’s Days of Heaven. It’s a modernist approach which gives considerable zing to the traditional humanist exposé of the evils of power, mixing as it does the ironic with the sincere, the comic with the savagely brutal. We’ve been told this story before, but Ruzowitsky’s talent is that he can wring from these old changes one more genuine sigh of dismay.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].