World War I, for all its brutality and surreal battles between artillery and cavalry, is under-explored in cinema. Fewer yet focus on its inciting incident: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. “Sarajevo” takes on this story with the finesse of a carnival hammer, never missing an opportunity to foreshadow the consequences of Ferdinand’s assassination. More than once, basic information is repeated in a scene. The archduke’s last words to his dying wife, for example, are brought up until they lose any substance.
All this makes for an overly grave hour-and-a-half. In keeping with that tone, Florian Techtmeister’s performance as protagonist Leo Pfeffer, the magistrate tasked with the investigation, is one-note. With an eternal grimace, he walks from interrogation to interrogation repeating the answers of every question he asks as if he wasn’t in the room to hear them. Shouldn’t the examining magistrate of Austria be able to ask questions in his own words, come to his own conclusions? His heritage as a Hungarian-Croatian Jew creates some interesting tension, however, especially in his interrogation scenes with the Slavic perpetrators. This, ultimately, is a footnote on a much more flawed narrative.
Contrary to that tone, though, is the cinematography. Never has a movie been as blindingly overexposed as “Sarajevo.” It doesn’t help that apparently every citizen of 1914 Austria dressed in white. And as a viewer, this creates an uncomfortable tension. Everything about “Sarajevo” is so serious yet it’s shot like a Nollywood romantic comedy. The only difference is Nollywood embraces its brightness. “Sarajevo” pretends it’s not there. So what’s the real tone here? We have two on display and neither are done well enough to overtake the other. Instead, they work in imperfect harmony. Perfectly ugly in their own ways: the perpetual frown of Pfeffer versus the sunwashed majesty of early 20th century Austria.
The only true bright spot is Bosnian-German actor Edin Hasanovic’s performance as Danilo, but he’s there too short a time to make a difference. The constituent parts of “Sarajevo” may work. It makes sense that the man investigating a politician’s murder would be so solemn. It makes sense that people would repeat information about the assassination. But the conflicting tones mess everything up and make director Andreas Prochaska’s attempt to do World War I’s progenitor justice chug on long after it loses steam.
Director: Andreas Prochaska
Release date: April 28, 2014
Rating: 3 out of 5