'Luz' Wins: Tilman Singer's eerie, retro debut makes its debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival

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One of the more business-oriented announcements to come out of the Fantasia Film Festival’s Frontières Market weekend was the creation of Yellow Veil Pictures, a sales film company focused on the arthouse genre fare that this Montreal-based festival does so, so well. Yellow Veil’s first acquisition is Tilman Singer’s Luz, which had its North American premiere as part of Fantasia’s Camera Lucida program. A hypnotic tale of demonic possession, Luz marks the arrival of a bold new voice in the horror film landscape.

Singer admits, first off, that Luz is not for everyone. It’s a slow film, and one that’s not always easy to parse. The core of the film—and the element Singer started with, back when he was making Luz as a 30-minute short—is an interrogation scene in which a cab driver named Luz (Luana Velis) is hypnotized by a psychiatric investigator (Jan Bluthardt) following a car wreck, the strange and supernatural circumstances of which gradually begin to unfold. Flashbacks show us the investigator right before he encounters Luz, as well as Luz an indeterminate number of years in the past, when an occult ritual at a boarding school took a deadly turn.

“The plot is very simple, actually,” says Singer. “It’s just convoluted” in the way it’s presented in the film itself. (It took me the walk back to my hotel to figure out how the timeline fits together.) The costume and set design, according to Singer dated somewhere between 1985-1995, have a mismatched, out-of-time feel. The movie feels like a stage play, in a way, comprised as it is of key scenes taking place in single rooms, mostly absent transitionary interludes or exposition dumps to hold the audience's hand through what the actual eff is going on. “All of the actors in the movie are theatre actors,” Singer explains, though they’ve done movies as well. His brothers’ a theatre actor as well, which gives Singer connections to the Germany theatre scene. "I think," he explains, "those experiences caught me that you can tell a story in just one room very easily, using just interiors."

 The sense of disorientation is intentional on the part of Singer, who was “trying to put the audience under hypnosis while watching this movie,” just as Luz is under hypnosis during it A big part of that is the sense of claustrophobia that comes from a complete lack of exterior shots. “We could have easily shot outdoors”—the film was shot in Cologne, Germany, as Singer’s diploma project at that city’s Academy of Media Arts—but he instead wanted to induce a sense of unease relating to “when [the movie] is, where it is, how long it is” between the flashbacks and the bulk of Luz’s action.

Deep focus photography, by DP Paul Faltz, lends Luz a flat, eerie feel.  The sound design and Simon Waskow's score, respectively, are particularly strong technical elements; whooshing and growling sounds at times wash through the film’s aural landscape, giving the audience the sense that there’s something off in the distance but getting closer. And as Luz goes deeper and deeper into hypnosis, Singer sprinkles sounds and visuals from the time surrounding the wreck into the room where the interrogation is taking place, the subjective eye of the camera lending the action a disquieting feel.

That “something off in the distance” is related to Luz’s demonic possession element, which was not a part of Singer’s original script. Though the writer/director is an admitted horror fan, Luz was originally going to be a straight thriller. “The supernatural element,” he says, “came later.” That, believes Singer, is part of what kept Luz from being a generic horror thriller of the sort that are pumped into theatres or VOD every week. “I like supernatural and horror elements, but the stories, characters and moods have to come first. I didn’t try to make a horror movie, and that’s the most important part.”