The farmer doesn't bequeath his land out of love for his laborers-he is actually motivated by contempt, believing the workers will never be able to manage the farm cooperatively. When the film opens, the seven inheritors are not only struggling to adjust to their new status as landowners, they're also fighting the opposition of neighboring farmers to their ownership. Peasants don't become owners in this feudal society, so the inheritors and their cooperative farm threaten the established social order. The neighboring farmers soon find out that the cooperative is led by Hillinger's illegitimate son Lukas, whose mother is Rosalind, the farmer's murderer. Suffused with impending violence, the film, which at first hints at Socialist leanings, is actually laden with dark, Germanic themes, and can't do anything but plunge headlong into its predictable bloodletting.
Ruzowitzky's screenplay spends far too much time on exposition, and treats the bucolic period of cooperative ownership in haphazard montage. Characters are more Germanic archetypes than flesh and blood. Throughout this brooding narrative, you sense the attempt at epic proportions, but, in the final analysis, The Inheritors fails to transcend its time and place. Ruzowitzky's characters are too provincial, and the events of the film are confined to that period of time before World War II when many Europeans still harbored 19th-century attitudes toward class.
Ruzowitzky's dimly lit interiors and dark exteriors provide the film with its prevailing sense of doom. While this visual style reflects the progress of the narrative, it's monotonous. The characters themselves seem to be plagued by the lack of light; had Ruzowitzky at least lit the inheritors differently than their enemies, we would have a point of view. As it is, the director's visual style communicates moral ambivalence in a story that screams for judgment.
Simon Schwarz's performance as Lukas is the film's one redeeming quality. Before he becomes a landowner, Lukas is the stereotypical, happy-go-lucky peasant, taking frequent rolls in the hay with Emmy (Sophie Rois) and the other farm girls. When the inheritors begin to run the farm themselves, Lukas finds he isn't as simple as people make him out to be; in fact, he becomes a local hero among the peasants for his leadership of the cooperative. Although the screenplay handles the transition ineptly, Schwarz makes a believable and heartbreaking transformation. Ulrich Wildgruber as Danninger, the worst of the greedy farmers, and Julia Gschnitzer as Nane, give excellent performances in supporting roles. Rois, however, overacts. Lars Rudolph as Severin manages to communicate the homosexual overtones in his relationship with Lukas, as well as presage his inevitable role in evening the score between the inheritors and Danninger.
Scratch the surface of The Inheritors' archetypal trappings and you have German soap opera. Ruzowitzky makes the mistake of failing to judge his characters as heroic or evil; he simply depicts them as part of a never-ending cycle of triumph and repression. In doing so, he renders their struggle for realization utterly meaningless.