Unbearably violent and curiously pointless, Black Death is a German horror film in English with an international cast, set in everybody’s favorite year, 1348 (uh, yeah), about everybody’s favorite subject, the bubonic plague (talk about box office), and filmed in everybody’s favorite medieval vacation destination, Sachsen-Anhalt and the surrounding forests of Lutharstadt. (Castles! Monasteries! Moats! Give us more for our euros!) In the production notes, one of the many producers, Phil Robertson (The Last Station), explains the reasons he thinks the film will enthrall younger viewers: “Death and poverty were rife… I think all kids love exploring this stuff… they want to know what the Black Death was, what was it like to live surrounded by rats and filth.”
Be that as it may. The only real reason to see this morbid, often unwatchable misery is the central performance by the versatile and amazing British actor Eddie Redmayne. He played Julianne Moore’s troubled, incestuous son in Savage Grace, the alarming true story of murdered Bakelite socialite-heiress Barbara Baekeland, and won a Tony as artist Mark Rothko’s personal assistant, muse and chief critic in the acclaimed Broadway production Red. From his hacked haircut to his crude potato-sack rags, he looks every inch the role of a 14th-century monk named Osmund, trying to stay alive and hold on to his faith as the plague ravages Europe, killing off half the population. Osmund’s Christianity and belief in God are tested by his sexual obsession with the girl he tries to save from pestilence by sending her to a “safe” place that turns out to be hell on earth. So many contradictions, plus the constant physical endurance tests he goes through, make for a very demanding role, but Mr. Redmayne finds contemporary relevance in every aspect of the film and emerges triumphant.
His odyssey begins when the word spreads of a village in the marshes rumored to be untouched by a plague more pitiless and destructive than war. The bishop sends Ulric (brawny Sean Bean), a fearless and devout knight, to investigate. Osmund, the young monk from the far corner of the map where the miraculous village is located, agrees to act as guide, but soon discovers he’s really leading a gang of murderers, rapists and thieves (who are also fanatical Christians) on a mission to rid the world of Satan’s disciples, called “necromancers.” What they don’t know is that Osmund also has a secret agenda–to find the girl he loves. Through a landscape that resembles a massive funeral pyre, they see men flogging themselves with whips, women burned at the stake and tell-tale signs of the fatal pandemic on people everywhere–growths the size of eggs bulging from their necks. When they reach the village, the benevolent citizens mask a demonic evil presided over by a witch named Langiva (the electrifying Carice von Houten, the Dutch star who sang big band jazz and agonized her way through Nazi-occupied Holland as the unforgettable heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s epic war saga Black Book). Langiva is a thankless role, but this is an actress who can even make the heart of darkness look inviting.
There are a lot of stabbings and beheadings, but the motivations of all concerned are never clear. You groan and hide your eyes as each new medieval torture is introduced, desensitized by the endless carnage. But oh, just wait till they bring on the horses to rip bodies in half, bone by bone–and my favorite, a special torture device for Langiva, like medieval wire cutters, to lop off fingers and toes. Midway, the movie forgets about the plague and turns into a lot of hugga-mugga about Heaven vs. Hell that tests the young monk’s faith in ways 10 times more punishing than a year’s retreat in some silence-only contemplation convent in Latvia. The innocence of the monk, exemplified by Mr. Redmayne, and the evil of the witch, glamorized by Ms. Von Houten, are the poles on opposite sides of the canvas that stake this circus of horror in occasional bursts of energy. Everything in between is religious hysteria, chaotic sword battles, unconvincing moral dilemma and killing for Christ. Director Christopher Smith keeps the fog, mist and rain machines working overtime, but to such little purpose that Black Death often looks like outtakes from Fiddler on the Roof.
Running time 102 minutes
Written by Dario Poloni
Directed by Christopher Smith
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice von Houten